A full month ago my Rome adventure came to a wistful end when I landed in JFK Airport and shuffled through Customs and Border Control with a suitcase full of scarves and a significant deprivation of sleep. Since then, I’ve been asked the same question a thousand different ways: “How was Rome?”, “How was Italy?”, “How awesome was it?”, and occasionally, “Where were you again?” Every time I hear these questions I can feel my eyes glaze over and my throat get tight. Every time I give the exact same answer: “It was great. Really great.”
There’s a phenomenon experienced by the very hungry when someone asks them what they want to eat- in that instant they lose their appetite entirely and forget every meal they’ve ever had. This is kind of what happens when someone asks me about the Rome semester. Rome, I think, isn’t that the place where they built the Great Wall? Or, wait, the Eiffel Tower is there, isn’t it? I can’t remember a single thing. You would think that the Colosseum or the election of the Pope or at least the food would give me an instant conversation starter, but they don’t. How do you explain stargazing from the roof of the villa, or walking through an olive grove on your way to the bus, or the smell of the Tiber when you’re dozens of meters underground climbing through the ruins of a Necropolis? How do you explain how much it hurt to watch Pope Benedict fly in his helicopter away from St. Peter’s Square the night he resigned, or the clenching in your gut when you thrust a post card into the hand of a cardinal and watch him hand it to Pope Francis?
It was great. Really. It was really, really great.
Recently, I had a much more stimulating conversation about pickles. That is not meant to demonstrate just how not stimulating my How Was Rome conversations are; it was just a really thought provoking consideration of the pickle, qua pickle. The pickle, the true deli pickle, is so much more than a sour cucumber, if you think about it. The pickle means planting, harvest, vinegar, barrels, craftsmanship, agriculture, time, the survival of humanity, the entirety of the human experience; all of these combine to transform a considerably bland vegetable into something that can only be expressed in the word pickle. Then again, it’s not something you consider every time you put relish on your hot dog. When most people hear pickle they envision supermarket jars of baby dills. They’re not even the same species, the deli pickle and the alarmingly yellow Vlasic spear. More’s the pity that the latter passes for pickle most of the time.
During this pickle conversation, I was thinking of the pickles that our host families served us in Poland. They described the pickles as ‘weird,’ though they looked like standard out of the barrel pickles to me; the trick was they weren’t truly pickled. No vinegar was involved in the pickling process; just water, herbs, spices, and time. A long time, our host told us. When I asked if the family did the pseudo-pickling themselves, they looked at me like the alien I was, coming into their country knowing absolutely nothing between the two heads growing out of my shoulders. It’s too difficult, they explained, and it takes a lot of time. It’s a job for the old women. God bless them, we just get to enjoy the pickles.
The Rome semester has become my pickle. One bite of Rome and you can taste art, war, craftsmanship, antiquity, tradition, sanctity, the vast and sweet essence of what it means to be human. It’s so good you want to run around shouting about it. When you go home you want to shake your neighbors by the shoulders and say I saw the Pope at the Colosseum. I walked through mud in the Etruscan tombs. I heard the Urbi et Orbi Easter address. I touched the tombs of saints whose bodies are incorrupt. I sampled vinegar that was one hundred and fifty years old. I experienced the heart of Western Civilization, with modernity and antiquity, sacred and profane running through it like valves. People have been living this way for centuries and it’s still happening every day.
You want to say all those things, you want to shout ‘PICKLE!’ at the top of your lungs, but all anyone can envision is the CheapoMart Jar Pickle Chips. I say pickle, you say pickle, and we aren’t talking about the same thing. I say Rome, you say Rome, and we are not thinking of the same place. It hurts to be so instantly and utterly cut off from everyone, because there’s this gaping depth of experience that isn’t shared. The pickle is shared experience. The pickle transcends time and place because it speaks to an eternity, and endless wealth of understanding. Rome is this way a thousand times more so.
At school we call the kids in the Rome semester ‘the Romans,’ because it kind of fits and it’s catchy, but we aren’t the Romans. The Romans came out of Rome and transformed the world. We go to Rome and are transformed by it. Rome is the heart of human experience, and its influence runs in and out like veins and arteries. We came in, we were transformed, and we went out again. This is all for the health of the human body.
Now I don’t wait to be asked, How was Rome? It’s too great. Sometimes (I lied, all the time) I think about Rome and I catch myself, because I was just in the middle of a really interesting conversation about pickles, and I need to come back and respond. This is how human experience works, and it’s only more severed if one keeps something so great as Rome to oneself. So thinking about pickles and vinegar and true, hearty food, I talk about a lunch five of us girls had sitting by the Mediterranean, how the water was so blue and rich that I could tell there had to be someone across it, seeing it from the other side as I was then, and how it must have been this way for thousands of years. Then, because the person across from me can only imagine it, he says, ‘Wow.’ Then we both know, deeply, down to the core, what I mean when I say, ‘It was great.’
And great only begins to cover it.