The end, for now

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from this adventure. By the time we touched back down in Portland, I wanted nothing more than to curl up with my mom and my cat and cry. The adventure I had so desperately wanted had not gone the way I had wanted it to, at all. I was stressed and sick; I was at my lowest point.

But I’ve started to recover. The medicine I had tried for days in Rome to receive was ready for me at my pharmacy–with names I could pronounce, paid with money I didn’t have to carefully study–three pills a day. I took them. I rested. I dropped bath bombs into a tub that didn’t leak, and I read books. I slept in my own bed. I grew stronger and didn’t feel as strong an urge to tie myself to the bathroom. The colonoscopy I had scheduled before this trip comes ever-closer. And I started my direct sales business; every day now starts with a cup of hot tea, sipped while curled over a book or around my cat.

I knew at the end of my last study abroad that this would not be my first visit to Europe, or even just to London and Rome. There’s so much more to see and do in the world. The diseased gut I call “the dragon” is going to stay with me until science figures out a way to cure it. It’s a fact I’ve come to accept, but the acceptance comes in waves. Opportunities come in waves.

I will return. Whether or not the dragon will be dormant or awake when I do so is yet to be seen. But Europe, this is not the last you’ve seen of me. I swear it.

“You bring your whole self with you.”

I flared my way through Europe.

And by “flaring” I do not mean the kind of beautiful, poetic flaring where I shot like a comet throughout my travels, leaving marks that I was there, dazzling brightly in spectacular colors. This was the sort of experience I had been hoping to have while abroad, to seize every opportunity with a ruthless ambition and make it mine.

By “flaring” I mean that my battered, bleeding colon took me by its dragon-like mouth and tied me to a worser self-image of myself, again.

When you live with a chronic illness as long as I have, you become familiar with adjusting your plans and checking your energy levels. You prioritize what you can and cannot do, how far away from a toilet you can go, if you need one package of disposable underwear or two. (You can go to the museum tomorrow if you don’t have the fish and chips you’ve been craving tonight; five minutes tops, two packages, even if they’ll be difficult to pack.)

Most of the prep work that I had done, thankfully, had been behind-the-scenes: gathering tickets, placing four-in-the-morning phone calls to London, making sure all the particulars were taking care of. This part of the trip was supposed to be me living the trip I had planned, enjoying myself, getting to see and do things I had been unable to do last time. In my first study abroad experience, my body had behaved, had even exceeded my wildest expectations; on that trip I had worried about my stamina, about my legs, about being able to stay upright in the heat, about looking good in a bathing suit.

This time, my fears were different, born from my nightmares: will this seed-bread send me into a tailspin, will this ginger help, do I have enough change for the bathroom, is there a bathroom in this godforsaken park, did I remember my cleaning kit? What happens now that I know I cannot get this steroid? Will I break down? Will people forgive me if I do?

I kept most of this in check. I broke down once with my mother on a phone call, and once with my roommates. But toward the end of the trip, as I felt my physical and mental reserves drain away, I withdrew from everyone else. The things that I was able to do, I did alone. I allowed myself to self-isolate and my experience suffered for it.

During one of our final meetings as a group, a classmate said something that I will forever keep with me: “When we travel, we don’t bring just the parts of ourselves that we like or want to show off; you bring your whole self with you.” It means I brought my yearning, my passion, my wandering fingertips; it means I brought my anxieties, my colon, my weak knees, my low self-esteem. My whole self suffered. Continues to suffer.

But medicine exists, and I’m getting better.

Frascati: Pork and Church and Wine

Picture: Frascati, a beautiful town rising above Rome; home of fine wines, deliciously salty porketta, and the three-boobied lady. Sun shining and warm, which feels good once you’ve recovered from the sudden flurry of stairs that rise up from the tiny train station. Dominique shepherds us through the old city, a vacation spot for middle-class Romans and Popes alike; she tells us that the black cobblestone under our feet, both here and in the big city, comes from the dormant volcanoes that ring this valley. She tells us how this city was nearly destroyed in blitzes in the great World Wars, that the buildings that stood were made out of more porous stone that better absorbed the aftershocks.

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Picture: She takes us inside a church where her children were baptized, old and made of the porous stone that ensured its survival. Near the back is a great stone block, which has a name I have forgotten; it has been used since medieval times, or even longer. Some details fade out of memory, but I remember the way I stared at it. Recycling is common practice in Rome, and has been for millenia: things are repurposed and broken down to be used for something else. Even if it looks new, it’s probably been brought to life by something very, very old.

