Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Roman Rain

It’s raining. It’s been raining for a while now. Nothing like Seattle rain. This is a pitter-patter, a sprinkling, just after mist and just before drizzle. I like that Seattleites have so many words for rain. I’ve been told that the Eskimos (or should I be politically correct and say Inuit) have dozens of words for snow.

It’s raining. I decide it’s time I saw the Pantheon in the rain. I take a left out of the Campo and a right onto Vittorio Emanuele. I know this route well by now. A man under a massive umbrella comes toward me on the steps of Sant’Andrea della Valle. He has more umbrellas hanging by their handles off his left arm. He says Ciao or Good Morning. By now they have begun to sound the same. I walk past him without a word. I don’t feel guilt. I don’t want an umbrella so this is the way it must be.

It’s raining. Coming down a little harder now. Maybe this counts as a drizzle. Across the street I see a flock of brightly colored umbrellas. Reds and yellows and greens. Tourists. In my head I think, I don’t need an umbrella. I’m from Seattle. I’m made from tougher stuff than this.

It’s raining. I cross the street at Largo Argentina. I’m looking for the forno that I always pass on the way back from the Pantheon. The one I always pause at, and move on thinking, Another time. Now, in this last week, it is the time. I pass a bar and a panini place, and think I missed it. Impossible. Now I see it. There is an Italian woman in front of me, pointing to one of the flour, sugar, and magic creations in the window. I stare. Prego. It catches me off guard. Una questo. Questo? Si. I can order now. I watch as she struggles to pick it up in the tongs. I’m not quite sure what I pointed to. It is some sort of streusel-y pastry, with glaze and a dusting of sugar. I cringe as I realize this creation of magic will cost me 4 euro. Perhaps that is why, up until now, I have only looked.

It’s raining. Much harder now, as I peek outside the door of the warm, dry bakery. Two English women stop almost in front of me. It’s limoncello, yea? But you have to get the ones in the little shaped bottles, y’know. We’ll come back, right? They have umbrellas, and I am now beginning to regret not having mine. But I have come this far and I am not going back without seeing the Pantheon.

It’s raining. It is actually raining now. Rain that in Seattle would merit an umbrella without stares saying Outsider. My Birkenstocks are getting wet, which I know is against the rules. I can’t avoid the currents between the cobblestones; I just barely miss the polluted lake filled with cigarette butts and bottle caps.

It’s raining. It’s pouring now. My glasses are completely spattered and I can barely keep my eyes open, the drops are falling so fiercely. I hate wearing glasses in the rain. I can see the huge brown building looming before me. Almost there. It is treacherous coming down the slope. No tripping allowed here.

It’s raining. The spatter of the drops onto the marble is surprisingly loud. I come around the edge, near the columns, walking directly under one of the largest waterfalls cascading off the roof. My clothes are plastered to my skin, my hair dripping, and I have a terrifying thought. Is my skirt see-through? Can I walk into a church like this? I try to push the thought aside as the throngs camping out here to avoid the rain give me a collective looking up and down. Ignoring this, I weave around the squatters, and enter the building.

It’s raining. As I look up to the oculus, I see the drops falling through. From so high up, it looks like mist, but as it falls to the colored marble on the floor, it makes a soft tip-toeing sound. I install myself in a corner by a column, just in case my skirt is indeed see-through, and lean my head back. This is a position I have found myself in often, lately, staring up into ceilings. Most are frescoed. Now, however, my eyes are concentrating on a circle that seems to rise above the dome it is contained in.

It’s raining. Through the oculus, the drops seem smaller than those outside, but I think they are slowing as well. I hear the rumble of thunder, rather like the garbage trucks that barge through the Campo at prescribed hours each afternoon. I see flashes of light, for a moment thinking they are lightning, then realizing they are the flashes of cameras echoing off the walls.

