Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The blog is dead; long live the blog!

In case you haven't guessed, I've been back from Rome for two months now. Much as I like this blog, it has fulfilled its purpose as a journal of my Roman adventures, and it must come to an end. I won't be returning to Basia Me, however. For "it, too, has resigned its part / In the casual comedy." After three-and-a-half years, I feel like I've written everything I can write on Basia Me Catholica Sum. I've started a new blog, one I've been planning for several months now. Its main focus will be poetry, but I will also post the sort of material I've been posting on Basia Me, when I feel like it. The problem with my old blog was that it had almost no parameters when I started it back in high school, and over time the lack of focus wore me down. So I'm relieved to be starting For Keats' Sake! This is the blog I've always wanted to write. I just posted some photos of Keats's grave that I took shortly before leaving Rome, which makes a smooth transition, I think.

Thank you for reading Hesperia and Basia Me! I hope that the new blog will make all you poetry-lovers happy. And rebellious. And giddy at my righteous fiskings.

Hmm. We will see.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Chestnuts: An Exposé

If you walk around Rome in winter, you will see the chestnut sellers. They crouch by their tin griddles, poking at the delicately sliced chestnuts which are toasting thereon in glossy, concentric rings. On a wet evening in February when the smoke is twining upward, the urge to fork over your euros to them becomes overpowering. Chestnuts are one of those things that many people like without ever having tried them. Like a Californian poet writing warmly of nightingales (a bird which, for most Californians, is more fantastic than the phoenix), I once savored the chestnuts of my imagining. "Fresh firecoal chestnut... falls... roasting on an open fire... Yum." I held out until my second-to-last day in Rome, though. Sarah and I were coming down the Spanish Steps, and to our amazement the chestnut sellers were out in force. (It was the end of April and it already felt like July, for crying out loud.) Each stand sported a bristling crozier of chestnut leaves and spiky seedpods with a hypnotic green lamp hanging from the end, and the bitter smoke purled from each brazier like a genie.

"I just have to try some."

Sarah declined to follow me, but encouraged me all the same.

The chestnut-selling man took his bamboo tongs and dropped the chestnuts one by one into a cone of brown paper. After paying him and setting out for the Spagna metro stop, I started to evaluate the snack out loud, dictating my impressions to the long-suffering Sarah. This is how it all broke down:

Smell: Quite appealing. Woodsmoke, of course. Closer to a campfire in the wilderness than the sweet chimney smoke you smell at home. 7/10.

: The shell looks like stained hardwood and is a bit shiny. It is split along the top. Inside, you can see the nut which is cream-colored and wrinkly. When you split the kernel open it is a dull creamy color... and there is a part in the center that looks remarkably like canned tuna. Ew. The shell gets a 9/10, the inside gets a 3/10, and the whole thing gets a 5/10. Meh.

Taste: Chestnuts taste like big garbanzo beans. They are slightly sweeter and the texture is pretty much the same. These particular chestnuts were devoid of salt. But I don't think that even a big hit of sodium chloride could have helped them. 1/10.

Verdict: chickpea fanatics in paradise!!

If you've always wanted to try roast chestnuts, don't let this review hold you back. They aren't repulsive, they're just bland. But please don't pay €10 for them like I did.


Is this not an arresting image for the feast of the Ascension? Michael Liccione used it last year on his blog, Sacramentum Vitae. I like it because it looks so... Dantean, as if the sphere of the fixed stars has partly burned away and you can see Christ's shadow through the Empyrean.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Good Friday remembered

I went to Tenebrae at San Gregorio ai Muritori, the FSSP church in Rome. It's squirreled away down a narrow alley, without a facade to give it away, and it's a tiny little place - probably wider than it's deep. But as you can see from the picture, "tiny" doesn't mean "Spartan" in Rome.

It's strange that Tenebrae, office of darkness that it is, should be sung in the morning. Especially on a golden Roman mid-morning in April.

Ay, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns / The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds / To dying ears, when unto dying eyes / The casement slowly grows a glimmering square... (Tennyson courtesy of Sheila.)

Purple hangings covered up the paintings and crucifixes, the tabernacle on the side altar was draped in purple, and there was a purple sanctuary candle, which was disturbing. It made the light cold and sickly-looking. The black hearse with its 15 candles was ready.

