Meet Me in Sistine Chapel or Rome, Second Try

My second trip to Rome was in 1988, during that much-mentioned European summer in college.  There were endless discussions about where everyone will travel after classes end.  I wanted to go to Scandinavia.  Almost everyone wanted to go to Italy.  I went to Scandinavia, by myself—but not before I went to Italy with my roommate Kathy.

This looks like something out of “Rocco and His Brothers”. Milo in 1988

But at the outset, I have to acknowledge that I made a small, but vital error in my first Roman reminiscence when I wrote that I never entered Pensione Milo since 1981. Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing Apparently I did, during this second visit, and not only that, but Kathy and I even went up to the lobby and loitered there for a bit.  There are photos from this second visit—but, due to lack of funds and related constraints of a 35mm camera, the careful rationing of available resources resulted in zero images of the pensione’s interior.  And then three decades passed, and I completely forgot this ever-critical fact—until I conferred with the old diary.  And there it was.  Never let it be said that I do not acknowledge my mistakes.

As a teenager, I wrote about my life in great detail, which I desperately envy now.  I envy my younger self’s complete and utter self-absorption—but, that is certainly the prerogative of youth.  I would love to recapture that focus in my Third Thirty, and preferably a little before.

And thus present recollection refreshed informs us that on Thursday, July 7, 1988, Kathy, Naomi, and I were the second group to depart the Travelers Hotel in Nimes (the town I missed revisiting due to the plague last year, Pont du Gard and the Plague – Old Lady Writing) on a night train to Paris.  While waiting on the platform, we were rewarded by being kissed by sailors from a Marseille-bound train that stopped in Nimes for a literal minute.  It was a kinder, gentler time.  No judgment.

In my diary, I wrote in puzzling detail about traversing Paris with Naomi from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord with my hateful, incredibly heavy orange Soviet-edition suitcase.  Wheeled suitcases were already a thing then, but out of about 35 people in the group, I was the only one without one.  Being an immigrant, and of the refugee kind to boot, I spent the decade trying, yet never quite succeeding, to fit in.  I would like to think that the orange suitcase was the last vestige of that difficult passage to America. 

In any case, it was a complicated plan in which Kathy (who stored her suitcase at Gare Montparnasse—a detail that never becomes important again in this narrative) and I, after parting ways with Naomi, first headed to the Netherlands, where I left the detested luggage with my erstwhile host family, and then traveled all the way down to Rome, after which we efficiently worked our way back up via North of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Belgium again, Switzerland again, to finally tearfully part back in Paris.  She mentioned once that she will probably not return to Europe, as she was looking forward to getting married and living the good life in the U.S.  I was instantly shocked, as I envisioned that summer as the beginning of many adventures to come.  We were both right.  And she is still the best roommate I’ve had (present spouses excluded, of course).

But the very first day—after the luggage was sorted and after we spent about two days sitting on various trains (for sleeping wagons are only covered by the Eurail Pass if there is literally no other mode of transportation) and missing various trains (for the Italian rail schedule was an unsolvable mystery in the ‘80s) was Rome.

The hostel where we stayed was either worse than Milo, or I came to expect more.  No, it was clearly the former—as a college student of extremely limited means, my expectations would not rise for at least another decade (remember the First Spanish trip? The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing)  We arrived exhausted and bedraggled at Roma Termini, looking forward to a shower before bed.  I do not recall who went in first—but whoever it was, discovered that only cold water was available (I would guess it had to be me, because had Kathy told me that there was no hot water, why would I have gotten in?  She would have—I would have stayed filthy).  We sat on our respective beds, felt sorry for ourselves, and had a good cry.  I had a fleeting thought that Rome and I just aren’t meant to be.

Our one day in Rome was action-overpacked.  We met several friends from our group—inside the Sistine Chapel, no less, because in those pre-cell phone days you had to pick a landmark, a time, and hope that everyone made it.  It was kind of like a student/buddy moment of Sleepless in Seattle.  Kathy and I walked all the way from the hostel near Termini to the Vatican.  We already know now that it is less than 5k Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing, but after a long train ride, a traumatic first evening, and on a sweltering, tourist-packed August day it seemed like a manifestation of all the confusion and disorder that I remembered from my previous Rome stay. 

So, I finally saw the Sistine Chapel, and then the Colosseum.  We ate some terrible pasta at a cheap restaurant nearby, cementing my poor opinion of Italian food for the next few decades.  We visited the catacombs.  It was exciting to finally be out and about as a paying, albeit a decidedly not flush, tourist.  But Rome was still overwhelming, in its size, its sights, its sounds, its infinite variety.  If the first trip was one prolonged anxiety attack, the second trip was an assault on the senses.  To be fair, it was only a day, and short on time and money, we made the best of it.  Third time turned out to be the charm.


Roman Holiday

It took me three visits and over three decades to make peace with the Eternal City. Yes, Rome and I are friends now.  We have finally met as equals.  And frankly, I have fallen in love with it.  Any place seems better when you are (1) not a refugee there and (2) not focusing all your energy on leaving.

There are no photos in existence from that time, but I do have several postcards, depicting the sights I saw live only decades later.

