Thursday, March 21, 2013

Italian Instincts

My time in Roma has been, needless to say, breathtaking. I am halfway through, and I regret that no longer am I leading up to the midpoint, but away from it. I never wish to leave. Each day as I walk through the city, I can’t help but think to myself, and sometimes even burst out – “I love Italy!” I came here to study Roma’s ancient, but have fallen madly in love with her present. As E.M. Forster wrote:

“The traveler who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.”

These words strike a chord with me. I came to study Latin, but have found myself fully compelled by Italian. I grin at the clerks who spout off at me in lightning-speed Italian when I step up to the counter to order un caffè or un cornetto or perhaps una busta (an envelope), and they grin back as I nod along, catching drifts of their vernacular, not fully comprehending but at least understanding.  I smile at their beautifully dramatic body language as they exclaim, “parla bene italiano! Brava!” And I smile again at “ciao, bella!” once I depart.

I no longer find myself shying away from speaking to Italians or acting like one. I ask directions from locals and I give directions to tourists. I chat with the old men on the bench next to me about how bright the sun is and how busy the city is with the stirrings of the papacy. I roll my Rs. I bargain. I tell people that the bus isn’t coming, and I understand when they tell me that the route I’m waiting for is shut down. I drop off my dry-cleaning and go to the post office. I ask questions and hear answers. Chiacchiero – I chat.

Roma is much less ruins, museums, landmarks, and basilicas than it is residences stacked upon residences, neighborhood fruit stands and grocery stores, pharmacies and tabacchi shops, roads filled with cars and busses and trams and taxis, parks and piazzas, children and parents, students and workers, and everything else Italian. It is not a series of strip malls and fast food chains – that would be the states. No, Italy is localized, communal, a series of neighborhoods with their particular and peculiar quirks, with something new to look at and someone new to talk to even if you move only a tram stop up.

As much as I remain baffled at the ancient world’s resilience, I have settled the classicist within me, and I feel a Roman at heart. As much as I still gawk at the vestiges of ancient Rome, I no longer feel that a day is wasted if I don’t make it to the ruins; I am perfectly content to be on the outskirts of the city, doing Italian things, listening to Italian people, feeling a part of Italian culture.

When I sat down to write this post, I made a list of the museums and basilicas and ruins that I have visited in recent weeks with the intention of writing about those. But as I began to write, Italian culture began to flow, and I thought nothing of my excursions, and by nature I wrote about Italian life. I could never have made a better decision than to study at AUR. This experience has plummeted me into the city whose history I have always adored, but whose present has now infiltrated every single cell of my being.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Things to do, and things not to

Things I've learned thus far in Roma:

