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Archive for the ‘Rome’ Category

(Editor’s Note: WordPress has been acting up lately. I have notified customer service, but until they can fix the strange editing mis-haps that I cannot, you may find some unusual things in the posts, such as periods to separate paragraphs that are otherwise insisting on bunching together. My apologies!)

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It was night in Rome. The stars were shining in the sky above, the air was cool and crisp, my i-Pod was singing sweetly to me alone, and the sparkling water of the Tiber was running ever onwards to the sea. As I made my way across the famous Bridge of Angels, the illuminated Vatican glowing in the distance, I felt at peace and deeply happy.
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Pausing on the cobbled pavement of the famous bridge, I gazed up at the angelic figure who so kindly gazed back at me. The soft white of the wings against the twinkling stars and romantic black sky made me almost feel as if I was gazing upon a real angel who had traversed the universe just to be here tonight. The moment seemed surreal, like something out of a dream or a fantasy (and this was a bridge I have crossed many times in the 10 years I have been visiting Rome). Tonight was different in some way.
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I passed the angels one by one, contemplating the treasures that they held. They seemed to be imploring for me to consider what each one meant; to unlock the symbolism before me.

The first angel on the left holds the whips

First the pillar of Christ’s passion on the right, and the whips used at the scourging on the left. I smiled at the angels and silently replied, “yes, I see what you are suggesting.” I responded to their call by contemplating the scourging of Christ, particulary in the items represented.

Next, two angels on each side displayed the crown of thorns and Veronica’s veil. I nodded in understanding; “I am moving along through the passion of Christ.” I considered the sufferings from the crown and the bloody results that would have left him barely able to see until Veronica so kindly wiped his face.
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Stepping to the third pair of angels hovering over me on the moon-lit bridge, my eyes fall upon two more items to consider. One was the nails. Another was the clothing that was stripped from Christ before the crucifixion and the dice that the soldiers used to roll for the fabric. The angels were leading me through time, asking me to meditate upon the moments before Christ was crucified.
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Further along the bridge, the next set of angelic figures presented the cross and the sign that read “Jesus, King of the Jews” which was nailed to the top of the beams. Now I was mentally at the crucifixion, through the items that were used in those hours.

The last angel on the right holds the lance that was used to pierce Christ's side after his death

Nearing the end of the bridge, I gazed up at the last pair. On one side, an angel held the sponge tainted with vinegar that was pressed to Christ’s lips when he cried out in thirst. On the other side, an angel held the lance that had pierced his side after he had passed away.  These were the final cruel instruments used against him, in his final moments and even after his death. The journey was complete; both of his passion and life, and mine across the bridge.

The angels all smiled at me in silent witness. They joyfully knew that I was about to know what they knew…

I stepped onto the northern bank of the Tiber, and in the cool night air I gazed back at where I had journeyed from and what I had journeyed through. Turning, I looked at the direction ahead; Saint Peter’s basilica glowing in the distance. That was when I realized something I had never caught before.
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I had just journeyed through time. What now lay behind me was the foundation of what lay before me, both physically and historically. All that Christ had suffered during his sorrowful passion, as represented by the items that the angels carried, had provided a bridge across time to a new civilization and a new faith. St. Peter’s Basilica standing triumphantly in the distance was the physical manifestation of the goal Christ had achieved; the Church of Christ on earth. The Roman Catholic faith. Christianity. Salvation from destruction through suffering.
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It was a physical journey accompanied by a historical one all via the angels gently calling upon the viewer to remember…just to remember.
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It was brilliant! I hurried back to the beginning of the bridge. Who was there, guarding the way? Saints Peter and Paul! The very same saints who stand in the same positions before St. Peter’s Basilica! They greet and guard the beginning of the journey across the bridge and to the Vatican, and welcome home at the end, for they are the first great protectors of the faith who gave their lives so that it would not be forgotten.
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Now I understood how this would have all played out centuries before. When instead of tourists snapping too many photos there would have been devout pilgrims in prayer, and this was the route that would have been laid out for them to cross.

View of the Bridge of Angels from across the street. Saint Peter is on the left and Saint Paul is on the right.

As they approached the Bridge of Angels, they would have seen Peter and Paul greeting them while guarding the path. The great gatekeepers of the message of Christianity had something to tell them, something they wanted them to consider and see. It was the message of Christ that lead to the Church that they  helped establish.

