The first thing I’ve learned since my arrival in the eternal city is the very definite difference between traveling and arriving. As it turns out, while I enjoy the arriving bit, traveling and I stand on very poor terms.
But how, you may ask, and when did I learn of this very particular distinction?
As with all good stories, it was the hard way. My first adventure in Rome did not take place at a gelato shop by the Trevi Fountain or at the top of the Spanish Steps, but rather at 40,000 feet above sea level. It was as if passing through security at the Miami International Airport suddenly triggered the opening credits of some Hollywood comedy that I was somehow involved in. Oh, and please don’t confuse me with the dazzling Audrey Hepburn-type bombshell protagonists for whom all disasters are cute, expertly-written, and usually include encounters with tall, dark, and gorgeous strangers.
No. Please let me direct your attention to the sidekick in Row G, the unfortunate foil for the hero for whom absolutely nothing goes right. Yep, that character, that’s me, sandwiched between the crying baby and the man in row F, who is unsuccessfully trying to convert his third class economy lawn chair into a first class recliner.
Three plastic meals, two minor layover incidences in Prague, and one stomach virus later, my plane had touched down in Rome, where jet lag, my frequent flyer miles companion, had set in with a vengeance. I had been awake for over twenty-four hours, I was pulling 67 lbs. of luggage, and I was lost in one of Europe’s largest airports. Benvenuto a Roma!
Somehow, after returning to the help desk twice, I managed to locate the lovely members of the Arcadia University staff, who dropped me off in front my apartment in historic Garbatella, a quaint neighborhood filled with painted green shudders, clothes lines, and quite a bit of graffiti. All of my flatmates had arrived earlier that morning, so I dropped my things off and walked to lunch at a small cafe a quarter of a mile from the apartment. My nausea had not abated, and we were traveling in 90-degree weather. One pear juice (which tastes a lot like apple juice), another walk back, and one glorious cold shower later, I was finally starting to feel hungry. That’s when Chiara (one of Arcadia’s Student Life Coordinators, unofficially known as the rockstar of student life) led us to meet the other students.
I’m not going to lie: this was the low point. I was hungry, thirsty, and we had been walking in 90-degree weather for about an hour. I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, unable to order food for myself or even to find toilet paper at the grocery store.
I had been awake for 38 hours and counting.
But I think what bothered me most was my first meeting with the city. This was not the Rome I had envisioned. Where were the monuments? The Colosseum with its crumbling white marble? The Basilicas with their awe-inspiring frescoes and larger than life statues? All I saw were modern streets filled with dirt and trash. Every step was filled with the smell of cigarette smoke and the sound of rumbling graffiti-scrawled trains. There were a couple of interesting buildings, architecturally speaking, and Garbatella had some nice alleyways, but this was not rapture at every corner. This was not Rome, at least, not the way I had imagined it.
It was about this time in our very long walk up a steep hill that I turned both a physical and metaphorical corner. Unbeknownst to our group, we had climbed into the gardens on the top of the Aventine Hill, one of the seven hills that Rome was built on. We walked through a grove of towering orange trees that in and of themselves looked like works of art. And at the end was a stunning panoramic view of all of Rome—The Vatican, the medieval towers, the forum, Piazza Venezia, The Tiber, Isola Tibertina, the Jewish Ghetto—everything.
Shortly after, the staff provided food, which was also a critical step in my mood’s turning point.
But, that big moment on the Aventine Hill was my moment, the one in which I realized that everything would be okay, that the traveling had been hard, but arriving had been worth the wait.