Goodbye Rome, Hello Home: Trains, Plains, and Automobiles

After a great trip to Assisi and Rome, Italy, I had to get home and back to family and business. I was up early and left my hotel for the short walk to the Termini station at 7:00am. I caught the 7:22am Leonardo Express train to the Fiumicino airport. I was there by 8:00am. Because I was flying on U.S. Air, I had to go to the new “Terminal 5,” which is not actually a terminal but just a processing station for those flying on US airlines. So, I caught the shuttle bus to Terminal 5, checked in, cleared customs, and then took a shuttle back to the actual terminal from which we would depart.

I was at the gate by 9:15a for my 11:15a flight, so I did a bit of duty free shopping, trying to use up my Euros so I wouldn’t have to exchange them. I spent my last 23 Euros on a jumbo two pack of Campari (with gift glasses), which is an essential ingredient in three of my favorite drinks: Campari on the rocks, Campari and soda, and Negroni (Campari and gin). I didn’t realize this, but apparently Salma Hayek likes Campari as much as I do — though she gets paid to like it, and for me the opposite is true.

The flight from Rome to Philadelphia was on time and uneventful, though extremely long (9 hours) and on a stupid Airbus A330 with absolutely no leg room. Thankfully, it had personal entertainment systems at each seat so I was able to watch “State of Play” (Ben Affleck still cannot act and was wholly unconvincing as a Congressman) and “Julie and Julia” (made me really like Julia Child and want to punch Julie Powell in the face).

Unfortunately, in Philadelphia I had to claim my luggage, re-check it, and go back through security screening for domestic travel, so those two jugs of Campari I bought at duty free had to be packed into my suitcase, which took a good 20 minutes.

By the time I made it through security screening again and got to my gate, it was 4:30pm (10:30pm Rome time) and my 6:30 flight was delayed because of bad weather in Charlotte. I called home to find out that there had beena significant storm on Friday and even worse was expected Saturday.

We boarded the plane and were told that we would not take off until 8:00pm at the earliest because of weather in Charlotte. We did get out of Philly and landed in Charlotte around 9:30pm. I collected my bags and caught the shuttle to the long term parking lot. I was on the road by 10:00pm.

The roads were suprisingly clear, and I was looking forward to being home around 11:20pm — which would be 5:20am Rome time. A long day. About 15 miles into my 70 mile drive home, snow and ice started appearing on the interstate and then traffic came to a complete stop. After 15 minutes, traffic started moving again, but it was single file on ice and snow covered roads the rest of the way home. I never got above 30 MPH again.

It took me three more hours to get home. I pulled into my driveway at 1:30am — 7:30am Rome time, or 24 hours and 30 minutes after I left my hotel the previous day.

Italy Day 8, Rome Day 4: Colosseum, Palatine, Roman Forum, Capitoline Museums

Thursday: I left my touring of Ancient Rome to the last day of my visit. Having had a VERY long day with my hike to the Vatican and back on Wednesday, I decided to sleep in and when I woke up at 8:30a it was raining. I had been very fortunate weather-wise in my week in Italy so I couldn’t complain. I spent some time organizing my stuff and writing a bit, as well as trying to figure out what to do in Rome on a rainy day (since I hit so many indoor sites the first three days). By the time I decided to head out at 11:30am, I saw blue sky out my hotel window! So, I took a roundabout walk to the Metro station, going through the Universita di Roma “La Sapienza,” which was a typical urban campus just blending into the surrounding city without anything really distinctive to demarcate it as a campus.

The Metro ride from the Policlinico station to the Colosseo stop was the only train ride I had in Rome that was jam packed. I literally had to push my way onto the train (aided greatly by the people pushing me from behind). Then I was worried that I would not be able to make it to the door at my stop because almost no one got off at the 3 stops in between, and somehow more people got on. But some hard work and a few “Scuzzis” got me to the door and out to see the Colosseum.