1. Don't expect anyone to speak English. They all speak Italian.

2. Learn Italian. You will be lauded for your effort and abilities.
3. Look in strange places to flush the toilet and turn on the water.
4. Don't expect hot water.
5. Make friends with an Italian, or many Italians.
6. Ride a Vespa.
7. Get used to crowded transportation.
8. Leave plenty of time to get places, because you will probably get lost.
9. Always carry a map.
10. Relax.
11. Sometimes the bus comes every ten minutes. Sometimes the bus never comes.
12. Learn to give and get directions.
13. Pay at the counter, then order.
14. Look up words you will need to know before you go somewhere.
15. Learn to bargain.
16. Never fail to be polite.
17. Never refuse an invitation.
18. Never outstay your welcome.
19. Keep an open mind, and suck in the experience.
20. Wear layers to shed when walking uphill or riding a hot, packed, steamy tram.
21. Learn the routes.
22. Get on public transport, go somewhere you are completely unfamiliar with, then wander.
23. Do as the Romans do. That means smoking cigarettes, even if you're the most vehement non-smoker (like me).
24. Don't expect anyone to have your American sense of urgency.
25. Bring an umbrella.
26. Venture so much that it hurts. That means it's worth it.
27. Go to every museum.
28. Go to every ruin.
29. Go to the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina and pet the cats daily, or at least weekly.
30. Bring your own bags to the store.
31. Figure out whether you should serve yourself at the fruit and vegetable stand (mi posso servire?)
32. Show off your talents in front of the Pantheon.
33. Drink a caffè daily.
34. Spend more time in Rome, and less time traveling Europe.
35. Learn to roll your Rs.
36. Take more mental photos and less digital ones.
37. Smile at people. They'll know you're American, but sometimes it will be well-received.
38. Ask Italians for help, in Italian. They are friendly.
39. Figure out the postal service.
40. Get rain boots.
41. Practice your pronunciation by reading Italian books aloud.
42. Take your caffè at the counter.
43. Cook your own food. It's fresh.
44. Get falafel.
45. Know how much something costs before you order it. Otherwise, you might end up with a 15 euro cone of gelato.
46. Always have cash.
47. If you don't pay for public transport, always have 50 euro on you. If you can't pay the fine on the spot, it goes up to 100.
48. Pay for public transport.
49. If you are in dire need of American food, go to T Bone station in Trastevere.
50. Refuse to get sick of pizza and pasta.
51. Prepare to walk, and walk, and walk some more. And then climb stairs. And then walk uphill. And then climb more stairs. And then walk more.
52. Go to Le Fate restaurant in Trastevere.
53. Learn the neighborhoods.
54. Talk to your cab driver in Italian.
55. Get Chinese food. It's Italianized, not Americanized. 
56. Go to the parks.
57. Look nice. No one goes out in sweatpants.
58. Wear a coat, even if you think it's warm. The Italians are accustomed to extremely hot summers, and they will look at you like you are crazy if you are anything less than bundled up in March. They will also make comments.
59. Go on dates.
60. Get out of your apartment. Don't budget time to explore -- budget time to be in your apartment. Always be out.
61. Always remember that you're here to study.
62. Be quiet. The walls are thin.
63. Know that everything runs 15 minutes behind schedule.
64. Embrace the disorganization.
65. Prepare for transportation strikes.
66. Learn to tell people in Italian that there is a transportation strike.
67. Get an Italian cell phone. Don't try running around without one for two months.
68. Make a budget, and keep to it.
69. Don't worry too much about getting hit by a car. The Italians are usually respectful of pedestrians. But you also might get hit. So watch out.
70. Study the history.
71. Always know what you are looking at.
72. Watch out for the dog leftovers on the street. It's everywhere.
73. Know that the moment you leave the bus stop, a bus will come. And if you don't leave the bus stop, it will never come.
74. Stay up-to-date on Italian current events. It's very political, and people care.
75. Don't expect anything to be open on Sunday.
76. Go to a Latin mass.
77. There's barely such a thing as waiting in line. It's more like bustling through a cluster.
78. Appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. Find beauty even in things unbeautiful.
79. Learn the different types of caffè you can order.
80. Don't try to use American appliances in Italy. Buy Italian appliances. And always have converters.
81. Document your experiences.
82. Write at the Coliseum.
83. Study at the ruins.
84. If you must travel, do it within Italy. There's too much to see to justify leaving.
85. Abandon your American inclinations, and become a Roman.
86. Love the culture.
87. Embrace every moment, every pleasure, every irritation, every person.
88. Rue the day you will have to return home, and try not to think about it. It's a downer.
89. Don't get mad if you are nudged. It's crowded. It's common.
90. Watch for pickpockets.
91. Get involved on campus. Go to the events.
92. Go on university excursions.
93. Study the archaeology.
94. Go to the basilicas, regardless of whether you're religious.
95. Look around the hole-in-the-wall shops.
96. Gaze at Very Famous Ceilings, so much that your neck hurts.
97. Know you will face the touristic self-loathing, and know you will adjust.
98. Use audio guides. You need to know what you are looking at!
99. Take notes.
100. Gaze at the city from the highest elevation you can find.
101. Go to a concert.
102. Have fun getting lost.
103. Enjoy Roma's past, Enjoy her present, and Enjoy their juxtaposition.
104. Order un cornetto alla crema. It's the best pastry in the world.

More to come soon :) And a basic summary:

Sunday, March 3, 2013


I have found myself incredibly busy in recent weeks, and so I apologize to my readers for sparsity in new posts.  My time has been largely occupied by academics and exploration, with academia serving as my focus in writing today, while my next post focusing on adventures will be along in just a few day’s time.

