A Day of Religious Contemplation and Conspicuous Consumption

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: April 2012

People: Annoying peddlers, a confused cafe worker, a sweet old man, silly American tourists, vision savers at the Ottica

Lessons Learned: Don’t give your money to those annoying peddlers, just don’t!  If you want to look at beautiful churches and their artworks, dress for the occasion.  Catholic Churches are decked out to the nines. There is a difference between Panino and Panini.  UPIM is awesome! Government tax is already included in the price of goods sold in Italy, yay no headache calculating GST/PST!  Bring your eyecare prescription with you before going overseas.  Don’t buy shampoo and conditioner at the Farmacia, it’s anything but a bargain.

The day was bright and sunny, full of more promise than the cloudy day before.  I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go, all I wanted to do was explore.  I walked in a different direction than the day before and it led me towards the bustling Via Gallia.  I left the apartment that morning without any breakfast so when I came upon a gelateria, I couldn’t resist.  When I went to the counter to order a little boy came to help me.  When he realized that I was an English speaking tourist he ran to the back of the restaurant calling, “Mammiii!” This middle aged woman came to the counter and she made me this lovely gelato.

It was the first of many to come.  As you can tell from the photo, it is quite common to have some sort of biscuit with your gelato as edible garnish.

As I walked down the street I saw this great white building with statues of Catholic Church leaders adorning its rooftop.

I was curious as to what it was so I kept walking in that direction.  I came across market stalls selling cheap wares of everything under the sun: shoes, socks, pantyhose, clothes, underwear, nick knacks.  These types of markets are a common sight in the city and you can find them on many streets.

At the end of the street I came once more to the Aurelian walls and walked through them and saw this interesting statue of St. Francis of Asisi

On the other side of the street from the statue was the entry of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (The Papal Archbasilica of St. John and the Lateran).  As I walked towards the basilica I was hassled several times by these North African peddlers selling everything under the sun.  They are very common around the major tourist sites in Rome and they buzz around and bother tourists like flies on a carcass.  I personally find them annoying. They heckle tourists to no end and a lot of the things they sell look really cheap, but they try and offer them at a high price to rip off those who are stupid and don’t know any better.  You’re supposed to barter with them, which is an absolute headache.  They sell anything from hats, umbrellas, scarves, jewelry, tourist trinkets, and this squishy ball thing that goes completely flat when you throw it down on the ground.  Since I don’t like them and wish that they would go away, I never bought a single thing from them.  I treated them like I treat gypsies, I didn’t give them any of my money and I didn’t support them. The local Romans treat these types of people like a pest.  If you give them money and support their sketchy livelihoods, they will come back healthier and stronger and in greater numbers.  The best way to get rid of them is to weaken them and not support them with your money.  Unfortunately though there will always be dumb tourists out there who throw their coins at these annoying people.  Alas I had to endure the pesky peddlers until I stepped into the basilica.

Thankfully I took the time that day to dress more appropriately so I could enter enter this fascinating religious site and was glad I did.  It was my first ever experience in a European Church and I was absolutely blown away.  In Western Canada the churches are quite plain and unspectacular.  The only nice church I had been to at that point was St. Joseph Basilica in Edmonton (the largest basilica in Western Canada) for my high school graduation and it seemed so plain and basic compared to this basilica.  The gilded and coffered ceiling had many intricate designs etched into it.  There were marbled statues of various saints lining the main hall.  It seemed like every available surface was decorated from the floor to the ceiling, I had never seen anything like it.  There were so many intricate and ornate designs everywhere I turned and I was overwhelmed.  I spent a considerable amount of time in the basilica taking pictures of the impressive art and detail that caught my eye, which was a lot.  It seemed like there was always something that I missed capturing.  From scenes of Stations of the Cross sculpted into stone, large sculptures flanked by Corinthian marble columns, richly detailed paintings, to large windows high up lighting up the basilica with the light of God, I felt deeply impressed and moved.  I felt that surely God would look favourably upon all this beautiful, well thought out art that was created in his name.  I felt like I wanted to convert that minute and become a Catholic so I could always be in the presence of such beauty.

