Temple Times and International Programs present:
Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006
International program: Temple Rome
Which Way is Home?
April 24, 2006 I have been home for only a few days. For me, though, this is more of a transition than going to Rome in the first place. I expected change when I went overseas. I prepared. I was ready. Nobody prepares to go home -- at least, I didn't. When I arrived in Rome, I was finally there. When I arrived back in Philadelphia, there I was, so soon. Four days removed from Europe, it already feels months away.
Usually, you know you can go home, but many of us will not ever again be abroad without serious responsibilities. Some of us knew that we faced them upon return, but that didn't often permeate the time itself. This time was not for work; it was for exploration. Unless we were in class, we could approach things that held novelty again. We could play again. There is time for work later. There is always time for work later. It is the willingness to just play that we lose as we grow older.
Remember when you were little, and you would call your friends just “to play”? It didn't matter what or how long it would take or where. Often it didn't matter with whom. Remember life without enemies, a life that didn't feel so threatening or impending? I remember never caring about what time it was. But there is that point when “playing” isn’t cool. You start “hanging out.” It seems like there's less and less to do. To go home sometimes becomes a relief because you can relax your public presentation.
I also never knew what time it was while I was in Europe. It just wasn't that important. It made me feel like a little kid again. I feel bad for the miserable few who -- even in Rome -- could only get off by staring at their computer screens and starting conversations and arguments about obscure facts about which they were certain nobody else knew anything. I doubt they made fun playmates when they were little. Inadequacy is a haggard beast.
But can we always go home? Do we ever go home? Home changes. Is it only the idea of what home was that brings us back? I often find myself disappointed by coming home. More and more people are stuck, jaded, lost. When you stop moving, most things stop changing. The things you can't control become the things that change -- not the other way around -- and complacency becomes the primary agent of that change. But still, so many people stop moving. This seems to be not only the beginning of decay, but the modus operandi. If the Earth stopped moving, its life would float away; it would drift off into space. Are we so different? When we stop moving, things slowly drift away. Life drifts farther and farther away -- ironically, for us it is then that things seem to spin on a tilted axis.
Stage one of such decay is the cementing of ideas. Unfortunately, this stage is encouraged from birth. It is hard to avoid, and it is repetitive. The decay is a phenomenon that attaches itself separately to single units of “meaning” as they are often understood in isolation: religious, civic, racial, personal, private, professional; the list goes on and on. Electric flashes in the brain become cumbersome cinderblocks during this stage. Opportunities and “other” ideas become threatening. Meaning is delegated, filed and checked. The necessity to defend tradition precedes the desire to celebrate life.
During this stage, we identify as “Catholics” or “Muslims” or “Whites” or “Minorities” or “Liberals” or “Conservatives.” In advanced cases, we regionally become the judges or the judged. Judgment introduces itself as a natural process, and we are not always conscious of its inception. Anything outside of the box becomes an exception. But why not let change become the rule? That way, we wouldn't have to make so many multi layered excuses just so that we might occasionally breathe fresh activity.
It is a lucky thing to notice these things, because they do become so natural. Why is this? I think that it is because we perceive things in isolation. Everything is departmentalized. Everybody is so concerned with his or her figurative cubicle. Does nobody value doing things the hard way anymore? I often hear people use the phrase “don't work hard, work smart.” Too often, however, this actually translates into “if it's not easy, I'm not doing it.” I think that to do things the hard way once in a while makes us appreciate our relative affluence.
It is a sad thing to lose perspective. Nevertheless, it is still a hard thing to take a step back.
One thing that has been magnified in my eyes since I've been home is that the surplus of rules and regulations in the United States allows -- and, again, encourages -- people to stop paying attention. A comparison of Italian and American driving habits carries this point well: Italians, especially Romans, drive like their cars and mopeds are on fire. Compared to American roads, Roman roads are concentrated insanity. What few driving regulations there are more closely resemble suggestions than laws. Nobody receives anything like citations or speeding tickets.
Our roads, by contrast, are paved rulebooks. No conceivable action that could ever take place is not addressed by some obscure traffic statute. But who has problems with traffic accidents? We do. The vast amount of traffic rules in this country allow people to stop paying attention to the road because if something bad happens there is always a way to lay out the blame. If we have the right of way, many of us do not look; we just go. Our rules become both the safest and most dangerous things on the road. The ability to blame releases us from the obligation to prevent problems. In Italy, in the relative absence of traffic laws, everybody pays keen attention because there is not enough bureaucratic jargon on the books there to determine fault. If something bad happens, everyone is considerably worse off for it.
