It's been almost 4 days since I arrived back in the USA; home is both entirely different and entirely unchanged at the same time. It's strange how quickly I have been able to slip back into my old routines and leave tiny parts of my life in Rome behind without almost even realizing it.
Rome and this past semester almost feels like a crazy dream. Even on the plane back to Chicago, I was writing on my journal, and I could hardly believe that everything I was saying was real. Did I really spend the past 4 months living in Rome? Did I really spend most of my weekends traveling around Europe and Africa with my friends? Did I really hike the seven miles linking the Cinque Terre? Did I really skip around the gardens of Salzburg? Did I really ride a camel around the pyramids? Did I really spend Thanksgiving in Paris? Did I really see the house my great-great grandfather was born in in Germany? And by the end did I really know Rome like a local? Yes, yes, and yes.
At the beginning of the semester, I feel like most of us at the J-Force lived our lives in a constant state of disbelief. "Guys, we are on our way to Italy for 3 months... We just landed in ROME!... Oh my gosh, we're at St. Peter's... I can't believe we just spent the weekend at Capri... We just had class at the Colosseum... You can buy good wine for 2 Euro?!?!..." and so on and so forth. Much like David, we often wondered, "Is this real life?" The answer was always "yes" and "no." Yes because it was real, but no because it wasn't permanent. We always knew we'd have to pack up our bags in a few short months and leave this experience behind.
After awhile, statements of disbelief stopped being quite so frequent in our lives. They were instead gradually replaced with ones more along these lines: "Yeah, I'm just staying in Rome for the weekend. Nothing too exciting... Okay, we'll meet you at the Spanish Steps at 10:00 and then go to Campo like normal... We're just going downtown to get gelato and walk around--it's a pretty chill night... Another Art in Rome class in a Baroque church this morning... I just booked a plane ticket/spent a weekend in [insert European destination of your choice]..." Rome and our way of life there became comfortable; it was never remotely close to a routine, but it was comfortable in it's inconsistency, drama, and excitement. Despite the fact that things were always crazy and different, after awhile, it was a sense of change that we grew accustomed to.
At the very end of the semester, we all began to realize that this change in perspective had taken place almost without us noticing it. As our time drew to a close, we all focused on appreciating our last moments in Rome by spending them in the places we had grown to love.
As for me, while I said many of my goodbyes with my fellow J-Forcers before they returned home on the group flight, I had an additional round of goodbyes with Rome because of my travels to Germany. After returning to Rome on Friday afternoon, I had all day Saturday to spend the way I liked before flying out on Sunday.
So, on Saturday morning I got up early and walked to the Vatican, where I watched the sunrise from St. Peter's Square. So beautiful. There are no words. After that, I paid my last visit to the Basilica itself before it became crowded with tourists groups. Instead of standing on my tiptoes to see a glimpse of the Michelangelo's Pieta, I looked at it by myself, admiring the emotion and detail in the work. I knelt to pray for the last time, in thankfulness and gratitude for my gift of a semester.
Then, I left the Basilica to spend the rest of the day wandering around Rome, reliving my memories, visiting my favorite sights, and bidding them goodbye. I spent two hours at the Borghese Gallery, hanging out with two of my favorite artists, Bernini and Caravaggio. I ate my last real Italian pizza, pasta, and gelato and drank my last glass of wine. I remembered beginnings at the Colosseum, art classes in churches, nights out at Campo de' Fiori, meals eaten with my parents, afternoons shopping with my friends, and all of the moments in between. As I walked miles around downtown for the last time, I realized how many memories I really had acquired in Rome; they were every corner I turned. I ended my day in Rome the way it had began and the way my time in Rome had begun, at St. Peter's Square--my favorite place in the city. It was the perfect ending to the best semester of my life.
Then before I knew it, my alarm clock was ringing at 4:30am, all of my bags were packed, I was armed with snacks of pizza and Italian pastries for the plane ride, and I was stepping into a Roman taxi for the last time. I chatted with the cab driver in Italian on the way to the airport about simple matters, how long I had been in Rome, what I was studying, the weather, etc. "Fa molto freddo!" he commented, almost shivering in Rome's low 50 degree temperature, while I wasn't even wearing a real coat at the time. As I had recently returned from snowy, windy Berlin, I corrected him saying, "Germania fa molto freddo!" He laughed at that and agreed with me. He asked "Ti piace Roma?" (Do you like Rome?") to which I could I could only answer emphatically, "Si, mi piace Roma molto," my Italian-speaking abilities falling short in expressing how dearly I have grown to love that city.
Once at the airport, I thanked the cab driver for his kindness, checked my two suitcases, bought one final beginning-of-a-trip muffin, and eventually stepped onto the plane that would take me back to the United States, leaving Italy behind. As the plane ride went on, two emotions overwhelmed me: thankfulness for my wonderful semester and excitement to be going home. You see, it's Christmas Eve today after all, and I can't imagine being anywhere but here, with the friends and family that I love. At the end of the day, it's the people that matter, not where you are--even when where you are is Rome--and I don't know if I have ever appreciated being home so much.
But no worries, Rome. I am fully confident that I'll be back; I threw my coins in the Trevi Fountain to guarantee it. You couldn't keep me away if you tried. And until then, we will always have our memories.