When I was 16, I was lucky enough to go to Rome, Italy on a class trip. My high school had just begun having these types of trips, and Rome was the first of its kind. I was taking Latin, and was looking forward to visiting one the countries where it had been spoken. My parents had a copy of the Time/Life History of Italy, and I read it from cover to cover so that I could be ready for all those wonderful sights I would see in Rome.
I had never traveled by plane before, so flying out of Boston to Rome was part of the fun of that trip. It was a long flight, and morning was just breaking when the pilot announced that, if we looked out of the windows, we could see Italy. By that morning’s light, the sea was a beautiful copper color, and the famous boot-shaped country looked black against all that coppery sea.
The teachers who traveled with us, including my Latin teacher, coached us one more time on all the Italian phrases we had been taught:
“Buongiorno” (good morning)
“Buona sera” (good evening)
“Buona notte” (good night)
“Come stai” (how are you)
“Bene, grazie” (I’m fine, thank you)
“Grazie” (thank you)
“Prego” (you’re welcome)
“Mi sono perso/persa” (I’m lost)
“Quanto costa questo?” (How much is this?)
“Mi scusi or permesso” (Excuse me)
I also remember that we girls were taught a phrase that meant “please leave me alone” as well. Our teachers gave us strict instructions to stay together and not to wander off on our own–ever.
We were driven to our hotel, which to us seemed exotic and wonderful. My roommate and I had a room with a balcony, and at any time of the day or night, we could poke our heads out over the side and young men on Vespas would shout up “Bella! Bella Americana!” Of course, we were tickled by that.
The light in Italy was somehow different than what I was used to in New Hampshire; the sun somehow seemed brighter, and everything seemed to have a buttery glow. It was April, and the breeze was warm and the flowers were in bloom. Outside the entrance to our hotel were gorgeous sweet-smelling peach-pink roses. During our first breakfast, we were given what I found out were blood oranges–deep rose-red in color, and wonderfully sweet.
The children in the street spoke several languages–amazing to my American ear. They chattered variously in Italian, Greek, French, English and even understood and spoke some Latin. On nearly every corner, little boys were playing vigorous games of soccer, and little girls, dressed in their school uniforms, walked in step with a cadre of nuns. Being used to nothing but the English language, we were charmed by all the kids who spoke so many languages so easily.
The main memories I have of this amazing trip were these:
- How small the cars seemed (mostly Fiats) and how often they blew their horns.
- How grown-up I felt sitting outside a cafe, enjoying a coffee.
- The steep and winding hills we traveled on, driven by a slightly insane bus driver named Mario.
- Walking in the hushed ruins of Pompeii, tears in my eyes as I saw the plaster casts of the people who had been caught in the lava, which had engulfed them in seconds.
- Going through the Sistine Chapel and recognizing so many of the paintings on the walls and ceilings.
- Seeing the actual Pieta statue in the Vatican and the Pope!
- Driving through the countryside and seeing families picking olives from the olive trees.
- Seeing the famous Colosseum with my Latin teacher. As our tour guide urged us back to the bus, my teacher said, “I have waited my entire life to see the status of Caesar addressing the soldiers. It’s on the other side of the Colosseum. Let’s run back there now before we get on the bus–who’s with me?” We joined hands and ran together, found the statue, took our pictures, then ran back to the bus. Of course, our tour guide was furious with us, but it was worth it.
We noticed that men often walked arm-in-arm together while talking. Of course the boys had a field day with this; they sniggered about it until one of our chaperons hissed at them to stop being ‘so damned provincial.’ She explained that this was the custom of men in Italy–to walk arm-in-arm as they chatted. She reminded us all that we were in a different country with different customs and that we should remember the old phrase, “when in Rome….!”
One of our best side trips was to a famous jewelry shop that not only specialized in cameos, but was also a school for the old carving masters to teach young boys how to make the cameos that were famous in the area. We looked through the back window to see several old men sitting at work tables, painstakingly carving exquisite cameos. At each man’s elbow was a serious-looking young boy, dressed in a black suit with short pants, polished shoes, and black berets. These were the young apprentices who were studying to become cameo carvers themselves. I bought a lovely cameo, carved with a view of the countryside for my mother.
Another side trip was to Florence, called the Red City. Everything was red; the buildings, the stone bridges, the streets. Even the very air seemed red. Florence is famous for their beautiful leather goods, and I bought my father a leather wallet embossed with his initials. I bought myself a small oval red leather box, which I still have to this day. While we were there we visited the famous Florence Cathedral, which was breathtaking. I remember standing under the duomo and looking up to see that amazing golden light streaming through the opening.
We also visited Sorrento, as pretty as a jewel, looking out over the Bay of Naples. We also saw Naples, nicknamed “the city of hanging wash.” Strung from building to building were spider webs of clotheslines, full of colorful flapping clothes.
I threw a coin into the Fountain of Trevi, I stood below the statue of David, I visited St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatacombs, and I put my hand into the Bocca della Verita (the mouth of truth). It is an enormous marble mask that is famous worldwide and was said to bite the hand of those who lied. Best of all, I immersed myself in that beautiful space and time and enjoyed every second that I breathed in Italy.
It seemed that all my senses were lit up at once; the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel of the ancient stones against my feet, the taste of gelato, eaten for the first time. I never forgot my experience in Rome, and how I felt about walking those ancient streets and hearing the music of the Italian language all around me.
I still feel a pull to Rome in my heart, and still feel that someday I might return–the promise of the coin I tossed into the Fountain of Trevi. The saying goes that, if you turn your back on the fountain and toss a coin into the water, you will someday return to Rome.
Ti amo, Rome.