Exploring the Eternal City

I have now been in Rome for almost three weeks, and the novelty of it all has not worn off in the slightest. And I hope it never does. My feet are finally on the ground in the city that I had selected to study abroad in over a year ago and I have already seen so many of the famous sites. The reality that this is my home for the next four months and not just a pit stop on a world wind tour of Europe is nothing short of incredible and my mind is still trying to wrap itself around this unbelievable opportunity.
Every day I discover something new about this city, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise as there are nearly three millennia worth of things to stumble across. My daily tram ride through my neighborhood to school always yields interesting characters, some who beg for money to pay their tram fare while others stare carelessly out the window watching the frantic Italian drivers zoom by them. Businessmen board the tram with their briefcases just as they would enter the T in Boston. Elderly women cart around potted plants and wear facial expressions of the “old country.” Men play the accordion with the hopes of getting a few coins tossed into the caps, with few people obliging. And young people glue their eyes to their cell phones just as they would in any other country.
Riding in the tram down Via Trastevere, the main street through my neighborhood reveals multiple billboards all encouraging citizens to vote for particular candidates in next month’s national elections. As I get off the tram at Belli each day, I look both ways (even though it is a one way street) to cross the road and make direct eye contact with the drivers to ensure that they will indeed stop to let me cross. A red light means nothing to an Italian driver, but maybe a death stare does. Walking into John Cabot University requires flashing one’s student ID at the police officer at the door, and even though this is a safe city it is reassuring to know that the school is guarded around the clock.
The campus of John Cabot University consists of two buildings; the Tiber Campus and the Guarini Campus. The Tiber Campus is located across the street from the River Tiber while the Guarini Campus is less than a 10 minute walk up the street on Via Lungara, and is only a 10 minute walk from Vatican City. I have classes on both campuses, but the Guarini campus is more scenic. The courtyard and rooftop patios are said to offer breath-taking views when the warm rays of the sun are shining during the spring and summer months. Each campus has roughly 10 classrooms plus a few computer labs that are open for all students to use. The student body population is about 700 and you could probably count the degree programs offered on both hands. Going to a school like John Cabot after having attended a monstrosity like UMass for five semesters was a bit of an adjustment at first. I’ve asked the degree-seeking students in my class (the students who will graduate from John Cabot) whether or not they feel like they have a community at the school because of the large turnover of new students every semester. Most of them told me that they get to know the other degree-seekers fairly quickly and that they stick with them while forging new friendships with students from far off universities in the states and elsewhere. While I’ve met people from all over at UMass, at John Cabot I’ve truly met people from all over the world. I’ve even met more UMass people in Rome than I normally would at UMass. Regardless, I can now confidently say that I could never attend a university as small as John Cabot as a degree-seeker. I’ve developed too much of a soft spot for the New England beauty of the UMass campus and all that the Pioneer Valley has to offer and the overwhelming UMass pride.
I’ve seen a lot of Rome already and if these first three weeks are any indication of what the future holds, these will without a doubt be the best four months of my life. The depth of friendships I’ve already made has been so surprising to me. I never expected to meet so many like-minded people who share a lot of my ideals and thoughts on travel so soon. I’ve already been able to share some meaningful experiences with these new friends in Rome. The second weekend that we were here, my study abroad program API (Academic Programs International) took us to Domus Romane, an Ancient Roman house. But this was not your typical house that you might find in Rome today; this house is underground. It was buried under layers of history in the city center until a group of archeologists recently excavated it. This is by far the most interesting and engaging museum I’ve ever been to (and I thought the Nantucket Whaling Museum was cool…).
