Rome, Travel

The Healing Powers Of Rome: An Exercise In Purposeful Living

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Me standing in an ancient bar at Ostia Antica. Inscription: “Fortunatus says: Since you are thirsty, drink wine from the crater.”

The day before I left for Rome, I made several frenzied phone calls and errands, all to do with my health. Doctors, health insurance, pharmacies, more doctors, my boyfriend to calm my overwrought nerves, my best friend to try to reassure me that I would actually enjoy my abroad experience, more doctors, a different pharmacy…and so it went. After about two months of unknown ailments, eight different prescriptions, a stomach infection and a tonsil the size of a golf ball, followed by tonsil surgery that left me exhausted and frustrated, I was determined to be fully stocked for my current medical situation as well as preemptively medicated for every possible condition that could arise in my four months in Rome. I was certain that I would end up with some strange incurable ailment in a hospital with doctors who I couldn’t communicate with and were probably uncivilized and definitely incompetent. Physically, mentally, emotionally…I was a bit of a wreck.

I always remember in the first couple of days after our arrival, my friend (joking in the most PLS-y of ways) telling me, “Don’t worry, ancient people came to Rome for healing all the time. It’ll work for you too.” My knee-jerk response was a sort of self-righteous dismissal, thinking You have no idea what these last few months have been like. And yet, after the first couple of days…it happened. I didn’t end up using a single one of those prescriptions. In fact, I rarely took so much as an Advil. All of the ailments I had been dealing with cleared up, as did a few I didn’t even know I had.

Call it whatever you want, but Rome healed me. In more ways than one.

At that point in my small laundry list of medical woes (one of which, appropriately, was directly caused by overmedication), getting through a semester healthy may as well have been coming to the temple of Aesculapius as a leper and miraculously walking away clean. That temple, by the way, was conveniently located a mere ten-minute walk from my apartment, on Tiber Island. Coincidence? No chance. A modern hospital now resides in its place, full of I’m sure, civilized, multilingual, and (fairly) competent doctors. I wouldn’t know — I didn’t need them.

But Rome also healed me in a deeper way, one that I didn’t quite grasp the full impact of until I returned home.

“I sometimes fancy,” said Hilda, on whose susceptibility the scene always made a strong impression, “that Rome—mere Rome—will crowd everything else out of my heart.” ―Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance

Trying to imagine a semester with no extra jobs, no internship, no writing, no editing, and for the love of Jupiter, class only three days a week, had been unthinkable to me. What am I going to do with all that time? Despite living in a city with an unlimited possibility for exploration and discovery, I was convinced I would be bored, antsy, frustrated by my own non-productivity. More incorrect, I could not have been.

Living in Rome was a four-month long exercise in slowing down the usually frantic processes of my own mind, and throughly and actively experiencing the present. With virtually no responsibility (sorry JCU, it’s the truth), rather than anxious I felt liberated. As someone who genuinely enjoys the mental yoga of having seven activities on my plate at once, that fact in itself was a revelation.

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Rome: A Retrospective

Rome, to me, was a city with a profound lack of immediate gratification. You want soccer tickets? Too bad, every tabaccheria is closed. Milk for your cereal? Sorry, the store owners are taking a nap. Taking a bus to class? Great, because it’s promptly thirty minutes late. And no one else even seems to notice. Need your permesso di soggiorno? Cool, it’ll come after you leave. Trying to check Twitter? Try again in six hours when you get your hands on WiFi. Your check? What the hell do you need that for?

Sometimes, I really did just want the damn check. After three hours or so, it tends to get to that point. But really, what did I need it for? Where was I going? Answers: Nothing. Nowhere. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the constant itch I felt to go somewhere else was habit, but not necessity. I could just sit here. I could just be here.

Aptly described by my high school math teacher in a newspaper article as, “she always seemed about 90 percent with me in class, and 10 percent thinking about what was next,” this lesson could not have come to someone who needed it more. Romans walk a solid third of the speed of New Yorkers and eat a solid six or seven times slower (let’s call the coffee drinking and driving inexplicable aberrations). For the most part, though, the speed felt glacial. And for the most part, I was grateful to be taken in by it.

Since my triumphant return to America (I literally chanted “USA! USA!” in the airport when anything efficient happened), I’m already getting more than a little bit nostalgic for the slow, deliberate ways of the Romans and their way of making every moment feel deeply and purposefully lived-in. I honestly believe that not having access to our phones much of the time played a huge role in that. Not only in the feel of purposeful and active living, but in the twenty-some of us getting to know each other as well as we did.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as I returned, so did the compulsive need to check my texts, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…the list goes on. And spending the last week and a half working exclusively online and in large part on Twitter, my brain functioning has once again come to mirror my frantic clicking from one article to another. I already have a predisposition for that mental pace — media only expedites the process. Placing 100 percent of my focus on one subject has once again become a rarity.