This observation is not so unrelated to alcohol and the laws governing its consumption. Just as with traffic, Italy and the rest of Europe are extremely relaxed about alcohol. It is a non issue. Especially in southern Europe, there are very few problems with alcohol (except, maybe, at soccer games.). Here, on the other hand -- well, let's just say that if it weren't for America, we might not be blessed with the terms alcoholic or drunk driver. And while northern Europeans drink much more heavily than southern Europeans (Italians often declare that Americans drink like northern Europeans), in the modern world, America takes the cake when it comes to drunken stupidity. Why? Because it's exciting, because of puritanical laws that attempt to designate the times and the places and the ways that we do everything that we do. Ultimately, it is because of fear. Rules theoretically protect us. But if philosophy were actually true to life, wouldn't philosophers be in higher demand?
The subject of attention, though, is one where Italians and Americans also share common ground. Neither country is inhabited by very many people who listen to what each other have to say. My High Renaissance art history teacher once lamented in his thick Italian accent: “I love Italy; it is so beautiful, but I hate Italians. They do not listen. They talk, talk, talk and never listen.” Of course, he said this as students were trying to get his attention.
Americans do not listen either. Perhaps this is for different reasons: television culture, addictions to prescription drugs, general apathy, etc. … Any way you slice it, communication in our world is at a functional minimum despite our infinite potential and ability. We are so much more connected than we have ever been -- we are probably better connected than we ever needed to be -- but it often only spoils us.
So if home is what we remember life to have been “back then” or “when things were good,” does home even exist? If we are so deficient at communicating with those around us, how well do we communicate with ourselves? How well do we evaluate our own perceptions? If we cannot listen, can we really speak? Are we able to circulate anything that matters throughout our world if the circle of communication lies bleeding in pieces on Interstate 95? The idea of home may be wonderful, but it never remains the same. To go home is really just to seek out that nostalgic idea.
I think home is just where I sleep at night. It's where most of my clothes are.
Unplanned and Necessary Engagements
April 10, 2006: One of the best things about traveling is that everywhere you go, you think of other places to visit. You find out about things that nobody hears about in your home country. You meet people who tell you the things that you didn't expect to hear - this is why we travel; isn't it? I don't want to go anywhere and know what to expect. That's part of the reason why I didn't want to study abroad in an English-speaking country. America-haters be damned; I wanted to meet people who didn't speak my language.
When I came here, I had grand plans. I was going to hit all the big spots: Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Athens, etc. ... Not long after I got here, though, I realized that while I was in Italy, I wanted to see Italy. How was I going to go home without being able to tell people all about Italy? How could I go to Paris and not Venice, Milan or Florence? How could I tell people about Amsterdam's shrooms and hash bars and not Italian wine?
| See the three tiny specks standing atop the rock in the picture?
I now realize that the macrocosm of my entire semester was encapsulated within an hour-long microcosm this past weekend: Almost a quarter-mile off the coast of the paradisical island of Ventotene, there stood a huge rock with stairs carved into its well-eroded surface. It dominates the view from the gorgeous black sand beach on which we were fortunate enough to be. Captivated by its beauty and dominance, I took many pictures of it from countless angles and levels. For a time, I was satisfied knowing that I could look at those pictures any time that I wanted and know that I saw it, that I was close to it. The next day, however, I realized that close wasn't enough. I couldn't show people pictures of this island that was meant to be tread upon - an island that called out to every person on that beach - and say "yeah, that's the island that I DIDN'T swim to." No way. The varsity squad does not play that game. My friends and I had to swim to the island, and we did.
Truth be told, I cannot say that it was a pleasure. My friends who were there will tell you that I looked close to death by the time I hit the shore again, but with the possible exception of skydiving, I have never done anything that has given me more of a sense of accomplishment. We cut our feet and knees, taxed the hell out of our arms and lungs and let the sun's water-magnified rays torch our skin, but my friends and I did it. Quite simply, we dominated that tiny little rock of an island, and we are stronger for it.
Just like there was no way I could live in Rome and not visit Florence, I could not be that close to such a beautiful thing and only know that it was there, that I could have touched it, that I could have told the story that I now can. Knowing that you could know is no excuse for not actually finding out. So just think about how relatively close we are to any country in the world in the universal scheme of things. Is there really a decent excuse for not going or not knowing?
