When in Rome Alone – Day 3
I set my alarm for 7:00AM again. I needed to check the last thing off my Rome bucket list, go see the Vatican Museum and the inside of the Basilica. My legs were still sore from my ventures of the day before so I decided to employ my tenderness by challenging myself to figure out the Metro. After a few hesitant tiptoes on the cold tile floor, I hopped into a cool shower to wake myself up. I was out the door around 8:00AM with the recurring goal of beating the crowds.
As I walked underground to the Metro I was forced to pick up my usual gentle pace. I felt the rush of the hurried strides of locals trying to catch the next Metro before it pulled away; some running, not concerned about crashing into anyone, others walking briskly with arms flailing at their sides. I got a few dirty looks because I was disrupting the rapid’s flow. Too afraid to talk to a person at the ticket counter, I used the automated ticket machine to purchase my day pass, to my displeasure each kiosk was accompanied by a beggar. They were willing to help you if you gave them some change, of course. I was pissed, I’m a sucker for a sad face, and I truly did need help figuring that machine out. I tried to not make eye contact so I wouldn’t have to give the smelly, ratty man anything, but he was actually very helpful in getting me the right kind of ticket. He eagerly pushed a few buttons for me, he would slap my hand away as I would begin to pick the wrong option for tickets. When my ticket spit out of the machine he turned his panhandling face on. Oh he was good. He put his hands together, and praying to me as if I was god, moved his mouth into downcast position, and widened his puppy dogged, bloodshot eyes. I gave him some loose change from my pocket, I didn’t count it, hopefully it wasn’t much, then walked away shaking my head, partially feeling bad for the man, and upset that I fell for that once again. They must know I’m an easy target.
I rejoined the river of Romans to reach the correct platform. Hesitantly waiting at the water’s edge for the precise time to jump back in with the fish. Being mostly carried by the current, I was spit out onto my platform, then shuffled my way into the subway car. I love the Metro; it’s people watching heaven. People of all different classes, backgrounds, races, religions, all squished together forced to interact in this graffiti covered sardine can. We were all being tossed about by the shady looking amateur brakeman who was sitting, chain-smoking in the cockpit of the train going through his motions. In monotone Italian, his voice echoed through the tin telling people to step away from the doors. Not being used to the Metro and the centrivical forces that come with it, as the second the car pulled away I lost my balance. Thankfully the density of the crowd kept me on my feet or I surely would have plummeted to the already-been-chewed gum ridden metal floor. I readjusted my hands on the sticky metal bar above my head; spread my legs for a greater center of balance. Now I looked like a hardened veteran metro rider. I stood there fixated, watching the connected cars snake around the wide turns in the subway. I got off at the Vatican City stop, only six stops away, I rushed out with everyone else, again being pushed and carried along more than walking. I followed the signs that read “Uscita” (exit in Italian). After three escalator rides and some stairs I finally crawled out from the sunless and stuffy subway.
I figured that most of the people on the train were going to Vatican City. I picked the touristiest looking group and shadowed them until I got there. As I walked against the Vatican’s huge outside wall, I hit a long row of columns, I tried to pass through, but there were men dressed in silly red, yellow, and blue outfits making all of us innocent tourists go through a metal detector and open our bags. I later learned those silly men are the Swiss Vatican Guards, a tradition that goes back centuries.
The Piazza was huge. Circling around me were evenly spaced columns with marble saints. The sun was shining perfectly on the basilica illuminating it as if the heavens had opened. I looked around; there were thousands of people here. I expected that, the Vatican is Catholicism’s Mecca, but I saw row upon row of chairs set up and guards everywhere. I asked one of the goofy Swiss guys where the line was to go into the basilica, he answered, “no Basilica today, Pope here to speak.” I wasn’t sure how to react. I was upset by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see inside one of the “must see” sites in Italy, but to see the Pope should be an interesting experience. So with that, he directed me to a seat and plopped me down. I sat there confused as to what was going on, constantly looking around at the amassing amount of people behind me in the monstrous piazza.