Stepping onto the bridge, the pilgrims would have passed the five sets of angels, two by two, and perhaps meditated on the passion of Christ through the instruments of the passion that the angels carried, just as I had. Crossing the river, they would have perhaps also felt the sense of crossing through the passion, through time, to the other side where the present glory awaited. The glory of the Church, of their faith.
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Arriving at Saint Peters, would they have thought, as I did, “yes, all that suffering grew into something so great! And here is the witness before me!”?
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How would they have felt about their own sufferings, seeing first hand what had grown in splendor from those of one man who bore his own sufferings in simple love and humility?
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As I walked towards the Vatican that night, under the beautifully clear Roman night sky, I felt as though my journey was suddenly enriched. I was not just walking across a bridge with pretty angels and then heading down a street to an amazing basilica, but if I listened, I was journeying across time. From the Passion of Christ and the guardians of his message to the triumph of that passion and those who had protected it; this was the deep message I had discovered on one famous bridge.
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And my simple walks to Saint Peter’s Basilica have never been the same again.

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He was someone I could not forget.

He stood alone in front of his make-shift, temporary home, which would be gone by the time morning arrived. In the niche of a locked doorway to a shop selling religious goods he had laid out his bed, which consisted only of cardboard and tattered blankets.

The softly illuminated St. Peters in Vatican City was his personal painting on the transparent walls of his life. The street light shone harshly down upon him as life most likely had for some time now.

A solitary nun was walking towards St. Peters square, as I was walking away. He was in the middle, and for some reason he approached me.

His Italian was terrible, for I could hardly understand it, but I knew he was asking for money. I pieced together the words “for a drink…in the morning…please…” and could not help but reach into my purse and hand him a Euro and some change.

He thanked me and I walked away, moving on with our separate lives.

Life-sized Stations of the Cross in Rome

As I approached the life-sized Stations of the Cross that had been set up for the Lenten season along the Via della Conciliazione, I heard someone speaking to me and felt a gentle touch on my arm. I turned, and it was him.

In the shadows of the night I somehow could see his face more clearly. He was attractive. Maybe in his early 30s. He had kind eyes, despite his otherwise ragged appearance.

In his confused Italian he began speaking to me, but I could not understand him again. He clarified that he was Polish; Italian was not his mother tongue. Finally I was able to gather; “a drink…together…”

I did not want to let him down. He seemed so sweet as he gazed at me through wide, imploring eyes. His uncanny gentleness took me off guard, which is unusual for one used to major cities and many homeless approaching her.

I politely declined. He politely persisted.

“…tomorrow….morning…a drink….together…”

Again I declined. Again he persisted.

“…walk with you…now…together…”

For some reason I felt terrible saying no, but explained I had to return home.

He smiled and asked my name. I told him, and he offered me his hand as a farewell gesture. I accepted, and he took mine in the proper old world fashion – ladies palm down, as if he would offer a respectful kiss.

What was my surprise when he looked me in the eye and said “may I?”.

I smiled at the unusual request, one so little offered by the most wealthy and dignified of the world, and said “yes.”

He gently raised my hand and graced it with a perfectly honorable kiss. Truth be told, any well-bred English gentleman would be ashamed to know that their variation would pale in comparison to a simple homeless man on the side of a street on a Saturday evening in Rome.

As I left, I made my way along the Stations of the Cross, and then through Rome. Yet somehow I could not forget him. His presence lingered with me so much so that I could not help but turn around several times, wondering if he had followed me. He had not.

I eventually arrived home, made dinner, showered, relaxed with a movie, and finally fell asleep. But as I lay there in the dark something about that man could not leave me. Although our interchange was so very brief, there was a goodness about his soul that spoke volumes in a way that all the educated, well-bred men in suits could not buy (and I do love a man in a good suit).

Two worlds briefly collided for one moment on the streets of Rome, in front of the living Stations of the Cross on one side and Saint Peters on the other.

The framework was undeniable. Perhaps his world was more like Christ’s than I knew. The Christ of poverty, neglect, and a forsaken life memorialized on the Stations of the Cross on the Via della Conciliazione leading to the Vatican was the noblest soul the world had ever seen, yet never recognized. His worth was a true worth that delights not in masks but in the soul, come what may if others cannot seek or truly find it.

