Eating Spaghetti at the Vatican

Really, I’d been planning this trip to Italy since late 2001.

It all began around Thanksgiving-time, the year that I graduated college. I was headed back to Northwest Indiana after several months of aimlessness that saw me go from housesitting for a professor in Bloomington, Indiana, to interviewing for an internship in New York City, to bumming around Seattle for a while with a friend who’d recently moved there for work. I came back both to be with my family for the holidays and to be around for all the last-minute activities leading up to my best friend’s wedding in late December.

The night before her bridal shower, I went with my maternal grandmother to some kind of spaghetti potluck fundraiser being held at a local church. I have no recollection what it was raising money for, or why my grandma had specifically invited me to go. Mostly I remember being in some typical but nondescript church hall or basement, the kind that I’d spent years of my life in, whether it was helping my dad load gear in and out of for wedding receptions, attending funeral luncheons, or performing Christmas carols with various school choirs. Sitting on a folding chair at a long table narrowly butted up against several other long tables packed with folding chairs, I shoved forkfuls of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce into my mouth and stared down at the paper placemat that had an outline of the shape of Italy on it. And I thought to myself, “yeah, Italy. Now that I’ve been to both France and England, that’s the place I’d like to go to next.”

It was a somewhat random thought, likely influenced by a handful of late ’90s/early ’00s movies that were in the airThe Talented Mr. Ripley, Nurse Betty, Life Is Beautiful. I’d even tried to teach myself a bit of rudimentary Italian a couple years before, from an Italian for Dummies book, but I’d way overestimated my prowess for language acquisition and stalled out almost as soon as I began. But beyond that, I didn’t have much of an affinity for Italian culture or history. Even as a film major, I’d never even had a class on Italian Neorealism. Italy had never really been on my radar, until suddenly it was.

As we were finishing up and leaving the church hall, I grabbed a clean placemat from another table and folded it up and tucked it in my purse with the intention of hanging it on my wall as some sort of talisman. Like pinning a photo of yourself in a bathing suit on the refrigerator door as inspiration to lose weight, this would be an aspirational reminder of my next travel goal, which I was sure would come to fruition imminently.

My grandma dropped me off at my dad’s house and then she drove herself the few short blocks back to her own home and that was that.

The next morning I made my way to the wedding shower for my best friend, but a few hours later I got a call from my dad. My grandma had been feeling ill all night and had asked him to take her to the emergency room that morning sometime not long after I’d left for the shower. She was a tough old broad, so this concerned me a great deal, that she’d been feeling bad enough not only to have to go to the hospital, but also that she needed someone else to take her there. Especially since, obviously, I had just been with her the night before and she’d seemed fine. He told me not to worry but that she’d had a perforated ulcer and that while she was in surgery for it, one of her lungs collapsed. She was out of surgery by that point and was stable, but she would need some time to recover and there would be a lot of follow-up appointments to track the progress of her healing.

In the next days and weeks, after a lot of conversation with my dad and my uncles, it seemed to make the most sense for me to be the one to take over my grandmother’s day-to-day care. Since I was back home in Northwest Indiana and wasn’t otherwise employed at that point, I, luckily, would have the flexibility to drive her to her various check-ups and appointments during the day. Of course, right around the time I assented, I finally heard back from the magazine in New York about the internship. They weren’t going to be able to grant me the position after all. I was sad about it but rationalized that, immediately post-9/11, they probably wanted to hire someone who was already living in the city anyway. It made sense that they wouldn’t want to be responsible for flying some bumpkin from Indiana all the way out to the Big Apple just for a couple months of filing and photocopying tasks. So, rather than to the East Coast, I moved into the spare bedroom of my grandmother’s house and embarked upon six months of loose ends and loneliness before her death in June 2002.

So, when, in late 2016, my boyfriend’s father decided that he wanted to celebrate his upcoming retirement by taking a whirlwind tour of several European countries, including Italy, and asked us if we’d be interested in joining him, I waited a demure half-second before insisting that my boyfriend report back to him YES. We would, in fact, be interested in joining him.