I personally do not belong to any religious denomination, nor do I want to, but I still am to this day impressed by the amount of art and detail that goes into Catholic Churches in Rome and across Europe.  Love or hate the Catholic Church all you want, but you have to agree that they have commissioned a lot of fantastic art and architecture throughout their history.

Once I walked from one end of the basilica to the other, I decided it was time to leave and go see more of the city.  Once I walked out of the back door, I realized where I was, the piazza San Giovanni, where I first started my journey.

Once more I walked down Via Merulana but instead of turning left onto Via Labicana, I went straight and continued down Via Marulana, where I came upon this lovely shrine, one of many throughout the city dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

During my walk I came across many quaint looking cafes and eateries.  It was overwhelming to determine which ones were good and which ones weren’t.  They all had that charming European style to them with their fancy tables and chairs spilling out of the restaurant door onto the sidewalk with their large umbrellas shielding customers from the sun.  It was hard to commit to a lunch location once the gelato wore off. I eventually picked a decent looking café and ordered a panini to go.  When I ordered my panini, the waiter seemed confused that I only pointed to one sandwich and stopped ordering.  He probably then realized that I was one of those silly North Americans, who do not know the difference between panini and panino.

The English language is very funny in the way in which we have adopted and used Italian words.  Usually in Italian if a noun ends in –o it’s singular, if it ends in –i, it’s plural.  Think for example of the words gelato, cappuccino, espresso.  Usually when we pluralize these words we just add –s to the end of them (with the exception of gelato) so when we want more than one of them we would say cappuccinos, espressos, paninis etc. But in proper Italian you would say rather cappuccini, espressi, gelati, panini. Think of all your favourite Italian pastas: spaghetti, fusilli, gnocchi, fettuccini, linguini etc.  They all end in –i.  Why? Because you never just eat one noodle of pasta, they are always referred to in the plural since they almost always exist in the plural, so it just makes sense to refer to them in their plural form.  For some odd reason in English we’ve used some Italian words correctly and in other ways we’re completely off the mark and the word panini is a prime example of that.

For those of you English speakers in Italy who have a hankering for a panini, you have to say it properly otherwise you will get a lot of funny looks and someone will correct you, these people at the café where I ordered the sandwich certainly did, much to my embarrassment. It’s a panino.  If you want multiple sandwiches then it’s appropriate to say panini.

After I had finished eating my panino, I continued walking down Via Merulana until I got to the end of street, where I saw another beautiful white basilica with statues of Church authority figures adorning the front edges of its roof and a large brown brick bell tower emerging out of it, which apparently is the highest in Rome.

It was the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, another major Papal basilica just like San Giovanni.

Like San Giovanni, it had a large piazza outside of it with an obelisk in front of it.  However, unlike San Giovanni, the obelisk is not Egyptian, but rather a large single Corinthian column with the virgin Mary perched on top of it with her child.

When I entered the basilica I was once more blown away by all the ornate detail and intricate thought and planning that went into it.  The coffered ceiling was embellished with the first boat load of gold that came from the Americas to Spain and was graciously given as a gift to the Church by Queen Isabella I of Spain.  I learned that fact when I came to the basilica a few weeks later with my study group, when my professor gave use a more in depth historical explanation of the site.  She also showed us the Bernini tomb and told us of the foundational Catholic legend of the basilica.  The story goes that Pope Liberius saw the Virgin Mary in a dream instructing him to construct a church on the Esquiline Hill and it would be marked by snow.  This was in August and apparently the dream came to pass and the site was indeed marked by snow by way of a divine miracle.  So every year on August 5 the snowfall is commemorated by the community and white rose petals are thrown from the dome to represent the falling snow.