I am pleased to say that I absolutely adore the American University of Rome (AUR).  The campus is small and quaint, even more so than CMU.  It is quite smaller, in fact.  My class sizes range from forty down to just one.  I am indeed the only student in my Latin 201 course.  This was very good news for me.  The main reason that I chose AUR was because I wished to take courses in classical studies, namely in Latin.  My Latin course did not begin until this past week because the professor was out-of-country.  When I went to our first class session on Monday and discovered that I would be receiving one-on-one training, I was, needless to say, quite pleased.  This means that the course is entirely catered to my current proficiency in Latin.  Even more fortunately, I will be spared of the competition that typically afflicts intensive courses in ancient languages – I am only in competition with myself!

My archaeology and classics courses have proven very interesting and beneficial to my course of study thus far.  I enrolled in ARC 100: Archaeology of Rome because it is an on-site course and I assumed that we would have special chances to visit sites and excavations that the public typically does not have access to.  This has certainly been true.

Many emails were sent in order to get our class permission to tour the excavations beneath the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.  Rome, of course, is a city of many layers.  Every major building in the heart of Rome was built over top of many other constructions from hundreds and thousands of years past.   Beneath St. John Lateran we were able to tour the remains of an imperial bath complex, an ancient frescoed house, and the Castra of the Equites Singulares, which were the barracks where the emperor’s horseback bodyguards resided.  This was a profound experience that I certainly would not have been privileged to if I had not chosen a semester at AUR.

Just before St. John Lateran, our class visited the excavations beneath the Basilica of San Clemente.  There are few more moving descents in archaeology.  The uppermost layer is the original San Clemente, or the lower church.  It was constructed in the 4th century, but was sacked by Barbarians in the 11th century.  Here we found some frescoes dated to the Paleo-Christian era, very simple in style, almost rudimentary, but great sights nonetheless:

We then descended even further to the layers of a 1st and 2nd century Mithraic temple.  Mithraism was an ancient cult religion that was centered on the worship of a bull.  Mithraism involved many secretive initiation rites and cult rituals, and was even in competition with Christianity until about the turn of the third century AD.

I wandered around the dark, dank brick vaulted rooms of the Mithraic temple, in complete awe that I was walking through the city beneath the city.  In one of these rooms I even heard the sound of rushing water, and upon peeking into a dark crevice, I learned that the sound came from ancient pipes and aqueducts that still lay within the walls.  The Romans indeed were brilliant creatures, too brilliant for a photo to convey, but I will provide one simply for visual context:

In my other archaeology course – Troy: Homer versus Archaeology – we are still on the literary side of things.  First we are reading and analyzing The Iliad before moving on to analyze the archaeological evidence of this great story.  I have quite enjoyed the literary aspect and I am proud to be joining the ranks of the educated few who have read The Iliad in the full Lattimore translation, but I am also quite eager to move on to the archaeology.  At CMU, I was able to study classics in a literary sense, to a certain degree, but I was not quite able to receive the training in archaeology as I have here at AUR.  Archaeology is so closely related and vital to my field of study, and so, as an ancient historian in-the-making, I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to study archaeology of Rome while here in the very city.  I know that these experiences will benefit me greatly as I move onto graduate school.

I have grown quite fond of Italian.  I am excelling in my Italian 101 course, but really, using it in the classroom is the easiest part.  My brain is teeming with languages – Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, German – all of which I need to perfect, and there is no better way to perfect my Italian than by using it as much as possible out in the city.  I don’t allow myself to speak English, even when I know that the store clerk or taxi driver or whomever is an English-speaker.  I insist on speaking in Italian; even when they respond to me in English, I reply again in Italian.  It’s sometimes quite funny, at a certain café in particular, where my conversation with the Italian cashier typically goes something like this:

Me: “Ciao!”
Him: “Hi!”
Me: “Prendo un caffé doppio e un panino pomodore e mozarella.” (I’ll have a double shot of espresso and a tomato/mozzarella sandwich.)
Him: “Okay, do you want it hot?”
Me: “Si, caldo, per favore.” (Yes, hot, please.)
Him: “Do you want it for here or to go?”
Me: “Qui, per favore.” (Here, please).
Him: “Okay!”
Me: “Grazie, ciao!”