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Picture: A beautifully stormy sky in the distance, above Rome. We keep dry under the roof of a spectacularly open patio, nursing wine. I partake, though I shouldn’t, though I wasn’t going to. I can’t help myself. The wine is cool and sweet, and the company is good, and the bread they serve with the wine is delicious. I think I eat most of the basket, and no one says a word against it. The winery we visit, and the family who owns it, has been here for generations; Dominique, who married into this family, is breathing new life into it. The old is being made new again.

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Picture: The train ride back under a dark sky. Four of us break off from the group early, bags of food in our hands. We slip silently into the night, nibbling and watching and reveling. By this point I’m wide awake, playing mental games with myself: count the streetlights; in fifteen hundred breaths we’ll make it to Rome.

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Picture: Just because the destination is old doesn’t mean it is irrelevant. The old is made new again by new people, new memories.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

“Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet, or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law–and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction?”

In big groups, such as ours, personalities clash. Tensions surge. Many of us have never spent more time together than a three-hour class once or twice a week. To travel means to put trust in people who may be strangers, or half-strangers, and try your best to let your fears not get the better of you.

I’m thankful for this year’s group, who handled the obstacles that came our way with grace and excellence–this comes not only from a managerial view, but also a personal one, as I felt that some of the disruptions were caused by my own wavering health and abilities. I felt that the lines of communication were easier to access, that we were all open and compassionate to each other. It makes living with people, who might know of my quirks but not know them, easier to manage.

I found myself meditating a lot while on the patio of our apartment, when I couldn’t join everyone else in their traipses across the city and elsewhere. Marcus often appeals to reason in his writings, and I see it here: to the angier, baser parts of ourselves, he calls for compassion and even forgiveness. Nothing good comes from needlessly dividing ourselves. It wasn’t a message I was ready to hear in our final days abroad, when my own dark thoughts were clouding my judgment. It’s one I am trying to take in now, with some distance between that person and this medicated one.

The History of the Kings of Britain: Destination, Return

“Brutus, beneath the setting sun, beyond the kingdoms of Gaul,
There is an island, encircled by the sea,
There is an island, once inhabited by giants,
But now it is deserted, ready to receive your people.
Seek it out: for it shall be your everlasting seat.
It shall be a second Troy unto your descendants.
There kings shall arise from your line, and unto them
Shall all the lands of the earth be subject.”
–Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain

In this short passage, Brutus is receiving a prophecy from Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. She steers him on the path from the small island Brutus’s company has landed on, and toward a greater destiny.

Geoffrey’s tales were a collection of myths that, while drawing heavily from Roman prose and legend, gave Britain an epic mythology to draw from. A substantial part of our identities are drawn from the stories we tell about ourselves and our ancestors, and myths are certainly an important aspect of that need to contextualize history in ways and words we can understand. For the British, it was a way to strengthen their link to the Romans and their great civilization; we see echoes of that in the literature that comes after Geoffrey, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte de Arthur. London, where Brutus decides to settle and which is first called “New Troy,” becomes the epitome of this yearning to be tied to Rome.

For several months I studied the beginning sections of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain, to connect it to the Agas Map. Part of the reason I chose to concentrate my studies here is because I felt the siren song of London calling me again. Like Brutus, I needed the direction of a greater being–in this case, Meg, our group director and traveler extraordinaire–to push me on to my destiny. I surged forward into this new land of planning and leadership, not knowing what awaited me once I made land again.

Soundscape: Vicollo del Cinque

It’s early afternoon and I’m waiting for five, Roman time, which will be eight in the morning, Portland time. I am alone in our spacious apartment; my roommates have gone to tackle the big itinerary items of the day; they are gone living their lives. I do not begrudge them. At first I delight in it, in the soft spray of the hot water against my aching body and the hiss of the steam against the shower curtain; in the slish slish of my feet on the wet tile, already pooling from water from our leaking tub. (The tub taunts me every time I go into that bathroom, which is often; my main mode of therapy is there in theory if not in practice.) I hear my stomach gurgling from the buffalo cheese margherita pizza, and I know I’ve made the right choice coming back.

I did not come to Italy to watch Netflix, but I do on the patio while the sun is still out; I don’t dare leave our apartment, in case I get into trouble or lose track of the time. There is no ticking clock in here but I feel it in my head, throbbing. I steal glances at my phone clock between episodes of Making a Murderer, which are conveniently divided into hour-long segments. One. Two. Four. I pitter around with the iPad in my hand, with my phone in my pocket. I clean dishes, hear the clink of silverware bouncing against each other in the sink. We don’t have a dishwasher. I am glad we don’t have a dishwasher; I’ve only just remembered how to work Roman washing machines, and I can’t take another machine droning and spinning like an overworked worker.

It is five, Roman time, which is eight in the morning, Portland time. I only have so many minutes on my phone. Each shrill ring feels like a nagging. An automatic voice answers me: if this is an emergency, hang up and call 911. I laugh–the emergency number for Italy is 112, I know because it’s on the piece of paper taped to the door from the apartment and onto Rome. I’m not in the States, won’t be for another week.

