Making Rome Home

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” –Gustave Flaubert

Last week I had the privilege of venturing out into the city 5 days out of the 7, and with each day, my knowledge and appreciation for Rome grew. This post is a long one, but I experienced so much more of Rome than I thought I could in such a short time.

Tuesday. I began volunteering for my Human Rights service-learning course at Casa Scalabrini 634. Casa Scalabrini, located on the outskirts of the city, is a community center and home for refugees, Italian migrants, and asylum-seekers. They come from all over the world, but most are from Middle Eastern and North African countries. They truly have everything here: a gym, library, multimedia room, chapel, classrooms, mini apartments called casette, and a few community spaces. Residents work during the day and are free to use the facilities as they please, often cooking dinner together and attending courses in anything from sewing to English to career development. I desperately wish it was closer to our campus in Balduina, though – it took two buses, a metro ride, and two hours to arrive. It didn’t help that a young gypsy child tried to steal my friend’s purse on the metro, either! Luckily, we have the option of doing some at-home work to gain service hours (like searching for job openings), so I won’t have to make the 7 hour excursion every week.

After a tour of the grounds and different facilities there, we sat in on the basic English class, which consisted of only 3 students: a 10-year old girl, a 30-year old man (I sadly can’t remember where they were from!), and a 35-year old woman from Senegal. The teacher introduced us as real Americans(!!) that could help them practice their English conversational skills. The man sitting next to me said he speaks 9 languages, and English is the hardest one he has tried to learn yet. This was made painfully clear as the teacher tried to explain the difficulties of understanding and pronouncing words like knight vs night and know vs now. They also got an extended lesson on how to pronounce beach, which was full of giggles on our parts as they repeatedly said “bitch.” We then had a few minutes to pair off and speak to them as an opportunity for them to practice the communicative skills they had been practicing – they were so embarrassed and nervous! I spoke with the woman from Senegal, and she asked me where I lived, about the weather in Chicago, and what I was studying. She spoke Italian fluently with just a bit of English, and I the opposite, so it was a humbling experience trying to communicate our ideas to each other. We even switched over to Italian a few times, since she was having a bit of trouble understanding me.

I left the Casa feeling revived, since I have missed service so much since leaving Chicago. I wish I could go back there every week, but I know the trip there and back is too much to deal with weekly. For now, I will put in some hours job hunting for the residents so I can return the following week.

Wednesday. My alarm went off at 5:30 Wednesday morning, the earliest I’ve had to wake up in months. Today was Catholic Schools Day, and the John Felice Rome Center got a day of classes cancelled to attend the Papal audience in Vatican city. The audience was inside  since the weather was cold (52 degrees?), so we were able to see without arriving at the crack of dawn. The audience was short, and the majority of it consisted of readings from Papa Francesco being translated from Italian into probably ten different languages. The Pope blessed the attendees, our belongings, and our friends and families, and we were off to explore St. Peter’s Square. Our walk towards Castel San’Angelo from the Vatican was peppered with people trying to sell us bus tours and selfie sticks, as is the usual with most touristy areas of the city. We stood outside the famous castle as a busker played romantic songs on the violin, and we peered over the ledge to see the Tiber River and its beautiful bridges. This was one of the memorable moments I have had since being here that felt truly magical, like a scene from a movie. We crossed the bridge to venture towards one of Rome’s most famous gelaterie before heading back to school for the afternoon. Gelateria del Teatro truly did not disappoint: zabaione (white wine with egg cream), raspberry sage, and cherry cheesecake were the few flavors I tried out of a multitude of unique combinations.

Friday. With class on Friday, traveling anywhere else would have been difficult, which created the perfect excuse to spend a weekend getting to know la città eterna a little better. Friday morning I had at on-site class for my Gender and Politics in Contemporary Italy class, and we met at Casa Internazionale delle Donne. Housed in an old palazzo (palace), there are 36 women’s organizations that span from anything go LGBT+ and Trans rights groups to psychiatrists and yoga courses. Inside, there is also an archive, a hostel, and a restaurant (which only serves women after lunch time!!). We had a short tour of the building, which was full of photography from women’s marches, protests, and other actions in the Casa’s history. Our professor bought us each a cappuccino, and we had our lecture in the garden of the building.

Feeling empowered, we finished class and a few of us headed into Trastevere for lunch – a sandwich place named Donkey Punch were meats and cheeses were cut to order, and everything on the menu was named after American rock bands. Our main destination for the afternoon: Largo di Torre Argentina, a section of ancient ruins surrounded by the city and crawling in cats. Yes, cats!!! Inside, there is a cat sanctuary where you can buy merchandise, play with the kitties, and adopt them, as well. They are free to roam the ruins as they please, and it was a blast to see tiny bursts of black and white pop out from behind an ancient Roman temple. Before heading back to campus, we stopped for gelato at the famous Giolitti, which I enjoyed (although it seems a bit overrated!).

That night, a group of ten friends (including myself) struggled to get margaritas at one of the few Mexican restaurants in Rome. While we knew we were probably too hopeful, I wasn’t quite expecting the disaster it turned out to be. Oh, well.

Saturday. After getting the chance to sleep in, a few friends and I decided to venture out in Rome for some monument hopping and dinner. We visited the Spanish Steps first, which we experienced from afar since the hordes of people lounging on the steps would have made it difficult to walk to the top. After posing for a silly picture on a stepping space inside the fountain, we headed for the Pantheon. Still free to the public (but not for long!), the Pantheon was everything I’d hoped it would be. I marveled at the coffers on the ceiling, which give the illusion of a dome much taller than it is, as well as the dozens of types of marble of all colors. After stopping at Raphael’s tomb and thanking him for his artistic talents, we headed to the Bartolucci store and ran into some amazing dogs (two Frenchies, a chow chow, and a basset hound!!!). At this point, we were ready for the highlight of the night: aperitivo.

Sadly, the first place we stopped at was closed due to “technical problems,” but this gave us the perfect opportunity to try a place I found online months ago: DopioZeroo. A long and bumpy bus ride to the Testaccio neighborhood proved to be well worth it once we walked inside. For 10 euro, we got to choose a cocktail and help ourselves to a buffet of pastas, pizzas, and grilled veggies. I got the Baccanale, which was a white wine cocktail with orange and lemon. Sure, we almost got stranded on our way home as we anxiously waited for two buses that never came, but I would be more than willing to make the trip again.

Sunday. A short excursion on Sunday afternoon to the neighborhood Monti was the perfect finish to a week of Roman everything. While our bus and metro rides there were crowded and sweaty, an accordion player playing an Enrique Iglesias song quickly lifted my spirits. We stopped in Urban Market Monti, a banquet hall style room filled with expensive purses, sunglasses, and handmade light bulbs. Cool to see, but extremely out of my price range. The rest of our time in Monti was spent hopping from vintage shop to vintage shop, and I felt like I was transported back to Chicago. I snagged a cornflower blue windbreaker for 35 euro at a store called King Size Vintage, where American flags and Italian rap music made for an ideal atmosphere. I can’t wait to return to the area and spend a day going through the racks of patterned sweaters and embroidered jean jackets. Our time was cut a little short because it started to rain, so we got a quick lunch before going back to school.

When I planned on spending the weekend in Rome, I had a relaxing break from the chaos of traveling in mind. In reality, there is just as much to see (if not more!) in Rome than most of the places I will visit. Sometimes when I sit in my convent-turned-dorm room, it doesn’t exactly feel like I am Italy. After this week, though, I am beginning to feel a deeper connection to Rome as a second home to me. I appreciate the time I got to spend getting to know the city better, and I can’t wait to venture out again, soon.

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