Feeling diminished by the exhaustive history of the world is an inevitable side effect of visiting ancient Rome. Walking the now-underground ruins of catacombs and churches and city streets that used to be ground level and absorbing the history of centuries of various religions, emperors, and peoples who have been reduced to dust can't help but renew perspectives and evoke a sense of awe about the modern society that will one day be the "ancient" society studied.
Our weekend field trip centered on the relationship between Jew and Christians in Italy through the ages. We visited several catacombs and churches, including my Roman favorite, Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its phenomenal Byzantine mozaics by Pietro Cavallini.
My director/boss/ally/friend, Alan, and I, when not paying attention to the professor's incredibly well-informed and interdisciplinary lectures about the last 3,000 years of Roman history, would take the chance to enjoy Rome on our own terms.
Friday night, we ate with Professor Soltes at a Rick Steves-recommended spot in Trastevere, where we felt like we were walking in on a grandmother's kitchen. Dinner was delicious, and between the good company and the munificent flow of wine, we had lots of laughs. Remarkably, we recognized a man eating at a nearby table as the Ukrainian Cal Berkeley professor who had spoken at the Florence Shoah conference we had attended earlier that week. Such a small world, and I blame it on Rick Steves!
I got to stay an extra day in Rome because all the students had opted to do so, and I spent my morning at the gritty Porta Portese flea market. Looking past the stalls selling used make-up and socks, I found lots of interesting treasures, including antique furniture, compelling religious art, and crystal chandeliers.
Along the way, I saw a beautiful shrine dedicated to the Madonna, with special plaques from different families who feel that Mary has answered their prayers.
I went to Vatican City twice, once to visit St. Peter's with the group, and another time on my own to see the Pope's Sunday noon blessing.
For some reason, Rome has yet to remove the Christmas lights or nativity scenes from the town. Even St. Peter's Basilica seems to be behind, but I didn't mind because it boasted the most awesome creche I'd ever seen-it even snowed!
Despite my many trips to visit Rome over the years, this was my first time ever seeing a pope. He spoke from a high side window, addressing the crowd in multiple languages. Then he turned over the microphone to a young boy who asked the pope to pray for his school's teachers and parents to keep the kids following in the ways of the church. Pope Benedict blessed the people and released a dove that decided to turn right around and fly back in the window! We all had a good laugh, and that was that!
I was surprised at how casual the whole event was; the way the crowd cheered and yelled, I almost wondered if Bon Jovi had appeared in the window instead of Pope Benedict. Nonetheless, it was an exciting experience and I'm glad I was finally able to see him.
On my way back to the train station, I noticed the following graffiti message on Isola Tiberina, and while it's simply a love message, it brought me back to this idea of Rome's never-ending history and influence on the world, and ultimately is how I feel about the city itself:
"I love you from here...to the end of the world...
back to here again...until infinity"