The chanting began, and I followed along in a borrowed missal, my eye flicking between the English and Latin. The clear voice of a lone cantor floated down from the loft behind us, and the rougher voices of the clerics came from either side of the sanctuary. At the end of each psalm, a priest would rise and put out a candle. The candles became the only way to keep track of time as we sank deeper into the readings and their dark associations. Intellect could weigh them, but pity and terror were stronger - and so was remorse.

O you who pass by the way, see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.

This is the point where I should give you all some thoughtful insights into Christ's Passion. I'm afraid I have a ways to go before I can do that...

The psalms and lamentations ticked by slowly, and darkness crept up the sides of the hearse. (The chill ascends from feet to knees, / The fever sings in mental wires.) We were there for something like three hours, but to me the time seemed neither long nor short... it was like being in some dark place underground, quiet, all damp air and oak roots; no hurry, just darkness to think in. At last there was only the highest candle. And then the priest grasped and lifted it from its socket and bore it to the altar, and he stooped and covered the glow with his body. The lights went off and the chant continued somehow, in the dark. It had become the rite of burial. Without warning, the voices stopped, and something terrible happened: the priests took their breviaries and pounded them violently on the wood. It didn't sound like anything that belonged in the crisply sculpted and gilded little Roman church; it was savage and out of control and passionately sad. It was meant to contain the earthquake, the sun and moon aghast, the Veil torn from top to bottom. It did. Even now, bringing it to mind reluctantly, I feel a tremor run through me again. People were joining in around me, beating their hands furiously on the pews, and I raised my own hands, but I was so stunned that I could scarcely move. I threw a glance over to the tabernacle. The great swaths of purple were as dark as the inside of a bruise, and the lenten candle's cold flame pulsed out like a laboring star going under in eclipse. Contused light and shattered air. Even after the noise stopped, the outraged walls sent back its echo.

* * *

Several hours later, I found myself in the Piazza Farnese.

It had been difficult to come down from Tenebrae, difficult to walk back to my apartment dodging traffic and tourists. My one meal for the day had seemed frivolous. Moment by awkward moment, though, all that intensity faded and left me feeling merely sober and quiet. And then I went back outside and weaved and darted my way to the Piazza Farnese.

In my quest for the most impressive and compunction-inducing Good Friday possible, I had set out on a mission that seemed straightforward enough on paper, but was now becoming more quixotic by the minute. There was to be a 3:00 service at the English College, and various people told me that the College was in the Piazza Farnese. I expected to find it easily. Surely it would have a grandiose front entrance with a great big Union Jack over it, right?

Well, after several circumabulations of the piazza I was beginning to attract the notice of some Friendly Italian Men, and I decided that a fervent prayer to St. Anthony would be more productive than wandering about aimlessly with seven minutes left before the liturgy started. St. Anthony had me looked after, as always: immediately a flock of Asian nuns passed by, and I asked one of them where the English College was. She pointed me down a sidestreet. Still no sign of it. I paused for a moment to watch some monks at prayer in an open church - and then, on an impulse, I dived into a dark open doorway. And there on the inner door was a plaque that said "Ven. English College." Sweet.

Here I should say that there are few places in Rome that have as much power over me as the Venerable English College, alma mater of some of the bravest men who have ever lived. I can't remember when I first learned about the English martyrs, but I do know that it was from a child's book of saints that contained the story of Edmund Campion. I remember thinking that this Jesuit was so cool; he was a Secret Agent hiding in Secret Passages and pulling off all kinds of narrow escapes until the mean queen of England finally did him in (the book was mercifully lacking in detail on this point). But when I was 16 I encountered him again as if for the first time, and read his famous Brag. His audacity, his chivalry, his peerless prose - how can I express the effect they had on me? I plunged into the history of his time, and found many examples of holiness and sources of inspiration. Around the same time, I discovered Hopkins; and the ferment of his poetry and the history of England drastically changed my own poetry, from the scrawlings of a child into something my inner critic would largely approve of right now. So naturally I was looking forward to visiting this place where many of my heroes had walked, and where their relics were now venerated.

