Spiritual Rome

Our last full day in Rome started off sunny and warm and looked like a perfect day to explore more of Rome’s extraordinary fountains as I’ve already mentioned I have a great love for them. We checked our guidebook and came up with the itinerary for the day. We walked around “our” neighbourhood (it did really felt like ours at that point, it was an amazing place to get back to after a hectic day of enchanting discoveries). The area around the fountain where we’d hang out before going back to our hotel was empty now.
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And then out of the blue, the sky grew overcast and a dull rain began to fall making it a “perfect” day to explore the fountains. It was a celestial fountain now that prompted us to start making new decisions about the day. As we realized, it wouldn’t be wise to head out somewhere far, we stuck with “our” area and ended up not far from the Cavour metro station where I saw the signs for Saint Peter in Chains Church known for housing one of Michaelangelo’s unfinished works. We decided we would go see it as we wouldn’t staying outside anyway. We went down to an underground passage where we heard a man playing “L’Italiano vero”. It sounded good! Bravissimo! The church had a humble façade and wasn’t really imposing inside except for one massive masterpiece on the right – Michaelangelo’s statue of the Moses. Michaelangelo was commissioned to design a tomb for Pope Julius II but he never finished it. After his death, his assistants had to piece it all together according to Michaelangelo’s instructions. It had been intended to be a lot more tremendous. But anyway what we saw was really awe-inspiring. It was a very rich experience to see it here in this intimate setting without crowds of tourists. You have to pay 1 Euro to light up the sculpture for a better look at it. It’s one of the things I find utterly hypocritical about church and how they try to charge people for everything, but at the end of the day everyone has to make a living somehow (especially during the economic recession, you can’t just pray for God to put an end to it). We went further to the altar to see Peter’s chains that are said to have held Peter while he was in the Mamertine Prison here in Rome and that’s one of the ends of it that let loose as Peter was saved by an angel. There were some people praying here but being a non-believer would not raise eyebrows. It felt comfortable to be in here and that had nothing to do with deity. What made me emotional was seeing a man on a wheelchair being helped out of the building. His family must have gone to all this trouble of taking him here for him to see the Moses. I have no clue why but I felt like crying… That’s the power of art indeed!
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We went outside but it just wouldn’t stop raining. The weather was having its way (doesn’t it always?). We needed a spiritual shelter to protect us against the rain again and we made for Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s oldest and best-preserved churches. That was where I was sitting savouring my first Roman evening… It seemed like it was yesterday really! There were people crowding inside – another beautiful thing about Rome is that whenever you need a shelter, you can get inside plentiful churches for warmth and comfort regardless of your religious beliefs. The interior of the church was just breathtaking. I felt in heaven peering at the gilded ceiling. I sat on a bench to rest my feet without taking my eyes off the ceiling with my PC in my hands to guide me through the church. I stepped out the rainy technology-savvy world outside into some enigmatically comforting spirituality but I also brought a piece of it along with me and I was at peace enjoying the best of both worlds. It is the most important church honouring the Virgin Mary and there is an icon dedicated to her. I got my Mum an icon here too as I thought it would be the most suitable place to do that. Virgin Mary is a mum and we all look up to our mothers for comfort, guidance and protection (unless we’re in Rome where there are churches to do that for us). We all get a bit religious when it comes to our mothers… It takes a saint person to love a child unconditionally and see them through good and bad times for them to find their path in life. This is what this church celebrated for me – sacred motherhood.
