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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