“Robert, Robert. That’s the Colosseum.”
I don’t know when it quite hit us that we were, in fact, in Rome, but it might have been the point when our bus, throwing us backwards and forwards as it stumbled through the cobblestone streets, started circling the Colosseum. As that most legendary of ancient ruins loomed before our eyes, I started hitting my friend’s arm frantically, eyes wide open, jaw dropped in disbelief that we were actually there, that it was actually there, as if all the books and photographs all these years had actually been lying.
That feeling of utter disbelief and wonder basically characterized our entire stay in Rome last weekend as I joined three Amherst friends to retrace the steps of Roman history, from the togas to the churches to the Fascists. While we’ve all seen the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica so many times in books, movies and just life in general, there are no photographs or film reels that can capture the feeling of actually being there. As we stood in the Roman Forum, the 2000-year-old columns still standing, magnificent arches still telling of triumphs long ago, capitals strewn through the grass with the dandelions, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the angry Roman crowd carrying Julius Caesar’s corpse to the Forum, and opened them to find myself before his grave, breathing in the dust from that ancient mound. Somehow, Caesar, Brutus, Augustus and all the names that I’ve heard for so many years seemed like legends and myths to me, and the proof that they actually existed, that they stood on the very ground that I was on, was bewildering and even a little hard to accept.
The moment that the scale and the utter weight of history really hit me was when our guide asked us for some water. Taking a bottle, she carefully poured it on the path we were standing on. What seemed like any other piece of ground, covered in dust and footprints, revealed the vibrant colors and intricate patterns of a Roman marble tile placed there thousands of years ago, its flowers and rings still shining through.
This was just the first day, and on the second, when we decided to launch our attack on the Vatican, I wasn’t sure my mind could take any more. Yet when I stepped into the Sistine Chapel (after fighting off the hordes of rabid tourists �" not an easy task), all I wanted to do was lie down and stare at the ceiling for hours. The same happened with “The School of Athens,” and this doesn’t even include the hyperventilation that occurred when I dragged my friends to John Keats’ grave. By the end of the day I was ranting and raving at the injustice at my friend studying in Rome, who has spent the entire semester in that incredible city where nearly every corner holds a piece of history or art.
What this trip taught me more than anything, however, is about this “injustice.” When I applied for study abroad programs, I never really realized how great the differences between study abroad experiences really are. Studying in Rome, my friend spends his days walking past the Colosseum, giving presentations for his art class in front of the actual paintings he’s studying and going to the Vatican museums on the weekend. His friends are Americans, and he’s there to study art, archeology and history, and to take in the unique atmosphere of the historic city, rather than the language. His perspective is purely American, but it’s a beautiful one.
Home for me, on the other hand, is one of the smallest capital cities of Spain, where I live and study with locals and spend all my days speaking Spanish. There aren’t really any great monuments or famous art museums to visit anywhere near, and you could argue that life does get kind of boring in that way. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I did feel more than just a twinge of jealousy when I saw my friends in Rome, and realized for the first time just how different our lives really were.
So while I’m very sad I won’t be able to share more of my study abroad experiences this semester with you, dear reader, I want to leave you with a piece of advice: if you’re planning on studying abroad, really think about what you want from it. While you definitely grow, learn and fall in love with your new home wherever you go, it’s a matter of what you’ll see and how you’ll see it. It’s the choice between seeing the wonders of the world on your doorstep, but as an outsider, or getting as close as you can to being a local, without the palaces and the museums. It’s a tough choice so, as we say in Spain, buena suerte.