That homeless man taught me something small yet deeply meaningful, about finding beauty in the forsaken, and I do not think I will ever forget him. And I cannot help but wonder how many souls will fall asleep tonight, lonely and forgotten by the world, but greater than us in their deeply humbling, suffering poverty that we know so little of.

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Today was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I was able to welcome the forty day season here in Rome!

Lent is traditionally the time when Catholics prepare, by fasting, prayer and penance, to remember the passion and death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection from the dead on Easter. Many will renounce something important to them for forty days as is customary, or intensify their religious/spiritual life. As for me, I usually stumble through it pretty poorly, and today started off as no grand exception.

Nestled warmly in my bed, I was none too delighted when my alarm called me to the new day. Fumbling to turn that call off, I pulled the covers over my weary head for just a little more sleep. Strange how in those moments we do not rationally remember how that decision always goes! When I finally re-opened my eyes, it was far too late to attend Mass at my favorite parish. To make matters worse, I had not researched Ash Wednesday Mass times for any other church in town! The day was not headed in the best of directions.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to remember that this is Rome! With a church on every corner, all I needed to do was scurry from parish to parish and I should eventually hit a mass. The blessings of the Eternal City to the rescue.

Soon dressed and out the door, I stopped by the nearest church. I paused in the back for a moment, but it looked far too dark for a Mass to be commencing anytime soon, and I did not see any of the tell-tale “Mass is about to be said” signs to look for (candles being lit, alter wine being set out, etc.). That was when I thought of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the largest churches in Rome. It is only about a ten minute walk from my place if I hurry and take the narrow, winding back roads, and being as important as it is, I figured there had to be a Mass there!

A painting of Santa Maria Maggiore as it looked before cars and vespas went zipping by

Before long I was making my way down tiny cobbled streets, dashing across larger busy ones, and almost out as breath as I neared the church. Flying through the doors, I blessed myself, dodged tourists and felt relief as I heard the sounds of a priest delivering his Italian homily. I was able to slide into one of the large gated side chapels just in time. Safe!

The large side chapel where I attended Lenten Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore

After the homily was finished, Italians proceeded to converge upon the priest in a rapid cluster to receive their ashes (in Italy there is no formal sense of ‘waiting your turn’). For a Catholic, this means standing in line to have the priest dip his thumb into a small dish of black ashes and trace a cross on your forehead, while inviting you to remember that life is temporary and that we will all one day return to dust. It is part of the custom to leave the black ashes on your forehead until preparing for bed that night, as a witness to both yourself and the world of who you belong to, what you profess, and the deeper thoughts of life and death that you are contemplating.

Completely prepared to spend a day wandering around Rome with a gigantic cross on my forehead, I blended into the queue. When I finally had a clear view of the priest, I stepped forward, closed my eyes and waited to feel the ashes traced across my forehead as I do every year.

And I waited…

The seconds ticked by and I quickly realized nothing was happening! My eyes fluttered open in self-conscious bewilderment and instantly fell on the dish of ashes. Instead of black suit, all I saw was an off-white powdery substance. Confused, I looked up at the priest, who just stared blankly back at me. Realizing nothing more was about to happen, and that if I stood there any longer I would risk looking more foolish than I probably already did, I quickly stepped aside.

As I crossed through the chapel on my way back to my standing room only spot, I looked at every forehead that I could but did not see a single dark cross. In fact, I saw nothing. What had happened?

When I reached the back of the chapel, I turned around and silently studied the priest. He followed all the procedures, dipping his thumb in the ashes, blessing the foreheads, but he did not seem to be actually touching anyone and if he did, it was leaving absolutely no mark!

Having been raised a cradle Catholic, this sight was absolutely surprising to me. I was even a little let down that I did not get to spend my customary day of minor embarrassment with people gawking at the strange girl with the unusual mark on her forehead. (Many priests are not good at forming a cross, so often you just get a big black smudge. It can actually make for an interesting day, if you have a good sense of humor!)

By the time Mass was over, I gave up my contemplation of dashing to the American parish in Rome with the hopes of finding a “real” Ash Wednesday blessing, and decided to settle for my invisible cross. Besides, I figured Santa Maria Maggiore was a good enough place to commence the Lenten season because it contains a relic of the manger that Christ was first placed in when He was born. The correlation between the beginning of Lent and birth (new life, new beginnings) seemed like a fair enough match, and so I stayed put.

