Driving down the I-15 toward San Diego on my way to the airport, a thought struck me: I guess it’s true that all roads lead to Rome. So while mine included a long layover in Heathrow, it did indeed lead me to Rome. Dragging along two way-too-large suitcases, I managed to use my very rusty Italian 001 to catch a train into the city. As I stood gazing at the Colosseum looming in the distance and St. Peter’s Basilica sitting across the river, I felt a rush of adrenaline and fear. Here I was, thousands of miles from friends and family, about to experience what it’s like to be a modern Roman.
My first order of business was to survive daily life. Though rooming with six guys was often difficult (so many dirty dishes), it did provide an immediate group of friends. In the first few weeks I found a cafe to go to every day, where the barista Fabio knew before I ordered that I needed a cafe latte to wake me up after Italian class. I realized I was much less likely to be pickpocketed once I bought a leather jacket to fit in amongst the highly fashionable Italians. I learned how to avoid the ATAC public transportation police and the sixty-euro fine for riding the bus without a pass. Most importantly, I found good places to go for gelato and tiramisu.
Of course, as a fourth-year art history major, the main reason I choose the UC Center in Rome was for the art and culture. I’d spent countless hours studying Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and of course, my favorite Ninja Turtle, Raphael, but I wasn’t even close to being prepared to see their work in person. There was just something extraordinary about having a professor lecture on the secret intricacies of a sculpture while standing 10 feet away from its glimmering marble.
But Italian culture isn’t simply art. It is also food and clothing and attitude. Italians have perfected pasta the way American’s have perfected fast food. They wear tailored suits and polished watches to go grocery shopping — not to mention the fact that Italian drivers make New Yorkers seem tame, with constant honking and perpetual gesturing and yelling becoming a normal accompaniment on my walk to school.
I also made sure to visit other places throughout Italy and Europe during my stay. I traveled to the maze-like canals of Venice and the rich (in history, wine and money) streets of Florence. I saw the sprawling beauty of Paris from the top of Notre Dame and the vibrant nightlife along the beaches of Barcelona. I explored the seaside, mountainside tranquility of the Italian Riviera and the ruinous history of Athens and the Acropolis.
One weekend some friends and I visited the scenic Amalfi Coast and while we were there, decided to take a bus ride along the shore. Unfortunately for me I was the last one on the bus and was left leaning against a partially open door. As we whipped around corner after corner, mere inches from a 400-foot cliff, I couldn’t help but think that this would never happen in America. But hey, what’s a little personal safety in the name of exploration and adventure?
I was fortunate to also be able to partake in some truly unique Roman experiences. On Easter, I joined the million other people in St. Peter’s Square who saw Pope Francis (he’s known as Papa Francesco over there) drive up in the Pope-mobile to greet the masses. That scene paled in comparison to the sheer amount of humanity that took over Rome the next week to celebrate the canonization of Pope John Paul II. In that two-week span, I discovered that Pharrell Williams and Katy Perry have nothing on popes in terms of popularity in Italy (no matter how much lip-syncing the old Italian men did as they drove their taxis).
During my stay, I discovered a sense of adventure and wonder that can sometimes get lost in daily life back home. I made new friends from around the globe. I sang along to Italian songs I barely knew in crowded plazas. I ate pizza as often as I could, often two (okay, three) times a day. I immersed myself into a new way of life and grew in new ways I never thought possible. After all my travels, I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. However, I never did get used to the way Europeans clap when a pilot successfully lands the plane, as if they didn’t expect it to happen. But they always landed and I always took off someplace, passport at the ready.