I stay on the line to talk to a real person. I ask for one of my doctor’s nurses, knowing he’s away. My small clinic in Portland has only just opened. They connect me to one of his nurses. I have a notepad with all the information I need from them so that they can make a fax, so I can get medicine that might help me.

We don’t have a fax machine that can do international.

Fine, I say, though disappointment has made my voice hollow. Can you email me what you would have sent and I can print it out myself?

We don’t have a scanner that does email attachments. Can you do without?

In my head I think, Well I damn well don’t have a choice, do I. And I hang up. Twenty minutes wasted. Day wasted. Hope wasted. Bitterness sounds like a pillow being thrown on the floor; bitterness is a curled, keening note in my head that can’t be drowned out by the music that starts floating up from the streets. Restaurants open and musicians play music on our busy street. I am clinking more dishes together when my roommates return, trying to get the keening out.

Two weeks later, I still hear it ringing.

Ostia Antica

255As hard as we try to stick to an itinerary, sometimes the best learning experiences happen spontaneously. This could have been a theme for the entire trip, or a mantra for travel in general–for our journey, I found it best exemplified in our trip to Ostia Antica.

What was once an ancient Roman seaport has now become a preserved ruin, open to the public. We spent a (mostly) dry afternoon wandering the remains of shops and a giant amphitheater–as we began to head back from the gift shop and the western part of the site, fat drops of rain started falling on us. It was a nice break from the dust and dirt that sprayed up with every step. Ostia Antica was one of the few places I hadn’t been during my last trip, and one of the few places where I bought a souvenir: a little flip-book with modern depictions and drawn reconstructions of what Ostia Antica might have looked like to the ancient Romans.

There had been talk about some of us continuing down the train track to Ostia Lido, the “newer” part of Ostia, for dinner, while others headed back to Rome; we decided as a group to collectively go down to grab a bite to eat. The seaside town was small and quiet, and there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight.

We took the time to grab a gelato (as one does in Italy) and head down to a small bar with their own fenced-off portion of beach. I took off my shoes and dipped them into the Tyrrhenian Sea, which technically means I dipped them into the Mediterranean; it was only for a moment, and I didn’t stay long, but the feeling of the cool water on my toes as the sun started to set was heavenly.

And then, there was Il Delfino.

Let me preface this by saying that it is not hard to find good food in Italy: the meals are fresh and delicious and real in the way that American meals sometimes aren’t. Waiters bring bread and wine without asking, in the hopes that you’ll partake and therefore pay extra. (There’s a Greek saying that there is “no such thing as a free lunch”; in Rome, there is no such thing as free bread.) But you don’t care, because the atmosphere is great, the sun is shining, and the food is delicious.

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Il Delfino was by far the best meal I had; though the tomato basil pasta was simple, it highlighted the best of my Roman culinary experience. The savory, gentle flavors were helped in no small part by the amazing seaside view; we sat over the ocean on a white balcony, with white tablecloths. There was no need for color, because the setting sun gave us all our oranges and blues and purples, and the food gave us our reds and golds and blacks. I saw many people order shellfish and fish dishes and sink into the bliss that comes from a good meal with friends. I sank into that same bliss, let my mind wander, let myself be rooted and commit this experience to memory.

Borghese Gallery

You can keep your National Galleries and British Museums.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go to them and wander the treasures that stare down with dead eyes from behing glass boxes. There are absolute treasures in those museums. But there’s something different about the Borghese Gallery. Illness kept me away from several of the museums on our trip, but I told myself that if I was going to push myself for one event, it would be the Borghese.

It’s a smaller gallery, with three small floors–the ground floor as the ticket office, gift shop, and small cafe; the first floor, home of priceless sculptures; and (at the top of a very long, stone staircase) the second floor, home of pictures and paintings. The gallery staggers the entrance of its visitors, so that one doesn’t have to continuously brush shoulders with a neighbor. There’s room to breathe, and therefore appreciate, the art that surrounds you; and in a way, the open space gives the art room to breathe as well, to just be without a thousand eyes continuously gazing. And the building itself, with its gold trim and the many dragons and eagles hidden away in the wallpaper, the table feet, and even the statues in the gardens just outside.

Such a setting truly allows you to truly take in the magnificence of these pieces. I found myself enamored, as always, with Bernini’s sculptures. The Rape of Persephone, though spawned from the dark tale of Hades dragging Persephone down into the underworld, is a marvel: Persephone’s flesh yields to Hades’s firm touch, her clothes fold; Hades’s back muscles are taut, his buttocks firm; you can count the ribs of Cerberus, you can see the strokes of fur in the place where the three heads meet in the neck. It’s all wrought from something hard and cold to the touch. The sculpture breathes and comes alive in the golden light of the gallery. From something cold and dead came something that stares back with life.

