Arrivederci Roma

About a week ago I returned from my annual trip to Rome with students (that’s the reason for the blog hiatus). It’s a course I teach on early Christianity in Rome, with a component of ecumenical dialogue, and it’s one of the best parts of my job.

It used to be that when you went to Rome, you were necessarily out of the loop. You didn’t have email, and you certainly didn’t have a phone. But now one could go to Rome and stay connected via phone, email, facebook – heck, you could even tweet the fact that you’re having carbonara in Piazza Navona, or cannoli by the pantheon. I could have blogged from Rome, and kept up with email. But I resist all that. While I have students who bring laptops with them, I put an out of office message on my email, and get away from the technology as much as possible. I take a retreat from social networking. After all, I’m teaching about the presence of early Christianity in Rome. We’re going back (and often under ground) to the first few centuries of the Christian era, standing on some of the very stones where Peter and Paul, Tertullian and Augustine walked. So I make it a low-tech pilgrimage, in order to focus on what’s there rather than what’s out in cyberspace.

Every time I go to Rome I learn new things, mostly by observation. For example, I always knew that most Romans speak English better than I speak Italian. It’s actually kind of frustrating, because I can’t get better at speaking Italian since the minute I open my mouth to attempt an Italian phrase, the natives know I’m not from there, and they speak English back to me. One woman actually had the nerve to tell me that when I speak Italian, I have an accent! She was actually very nice – in fact, the Italians are generally extremely friendly, anxious to be helpful, and genuinely want to be hospitable. So of course they speak English, they work in the hospitality industry, and after all, tourists come from English speaking countries and English is the world language and the USA is the center of the globe, right?

But here’s what I noticed on this trip more than ever before. After the waiter speaks English to me, he leaves my table and goes over to the table of Germans where… (did you see this coming?) … he speaks German! After that, he goes over to a table of Spaniards and… (you know where this is going…) he speaks Spanish. Same with the French. These people: waiters, tour guides, museum entry cashiers, café baristas, they all speak multiple languages.

In my world, you basically have to get a PhD to be forced to learn multiple languages, and even then, we learn the language for “reading knowledge” which means the sum total of my spoken German is “Vo ist MacDonald’s?” (I don’t like German food). So I’m the guy with the PhD who can’t put more than two sentences together in Italian (and that only if we stay in the present tense), and my waiter speaks five languages, at least well enough to do his job. Sometimes, if I start off speaking Italian, the person immediately knows I’m not a native Italian speaker, but isn’t quite sure where my “accent” is from. So they usually start off with Spanish, and then try French, before I admit that I actually only speak one language good (just kidding… well).

So what’s the point? I can’t speak for people in other countries or other cultures (no pun intended), but we in the US/North American culture often have this prejudice that equates education and occupation with intelligence and possibly even with social value. In other words, we have this in-bred assumption that a person with more education (that’s me), or who makes more money (that’s not me), is somehow better, whatever that means. I’m sure it’s related to wealth, but it goes deeper than that. Because darned if I didn’t have to catch myself in the middle of a thought that started out something like, “This guy is only a waiter and…”

What a hypocrite I am. (I’ve admitted this before, so it’s no great revelation.) But I know better. In fact, as I wrote in Spiritual Blueprint, many people would be better off with a job that paid less, but that carried less stress, and that allowed them to spend more time with family, more time relaxing and having fun, and ultimately would allow them to live longer. Sure it might mean rejecting the culture’s consumer mentality and downsizing one’s lifestyle a bit. But that’s a good thing: living more simply means less debt, less stress, and more time. There’s no such thing as only.

So now I’m back to my regular life, which is not a bad thing. Normal life is a rhythm that brings comfort, and it’s good to take a retreat from that rhythm from time to time, but it’s also good to get back to it.

I love Rome. I love the ancient history, the architecture, and the ruins. I love the food, I love the bread, and I love the wine. I love that you don’t have to be a wine expert or even worry about choices with the wine, you just order the house red and you know it will be fantastic.

I love the people I meet in Rome. Not only the locals, but people from everywhere – and it’s funny, I’m such an introvert that I would never talk to a stranger here at home. You know, some people will just talk to the person in front of them in line at the grocery store, or whatever. I would never do that. But when you’re out of your element, in a country where your language is not regularly spoken, you do gravitate toward other people speaking your language. So I met the “United Breaks Guitars” guy, Dave Carroll, a songwriter from Canada. Check out his YouTube video. We also got a chance to have dinner with Alan Epstein, author of As the Romans Do. He’s an American author who moved his family to Rome years ago, so he’s full of great stories about Rome. I highly recommend his book.

Yeah, Rome is awesome. I never get tired of it. But at the end of the day (or at the end of the two and a half weeks), the best Italian food is still the food that comes out of my wife’s kitchen. The best bottle of wine is the one opened with good friends, and the best bread is that which is broken at home.


Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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