In Rome? Wasn’t a problem. I would allow myself to focus on one single thing for long periods of time (yes, even a single painting for the hour it took Tegs to describe it), and that ability was both calming and comforting. Try as I might to duplicate that level of mental clarity, I know I will only be able to get so far. There will always be something special about how I felt, thought, lived, for those four months. And for that Rome, I thank you.

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Food, Rome, Travel

Sicilia: A Vacation Within A Vacation

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Yes, I did just call my semester of study abroad a vacation. And I realize that it isn’t, and I do have classes (which I do attend and enjoy), and I am learning – probably more than I ever have in a semester, mostly outside of the classroom. But it feels like a vacation in the sense of my mindset: I don’t think I could describe my head space as nervous or stressed since the day I got off the plane. I almost never know what time it is or where my phone is, and I rarely care. I’ve never been one to stress about school, but this isn’t just that – it’s a complete lifestyle change. I’m often exhausted, but always feel at peace. I guess it’s that elusive contentment. Here, I never feel like there’s something I’m forgetting, something else I should be doing, an email I need to send, a text a need to reply to, a meeting I’m missing. I just am wherever I am whenever I’m there, and feel okay with that. Hence, my mental vacation.

But Sicily… now that was a real life beach-filled Champagne-drinking Turkish bath-going arancine-eating verified girls trip vacation. See that view up at the top there? Yeah, that’s the view from our apartment terrace, featuring Mount Etna just four days before it exploded. Of course before we made it there, we experienced a happy mishap which brought us Ostia Antica on the Friday we intended to depart. 

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As Pompeii was quite possibly my favorite experience of my first trip to Rome with la mia famiglia, Ostia Antica was high on my Rome priority list. It is a massive archaeological site that was the port city of ancient Rome – in fact it may have been Rome’s very first colony. So far they’ve found ruins that date back to the 4th century BC (and they’ve probably only found about two-thirds so far), and was inhabited until it was finally  abandoned in the 9th century because they kept getting sacked, which sucked. Luckily for us, an incredible amount of the ancient city was preserved thanks to silt. There were some beautifully preserved frescoes, though unfortunately Ostia’s crowning fresco at the Temple of Neptune was temporarily covered when we were there. It made us extremely uneasy.

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But after that brief excursion, some Jewish Ghetto fried artichokes, and apertivo-hopping/backpacking in our own neighborhood, we arrived in Palermo to one of the most beautiful views we had ever been lucky enough to eat pastries within view of.

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We saw the necessary Palermitano sights – the Palermo Cathedral, the Palazzo di Normanni with its (gaudy) Cappella Palatina, the botanical gardens, and the Teatro Massimo. But if we’re really going to be honest here, we chilled and we ate. And boy did we eat. Just a few of our standout meals:

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  • Arancine: A Sicilian specialty, these fried balls of rice with meat sauce or prosciutto in the center may be the world’s crowning street food.
  • Seafood risotto at a restaurant on the beach in Mondello. It was as amazing as it looks.
  • Squid ink pasta
  • Swordfish cooked with tomatoes, capers, and olives (just like my mommy does it! One of the best meals I’ve ever had) at Trattoria ai Cascinari, the best restaurant in Palermo according to several sources
  • Brioche filled with gelato…exactly what it sounds like

I know what you’re thinking (or not): You went to Sicily and didn’t have any cannoli?!? I am extraordinarily saddened to report that we went to the alleged best place for cannoli in all of Palermo…and I didn’t love it. I don’t blame the cannolo: I blame a lifetime of exposure to the very thick, very sweet, very chocolate-chip filled, Americanization of the cannolo. But regardless, it just didn’t do it for me. I am so sorry foodies.

If you’re wondering what Mondello is from that name drop there, it’s Palermo’s main beach town, about twenty minutes away from the city. It’s also drop dead gorgeous. And made me feel like this:

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We frolicked along the beach in skirts and sundresses as the Palermitans huddled together in hoods and blankets, seemingly unaware that 65 degrees is reason to celebrate. And to finish up the ultimate girls trip, there was the Turkish bath, Hammam. We doused ourselves in buckets of hot water while sitting on a giant marble slab, stifled uncomfortable laughter as a woman entered in nothing but a paper thong, were doused in another bucket of hot by the Hammam lady, sweated in a sauna so full of steam you couldn’t see a foot in front of you, got exfoliating massages, chilled out in the jacuzzi, and lost five pounds. Simultaneously exciting and relaxing, it was a perfect ending to the perfect mini-vacation.

 

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Food, Travel

Last Time I Was In A Cave…

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 2.01.24 PMQuite delayed indeed, as time seems to simultaneously amble along and fly by here. But our girls’ trip to Orvieto last Saturday cannot be disregarded. Here she is for point of reference, just an easy one-hour train ride from Roma Termini. On this particular map, the only places I have yet to visit are Perugia, Assisi (definitely going to take a day trip), Capri, and Naples. Just tearing through this country, man.

