La mia gioia in Italia (My Joy in Italy): Part 1

Se mai ho avuto la gioia, era in Italia.
If ever I had joy, it was in Italy. 

Se mai ho visto la luce, era in Italia.
If ever I saw light, it was in Italy.

Se mai ho mangiato bene, era in Italia.
If ever I ate well, it was in Italy.

Il mio cuore appartiene a Italia.
My heart belongs to Italy.

(Ho praticato il mio italiano.)
(I’ve been practicing my Italian.)

It’s going to sound SO sappy, especially on a screen, but our trip to Rome was a nonstop stream of religious experiences. But I think those passionate, sometimes gaudy, always vibrant Italians would be pleased that their city drove me to feel only the most highly saturated emotions.

I found just how boundless the upper limit of joy is … like a domed ceiling, with an oculus gateway to infinity.

So, I’ve been here before. Just after graduating high school, I participated in a program called AMA (American Music Abroad), where high schools from a certain region sent a handful of students to four European countries for three weeks to play and sing for the residents there. With a jazz band, concert band, orchestra, and chorus, we toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy over the course of three weeks. Our first stop was Rome. What I remember: the smell, the sun, roasting nuts of unknown identity, churches, gelato, and a gargantuan building of white marble with a black horse statue in front that I could not remember the name of.

I am happy to report that Rome smells exactly the same. It’s a veritable potpourri of smells. One smell is, of course, the European staple of cigarette smoke. Another is what I think must be the smell of terra cotta in the sun, a warm, earthy scent. Another is the smell of ocean water, just a hint of salt. Another is a kind of metallic smell which mystified me last time and of which I still don’t know the origin. Finally is the smell of food: bread, meat, and vegetables.

The sun is stronger here and I, having not been south of the Mason-Dixon line since Rome the last time, was drinking it up from the moment we landed. We exited the airport, delighted to find that we were in the middle of nowhere. We caught a bus to our hostel, which was a half hour bus ride outside of the city proper, in a lovely, very hilly neighborhood, where things were much cheaper than in the city. Checking in with our AirBnB host, we dropped our things and ventured out for a bite and an adventure.

Our first stop was the first religious experience. (There will be a lot of these.)

A little pizza shop caught our eye. I ordered a margarita pizza in Italian, pleased with my first Italian interaction in a long time; my pride was short-lived, however. I was blind-sided when an employee hurled an Italian word at me, quickly and sharply. I stuttered, blinked a lot, looked to Emily, the Spanish speaker, to see if she recognized it, she didn’t, I uttered, ‘uh’ quite dumbly, and finally she said it again, pointing to a box, then outside. A wave of embarrassment passed over me as I realized it was the Italian word for ‘takeaway’, which I had never learned from a textbook. I mumbled, ‘si, prego’, took my pizza, paid, and shuffled out the door. Almost a job well done.

But the pizza. Oh, the pizza. Fresh, crispy dough with olive oil drizzled on top. You could see the light flakes of sea salt on the olive oil. Then, fresh, diced tomatoes, ruby red and oozing with juice. White, glistening mozzarella, the imperfectly ripped texture hinting at its authenticity. And finally, emerald green basil, not a hint of brown, lush, and deliciously pungent, with cracked pepper on top.

We ate it on the way into Rome on the bus. We were standing amongst maybe thirty Italians and passing Italian signs, most of which I could understand. I was standing, but I was floating. As long as I’ve been studying Italian by myself, I’ve had a shadowy thought in the back of my mind reminding me that this doesn’t do any good unless I practice with someone. If I don’t speak it aloud and hear it aloud in conversation, all of it could be for naught.

That bus ride dispelled that pesky little thought and I was buzzing like neon.

We got off at a random bus stop on Monte Esquilino (Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills) and followed the street signs to the landmarks we wanted to see. Our informal walking tour took us to the gorgeous Fontana di Trevi, la Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti (the Spanish Steps), la Piazza del Popolo, e la Terrazzo del Pincio (Pincio Promenade). (Be advised … there are 30-some pictures in this slideshow. All of which are my favorites. Thanks.)

