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40 T/D/Y #21: Rome

One of the reasons I decided to attend Thomas More College was because of their Rome Program. I should explain that TMC was still a fairly new college, having been founded in 1978, and also a fairly small college. At the time I attended, we had one of the larger freshman classes at over 30 students, and the total student body during my four years was around 70 to 75 students. When TMC started the Rome Program, they simply flew the whole school, students and professors, over to Rome for a semester. By my time, they sent the sophomore class with a teacher and aide for the spring semester, and the other professors would each visit for a few weeks to teach their relevant sections of the Humanities course. The full-semester teacher would handle the Writing Seminar course and a course on the art and architecture of Rome, and the semester was rounded out with a course on sacramental theology taught by a guest lecturer from the Vatican.

The farthest trip I’d taken up to that point was a family vacation in Virginia when I was eight, and we had driven down and back. So my first time on an airplane was when I caught a shuttle flight from Boston down to New York for the main trans-Atlantic trip. Although I knew I was prone to motion sickness, I did not take any medication beforehand; I wasn’t sick, but I did feel very unwell and made sure to have some medication after that. In the years since then I’ve learned that I can manage the big jets well enough without medication, but I’m better off taking something before flying on small jets.

The school did not have its own campus in Rome; rather, they rented rooms in a 16th-century palace owned by a convent, which supported itself by taking in guests such as ourselves. The nuns of course all spoke Italian and most of us students did not, but we got along well enough and quickly learned key phrases such as “basta cosi, grazie,” which means “that’s enough, thank you,” and usually kept them from heaping our dinner plates a second time. Meals were interesting: the convent provided breakfast and dinner, while we were on our own for lunch, and were somewhat different than what we were used to. In particular, most of us were caught off-guard at our first dinner, gladly accepting seconds or maybe even thirds of pasta, only to discover that that was the first course, not the whole meal in itself. Breakfast consisted simply of large, crusty, mostly-hollow bread rolls with jam or butter and coffee, tea, or hot milk. When I caught the attention of the student aide and asked in dismay how to say “orange juice” in Italian, she simply laughed at me. (I never did learn any conversational Italian, but I did successfully use my high school French to converse with a couple Italians who didn’t know enough English for a conversation.)

Most classes were in the morning, leaving us the afternoon to explore Rome and evenings to do schoolwork. The convent—which has since been sold and converted into a 4-star hotel—was located on the Janiculum hill in the Trastevere neighborhood, right across the Tiber River from the heart of ancient Rome and a short distance south of the Vatican, putting most of Rome within walking distance for our eager feet. And walk we did, pounding the cobblestones for miles as we searched out all the nooks and crannies of Rome. Our first afternoon, Tony and I set right out for the heart of the city and found our way down to the Coliseum and the Forum. My favorite destinations included the Piazza Navona, the Campo di Fiore with the great brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, the park on the Aventine hill, and the Piazza di Spagna where the Spanish Steps are. I actually didn’t like the Coliseum that much at first, simply because it was hard to get a good feel for it on the inside at ground level; one afternoon I made a point of paying the fee to go into the upper level and spend some time there to catch up on my journal, and that was when I felt satisfied. I also made sure to spend a couple hours in Trajan’s Market, which could easily be used today for that same purpose with just a little restorative work; the basic idea of a shopping mall hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. I decided to follow the Aurelian Walls, which surrounded Imperial Rome, as much as possible around the city, which I had to do in a few walks, and Tony joined me for some of those walks. On one of them, we fortuitously discovered that there was a museum for the walls, built inside the Porta San Sebastiano, and we got to walk along a section of the wall itself.

For a few reasons, TMC had a curfew policy, and students were expected to be in the dormitory during the late hours of the night. In Rome the curfew hours began earlier, at 11 PM, because that was when the nuns shut the convent for the night. That greatly curtailed our ability to experience Rome’s nightlife, and also meant that we needed to be sure to be back in time if we didn’t want to be locked out on the street all night. It happened that my hometown school friend JJ was on exchange that year in England, and her art class came down to Rome for ten days or so of study. JJ and I made arrangements to meet up for dinner one evening and hang out for a bit. As it got late, I made sure to walk her back to her hotel, but unfortunately I got somewhat confused in the dark twisting streets and we found her hotel shortly before 11 PM. I dashed back as quick as I could, and stumbled in to the convent a half-hour late, relieved to find it was still open, and finding the very put-out student aide waiting for me. A curfew is no good of course unless there’s a punishment for breaking it, and at TMC the punishment was “campusing”, be confined to the dormitory for a suitable period. I’d never expected that to apply to me, since I lived at home, but sure enough despite my mitigating circumstances they decided they still had to apply the standard policy to me and so I was campused for an evening later in the semester, I think on Easter Monday or some holiday like that.

Besides exploring Rome itself, we had a few day trips on Saturdays to nearby locations such as the ruins of the ancient seaport of Ostia, the Etruscan tombs, the monasteries at Subiaco and Monte Cassino, and one of the Renaissance villas at Tivoli. Some of the students went on a weekend trip to Florence, which I passed on due mainly to monetary reasons. However, I had a good refund for my income taxes that year, and so when the semester ended I decided to go visit JJ in England for a week. We had discussed that possibility while she was visiting Rome, but I never actually sent her a postcard letting her know that I had decided to do this, and I didn’t have a phone number to reach her; I just booked my train ticket and went off. I almost didn’t get into England because the customs officers decided I was suspicious and grilled me about my plans and my funds, but eventually they decided I was just a dumb innocent kid and let me in with a strict warning that I’d better not still be in the country when my visa expired in a couple months. After staying overnight in London, I made my way the next day to the University of Sussex, and a helpful bus driver dropped me off near JJ’s dormitory. Of course, I still hadn’t talked to JJ and had no idea how to find her, so I just started walking to her dorm, and looked up to see her walking toward me with a look of pure astonishment on her face. It turned out that normally she’d have been in class at that time, so it was pure luck that she even happened to be there just when I arrived. Also fortunately for me, she was very gracious about putting up with my impromptu unannounced visit, and we had a great time. That visit to England was one of the most adventurous things I’ve ever done.

I could write pages more about my Rome semester, obviously—I didn’t even mention exploring one of the catacombs and finding a human bone, for example (well, now I have). I had a fantastic time and really loved the opportunity to spend a few months living there and becoming familiar with the city, rather than taking a whirlwind tour and just briefly seeing the highlights in a few days. Even though Rome, as an ancient European city, has a very different feel than modern American cities, it still gave me a taste for living in a big city instead of my half-suburban hometown. And after years of reading about European history and reading fantasy novels often based in pseudo-medieval-European settings, seeing and exploring the ruins and the medieval-to-modern city itself gave me a sense of real connection that all the reading never could. Although I visited Germany and a bit of France a few years later when my younger sister was living there on exchange, I have not been back to Rome since, and I would really love to go again someday.


( 1 wrote — Write )
Jan. 9th, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
Hi Phil, I've been reading a few of your entries each day. I found this one especially interesting since it gave me more information about that semester in Rome than we ever got from you at the time. I also didn't remember, for some reason, that you went to visit Andrea in Germany.
( 1 wrote — Write )

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