After sitting for about thirty minutes, a few people sat around me. I asked them, “When is the Pope scheduled to be here?” They replied, “around 10:30 (AM).” It was only 9:00AM. I sat there twiddling my thumbs, trying to sketch, and people watch, but time was passing awkwardly slow. I decided to talk to my neighbors; I asked them where they were from. The woman to my left was German. She was a porky looking woman; her hair was short, poorly dyed red, and spiky. She was wearing a puffy, shiny purple jacket that only accentuated her plumpness. She said this was her second time coming to hear the Pope speak. She came down here just for the day to hear him then she was going back to Germany. She went on to tell me about how she found God. She visited a healing church in Bosnia. She’s been back there two hundred times since. She couldn’t hear out of her left ear until the power of God cleared her head, and all of a sudden, she could hear everything. After her personal story, she told me of another woman she was with who had a hump on her back which caused her left arm to be five inches shorter than her right. With one divine, curative smack on the back from the priest, she was miraculously all evened out. Then the women next to her, who had been playing with her wooden prayer beads in anticipation for the Pope’s arrival, jumped in and said she had been there too. Her exact words were, “Nobody can find the perfect words to describe how free your heart feels when you first set foot in there.” They both made me promise that I would go there someday. The woman who interjected was from South Carolina, her southern accent and charm made me feel warm and at home, she called me honey and handsome whenever she began a new statement directed towards me. We talked about our love for big SUVs and southern cooking, the German woman shared her love of Mercedes, the South Carolinian, her Chevy Tahoe. We spoke for a little bit, killing the time until the man of the hour arrived. As we were talking, two Catholic priests all the way from India sat to my right, and next to them another priest from Portugal with a small group of women accompanying him. In front of me was a family from Alaska. Being the only one who looked somewhat normal to them, they asked me where I was from, I told them Minnesota, they all in unison responded with a long, “Oh, OK”, and that was the end of that interaction. At 10:40 Pope Benedict rode in on bullet proof perch waving to everyone with what seemed to be a forced smile, making him look more constipated than happy. People were clapping modestly, yelling, “Papa, Papa!” holding their hands up towards him as if warming them by an elevated fire. I turned to the German woman next to me and said; “You’d think a religious man like this would at least be on time, right?” Hoping for a laugh, she looked at me and gave me a slightly dirty look and continued on with her shouting and clapping.
The Pope, in his divine, militarized golf cart, rode around the crowd a few times so all could catch a glimpse. He was dropped off at the podium then sat down in his throne. He said a short prayer that I can’t remember specifically, I was too busy watching the people around me, and then a representative speaking, German, English, Spanish, and French came up and translated. The reverent rabble was dead silent as the Pope lined up a small pile of printer paper. A man in a black robe rushed up to his seat and handed him his godly glasses, then he began to speak. His tone was very monotone, fluxuating very little. He read in Italian for about twenty minutes. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but I could pick out the word “chiesa”, which is church in Italian, only because it was the word that was used most frequently. Towards the end of his speech I got up and left. I began to feel bad. I had a pretty good seat to see a man speak that I have no connection to. People were fighting to get closer, on tippy toes to hold a view, cupping their ears to clearly hear the static voice through the massive spiritual speakers. It was an unbelievable cultural experience. I have never, and probably never will, experience something like that again. The people were beaming, lighthearted, euphoric, and enlivened by being there. People traveled from all over the world for only a few short hours to be in the presence of the man that they consider the one closest to God, to achieve and experience the utmost connection with something so momentous and significant in their religion. I can’t share their passion and excitement, but I can appreciate it, I compare it to when I prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. It was truly amazing to see and witness.
After I left, I hurried over to the Vatican museum doors, hoping that due to the Pope’s presence, the line would be short. The less devout crowd filled the line that amounted to a three-hour wait. I walked up to the front to scope it out and get a feel for the pace – not even a slow crawl. My train back to Florence was leaving in two hours and I had a lot of ground to cover and things to pack up back at the hotel before I left. A little upset because I wasn’t able to see the museum and inside of the Basilica, I popped my headphones on and headed back down to the dungeon-like, under-lit and stale metro directing me back to Florence.