The reliquary shaped like a crib that holds relics of the real crib Jesus was placed in when he was born

To reach this reliquary, one must journey down a set of marble stairs into a small little alcove tucked away under the altar. It is here in this holy alcove that I went to pray.

Under the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore can be seen the Crypt of the Nativity and the reliquary

Given my Lenten track record, I wanted to do contribute something meaningful to my spiritual life, but I could not figure out what. The customary “just give up chocolate!” came to mind, but that seemed to trivial. After praying a little longer, I eventually wandered away, still pondering this thought. As I was about to leave the church, a small voice deep in my mind suggested that I go back to the crib and pray once more. I hesitated, but then figured “why not?”

The central nave of the church as viewed from near the entrance/exit

I made my way back over to the altar, where I stood in prayer at a heavy marble railing that overlooks the little alcove. I considered the correlation between birth and the new Lenten season once more, and that was when it hit me. I had something to give up, and it was better than chocolate!

Understanding that the baby Jesus had been born into this world for the sole purpose of one day dying to save souls, I reflected on how this was His entire obsession, and what He thirsted for more than anything. So what could be more delightful to Him than to have someone present themselves as a gift during the season that prepares us for His own great gift of His life.

I decided to “give up” my laziness towards my morning offerings, and offer myself each morning as a gift to the baby Jesus who, in 40 days as a grown man would give His life for me. Coupling this with the intention to give up any negative thoughts (this could get complicated!), I decided that I had settled on my Lenten offerings.

What really touched me though was that as I was leaving the church, I had the most strong sense of tender innocence wrap itself around me, and for the rest of the day I dwelt in an unusually tangible peace.

A painting of Mary and the baby Jesus by the famous William Bouguereau

Maybe I will botch up the entire season, who knows. Hopefully I won’t! But today turned out to be a good start to Lent after all, and Rome once again proved itself to be a rich spiritual resource if one is willing to step beyond the photos and sightseeing to simply look deeper. And thank heavens for a church on every corner!

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Taking the step and journeying abroad can be challenging. My biggest fear in transitioning from a digital nomad in the states to a digital nomad abroad was the internet, or lack of it.

Dreaming of the streets of Rome is one thing, but as a digital nomad your dream depends on one source: the internet

Having lived in Italy before, I was very well aware that my expectations of the internet were not the same as an Italians, and that the reality of a bad connection could easily open the door to potentially disastrous results. If I could not work, I would risk upsetting my employers and loosing a significant portion of income only to end up back home at square one. It was a situational red flag that had “stop!” written all over it.

After months of mental debates and endless considerations, I found myself in Rome one beautiful Monday morning, riding the Leonardo da Vinci express into the city center. With the time difference, I knew I would be able to get to my apartment, unpack, shower and rest before “heading” to work (my long three-foot journey to my desk).

Before laying down to ease my jet lag, I popped open my laptop and briefly tested the connection. All seemed well on the digital front, and so I happily dozed off. I had no idea what was awaiting me.

Some hours later, I lazily rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the simple wooden desk, opened my laptop and waited for the magic of the internet to transfer me at the speed of light across the ocean, linking me to my company.

Nothing.

Taking a deep breath, I remained calm. Having travelled and used the internet from different locations in the past, I knew that it could sometimes take a few tries to establish a connection. But an hour later, still staring at a blank screen, I felt like my entire world was sinking around me.

With the clock ticking, I knew that I could no longer cross my fingers and hope for the best of the web, and so I crossed the hall to my landlord’s flat and rang the shrill buzzer. Explaining to her in broken Italian my life and death situation, she kindly took an interest and attempted to help. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. She suggested that I wait a few hours and perhaps her son could be of more assistance when he returned home.

A public phone in Rome much like the one I used that night

Grabbing my purse and coat, I headed out to find a “Tabacchi” (a little Italian shop where you can buy lottery tickets, cigarettes, etc.). For five euros I was handed an international calling card, which I promptly carried to the very first pay phone I could find. As my luck would have it, I ended up standing on the busy corner of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road that leads to the Coliseum, engaged in a semi-tearful phone call to my family back home. (Standing on a street corner looking distraught while holding the glaring red receiver of a public phone to your head is probably not the most pleasant way to kickstart a journey.)

With the promise of prayers from the states, I said goodbye to the familiar voice, buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and wandered aimlessly through the darkening streets. Falling away from the beaten path, I came across the large, looming facade of a church, it’s doors still hanging wide open. Feeling like this was something of an invitation, I crossed the narrow street and wandered into the mysterious space.

