And what about Rome? Rome is beautiful, Rome is ugly. Something about this city exacerbates contrasts, incongruities and contradictions, a Levi’s billboard rippling on the facade of a four-hundred-year-old church, a drunk sleeping on the tram in $300 shoes. Four mornings ago I watched a man chat with the baker for five minutes while a half dozen of us waited behind him then climbed into a Mercedes and tear off at fifty miles an hour. As if he had not a single second to spare.
– Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome
Our day in Rome started with a walk to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s Square for the first time. It is merely a block away from our AirBnB and it being the main event, we thought we’d start off our trip with a walk over. Out our window, we could hear pilgrims singing in the streets on their way to the Basilica to celebrate this weekend’s anniversary of the charismatic renewal.
It took us only a few minutes to understand the sheer number of people and even less time to be assaulted by salesmen trying to get us to “skip the lines! Vatican Museum! Sistine Chapel! English? English?” I suppose I had a lot of expectations for this moment and these combined with exhaustion (Christopher didn’t fall asleep until about 2am, so I didn’t either) and hunger made me pretty grumpy. Chris correctly assessed my need for coffee so we walked north in search of a café I had read about on Katie Parla‘s recommendations.
Block by block the crowds got thinner and the cacophony more distant until it was just us and a few native Romans. We found Sciascia Caffe and Chris sat at a table outside while I went in with not a little trepidation to order. A friend had alerted me to the etiquette around Italian coffee culture, but all of my Google searches didn’t yield any hard and fast rules. I went for it, ordered my cappuccino and due, uh, pastries, per favore (a pan au chocolat for Chris and a cream cornetto for me, yum) and took them back to the table. I breathed a sigh of relief and then managed to figure out how to pay.
We walked back to St. Peter’s Square to see if we could get in the line to go inside the Basilica. We were hot and sweaty and the hawkers kept hawking. The moodiness returned. We decided to instead walk east of the Tiber in search of lunch before we were due to pick up our tickets at the North American College for Sunday’s papal Mass.
We passed the Castle d’ St Angelo, where Popes flee to escape invaders, and crossed the bridge. We found ourselves walking through Piazza Navona and then stumbled upon the Pantheon. We are getting increasingly hot and hungry at this point and the two places I had mapped out for food in the vicinity were closed or didn’t have a seating area.
In the state of desperation many had warned us about, we settled on a decent-looking place called Origano. There was a mix of tourists and Italians inside, so we had some hope, though at that point we were grateful for a/c and silently starving and grumpy and Christopher was having a hangry breakdown. A good amount of water, a cookie from a sympathetic waitress for Christopher, and some good pizza and sort of ok gnocchi revived us enough to want to even think about the next thing. Chris got some tiramisu and I got an espresso shot (which is what you get when you order a coffee here) and we were ready to go.
Chris suggested the Spanish Steps, so we walked over. They were indeed quite impressive, but Christopher’s favorite part was the small fountain at their base. I’m also quite proud of my Dwight Schrute-inspired spin moves away from the flower scammers as they tried to shove roses into my arms and make me pay for them.
It’s so gratifying to see Christopher get excited about things here. They’re always a bit unexpected. He begged to get out of the stroller and go see the fountain.
When we had our fill of the Spanish Steps, it was time to head to NAC to pick up our tickets. We were greeted by a friendly seminarian who helped us carry the double stroller up the steps to Casa Santa Maria.
(Brief Interlude: I am so incredibly glad we bought the stroller. Therese gets great naps in the carrycot and we don’t have to be sweatier than we already are with the Ergo strapped to us. Plus, people get a kick out of it when they realize there are two kids in there. It’s heavy, but people have helped us every time we needed to carry it up or down some stairs.)
We went to our orientation about what to expect at a Mass in the Square given by a cheerful sister. The two seminarians entertained the kids in the stroller and were not offended when Christopher decided he did not like the hard candy he picked out from their jar. We sat and enjoyed NAC’s cool courtyard and familiar American accents for a while and Christopher scrambled around the fountain in the middle of the square.