When you arrive in Orvieto, you are immediately ushered into a lift that takes you up the mountain to the city center, followed by a bus that drops you off right at the Duomo (Duomo No. 84710 in this dang country). Its real name is just as original: The Cathedral of Orvieto. Its appearance however…

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And that’s nothing compared to the inside. The history of this Duomo began in 1290 when Pope Nicholas IV blessed the first stone, and its creation was in conjunction with the 1293 miracle of Bolsena when the eucharist (allegedly) starting spontaneously bleeding during a blessing. I’m thinking that priest needed some emergency medical attention and just sucked it up when everyone started gasping and fainting and shouting, “It’s a miracle!” So props to that guy.

But seriously, the inside of this cathedral is unbelievable, definitely my favorite chapel interior I’ve seen so far. It’s a massive rectangular area with two flanking aisles of side chapels, but with a square tribune instead of a semi-circular apse thanks to the “generational crisis” and changing tastes around 1310. The best part are the two large chapel at the end of the transept arms. On the left, the Chapel of the Corporal, over the entrance of which hangs a gargantuan 16th-century organ designed by Ippolita Scalza. More importantly, the right “Capella Nova” chapel has some of the most ridiculous frescos I have ever seen in a fresco. And I do mean ridiculous. With paintings like the End of the World, Preaching of the Antichrist, Resurrection of the Flesh, and Antinferno, the thing looks like a sci-fi movie. There’s dead people rising out of the ground, the devil shooting out lasers at people…it’s nuts. Also, there are portraits of ma boys Dante, Virgil and Lucretius, so that always goes in the “pro” column.

Apologies for the lengthy recap, I just want to be able to remember these things. Moving on to where all the most important parts of our day took place: underground. Orvieto is an ancient city people. In Latin, “urbs vetus,” which is where the name comes from. That said, there are a tremendous amount of Etruscan caves that are still being discovered. Caves like this:

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Last time I was in a cave, I learned the true meaning of being pigeon holed. Basically the Etruscans inhabited Orvieto from like the 9th – 3rd centuries BC, and each family would have one of these caves under their houses. They didn’t all keep pigeons (we saw some that were used to make olive oil), but there were a lot of pigeons. They would just leave the window of the cave open, the pigeons would go out and feed themselves, come back to the cave, have babies, and then get eaten. I knew pigeons were stupid animals. This is the view from out the cave window. Not bad.

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And here’s an Etruscan well. Those holes on the side? Yeah, those are for their hands and feet as they climbed down to dig it out. Not scary at all.

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We loved being underground so much that we had to eat in one. And my God was that a good decision. Evidence: wild boar ragu. And the general caveness of this restaurant.

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Riding a wave of wild boar and black truffle-induced enthusiasm, we made the trek up the however-many stairs of Orvieto’s bell tower. And we were glad we did. Hello zebra church!

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Despite GALE FORCE WINDS. Seriously, we had to hold only the meatballs so they wouldn’t blow away.

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And finally, St. Patrick’s Well, which my Achilles wouldn’t let me go all the way down (maybe I should get that checked out).

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Orvieto man. 24 hours without being on ground level.

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Photos

Maybe, Just Maybe, Learning How To Work My Camera

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My Camera, by Moi

After a couple of weeks of frustration with myself and lack of skills, I think I may just be getting the hang of it. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance… things that seem much easier than they actually are. But my pictures are requiring less and less editing every day, which leaves me feeling much more optimistic.

 

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Rome

Highlights From Week One

With any luck, my photography will improve as I actually learn how to use my camera.

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Travel

Day 4: Still On American Time

I might be European at heart, but my body clearly belongs in the States, because it is rejecting Central European Time hard – I just woke up, and it is 2:30pm. Went to bed at 5:15am, because I was not tired despite waking up at 9:00 and walking around all day. Luckily today is Saturday and I didn’t miss anything, but still…not ideal.

Log this under Things I’ve Learned About Myself Since College Began: I am a creature of habit. Put that together pretty definitively when I realized my nightmares are much worse and much more frequent when I change sleeping locations (home to school, school to home, etc). Only reason I ended up crossing high-priced call girl off my list of possible career paths. Luckily, even though I haven’t quite at all regulated my sleep patterns, I am thus far nightmare-free. Knock on wood.

In any case, once classes start on Monday it’s time to set about building some sort of routine. I purposely built my schedule last semester so every weekday went from 9:20 or 9:30 until 5:00 or 5:05, with a lunch break, and I absolutely loved it. Adjusting to this uh…sparse class schedule may be interesting. Off to start the day six hours late!

 

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