It was dark, dimly lit and I was all alone, sheltered by the 500-year-old arms of a building that had seen many more souls desperate than mine. I stared forlornly at the flicking candles that whispered prayers to ancient saints, and gazed in sadness at the painted icon above the altar. Step by slow step I made my way down the aisle, passing rows of abandoned pews, until I could walk no more and simply sank down on one of the narrow wooden benches.

Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome, the church that welcomed me that first night

That was when I began to silently talk. To God. In the private corners of my mind I whispered my concerns, and the more I spoke the more distraught I became. Sheltered by the privacy of the semi-darkness, the only eyes to gaze upon me the centuries old statues and paintings of holy men and women, a need began to take over me. It was a need so deep I had not even realized how strong and powerful it was, for it had never emerged in such a way. When the container holding it finally cracked, I was overwhelmed at what poured out.

Sometimes we do not realize just how much we truly want something until the recognition that it could be lost is most tangibly felt. That is how it was for me, and in those moments the tears that poured forth were of an intensity that I had never known while sitting in a church. I even stopped caring if anyone saw me or what they would think. I simply could not and did not want to stop the force of longing from breaking through the suddenly frail container of my humanity.

I talked, prayed and cried until people filed in, lights went up, mass was said, people filed out, and the lights went down again. I sat until only the loving eyes of the ancient statues and paintings remained to gaze tenderly upon me. Only then did I leave.

Santa Maria dei Monti, much brighter when pictured on a sunny day

Hoping that somehow the echoes of my being splitting in two by the force of desire had been heard, I stepped out into the cool night air and made my way back along the busy road. Turning down the little quiet medieval street, I hurried to my flat where with my landlord and her son we tried every option we could think of until we were all exhausted from so much effort and so few results. Perhaps the force of desire had not split loudly enough as I had hoped.

Pinned to a wall and with no other options, the next evening I found myself at a local internet cafe. Wired in and uncomfortably seated in a hard metal chair, flourescent green walls screaming at me from every angle, I logged on and went to work. Later that night, I sleepily wandered down the little medieval street to my flat, climbed the 7 flights, and lay across my bed staring at the darkened ceiling. I talked to God a lot during that time.

Some friends back home had suggested that the problem was just temporary, and that perhaps the internet would resume functioning again. I put a little hope into this suggestion, but it did not take me long to recognize the true source of the problem.

Staying in the flat next to mine, and renting from the same landlord, was a group of young girls who were studying abroad. As the days passed, I quickly began to notice that when they went out in the morning, the internet suddenly came alive. I could surf for hours and utilize all my programs without a glitch. But the moment I heard their door unlock and the sounds of furniture moving on the other side of the wall, I came to recognize that within 10 minutes or less the internet would disappear for the entire night. All night. Into the early hours of the morning. My problem was not the internet, but bandwith-sapping neighbors who were using the internet for some unknown but clearly intense purposes.

To my dismay, I learned that they were scheduled to remain there for many months and so I finally knew I had no choice. The internet would never be reliable as long as they were “sharing” (hogging?) it. I had to either find another flat in Rome, or quickly purchase a plane ticket back home.

Deciding that after all my trials option B was the most desirable choice, I began contacting prospective apartment owners zealously. I parked myself on my sofa for days (during the hours the girls were away), sending e-mail replies to every internet add, signing up with every apartment finder service, and clogging my account with reply after reply in the negative. “Sorry, we do not have internet.” “We have internet – want to go in debt to live here?” “We are connected, but nothing is available for another 3 months. Your request is too last-minute.” “We have a nice place with a great connection and it is available – if you take a train for 45 minutes outside of Rome and walk another twenty you can come see it.” It seemed hopeless, and time was ticking.

In those questionable hours of my life, I kept returning in my mind to the church I had sat in on the first night. In the little chapel of my thoughts, I spoke at length with God about everything I felt and feared. I threw all of my trust into His hands, telling Him time and time again that I was certain He would not abandon me. I threw my faith into overdrive and dwelt on one thought alone; that I trusted in Him.

But time was growing too long, and I had to make a radical decision. Either move somewhere far on the outskirts, go broke living in a place beyond my means (but stay in Rome, where I truly longed to be), or purchase a ticket home. Spun into a world of uncertainty, I was amazed when I came home Sunday evening and found a little blue paper that my landlord had slid under my door.