I pushed open the door, feeling slightly intimidated, and glanced at the man in the glassed-in office on the left - but an usher waved me into the chapel on the right, and I sailed up to the front of the church, which was already crowded, and sat on a bench by the wall. The interior had obviously been reordered by some comissar of 70's ideology, but this couldn't take away my appreciation of it. The chapel is sort of English-Byzantine, if you can imagine that: it has galleries all around the top and lots of gold, but there's something very English about the berry red and peacock blue used on the walls, as well as the quaint patterns on the floor. Oh, and I was sitting right next to a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Top that.

The liturgy began, and I was glad to hear those English voices. Somehow an English accent sounds homey even to an American, when she hears it on a Roman street through the brassy flourishes of Italian speech. We joined the schola in singing:

Jesus the Christ, obedient for us, humbled himself to death upon a cross. / Wherefore God raised him, giving him a name more glorious than any other name.

Then the Passion was sung, with the schola singing William Byrd for the crowd parts. There was Veneration of the Cross, during which the Reproaches were sung, and Holy Communion. It was all beautiful.

Afterwards I knelt in the chapel, wondering what to do next. My philosophy professor, who also likes cool English Catholic things, had urged me to request a tour and ask if the college had a bookstore (containing, perchance, rare volumes of recusant poetry not to be found on Amazon), as long I wasn't "weird and freaky about it." Okay. Piece of cake. All I had to do was avoid treading on anyone's fastidious English manners...

But now I was becoming more and more convinced of my inability to avoid looking freaky, seeing as I was descending into fangirlish euphoria because I was praying in the same church as St. Robert Southwell had. I was thinking of giving up, resigning myself to being shy, when a tall young seminarian walked in and asked everyone on the left side of the aisle to move over to the right. I obeyed, wondering what was going on. To my great satisfaction he launched into the whole history of the English College, from its very beginning to the present.

All around me were high school kids dressed in an unusually natty manner - it looked as though they were adhering to Christendom's strictest Sunday dress code, and I have to say, they were looking quite sharp. Their teachers and chaperons were asking questions about politics and the state of the Church in England, which the seminarian answered in a calm, balanced manner. He surprised me a few times: I learned that it is still illegal in England for Catholics to ring church bells ("Technically it's illegal, but we don't care."), and that the law forbidding priests to wear cassocks outside their churches was only repealed in 1981 for the visit of John Paul II ("or he would have been breaking English common law the second he stepped off the plane. Ian Paisley was waiting there to make a citizen's arrest, though." ::much laughter:: ) He showed us various monuments in the chapel, including the tomb of one Cardinal Bainbridge ("He met a sticky end. The rector poisoned him because he was after his job."), and a marker for Robert Persons, Campion's confrere, who is buried somewhere in the church. And he told us about the Martyr's Picture. This is the huge painting of the Trinity over the altar, and it has a lot of subtleties: Christ's blood is falling onto a globe and turning into fire when it lands on England, and an angel is holding a banner with the motto "I have come to cast fire upon the earth." So the students were supposed to set England on fire with their zeal. Whenever they heard that one of the college's alumni had been executed, they gathered in front of this picture and sang a Te Deum (the modern students sing it every year on December 1st). Another neat detail in the painting is the small landscape below Christ, which is actually the view out of the Flaminian Gate. The Flaminian Gate is the northmost gate of Rome, the gate that looks toward England, and the students came in through this gate and left by it. Every day the students went to Mass and that picture was before their eyes, reminding them of where they were from and where they were going and why. We were also told about the Liber Ruber, the "Red Book" where the students signed their names, vowing to go back to England after they finished their studies. Apparently the modern students have continued this tradition, and the seminarian told us that his name is in it several volumes down. I caught a flash of that joy and gallantry when he talked about going back and re-evangelizing England - it seems that the English College has done a good job of keeping the old missionary spirit alive and adapting it to the needs of the present day.

At some point it dawned on me that I had gate-crashed a private tour, but I wasn't about to leave. I put on my most insouciantly innocent air and followed everyone through the back garden, the private chapel, the Cardinals' hall, and the upper gallery of the main chapel. By the end I think I had a mild case of Stendhal Syndrome. Mega kudos to Trinity Academy (this, I learned, was the school to which the young scholars belonged) for giving their students such an opportunity! I envy them the excellent formation they are getting.

