Over the summer this year I had taken a month-long semester abroad in Rome and while I was there I had taken weekend travels to Milan, Naples, and Pompeii. This was my first time traveling outside of the United States and also my first time traveling alone. Let me begin with saying that no photo, video, book or pamphlet can prepare you for how overwhelmingly beautiful this country is until you step foot on Italian soil and see it for yourself. Of course no place is perfect and there were a few series of unfortunate events and unpleasant people but being able to live as an Italian and call Rome my home for a month was an ethereal experience.
Arrival & Rome
I flew into the Rome-Fiumicino airport from Charlotte-Douglas on June 18th, my flight was a little under ten hours but it wasn’t as miserable as I anticipated… My departure wasn’t so great but that’s a whole other story. Any who, I did a lot of walking and exploring on the first day and I had my first Italian gelato at Panna & Co. This was the best tasting vanilla ice cream that I’ve had and every gelato I had from then on did not disappoint. Something I immediately noticed since my arrival was that everything I had eaten was much fresher, seemingly organic, and very simple things had a lot of flavor. I had this idea that most food should have many different flavor notes but I had pasta with fresh garlic, olive oil, and salt and it was delicious. Generally my Italian diet consisted of a lot of sandwiches, fruit, pizza, and wine. Also, I cooked and ate at home sometimes but whenever I did it was mostly pasta or something quick and easy.
Throughout the entirety of my time in Rome I lived in an apartment in the neighborhood of Testaccio, which received its name from the hill of stacked broken amphorae that had been used to carry and trade olive oil during the time of the Roman Empire. The apartment itself was spacious; there were five rooms, a large kitchen/living area, and two bathrooms, both of which had bidets. In my apartment there were seven of us but luckily no one was forced into sharing a room with me. The street I lived on, Via Marmorata, made us close to the bus stop, coffee shops, grocery stores, a subway station, and a mix of other mom & pop shops.
In Rome and about everywhere I’ve visited in Italy, there were piazzas which are essentially a central public space where people gather. Typically in the center of the piazzas were monuments or fountains or a mixture of the two. Directly behind my apartment was the piazza di Testaccio and surrounding the piazza were more shops and apartments. Not too far from there was the Mercato di Testaccio, which was an open indoor market. Immediately upon entering the market you are greeted with a kiosk filled with beautiful, aromatic flowers and then you see the different alleys of shops and stands, each of them selling a variety of goods ranging from freshly butchered meats to purses and clothing. Every Sunday in Trastevere, Testaccio’s neighboring district, the Porta Portese flea market would open from 9-4 p.m. It was pretty much your standard flea market that sold vintage items, electronics, food and more but the stalls stretched for maybe a mile and a half. I went once and managed to purchase an 80€ purse for 25€ and that was pretty cool. However in crowded areas I had to be aware of scammers and pickpockets because they can spot a tourist a mile away and we are often vulnerable targets. However, I was never scammed out of any money on the street except for once but it was less than a euro. The real scam that I encountered was paying 5€ for a ten ounce Fanta at a restaurant on the sidewalk. That didn’t include the 5€ table service fee and the food was not very good.
During the first day in Rome, I visited the Pantheon, the Pyramid of Cestius, the Non-Catholic Cemetery, and I walked all around Testaccio until my apartment was ready. Our group directors took us to an art supply shop, Ditta G. Poggi, near the Pantheon which had an eclectic mix of supplies and was the holy grail for any artist. The only thing that I wish I had done was buy more stuff to use once I returned to the U.S.. FUNNY STORY: A friend and I were looking for this same art supply store later on in the trip to get glue and supplies but we couldn’t remember the name. All that we remembered was that it was near the Pantheon. Anyway, we walked for a good hour and a half all around the Pantheon and its side streets, then down the Via Del Corso and finally we ended up at the Piazza del Popolo which was about 20 minutes away from the Pantheon. I never found the place but I went back later with people from my apartment and I realized I walked past that store three times and I had no idea. BUT I am glad that we were lost because we were able to see a different part of Rome and eventually we found some glue and stopped for lunch where I stumbled upon inexpensive but delicious calamari.
While I was living in Rome I visited the Vatican museums, St. Peters Basilica, the Villa Farnesina, the Capitoline Museum, the Villa Borghese, and many, many churches. Speaking of churches the very first church that we visited I lied across the pew and I cried. As you can imagine, these religious buildings often create this divine presence of God when you enter them but I think what truly magnified the overwhelming feelings of spirituality was being able to be in the presence of the work of so many great artists that I had only read about and seen in 2-D. Lastly, being able to learn and create on site was exhilarating and inspired me to develop myself as an artist and to explore different mediums and ways of expression.
One night after dinner there was this older man playing the santoor under Trajan’s Column and it was beautiful. This wasn’t the first time seeing an artist create in a public forum but my first time seeing a larger instrument being played outside. The video from that night is below.