Picking it up, my eyes widened as I read the letters inked upon the unlined page, “the girls are moving out.”

I stood there, still weighed down by my bags and coat, half out of breath from the seven flight climb, and just starred in what could only be understood as joy and shock all rolled into one. In my hand I was holding a little piece of paper with words that would literally save my Roman dreams. My gratitude was enormous, and all that echoed inside my head were the two words “thank you” over and over. The force of desire and longing that had split my heart so powerfully that first night, and all the prayers after it, had somehow been heard.

A few days later, the girls did indeed relocate to another flat in Rome. And that evening I happily shuffled to work in pink flip-flops, turned on my computer, and peacefully went to work. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

Yet something had happened. I had not only discovered the force of my desire to be in Rome, which I had never truly known until the moment I realized it cold be taken away from me, but I had also been given a glimpse into the power of faith. While I will never know what would have happened if I had not poured out my heart to God in those moments, and turned to him in my little trust, I do know what happened when I did.

Travel showed me a side of my own heart that I had not known and the kindness of God to my simple human desires. And chapter one of my life as a digital nomad abroad ended with a challenge presented, and a priceless lesson learned.

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I just learned the other day that I am a digital nomad.

What is a digital nomad? Um, I think it's me!

To be honest, if you had asked me what that meant two weeks ago, I would have had no idea. At first, when I started hearing the expression “digital nomad,” I thought it was just a fancy way of saying that a person liked to spend all of their time exploring the internet; a computer nomad wandering the digital universe from the comfort of their couch. A very nice way to say “I am addicted to the web.”

In a way this definition that I had formed in my own limited understanding is true. Digital nomads journey into the high-tech universe of the web from many comfortable places, but they do it for pay. This is how they make their living, by being able to work from just about anywhere they can get a good internet connection.

And sometimes this freedom even turns them into true nomads, wandering the country or even the world, laptop in hand. It was this last sort of digital nomad that made me realize I too was one of them. The “force” was with me, and my two traveling laptops, whenever I logged on to the www.

I never set out to become a digital nomad. How could I when I did not know what it was? I just knew that I loved travel and wanted to keep doing it always. So when my employer offered me the opportunity to work at home so that I could relocate and still keep my job, the first words out of my mouth were “and if I want to go abroad? Can I take the job with me there?”

The “yes” was all I needed to hear.

In the beginning, I was nervous to leave everything behind and hit the road, job-in-tow. For an experienced traveller, this was rare. After all, I have been to or through every state in the USA but Alaska and North Dakota. I have checked many tropical islands off my list as well as Mexico. I have seen most of Canada from Vancouver to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I have lived on the west coast, east cost and several states in between. I have backpacked around and across Europe, and even lived in Ireland, England and Italy. I passed through the European educational system, earning two international graduate degrees from two different countries. But I had never packed my laptop in my bag, bought a plane ticket and said “I am headed to Europe and everything depends on my internet connection.”

I started to seriously consider taking the plunge in April of 2010. I began dropping in at expat websites, curiously checking to see if others had ventured out before me and how they had fared. But the advice was fragmented and left me even more confused.

The feedback was like a sea-saw wildly out of control. The internet was good enough for work. The internet wasn’t good enough for work. Keep in mind this factor, don’t forget that one. My doubts growing, I wondered, “what will I do if I give up my apartment, move all the way there, only to have it fail?” After all, this was my job. If I could not work, I could not make money. If I could not make money, well, lets just say that would not be a good option.

After endless rounds of mental debates, I realized that I had to go forward. I felt that there must be a reason why I had been given such a job when my dreams had always lingered on travel and foreign destinations. I almost felt that there must be something wrong with me to have the door hanging open, literally begging me to enter, and I could not cross through.

I closed my eyes, turned my head away and held my breath that day when, sitting on the floor in my room on a Friday afternoon, I clicked the “send” button that confirmed I had now purchased my ticket to Rome. I sat there quietly and stared at the screen with the confirmation message that had appeared. In the silent aftermath of my choice, I realized that I was the only person who knew the secret which was about to change the course of my life. I was nervous, but I knew there was no going back now.