I’m not really “into” ancient history, don’t have a fascination with Gladiators or Russell Crowe, but you can’t help but be impressed by the idea and execution of such a structure — even though what went on inside was a bit suspect.
From there, I walked the Palatine Hill, amid the ruins, and made my way across to the Roman Forum.

Walking amid the ruins, I tried to imagine what life was like 2,500 years ago, or even a mere 2,000 years ago. I couldn’t do it, but was awed to be in the presence of the material remains of that civilization. At the same time, I found myself wondering from time to time, “How many slaves died to build that monument?”

At the end of the Roman Forum, I went up the Capitol and Capitoline Museum, designed by Michelangelo in the mid-16th century. The first thing you see when you enter the museum is a courtyard with fragments of an ENORMOUS statue of Constantine the Great, from the 4th century AD. I guess its technical name is the “Colossus of Constantine,” which I think means Enormous Constantine. In any event, I don’t know the woman in the picture, but I waited until she walked into the shot to give a sense of the size of the thing. You can also see the attention to detail — notice the veins in the arm to the left.

As at the Borghese and the Vatican, I was particularly struck by the statuary sculptures. There is the very famous bronze “She-Wolf” and also the “Capitoline Venus,” but I spent the most time looking at the “Capitoline Gaul” or “Dying Gaul” or “Dying Galatian.” They say it may have originally been intended to be a discus thrower — based on the body positioning — but I’d say it works well as a striken warrior.

On my way back to my hotel I passed by the Vittoriano — the memorial to King Victor Emmanuel II — which is a good reminder of Italy’s more recent history, especially that the country was not unified until the 19th century and then as a kingdom not a democracy, and the republican era in Italy only dates to 1945.

I walked slowly back to my hotel, along the Via Cavour which runs from the Roman Forum to the Termini, thinking about everything I was able to see and everything I have yet to see.

Italy Day 7, Rome Day 3: Papal Audience, Vatican Museum, Piazza Navona, Chiesa Sant’Agostino

Wednesday: For some reason, I did not hear the 7am church bells ringing next door to the hotel this morning, and so slept in until almost 8am. I tried to hustle a bit through breakfast because I wanted to catch the metro to the Vatican by 9:15a so I could make sure I got a seat for the Papal Audience at 10:30a. I got to the Stazione on time but as I approached the entrance to the Metro I saw staff turning people back. Apparently someone fell or jumped or the train turned over or something (I couldn’t understand). What I realized, though, was I had to get across town to the Vatican fast. I dashed outside and there were at least 100 people in the line at the cab stand. So I started walking. Fast.

Trying to figure out the shortest way there, not knowing how long it would take, but knowing I would be cutting it close. By 10am I was at Piazza Navona, which I knew was not far from the Tiber. Unfortunately, I was turned around, and so when I exited the Piazza and hit the next main street, I walked the wrong way, for about 10 minutes. I caught a cab that took me the last ¼ mile to St. Peter’s, excited to have made it to the Hall of Audiences on time (though seated in the last row), but disappointed that I got lost and couldn’t make it all the way on foot.

The Hall of Audiences is a large auditorium. It must seat at least a couple of thousand people, and it was full of individuals, groups of pilgrims, and student groups. Pope Benedict came out to loud applause and chanting. There was a scripture reading in Italian, German, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish, followed by the Pope’s statement in Italian. After that, groups from each of the languages were recognized, with a waive and a smile from the Pope, and then the Pope read a brief statement to the groups in their native language. English-language groups were recognized from the US, England, Ireland, Nigeria, and Kenya. There is certainly a great deal of majesty to the Pope and this situation, but Benedict is definitely not a charismatic figure. There is respect, but not the love that people obviously felt toward John Paul II.

After the audience, I grabbed a pizza slice and a caffee and hit the Musei Vaticani. It’s easy to point to some of the great masterpieces in the museum, especially the Sistine Chapel, but also the Raphael, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Dali, and others, but I was most struck by a simple bronze statue (is that the right word?) of Jesus carrying a lamb and leading a small flock of sheep. It evokes the kind of emotional and spiritual response that religious art is meant to evoke.

