I wake up to trumpet fanfare.
I rush to the hotel window.
Outside, Swiss Guards ride horses around St Peter’s Square and Pope Francis’s voice speaks to a crowd of thousands.
I’m in Italy. It’s my honeymoon.
“JAMES!!! WE’RE MISSING IT!!!!”
James rolls over. “Huh?” He’s pretty tired out from the recent festivities.
“It's Epiphany! The Pope is speaking and we’re about to MISS IT!!!!” I start throwing on clothes right and left. Unfortunately it’s winter and there are more clothes to put on than normal. Fast fast fast. Long johns. Jeans that are much too tight over long johns (alas!). Shirt. Cute embroidered impractical hoodie. Real coat. Scarf. Gloves. Take off gloves. Socks. Shoes. Sweating. Powder the skin with minerals. Stab the lobes with earrings. Put back on gloves.
My hair is SO tangled!! Rip. Rip. Rip.
“Are you coming honey?”
Of course James is already dressed. That’s how it works. I get up first, alert and ready, and I’m still 5 minutes later than he is.
We catapult out the door of our tiny hotel room (so romantically European! haha), throw ourselves down three flights of stairs, hear vague sounds of men chanting in the walls (yes, our hotel is half monastery), and dash across the narrow cobblestone street (which according to the taxi driver was laid literally 2000 years ago) and jump over the fence into St Peter’s Square.
The beauty is unparalleled. Columns stretching around in a great circle. Towering statues silhouetted against the sky. St Peter’s Basilica looking down upon us in all of its grandeur. There are thousands of people in the Square, tourists, locals, babies, old people, all staring up at a window to the far right of one of the Vatican buildings. The Swiss Guards are dressed like Prince Charming from Snow White and their horses are beautiful.
I can barely see a figure in white standing at the window, talking to us. He speaks Italian, but every once in a while I catch familiar Latin prayers.
Over and over again the mass of people in the Square kneel down on the hard cobblestone for minutes at a time. There is a synergy in the air, all the more palpable because I don’t know what is being said.
It’s like when you close your eyes while you’re listening to music and the sounds become clearer.
The Pope finishes his speech to loud cheers and the crowd disperses.
It’s time for breakfast.
Breakfast! Favorite meal of the day.
Especially in Italy on your honeymoon where you let yourself eat chocolate croissants and chocolate pastries and hot chocolate (real hot chocolate) and orange juice (fresh-squeezed orange juice - in Italy, even gas stations have juicers and chocolate melters), unsweetened yogurt from non-hormone-infested European cows, and then also take a bite of everything James is eating. Because that’s what wives do, of course. And sisters. And daughters. And I am all of those things!
Then an Americano for the road in an adorable tiny (like seriously half the size of a Short) to-go cup. An Americano because I am an American and even though coffee is really good in Italy, and all the beans and the machines and the methods and the mugs and the to-go cups are all created by the same person who happened to invent ‘espresso’, I still like coffee better than espresso.
And milk has calories in it. Really gotta watch that milk.
Ooh… chocolate croissant!
And thus begin our adventures. We know that we are really splurging to even be standing in Rome. I had multiple friends and family tell me of all the amazingly beautiful places in America where we could stay for half of the money in super nice resort towns with large hotel rooms.
The fact of the matter is that America does have some beautiful resorts and vacation spots.
But beautiful resorts and vacation spots, while lovely and relaxing, are too boring for my honeymoon. They’re too good. I need an adventure.
Another problem is that I’ve already toured to every state in America (except Maine. Maine, where are you?) and stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, Biltmore, Martha’s Vineyard, and other such places. I’m like Mr. Frank Churchill in Emma. I must create some hardships for myself!
Too, you’re not supposed to serve both God and Mammon. And I had the distinct feeling like to not go to Italy would be serving Mammon. Because you can idolize money by not spending it just as well as spending it!
Let’s have a partayyyyy!!!!
So here we are. And I wouldn’t trade any of that money for the amazing memories that I’ve got in my brain and in the two computer diaries that I voraciously kept all throughout that time (one is censored for future generations, one is not - it is a honeymoon after all!).
I have a whole day set out to go into Rome from Vatican City. So we take a taxi into town and are dropped off in a square surrounded by ancient monuments.
Unfortunately the SIM card that I bought for a $100 that was a total waste of money doesn’t help me get on Rome’s internet because…I don’t know Italian. Shocker. And since I’m on Verizon, I can’t use any element of my phone in Italy unless I have the internet. ACH. So we spend a little time wandering around, trying to find all the amazing places like the Spanish Steps and finally give up and get an Americano. Or two.
And then we see them. Carriages! With pretty horses! And Italian coaches! What a relief to be driven by somebody who knows where the heck everything is!
So we accost one of them, barter for a while till we think we have gotten a great deal (though we doubt it) and we get on the carriage.
Wind in our faces!
Beautiful Roman architecture all around us!
Romance in the air!
The smell of horses! Reminds me of my Grandpa’s ranch and riding horses out on the fescue meadows.
James is sneezing.
James is coughing.
James is wheezing.
I look over, and James’s face is swollen and bright red, his eyes slits.
Oh my gosh. He’s asthmatic and horribly allergic to animals. I throw my scarf over his mouth in a vain attempt to keep the horse dander from flying in his face as the carriage jolts down the cobblestone road.