Since that day, and the day I landed in Italy, many obstacles have arisen which I have had to surmount (including the internet not working, as I feared, but I fought my way through it and am still here). So when I learned that I am a digital nomad I could not help but feel as though a puzzle had come together; someone had explained to me a significant part of my life. It really was as though I now understood that the “force” was with me; a unique force that I log onto every day when I turn on my computer and connect to the 21st century energy that we humans call the internet.

That is something to be truly grateful for.

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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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It was a perfect night to be back in Rome. Cool, moonlit, and still February – i.e.  few foreign travellers. Rome at its most authentic. Perfecto!

After a long day that had commenced at 6 am sharp, and included a delightful but challenging trip to the medieval hill town of Todi (the small train service to Todi had stopped connecting to my layover train station for one day only, and so I unexpectedly had to rely on my little Italian to find an alternate route), I could not help but smile as the train rolled in to Termini station in Rome.

Popping my i-Pod earphones into my ears, I zipped up my coat and was out the train door in no time. Maneuvering around the first-timers and the crowds of travellers, I knew exactly where to head and it felt good. Like being home again.

Stepping out onto the Piazza dei Cinquecento, the large, busy piazza in front of Rome’s bustling Termini station, I dodged busses, gypsies, nuns, and a wide variety of visitors and locals. Saturday night in Rome – a great time for re-exploring a favorite city!

I literally bounced with enthusiasm down Via Nazionale, with all its traffic and evening shoppers, to the little meandering streets. Lost in my own casual world I made the rounds to some of the classic top sights. Politely excusing myself from the advances of cute Italians who can smell an American from a mile away, I tossed a coin in the gushing Trevi fountain, illuminated by the dazzling glow of  blue-green lights (I have myself convinced I must do this every time I even pass by the Trevi fountain and somehow I keep coming back to Rome!), admired some very good street art, and continued on my way to the Pantheon.

The hustle and bustle in Rome on a Saturday night in winter is perfect. Crowded enough to be interesting, but not too crowded to be frustrating. The voices around you are generally soft and Italian, so you feel more like one of the locals. No shrill tourists distracting you from the ambience. Just perfect, and I was enjoying every moment.

As I entered the square where the Pantheon has proudly stood for millenia, I could hear the sounds of a talented Opera singer softly drifting across the piazza from a distance. Under the moonlight, I curiously circled the fountain in the center of the square and came upon a rather large group of people gathered in a semi-circle, applauding the talent of a young Italian Opera singer.

My interest piqued, I slowly made my way through the crowd. Like a scene in a movie, the unknown faces drifted past, one by one. The center of their attention, the young Italian, was making adjustments to a small CD player that was connected to a speaker system. Was he really singing, I wondered? What I had heard from a distance seemed extremely good.

Satisfied with his CD player, he gently set  it down, stepped back, stood tall and proud, and expectantly waited with all of us as the music began to fill the square once more. To hear such beautiful tones of violins, persuasively drawing towards a full orchestra of sound was, without a doubt, a very pleasant surprise on an evening stroll.

Finding a good position in the front of the crowd, I watched as he extended his arms and music began to flow from his lips. This was definitely real and he was not improvising. And he was good, very good!

After all, for good entertainment in Rome you could easily pay more than would leave you smiling, but here was the option to enjoy completely free, quality entertainment with a legendary backdrop.

Standing under the stars, the warmly glowing Pantheon directly behind him, encircled by a crowd of admirers, and gesturing with Operatic fervor, this was definitely a moment to be thankful for.

He sang famous numbers, such as “Nessun Dorma,” earning the eager applause of those around him. Families took pictures, couples lingered, it was an enchanting moment under the magical Roman nite sky.

After his performance, the people flocked to him for CD’s, to shake his hand, share opinions, etc. I waited with the masses until I could obtain his card.

And he was as sweet as could be. When I spoke to him, he was so polite and turned down the music that had continued playing in the background to listen to my request. He obligingly rummaged for a card and I walked away with a new delightful memory of another Saturday night in Rome. (And yes, I did tip him! 😉

Next time you are going to be in Rome, send Antonio Nicolosi an e-mail at antoniocantante@yahoo.it and see if he has any plans to be performing on one of the many piazzas at night. If so, you will be one of the blessed few to enjoy a warm performance against a spectacular backdrop for nothing more than the tips you may wish to contribute. And tell him Alexandra sent you 😉

He also does events for parties and ceremonies, so if you are planning a special get together or even a wedding you may want to be in touch.

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