Have you given much thought to honey? We know it’s sweet. We know it comes from bees. But what exactly is it?
The sweetest of residues-or so I thought until a group of provocateurs decided to unsettle 35 years of dust and revive the semester I spent abroad at Loyola University’s Rome Center in 1973. This past weekend, we gathered in the Loop from all over the country to recollect and reacquaint.
Memory is Mecca for pilgrims to the past, and the residue is, a friend tells me, the golden goo of nostalgia-honey of the mind.
A year at the Rome Center in 1973 cost roughly the same as a year at Loyola’s Lakeshore Campus, about $3,500. I remember flying Pan Am to Rome for $299 round trip and arriving on Jan. 22, 1973, which I only know because LBJ died that day and Roe v. Wade was born. On the taxi ride to Monte Mario, I saw an old man sweeping the street with a broom made of bundled sticks and knew I wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
I remember walking to my room for the first time and hearing one of the maids humming the theme from The Godfather. I remember taking the green buses down Via Trionfale from the Rome Center to Rome‘s center and on the way passing a field of brilliant red poppies.
I remember the thrill of getting mail and the guy at the front desk pronouncing my name “Tra-eeee-nor.” I remember how long it took for the sugar to sink through the thick foam on my first cappuccino.
I remember how much better the Tiber looked at night, the view from the Pincio, the inconceivable distance from the front door to the altar in St. Peter’s, the markings on the floor showing where many of the world’s churches would end, and the unabashed idolatry of the place.
I remember Italian soldiers clogging every car of every train, “campfire girls” (aka prostitutes) on the streets at night, and the impossible tinyness of a Cinquecento (which made Volkswagon bugs look enormous).
I remember vertebrae from dead monks being used to ornately decorate the ceiling of the Capuchin Monastery. I remember families gathering for picnics during “scioperos” (work stoppages) that lasted an hour and managed to coincide with lunch. I remember discovering prosciutto and gelato (not necessarily together).
I remember standing in front of any sculpture by Michelangelo and thinking it just wasn’t possible for one human being to make cold, hard marble look so soft and lifelike.
I remember my archeology professor, Dr. Schiclione, with his tinted glasses, black leather jacket, perpetual shadow and slow-motion cadence, telling us his success could only be explained by the fact that when Italians wanted to silence a critic, they promoted him. Frequently he told us he had been “indecently lucky”-but in Schiclione-speak, it sounded like “Ah … have bean … indessantly locky.”
I remember learning just enough Italian to cope with cab drivers, usually late at night when wine had loosened the tongue and you didn’t care how inept you sounded. I remember patronizing an establishment named Spatenbrau-or drinking Spatenbrau at some establishment whose name I’ve forgotten-after the Easter Vigil service with a large group of classmates. Either way, it was the most fun I’ve ever had on Holy Saturday.
I remember being elbowed out of the way by a tiny nun when I committed the mortal sin of getting between her and Pope Paul VI on the way to receiving communion.
I remember more about this than I thought I did just a few weeks ago.
Since then, life has had its way with us, and we have made our way through life. Shorn of long hair, beards and mustaches, the 55-year-old men who showed up last weekend were unrecognizable. And every face had been lovingly sculpted by three and a half decades of living. We built a life and did the best we could under all kinds of circumstances.
In Rome, we got a taste of what it’s like to feel fully alive. This weekend, we were treated to a reminder. Being fully alive, I discovered, includes occasionally revisiting the past and rediscovering the person you were-in most cases still are.
The great Italian film director Federico Fellini said, “Life is the combination of magic and pasta, of fantasy and reality.” Magic and pasta pretty well sums up my experience of Rome.
I know now what I had. Honey of the mind, indeed.
Or, as Dr. Schiclione would put it, I have been indessantly locky.