It blows the mind. Words can’t describe it. You can’t even walk behind the sculpture to take a break because there is something on every single side–eyes that haunt, details that make you wonder how the hell did he do that.

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I found myself asking a similar question as I came across Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” on the second floor (after catching my breath; those stairs are nothing to laugh at). The stark juxtaposition between the dark background and the bright, almost golden body of David draws the eye from across the room, but it’s the haunting sadness in David’s eyes and the lingering pain in Goliath’s that stay with me. I’ve heard and read that the face of Goliath was supposed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, complicating and personalizing this depiction of the aftermath of the battle between man and beast, hero and villain.

Thankfully there were paintings like this one to pull me out of my thoughts:

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Me too, murder swan. Me too.

The Trevi

343.JPGWhen most tourists come to Rome, they bring with them a checklist of sites and things to see. I certainly bring mine with me for the times and spaces outside of our class itineraries. Near the top this year was the Trevi Fountain–two years ago the fountain had been closed for cleaning, so the only bits I could see with my own eyes were from between a chain-link fence, with no water. Still a spectacular sight, but not the experience I imagined having.

I saw it in full this year, during our late-night fountain walk. Fountains are everywhere in Rome: the grand, mesmerizing fountains are tucked into piazzas so that you stumble right into them, breathless in the light; the little spigots of water that flow without a care in the world, waiting for the open lip of a water bottle. Free-flowing water is part of what makes Rome Rome; how that water is framed, whether by the riverbanks or the spigots or the spectacular fountains, is part of the many-layered story of the city.

I didn’t throw a coin into the fountain, or dip my fingers into the chill water; it was a bad night for me that day, one that kept me curled into myself. But I sat to the side and watched the swarm of people approach the cool lip of the structure, saw their faces illuminated in blue and gold. I wondered how many of them were seeing this with their own eyes for the first time, or their thousandth; I wondered how many had thrown coins, hoping that an old superstition would encourage the Fates to steer their course back here again. I stayed there, perched and watching, until it was time to go; I left the Trevi behind with my own mental coin making ripples in my mind, a promise that I would soon return.

Healing Waters

200.JPGOf all the places we were scheduled to visit in England, the one I was most looking forward to was Bath.

There are many wonderful things about this city that would draw a foot-weary traveler: the leisurely train ride, the street performers, the warm colors, the literary connection to Jane Austen, or even the “small town feel with big city amenities.” Bath is to London what Vancouver, my home city, is to Portland or Seattle: big enough to spread out but not so sprawling that you feel overwhelmed by possibility. (And even that is a weak comparison–Portland and Seattle have nothing on London.) For me, however, the draw came from Bath’s namesake: the ancient Roman Baths that were established by ancient Romans. Built on natural hot springs, the settlement became a popular destination for Romans to travel from London to relax and soak their cares away.

The trip here was the last leg of our London adventure–the next day we would be waking up at 5:00 am to make our morning flight to Rome. It was important, therefore, that we all took this opportunity to just unwind and have a few quiet(er) moments. We stopped for lunch at Pret A Manger, which can only be described as “the organic Starbucks” for its presence in the English streets, before heading to the ruins of the original baths. I took some time to myself to wind through the museum displays; enough time had passed that I found myself learning things again, seeing objects that didn’t immediately strike me as familiar.

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But then we got to the pool, tinted green with minerals. I straddled on one of the stone benches and looked out, watching my travel mates filter down. There is a quiet serenity to this place–part of it is the weight of knowing that people from thousands of years ago were standing right where I stood, soaking their own problems away. There are signs that warn people against touching the untreated water, but I dipped my fingers in anyway. (Sorry, management.)

There’s a legend that says that the waters in Bath have healing properties. I took two drinks from the treated water samples that flowed in one tiny corner, desperate for some natural, miracle cure. Of course just a few sips didn’t do much to cure my chronic gut ache, but it was a routine and it felt good in the moment, which was enough.

The hydrohealing didn’t stop there–a group of us made the spontaneous decision to visit a modern spa in Bath, just a few winding roads down from the ancient Roman baths. Pictures were strictly not allowed outside of the locker rooms, so unfortunately I have no photos to share. But at the top of the four-story building was a rooftop pool with a beautiful view of the city–church steeples poked their way over modern buildings, all golden in the afternoon sun. Our group transitioned between the rooftop pool, a sauna floor with four different scent-infused chambers, and a lower-ground pool.

The day of relaxation in and by the water may not have healed me physically, or if it did it only did so for a day–but my spirit needed the cleanse, desperately. It was fitting that I found it in Bath.