I will never forget the first exciting view of Roma Termini in December of 1980.  In my first outing from the USSR, where train stations were bare, marbled, vaulted, and meant exclusively for tormented and interminable waiting, the bright vitrines of Termini were just spectacular.  There were these display cases the size of small windows, basically shadow boxes, full of various souvenir items and toys, shiny, exotic, and oh-so-Western-European.  They were mesmerizing! 

I have seen many more train stations since then, and they no longer interest me.  Although in Rome things tend to stick around for millennia, the shadow boxes seem to have gone the way of all memories.  Everything else is recognizable, but Termini’s luster has faded.  In contrast, the rest of the city is much improved.  But what a conundrum—in 1980, Rome meant nothing to me beyond the glamorous train station.  I saw so pitifully little of it!  Thirty five years later, the rest of Rome transformed itself into a glorious, romantic, sight- and taste-filled adventure—albeit with a lackluster train station.  What a sleight of hand!

Pensione Milo, which housed many of us former Soviet citizens on our first and one-way trip out of the country of our birth (still united at that time), is now a hotel.  If I live long enough to get back to Rome yet again, I would like to try to dare myself to stay there–provided the scars of memory heal by then.  It is near the Termini, so that makes it convenient.  On my two subsequent visits, I stayed nearby because that was all I knew, but it is actually a fairly charming area.  Milo seems to have been all renovated and fancy, with private bathrooms, no less (according to their website; I have not yet had the nerve to enter).  Well, not exactly fancy, but it is a hotel, no longer a boarding house for refugees.  There must not have been much call for that after a certain point in time.  Back in the day, we had two rooms, because we were two families.  I was made to share with my grandmother, and my mom with my grandfather, because grandma and I caught some terrible illness and were quarantined together.  It was the brighter room, on a lower floor, and it had a sink.  A sink of our own!  The other room was upstairs, with peeling wallpaper, sloping ceiling, and no sink. Occasionally fellow refugee neighbors would use our sink to brush their teeth, as it was such an unexpectedly luxurious feature.    There was a communal dorm-style bathroom and a dining room.  The meals, which included bread rolls of the type that they still serve in Roman hotels for breakfasts, and all manner of pasta dishes with weak tomato sauce, and occasionally tomato pasta soup, were served by a guy named Franco.  I can now pretty much assume that Franco was his name.  At the time, the foreignness of it could have only meant that it was Italian for “waiter”. 

So, for years I thought that Italian food was terrible (both the gobs of boiled spaghetti of the refugee cuisine, and equally the monstrous portions of over-cheesed baked American variety).  It did not compare to the culinary delights of the Austrian prison, where we stayed prior to being transported to Rome.  There was no Italian equivalent of Manner wafers.  But we were free.  Free to do almost nothing but fret about our future. We were pretty confident, I think, that we would be allowed to enter the United States—but when? And what exactly waited for us on the receiving end?  And how do you occupy your time with anything more than survival when you have no money and no language skills?  It is not the lack of money or language.  It is the not belonging.  You are not a tourist, not a guest, not on a business trip.  You are just in a limbo of existence, and you are waiting for your paused life to restart. 

As refugees, we spent most of our time in Rome indoors.  This might have been the only time in my life that my grandmother did not insist that I go outside to play.  What did we even do?  How did we pass the days?  (And how many days were we actually there?  It felt like months, but the calendar does not bear that out).   It seems so strange and unlikely now that we would not have taken the opportunity to explore the city.  I asked my mother about it not long ago, and she really had no answer.  There were plausible explanations—no map, no language, no money—but none of that makes sense if you have the time.  We ate our meals and constantly conferred with the other exiles (“Where are you going, Tevye?” “New York. And you, Lazar Wolf?” “Chicago.” “Good, we will be neighbors”).  This was our version of the last days in Anatevka. 

We stayed within a short walking distance from the Colosseum, which I never saw on that trip.  I walked the entire distance from the near-Termini area to the Vatican on several later occasions.  It is less than a 5k, a distance that I cover on autopilot during my training runs.  Could a merry little band of refugees have walked out of Pensione Milo on Via Principe Amedeo and kept walking?  Not stopping to drink prosecco, not walking into churches, not sitting down to a plate of seafood, but just strolling and staring?  We did at least once, because I remember a group of us, led by one especially fierce female of the species, who kept accosting passers-by with frantic cries of “Dove la posta centrale?”  I remember the terrifying bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, but not whether we ever reached our destination.

We met the New Year in the lobby of the pensione. One of the dads was presented as an unexpectedly believable Grandpa Frost, with cheeks rouged by someone’s lipstick, and gave out gifts to the kids.  Everyone contributed what they could.  I got a chocolate bunny, which was literally the best gift ever.  In our secular Soviet life, chocolate bunnies had no connection to Easter (nor should they ever or anywhere, in my humble opinion), but were an anytime special treat.  I was thrilled.  No one could afford to buy Italian chocolates, but this was a familiar treasure that someone brought from home and donated.  I have kept the foil wrapper for 40 years.

They say that how you meet the New Year is how it will turn out to be.  “They” are decidedly wrong as often as they are right.  But, that New Year’s Eve set the tone not just for the coming Worst Year of My Life So Far (and I just lived through the pandemic of 2020!), but for my Least Favorite Decade So Far, the 1980s.  It might have been a festive Roman celebration outside, but inside, my small world was bracing for the strange, scary new life on another continent.