Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Well There's No Place Like Rome for the Holidays

Twenty-eight years ago, I departed for studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, living in an American compound, the North American College in Vatican City. I was 27 years old, but had never been away from home for more than a month, and that was five years before when I studied in China. It would be two years before I could come back to the United States and unfortunately, I started out counting down the days until then, rather then throwing myself into the opportunity of a lifetime -- living abroad on someone else's dime, as I was there on the equivalent of a full scholarship, including room and board.

The first big test of homesickness would be Thanksgiving. In Italy, it was just another Thursday. In our five-story, walled-in hectares of America, it was a time of celebration. The fact that we had no classes on Thursdays (but did have them on Saturdays) helped start the day with that holiday feeling. While we were blessed to have an incredible house chef, Giovanni, we longed for the comfort foods with which we had grown up. It's amazing what you can whip up on a hot plate. Guys in a particular hallway would chip in. My parents once sent over bagels. The following year, I had access to the PX at the American Embassy because I had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and served that summer as an officer with the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Bitburg, Germany. So, that meant buying Pop Tarts, "real" bacon (pancetta just didn't go well with eggs), American coffee (though nothing will compare to cappuccino from Tazza d'Oro), and tea (which you could then only get at Babbington's Tea Room in the Piazza di Spagna).

We'd gather for lunch in the refectory, properly dressed in suits and ties or high-end clerical garb, for a feast of roast turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin pies baked over a 24-hour period by one of my classmates, Chuck, from Pittsburgh, who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, about a ten minute drive from where I live now in Poughkeepsie. We had other American guests join us, from ambassadors to students, and always started with three toasts: to the president, the pope, and the college. We would gather a couple of hours after the big meal for the annual "Spaghetti Bowl," a football game pitting the "new men," or first year students, against the "old men," or the rest of the house. The game featured live play-by-play. After I returned to the States, I recorded some radio commercials, including jingles,  for the college store -- KNAC -- and sent them over. I'm told they used them for years.

At night, after a VERY light dinner, we gathered in the magnificent auditorium, designed by MGM, to watch the original print of the film Ben Hur. Arrangements for much of the Rome-based filming were smoothed by the then-long-term-rector of the NAC, Archbishop Martin O'Connor from Scranton, PA. The viewing experience was a mix of Rocky Horror and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Some guys came dressed up in period garb, and we all shouted out commentary -- from the comedic to the sacrilegious. Then it was time for expensive calls home. We paid by the "click" -- a counter on the switchboard that went in intervals of ten seconds, which meant bills that could range from $25 to $150. I smartened up after getting some huge initial bills and would call my parents or Pete and ask them to call me right back, since it was much less expensive to call from the States. Even that brief call would be about $1. Remember, this was well before cell phones and global service and payment plans.

It was an opportunity to bond, to shorten the distance from home, and for some, to keep them from leaving because they couldn't deal with being away from family and friends. There would be other holidays that posed homesickness difficulties, most notably Christmas, but there was at least a festive air for those celebrations. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American (U.S. in November, Canada in October) holiday, and when you live in community with 150 countrymen, that shared experience bolstered morale and helped us march on toward exams, work, and travel.

I wonder if the students I've known from my 19 years at Marist (I still teach there) or other colleges and universities felt that same homesickness and how they dealt with is. Perhaps some will let me know in the comments section at the end of this post.

One last thing...I know I haven't posted in awhile, but I hope to be back tomorrow with another entry to reflect on Pope "Frankness" -- a man who is breaking the papal mold and is not afraid to challenge leadership in the church, in nations, and in corporate culture.