2 priests, a twenty-something female chaperone, and 13 high school students take a trip to Rome. That sounds like the start of a joke. This is not a joke, it is very much the truth, and I am that female chaperone.
For full disclosure, I should state that I shamelessly asked to chaperone a high school spring break trip. Yes, I know. Perhaps priest #1 immediately accepted this idea because I brought up the subject eight months before the trip would happen and three months before the planning even began. I would like to think that it was my personality and credentials instead of over eagerness – but that’s neither here nor there. I was delighted.
I asked to help plan and guide my high school alma mater’s biennial spring break Rome pilgrimage, because I had recently returned to Rome for a couple of days and, like any good addict, I wanted another fix. I wish I could say it was a more selfless motivation.
Anyway, after securing the gig, months pass, 14 elite high school seniors and juniors decide to join the trip (obviously the brightest of their respective peer groups), we book flights, and I attend group meetings where I answer questions like, “Who are you?” and, “Will we be able to shop?”
The happy day of departure arrives, and I meet the eager first-time international travelers at the bustling (ha) Tulsa airport. If you were reading closely, you noted that 14 kids signed up for the trip, and 13 attended. And you may think, “Isn’t the chaperone’s main responsibility not to lose a kid?” And you would be correct. So we lost only one. In Tulsa. Shakespeare should have written a tragedy about an expired passport, because, let me tell you, that is sad stuff.
Alas, we arrive in Rome a group of 16. Since this is a return trip to Rome for me (see previous posts), I will not go into detail about much of what we did. On past visits and while living in Rome, I had explored most everything on this trip’s itinerary. Notable “news” are mostly religious: Santa Croce, a church near St. John Lateran, which contains sacred relics of the cross. Also, the Pontifical North American College, an American seminary atop Gianicolo hill with stunning views of the Vatican and Rome.
A few new restaurants to note:
During a day trip to Assisi, we taxied up to St. Francis’ hilltop hermitage. We crawled through his small grotto. We walked through the forest, where everything grows quiet except the wind and the birds. I felt an absolute peace, a simultaneous stilling and stirring. We walked the two miles of cutbacks (did I mention that our group included a girl recovering from a broken leg?) down to Assisi and, thankfully, found the restaurant recommended to us by our seminarian friend. Let me rave about La Lanterna, a pizzeria off of Assisi’s main piazza, which perfects the thin airy crust of circular pizza al forno. I had one with zingy tomato sauce an dollops of cooked spinach and fresh ricotta.
On another recommendation of the seminarians: Ristochicco on Borgo Pio a couple blocks off of St. Peter’s square. Our group took up almost the entire inside dining room. The kind owner asked me if it was alright if he served us family style, bringing out the two pastas they do best, the two representations of his restaurant. You do not say no to a request like that. Big serving boats of steaming Pasta Carbonara and Pasta alla Norcina were his gift to us. Norcina, norcina, norcina. Go there, eat this. The antipasti cheese plate also deserves praise.
And finally, the other eating revelation was Saltimbocca off of Piazza Navona. This one is bittersweet for me. Saltimbocca with its wonderfully simple Cacio e Pepe pasta resides in the site of my old favorite, out-of-place-but-excellent, Spanish tapas restaurant, TapaLoca. RIP. The kids thought I was some sort of psychic because I knew where the restrooms were…
There are certain perks that accompany traveling to the Vatican with priests. For one, seeing the seat of the Catholic church through a priest’s eyes lends a completely new perspective. Our leaders emitted a contagious excitement and reverence for the place, its context, its history, and life.
Pope Francis holds a papal audience each week at 10am. In nice weather it is outside in St. Peter’s Square. Seeing the pope is a big deal. Especially to Catholics, especially to Catholic priests. So, we decided (I’ll say “we” to make it seem more democratic) to line up to enter the square at 6:30am. In a feat of what I can describe only as genius, priest #1, the school’s president, framed the entire morning as a competition. He gave the kids a football coach’s pregame speech of sorts: We’re going to get there early, be first in line, first through security, first into the square. We’re going to out run them, out body them, out smart them. We’re going to go as close as we can and get seats on the aisle. And then we’re going to block out all those little nuns and adorable Italian school children and see Pope Francis, smile and cheer and wave to him, from an arm’s distance.
And that’s what we did. And that’s a memory to last a lifetime.
There is also the perk of private masses. It seems shockingly easy to say mass at St. Peter’s Basilica if you are a Catholic priest. Our two strode into the Sacristy and just asked. And they pretty much just let you. And all the sudden the next day they are letting you say mass on St. John Paul II’s tomb, and the next day in the Vatican grottos, and the next on Gregory the Great’s tomb. It’s pretty incredible. And this intimate experience of St. Peter’s created a sublime religious, special feeling that I can sometimes lose amidst the tour groups, selfie sticks, and huge marble statues.
I will also note that walking between two priests and in front of a group of American teenagers seems to deter the come-hither stares of Italian men. I have yet to conclude if I consider that a perk.
This trip to Rome felt like no other before. It took an entirely new axis. And that observation of the lack of cat-calls kind of describes it. I wasn’t there entirely for me. It wasn’t about me. I was there to show the kids. I was there for their experience. Yes, we ate at my favorite fornos, and sandwich shops, and restaurants. Yes, I saw all of the sights. But, I wanted them to discover Rome. I wanted them to look out over the city and be struck like I was and still am. I wanted them to taste the food that I still think about. I wanted them to stand in front of me to see the pope. I wanted them to sit in the first pew, to climb to the highest point, to look the longest at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I wanted them to field Rome’s come-hither stares. I travelled without taking a photo on my good camera. I walked the streets pointing out things to the kids. I was just being and showing and enjoying. And that is true luxury.
My favorite sculptor is Rome’s Bernini. His masterpieces fill the city – on Ponte San Angelo, over St. Peter’s altar, in Galleria Borghese. He made immaculately intricate statues and structures. Ones that deserve hours and days of stares. His tomb, which I saw for the first time this trip, in Santa Maria Maggiore, is a plain marble step on the ground. Its humbleness is completely staggering to me.
During this trip, my personal, indulgent moments of highest joy were the simplest: the waiter at my favorite restaurant remembering me and asking me to stay for a coffee when I go to make our reservation. I sit and we talk about his new baby as he and the staff do their pre-opening chores, and I feel so happy. This moment is what makes Rome so special to me now. It is an exceptional, yet familiar, place that I can show others – that I can quietly fall in love with again while standing behind them.