The only disappointment was finding out that the college had no books for me to buy. Ah well. I was running out of room in my suitcase anyway.

After I left the English College, I met up with some CC friends and walked to the Colosseum for Stations of the Cross with Benedict XVI. There was a crowd of epic proportions, but I did get pretty close to the Pope. And ironically enough, I hardly noticed the pedantic changes to the Stations that (rightly) annoyed so many in the blogosphere. I didn't have a booklet, and everything was in Italian; so I only vaguely comprehended what was being said.

When the crowds let out, the entire street all the way to the VE Monument was one surge of people. We CC'ers walked all the way back to the Vatican and the Via Candia, still holding our lit candles, saying the rosary; and I climbed the three somnambulant flights of stairs to my room and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. I needed all the rest I could get. Tomorrow we would have to brave the line for Easter Vigil...

Forum at twilight on Good Friday.

(The photo of Tenebrae at San Gregorio is from Fr. Z.'s
What Does the Prayer Really Say?)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

How did it come to this?

Noooo! I'm leaving for the airport in 15 minutes. This can't be happening. Surely there will be a freakishly localized ice storm over the airport and I'll have to stay here for another six weeks?

Well... ciao Roma! It was awesome; thanks for everything.

O Roma nobilis orbis et domina,
cunctarum urbium excellentissima,
roseo martyrum sanguine rubea,
albis et liliis virginum candida:
salutem dicimus tibi per omnia,
te benedicimus, salve, per saecula!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wordsworth Rap

Okay, so Sheila and I did make up a Gerard Manley Hopkins rap, but we never made it into a music video advertising the beauties of Snowdonia. But an English tourist bureau has made a video of a giant squirrel strolling around the Lake District and performing a rap version of "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud," in a surreal North Country accent. The last frame flashes a mysterious exhortation to "respect Wordsworth."

If such irreverence pains you - or if, like me, you are simply not a big Wordsworth fan - perhaps this Hopkins video will be more to your liking. (It was filmed by two Oxford students and it involves the music of Henry Purcell.)

Well, I guess I couldn't make it through three months in Rome without saying something about Hopkins.

Birthday Pictures

It's a bit late (exam time is upon me), but here are some pictures from the Mass in honor of the Holy Father's 80th birthday. The piazza was packed and everyone was glad just to be with Papa Benedetto. My friend Maria read the first reading. I had no idea that this was on the program, so when I saw her face on the giant screen, I was dumbfounded. Here she is on the steps (I'd know that red hair anywhere):

The reading was from Acts and it focused on the "shadow of Peter."

An excerpt from the Pope's homily:

In the first Reading of this Sunday, we are told that in the early days of the nascent Church, people brought their sick to the public squares, so that when Peter passed by, his shadow could fall on them. To that shadow, they attributed a healing power.

Indeed, the shadow came from the light of Christ and therefore, it carried in it something of the power of Divine goodness. Peter's shadow, through the Catholic church, has fallen across my life from the very beginning, and I learned that it is a good shadow - a healing shadow because, precisely, it ultimately comes from Christ Himself.

Peter was a man with all the weaknesses of a human being, but above all, he was a man full of passionate faith in Christ, full of love for Him. Through his faith and his love, Christ's healing power, his unifying force, has reached all men even through all the weaknesses of Peter. So let us look for Peter's shadow even today, in order that we may be in the light of Christ.

The banner in this picture says Holy Father We Catholics In China Love You!

If the young man had been facing me, I would not have put his picture on the internet. Better safe than sorry and all that.

I'd say the Holy Father drew a pretty decent crowd:

Like I said, everyone was happy just to get a glimpse of our Holy Father:

Buon cumpleano, Benedetto! May your shadow never grow less!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

St. Blog's Hajj

They don't call us Roman Catholics for nothing. Have you seen how many bloggers were in Rome for the Triduum or Easter Week? Here are the ones that have come to my attention:

Barbara of Church of the Masses
Fr. Zuhlsdorf of What Does the Prayer Really Say?
Zadok the Roman (Naturally.)
Gerard of The Cafeteria Is Closed
Andreth of Winds of Westernesse
JPSonnen of Orbis Catholicvs