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We went outside to find that the rain still wouldn’t stop and decided to do a little shopping. I noticed that most shop assistants in Rome are male and that makes the whole experience more pleasurable. It was amazing to get something other than souvenirs to take back home. Splashing in my bathtub using all these wonderful products thinking back to those beautiful days… No, it wasn’t my past yet, there were more memories to be made and good times to be had before we left the next day. The Roman rain wanted to linger on our skin for a little longer. All the spirituality of the morning made us hungry so we went to this lovely place across the road from our hotel and watched an international crowd there. It is nice to watch people mingling and interacting in a casual social setting. There were two elderly ladies with backpacks who looked British as they seemed a bit awkward and kept saying “Sorry!”. Being on the road must be a key to staying young after all! I was trying to stop myself from feeling reminiscent again as I was enjoying my home-made pasta and sipping on my wine. It just had to clear up and eventually it did and we headed straight to the Colosseum after a short break at our hotel. No, we were already reminiscent as I believe we wanted more of this iconic Roman landmark before we left. It was a totally different feeling to be walking by it now that we had been here for almost a week. I was trying to imagine what it felt to a local passing it by on a daily basis. We’d already been inside so there was no more pressure now. So now yes, it was just there – the magnificent and fragile Colosseum! What is life just outside it? It’s pretty much like everywhere else – there are people going about their daily lives, some tourists taking photos, men (and a large proportion of them are handsome) on their bikes strutting their stuff in gorgeous clothes. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of one against the Colosseum! We stayed for a bit in the park just across the road with a beautiful view of the colossal building. There was a group of dodgy-looking teenagers on a stroll but I realized there were people like this everywhere (the historical backdrop of the ancient times didn’t stop them). Other than that, it felt peaceful in this little park. Except that we got the Colosseum on the left…
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We decided to get on with our day of pilgrimage and made our way to San Giovanni Laterano, the first Christian church in Rome opened in 318 A.D. It was within a walking distance from the Colosseum but was a bit tricky to find. My sister was the one to brave the mazes of the streets that led to what used to be the city walls. I am rubbish at navigating the streets but I’m fairly good at making memories! The neighbourhood looked a bit isolated and there were just a few people around. There were yellow leaves on these lonely streets but I wasn’t ready to look into the future just for now. The moment we saw an Egyptian obelisk, we knew we’d got there as they were originally designed to guide pilgrimages. The one we saw was the tallest in Rome. There was a French-speaking family walking in front of us and it was funny to watch a little girl walking behind her parents taking photos without them even looking back to check on her. That was a different parenting pattern and it seemed to be working as the kid was obviously having a good time! This area felt different from what we had seen so far. The exterior of the church didn’t look too impressive (or were we getting used to seeing beauty all around?) and there were some nagging street sellers offering us books in Russian! No, thanks! The interior did look imposing even though I felt considerably more comfortable in Sante Maria Maggiore (or had I had enough of the churches for the day?). It was really large and walking around was like walking along a piazza. My sister needed to use a bathroom and she joined a queue outside it and the cleaning lady really surprised me when I heard her say that someone “made a shower” and my sister was the last one in the queue. She said it in a fairly good English! It felt a bit funny to be watching people queuing up to use the bathroom in a famous church but that is only natural. We went outside in a while to watch people in a different kind of a queue – to kneel over the famous stairs that Jesus Christ was said to have climbed. It wasn’t funny but it seemed a bit weird anyway. I wonder what kind of effect this had on believers and their faith. Did it hurt?
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We planned to see Basilica of San Clemente with its underground labyrinths but we failed to find it as hard as we tried. We dropped in to one of the churches that seemed to be right at this spot but it was a wrong church. We quickly made our way back. We were now on a mission to find the Via XX Settembre street that according to the map ran all the way through the Termini Station area. 20 September was the day marking Italy Unification and that, by chance, was my birthday! The Italian Republic and myself shared a birthday!
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It was not a touristy street and there were business-looking people all around. I was happy to be here. There were some state institutions and we felt a bit like aliens. There were a lot of shops selling clothes as well, especially fur. Who would need fur in Rome? Right, Russians! There was one last church that we wanted to find – Santa Maria della Vittoria as there was a really interesting piece of art by Bernini called St.Teresa in Ecstasy. But there was a service there so we couldn’t get in even though a polite homeless man let us in. “Well, maybe some other time”, we thought… There was a splendid fountain of the Moses (yes, remember what the mission for the day originally was?). It looked massive! It was like an elaborate painting with water streaming down it. Very impressive! We headed further to get on with our original mission to Piazza Barberini with Fountain of Bees by Bernini. The bee was the symbol of the Barberini family, hence the name. Before we checked out this famous fountain, we popped into a shop in the square to get some Italian food and drinks to take back home. The choice was really varied and an Asian shop assistant spoke amazing English. She offered me to try some garlic sauce and it tasted so good and I wish I had bought it. There was some very strong drink on sale that could cause you to hallucinate if you take too much (no use saying this to Russians!) and two men asked if it was safe to drink it in small portions. Before answering, the shop assistant asked where they came from and they said they are from Norway. “Aw, you can!”, she said. We all had a laugh about it! Well, she didn’t know where we came from… Stocked up on some pasta, spices and drinks, we went into a chemist’s to get some beauty products and found ourselves totally overwhelmed with a whole range of products for men! In Russia you don’t get this kind of variety (well, it shows when you walk down the streets of our country). There is normally a large section for women and a tiny little section for men. Yes, you have to invest in those looks, they don’t come for free! Italian men, I salute you! You make it all seem so effortless but now we know your secret! Piazza Barberini was a nice square with a relatively busy traffic. I was sitting there watching a helicopter up in the sky and the last thing I wanted was to get on one the next day…
