20 years ago I boarded a flight from DFW to Rome. I had no idea what to expect as I was older than most of my classmates and nearly missed out on the journey because I had not gone the semester before with my friends.
Just 1 year prior to my Rome departure I had a meltdown semester where I changed majors twice, dropped all my classes, and spent my evenings drinking cheap beer and smoking roll-your-own cigs while pining for a girl who had no interest in me.
My buddies all went to Rome the following semester. I returned to the theater and took hold of my life because one man had the insight to challenge me the way that I needed it. He told me, “I have heard you aren’t a very good student and frankly I am concerned you will not succeed here. I am not sure how you got this second chance, and if I were you, I would not waste it. You need to show me why we should want you in our department.”
I made it my mission to not only show my professor, but to shake up the world from which I had hidden, and demonstrate that I was indeed on the right path.
In that tremendous semester I excelled at my work, became much closer to the people in my class with whom I would share the next 2+ years, and on one fateful night discovered that many of my theater classmates were off to Rome the following semester. A light came on inside of me. I had been working so hard to redeem my reputation not knowing that in the process I had redeemed my eligibility to go to Rome
With a renewed vigor I applied and was accepted to the Rome program. I worked like a madman that summer with my father and he ultimately agreed to provide some funds for my journey. I was too unaware at the time to know my father had little money and went through a terrible business tragedy while I was gone, yet he kept me alive when I was overseas. I will always be grateful to my dad for instilling my love of travel and facilitating the experiences that set my passion in motion.
On our flight to Rome, at the time the longest flight of my life, we gathered in the galley and smoked cigs while guzzling airplane bottles of booze our classmate had pilfered from the cart. When we landed I had no concept how to grasp the lag in time. One minute it was night, the next it was day, and I was shoving through the Rome airport with way too much stuff while dudes with UZIs and funny hats kept watch over us.
We met Fr. Gilbert Hardy at the customs area and within seconds I knew he was a man not to be challenged, and at the same time I would grow to adore our Rome director over the course of the semester.
As we wound our way through the maze of Roman highway that morning and into the suburb of Vitinia where our campus was located, I was amazed how old, dirty, and run-down all of the buildings seemed to me. I had no idea that most of these were at least 200 years old with many much older than that. I could not believe the sizes of the cars. I drove a 1978 Olds Cutlass, so seeing my first Fiat Pandas and 600s was shocking.
We arrived on campus and I went directly to my room, met my roommate Chris, who eventually became Soy Jack (another blog for sure) and I began to unpack. I knew within minutes that Soy Jack was going to be a messy pig and so I had my first of countless doubts that would arise during this semester abroad. The doubt, the disbelief, and eventually the acceptance are integral to falling truly in love with Italy and I suppose travel in general.
Within an hour I was starving. It was likely 10:45am or so at the point I discovered lunch was at 1PM. What the hell is wrong with this place? I thought, and likely voiced to my excited classmates creating immediate tension between a hungry man and his “we don’t give a shit about food we are in ROME” classmates.
I wandered outside and fired up a Marlboro. It was nice to draw on the cig in the daylight. I was never a day smoker and eventually not a smoker at all, but on this day in the grey humid air of my arrival in Rome I needed this.
Lunch finally arrived and I was ready for Spaghetti, Meatballs, and Garlic Toast. You may imagine my utter horror at the site of little tubes of pasta with some boring tomato sauce already tossed with the pasta. There was no cheese, no meat, and no garlic toast in site. The only bread was this hollow, salt-less, cannonball of a roll, politely referred to as Moon Rocks.
I was mortified at the abject state of lunch. I suffered through my bowl of way-too subtle pasta and some weird salad with red orange segments and salty black olives. Luckily I found the pizzeria down the way that evening and it became my go-to haunt for nights I could not stomach the cafeteria or I was simply not full.
However, my greatest find had to be the Pasticceria - the pastry shop. Many a morning after a nasty moon rock breakfast I would sneak out of History class to use my restroom, hop out my room window and hustle down the street for a 3 pack of pastries,:vanilla cream, chocolate cream with chocolate icing, and of course Panna – the whipped cream filled profiterole. The ladies at the pastry shop were so sweet, yet I could never get them to NOT wrap the pastries like a birthday present. They had no idea I was eating these on my 300 meter walk back to campus.
The pastries were my indoctrination into true Italian food and life. It was less than a month before that Penne con pomodoro and Insalata d’arancie rosse con olive nere were some of my favorite foods on the planet.
Sure, I had setbacks. Numerous times on wrong trains, girl trouble(always), not enough money for rooms so I slept on trains, drunken Germans wanting to fight, drunken Greeks wanting to fight, and absolutely no Italian language skills whatsoever. I was a pointing fool at the pizzerias, the stores, and the train stations. However, I shopped much more than I knew I would. I wore scarves, rolled jeans, vests, sweaters, sunglasses, and even let myself grow a little stubble. I wanted more than anything to look like I belonged even if I knew I could not fool anyone for long.
I look at my writing from this point in my life and when I sort through the misery of my lonely fish out of water musings I can see signs, as the semester progressed, of a bonding with Rome. I remember very clearly returning from 10 days of travel all over Europe and when our trained pulled into Termini station back from Munich I knew I was home. Yes, that dirty, slow entry on feces-laden tracks was a comfort to me on that fateful morning. What the hell was wrong with me? It was Rome, and it was Italy.
The chaos began to slow down and much like a marksman tracks prey in the woods I began to see targets of joy through the kaleidoscope of flux. I began to travel by myself more often. I would take the train to Rome as soon as classes were over just to spend a few minutes in a neighborhood I did not know. I walked once from the Vatican over the Janiculum Hill all the way down to the Circus Maximus. Me, my camera, and less than 5 bucks on a 4+ hour journey of discovery.
This was suddenly no longer The University of Dallas Rome semester. This was now Michael Housewright’s Italian life. I did not look at Rome as a one-off and onward to better things. Rome was the better thing and I wanted more of it.
On my flight home in December I wrote and wrote in my journal. I wrote all the way till we landed and then again on my connection to Dallas. I wrote about faith, family, and my hopes to be a better person with a clearer head. I wrote about love and what it means to be loved. I even wrote about the foods I missed at home, and in the end I wrote about Rome and a life having been forever changed. I promised I would return.
Faith in the fountains of Rome is often viewed as cliché’. In my case, it was not. I return to Italy this year. My 11th journey to the boot in the last 20 years. I go excitedly knowing I am taking my wife to Rome, Venice, and Florence in celebration of the anniversary of my Rome semester. We will go to Vitinia and see my old campus. We will walk the Janiculum hill once again and I will write once again. I will write because it makes me happy; Italy makes me happy.