A heartfelt 'Christos anesti' to you all!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Holy Thursday

In Rome, Holy Thursday is the night for church-hopping. Every church, it seems, from Trastevere to Termini, is open until midnight for watching and adoration. The Romans like to see as many as they can in one night, although the traditional number is seven. One of my friends thought this sounded hurried, maybe even a little irreverent. But I leapt to their defense. How could I not? When I was little, one of the best days of the year was Holy Thursday, when the churches in our little corner of Silicon Valley stood open and shining in the dark, and we played truant on a school night visiting them all. Some churches made paths of lumenarias to guide you to their little Gethsemanes. Within, there would be altars of repose covered in lilies; incense lingering; patient candles. Whenever I read Christ's words at the Last Supper in St. John, I sink into the same quiet, the same warmth, the same candlelight compassed by miles of shadow. And I wonder: do the customs of Holy Thursday embody the Gospel so well, or is it that my childhood memories have associated the two things forever? I can't say.

Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

So I was really, really looking forward to Holy Thursday this year. Night couldn't come fast enough. In the evening, I went to Santa Maria dell' Orazione e Morte for a Tridentine Mass. The church is as POD as you could wish for: it belongs to a confraternity that buries the dead, and it has winged skulls on the facade. Inside, it is one of those smaller Roman churches that make themselves as impressive as possible in their alotted space by their oval shape. The whole ceiling was one eliptical dome, with the Holy Spirit hovering in the dim lantern. I could see right up into somone's apartment window though one of the lower windows. Everything was Baroque and wonderfully dramatic - the small balconies, the undulating choir loft, and the two little galleries above the sanctuary looked almost like theater boxes. A small choir sang sonorous polyphony for the Mass, and afterwards the priest carried the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, processing slowly, so slowly that he seemed to be in a kind of reverent bullet-time, while servers swung censers and carried a golden ombrelino.

I prayed for a while and then went out onto the Via Giulia. There I met up with two other CC students and a student from Thomas More, and we took off for Trastevere. Joseph, the lone quixotic Trad of Thomas More, was telling us about Santa Maria dell' Orto and its fabled altar, and we never would have found it without him. We went along the dark bohemian allies of Trastevere, enjoying the sight of families out for a walk or a prayer, and into a silent street like any other - except for the open door with its flash of orange as you passed by. We went in and knelt. The whole church was dark except for the high altar, its terraces ablaze with upwards of two hundred candles. The crocus-gold light gleamed on the gilded adornments of the altar. I was in awe of the calm conflagration, and the way it reflected dimly in the marble aisle with a faint flush of rose and gold, and a tracery of fine, inky cracks. Santa Maria dell' Orto is open only a few times a year, and this was its hour to shine.

From there we went to St. Cecilia's, where the Benedictine nuns were keeping watch, and then to the Tiber Island, where St. Bartholomew is buried. There were young olive trees in the sanctuary, and candles among the trees and along the aisles. I thought as I looked at Bartholomew's porphyry casket that he had been among the olive trees on that Thursday night so many years ago. The silence of Holy Week swaddled us - that strange, innocent silence that lives in the candlight and in the pauses of the Easter Vigil: Christus heri - et hodie - that rare silence. It's like a precious vintage or an ancient phial of coronation chrism, something to be brought out only on great occasions: at Christmas, at the Triduum. And there was the warm smell of wax and the cool fragrance of flowers and night air, and the deep solemn smell of old wood and stone. But all of this was to try and soften that hard and bitter night that Christ spent under the olive trees, alone. How do you comfort a god who is about to die?

Christ let an angel console him, and now even we can do some service like that. Even after the blood that starred his face, suddenly, when he was overwhelmed by the horror of everything we had done and were going to do.

We made our pilgrimage, and we kept love's vigil. All in all, we visited seven churches - including San Francesco a Ripa and San Giovanni ai Fiorentini and others that I forget now (there was one by the Ara Pacis). We savored that bright night, for there would be no more light for the next two days.

The photo of the Holy Thursday Mass at Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte is from the New Liturgical Movement blog.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Take me back to Assisi...

