Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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The Joy of Simple Rituals

 

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Since it’s Mother’s Day, I summoned all the Catholic guilt bestowed on me through generations of Catholic mothers and insisted we all go to church. Nobody else was all that keen on going to a Mass in a language we don’t understand. But since it’s Mother’s Day, everybody complied with minimal grumbling.

We hadn’t been to church since we left the States, and I thought it would be good for us. There would be familiarity in the rituals. We could spend a little time counting our blessings. Our landlord’s granddaughter even let me borrow a Croatian prayer book so I could try to follow along.

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I told the kids they could wear shorts and didn’t yell at the one who refused to put on a collared shirt.

Of course, we were late getting out the door. One kid’s shoes were still wet from playing in the water last night, so a shoe ordeal set us a little behind. I wanted to walk since it’s such a nice day. We showed up to church 10 minutes late. Sarge hates being late.

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The pews were already full when we got there. Something was going on. At first I thought it was a First Communion. There were rows of boys and girls all dressed in white. But it looked a little less formal than a First Communion, and the kids looked older than second grade, the traditional age for that Sacrament back home.

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It must have been a Confirmation ceremony. And all of the relatives were there to celebrate.

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We sat in the courtyard of the 13th-century Monastery of St. Francis Assisi and watched: well-dressed women in 4-inch heels holding toddlers, aunts and uncles bringing balloons as presents, grandfathers mumbling prayers, restless kids running around.

We could catch a few familiar words and the cadence of prayers, and when an hour was up, my boys knew it was time to wrap it up and go find something to eat. That’s what we usually do after Mass.

It gave me comfort to know families here follow the same routines, say the same prayers and are not all that different.

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On our way to a cafe, we passed lace-makers, tourists and kids playing in the streets. We ate food we recognized and talked about our favorite parts of our trip so far.

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Days like this doing the same things people have done here for generations ranks up there for me as a simple joy of traveling.

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