It’s not raining. As I step outside, the storm has stopped. Rain in Rome is temperamental and short. The only indications that it did rain are the rivulets flowing through cobblestones and me, standing in front of the Pantheon, clothes hugging my body, and a ponytail ready to be rung out.

Monday, September 17, 2007


I have a list, in my red moleskin journal. An important list, one that guides a part of my life in Rome. A list that perhaps I should be ashamed to admit I keep but am not.

A list of gelato flavors.

Gelato was one of the things everyone kept talking about before I came to Rome. Which flavors were the favorites. The decision to go with cream or without. I even got directions, a map on a scrap of paper from Kylie, a former co-worker, to the best gelato place ever. No street names. Just keep the Trevi on your left until you get to the t-shirt place and turn left. You’ll find it. [I still can’t believe I say things like “turn left after the Trevi” or “if you go past the Colosseum, you’ll see it.”]

For gelato, flavor selection is key. My general rule is to keep creamy flavors and fruity flavors separate. My number one rule, however, is No repeating flavors. The one time I broke this rule was in Florence. As part of our daily Quest, we were required to rate to gelato places: Perche No? and a second one of our choice. I felt that in order to adequately compare the two gelateria I needed to try the same flavor at both. I caved and ordered pistachio, one of my early favorites, at each one. Since then, however, I have not allowed myself to be a flavor repeater.

I have been thinking. I try new gelato flavors nearly every day. Which flavor is my flavor? Which flavor is most me?

I’m not blackberry. Brianna had her personal perfume made in Florence. She used blackberry. Blackberry is her gelato flavor. Blackberry is a sweet flavor, but not overly so, and has a bit of kick to it.

I’m not panna cotta. Panna cotta is Gabrielle. She is sweet and genuine and loyal.

I’m not ginger and cinnamon. The cinnamon is homey and warm, the ginger adds an unexpected spice. I’ve only seen it at one gelateria. Michelle is ginger and cinnamon.

I’m not pistachio. It might be my favorite flavor. It’s the only one I’ve had more than once. I’ve had it three times, to be exact. It is one of those classic gelato flavors. It is one that I tried because I thought I should, not knowing if I would like it, but which shot to the top of my list after the first spoonful. I think pistachio is Junko. It’s subtle, and slightly out of the ordinary. When I asked her about it, she said she was mango. I see that too.

I ask the apartment what gelato flavor I am. It’s funny, but the only two in agreement are Gabrielle and Brianna, who both say pistachio. Junko comes up with an answer the quickest, saying chocolate mint. Megan protests that there are too many flavors before narrowing it first to fruity, then berry. June proclaims me grape chocolate, her reasoning being that I am wearing purple shorts and a brown top. I ask Michelle last. She says rice and cinnamon. We recently discovered this flavor at Alberto Pica, around the corner from the Campo.

These are the flavors other people see in me. Are they different from the ones I see in myself? I suppose I see bits of them all, with the possible exception of grape chocolate. I had actually almost settled on frutti di bosco as my flavor. Rice and cinnamon seems appropriate not only because of the superficial reason that I miss rice, but it’s kind of an unusual combination of flavors. I never would have thought of myself as chocolate mint, but the recurring theme I see is the mixing of flavors.

On my last day in Rome, I plan to unashamedly order a grande gelato. The people in the store and those watching me on the street as I attack a gelato half the size of my head may think what they like. I will select all of my favorite flavors from these five weeks. Maybe then I will know what combination of gelato flavors I am, which complex recipe best describes me. I know that I can’t be summed up in one word, one flavor, one anything.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


It's not a cloister. Far from it. It's not exactly peaceful, either. The sirens are blazing me with their trademark blasts. Cars, buses, and motorcycles rumble their way by. I hear the radio static of the guy who looks like some sort of traffic controller across the road. A guy rows under the bridge in a sleek blue boat, making good time. He's already at the next bridge. I see runners and walkers. Sunday morning must be the time for exercise. I admire the two old women jogging by. They have the whole outfit, down to the last thread of spandex in those red shorts. I can spot the tourists too, made conspicuous by the hat-camera combination or the maps they clutch in their hands. I can see all down the riverbank from where I sit. The skyline slightly jagged from the rooftops of differing heights. So many windows, peeking out onto the scene before them.