Assisi is the loveliest town in the world. It's as elvish as Lorien, as grave as Gondor, and as miniature and cheerful as Hobbiton. I was sorely tempted to throw my wallet and my suitcase over a cliff and live there as an anchoress for the rest of my life.

San Stefano by night. This tiny church is where we had Mass during our retreat.

Several of the major sites in Assisi had these strings of doves overhead.

The rose window over the entrance to the lower basilica.

Here I am on top of Rocca Maggiore, with the basilica of St. Francis below.

View of the valley - Porziuncula through the smoke of burning olive leaves.

Midnight after-retreat party! We single-handedly created all the nightlife in Assisi by cramming into this cafe and eating gelato and singing and drinking good beer brewed by monks.

View from piazza of St. Clare's basilica.

Ah, Assisi!

Sarah has some more pictures from Assisi, as well as pictures from the top of Assisi's main fortress, from which you can see the whole town and the fields of Umbria all around.

Rare Catholic Customs

Andreth's comment about knocking on wood jogged my memory, and I thought of an episode in The Path to Rome where Belloc sees a priest on the road and touches an iron key in his pocket. He mentions this action very casually, as if it were a well-known superstition; but I have never heard of such a custom. Does anyone know if this is, or was, a French thing? Or if it has classical precedents? (Belloc had a way of semi-sardonically performing little pagan actions, like pouring wine on the deck of the Nona in the midst of a storm.)

Three years at Christendom have brought many such quirks to my attention. The College has given me innumerable blessings, and not least is the character it has of being a sort of petri dish or scale model of that fabled edifice, the Catholic Culture. We call it the Christendom Bubble; often in scorn, but often as not in gratitude. Once you step inside and remain there for about two years, a remarkable thing happens: something toggles in your mind, and the Catholic worldview becames your default. It's analogous to having "learned" French in high school and then going to live and study in France for four years. Something clicks and then even your dreams are in French. Maybe the Christendom experience isn't that dramatic, at least for people who didn't attend public schools their whole lives, but it seems to come close. The college's Rome program deepens it even further, of course.

(I think the moment I starting "dreaming in French," as it were, was when I first said "Saint Uh-gus-tin" [as opposed to "Ah-guh-steen"] without meaning to.)

So one of the things about living in the Bubble is that you run across random Catholic customs you've never seen or read about. You just notice people doing them, or they mention them in passing. For instance, one of my friends told me to "remember to make a wish" when we went into a certain church in DC. I learned that this friend (and several others) had been told in their childhood that they could make a wish whenever they entered a church they'd never visited before.

There seem to be a lot of customs that have to do with sleeping and dreaming. For instance, some of my CC friends have told me that if you want to know your guardian angel's name, you say a Pater, an Ave, and a Glory Be when you go to bed, and let your desire be the last thing you think of before falling asleep. When you wake up, the first name that comes to mind will be your angel's name. It reminded me of that even more dubious tradition of St. Agnes' Eve, chronicled by Keats, yet more of an urban legend than a real custom - unlike the definitely real labor of the Benedictine nuns over in Trastevere, making palia for all the bishops at "the holy loom / Which none but secret sisterhood may see, / When they St Agnes' wool are weaving piously." (Keats, apparently, also knew the more respectable truth.) Then there are the customs that have to do with water. When we were in Bracciano the other day, one of my friends blessed herself in the lake, just as if it were a huge font. When I asked about this, she said that her dad always blessed himself like that when he came to the ocean or to a large lake. She didn't know why. But it was similar to a custom that turned up on a thread at Amy Welborn's blog awhile back: washing in the sea on the feast of the Assumption in order to get "the cure in the water." If I remember right, everyone who said they had done this was from New Jersey.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Putting the Fear of God In Your Laptop

This is the Catholic way to deal with recalcitrant computers. Sarah was trying to send an email about getting spiritual direction when her laptop crashed, and she promptly detected the hand of the, um, dark side in this. So we invoked St. Isidore of Seville and applied two blessed rosaries, a St. Benedict medal, and a rock from the scavi under St. Cecilia's in Trastevere. Sarah refers to this, somewhat apologetically, as Catholic Voodoo. But seriously! Let it be known that St. Isidore takes an active interest in fixing Roman internet connections, for he has helped me with mine several times, especially when I have promised him a rosary. He's shrewd that way. We finally have the internet in our rooms now, which is a minor miracle.

