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While it may seem unusual, I can literally pinpoint my obsession with Europe to one single day in the fall of my 21st year.

At 21, all I wanted to do was sail off into the sunset.

From the summer after I had graduated high school just over three years prior, there had been a constant tug of war between both my mother and myself. I had dreamed of heading off to the islands and gaining my “education” through adventurous experiences, crewing on a boat around the world. However, this free “diploma” was not the one my mother had intended to hang on her wall. Being the coercive leo that she is, she did everything she could to literally stuff me in the car and drive me off to college right on time with everyone else, at the young age of 18 (while I played Jimmy Buffett tunes and sang about how “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go…”).

Feeling defiantly boxed into a corner, I made good on my outspoken promise to be seen but not participate. I went through the motions of heading to class, but engaged all of my effort into my fraternity boyfriend, throwing the biggest parties in the dorm, and living the “coolest” new-found life of freedom that I could.

While my shallow existence could have easily continued on for a lifetime of trivial pursuits, a series of unexpected events that would quickly unravel over the next few years taught me first-hand the meaninglessness of the path that I was on. It was as though someone grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and made a very sharp, dramatic turn, setting the car that was my life onto an unknown road I had never seen before.

Once I was on this unexpected road, however, I never had any interest in turning back. The road began to hurriedly climb a steep mountain which I now knew had always been near at hand, but had never noticed. As I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, I turned my head to gaze out the window where I could see everyone I had left behind, all so far below. They seemed to be congealed together in a great mass, all struggling and writhing for the little bits of happiness that they could find here and there. It looked miserable, almost shocking really, and I wondered why I had never viewed it that way before.

And then, suddenly, the car stopped someplace far up the deserted mountain, surrounded by a dense, misty grey fog. Like a magic trick it disappeared and I was left standing alone never to know who the driver was or why I had literally been abandoned there. All I knew was that I now only desired to continue journeying upwards.

Symbolic metaphors aside, daily life continued on and my mother, still desperate to hang on to her dream of seeing me through college, found a school she thought I would like and suggested their program to me. A little more open to the idea of education at this point, which stemmed from a burgeoning intellectual curiosity about life, I wandered through the catalog until something caught my eye. At first it was religious studies, but then it was humanities. Before long, I was registered in courses for both European history as well as European art history.

And that leads me to the day that I mentioned earlier. The one day where it all definitively began.

My mind filled with so many fascinating subjects, I now felt a deeper calling to be in a place with so much history and culture.

Completely alone, I had locked myself in my bedroom to study. Sitting on the small round carpet on my floor, I leaned against the wall, tilted my head to the right and gazed out the window next to me. The textbook I had been reading lay idle in my lap, its pages open to an image of medieval Europe and the great universities that had once paved the way for the educational system that we know now. My mind seemed to bob gently up and down in a sea of art and history, the middle ages and the Roman times, culture and legendary figures. I gazed at the blue sky so far above, dotted with gently drifting clouds and thought to myself both dreamily and yet with a deeply profound determination that I did not recognize yet, “I am going to live in Europe some day. One day, I am going to be at one of those universities. One day.”

It was as simple as that. A seed was planted in fertile soil and I never could forgot that moment and the call to Europe that I had first felt. That one, single thought lingered in my life, like an anchor that I somehow knew I needed, and continued to grow. It was a part of me in a deep, hidden way that was unexplainable, and still is.

I hung on to it through many trials. Such a radical turn in an individual’s life as the one I was experiencing was hard to prove stable to others, but I began to work seriously at my studies and eventually was accepted to a solid American university where I graduated Magna cum Laude.

But I was not done there. I continued to hang on to it even when others told me that it never could be. My boyfriend used to laugh good-naturedly at my insistence that I would go to school in Europe some day. Acquaintances thought I was full of smoke and enjoyed gossiping about how it was all a pipe dream. Maybe a study abroad program for a semester would be nice, but to get a full degree somehow seemed unreasonable to them. Yet the more that small seed grew, the more I hungered for what was trying to manifest itself into my reality.

I hung on to it as I made my applications to graduate school abroad, hand shaking from a fiance who had tried to tear all hope out of me. I continued to hang onto it on the airplane the day that I finally left, as the engines revved and the aircraft began to slowly pull away. I hung on to it as sitting there in my window seat the realization that this was it brought a sledge-hammer down on my life, tearing it apart and dividing it in two.

I hung onto it that first night in Ireland, when all I could do was lay on the unmade bed in my dorm room and stare at the ceiling, too overwhelmed to understand where I was or what I was doing. Through homesickness, culture shock and a multitude of challenges to complex to describe here, I refused to let it go. I hung on to it because it was the one thing I knew I could not let go of without loosing apart of myself. It was truly apart of me. It was my dream. The anchor of my life.

In the end, I walked down not one but two aisles to receive two European degrees. And when everyone had thought it was over, and it was time for me to stop living in a dream and to take up reality, I still hung on to it. I ran with my gut and listened to what it was telling me, and went in that direction only. And today, I write this from my flat in Rome.

I will always hang onto it. It is apart of who I am. You know you were destined for something when it comes true despite what everyone else is telling you. Promises are like that. They only whisper to the promised and no one else can hear them but the one they are speaking to.

It can be hard to listen and let yourself be led. But a call will lead, if you allow it, as mine is still leading, up that misty, mysterious mountain, to a destiny shaped only for you.