Friday, September 14, 2007

San Francesco a Ripa Grande

I entered through the small doorway on the legs, the one connecting it to the neighbor chapel. I didn't have to bend my head. I first saw a blur of white. What caught my mind as I got closer were the folds of her dress. So stiff, yet somehow alive. I lean my head against a column, my hands pushing the postcard up against another. I'm in my safe spot - at the base of the columns. Her hand clutching at her chest seems real. I don't know what emotion she has just felt, but it's a strong one. The lighting highlights her face, makes the shadows of the folds even more pronounced. Whispers next to me. I think the woman is explaining the story of the statue. Another holds a guidebook. It's in Italian. She lies on something like the chaise of Pauline Bonaparte, but that's where the similarities end. Eyes closed. She thinks only proper thoughts.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Weaving through line, through the metal detectors, through a clothing check that made me feel as though I were back in middle school. Back when teachers would ask you to put your arms down to your sides and if your skirt was shorter than your fingertips you had to “borrow” a size extra large t-shirt. This time I don’t resent it, but am terrified by the tiny possibility that I will be the one pulled out of line. I enter to find myself in a slowly moving mass, a mass traveling through a space that I can’t adequately take in. Herded through the crowd, trying to spot Schuyler’s green shirt or Joel’s mop of hair ahead of me. Head swiveling left and right.


I started moving around the baldacchino, not sure how to go about seeing the rest of the church. Arms brush past me. Cameras click and flash everywhere. I say this about all the tourist sites, but somehow it seems more pronounced here.

I walk down a hall. I think it’s marked tesoro—treasury. People stop. They’re taking pictures of a list of all the popes. It’s long. Not sure if I’m surprised by that, or if I am, why I should be.

I station myself in a corner at the base of two columns, as I am wont to do. It feels like I’m hiding, but am peeking out onto the scene before me. I spot the Rafael that we saw last night. Christ Rising. Not sure if that is the right title or not, but that’s how I will remember it. I try to take a picture, but that’s the last one. I can’t take pictures in here.

My feet take me over to the other side of the nave. I’m in line to go into the chapel. “This is the room for prayer only.” I read the sign and am reminded again when I reach the door. It’s as if they’re trying to tell me something. I don’t pray. I am told No photo, however, and allowed to enter. I sit down at the back. The smell of incense is overpowering, and then there is a click. Someone has taken a photograph. I feel violated.

I look around. People sit, others kneel. I don’t recognize the painting above the altar. I see the Barberini coat of arms above the two doors. I’ve become strangely possessive over that. I close my eyes. I won’t fall asleep. I open them as a woman in a hat crosses in front of me to sit down. I’m not sure how much time passes, but I know it’s time for me to leave. I walk out, through the curtain that feels rich to my fingers.

I start walking upstream to the front of the church to see the Pieta. I know I’m walking the wrong way. A huge crowd of people in too many colors stands before it. It looks small behind the glass partition. I weave my way through two tour groups, the umbrella passes by on my left. People turn to let others in. I watch the screens on the digital cameras in front of me. I see the Pieta through others’ eyes. Some zoom, others do not. Vertical or horizontal?

The girl in front of me snaps and turns and there it is. I move forward and am standing front and center. Literally. Before the marble. I am immediately hemmed in by a Japanese couple. Irony of ironies. They discuss how little they see of Christ’s face. I wish I could touch the marble. It’s too far away.

I don’t take pictures here. I might be the only one. Did I really see the genius of Michelangelo?

I think about saying すみませんas I turn to leave but instead I am silent.

I keep moving back, fighting the wave of people in matching red t-shirts and see the lanyards of a different tour group. Too many flags to tell which is which. I can’t see anymore. My head tells me that I should go down to the crypt, or up to the dome. I can’t see anymore.

