Trip Dates: January – May, 2003
My exploration of Europe as a sophomore in college had a home base: Rome. My desire to study abroad and, specifically, to study in Rome was extremely last minute. I had been planning to go to Miami University’s campus in Luxembourg during my Junior year, like most students, but an awkward roommate situation started me thinking about going a year early. The Luxembourg program was completely full so I started to research programs in Italy since I was, at that point, half a semester into Italian 101. Like the Luxembourg program, most of the programs I came across were full but I convinced someone at Loyola University’s Rome Center to consider my application.
At this point I called my dad to talk to him about it since, ultimately, it was his decision. Now, those who don’t know me and especially those who didn’t know me as a child, need to understand something. I am the oldest of five kids. Our “travel” experiences consisted of a station wagon and a yearly trip to Northern Michigan to visit my mom’s family. Once we went to Disney World. Occasionally we would all pack our bags and fly to Tucson to see my dad’s family and there were a string of summers when we visited Door County, Wisconsin for a week. Spring breaks of my youth were spent in my home city of Chicago, visiting museums, spending a couple of nights in a hotel and, of course, attending a Bulls game. I always thought that these stints of being a hometown tourist were really fun but when I was in high school and the baby of the family was old enough, my dad discovered Apple Vacations and spring break was never the same. The point is, my family really didn’t travel a lot when I was growing up. I had a lot of friends in high school who had traveled to Europe, Asia and even Africa with their families but the Winter family always stayed a little closer to home. Because of this, I didn’t know what to expect when I called my dad to ask if I could go to Rome for the semester. It would have been really easy for him to shut me down but he didn’t. Despite the fact that my dad, at that point, had never been to Europe himself, he encouraged me to pursue this opportunity. That semester abroad is possibly the best gift my dad ever gave me. Either that or my first camera.
Two short months later I found myself in Rome – la città eterna! I didn’t know a soul going into it and I was the youngest student in the program by a year. I had no idea what to expect – everything was so new and exciting. I remember my first night there when, despite being horribly jet lagged, I headed out with a group of students to explore the city. We took a bus and ended up in Piazza Navona and it all just seemed so magical. The Fountain of the Four Rivers bubbling, the way the city was lit, the Italian chatter and delicious aromas pouring out of each restaurant we passed. That was the beginning of something special in my life: it was when I first fell in love with travel. The idea of seeing a place that has been there for thousands of years for the first time. Of experiencing what I had read about in books and seen in movies first hand. I’m glad that the first time I saw Rome was by night. It added to her dramatic flare and otherworldliness – it’s how that city should be seen.
The Rome Center is located on a hill in Monte Mario, northwest of the city center. On most days, my classes were over by 1pm. I would study and do my homework during siesta hours and then head into the city center to walk around and explore new neighborhoods in the afternoon. On days when I had afternoon classes I would head into the city after dinner with friends for a glass of wine or to just walk around and take it all in. I did a lot of walking Rome, partly because, in my opinion, that’s the best way to get to know a new place and partly because I was always lost. I carried a map of the city with me almost everywhere I went but I don’t think that it ever left my purse. I used to love to get lost on the streets of Rome and then suddenly stumble upon the Pantheon or the Colosseum or the Vatican City. To feel like I was walking in circles and then turn a corner to see the Trevi Fountain or to find myself at the top of the Spanish steps.
I tried to speak Italian whenever possible and soon realized that Romans, true Romans, are friendly and lazy enough to entertain me in that endeavor. I ended up making a couple of friends around the city and would try to visit them to work on my Italian and get suggestions on things to see and places to eat that day. There was Alessandro, a student at the University who came to the Rome Center to work on his English. Pietro, the owner and chef of a little restaurant I stumbled upon with a couple of friends in our neighborhood. Marco worked at a hotel near the Spanish steps and more than once we found one another during his break. He would correct my Italian and give me “things to work on.” I called him Professore.
And finally Giorgio, my artist friend in Piazza Navona. There are a lot of street artist in Rome and most of them seem to be in Piazza Navona. I was drawn to Giorgio’s chalk drawings and water colors and would visit him often to watch him work and to chat. On my last day in Rome he gave me a chalk drawing of Piazza Navona and it still hangs in my bedroom at my parents’ house. Giorgio and I exchanged addresses and sent one another postcards for a little while but eventually lost touch.
When I first arrived in Rome in was mid-January and the city was relatively quiet. It was a bit chilly but much milder than what I was used to in Chicago and the other tourists I met were mainly students. When I left Rome it was early May and the summer tourists had started to arrive. It was so crowded. The entire city seemed to get smaller as all of those people filled in and I purposefully stayed away from tourist areas and museums. I tried to find Professore to say goodbye during my last week in Rome but the Spanish Steps were so crowded that there was no way I’d ever be able to locate him.
On my last day in Rome, I pulled a Sabrina/Roman Holiday/Audrey Hepburn. I’ve always had long hair, but I wanted something fresh and new. I stepped into a little salon near the Vatican City and got a hair cut. I told the man I didn’t want it so short that I couldn’t put it in a pony tail and thank goodness he understood. I stepped out of the salon feeling like a new person. As I walked along the Vatican wall an American woman stopped me. “Excuse, me. Can you please tell me how to get to the Vatican Museum. Museo Vaticano?” She spoke slowly and deliberately.
“Yes,” I replied pointing the direction. “It’s that way, on the left.”
“Thank you,” she smiled. “By the way, your English is fantastic.”
I turned away from the woman and silently laughed. I pushed my new haircut behind my ears and continued walking to meet up with friends, feeling truly at home in Rome.