Related: If you haven't seen it yet, this is Sarah's blog: Winds of Westernesse. It has lots of pictures and detailed descriptions of what we've been doing for the past month and a half. Be sure to read the Epic Story of Christendom creaming Penn State in a ludicrous midnight Palio.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

This post will contain no epiphanies about Italian culture, history, religion, cookery, courtship, politics, or anything else. It will merely be weird. You have been warned.


One fine chilly day, Sarah and I made our way to St. Peter’s for afternoon Mass. My friend inquired discretely about my coatless state, but I replied cheerfully that my sweater was warm enough. In St. Peter’s, coats are really unnecessary—it’s the only church here I’ve been in that actually feels toasty. How they heat it I can’t imagine. After Mass, which took place under the saffron light of the Holy Spirit window, I sat for a moment finishing my thanksgiving—and a Polish-looking woman suddenly appeared in the pew in front of me and began exhorting me to take her jacket.

I say she looked Polish, but Sarah thinks she looked Scandinavian. She was middle-aged, slight, and sharp featured; and she had tousled, short blond hair. With the air of a professional good Samaritan, she held out a powder-blue nylon jacket while speaking earnestly in Italian. I told her I didn’t want it, but she seemed not to understand, because she said something that sounded like, “No, no - around you,” and she mimed putting on a coat. After some fruitless back and forth, I decided that I had nothing to lose by taking the thing. Certainly there had to be some occult reason that this strange Italian-speaking Scandinavian lady was giving me a blue ski jacket (from an enormous denim knapsack, I observed) behind the high altar at St. Peter’s, of all places—but at this point, I confess, I was dying to find out what it was. So I put on the jacket (which was three sizes too large and redolent of cigarettes), thanked her warmly, and sailed towards the doors as quickly as was decorous. I saw her once more as she descended the steps. She smiled at me, and was gone. Down in the piazza, Sarah began to make a laundry list of the crimes that Jacket Lady was presently going to frame me for. She had sewn a bomb into the jacket. She had stolen the jacket and she had just seen the man she stole it from in the basilica. She was a renegade spy, and she was sending me out in her jacket so that her vengeful minders would poke me with the ricin-tipped umbrella. (Actually, I may have thought up the last one.) Somehow we made it home alive. Back in our room, I examined the jacket. Although it was a ski jacket, it had patches that said “Tortuga, CA – Surfing Instructor” and “Lifeguard.” Then I went through the pockets.

At this point in the story, everyone was all ears. “What? What was in there?!”

“A ball of tinfoil, a razor blade, and a list of dates and places going back to 1989, written in some Eastern European language. There were a couple of words in Arabic.”

“Whooooaaaa! Meredith, you are in the middle of something huge.” Etc.

I enjoyed the pandemonium I had created within the Rome Program, and I still wonder about that list. But as for the tinfoil, it contained only chocolate crumbs; and the razor blade punctured many fantasies when I produced it in its little plastic case. The Jacket Lady could only have used it to shave her legs, not to rake together lines of hypothetical crack.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not sure what this story means. But ever-prudent Sarah has now concluded that the eccentric pilgrim was simply trying to lighten her load.


A fortnight later I fell down the rabbit hole again. This time, though, I had plenty of company. All the students were riding back to Rome after a week spent in Assisi, Florence, and Siena; and we were exhausted by so many wonders. We had made a detour to San Galgano to see the sword in the stone – yes, the original sword – and we had venerated the miracle underlying the fable. A sense of possibility lingered around everything. The darkness outside the bus windows seemed like the darkness of a theater when the scenery is being changed – anything could be concealed there – and the small lights became different things in my mind: factory flares; glowing windows in a small town; the inalienable lamps of that city on a hill that cannot be hidden; Etruscan fox-fires leading the unwary into the dark. Just as I was feeling perfectly stiff and sleepy, the bus stopped to let us get off and move around. I groaned when I saw where we had pulled in. It wasn’t anything so civilized as an Autogrill. There was only a row of grim, rectilinear warehouses in a rain-sodden parking lot.

I wasn’t too keen on seeing the inside, but I went in with my fellow students. Christendom must be extended even to the furthest and most dubious Italian truck-stops, after all. And I was hoping that I could buy some Pringles or something.