As I said, I insist :) When in Rome, speak like the Romans!

Midterms are quickly approaching, and so I am slightly stressed.  This week and next week I will very much be in academics mode, but on March 15th our spring break begins and I am off to Athens, Greece for ten days.  It’ll be only me and a backpack, in search of erudition.  Until then, however, I intend to be holed away in the old-fashioned and desolate AUR library, where I can enjoy some peace and quiet away from my roommates, and where I can absorb all of these studies that have grown so very dear to me as a student here in Rome.

I thought that I loved the classics before I came here, but this semester at AUR has instilled in me even deeper passion and fervor for my studies.  Time has been moving so very quickly, and I already regret the day that I will be forced to leave and return home.  Perhaps this picture can portray how I am feeling about Rome, and particularly about the Pantheon, or as I call it, the Pride of Rome.  And on this note, I will end:

Ciao, until next time! Check for a post on adventures within a few days.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Apparently Adjusting

The thing I love most about the hula-hooping community is its networking aspect. Wherever you may travel, a hooping friend awaits you. When I got to Rome, I joined the Italian Hooper group on a social networking site designed specifically for those of us who practice this art. I was able to link up with my new friend, Drew, who has lived in Rome (among other places) for many years. And as such, I have been able to learn Rome from an "Italian," though I put that into quotations, because he hates such labels :)

The first time Drew and I met, he took me on a ride on his scooter throughout the Monteverde and Trastevere neighborhoods, near my apartment. I was at first scared, for I am so usually inclined to avoid any possible danger. But, when in Rome, you must do as the Romans do, and so I did. It was exhilarating. Whenever I am riding around Rome on the scooter, I cannot wipe the smile off of my face. It must look like I slept with a hanger in my mouth.

The first time, Drew took me to a lovely little cafe where we discussed feminism and other mutual interests, followed by a short walk to a beautiful villa with an astounding view of the city. Then, a couple of days ago, he took me to a chocolate factory near San Lorenzo (a student district) that I'm sure I never would have found otherwise, and even if I had, communication would have been near impossible. He asked the lovely waitress to select five sweets she preferred, plus the one I wanted, and then we ate them off of a chic chocolate-drizzled plate at our table over drinks.

We also walked by a center of Roman ruins near the Argentina station in Trastevere, and he took me into a secret room that is essentially underground. In the room were dozens of kitties! Apparently, it's like a humane society, and you can go in and pet the cats (or a least the healthy ones) at any time. Many of the cats are allowed to wander out into the ruins, while humans are denied this privilege, and so Drew made the interesting point that this forum essentially belongs to the cats. I quite like that idea, and I quite like having an "Italian" friend, too.

When not privileged enough to explore the city with someone so experienced, I've enjoyed the solitary life. There is a restaurant only a few minutes walking distance from my apartment at which I've made friends with the waiters and the adorable grandfather who tends to the cash register. Whenever I walk in, he greets me with the informal "ciao" and a kiss on each cheek. I love to sit there for hours, slowly enjoying a glass of chianti classico, and scribbling poems onto napkins when I am suddenly hit with a burst of inspiration, as is so usual for me when in Rome.

My other favorite place to be alone is on public transport. Now that I've mostly gotten the system down, I am not afraid to hop on the tram or a bus for no reason other than to ride, to people watch, and perhaps to get off at a stop that appears an unexplored area. I must confess, however, that from time to time I must be more relaxed on public transport; I've jumped in fear of being pick-pocketed multiple times, when really I was just harmlessly nudged. There's really no need for paranoia at this time of year. Apparently it's too cold for the Romans, and all the pickpockets are inside, waiting for summer.

My favorite ancient site will forever be the Pantheon, which is also my favorite hooping destination. A couple of days ago, I threw down a solid jam sesh directly in front of it, and caught a decent audience. A lovely French teenager nervously walked up to me inside the Pantheon some twenty minutes later and said tu es tres forte, which means you are very strong. Fortunately, I was with a roommate who is fluent in French, so I could thank her properly. Then, upon exiting the great dome, one of the Roman "soldiers" in costume gave me the exact same compliment. I thought it was interesting that here I apparently seem "strong," since in America, I usually hear things like "awesome" or "skilled," but never strong. I prefer the European style of complimenting. I think I may try busking during tourist season and see if I can bring in a few euro, since I've certainly spent a bit more than budgeted, already, and of this I must be cautious.