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The sun, smiling, began to set on Rome.

All through the day, I’d had Rossini’s La Cenerentola (starring my birthday buddy, Cecilia Bartoli) in my earbuds and his writing couldn’t have better embodied my joy. The rhythm bounced like an excited heartbeat, the singer’s voices flitted up and down the scale, the words had such vivacity, hope, humor. Cenerentola’s Rondò finale, Nacqui all’affanno, began as Rome turned golden:

“I was born breathless and crying, suffering silently at the core; but by a sweet charm, in the flower of my youth, like a lightning flash, my luck has turned … no more sorrow by the fire, to be singing alone, no! Ah, it was a lightning flash, a dream, a game, my long life of suffering.”

Out of nowhere, even though I’ve listened to this song dozens of times before, my chest expanded, my breath caught, and my eyes welled. I felt every elation, despair, rage, and shock from the past four years wallop me at once. Like looking back at an old diary or the wall-mounted ruler my parents used to chart my height, I suddenly became aware of the maturation I’d undergone since coming to college. The feeling was so immense, I could barely wrap my heart around it.

I didn’t know I was living in high school. I remember the moment in eighth grade when I developed my sharp disdain for the busywork of school and the antics of my classmates; it was the moment I calloused my hands, tucked my chin, and got through my life until I could sing, play an instrument, be with friends, write–do anything but be told what to do. Of course, I had beautiful friends that have stuck with me through it all, amazing teachers that gave me the skills and nourishment I needed, and my family was how I even survived. But I don’t think I was happy. I was happy enough, which sometimes didn’t suffice. Anything remotely negative would send me dipping below the surface. Tunnel vision will do that to a person.

Of course, not all are so lucky to escape. There were three suicides at my high school in the four years I was there. I would be lying to say I didn’t skirt around the edges of those kinds of thoughts in my darkest hours. I spent afternoons in a bathroom stall, breathless and crying. A bad grade on a test that would surely ruin my grade for the semester or forgetting an assignment because I had so many extracurricular activities (none of which I could drop because I needed them for college applications) would make me wonder if it was even worth it. But after a night’s rest or after a talk with my mom and dad, I would snap out of it. Some don’t.

So, what must change? And who’s to blame?

When I got to college, I was finally able to breathe. My luck had changed. It took some time to open and truly let people in after all the time spent closed off, but once I did, it was bliss. Although I’m further away from my parents, I feel them with me in every step I take or word I say. I made friends that complete me. If I attained any success, my teachers, whether they believe me or not, are to thank; they loved and supported me into the truest form of myself. The way of living I discovered in college is one of gratitude: finally being able to step outside of my problems and realize how much I owe to the people in my life and (it sounds gross and cheesy) how lucky I am. It’s so much easier to live. It was a lightning flash, a dream, a game, my long life of suffering.

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Questa vita è più bella e prezioso di ogni altra cosa.
This life is more beautiful and precious than anything else.

I gazed at the roman sunset, belly full with good food, flanked on either side by my best friend and a very close friend, skin warm, eyes and ears full of beauty, and thankfully I had sunglasses on as a few happy tears escaped from my eyes–not sure how I would have articulated my reason for them.

Pulling myself together, we sought out dinner and, man, did we get it. La Proscuitteria in a secretive alley just off Piazza di Trevi gave us an enormous board of antipasto-style meats, cheeses, bread, vegetables, olives, etc. all for ten euro (just about ten dollars) per person. Observe and be jealous:

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After, we wandered a bit more, then thoroughly exhausted and having been up for about twenty-two hours, we went back to our AirBnb. Of course, we found gelato first. Tiramisu. Always. And conked out.

To be continued …

Feeling spiritual and emotionally overwhelmed,

Katie H.

2 thoughts on “La mia gioia in Italia (My Joy in Italy): Part 1

  1. If you every get bored of theater and are looking for an alternate career, I think Rome would pay you big bucks to be a travel writer.

    Beautiful! Miss ya!


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