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The eternal city

Claire Kelley | Monday, February 6, 2006

For most American college-age journalists, an assignment in Rome to cover University representatives’ interaction with Vatican officials within 48 hours would be a mission impossible. Jetlag, culture shock, the language barrier, confusing transportation and winding streets would present serious logistical problems.

But for me, it was like going home.

Last week, when The Observer decided to send a writer and a photographer to Rome, my heart stopped. Two years ago, I studied abroad in the Saint Mary’s Program in the center of historic Rome, and I walked the ancient streets until I knew them by heart.

Since those eight months in Rome, I have returned to my old neighborhood many times. In my dreams, I wait at the light in Largo di Torre Argentina. When the cars and motorinos finally stop, I run across the street and onto the cobblestones, passing the bar Pascucci’s and our classroom building door until I catch a glimpse of my favorite building – the Pantheon.

Last week, in the midst of our frantic schedule, I was able to physically take Maddie, the Observer writer, to my favorite places in Rome. Pausing in the steps of the fountain in the Piazza della Rotunda, we stood before the magnificent façade of the Pantheon. Then we walked through the massive bronze doors to stare up in awe at the oculus and perfect dimensions.

I took her to Campo dei Fiori, and we sat on the steps of the Giordano Bruno statue, eating panini from Aristocampo and soaking in the energy of the bustling marketplace where flowers, fish, fruit and vegetables are sold.

In one of my favorite movies, “L’Auberge Espagnole,” the narrator explains, “When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everything’s unknown … After you’ve lived here, walked these streets, you’ll know them inside out. You’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times, it’ll belong to you …”

In some ways, this sentiment goes beyond the physical nature of Rome. While the art, grandeur and spectacle at the Vatican is impressive, the sense of spirituality that I found in Rome goes beyond the pomp and circumstance. It is a deep sense of awe at the architectural achievement, a new understanding of la dolce vita through the fantastic food and a lesson in human passion, where people will always remember you with an intense loyalty.

When I learned that Father John Jenkins could be attending the Pope’s public audience, I contacted the director of the Saint Mary’s Program, Dr. Portia Prebys. I explained my situation, and asked if she knew how to obtain special permission for photography at the Vatican.

Sure enough, she knew the perfect person – Thaddeus Jones, a Vatican official and a 1989 Notre Dame graduate who studied in the Saint Mary’s Program. As I sat in the media gallery high above the papal audience with professional photographers, I captured the moment when the pope spoke to Father Jenkins about Notre Dame. There and then, I realized that the sequence of events that made my dreams become reality and that moment possible could have only happened in such a magical place – Rome, the eternal city.