The first trip that we had taken outside of Rome was to Milan. We caught the early train at around 7 a.m. and we arrived a little after 10. Milan seemed to be a bit busier than Rome and the car size increased too. Rome had smaller hatchback cars and very few SUVs but there were a few. When we arrived we went to Europcar, a rental car service, to get the vans to go to Lago d’Iseo to see the Floating Piers. The drive to the lake felt like forever but I think it was 2-3 hours or so. When we got to the Floating Piers it was extremely hot and it was well over a few thousand people there, most of them I assumed were tourists. However, despite the excess of people and heat, the experience was worth it because this was likely the only time that I’d see a Christo installation. There were quite a few places to get food along the piers but I had only stopped for a popsicle and despite it having a color that would indicate watermelon or apple it was in fact spearmint. It wasn’t something I’d try again but it was very refreshing considering how hot it was. We spent that night in a hostel in Bergamo which was about two hours away from Lago d’Iseo. This was my first time staying in a hostel and it was quite accommodating. The owner had left us things to eat for breakfast like fruit, cereal, eggs, coffee, and bread. The following morning we returned to Milan to go to the Brera Art Gallery which houses artwork by Raphael, Mantegna, Bramante, Rubens, Carracci, Caravaggio, and so many others. I didn’t figure out how to properly work my camera until the very end (seriously, the last day), so all of my photos of the art aren’t so great. While I was in Milan I was fortunate enough to visit the D’uomo of Milan which is an extremely large cathedral. The line to enter was very long but I was able see the inside as long as I prayed, so I did. I lit a candle and said a short prayer for my mom which made my visit a very emotional experience. Next to the D’uomo was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping centers that is also home to luxury retailers like Prada and Versace.
Naples & Pompeii
The final trip was to Naples and Pompeii, this was the trip I was most looking forward to because I used to be infatuated with the Roman ruins of Pompeii and the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. We were in Naples for four days and we were staying in the Ibis hotel near the train station. The area was very sketchy and I would not recommend walking alone especially with a lot of cash. Not a good idea. The first day there we had walked quite a bit to get to a specific pizzeria for lunch but on the way there I began to notice Naples reminded me a lot of an Italian version of New York. Naples is a very large city and although at times it made me feel uneasy, I enjoyed my time there. While I was in Naples I enjoyed some of the best pizza that I have ever had and trust me, I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. I also had one of the worst eating experiences and an unfortunate hotel stay as well but I will save those stories for another time. On to the good stuff… At the same time we were visiting, Dolce and Gabbana were having a four-day fashion takeover and unfortunately I never received my invite… Luckily before the chaos we were able to visit the Castel dell’Ovo and I sat and drew for a bit after taking loads of touristy photos. After visiting the castle I have come to the conclusion that I need to live on or near water but specifically on an Italian coast. The train ride to Naples was beautiful. I luckily had a window seat and was able to get a short video of the countryside.
WARNING: Bad quality but good music.
The following day we toured the ruins of Pompeii with an English-speaking Italian tour guide, he was very attractive by the way but nearly all Italians are. Pompeii and the neighboring town of Herculaneum were both buried in ash during the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD. Surprisingly, Pompeii and it’s “ruins” were pretty well-preserved despite the effects of Vesuvius and time. I will save you the history lesson but if you’d like to know more there are a few documentaries on YouTube and Hulu that are pretty interesting to look at plus there’s also a movie but it’s probably not 100% historically accurate. At the end of our tour we sat down and had lunch at a restaurant right outside of the walls. Here I had seen some of the largest lemons ever. They had to be the size of a cantaloupe or larger and guess what? They were organic. (I am still baffled by that!) Before the day had ended we visited a museum that had some of the art found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Inside the museum there is a model of Pompeii made-to-scale and to my surprise Pompeii is much larger than the small area that we toured.
Being in Rome and living as a pseudo-Italian, I experienced a shift in the way that I experienced life and how I chose to live it. While I was there I felt like my life had been simplified and made easier. I was living in this beautiful country where I was inspired everyday and I didn’t necessarily have to worry about the turmoil of my life and the current issues in my country. I was detached from my problems. However, that didn’t last very long. While I was in Italy there was the police shooting death of Alton Sterling and hours later the police shooting death of Philando Castile. Immediately my heart dropped and I was in shock. I tried my best to not let these deaths affect my time in Italy but how can they not? The remainder of my trip I worried, I cried, and I cried even more. Not only because that could have been me, my dad, my brother or anyone that I know but because the threat of death at the hands of an officer is real and it breathes with little consequence. Not long after I returned to the U.S. I was in the car with my dad and we were stopped by the police (tail light) but immediately the officer asked my dad “Is there something in the car I need to know about?” Not, “license and registration, please” or informing my dad of what law he may have broken but “Is there something in the car I need to know about.” I have never been asked that and why did he look threatening or that he had something illegal? We were only going to pick up mail. Immediately I began panicking and hoping that I would not see my father murdered right in front of me because that fear of being stopped and murdered is real. Racism and prejudice is silently living in this country and is cowering behind asinine reasoning masked as “opinion”. There is no denying that and unfortunately people of color do not walk through the world with a similar experience. While in Rome I had experienced subtle racism and frankly it is not just a word. It exists. There was a person that I had met there and throughout the entirety of the trip they were very vocal, opinionated, and talkative. However when it came to discussing the reasoning behind their vote for Trump (despite his cataclysmic political opinion) and the deaths of Philando and Alton they became noticeably silent and refused to listen. Ignorance is not at all bliss and it is no longer acceptable to be willfully ignorant. Simply because something doesn’t directly affect you does not mean that it is not real. Your silence is violence and you are complicit in any injustice that you refuse to speak up for or do something about. Change begins with your voice. You have one, use it.
Although I was in Italy to study, it didn’t feel that way and almost all of the people I met along the way ended up feeling like extended family. There were a lot of things that I didn’t get to see and places that I would have liked to visit but I will return. I am extremely grateful to the people who helped make this trip happen and to the friends that I have made along the way. Thank you to my father, my grandmother, uncle Brian, aunt Vivian and uncle Yusef, and the people who supported each of my fundraisers. I would not have been able to experience Italy without you all! I hope you all enjoyed hearing about my experiences in Italy (and after), check out the images from my trip below!
As always guys,
Peace, love, and light <3