Classes have been going quite well. My religion class took a tour through some of the churches and basilicas throughout the city, and I went to four on my own -- Santa Maria Maggiore, Basilica di Santa Prassede, Santa Maria della Vittoria, and San Pietro in Vincoli. They are breathtakingly formidable, ornately adorned, grandiose and enrapturing. You’re probably wondering at this point where the pictures are. I’m only somewhat pleased to say that I don’t have any! Well, at least none that I personally have taken. I’d hate to be looking through a lens, but not quite seeing. I will, however, end with a roommate’s photo, which succinctly captures my time in Rome thus far:


Monday, January 28, 2013

Cultural Complications

Good morning from sunny Roma! Since I arrived, I have felt very much faced with complications and frustrations, and I am yearning for the adjustment phase that I know I will eventually reach. Some of these elements of “culture shock” are my focus in writing today.

My luggage was, of course, lost immediately, and I had to wait nearly three days until it was delivered. This was rather irritating, since my carry-on bag was entirely comprised of shoes, and I barely packed an extra outfit. If ever you are traveling abroad, I beg of you not to make this same mistake. I was not very inclined to venture out and explore Roma before I had any of my belongings, understandably enough. So, I spent the first couple of days mostly contained to my apartment, while my roommates were mostly not.

Speaking of roommates, I did express concern over my living situation in my last post in which I was anticipating the prospect of living with others for the first time in quite a while.  Four of us are strangers, and two are friends from home.  Thus far I do not feel particularly drawn to nor offended by any of them, though only time will tell how our relationships might develop, and surely for this some co-venturing is in order.  On the whole, I am satisfied with our arrangements.  Our apartment is lovely and only a fifteen minute walk from AUR campus.  We are situated in the mostly residential area of Monteverde, where I can hear the conversations of Italian families through paper-thin walls and gaze at the surrounding terracota for hours.

I did actually have to venture out to the Salvator Mundi International Hospital on my second day in Rome in order to have removed some stitches, which had been placed in the U.S.  Finding the hospital was much easier than expected, and I found it to be a pleasurable visit despite that I was there under unfortunate premises. The nurses were old-fashioned, wearing headdresses in a style similar to Catholic nuns, and my Italian doctor was so lovely and kind.  I sat, content, listening to discourse of their Italian chatter, noting whichever cognates and recognizable linguistic traits I could. The environment was sterile, but the experience was certainly not.

This was the same day that orientation activities took place, and I was very much lost on my way back from campus to my apartment.  I certainly stuck out like a sore thumb as I checked each street sign, walking twenty meters before throwing my hands up in the air and turning around, making my way down the same streets over and over again.  I eventually wound back up at campus, where I found my roommates and walked home with them.  It was frustrating, mostly because I was in a residential area, but in most of Rome half the fun lies in getting completely lost.  I was lost again a couple of days later when I took the wrong bus, or rather, I took the correct bus but in the wrong direction.  Although this resulted in my missing an obligation, I decided to view this as an opportunity to acquaint myself with foreign parts of the city as I rode all the way down the line, and then all the way back. I do think it is important to view these frustrations in a positive light; such learning experiences are necessary in order to reach adjustment.

Now that I’ve been reunited with my belongings, I am quite willing to get lost – and to lose myself – in the city.  Today I start classes, with Italian 101 at 4 o’clock.  I am enthusiastically awaiting this course, since language difficulties have been some of the most frustrating of all so far.  Each time I go out I try to prepare myself for whichever social customs I should expect to comply with and whichever words and phrases I may need to use, but whenever I use them I am suddenly faced with a rapidly-speaking Italian whose vernacular baffles me.  Fortunately enough, the Italians are very kind and appreciate the effort I put in to speak their language.  When I went to the farmacia to get some toiletries while I was still awaiting my luggage, the Italian-speaking attendant was patient and cooperated with me until we understood each other.

So now I will try to prepare myself for another day learning Rome and the Roman way – expect a progress update in a few day’s time.