A friend once told me: pay attention the first time you’re in a new place, you’ll never see it with the same eyes.
Last week I joined a group of teachers on a flight to Rome. We were on a pilgrimage tour of Ignatian sites, places that are significant in the life of the St. Ignatius Loyola and to the early Society of Jesus. I walked out of Rome’s Termini train station for the first time, excited for the week ahead. Well, not really for the first time.
My first glimpse of Rome came in early June of 2003. I had just wrapped up a semester abroad in Madrid, capped off with a multi-country backpacking trip with some great college friends. I left them earlier than I might because I’d planned to take a free summer course in Rome in, what else, Latin. Unfortunately the only thing in Rome that was free was the Latin course, which left me worrying over the cost of two months worth of food and lodging. That, and the fact that I knew no Italian, couldn’t track down the obscure grammar text and Latin dictionary I needed, and was more than a little tired of living away from home (#FirstWorldProblems? No doubt, but I was 20 and this was all new!)
So as I pulled into Termini that hot summer day in 2003 carrying nothing but my backpack, a map and a rough address for the class, I wanted nothing more than to turn around and fly home, or rejoin my friends in Munich, or, or…
Seeing Rome for the first time I remember… stepping into the city carrying that adrenaline cocktail of alert excitement, fear, and invincibility that accompanies total anonymity in a big city. I remember how I hurried through the midday heat past all the famous sites – Oh, look, it’s the Coliseum. What’s that? St. Peter’s Square? Can’t stop now, I have a class. Dread of the heat staved off fear of the unfamiliar, and I found a new confidence as I stormed westward to where the class was going to be.
My confidence evaporated when I stepped into the classroom. Inside were about fifty people, all of them older than me. And then a new wave of fear came over me.
I sat down in the class, surrounded by Latin teachers, graduate students from around the world, even a few recent alumna/ae of Ivy League institutions (who didn’t delay in letting me know it). All sitting, composed in their desks, with texts, dictionaries, notebooks and pens at the ready for day one.
In the words of Scooby Doo… “Ruh roh.”
For here sat I: a wearied, underprepared undergrad who hadn’t given a thought to Latin in over a semester. Everyone (no, literally everyone) in the room is smarter than me, I thought.
As it turned, our teacher Fr. Reginald Foster is one of the humbler teachers I’ve had. And, not unrelatedly, one of the very best. His day job was working as one of the pope’s Latinists – the scribes who translate everything that comes in and goes out of the Vatican to and from Latin. But you wouldn’t know it from his modest dress, aversion to praise, and distaste for putting on airs.
Before we began anything that first afternoon, he asked if we were all settled in – did we all have a room? Had we found our book? Oh dear, I thought, has the moment of truth come already? Should I raise my hand or just slink out the door now?
As it turns out, there were about eight others in my boat. Five of us, an eclectic mix of nationality and temperament, ended up rooming together that summer. We had a wonderful apartment with a balcony overlooking a cypress-lined street in a lovely Roman neighborhood. And Fr. Reggie, as we learned to call him, “lent” (read: gave) me the books I needed for the summer.
For the rest of that day, and for the following six weeks, I was able to let my guard down. Perhaps better said, I let pass the fears that had plagued and discouraged me up to that point. Turns out I could hold my own with the Latin, and that frugal living didn’t result in misery. By summer’s end, I was strolling confidently through Rome’s streets, and communicating in basic Italian. In order to ensure a future trip to Rome, toward the end of the summer I went with a group of friends to throw coins into the Trevi Fountain. We took a picture. As I flew home a few days later, picture safely in tow, I recalled my worries, how afraid I had been of going it alone in a strange land.
Those fears were real. They had weighed on me, but they were not the last word on Rome, I thought..
All of this came back to me this past week as I trudged from Termini over to the Jesuit Residence (the balconies don’t quite measure up to my old apartment). Sweating and uncomfortable? Sure. But there was also a confidence that comes from revisiting a place that was once, well, my home.
Often I don’t do a great job of paying attention the first time I’m in a place. Most of the time, I’m just trying to interact without leaning too far into presumed familiarity, without holding back because of the anticipated fears. Those trumped up fears and “yeah-but-what-ifs?” can keep us from immersing ourselves in the world that stands before us. They certainly can keep me puttering around close to shore, where safety is assured. But, in my experience at least, we’re not often able to see the gifts and graces from the shore. They are found by moving amidst – and through – the fears and doubts.
Whether it’s Rome or tougher new places in life, many things bear a second look.
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Cover photo copyright Moyan Brenn.