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The late evening was settling in and it really hit us that was our last night in Rome… Night is indeed the most romantic time and it makes the thought of having to say goodbye simply unbearable… It is like parting with your summertime love that you had known all along wouldn’t last forever but that hardly makes getting over it any easier. Why did you have to look so beautiful tonight, Rome? I felt like an accomplished photographer looking at photos of you I took that night. Did you shine your extra light just for me to realize how happy I had been? You will be in my heart forever no matter what my regular landscape is! One last look at my snowwhite monument, more romantic songs to hear being played in the street… There was a spectacular light show in Trajan’s Forum showcasing the ancient Roman history with its main events projected onto the ancient buildings. Bravissimo! That was a kind of lesson worth travelling all this way for! I felt like shedding a tear…
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It was time for a farewell dinner in a cosy restaunrant overlooking Via Cavour. The waiter seemed to take an instant liking to my sister (well, Italian men will be Italian men!) but she said she was leaving the next day… Yes, we were. Scusi… A farewell gelato, a farewell look at the Colosseum at night… I was so reluctant to go to bed that night because there might not be another Roman night in my life. Well, I guess we need to count our blessings and be thankful for whatever we already have as a memory… It was so sad to be asked by a friendly Asian guy at the reception desk whether we needed a taxi for the airport for the next day… I even started missing him wishing me good night every night… Yes, he remembered it would all have to end so soon. But we have half of tomorrow with you, Rome! Bonne Notta!

The Holy Vatican

Buongiorno! We were going to spend this rainy day in the smallest country in the world, the Vatican. We made an extra effort to make sure we looked appropriately as we were about to visit the birthplace of Catholicism. I had mixed feelings as I’m not a believer. But there is one thing I noticed during my stay in Rome – they see religion as one of the parts of their multi-faceted culture , without giving it any specific prominence. Just as the other night, we felt free to enter a Catholic church without having our beliefs (our disbeliefs for that matter) questioned. No one would force you to convert to what seems to be at odds with your perception of the world. All you are asked to do is show some respect. Therefore I decided I would make it an experience to nurture the spiritual side of me in the place full of opulence and grandeur. Educating myself to become a better me – that was my religion!
That was an early start for us. We walked to the metro station through the puddly Via Nazionale that was still queit at this time of morning. That was a new colour of Rome for me – calm and drizzling as if about to delve into the serenity of prayer… I see prayer as a tool powerful enough to prompt us to believe in the celestial strength of our own voices to reach out to whatever we believe is high above. We hopped on the metro and it was not busy and I discreetly watched the people on the car figuring out who they might be and what they were up to at this early hour. There was a group of friends who seemed to be American and one of them got off the car at the wrong station and got back onto it before the doors closed as his friend started yelling “What are you doing?” I thought that would be a perfect example for the use of the Present Continuous! I just love it how grammar comes alive in actual communication. We got off at Ottaviano Metro Station and made our way towards the walled enclave of Vatican City. We were still in Italy. There’s no physical border between Italy and the Vatican and as we had a reservation for a guided tour, we were lucky to skip the soaking-wet lines of people and after an awkward interaction with an Asian-looking man made our way inside. We were in the Vatican! Just as simple as that! I had imagined an elaborate security check but there wasn’t any at all! Welcome to the spiritual capital of the world! So far I felt comfortable here being a non-believer and deep down inside I knew I would. We had a tour of the Vatican Gardens booked. You will be denied an admission unless you are on a guided tour as it is the Pope’s property. It felt as a privilege to be allowed into this private and mysterious world entangled in religion, business and politics. We met our Italian guide and joined a group of about 20 tourists from all over the world. We went through the security accompanied by our guide and encountered the rainy sky of the Vatican.
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We were warned we would have to keep up with the group as walking the area on your own might alert the security. We got the views of the Vatican Museums and awe-inspiring views of the Dome of course – just like nowhere else! It was a majestic close up and we were really very-very close to it!
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It was a beautiful area perfect for reflections. We walked past extraordinary fountains (remember about my fascination for them), grottos. It felt as a very secluded and personal tour as there seemed to be no one around except us. There’s so much more to this place than we can fathom and so much still remains unrevealed to wider audiences. Religion is a very dark and obscure business after all. We will never find out what kind of conspiracies have been plotted outside these walls for hundreds of years. For the moment our business was to enjoy our tour and remember this moment to treasure just like all the unique moments of our travels.