The Things We Miss, The Things We Take For Granted
MARCH 27, 2006: One thing stands out when we at Temple Rome talk about things that we miss over here: food. Surprised? So am I. We all know that some of the best food - prepared or fresh - a human can eat surrounds us every day, but think about it for a second: Would you want to eat Italian for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day? It's a tough call. Yes, I have to be real and pay my respects to real Italian food. Naturally, the Italian food in Italy rocks my world. It is also true that I'll probably never eat at the Olive Garden again or pronounce bruschetta without a "k" sound. And without a doubt, my life would not be complete without knowing the following wonders of Italian culture: blood oranges (Tarocchi rossi), cornetti (Italian croissants), ciavattoni (the best pastries ever) and, last but certainly not least, vino. Honorable mentions include the sweet red and yellow peppers, pineapples and veal. (There's just not enough room in Italy for cows, so they have to axe them while they're young.)
Seriously, though, isn't it great to eat scrambled eggs with pancakes any morning you want, burritos for lunch and a gigantic steak with mashed potatoes for dinner? And to all you vegetarians out there, I pose this question: Do you think there are a lot of soybeans in Italy? Heh. Be thankful you live in a country where you can buy a soybean substitute for almost any food product you can think of. But back to mashed potatoes - I haven't seen any for months. I've built up this unnatural urge to mutilate a potato. And what about maple syrup? I'm not sure more than 10 Italians even know what a maple tree is. Breakfast here is non-existent, and while the second and third meals of the day more than adequately make up for that, eating a huge meal is a great - and functionally practical - way to wake up. And let's be honest, people - who wouldn't love to go to Wawa right now for some iced tea, a hoagie, Pop Tarts, coffee and a pint of Ben & Jerry's?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that we in the United States are very fortunate for our culinary diversity and our diversity in general. I know too many people back home who do not appreciate the opportunity that our wide-ranging populace presents for us. These are the people who resent anything and anybody that is not "normal," while they at the same time neglect the fact that "normal" is anything but a uniform standard, since the term itself depends wholly on subjective, biased and often hateful perceptions.
It reminds me of the movie Gangs of New York, in which second generation European immigrants claimed to be "Native Americans." This ignorant claim was made in opposition to first-generation Americans. But this mindset hasn't changed so much in our country. Many Caucasians still act as though white people are destined to rule the western hemisphere, while many African Americans use history to justify hatred. But why?
We need to realize that this hate, this intolerance, nullifies the distinct advantage that our diversity presents to each and every one of us. Exposure to conflicting ideas is paramount. We should all be aware of the good and the bad in our world, the beautiful and the ugly. Instead of trying to convert everyone to one method of belief or one way of living, we should try to understand each other. Maybe if we all took an objective look at the stupid things that we all believe, we would realize how much we have in common and come together to break down the walls we erect between each other. We should take a long, hard look at our rituals and think about how unnecessary so many things are - and these are the things that divide us! Multi-cultural exposure is just so much more accessible in the United States than anywhere else, and we throw it away. We divide ourselves with labels, preconceptions and false truths. We have the ability to learn so much more than we allow ourselves to.
Speaking of hatred, one thing that I hear a lot over here is disdain for the United States. However, I don't hear it from Italians; I hear it from Americans. It is fashionable to hate our own country. Fashionable. Acceptable. It makes me think that George Bush and his thugs are not the only reason that the United States is on the way down. Now, I am not in love with the United States. I am not even sure that I'll live in the United States for the majority of my life. I see too many things that worry me: hate, economic inequality, pollution, corruption, a fixation on trivial and frivolous things, etc. But this does not justify the "everything about America sucks" or the "everything here is better" attitudes. Everything here is NOT better. I wish these people would open their eyes. Dividing ourselves by imaginary political borders is ridiculous. I think politics in general are ridiculous.
Certainly, there are many advantages to living in Italy. I love Italy, but I don't hate America. I hate the direction in which America is headed. Have the America-haters ever seen the inside of an Italian hospital? Well, I have. And now I know why we pay for health insurance, and I am glad to pay for the medical facilities that I am privileged enough to use.