As I fall asleep tonight, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am journeying to. What awaits me at the highest peak of the mountain? It is a question whose answer continues to elude me, in the most tantalizing way, and so I am thankful for the still unknown journey that lays ahead.

And, for mom.

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Today was another Monday in Rome, and as always I had Monday errands to run. But the really neat thing about living in Rome is that even the most ordinary of days is surrounded by so many extraordinary places. It just takes a little inquisition and curiosity to bring it all to life!

Santa Maria dei Monti standing proud behind the usual row of vespas

One of the places that I always like to stop by is Santa Maria dei Monti. To the tourist wondering past, it is just another Roman church, but this is very far from the truth.

In the 1580s, a miraculous image of Mary with Saints Stephen and Lawrence was found in a nearby Poor Clare convent that had fallen into ruins. To celebrate this great find, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the building of Saint Maria dei Monti and every year on April 26th a copy is still carried through the streets of Rome in an honorary procession.

Entering the church, this miraculous image can be seen directly over the altar. It stands out not only for it’s central position, but also because it clearly dates to an earlier time from the other artwork that decorates the church.

The miraculous image of Mary in Santa Maria dei Monti stands out for its simple beauty

In this image, Mary is holding Jesus in a very loving yet protective way, as one would hold a beloved child destined for great things. The child Jesus looks out at us with an innocent nobility as he raises his hand in a blessing. The saint kneeling on the right raises his hands in a gesture which suggests his is both imploring and accepting the blessing and calls the viewer to do the same. The stars, which were likely a later addition, add a sense of heavenly yet gentle glory to the figure of Mary. To think that this painting inspired the construction of an entire church shows just how much it was valued by the Romans of the time. Even today it is considered important, and my landlord has a copy in her apartment next to mine.

Not only is the church noted for this exquisite work of art, but it also has a rich history of involvement with many famous individuals.

Some important people who were connected with the church include:

  • St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, said Mass here from April to June of 1762.
  • St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, also said Mass between 1745-1767 when in Rome.
  • St. Benedict Joseph Labre collapsed in the church in 1783 and passed away in a home located behind the church. He is also buried here. He has an official feast day on April 16th.
  • St. Joseph Calasanctius, founder of the Piarists, often prayed in the new church after arriving in Rome in 1592 before the miraculous image. While praying before it, he was inspired to dedicate his life to helping young children who were poor. Before he died, he had an appearance of Mary who promised him his school would be protected (this last part I translated from Italian).
  • St. Vincent Pallotti, founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate in 1835 was also devoted to Santa Maria dei Monti St. Benedict Joseph Labre who is buried in the church.

The church has a very rich spiritual heritage as a result of being so intimately connected with so many holy figures, and to sit for a while in this church in contemplation is an experience that one can walk away knowing they have shared with many great persons before them.

View down the Via Baccina to a dome that overlooks one of the ancient Roman forums

Leaving the church, I turn to the right and head down the Via Baccina, a narrow road with little if any traffic that leads straight to the Foro di Nevera, another ancient Roman forum.

The road eventually overlooks this smaller section of Roman ruins, and following it along as it curves to the right and then uphill, there continue to be some lovely views of the area.

Near the top of the hill is a little restaurant that I often pass and cannot help but notice in fascination. Even though it is small, their display of fish is absolutely marvelous! It is really worth a peek, and the waiters are so friendly and very eager to share with you their knowledge about these interesting creatures.

A small but intriguing display of fish is arranged like a culinary art exhibit at Osteria Corte del Grillo

I was snapping photos of these fish, fascinated by their wide eyes and gaping mouths, when one of the waiters, Stefano, came out. At first I thought he was probably going to ask me to put away the camera, as I know pointing and shooting can often lead to such a request, but instead he was very friendly and I could see that he wanted to share with me his knowledge about these sea creatures. I asked if he minded if I took more photos, and he so sweetly replied “of course you may! Our place is your home. Please feel free.” He said it so well, and in such a cute accent to his English, that it put a smile on my face.

And the lobster! I never saw such huge lobster in my life! It must have been three times the length of my hand and absolutely enormous!

Do take the time to click on these photos and open up the larger version which does them more justice – but even that cannot compare to the way they catch the eye in person.

I have to admit, if I worked at a place like that with such an artistic display of fish, I would probably be just as eager to talk about fish as they were!

Some of the interesting fish on display at Osteria Corte del Grillo

Gigantic lobster the length of at least 2-3 of my hands at the Osteria Corte del Grillo

The entrance to the Osteria on Salita del Grillo in Rome. You can visit them virtually at http://www.osteriacortedelgrillo.it

Just past the Osteria, and situated high on an elevation, is the famous Angelicum, also known as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The famous Angelicum, where many notable figures have studied including Pope John Paul II

This university is famous not only for its strong educational system, but also for many of the famous people who have studied here. Pope John Paul II is one of those who have passed through these halls and can be remembered as a true alumnus.

For more information on the history of the Angelicum and some of the famous figures who have studied there, check out this short article on Wikipedia by clicking here.

There are always nuns, priests, friars, brothers, sisters – a complete assortment of the religious life – coming and going from the Angelicum in their many different religious garb. But lay people can study here too, and they offer many classes.

Seeing sites like these on an ordinary Monday while running errands makes living in a city like Rome so fascinating. Yet how easy it would be to pass these by if a little investigation was not done into the history and significance of each place. This is why I always suggest living in a place rather than being a tourist, as daily life can draw out so much more of the true depth of any city or place.

The Madonna peers down at me as I pass the Angelicum on another "ordinary" day in Rome

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