This was it! This was my big chance! This was my big chance to FINALLY go to Italy!

My boyfriend’s dad researched a handful of tour group companies and eventually booked us an itinerary that would fly us into London before making additional quick stops in Paris, Lucerne, Venice, Florence, and Rome over the course of eleven days total.

My chance to go to Italy, though, turned out to be exactly that—a chance to go to Italy. It wasn’t really even a vacation as much as it was simply a chance for me to be in Italy for four days before I got back on a plane to fly home to Chicago again. The pace of the tour we were on was so fast and so relentless that essentially all we did was walk past or through the most obvious of tourist-trap highlights, the icons that immediately spring to mind when someone says the words “Venice” or “Florence” or “Rome.”

Although I didn’t do any specific magic for it in the way that I did for my perfect cupcake, all the energy that I’d invested over the years in this idea of “going to Italy” pretty much had the same be-careful-what-you-wish-for effect. Clearly, the fact that I never conceived of exactly what I would want to do or see or experience or feel there meant that the emphasis was on my physical presence in the country and that’s all.

I mean, yes, of course, a lot of the tourist-trap obvious stuff we saw was really amazing! Famous stuff is often famous for a reason! And, bottom line, I got to go to Italy. I’m totally happy about that fact. But still, words matter. As I’m slowing realizing about myself and my preferences for travel, I’m most attracted to experiencing the mundane aspects of any given destination that I happen to be visiting. Staying put in one place for a generous amount of time, wandering through the city streets, finding delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants, poking around used bookstores, basically LARPing what my own life would be like if I just happened to live there instead of Chicago. So, guess what—fast-paced, multicountry, large group package tours probably aren’t the right thing for me. I’ve learned that about myself now! And I can set more accurate intentions going forward for the kinds of trips that do inspire and light me up.

On the final day of the trip, our tour group was somehow granted special permission to tour the Vatican museum before it officially opened its doors. We skipped the line that was already beginning to form out front and breezed right in. It was lovely to be able to enjoy the art without being bumped and jostled by masses of other tourists all trying to take photos of the same things.

My boyfriend and I marveled at the extreme homoeroticism of much of the art.

I nerded out about the fact that there were statues of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in a special display.

I turned on my psychic sense in the Sistine Chapel when we acknowledged to each other that we felt ever so slightly unimpressed by it—and, no wonder—it’s not a place for spirituality at all. It’s basically a board room (for “functionary papal activity” as Wikipedia delightfully puts it). I got the feeling that Michelangelo was like the kid in elementary school that had a knack for art, so all the other kids would ask him to draw sketches of their favorite superheroes for them. Just instead of “Mikey, do me one with Batman punching a shark!” it was “Do me one with all the badass stuff from the Old Testament!” (In contrast, we found his Pietà at St. Peter’s Basilica much more affecting; it seemed very clear to me that he’d worked on that one on his own time to please himself.)

After whizzing through the galleries and St. Peter’s Square, we of course were ferried past a gift shop where we’d have some time to buy trinkets and eat some lunch before the group would be taken by bus to the Colosseum. I picked up rosaries and holy water and candles, then shuffled over with my boyfriend and his father to what was basically a glorified cafeteria.

And when I finally sat down, squeezing myself in at a long table that butted up against a bunch of other long tables, and started to dig in to my plateful of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce, it occurred to me that everything had truly come full circle.

From the first inklings of my desire to travel to Italy that originated in a church basement in Northwest Indiana to the culmination of that desire that brought me to, essentially, the ultimate church basement in Vatican City, there was a comforting continuity to the unglamorous familiarity of it all. It was like some sort of fishes-and-loaves miracle effected not for the sake of a huge crowd, but across sixteen years and two continents, all for the sake of one girl very hungry with wanderlust.

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