Need I say more about culinary diversity? I can't find Cuban, Malaysian, Japanese or Brazilian food in Italy, but I can in Boston, Philadelphia or New York. In Italy, it is very difficult to break into career professions that require specialized skills. Many who graduate from Italian colleges with technical degrees have to relocate to other countries to find work in their chosen field. Such is not the case in the United States. By the way, most Italians do not graduate from college or move out of their parents' house until around age 30. By age 23, most of us would rule out ever living with mom or dad again.
And to go back to politics - you couldn't count all the political parties in Italy on all the fingers and toes of every U.S. Congressman. It would be hard to say if it is better or worse than picking between two (or three) almost identical candidates, but it doesn't do much for national stability. It seems like the people who hate on America take for granted our relative stability.
Nobody in the world has the ability to be as comfortable as we are, and it seems to me that this increasing attitude of complacency will come back to haunt future generations.
Off Vacation: Out of Awe and Into the Grind
MARCH 13, 2006: Having settled inside the seven hills of Rome by now, I can look at Rome with a critical eye instead of just an awe-struck one. Part of this has to do with my travels outside of Rome and outside of Italy. I have to say that at this point it is my greatest joy to visit places outside of Rome. It is a privilege to be surrounded by this culture, but many places in Italy have certain advantages over Rome.
I think that a lot of Rome's issues have to do with industrialization. I'm not sure enough people in the United States realize that most of Europe is not such a shocking change. In most cases (many parts of Naples and the Florence leather market being notable exceptions), Italy is not a collection of bargain-friendly street markets. Prices are set. Corporations and businesses resemble those in the United States more closely every day. The Euro is easily stronger than the American dollar.
My “Early Renaissance Art History” teacher once said something to this effect: Italy has caught up with the United States. Italians are robots just like we are, modern consumers just like the rest of Western Europe. To experience an atmosphere like what Italy used to be, you have to visit Tunisia, Morocco or Turkey. Mod-dress and sharp style are not the products of a totally foreign culture. They are the products of a totally similar affluence and attitude. Most of the music you hear here is American popular music — in English. It's everywhere and they love it, even if they don't understand it. Every day I realize how connected today's world is. But the modern world is not such a positive influence on all things Roman.
Modern Rome is a city built upon ancient infrastructure. More so than probably any other Western European city, this is the case because of just how early Rome was developed. Roman culture is Western culture. Unless you're in a park or public garden, this doesn't help the claustrophobia that Rome is so adept at creating. Caesar and Constantine certainly never planned a city for this many cars or this many people. This is painfully obvious. Sadly, a huge chunk of the Roman Forum was destroyed and has been covered by probably the widest street in Rome, the Via dei Fori Imperiali. It will certainly continue to be covered into the distant future no matter what the value of what lies beneath it. There are far too many cars and motor-scooters in Rome, and almost none of them are large, normal-size cars. By necessity they are tiny things, including the famous SMART cars.
My term "normal-size" isn't a purely American judgment, either. I've been to three other large Italian cities that have mostly American-sized cars. Other cities just don't have the industrial crowding and pollution that Rome does. Being filled with cars and surrounded by hills, Rome has some seriously polluted air. Every time I leave Rome, I immediately shake the cold and congestion that my entire floor has had for about five weeks now. Every time I return, it comes back within hours. Even the best views are hazy, since visibility is never really at a premium.
Of course, I'm being nitpicky. I suppose it takes someone like me to have the nerve to pick out the negatives of perhaps the greatest city in the world after living here for only eight weeks. I certainly still enjoy being here (I've probably seen the Trevi Fountain and Pantheon 10 times by now), but now I see both sides, which isn't such a bad thing. What I really mean to get at are the positives of the other cities I've visited.
Florence, Venice, Milan, Todi and Tivoli (not to mention Barcelona) are fantastic places to visit. Milan is particularly spacious. I would call it a cross between Rome and either Boston or Philadelphia. Though it is the main industrial center of Rome, it is not over-crowded by cars or by people. It also has the best subway I've ever ridden: four lines of clean convenience. Florence is smaller and a bit more crowded than Milan, but here people dominate the streets, not cars — even on streets that are for cars. And the amount of Renaissance art in Florence is simply unbelievable. If I weren't going back soon, I'd feel incomplete.