We are at the Coliseum. We get out. I try in vain to find napkins but no street vendor on this road carries napkins. I buy no less than three big water bottles and pour them all over James’s head, trying to stop his skin from burning.
We are surrounded by people who don’t speak English fluently, where there is no such thing as 911 (that I know of), with my husband having an asthmatic attack on the steps of the Coliseum. Episodes of Call the Midwife flash through my head.
“Honey, I think I’m going to be all right. Let’s just keep going.” James looks like Rocky when he’s just finished the big boxing tournament, with water dripping from his hair and his chin and his eyes almost swollen shut.
“Are you sure?” I say, hoping beyond hope that we won’t end up dying in the streets surrounded by gypsies.
“How on earth could you forget that you are allergic to horses???!!!”
So we proceed into the Coliseum, which, being a very dark place, full of blood and tragedy, does not help the situation much. Especially when we get lost in the maze of passages and can’t get out.
Thankfully we do eventually get out. James’s allergy attack wears off. We eat in a nice little restaurant, see many gorgeous churches where we have surprise face-to-face meetings with famous holy people from the Renaissance in crypts, and finally come home to Residenza Paolo VI, our lovely hotel, where we have an enchanting evening drinking red wine and eating homemade pasta on the roof overlooking St Peter’s Basilica.
The following days are full of spectacular experiences. For instance, we get lost on the way to the Vatican Museum and as I eat my gelato I start yelling to the general vicinity, "Where is the Vatican Museum?!" because nobody speaks English and that kind of makes you crazy. Especially when all the signs say 'Vaticano Musei' with an arrow pointing forward and everytime you see a guard they point you in the opposite direction.
And suddenly this guy ahead of you turns around and shouts back in a British accent, "You were supposed to turn there!"
I know. I'm a dumb tourist eating (probably) bad gelato. But I'm on my honeymoon so it doesn't matter! And somebody speaks English!!! I could kiss the ground in thanksgiving!
And in the Vatican Museum I am able to sneak a picture of the Sistine Chapel because the guard says 'No photos!' in three different languages before he finally gets to English.
The fact is, miracles followed us around in the last month before our wedding/honeymoon, because we had a couple encounters that
- told us that there was something called a Scavi tour which enabled us to see the bones of St. Peter that the Basilica is built upon (utterly amazing experience)
- we met a priest in a bookshop who told us if we bring our wedding dress and tux and marriage certificate to Rome we can be blessed by the Pope on Wednesday mornings.
Neither of which things we knew before.
So Gretchen is helping me get into my going-away dress at the end of the wedding reception when I whisper, “Gretchen, stuff the wedding dress in the Dillards sack!”
Gretchen stares at me, her green eyes like saucers. “What?”
“Just stuff it!!”
“No, I'll just hang it in the car.”
“No, I mean I’m taking it to Italy.”
To take a priceless genuine silk satin wedding dress with a big train all the way to Italy in overhead compartments with such possible tragedies as spilled drinks and black rubber smudges?
I know, I know. I’m really dating myself to use that phrase.
Anyway. Wednesday morning we are up at 5am. Thanks to my Mama’s ingenious advice, I have kept my crumpled wrinkled gorgeous pearl luminescent wedding dress hung in the bathroom so that the steam can straighten it out.
I forgot my curlers. Ah well. I put on some makeup. I wear my wool Audrey Hepburn jacket and my black leather gloves. I attach the veil to my hair. James puts on his tuxedo. We fortify ourselves with Americanos and chocolate croissants and head out into Vatican City.
There’s already a crowd formed, but thankfully we are one of the 20 or so couples in wedding garb so we get through pretty quickly, and once we are past security we race to the door with an adorable little boy in knickers and a newspaper-boy cap who is laughing at the fun.
Italy! I love thee!
We sit in the second row.
After a couple hours of waiting and meeting the lovely couples around us, all in our lovely outfits, and watch a circus perform on stage (it is Italy, after all) and admire the Argentinian Nativity scene complete with St Joseph in a sombrero, the Pope comes in.
He is really kind and friendly, speaking with people and blessing the children, so it takes a while for him to make his way through the crowd. Finally on stage, he speaks and country representatives translate his words into many different major languages for over an hour. Quite a study in dialects!
And then he comes down and goes one by one through the front row of people who are ill, blessing and speaking with each one for a good little while. One little boy in a wheelchair wants his replica Pope hat blessed and when he asks to keep the Pope’s real hat, the Pope lets him. Then he is coming down the line of newlyweds, blessing each couple. He is at us and he looks us in the eye and, says “Pray for me” and then blesses us. He doesn’t know English very well. He is only about my height, but he carries a deep presence with him.
It is truly an amazing moment. One of those moments you can’t believe actually happened to you. But it did, and surprisingly enough it felt just like normal life.
We spent 5 days in Rome, each day packed with amazing experiences. Seriously, my honeymoon was like something out of a story-book. And I haven’t even got to Florence yet. But the most incredible place of all was St. Peter’s Basilica, across the street from our hotel. We went in almost every day.
It’s the kind of place you enter and start looking at everything and then sit in silence and suddenly realize four hours has gone by.
I’ve never seen such beauty.
The air vibrates.
It feels like the heart at the center of all beautiful things.