I left the museum after a few hours and made my way across St. Peter’s Square one more time on my way back across the Tiber to the Piazza Navona. The “Christmas Market” was in full flourish. It was like a big carnival, with stalls of games, food, Christmas items, and other “stuff” set up along both sides, with a merry go round in the middle.

I had a quick look and set off to find Chiesa Sant’Agostino which I was told had a 1604-06 Caravaggio painting above one of the side altars called “Madonna di Loreto” (of the pilgrims).

It was very interesting to experience this work in its chapel setting as compared to the collection of Caravaggios on special exhibit at The Borghese Museum. The museum exhibit was impressive, but to see these religious themed artworks in their natural settings (as altar pieces and church decorations – as complements of worship) makes more sense. I regret that I did not go to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo to see its 3 Caravaggios.

(Side note: I may also have a soft spot for Caravaggio because he once killed [literally] an opponent in a tennis match and had to flee Rome, dying in exile.)

Italy Day 6, Rome Day 2: Galleria Borghese, Museum of Modern Art, Piazza del Poppolo, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain

Tuesday: By far the highlight of this day was the Borghese Museum, which may have the highest proportion of masterpieces per square foot of any museum I’ve been in. I was particularly moved by the Bernini sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. If you approach it from behind, you see just Apollo, then as you come around it, you see Daphne in his grasp. She had called on her river god father to help her by changing her form, so she is being transformed into a tree. The artistic rendering is astonishing — her toes becoming roots, her fingers sprouting leaves, and her body being emcompassed by bark. I cannot even understand how he accomplished this.

Just outside the Villa Borghese is the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, for 19th and 20th century art. The museum has some nice pieces by brand name artists in its collection: Van Gogh’s Gardner, Duchamp’s Roue de Bicyclette, Cezanne’s Le Cabanon de Jourdan, Klimpt’s The Three Ages of Humanity, Rodin, Pollock, Mondrian. But suffice to say that Italian artists haven’t take modern art by storm, and the museum largely evades the issue of Fascism. But it was a pleasant location to spend a couple of hours.

The second major highlight of the day was lunch at Osteria St. Ana near the Piazza del Poppolo. I went to this restaurant at the recommendation of one of my students at Wake Forest. It was later in the day, around 2:30p, so the restaurant was not crowded, but there were 3-4 tables of people, all Italians, and they were all clearly wondering what I was doing there. But my waiter was very friendly and helpful, and the food excellent. I had buffalo milk mozzerlla cheese, spagghetti alla carbonara, beef in wine sauce, salade primavera, half a bottle of red table wine, and a doppio espresso. It took about an hour and a half to eat, and another hour of walking around afterward to recover.

From the restaurant I walked down the Via del Corso to the Via del Condotti – the most famous high end shopping district in Rome. Brioni, Gucci, Bulgari, Max Mara, Valentino, etc. etc. I just kept my wallet in my pocket and kept walking to the Spanish Steps. Fortunately they were not crowded, so I was able to climb the steps and watch the sunset over the city.

From there I followed the signs to find the Trevi Fountain. I didn’t really know where it was, so it wasn’t until I hear the water that I rounded to corner and saw the fountain. The early winter darkness meant that I didn’t have to be out too late at night to see the Trevi Fountain lit up, which seems to be the best way to see it.

I’m sure some people consider the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain to be cliche tourist areas, but at this time of year at least, they were very beautiful and serene settings, a treat for the senses — sight, sounds, and smell.

Italy Day 5, Rome Day 1: Travel from Assisi and trip to Vatican

OK, so I thought I was going to be able to get a wi-fi connection at the Rome airport but no such luck, so I will have to post my Rome blog entries when I get back home.

I didn’t leave myself much time at the end of each day to write. Most days I was to breakfast by 8am and not back to my room until 9 or 10pm. I didn’t want to waste a single moment in Rome. So, this and the following posts are abbreviated overviews of my 4 days in Rome.

