Wandering Roma: Saints, Stories, and Solitude.

There is a skeleton key that opens the door to the apartment where I am renting a room.

The key is several inches long, heavy and substantial in the palm of my hand.

Something from the past. When things were crafted carefully and intended to be passed down for generations.

As is this key. Inherited by my hostess from a "generous uncle."

"It has been in our family for generations."

The apartment is simple. Nothing extra and nothing lacking. Its magic is outside the windows.

Open the shutters to the bustling streets below and staring back at you is the Coliseum. Almost 2,000 years old.

It too was built to last.

To be marveled at for ages to come. A testament to the glory of the emperors and the everlasting beauty of Roma.

In 12 days and a second trip to Roma I have not tired of the view.

Roma, the "open-air museum" as my friend Ricky says.

But enough about that...

My favorite part of traveling is the people I meet, that for a brief moment share their lives with me.

Also the histories I can almost taste. The stories of the one's that walked here before me.

So now one story, containing the stories of both the living and the dead. Two saints and a Dutch writer at a café...and I guess it is my story too.

This morning I walked two miles to St. Peter's Basilica. I have been before, but I wanted to climb the dome again and see Rome from the sky. I wanted to stand at the burial site of Peter and feel the love of the pilgrims that has settled into the pores of the marble. I wanted to hear the organs and the chanting and even the throngs of people.

What I did not expect was to be so moved. When I approached the tomb of St. Peter an unexpected wave of emotions came over me. And tears I did not know had pooled in my eyes slipped down my cheeks.

And I know why.

Unto death.

A man committed his life to something, his love to something unto death.

It is hard I think for most of us (myself included) to imagine giving ourselves to something, anything "unto death."

Maybe for our children. Maybe for a spouse or a beloved. Maybe...

But I think for most of us at the slightest discomfort we tend to flee.

Back into safety and the adventure-less land of comfort.

Unto death.

To live a life of that level of commitment is something I think that must require a tremendous and intimate knowing of ones Self. Self with a capital S as in all the deep soul stuff.

Most of us I think are so deeply uncommitted and unfamiliar with this landscape that we can hardly imagine committing to dinner next Tuesday with a friend let alone dedicating our souls "unto death."

Someone said to me once "don't tell me what you live for that is easy, tell me what you are wiling to die for. That is a life well-lived."

I've never forgotten it. Today I felt it again. In my cells. What am I willing to die for?

I won't answer now...

On with the story.

We still have Cecilia to meet and the Dutch woman. And as a side note a restaurant recommendation that isn't to be missed.

I finished in the church and climbed to the top of the dome.

It was dizzying standing on the top and listening to the organ and the low drone of

Gregorian chanting below. Feeling the cool tiles of the gilded mosaics under my fingers.

I'm telling you this now because the Dutch woman asked if I climbed the dome. She said "I used to do it when I came to Rome. Now it is dangerous for my heart."

It reminded me of the importance of taking these moments and embracing them when we can.

You never know when it will be dangerous for your heart...

In the afternoon I walked from the Vatican City to Trastevere. My favorite neighborhood in Rome. It's slightly rough edges and colorful streets are the things of my dreams.

I skipped breakfast and had only stopped for a cappuccino (named after the color of the Capuchin monk's robes did you know?) on my way to the basilica and I was half starved. Dramatic I know.

Here's the critical restaurant recommendation. I ate at the Trattoria Da Augusto on the recommendation of my Roman friend Sonia.

The trattoria was simple and small and the menu varied by the days of the week. Today I chose gnocchi amatrciana (if you don't know what this is it's a must in Roma, classic Roman dish) with sparkling water and the freshest of bread.

The food here is Roman food at its best. Simple ingredients, no fuss, and delicious.

The restaurant is always in high demand so there is no space for sitting alone. They placed me at a table with a woman of stature and we shared lunch.