I am overwhelmed, and unsure of how much of this I’ll remember anyway. Of all the surreal visits to sights that I have heard so much about, this is the most so. I’m not actually walking through it. I float in and out of consciousness as my feet carry me through.


The sun is blinding, as I reach the doors. I slowly wake up to the sight of the piazza. I hear my name and see Michelle and Gabrielle coming up behind me. I’m no longer alone. I’m back to where I’m supposed to be.

I’m a little disappointed. That was the most lost and alone I had felt since coming to Rome. I liked it.

Campo Proficiency

Today I ordered a panino. All in Italian. It wasn’t much. I looked at the descriptions on the menu, and it told me the price right there (even though I understood her when she said cinque euro). But posso avere…porta via…si…grazie…and I stood outside, looking out onto the Campo at midday, a hot sandwich in one hand and satisfaction filling my entire being. This seemingly minor victory is the culmination of nearly daily dealings with the vendors, waiters, bakers, baristas, and salespeople of the market and its surroundings.

The first week, the Campo was only half-filled. Vendors were on holiday, late August in Italy. There were a few fruit vendors then. I picked up a banana and handed it to the gray-haired guy who seemed in charge. He said something unintelligible, then held up ten fingers. I took this to mean the banana was ten cents, dug a ten cent piece out of my wallet, and handed it to him. My first purchase in what would become my supermarket for the next five weeks.

When we returned from Florence, the Campo was in full bloom. Vendors everywhere, selling all manners of items from touristy bags and t-shirts to fresh fruit, jams, and assorted spices in unimaginable quantities. I chose a new fruit stand. I picked out peaches and handed them to the old lady behind the stand. She looked as though she had been doing this for a while. Her face was wrinkled and worn from years out in the sun; she reminded me of one of the crones in an old wives tale, as if she might pull out some magical remedies or mutter spells under her breath. The old lady talked to me only in Italian. By then I had learned numbers in Italian class and understood when she said “un euro settanta.”

On Monday, as we waited by Palazzo Farnese for our tour of the French Embassy, I watched as Susie ate a prosciutto and fig sandwich from the Forno on the west side of the Campo. Prosciutto and fig was a combination I had never thought of before. The sweet and savory, rather like our prosciutto and melon for the potluck. So on Tuesday, I made my first trip to the little forno, the one I now call the sandwich forno, to try one. I looked at the sandwiches lined up in neat rows behind the pristine glass case, the pizza bianca uniformly sliced and hugging equally neat rows of prosciutto, cheese, or veggies. I ordered in Italian, but was disappointed when he asked, “Take away?” Undeterred, I responded “Porta via.”

I went back to the forno on Wednesday. And on Thursday. It was the same guy working there both times. By my third trip, he was speaking to me only in Italian, and even if I didn’t understand him, I just pretended I did, and repeated the lines I knew were right. Questo…si…basta…grazie.

I found it frustrating, in the beginning. I couldn’t speak Italian, and yet I resented it when they spoke in English to me. In Japan, it was never like this. I was competent, confident in my ability to navigate in a foreign language. In Rome, I was thrown into something new. Yes, the words look like they could be English, but such looks can be deceptive. Though where I am is a far cry from fluency or even competency in Italian, I have learned to operate in my own small world, the microcosm of the Campo de’ Fiori.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Capella Sistina

It's smaller than I expected it to be, and the different pieces of the ceiling fresco are larger. All the pictures you see in textbooks make it look so small but I can clearly pick out The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, as I dig back into my memory to Spring Quarter freshman year, Art History 203. I thought I was going to be an Art History major then. People around me sit, stand, stare, craning their necks upward, trying to memorize the lines on the ceiling. "No photos" the guard said. Does he get tired of seeing the Sistine? Or any of the other rooms here, for that matter? How does one become a guard at the Vatican? I spot Michelangelo in The Last Judgment. What would he have thought of us?