Tell it on a mountain: The Pope and the Piazza

By Rachel Slajda

This is the second in a biweekly series following the journey of a Northeastern student studying abroad in Perugia, Italy.

“Cut them in half.” “What?” “In half!” “What the hell are you saying?”

Mauro, an Italian staff member at the Umbra Institute, our school here, is pronouncing the “l” in “half” as he’s trying to tell my roommate Chelsea how to cut cherry tomatoes. He doesn’t believe her correction, and runs into the living room to check with the other staff, all Americans, who assure him that yes, the “l” is silent.

We all laugh and they continue cooking their gnocchi, with Mauro occasionally telling Chelsea to throw in a “punch” of salt.

This hilarious (maybe you had to be there) demonstration of the communication barrier should be put into perspective: Mauro works with all English-speakers at an institution for 200 American students. In other words, the guy knows English pretty damn well. Now imagine what it’s like between an Italian who doesn’t speak English every day, or never learned, and an American who can say little more than “grazie.”

At first I was picking up Italian like a 2-year-old, spitting it out at anyone who would listen and impressing my roommates. But since my recent introduction to things like the past tense and prepositions, it’s all gone downhill. The details are getting mixed up in my brain, something not helped by the alcohol surrounding most social situations with the Perugians.

Most of whom, by the way, hang out in Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia’s main square, packing it full on any warm nights that come along. At first I couldn’t figure out why so many Italian students would bypass the pubs and choose to stand around a big stone fountain. And then it became clear. Two holes-in-the-wall along the piazza sell shots – big ones – for one euro. And one of these places is a candy store.

The place is packed. On Wednesdays and Saturdays you have to fight your way through a deep crowd for your plastic Dixie cup of Jaeger.

The “Euro Shot Place,” as we’ve so cleverly dubbed it, is always the first and sometimes the last stop on any night of restless bar-hopping, dodging Americans and the more zealous Italians.

But as bello (or beautiful) as this makes the weekends in Perugia, I’ve left twice so far, for Rome and then Florence.

I started small. Both cities are a cheap, two-hour train ride away, in opposite directions.

The culture shock in Rome was more intense than when I first got to Perugia. The city is overwhelming, with four million residents, 10 million cats and endless tourists swirling around the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.

We saw those, the Fountain of Four Rivers and the Spanish Steps like part of an inhumane scavenger hunt, all after spending six hours in Vatican City. We ran around the city, delirious from exhaustion, yelling, “When in Rome!” – something the Romans hear much more since the release of “Anchorman.”

But the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica especially, is an impressive place. I found my atheism struggling against my Catholic background and the lightness I felt from being in that holy place. It is the biggest church in the world, filled with gold, marble and dead popes.

People built this unimaginable thing and left me to wonder, hundreds of years later, is it a monument to God, to humanity or to the power of the church?

I gave up on the arguments. Instead, I thought about how many of my ancestors, especially the Italians, probably walked through that place with the same awe I did. I felt closer to my family, if not closer to God.

I did rub a statue’s toes for 40 free indulgences, just in case.

This past weekend in Florence was a little easier on the conscience. I spent the first night with Northeastern kids who live there, getting drunk and talking about music, home and here. Two days later I found myself in front of David, but I seem to be running out of space to describe that, or the rest of Florence and its parallels to Boston, so I’ll close with the plans for my next adventures.

This weekend I’m taking a 12-hour overnight train to the Italian Alps for the Olympics; next weekend, Sicily; then Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain or Morocco and Athens. And then I’ll be broke, eating pasta out of dumpsters and begging for change outside the Euro Shot Place.

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