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This lush green area offered a lot for us to see – the Pontifical Academy of Science, a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France. The beauty of the space might be enough to induce an atheist to convert… The smallest state also boasts its own radio station and a railway station!
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That was a tiny microcosm of life and it was amazing to take a sneaky peek at what is going on behind those walls. Everything had a profound significance and meaning for religious people all over the world. I don’t resent religion as long as it is presented as one of the aspects of culture and that is what it was here. Here was a group of nuns taking a leisurely “passegiata”. They were the only people to remind us of the world outside at the moment.Our two-hour tour was coming to an end and so was our time in that private area of the Vatican that occupies over a half of its total area. Russians find it particularly hard to think of territories in such miniature terms. I’m not religious but I’d toured one of the most private corners of the Vatican! I was sticking with my own religion I thought…
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Now it was time to visit the extraordinary Vatican Museums. We needed a brief recharge first and went down to the cafeteria. The place was packed with tourists and I found myself wondering how many of them were actually religious and does one really have to be while visiting the Vatican…? My sister was being grumpy about crowds of people around and desperately needed some coffee to recharge her energy levels. Just the other day I was mistaken for an Italian and this time around I was mistaken for a Spanish by a Spanish girl who was desperate to find the ticket office and there was a bit of misunderstanding and I ended up giving her the wrong directions and I’m genuinely sorry about that. My sister was perking up a bit and we headed towards the Museums and found ourselves just outside the Vatican post office surrounded by people writing cards. It was before I started a newly-found hobby of mine, which is postcrossing. Basically what you do there is you send cards to random people all over the world and get cards back from other random people, it’s a lot of fun! It was my first time speaking Italian as I addressed a man at the desk asking him if he spoke English. It’s such a great feeling knowing how a simple sentence in a new language can boost your confidence! Yay, he understood what I’d just said!!! I posted two cards – to my parents and my wonderful teacher who I know will be reading this! My cards safely reached the recipients so the Vatican Post is efficient! So our tour began. The area is just immense! The scale of the collection is unthinkable! We started off with the Ancient World. The first exhibit on display to remind us of inevitability of the end was a mummy of an individual who died about three millenia ago! That’s how it all ends. Was there by any chance anyone in this room remotely related to this person whoever they were? I’m not sure being here on display for thousands of people to scrutinize was their idea of an idyllic afterlife… The Egyptian sculptures were magnificent and made me eager to set out on an educational tour of the country.
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We got a nice view of the famous “Sphere within Sphere” by Arnoldo Pomodoro in the court through an open window. Yes, that was a more open side of the Vatican many of us are familiar with.
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Now we were off to Greece known for its tremendous influence on the culture of the Romans. “The Apollo Belvedere” sculpture was the highlight of this section. The statue of Lacoon was awe-inspiring as well as the Belvedere Torso. Greece was on my list of countries to visit. The map gallery gave us a feel for different regions of Italy. Now it was time for the period that saw the rebirth of the ancient tradition – the Renaissance. The Raphael Rooms displayed the climax of this glorious period dealing with beauty in ways embracing the remote past. “The School of Athens” featuring the VIP’s of science and art was a marvellous piece of art to exaimine close up. It was really humbling.
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Of course the central piece of the collection pushing all the rest into the oblivious background is the Sistine Chapel. All roads seem to lead to it making you feel as if you were on an ultimate mission to check it out and leave. The signs for it are everywhere. I had done a bit of research into how it was created and appreciated the sheer scale of work put in by the genius Michelangelo. I know that works of art that are propelled into a cult tend to disappoint. They are all made to be enjoyed privately and intimately but there’s no way to make it possible as growing numbers of people set out on their adventures around the world to pursue their own religion or just to retreat from the dreary and weary routine often to find that roaming the world is what they wish their routine was. Whatever the Sistine Chapel would turn out to be, I was ready to embrace it. Along with the crowd, we were ushered into a room. There was a room you could rest in and get yourself ready to face the glorious masterpiece that took the Renaissance to a whole new level. And now here it was – up on the ceiling. I admit I wasn’t blown away unlike people who saw the masterpiece after it was finished following four years of intensive labour. It looked too small from where we were standing and I wished there had been stairs for me to climb up to get a closer look. The crowd was buzzing and I was able to make out the central section of the Chapel- the creation of Adam with God and Adam reaching hands. A really enlightening moment of transferring knowledge and that is what we all aspire to do as teachers. It’s like a piece of art generating that sultry warmth in you as you are standing in front of it… The problem was that the Chapel looked too small and the crowd too large. You aren’t allowed to speak while in here and the guards will shush you if you do. I wish I could afford a private tour but it comes with an incredible price tag! At least I’ve got to see it even though I only saw what the light of knowledge coming through is but I didn’t actually experience it…
We made our way to the exit straight towards St.Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican wasn’t as hard to navigate as my guidebook suggested. We had to make sure we had enough time to climb up the Dome before it was closed. We got our tickets to take an elevator and walk the remaining 323 steps to get breathtaking and enchanting views of Rome. When we got out of the elevator, we saw warning notes saying that people with heart problems should avoiding climbing all the steps. When you see signs like this, it makes you question your own medical condition. We got a sneaky peek at the Basilica and its lavish decorations from up there. How terrifyingly beautiful! Here we were in one of the most celebrated churches in the world!