Monday: I arrived at the Stazione Termini on the Trenitalia from Assisi in the late morning, so I made the short walk to my hotel (the Yes Hotel) and stored my bags and headed back to the Termini to take the Metro to the Vatican. By noon I was at Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square), which is impressively large, though in proportion to St. Peter’s Basilica. The interior of the basilica is really beyond words. Highlights for me were Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s baldacchino over the Altar of the Confession.

After I made my way through the Basilica, I made the trek up to the viewing level of the coppola (about 450 steps up), which is almost at the top of the dome, from which I took the photo below.

After my tour I wandered around for a while, had a couple of caffes, and went back to the Basilica for a Mass in Latin at the Altar of St. Joseph.

An easy Metro ride back to the Termini and a couple of slices of pizza — the first of many I would have in Rome — completed my first day.

Last Two Days in Assisi

My presentation — “Mundane Conversion as Moral Action” — was in the last session on Sunday, which is just as well because it gave me the most opportunity to figure out what I wanted to say. We were back in the Sala Conciliazione, which could not have been a better place to present. Below are pictured three views from the sala: up the hill in Assisi, the fountain of the Piazza del Comune, and the Temple of Minerva (with the Roman columns) built in the FIRST CENTURY B.C.!!! (In the 16th century it was converted to the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.)

The conference ended with another nice lunch at the convent and goodbyes. Because I was not leaving until Monday morning, I decided to hoof it around Assisi for the afternoon. Assisi is really all about St. Francis and St. Clare. Everywhere you turn, there is something to remind you of these two.

Because I was staying 8 days in Italy and brought 4 days worth of clothes, I asked the sisters at Suore Svedesi where I could do laundry. They said at the traffic circle just beyond Santa Maria degli Angeli, a huge basilica that is historically significant in the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare. So, I began trekking down the hill. It was only 4km, according to the signs, which in my mind I thought was about 2 miles, but I think is closer to 3. In any event, hitting the flatlands gave me some wonderful views back up the hill and also took me to the awe-inspiring bascilica.
Unfortunately, because it was Sunday and there were only 5 washing machines, I wasn’t able to do laundry. I’m not sure if I wanted to anyway, since detergent, washing, and drying would have been about 10 Euros. $15 to do laundry? Hmm. Not sure about that.

Italy Day 2 Recap

OK, so I arrived safely in Assisi and had a nice dinner with my fellow conferees (tortellini soup, pork chop, vegetable, salad, dessert, and an endless supply of red table wine, Montesanto Rosso Piceno 2007).

Not wanting to crash out the next day, I headed back to my room to sleep. There was no need to set an alarm in Assisi – they have a preprogrammed wake-up call for everyone. At 6:00am, I was awakened by church bells ringing. I opened my window to see this beautiful view of olive trees, the Umbrian valley, and the St. Francis Basilica.

After a nice breakfast at the convent, we headed up the hill for a tour of the Basilica Papale di San Francesco d’Assisi. Here I got my first taste of the connection between great art and religious worship in Italy. You see amazing frescos on the walls and ceilings everywhere, by Chimabue, Giotto, Lorenzetti, and other late medieval artists. The tour was given by an American Conventual Fransican Friar named Noel, who happened to go to seminary around the same time as the pastor of our church, Our Lady of Mercy, in Winston-Salem (Friar Bill Robinson).

As we exited the Basilica from the tour, we were able to catch a nice view of the Nativity scene that was prepared on the lawn in front of the church.

the first day of sessions. The international conference on “Religion, Spirituality, and Everyday Practice,” was co-sponsored by the Associazione Italiana di Sociologia, Sezione Sociologia della Religione and the Association for the Sociology of Religion (which invited me to attend). As is evident from the program, this was truly an international conference. The attendees came not just from Italy and the USA, but from England, Norway, Israel, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, and Canada. It was interesting to consider the place of religion and spirituality in countries that are so culturally different.