A silver turnstile spun us all into the place, whatever it was. The first thing that met our eyes was a long table heaped with bags of gourmet chocolates. The lady over behind the counter urged us to try all the samples. The further we meandered through the room, the more nonplussed we became. I’ve never seen so many different brands of limoncello in one place, and the chocolates and candies were prodigiously varied and expensive. The sausage was wild boar sausage and the cheese was riddled with wine or sliced white truffles. Wines, liqueurs, dried tomatoes... I couldn’t begin to describe it. Most of the signs had Japanese and Cyrillic writing on them, which led us to wonder if the bus companies have a deal to bring all the Japanese tourists through this place. There was clothing, including some overpriced leather jackets, and a whole section of luxurious face creams and cosmetics and such – I found some sort of olive oil moisturizer that was 35 euros, and another jar that may have been 107 euros, unless my eyes deceived me. Christendom was milling around, laughing surreptitiously, sampling the chocolates and the olive oil and tasting the wine with brio. We were the only customers in the store.

As I watched my fellow students gamboling about in this surreal gastronomia, I couldn’t help thinking that the scene was kind of eerie. Maybe that was Circe behind the counter, and the chocolates were going to change us into wild beasts. (If we weren’t already, being hungry college students.) Several people tried to go back through the turnstile, getting only a bruise and a jarring noise for their trouble.

There were more than forty of us, so the samples were getting cleaned out. My friend Anna was feeling bad about it. “I feel like I should buy something,” she said. I considered getting a chocolate frieze of St. Peter’s or of the Mouth of Truth, but 9.50 euro was way too steep. Then I saw a package of curry-flavored chocolate. Anna and I goggled at it and then agreed to split it. Everyone was starting to leave, so I went towards the other clerk at the exit, holding out the chocolate. She smiled, waving her hand magnanimously, and said, “Free! Free!” I stared at her.

“Are you kidding?”


As we ate our spicy chocolate on the bus, Anna tentatively suggested that the Enchanted Truck Stop was a figure of God's grace. At any rate, there is no doubt that it was an expression of some divine caprice.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rome Photos

A few pics before I leave for a trip to Assisi:

From Santa Maria in Ara Caeli

Monte Cassino

Rainy day

Siesta on the Tiber island

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Rome Unvisited" - Oscar Wilde


The corn has turned from grey to red,
Since first my spirit wandered forth
From the drear cities of the north,
And to Italia's mountains fled.

And here I set my face towards home,
For all my pilgrimage is done,
Although, methinks, yon blood-red sun
Marshals the way to Holy Rome.

O Blessed Lady, who dost hold
Upon the seven hills thy reign!
O Mother without blot or stain,
Crowned with bright crowns of triple gold!

O Roma, Roma, at thy feet
I lay this barren gift of song!
For, ah! the way is steep and long
That leads unto thy sacred street.


And yet what joy it were for me
To turn my feet unto the south,
And journeying towards the Tiber mouth
To kneel again at Fiesole!

And wandering through the tangled pines
That break the gold of Arno's stream,
To see the purple mist and gleam
Of morning on the Apennines

By many a vineyard-hidden home,
Orchard and olive-garden grey,
Till from the drear Campagna's way
The seven hills bear up the dome!


A pilgrim from the northern seas -
What joy for me to seek alone
The wondrous temple and the throne
Of him who holds the awful keys!

When, bright with purple and with gold
Come priest and holy cardinal,
And borne above the heads of all
The gentle Shepherd of the Fold.

O joy to see before I die
The only God-anointed king,
And hear the silver trumpets ring
A triumph as he passes by!

Or at the brazen-pillared shrine
Holds high the mystic sacrifice,
And shows his God to human eyes
Beneath the veil of bread and wine.


For lo, what changes time can bring!
The cycles of revolving years
May free my heart from all its fears,
And teach my lips a song to sing.

Before yon field of trembling gold
Is garnered into dusty sheaves,
Or ere the autumn's scarlet leaves
Flutter as birds adown the wold,

I may have run the glorious race,
And caught the torch while yet aflame,
And called upon the holy name
Of Him who now doth hide His face.