June 9, 2021
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It’s hard not to wax nostalgic about travel these days. As the effects of COVID-19 keep us all at home, with no clear indication of when we’ll be able to travel again, those of us with wanderlust turn our minds to fond memories of trips past.
I have been thinking increasingly of my first trip to Italy, when I was a university student taking part in a study abroad program at the age of twenty.
Who knew then that that trip would spark a love of Italy and a love for travel that would see me co-owning a tour company some thirty years later? Or that I would be able to show my own children my “adopted” country and teach them to love it as well? Who could have guessed that I would be stuck, like the rest of the world, in a bubble of uncertainty and melancholy during an unprecedented time of pandemic, wanting nothing more than to hop on a plane and yet unable to?
“Ha spiccioli?” Huh? My roommate Rebecca, another American student, who had been there a couple weeks already, came to my rescue….
I remember my arrival in Italy back in 1990 like it was yesterday. This was the Rome of thirty years ago, mind you. It was less international, less cosmopolitan, than I find it these days (although it is still undeniably, undefinably ROME!). Few of the locals spoke English, the restaurants were almost all Italian, and EVERYTHING was closed on Sundays. The afternoon siesta was rigorously maintained.
I came to Rome armed with two years of college-level Italian. I could conjugate verbs in the subjunctive! But during a trip to the store my first day there to purchase some essentials I could only stare in incomprehension at the cashier. “Ha spiccioli?” Huh? My roommate Rebecca, another American student, who had been there a couple weeks already, came to my rescue. “She wants to know if you have change.”
We lived in a student dormitory called CIVIS in the Ponte Milvio area of Rome. Located on the northwest end of the city, it is perhaps best known for the presence of the Olympic Stadium, which hosted events of the 1960 Olympic games and is the current home of Rome’s two soccer teams. But it is also known as the location of La Farnesina, the seat of the Ministero degli Affari Esteri (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). And, of course, it famed for Ponte Milvio itself, one of the few remaining bridges from the Roman Age, constructed in the 2nd century BC.
There is a small neighborhood surrounding the bridge. However, due to the nearby stadium and government buildings, the area around our dormitory contained large swaths of land that were vacant in the evenings. When I lived there they formed a sort of red-light district after hours. It made living abroad for the first time a bit more interesting!
Just down the road by bus, as you follow the curve of the Tiber, is Vatican City. This was an easy hopping off place to catch the metro at the Ottaviano stop or to take a tram to explore the rest of the city.
Our dormitory was not conveniently located to the university, which lies in the San Lorenzo neighborhood on the opposite side of the city. But most of my classes were in a department that held classes in the Piazza della Repubblica (Piazza Esedra to the locals). Perhaps this daily trek there is the reason it is still one of my favorite piazzas in Rome, and its Fontana delle Naiadi (Fountain of the Naiads) one of my favorite fountains (pictured back in 1990, with me on the right!).
It was an interesting year, to say the least. The first Gulf War happened while we were there, which caused the Italians to cancel Venice’s Carnevale for the first time in decades. (Sound familiar? That happened this year too.) We still went (check out the picture of me with friends on the Grand Canal)!
The dollar was positively anemic, which meant we never had two “spiccioli” to rub together. We would gather at the bar near Ponte Milvio to drink beer or play billiards. (This was my first experience of a so-called ‘squat’ toilet – of which there were many back then.) Or, we would gather in our dorm rooms with copious amounts of cheap wine and play guitar. We almost always ate at the “Mensa,” the school cafeteria, where we could get a subsidized lunch and dinner for, if I remember correctly, 1000 Lire each (just over $1 at the time). Except Sundays, when, if you had not thought ahead to pick up a sandwich or something the day before, you had to beg off your friends.
We were so damned young, and exploring a new world for the first time.
It instilled in me, above all, an appreciation for something outside my own experience, one that I carried with me through all my additional years in Rome and all my subsequent travels. To learn fluently a language that is not your own, to live for a year as a local – these don’t just give you a new insight into a different culture, they give you a different perspective of your own. In a sense, it’s like leaving the nest of cultural childhood, you never again relate to your own homeland with the same innocence or ingenuousness. For me, that opening in my own outlook was fertile ground for the travel bug, to which I have happily succumbed ever since.
And now… we wait. We know, historically, that no pandemic has ever lasted forever. COVID-19 will end, and travel will resume. So I spend my time reliving in my mind’s eye my most cherished travel memories, and thinking about where I’ll go next.
By Peg Kern
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