The sessions were held in the Palazzo dei Priori on the Piazza del Comune, in the Sala Conciliazione. I will probably never make a presentation in as impressive a setting. As you can see in the picture below, there are very stately chairs set up in the front of the council chambers, on a riser to add to their majesty. The fresco on the back wall was damaged in one of the earthquakes that struck Assisi in the last decade, and you can see that plans are underway to repair it, with markings on the plaster of what needs to be repainted.

Buongiorno a tutti!

Day 8 in Italia, heading home tomorrow, and I finally have time and an internet connection to jot down some thoughts.
I arrived in Rome last Thursday (12/10) after flying overnight from Philadelphia. I actually almost didn’t make it to Philadelphia because of bad weather there. I was rushing around to try to get everything taken care of before I left for the Greensboro airport and remembered that I wanted to check-in for my flight on-line from home to pay less for my luggage (turns out there is no fee for luggage on international flights). When I tried to check in I got an error message and an 800-number to call. I called the 800-number and found out my flight from Greensboro to Philly had been canceled because of weather. The agent offered me a flight from Charlotte that I couldn’t make because it was too soon (Charlotte being about an hour longer drive than Greensboro), but then found one that left an hour later than my flight from Greensboro. So, I hit the road, made it to Philadelphia and was off.
When I got on the transatlantic flight in Philly, I realized that the legroom on the plane was worse than on the flight up from NC. I tried to forget about the pain I would suffer over the next many hours by talking to the guy sitting next to me, who was a younger Roman guy who was working in Charlotte. He told me about some of his favorite places in Roma and then the flight attendance came up and asked if we were both traveling alone. We said yes, and she moved him to another row — so I ended up have two seats on the side to myself! That, and Ambien, made it possible for me to sleep some on the flight so when we landed at 9:00am local time, I was in pretty good shape.

Never having been to Europe (outside of one day in Amsterdam), I was a little nervous about finding my way around. I needed to catch a train into the city to the Stazione Termini and then another train to Assisi where my conference was being held. Thanks to some advance reading on the internet, it could not have been easier to find the Leonardo Express to Termini.

One thing that was immediately striking on the way into the city was the intermingling of the ancient and the modern. The view in this picture caught my eye, as did any number of other similar views.

I got to Termini just before 10am, so I checked the train schedule to Assisi and found one that left just before 2pm and decided to walk around for a few hours. I checked my bag (4 Euro for 5 hours) and used the restroom (0.80 Euro) and was off. (I was also eased into the fact that Italy would be VERY expensive, especially at $1.50 or more to the Euro!)
I walked out of the Stazione Termini onto the bustling streets of Roma, with little cars, scooters (though not many Vespas), and buses everywhere. I did like the locals did and just snaked my way across the streets through the stopped traffic. This day was worse than normal because a demonstration had closed the traffic circle at nearby Piazza della Republica. I don’t know what it was about, but I heard from locals that every day they are protesting something in Roma so this was a nice introduction to daily life here.
I like this picture in particular because you can see the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the background. Again, the new and the old comingling.
One thing I didn’t realize until I got to Roma was that “Yamane” is prounced in Italian as “Yamamay,” and they actually have a store by that name, pictured here.
After a nice lunch near the Termini I caught the train to Assisi, which — contrary to stereotypes about Italy — ran right on time. I caught a cab for the 4km ride to the hotel (12 Euros!).
The conference I was attending made arrangements for us to stay at Suore di Santa Brigida di Svezia, which is run ay Brigidine nuns. I was a little stunned at first to realize I would be without a TV and internet, but by the end of my stay I realized it was a real blessing to be disconnected in such a beautiful, historic, and spiritual setting, Assisi.

Because I arrived in the early evening and dinner was not served until 7:30pm, I walked up the hill to the center of Assisi. I don’t really have the linguistic ability to describe the city, but there are alot of places on-line that you can find pictures, which say a thousand words.

One other thing I can’t describe adequately is Italian caffe and pastries: