I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I set foot in Rome.
I had an easy trip coming from Budapest on the Wednesday afternoon before Easter, armed with some Duolingo lessons and the fact that Spanish and Italian share quite a few words (that’s all you need, right?). I took the instructions from my friend Rachel, who’s studying abroad in Rome this semester, and took a bus from the airport to the city center. I honestly just assumed that you paid the bus fare on the bus (as I’ve done with every other bus system I’ve ever encountered) but before I could ask how much it was the driver hastily ushered me onto the bus and pulled away from the curb. Since there was no coin receptor and it was so packed that there was hardly even room to breathe I simply said a mental thank you for the free bus ride.
My hostel, which happened to be a convent previously (how cool is that!?), was located in Trastevere, so the ten minute walk between the bus stop and my hostel consisted of sauntering along the length of the Tiber river, lined with ancient domes and buildings; not to mention that the temperature was perfect and probably the warmest I’d experienced in several months. I found the hostel easily amongst the little cobblestone streets and after taking a few minutes to get settled I headed right back out to pick up my tickets at the Vatican for the Holy Week masses.
I remember the moment I stepped into St. Peter’s Square (which is not at all a square) and immediately felt something tug at my heart. I was pretty excited about the fact that it was my third ever land border crossing, but it was something much more than that. I’m honestly still not entirely sure what it was, but my best guess is that it was caused by simply entering into a place that is so historically significant, so beautiful, and where some of the most incredible examples of human beings have lived, prayed, mourned, and celebrated.
After standing in awe for a solid several minutes, I started looking for the Puerta de Bronce, where the letter I had been sent told me to pick up the tickets. I wandered around clutching my little piece of paper and ended up asking the post office, the tourist shop, and finally the military guards wielding huge firearms where it was, because all I could find was the ridiculously long line to go through to security to walk through the Basilica. Finally, I ended up wandering in the right direction and when the security guard saw my letter he put me at the very front of the line to go through the metal detector. Then, instead of following the trickle of people up the steps of the Basilica, I went up some side steps to a couple of Swiss Guards and handed over the letter. While one searched for the tickets I chatted with the other, and it turned out that he was more comfortable with Spanish than English, so I was delighted to oblige. The one came back and asked if I was sure that I had tickets and that they were in my name (of which I was 700% sure) and asked for my passport. He didn’t end up finding anything with my name on it but thankfully he gave them to me anyway. Despite their serious demeanor, they were super friendly and nearly impossible to take seriously in their colorful get-ups.
I then took advantage of having already skipped the line for security and took a peek into the Basilica. As I was leaving the sun was just setting and it was absolutely breathtaking.
For dinner I met up with Rachel in Trastevere at this little restaurant and, while sharing some amazing fish and pasta, we huddled over the map and she circled all the most significant places to try to visit in the three short days ahead. If I had been excited before, I was about to leap out of my seat by the end of dinner. We crossed the river and walked around the center of the city quite a bit, stopping at some ruins (home to many many cats), the Pantheon, and Giolitti, where I discovered the wonder that is caramelized fig gelato. Rachel even showed me the Cornell in Rome program classrooms and workspaces, which just happen to share the building with the Russian embassy. It’s all very new and elegant and we chatted with a couple of the other Cornell students; definitely an odd but quite pleasant experience to talk to other Cornellians again.
At that point it was about 10 o’ clock at night so I was about to slowly wander back to my hostel and sleep because I had to be up early the next day, but I forgot it was a Wednesday until they were about to have a meeting for a group project. I had honestly forgotten that it’s entirely normal (and necessary) for Cornell students to work until pretty late at night, and I had a small pang of dread realizing that this would once again be my reality in a few short months. As I’ve may have mentioned before, I have very much a love-hate relationship with Cornell.
The next morning I was up before 7:00 to get to the Vatican by 8:00. The Holy Thursday Chrism mass didn’t start until 9:30 but seating in the Basilica is first-come first-serve so a ticket only guarantees entrance if there’s still room. Again, I felt like a VIP walking up to the Basilica because there was no line or anything; all I had to do was hold on to my bright green slip of paper and flash it to all the police officers, military personnel, security guards, ushers, and Swiss guards (there was a lot of security if you couldn’t tell). There was a door on the right and the left and I chose the right without even thinking and grabbed a seat in the closest row to the front that was still free. I ended up in the 5th or so row next to some seminarians but when I looked across the aisle I regretted not going in the other door because I saw a superfluity of nuns (yes that’s actually what a group of nuns is called, I just googled it), many of whom were Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa).
The seminarians next to me were speaking English but they seemed to be in deep conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt. They then began to say morning prayer (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) so I listened silently as they read the various psalms and readings. A few minutes after they finished, when I was zoned out and my mind was on an entirely different continent, the seminarian closest to me quite suddenly turned to me and said “so you speak English?” Trying to hide how startled I was, I said yes. His name was Will and he and his fellow seminarians were all actually from the U.S. but finishing their last few years of studying at the North American College in Rome. He was quite kind and we talked about everything from Charleston, NC to the requirements to become a Pontifical Swiss Guard.
The Chrism mass is held every Holy Thursday where both the washing of feet and blessing of all the chrism oil to be used over the next year takes place. It was B E A U T I F U L. Everything about it was beautiful. The Basilica itself, the choir, the mass parts all in Latin, the readings in different languages, and, despite only understanding the Italian words that are similar to Spanish, the homily as well. I had never even seen Pope Francis in person before (missed him by just a few minutes in Philadelphia) and suddenly he was only a few people-widths away, looking just as ordinary and grandfatherly as always.
Since Will and I had talked about confession and I told him I hadn’t gone at all during Lent because I was too chicken to do it in Spanish, after mass he tried to help me find a priest. This is much easier said than done in Rome during Holy Week because all seminarians are required to wear clerical collars in Rome, as mandated by one of the 20th century popes (I don’t remember which), so you couldn’t tell who was actually a priest and who was a seminarian. We were unsuccessful so we parted ways, and I was honestly kind of sad because I knew the chances of running into him again, especially with so many people in Rome that week, were slim.
I found one of the pasta places Rachel had recommended to me, Pastaciutto, where I got a bowl of homemade pasta for €5! I asked for it to-go and found a sunny bench right outside St. Peter’s Square. It was still pretty chilly in Santander at that point, so with a dose of sunshine and pasta I was in heaven.
I decided to make the most of the afternoon and explore the Vatican Museums. As I was walking there, a guy jumped in my way and tried to get me to buy a ticket to skip whatever line and the conversation went something like this:
Guy: Have you seen St. Peter’s Basilica yet?
G: But you’ve only seen the outside.
M: No, I was there this morning for mass.
G: Noooo, you must’ve just been outside.
M: No, I was at the Chrism mass in the Basilica this morning.
G: No no no, it’s closed to tourists today.
M: No. I had a ticket and went to the mass this morning. Which. Was. In. Side.
G: *still skeptical* oooookay
Because St. Peter’s Basilica is definitely nothing more than a tourist trap where you can glimpse a cute old man named Francisco wearing a pointy hat.
What I didn’t realize until I finally made it into the museum was that you couldn’t just walk freely around. I supposed theoretically you could, but, being Holy Week, it was packed, so there was only a slow trickling mob of people in every hallway. I figured, since the Museums were so vast, that I’d make my way to the Sistine Chapel first and just enjoy whatever art was on the way. Even so, it took me about two hours to get there.
There;s a quote from a great movie called “Goodwill Hunting” (thanks Priya 😉 ) and a great actor named Robin Williams:
“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michaelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”
So now I can tell you not only what it smells like, but also what it feels like to stand in a crowded room where everyone is just chatting away and the security guards are constantly yelling at everyone to stop talking and to stop taking photos. The visuals? Breathtaking. The atmosphere? Thoroughly lacking in awe.
That afternoon I simply walked. I went to the Pantheon, got gelato at Della Palma, and somehow ended up all the way at the Spanish steps, which was almost an hour’s walk from my hostel. It was pretty late by the time I got back and I had done so much walking that I physically needed to give my feet a break before even attempting to find dinner, something I don’t think I’d ever experienced before.
The morning of Good Friday I met up with Rachel at Villa Farnesia. We got an audioguide to share and she gave me an extra in-depth tour, as per usual, of all the beautiful artwork since she had gone on school trips there before. While making our way through Trastevere, stopping at countless churches along the way, we happened upon a bakery that Rachel is particularly fond of. We bought some little cookies, including two that were shaped like some sort of indistinct farm animal, and another pastry (at this point I’ve forgotten the name) that looks like a little pie but is even better. We followed the Tiber River nearly all the way to the Colosseum and the last stop, before Rachel had to head back to her schoolwork, was a huge double door with a little teeny peephole. She wouldn’t tell me what everyone was looking at and let me see it for myself after waiting in line for at least 20 minutes. I won’t ruin the surprise but it was definitely worth the wait 😉
By the time I arrived at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum I had to turn around to get to the Good Friday service (it’s the only day of the year there is [technically] no mass, so we just call it a service), and that’s when my bad luck with transportation kicked in. The Via Crucis was to be held later that night outside the Colosseum, so some roads were blocked off. I had been planning on taking the metro, but that particular station was closed and I didn’t know where the nearest bus stop was and I couldn’t get to the tourist info place because it was located on one of the blocked off parts of the street. Luckily, I had taken a photo of the bus map on the first day and found a route that would take me in the general vicinity of the Vatican. I simply walked in the right direction until I came to a bus stop and, since I didn’t have a bus card nor did I know how or where to get one, I hopped on and fortunately the bus was so crowded that I wouldn’t have been able to verify my ticket in the little machine even if I’d had one. And I figured of all the reasons in the world to hop on a bus without paying, getting to the Vatican on Good Friday was an incredibly valid one.
Thankfully I got there pretty on time, but not early enough to go to reconciliation (although I’m not sure if they would’ve had it anyway considering the special occasion). As I tried to find a seat I super quickly scanned the room to see if I could find the seminarians, but I didn’t see them so I just picked the first empty seat I found. Of course, the service was quite somber, but nonetheless beautiful.
Afterwards I had a relatively small window to get from the Vatican back to the Colosseum for the Via Crucis (stations of the cross), but I wanted to see Rachel again so I stopped at the Cornell space for a bit. It was lovely to sit down for a few minutes and someone brought an Italian Easter cake so it was a short but lovely visit.
On the way to the Colosseum I grabbed a slice of pizza (from a place that happened to be named “Florida”) and ate it as I walked. As I got closer, a steady flow of people formed and we ended up being pretty packed together yet surprisingly comfortable as we waited for Pope Francis. Somehow I missed the person handing out booklets (or maybe they ran out) so my brain ended up wading through a flood of Italian words, but I know the stations so I was actually able to follow along pretty well.
Here’s the crazy part. As I was walking back, again in a sea of people, I hear someone to my right say “hey, look who it is!” and out of the corner of my eye I see them point to their left, so I look to my left, expecting to see I don’t even know who, but I don’t recognize anyone. I simply figure that they’re talking about someone I don’t know and keep walking, but oddly enough something makes me turn to the people who were talking to see who they are and LO AND BEHOLD it’s the seminarians! They had been pointing to me! This time there were a couple more with them so we introduced ourselves and they asked where I was staying. It turns out that they live in a house somewhere near Trastevere and, especially since it was nearly midnight at that point, they offered to walk me home, which was incredibly kind of them. I found out that they had also gotten tickets to the Easter Vigil mass the following day, but we knew it would be even more crowded than other event, so when we got to my hostel we said our goodbyes knowing that we probably wouldn’t run into each other again.
Holy Saturday was my last full day in Rome so I got up even earlier than the previous days and set out towards the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. I kept on walking right past all the really crowded touristy places, and anyone who knows me well knows that under all the engineering/sciency stuff I’m also a history geek, but don’t think I was skipping out on all of Rome’s historical sites. Don’t get me wrong, the Colosseum is cool, but I had my sights set on somewhere infinitely more historically significant than a crumbling ampitheater. Not far from all the hustle and bustle is a tranquil plaza with a plain door guarded by two armed military officers with a set of steps inside. They’re made of marble but hidden underneath they are actually wooden. They’ve been named the “Scala Sancta,” or “Holy stairs” because they’re the steps Jesus ascended just before being presented to Pontius Pilate; before being sentenced to death on the first Good Friday.
Before you get all historically accurate, no, none of that actually happened in Rome, but rather in Jerusalem. In the 4th century the steps were removed (who knows why) and specifically brought to Rome. They’re covered with marble because the wood is extremely old and delicate, and quite possibly because they’re simply so sacred. Out of sheer reverence and solidarity with Christ’s suffering, they can only be ascended on one’s knees.
A couple friends of mine visited here a while back and told me that it was actually painful to go up the steps on their knees, and I distinctly remember thinking that I’ve kneeled on countless hard surfaces (marble, concrete, wood, you name it) and it’s not that bad. Kids, do not try this at home. They were absolutely right. I don’t know if it’s because of the marble or because I was practically crawling up the stairs or because I was essentially walking with Jesus en route to his crucifixion, but it HURT. I was nearly in tears halfway up, but I was trying so hard to hide it. There was a group of nuns there who appeared completely unfazed and spent much longer on each step than I did, so I was completely humbled watching them. I could’ve sworn that my knees were going to literally be blue and green with purple polka dots (yes, I’ve had bruises like that before), but when I got up and hobbled away they were very stiff and sore, but they looked 100% normal. You wouldn’t have even been able to tell that my knees felt like they were going to melt away.
Afterwards I went to visit the church that houses relics of what is believed to be the cross and a replica of the Shroud of Turin. I then met up with Rachel for lunch at Rosciolo, a really good pizza place. They had all their Easter cakes hanging upside down in the back of the shop (I’m not sure why but they have to hang like that to rise properly I believe). We took the pizza to-go since there wasn’t really seating inside and she brought me to a little park nearby and told me the story of how the giant hole in the fence came to be when an old couple crashed into it during the parks opening ceremony. The weather was absolutely perfect and I was also able to pass along to Rachel some extra Vatican Easter Mass tickets that the seminarians had given me because they somehow ended up with so many. I thanked her for being such a wonderful tour guide and we parted ways.
I headed back to the Vatican because I wanted to get some souvenirs for friends and family before it got really busy and crazy for the Easter Vigil, and I still hadn’t been to reconciliation. I went to every souvenir shop I passed by (and there were a lot) to see if they had blue miraculous medals, Saint Theresa of Calcutta medals (ones that specifically said saint on them), and a green scapular. This last one got me the highest tally of weird looks, but it definitely exists. Eventually I found all except the green scapular, and since I still had a bit of time before I figured I’d have to get in line for the Vigil, I decided to try to find a priest for confession. You’d think this would be incredibly easy being in St. Peter’s Square at Easter, but the problem is that all seminarians are required to wear the clerical collar while in Rome, a rule created by JPII. So every time I saw someone in a collar who wasn’t busy I’d ask them if they were a seminarian or a priest, but every answer was the same. Finally, as I stalked the ever growing line to get into the vigil, I spotted a slightly older man in a collar and figured the older he is the more likely he is to be a priest rather than a seminarian. Bingo!! He was actually a priest! And he happened to be from Uruguay but spoke English perfectly. He agreed to hear my confession and tried to see if we could go in a little church nearby but it was closed to the public those few days. So it ended up being a literal sidewalk confession. I think on the sidewalk in line for the Easter Vigil is about as last minute as you can get, but it was totally worth it.
I wanted to find a bathroom before committing to the line and I had to essentially walk along the line on the other side of the barrier to get there and at one point I see an unusually large cluster of clerical collars and I’m like WAIT A SECOND. It was them. For the third day in a row. Against all odds. And this time there were eight of them. All because I was trying to find a bathroom. The seminarians spotted me and insisted that I join them in line because navigating the mass of people alone would’ve been quite an ambitious endeavour. We were standing in line for probably about two hours and at that point it was getting late but I hadn’t thought to get dinner before staking out a spot in line. Seminarians came to the rescue once again when one of them made a sandwich run and brought back food for all, including me.
Once they actually opened the gates to the square everyone was packed together like sardines. Somehow some of the seminarians who were behind got ahead of us and one or two ended up forging ahead to save us seats once they got through security. We ended up breaking into smaller groups so no one got left behind and when we all got through we were concerned about finding each other, but again we all reunited somehow.
The mass began as all Easter Vigils do: in complete darkness with one candle giving light to others and those continuing to pass it on until the whole church is a sea of little glowing lights. That’s always my favorite part. If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil mass before, I would highly highly recommend going at least once in your life. It’s definitely a commitment because they’re normally about three hours long, but it’s once a year and incredibly beautiful.
During the mass we made our way through the old testament in Italian, French, English, and Spanish, and when it came time for Pope Francis to give the homily (in Italian and unfortunately the only part not in the booklet) I pulled out my journal and decided that writing down the words that I could understand might help. By the end I had an interesting mix of words but it still wasn’t enough to get the gist of what he was talking about. Afterwards I was talking to one of the seminarians about it and I said that most of the words I understood were “Jesus,” “death,” and “mercy.” He simply replied, “Well those are the most important parts, so what more do you need?”
By the time the vigil ended it was about midnight and the seminarians didn’t want me walking home by myself. However, the seemingly perpetually hungry Y chromosome was kicking in and they wanted to get something to eat. One of the few places still open was a little gelatería near the Vatican Museums so we ended up there and they told me that the Knights of Columbus wanted to buy me gelato. I was already pretty cold because of the wind but I certainly wasn’t going to turn down free gelato, not to mention that it was finally Easter and we were supposed to be celebrating! I had ordered gelato a few times before so I made an attempt at doing it in Italian, and I tripped up quite a bit but the servers had a great sense of humor and thoroughly enjoyed watching the seminarians come to the rescue.
On the walk home Will taught me a story (I don’t remember why) to remember all the greek letters, and although I think he made it way more interesting than this, I found a video that tells the same story! (the whole part about the little lambdas made me laugh to hard)
Before they dropped me off at my hostal they invited me to Easter brunch with them because they didn’t want me to spend Easter alone, but very sadly I had to decline because my flight to Lourdes was leaving at 1PM the following day.
If I hadn’t already bought the plane ticket I would’ve 1,000% stayed in Rome for the rest of my Easter break. I was heartbroken that I had to leave both the city I had just fallen in love with, of which there was still so much left unexplored, and the seminarians I had just befriended. I’m not gonna lie, I cried for a bit on the plane and made a very comprehensive list of what I wanted to do and see when (not “if,” but “when”) I return to Rome. Then, when I looked up and peered out the window, I saw this:
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience because I honestly will probably never again be in Rome during Easter, and it was, by far, outside of visiting family, my favorite trip during my year abroad. I still can’t believe that I was able to visit, out of all the seasons of the year, during Holy Week, that I was able to get a ticket for each mass happening while I was there, that I was able to get any tickets at all considering that you’re supposed ask six months in advance and I asked one and a half, that I happened to sit next to an American seminarian on the first day, and that I ran into them every subsequent time I was in St. Peter’s. I’m entirely convinced that this was all purely by the grace of God.
AND, if that all wasn’t enough, it was through Rachel mentioning her past summer internship at Cornell Plantations that made me check the student job site for summer openings because my Ithaca lease started in June anyway and I was already sad about missing one of my short few years at Cornell so I knew I’d love spending a summer in Ithaca. AND when I checked for non-engineering jobs (I was getting desperate), there just so happened to be a posting for a single summer internship with Cornell Facilities Engineering. AND it just happened to be Civil Engineering focused. AND subsequently I found out that two of my best friends and I all, without each other knowing, ended up applying to Cornell summer internship/research positions. AND all three of us ended up getting the position we applied for, even though we each only applied for a single one. AND a dear friend who was abroad the semester before I was and just graduated in May, whom I thought I was never going to see ever ever again, happened to end up working with a middle school summer program on campus in July and the beginning of August. Call it what you want, but I call it the grace. God is good everyone ❤