She was from Copenhagen. An author and an economist. She was dressed elegantly in a grey linen kimono-style coat over a smart white blouse and amber colored large beads close to her neck. Her hair was gleaming blonde and cropped in a chin-length bob.

"I always stay in the monasteries when I travel. Here and in the East. With the Catholic nuns and the Buddhist monks. It doesn't matter for me. They feed the poor. And I don't stay out late. It's perfect."

She wrote a book. Three of them actually. The last based on a trip she took to Vietnam at age 65 from China and down through the whole of the country. She said it was the last big trip she took. And that even then it was dangerous. For her heart.

"Hope as Your Travel Companion" the book is called. It is in Dutch or I would read it.

She went on the trip to see what had become of Vietnam since the war.

"It was my generation you see and we invested so much. I wanted to know what has become of them. To see if they were free."

In so many words she said that she found chains. A silent dictatorship that made her heart ache.

A student of Thich Nhat Hanh the great Buddhist teacher, she has been on pilgrimage to his centers of meditation and study in Myanmar many years ago.

Nowadays she mostly studies psychology and meditation.

I could feel this. Her peacefulness and the clear center. She was stable. Steady. Unmoved.

She told me she never wanted children but that one day she overheard her mother-in-law answering the question "do you have grandchildren." Her mother-in-law said "no, she is always so busy, she has no time for children."

This broke her heart. She wanted to give that gift to her mother-in-law and so she said "Ok! I will have a child."

She had three.

Two years after the overhearing of this conversation her mother-in-law passed on. But she got her grandchild first.

"And I am so glad I gave this to her. And to myself."

"Don't wait too long. They are a gift children. You can still travel. I did. Do you want them? Children?"

I told her how I lost my husband in an accident. How I fell in love again with the wrong man and how he left my heart in pieces and I was here in fact letting the healing embrace of Mama Roma hold me. I told her yes I wanted to share my life, but now I was just exploring the landscape of my own heart.

I am not forcing anything. What will be will be.

Every day in Italy I have to explain why I am alone. It is very concerning to my Italian friends.

I don't mind too much. I see many walking the streets in physical company and they are heavily sad and deeply alone.

I am not carrying that burden anymore. I have felt that pain too. I felt it not too long ago. And it is worse. Better this way I think.

We chatted about her favorite places in Rome, where I am headed in Nepal. What she would do if her heart was stronger.

We parted ways with a "Ciao" and a "wishing you well."

And already it is as if we never met.

I found a café and sipped a cappuccino at the bar like the Romans do; relief from the cobblestone streets and my increasingly heavy feet.

And then a walk through the winding streets of Trastevere. I went first to the chapel of Saint Cecilia; a church built on the grounds of her former home.

Cecilia the patron saint of musicians.

It is said that on the night of her marriage she confessed to her husband that she wished to remain chaste for the Lord. He was furious. But the Lord heard her, heard that she sang to the Lord in her heart and so sent an angel. The angel came into the room and softened his heart and he too was converted.

Later they were both martyred, the husband first.

Their worship illegal.

Cecilia is said to have cared for the bodies of martyred Christians, burying them and cleansing their bodies.

When she herself was martyred it is said that they tried to kill her in her bathroom. To suffocate her or kill her with the steam from her bath so that it would appear to be an accident.

For three days they tried to kill her but they were unsuccessful and so they beheaded her.

Now stands a church.

A sculpture of Cecilia as if she were asleep pays tribute to her sacrifice; a gash through her marble neck the only sign of the great violence.

Frescos of angels stand in the cloistered halls of this chapel behind closed doors. If you are lucky you can see them if you ring the bell next door and the nuns guide you in.

Frescos painted 100 years before the Renaissance and yes they are so like that period it is unbelievable.

So there you have the story of another saint. Another human that lived "unto death." An unintentional theme of the day.

And now for just one more stop...well two if you count the gelato.

Which you should always stop for gelato.


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©2019 by Selena Garefino.