Learning from My Students in the Inexhaustible City of Rome


Week three. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Rome, and my longest. I'm trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the students I am teaching here. They are seasoned cultural travelers by now, and they have learned a tremendous amount. There are days when I'm not sure what I have to teach them. Whenever they are otherwise occupied, I hop the bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander about with maps, a guidebook, and my notebook and camera.

Tom Schulzetenberg, the U-Mary Rome program director, has mastered the city in his three years here. He's an invaluable guide. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for me to take the students to a number of places that are off the beaten track: the ancient port called Ostia Antica (Rome's Pompeii); the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the English poets Keats and Shelley are buried; the emperor Hadrian's fabulous villa at Tivoli. Today, at our final lecture, I taught them the meaning of a number of Latin phrases that have made their way into English, including in loco parentis, "in the place of one's parents." Tom and his wife JoAnn have served in that capacity with real grace. As you know, U-Mary makes much of its capacity to create "servant leaders." I find it easier to recognize that quality than to describe it. Tom and JoAnn are the epitome of servant leaders—warm, generous, humble, thoughtful, careful, and firm--and they have sacrificed a great deal to live abroad on behalf of the liberal arts at UMary. If you think living in Rome is easy, just try it.

When I get home I'm going to burn my travel clothes, and rethink many of the rhythms of my life. The cars here are miniscule. If all the Ford F250s of Bismarck alone were loosed in the center of Rome, the traffic jam would paralyze the city for weeks. People here can park a Smart Car in a space we wouldn't attempt with a bicycle. I've walked between six and ten miles a day without even thinking about it, and while I walk the city I keep puzzling over why the Romans are so much fitter, leaner, and healthier than we are. Hmmm.

I wish we lived in a society that chose to send all college students for a semester or a year abroad. Many of the fundamental problems of American life would be solved if we had a universal Fulbright program. Foreign travel to a nation that doesn't speak English is the first important step towards global wisdom. We may be America—always the elephant in the room, and sometimes still the class act—but there are scores of countries that don't live as we do, do things in our way, consume at our Rabalaisian pace and volume, and yet they are perfectly civilized. Many of them, in fact, score higher on the happiness index than we do. To travel abroad is to realize that our way of doing things is not the only way, and not invariably the best way.

When we travel to other countries—as I keep telling my students—we are guests in another culture, and it is important that we pull back a little from our full "display" of our American brand of style, confidence, and expressiveness. We should never for a minute be ashamed of who we are and where we come from, but we should remember, too, that being an American (as opposed, say, to being Canadian or Norwegian) comes with a burden and a special responsibility. We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth (ever!), what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable country," and that automatically rubs others the wrong way at times.

Whenever I travel abroad, I am ashamed that I am essentially monolingual. Once, long ago, when I was married, my wife and I spent a week with one her college classmates, an extremely talented woman named Silka from Munich in Germany. She spoke four or five languages, including French, Russian, and flawless Oxford English, the Queen's English. Her husband had eight languages. We went out to dinner one night with her brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law, some kind of European slacker, spoke only German and English. So the dinner was conducted in English, as a favor to the "Americans." I asked for permission to pay and to settle the bill in my weak German. As I recall, I bungled my few sentences so badly that I wound up in a Turkish prison!

Traveling holds a mirror up to us. We are invited to gaze into that mirror, or at least glance at it when we observe how other humans go about their business, and how they respond to us in their midst. Whenever I travel I make resolutions that make New Year's look like a routine Thursday. Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to being one of the most active men who ever lived, and a career politician, once shocked a White House guest, from Poland, by giving her a sustained analysis of the history of Polish literature. In 1910 he lectured about German literature at German universities—in German. Like Jefferson, he was a true citizen of the world. I had a professor friend at UND who learned Russian merely for the pleasure of reading Tolstoy in the original. At this point in my life, I would settle for reading French, Swedish, German, Russian, and Italian literature in translation, but where's the discipline going to come from, and who will grant me the 27-hour day? 

A few days ago we went to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Francis deliver a homily to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Right on time, he appeared at the appointed window. I watched him deliver his remarks through my binoculars, while the mass of people watched him on the Papal Jumbotron. He seemed joyful and genial and completely unself-important as he delivered his remarks and waved to the assembled multitude.

After Pope Francis had withdrawn and the crowd began to disperse, one of the students walked with me to the city center. Along the way, he suggested that we duck into one of the scores of nearly identical looking Baroque churches in Rome, the kind you might well just pass by on your way to lunch. He explained to me that this was the Church of the Gesu, the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome, dedicated in 1584. Inside he gave me a brief but really impressive commentary on the various features of the church, and the ways in which it epitomized the Counter-Reformation. Here was my student, a young citizen of the world (since September!) teaching his professor in a graceful and helpful way. A few days earlier, a new young friend, the son of one of my closest friends back home, told me that during Lent he and his fellow seminarians walk to a different church every day for 40 days for early morning Mass. I'd give anything to join those pilgrims.

Rome is truly inexhaustible; me, not so much. I'm now eager to get home, to sit with my mother in her spare Congregational church in Dickinson, to decorate a genuine Christmas tree, and to set up my new heroic spring reading schedule. This has been a bellissimo viaggio, which, so far, is the sum total of my Italian.

Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano. 1748. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.