originally published May 25, 2022
Read Part III: Winchester and Theale
A solid six weeks without traveling (what a relief after the past two months!) has afforded me the leisure to revisit my international summer of 2021. I left off at the end of my time in Oxford, dashing home to the USA for fourteen days to clear my travel history so that I could disembark freely in Rome, the eternal city.
For my first visit to continental Europe since childhood (excepting the European areas of Turkey), I must thank a Christian conference for inviting me to a week of talks, fellowship, and scavenger hunts.
Two weeks hardly sufficed to soak in time with my family, after almost a year away. I hadn’t wrapped my arms around them since September, when I boarded the plane to Oxford.
Visiting the family farm in central Virginia reacquainted me with those essentials of American culture: Southern barbecue and country music.
I couldn’t suppress a smile as we settled down to a sumptuous dinner: as cosmopolitan as Oxford is, and as many Americans as I met there, the atmosphere zapped me with a jolt of culture shock.
Checking off domestic chores, cuddling with the family pup, chowing down on sushi… all too soon, the visit ended, and I hit the road again.
My sister and I drove to Michigan to start her new semester of grad school – battling with my hair, meanwhile, which had acquired a tangle that wouldn’t be soothed for weeks to come.
A frenzy of unloading and unpacking, a backyard barbecue to reconnect with alumni friends, and then my sister ferried me in turn to the minute state airport for the first hop on my leap to Europe.
A Cambridge professor had recommended the conference to me for its networking possibilities. I would have been delighted just to spend a short week in Rome, but they peopled my days with incredible speakers: an MP from Europe, an Italian public speaking consultant, an Irish businessman.
In between, we prayed and played in the city, where celebrities from the annals of art history sprang up on every corner like Mickey and friends in Disney World.
I couldn’t contain visceral excitement on catching my first glimpse of the Colosseum: one of the sites most studied in my art history classes at Hillsdale. Even stripped and part-demolished, it radiates the energy and power of its quadruble-column design – that typically Roman mix of efficiency and elegance.
The Colosseum typifies that visual balancing found also in Oxford’s Old Bodleian library, where the heavy Doric columns ground the lowest level, slender Ionic the second, effervescent Corinthians crown the third, and finally enjambed or embedded columns vanish at the roof level – easing the illusion of a top-heavy structure.
To acquaint us with the city’s Christian heritage while skirting COVID restrictions, a Christian couple (professors turned travel planners) orchestrated an elaborate scavenger hunt for art, architecture, and churches. My team, dubbed Frugalita in celebration of classical virtues, undertook our task with professional intensity: We kicked off by hiring an Uber to speed us to the first destination.
Our industry paid off. Team Frugalita tied for the win and split a bottle of champagne for our prize.
After a long hot afternoon, we were all glad to while away the evening hours in the courtyard of an expansive restaurant. With lockdown restrictions redoubled since the previous summer, every café had evacuated its seating outdoors, spilling over the sidewalks and into the streets. In the twilight hours of Mediterranean summer, the arrangement gave little reason for complaints.
My dinnermate, a Swiss-Italian with Greek roots, drew in a formerly taciturn Portuguese once we started trying out our second languages: it turned out he preferred Spanish to English. With the city lights holding night at bay, we dashed off for gelato (pistachio, always pistachio — though I was tempted away once by coconut) and an electric view of one of Rome’s most splendid landmarks: the Trevi fountain.
The conference granted us the next morning free for independent exploring. I mapped out my targets and set off with a will – though frequently stymied by Rome’s deceptively broad streets, which somehow evaded easy navigation.
En route to lunch, I paused to marvel at San Pietro’s embracing colonnade and the terrific statues lining Ponte Sant’Angelo, the angel bridge. Springing from the balustrades on a heroic scale, ten winged messengers guard the procession to Castel Sant’Angelo.
After refreshing ourselves with a whoppingly generous portion of pizza, a local expat guided me through a dizzying succession of splendid churches. “You get antiquity fatigue in minutes,” as an Oxford friend had warn me.
Inside one church, encountering a Caravaggio on casual display left me gobsmacked. The drama of his technique fascinated me in Art History, particularly his dynamic interpretations of Bible stories like the Road to Damascus. Now I was staring at his brush strokes in 3-D.
Another Rome highlight, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, drew me to Piazza Navona. Someone had described it to me as a masterful concept as well as construction — vaunting the primacy and centrality of Rome by locating in it rivers of the world’s four continents: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. In the same plaza sprang a sister fountain, less popularly known but it dazzled me even more: a family of merpeople locked in battle with sea monsters, complete with marble netting. The sculptor had carved a net, carved it out of marble. I couldn’t fathom the artistic skill on display.
For the final day of the conference, a group of participants joined me for a think session on how to strengthen my Christian magazine Salt & Iron: SeasonedWriting.com. Besides the invaluable strategic advice, their firm support for our vision (equipping Christian authors to write winsomely) reignited my enthusiasm for the project. Since then, I have overhauled our entire submission and review process. Your submissions are welcome!
Our day closed with fine dining on the riverside, a three course meal where I befriended the leader of a conservative youth party in Slovenia. Her tales of classical dancing events painted me green with envy, fixing my intention to visit as soon as practically possible.
The next morning we met for mass and lunch on the patio, while participants trickled away in taxis, buses, and planes. The conference had ended, but my visit had not — that very afternoon my dear friend Gabrielle would join me, for an extended Roman holiday.
Part five continues the adventure in Rome!