Although the historical proof of this legend, like many others, is debatable, I still like hearing lovely stories like these.  Every religion is based on a collection of stories and I think it’s so fascinating to listen to them and discover the various ways religions explain why things are the way that they are.

As I walked through the basilica I went into the side rooms located on the wings of the basilica to see what was inside.  As I was about to enter one, an old man with a walker was having trouble stepping down from the raised platform at the entrance, so I went up to him and helped him by moving his walker to the lower level and offering my hand so he could get down.  He was very thankful and he asked me where I was from, “Canada.”  He was from Slovakia, the birthplace of my grandparents on my father’s side, both of whom are now dead.  He asked me if I was Catholic or not, I said no.  He went to sit down on one of the chairs in the main hall and he urged me to come and join him.  He told me in his broken accent about the Church and the Saints.  He had a few things stowed into the basket of his walker.  He looked through one of his many bags and he pulled out a small plastic pouch with a medallion of St. Peter with a piece of paper talking about the life story of the saint and he gave it to me, to this day I still have it.  I thanked him and he kept talking and talking. Although I did not understand everything he said because he was old and his accent was very strong, it felt nice to be in his company.  I had lost my grandpa, the father of my father, three years before and when I am in the company of old men, who remind me of my grandpa, like this man did, I feel happy in their company.  It’s hard to explain the feeling but it almost like they bring back memories of how good it was to have my grandpa around.

After a long afternoon of snapping photos of beautiful art and religious iconography in the basilicas, I decided to check out this interesting looking department store across the street from the piazza, called UPIM, an Italian midmarket department store.  I loved how the store was decorated and there so many cute things for sale, like this funky pop art picture of Audrey Hepburn.

Many items weren’t too badly priced.  I purchased earrings for my cousin, a sun dress for my niece, who was not yet two at that point, and a Winnie the Pooh teether for my other niece, who at the time was unborn.  A teether is always a good present for a new baby with a toddler sibling, who likely already has hand-me-downs from their older sibling.  Nobody keeps the teethers and they are always useful.

As I was looking through a tower of earrings, this group of American girls came up to me, “Scuzi… do you speak English?”

“Yes I’m from Canada, I speak English.”

“Oh!” They exclaimed “We’re from the States!”

“Which state?”

“Michigan!”

Oh… I’ve never been there before.  But I was surprised to hear a bit of twang in their voice, which I found quite odd, usually Americans from states bordering Canada talk kind of similar to us.

“Do you know where are the hair straighteners are?” They asked. I had no idea.  They apologized for bothering me and told me that they thought I worked there and that I looked like I was Italian.

I have gotten that a lot during my trip.  I’ve had a few incidents where people went up to me talking in Italian thinking I was a local.  Those girls probably also asked me about the straighteners because I also have naturally straight hair and many people think I use an iron on it, which I don’t.

When I went to pay for the items I was calculating the cost of GST in my head, which in my province is an extra 5% that you have to pay on top of the base price of the good.  To my astonishment there was no extra tax on the items I bought and the price was literally the price.  I’ve later learned that in Europe the tax is already included in the price, which I think is much nicer.  I detest the headache of trying to calculate how much more extra I will have to pay when I buy something and I’ve always been rubbish at math.

On the walk back I came across the Hotel Montreal.  Why they have a hotel named after a city in Quebec? I have no idea.  I was also baffled that their signage had the crest of the Northwast Territories.  They’re only in completely different parts of the country, same thing right!?

I also went for a walk through this park, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, which also contains the Metro station Vittorio Emanuele, and saw this really awesome kids ride called Bobsleds.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The park also contains the ruins of Torfei di Mario, which was once the fountain at the end of an aquaduct.  The ruins can be seen in the background in the right half of this photo I took of this pretty fountain

Once I walked through the park I found my way back to Via Merulana and followed my exact steps back to the apartment.  However, on the way back I did come across the upscale department store Coin on Via Appia Nuova and I couldn’t resist but to go inside.