Venice has no peers. Imagine a city that has absolutely no pavement save for one bus depot. Before I visited Venice, I thought there were canals and streets. Quite to the contrary, the canals are the streets. When you take a bus over the bridge into Venice, you are dropped on the only bit of pavement there is, the Piazzale Roma. From there to St. Mark's square at the other end of the canal, the only bridges are foot-bridges. And, though most of us know the basic format of Venice, imagining it is nothing like standing over a bridge, watching a gondola or water-taxi (Vaporetto) float away, and knowing that that boat is the closest thing to a car you'll find in that entire city. It is beyond peaceful, beyond serene. The monumentality that it possesses is in its calming effect. In Venice people do not drive, they either walk or float. That thought still gives me chills of excitement, much as the Colosseum and Pantheon do.
It is remarkable to think about how many different faces Italy has — even though not all are completely positive. That is the world in which we live.
FEB. 27, 2006: For many weeks, I would tell myself and others: "Take it easy; we're on vacation. I'm not here to go to school; I'm here to live in Italy."
While I still feel in my heart of hearts that we are on vacation from the real world - a vacation where, if we stopped to take inventory of our many privileges, we would notice that normal college life in the United States conspicuously resembles my life here in Italy. If we Temple Rome students should receive three credits just for being here, there comes a time when the honeymoon is over, when the rain begins to bother you again - when you realize just how awful your roommates really are and how much empty weight you've gained from eating pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato. Perhaps you notice how badly the diesel fumes in Rome affect your throat and sinuses, as my friends and I have, or perhaps you catch a dormitory-style plague (the mutations of which are both disgusting and intriguing).
After seeing all of the greatest monuments and landmarks of the Western World, many of us even take our surroundings for granted. It reminds me of a New Yorker I once met, who told me that he never cared to visit the Statue of Liberty. We've hit the grind, especially now that mid-terms are upon us. I now find many of my colleagues saying things to the effect of: "I'm tired. Let's go see the greatest architecture in the history of mankind tomorrow; is that cool?"
Yes, we've hit the grind, but this reality is one not so deep. Do we have stresses? Absolutely, but we are still divorced from many typical American pressures. We lack a no-huddle offense attitude. With perhaps one enigma of an exception, I'd venture to say that not one of us wakes up early for class, goes straight to work, then heads to practice or rehearsal, and then to some club, council, committee or other job to round out a 16- or 18-hour day.
At home, however, I'd bet my life that over half of us mirror that routine. Sure, maybe this is because we don't have so many things to do here, as we're strangers in a strange land, but how often do I see an Italian (who is not on a Vespa) in a mad rush? Almost never. How many smiles do I see throughout the workday in a normal week? More than I see throughout a normal year in the United States - especially when I succeed in speaking decent Italian.
So many things in Italy help remind me that there is no use in worrying about most things, and that there is always something more important to focus on. This is not to say that the marble monuments or colossal churches are those things. They simply point out perspective, a thing that is easy to misplace on either the information super-highway or I-95. With only a few exceptions, my fellow students and I are gaining another perspective on life.
The point of coming here is not to test your American-ness or to see how Italian you can become, but to penetrate the imaginary lines of nationality. The point is just to learn new things. I feel the best way to do that is to leave the United States at home.
After Three Weeks in Rome
FEB. 13, 2006: My transition from Philadelphia to Rome has been about as striking as Dorothy's transition from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz.
After three weeks of almost constant sun, I am still amazed by what first impressed me - the warm shades and hues of the atmosphere.
By this I don't mean it has been 70 degrees outside. It actually gets down to about 40 and stays around 50 in January.
What I mean is that every place of residence, every piece of architecture, every facade reflects a remarkable degree of warmth and care that is abundantly absent from anything the United States has to offer.
Hardly anything is monochromatic, and the things that are (this is limited almost exclusively to statues) bleed sculptural craftsmanship.
No monument in Washington, D.C., can compare. Nothing is gray here. Nothing is frigid or isolated in such a manner.
Photos courtesy Ian Waldraff
Nothing lacks ornamentation, originality or passion. The open spaces, which are vast, winding expanses of scrupulously fashioned, fountain-laced greenery capable of erasing any recent or long-standing memory of urbanity, transition in and out of commercial and urban spaces as smoothly as the Vienna Philharmonic would make a symphony modulate.
These spaces do not exist for their own sake. They provide views to stop a beating heart or silence a crash of thunder.
They remind one of the value of peace and of both the fragility and the responsibility of strength. (Perhaps our nation's leaders should schedule a visit.)
They reflect what I perceive to be the Italian attitude toward life: Live it, and work only to make it better.
We Americans should take note of this, and then examine our national priorities.
Until next time, this has been your Roman Connection.
International Programs | Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006