We formulated a plan for the rest of the afternoon. We stopped by the Trevi Fountain for a quick selfie; it’s spectacular but so, so crowded.
We then set out for Santa Maria Della Vittoria, the church that is home to Bernini’s famous sculpture, Teresa in Ecstasy. The church was small and dark, but pretty, and had a side chapel to St. Therese. We couldn’t pass up a picture with our little flower.
To be honest, the visit to the Bernini statue was just a stop on our way to what our friend told us was the best gelato place in Rome, Come il Latte. It was in a quieter part of Rome and we only heard Italian at the shop. Families kept arriving in cars or on motorbikes in search of gelato to celebrate Republic Day. A dad had to help his young son pee in the street when it was clear he was having a bathroom emergency. Normal stuff. The gelato was indeed to die for. Therese gummed some of Chris’ brioche bun. Poor Christopher napped the whole visit. More for us.
The gelato provided a good pick-me-up to take on two more sights before collapsing at the apartment for the evening. We wanted to see the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, which boasts a crypt of sculptures made out of Capuchin friars’ bones. Yeah, weird. It turned out to be up a bunch of steps and cost 5 euro, so Chris and I went separately to check out the church and peek in to the crypt from the outside without paying. The church was beautiful and maybe we’ll make it back by the end of our trip to gawk at the bones.
For our last stop, we read in a pamphlet at NAC that the church at the top of the Spanish Steps, Trinità dei Monti, had a chapel to Mater Admirabilis where St. Therese prayed to ask God to grant her the grace to enter the convent at 15 on her pilgrimage to Rome. We had to see it. It was a bit confusing to get to the chapel. Chris and I did the stroller switcheroo again (while I was waiting, a Russian woman came up and asked me – in Russian – where the toilets were; I responded “I don’t know, sorry” in Russian without thinking about it #stillgotit) and thankfully he figured it out. We had to ring the buzzer at an intercom inside the entrance to the Instituto Del Sacro Cuore. It says “Private School No Entrance” all over the place, so thankfully Chris, who is bolder than I, did this first. The porter sort of grumpily let me in with Therese and showed me where the chapel was up some stairs. I said a prayer asking Mary and St. Therese to pray for us.
I brought Therese up to see Mary and she looked at her face and giggled. It was the sweetest moment of the day, this quietness with Our Lady. She is our most admirable mother, whom I love and cherish and hope to emulate. I pray that Therese will follow her namesake too.
The church also boasted an incredible view of the rooftops of the city.
It was a special way to end the day. I suppose I’ve been a bit disappointed with the sheer touristy chaos of Rome. I should have expected it: it’s a huge city full of tourist attractions and pilgrimage sites that attracts millions of people a year and we’re here in the height of tourist season. It was a day of sensory overload and what I wanted was something moving. That small and very short moment in the chapel was a glimpse of what I was expecting, but I have come to realize I need to let go of that expectation, I think, and go with the flow of the city of contradictions. Beautiful churches next to kitschy tourist traps. Singing pilgrims among yelling scammers. Madonnas on every street corner and scantily-clad models on bus shelters. I am both compelled by the lure of the sights of the city and repulsed by its noise and crowds and inefficiencies.
We managed to wrangle the stroller down numerous flights of stairs and only mildly annoy a ticket booth attendant with my fake Italian (“due a San Pietro, per favore!” *Attendant tells us total in Italian* “Uh, what? Sorry?”) in order to take the Metro and walk back. The ADA never came to Italy, but young Italian men are much more likely than American dudes to jump to help carry a double buggy down the steps.
I’m home again with a sleeping Therese while the boys find us some dinner at 10:00pm, in classic Italian (and jetlagged) fashion. Writing this post has been cathartic and has helped me make sense of my mixed feelings about my first encounter with the Eternal City. I’m hopeful for the rest of our time here.