You are literally thrust smack dab into the middle of history. You begin your journey back in time by climbing down a set of stairs into the main room of the house, but you are actually walking down on glass stairs that rest above the actual stairs of the ancient house. And the entire museum is like this. You stand on glass and look down at the ruins of this house that was home to some of the wealthiest people of Ancient Rome. You travel through different rooms of the house, each room being illuminated and different parts of the room being lit up as they are explained. You can smell must and almost hear the water running into the ancient baths and feel the steam from the sauna-like baths cover your face, just as it did thousands of years ago to those who came to this house to enjoy a relaxing bath and socialize. In Ancient Rome, people socialized by going to these bath houses and spending hours at a time sitting and talking and not thinking anything of one another being completely naked having intense political quarrels as these were also popular places to meet suitors and potentially take things a step further. The glory of this house, however, was destroyed in a fire and subsequently an earthquake. Now, all that remains are ruins and clues to just how magnificent this and other structures like it were in Rome. As I looked down below me to the ruins, I imagined the Romans inhabiting the same exact space that I was inhabiting. I wondered if they ever even envisioned that one day this prominent house that was the focal point for conversation and often official business would become submerged below the Earth only to be seen again by a people who only possess a miniscule amount of clues as to what life was like for the Ancient Romans. Will the same thing happen to us someday? I know there’s not much to see in my house or my apartment in Rome, but perhaps the ancients thought that about their homes as well.
Besides this star attraction that has been the highlight of my abroad experience so far, I’ve also hit the more recognizable tourist spots. I’ve tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain, again. I’ve pondered the architecture of the Pantheon and seen the tomb of Raphael, again. And I’ve observed the charm of Piazza Novana, again. I cannot even express how fortunate I am to have seen these breath-taking places again when most people never get to see them at all, it is a gift I never take for granted. I’ve also visited the Colosseum for the first time, and much to my surprise it is a lot bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. It could hold 50 to 70 thousand people in its glory days, comparable to modern day NFL football stadiums. I won’t bore you with facts about the structure, but some tidbits that caught my attention are 1) It took over 10 years to build and opened in A.D. 80, one year after Mt. Vesuvius erupted which destroyed Pompeii, 2) over 9000 wild animals died fighting each other at the inaugural games in A.D. 80, and 3) the battles that happened within the Colosseum are nothing short of perplexing, these included Gladiator battles to naval battles to “wild beast” battles and many people and creatures lost their lives there.
I’ve also visited the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square for the first time and was impressed by the massive size of St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world which is dedicated to St. Peter and where he is also believed to be buried. I haven’t actually gone inside the basilica yet or the Vatican Museums or Sistine Chapel because I have a guided tour with API in a few weeks. Despite my current lack of religiosity and my constant struggles with the Catholic faith along with my passionate dislike for the current pope, Benedict XVI, I cannot deny myself the exhilaration of wanting to see the masterpiece of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo painstakingly slaved over for years, or not see the tomb of St. Peter. Not visiting the Vatican while in Rome is like not doing the Freedom Trail while in Boston and so I will put aside my disagreement with the Catholic Church for now and allow myself to enjoy the unbelievable artistry and architecture that covers Vatican City from wall to wall. Who knows, maybe I’ll even muster up the tolerance to attend a general audience of the Pope before my time in Rome is up.
What adventures are next? This week I hope to be able to visit the Castle St. Angelo which is a military museum in an ancient castle on the Tiber across from the Vatican because this too is an icon of Rome. I just booked a trip to Venice for this coming weekend which will be the climax of the Venetian Carnevale which is held every year a month before Lent and culminates the day before Ash Wednesday. This is one of the most popular carnevales in Europe and dates back over 1000 years. I just read that I will be there for the mask contest which is said to be the highlight of the carnevale when all of the elegant masks are judged and prizes are awarded. This will be my first visit to northern Italy; Rome is the furthest north I’ve been in Italy so far. The second weekend in February I am going to Florence with API and will get the first taste of life under the Tuscan sun. I already know where I will be going on my spring break, but I am keeping it a secret for my blog buddies until I officially book the flight but I am VERY VERY excited about it. Other weekend trips that I am planning are: Prague, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Brussels, the French Riviera and other cities within Italy.
I will try to do another post before Venice because I still have so much to tell about Rome but next week I will have a post dedicated entirely to my trip to Venice. Also, check out the pictures I have up on Flickr, you can link to my account from the blog. Until next time, ciao!

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