Now I have to confess, I am a huge fan of Dior make-up and I was very excited to see a Dior make-up counter in this store.  I’ve been buying Dior make-up since I was 15 years old and when I’m in Edmonton I regularly go to make-up appointments and I love checking out new collections and seeing what colours are in each season.  It’s such a guilty pleasure.  Before I left Edmonton I wanted to buy the new mint green shade of nail polish that Dior released as part of its Garden Party Collection for Spring 2012.  Mint green was a really hot must have nail colour that was so popular that year so it was sold out across my city.  So when I saw that this Dior make-up counter still I had the shade, I had to buy it.  It was a few dollars more than in Canada but I didn’t care.  I had to wait a few minutes until a lady came round to help me; In Italy the customer service isn’t as good or as prompt as it is in Canada.  But once I had paid and went out the door I was elated.

Although the colour clashes with the only watch I brought with me I still think it looks awesome!

On the way back to the apartment I also came across an Ottica and I was so happy to see that it was still open.  I told the sales assistants about how I needed contact lenses for my left eye.  I do have astigmatism on that eye and my prescription is quite high, around -5.5 to -5.75. The sales associate looked through their stock and they weren’t able to find anything that was strong enough.  If they were to get something for my astigmatism, they told me they would have to order it and it would take up to two weeks to get it in.  I told them that I couldn’t wait that long and that I would be in the city for a month and I needed something. So one of the sales associates looked through the stock again and he found me a pack of dailies that would last me the month that were -5 strength.  Although it wasn’t exact, it did the trick and I was able to see well enough that it got me through the month.

As sketchy as this contact lense purchase sounds, I was very lucky that I was able to buy these contact lenses quickly and without hassle even though I didn’t bring my prescription with me to Italy because I was stupid enough to think that I wouldn’t need it.  If you have an eye prescription from your optometrist, bring it with you!  You never know when you’ll need it and it can be so handy in situations like this.  Some countries could also refuse to give you anything for your vision unless you get an eye exam and procure a valid prescription, which will cost extra money.  Luckily Italy is a lot more casual about that sort of thing otherwise I would have been so screwed.

While I was walking down the street, I also went into a Farmacia to buy shampoo and conditioner because I had only brought mini travel sized bottles with me and they were not going to last me the month.  I was able to figure out which bottles were shampoo, since shampoo is still called shampoo in many European languages including Italian.  However, conditioner is one of those words that changes from language to language.  I stood for a while looking confused at the hair care bottles since none of them said conditioner out rightly on their packaging.  One of the ladies working there came up to me and asked me if I need help.  I asked her where the conditioner was.  She had no idea what conditioner meant.

“You know, not shampoo but the thing you put in your hair afterwards…”

“Oh” She exclaimed, “We call it Apres Shampoo.  Apres means after.”

I thanked her for her help and bought the overpriced shampoo and conditioner.  I later found out from Gio’s cousin Sierra that you shouldn’t buy shampoo and conditioner at the Farmacia, since it is much more expensive.  There are stores I later found that are similar to Shoppers Drug Mart that sell more recognizable brands like Pantene Pro-V, Herbal Essences, Garnier, Dove etc.  I also later found out that the conditioner I bought was more like a leave-in conditioner rather than just regular conditioner.  I like the thought of putting extra time in your hair but I never do it.  I much prefer putting my conditioner on and rinsing it off quickly afterwards.  I hate waiting in the shower with leave in conditioner.  What is a girl to do in that situation? Turn off the water and wait in a cold wet mess to save the environment, yet at the same time ban anyone else from entering the bathroom because you’re hogging the shower? Or would it be better to chill under the hot water but awkwardly avoid getting your hair wet, which is really hard to do.  What is the solution I don’t know!?

After a long day of walking and shopping I was happy to be back at the flat so I could sit down and relax.

In my next post: The unforgettable evening I spent with Gio

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