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How terrifyingly beautiful! Here we were in one of the most celebrated churches in the world! It was a sweaty walk and I found myself almost out of breath at some point, after that it got claustrophobic as we were almost at the top. The postcard view of Rome we got when we finally elbowed our way to the railing made it all so worthwhile! I phoned Mum to tell her how high we got! We aimed big! It wasn’t a picture – it was real! We were on top of the world, the highest you can get in Rome!
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Buongiorno, Roma! Hello, world down there! St.Peter’s Square right underneath dominated the view! On the left I could still see the Vatican and the Palace of the Governorate with a flag.The top of the Dome was crowded and we took a short walk around the surrounding area full of souvenir shops. We walked all the way down with a group of Americans dragging behind. We were back at St. Peter’s. It was huge! There weren’t too many people inside. Some of them were praying but most seem to be tourists like us. There wasn’t anything grimmy and depressing about this massive church. The canopy by Bernini was outstanding. One of the central artworks for me was Pieta by Michaelangelo. You don’t have to be a believer for the sadness of it to resonate with you. The church is designed to feel as an intimate and peaceful place but to me it didn’t feel like that. It was just huge and beautiful…
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Still pensive and reflective (and a bit tired), we left the church to find ourselves in St.Peter’s Square bustling with people. We got a glimpse of the famous Swiss guards in colourful outfits. We found a good spot in the shade near the Egyptian obelisk and let the square embrace us in its concret arms and this is what underpins its architectural design. We had been embraced for about an hour letting the impressions of the day sink in… It was one of the most famous and recognizable squares in the world and here we were just busking here. Just thinking about the events that had happened right here where we were sitting was incredible! How many people had come in hope of meeting the Pope who wasn’t there in this time of the year and right over there was his window and the famous pipe which is used to signalthe election of a new Pope. Religion is so complex and it was comforting to realize that through this day I’d spent in the smallest and holiest state I hadn’t felt under pressure to revisit what I believed was me and my own religion, something that was still shaping up and that day would definitely make a long-run contribution. Arrividerci, Vaticano!
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We were now on our way back to the other part of the city where our hotel was located. A short walk from the square was the famous Castle Sant’Angelo or the Mausoleum of Hadrian. It was an imposing building rusty with ancient memories. We walked to the back of it where there was a playground to rest our feet again. There were children playing right behind this place dating back to the 130s AD! The present is what we are all here for and it’s about enjoying the moment! Then we went along the famous bridge lined with statues of angels and admired the iconic views of the Dome surrounded by the queit Tiber. It’s a very popular place for romantic photoshoots in Rome.
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Our last mission for that hectic day was visiting Campo de’ Fiori (Field of Flowers) with a monument marking the place where Giordano Bruno was executed in 1600. What a beautiful piazza to savour as the sun is going down. There are flowers at the monument to the famous freethinker. Everyone standing up for what they believe in is worthy of genuine respect and admiration.
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We decided we would stay here a while and were looking for a place to have dinner. The staff of cafes and restaurants would go out of their way to get their customer and to some it seems to come as second nature. We came across such a guy. He was absolutely charming and courteous and invited us to take a seat overlooking the square. It just amazes me how Italian men seem to know the right things to say to make our hearts melt. A lot of them have the whole package – the looks and manners. Even if they do it for their own benefit (which was certainly the case), they leave you feeling pleased and charmed. I think this guy really belonged in this job and could make a good living if he came to Russia. The places nearby were half-empty and the place we were at was getting packed because of this guy working his charms on the crowd. He did have a way with customers! When we got seated, the orchestra started playing a famous nostalgic song about evenings in the outskirts of Moscow. They were playing it for us obviously as we had mentioned where we were from! What is it about Rome and music that makes my heart swoon…? Our meal was bellissima of course and we raised a glass to Giordano Bruno standing here covered in his coat against the pensive Roman sky. The second toast was to Italy and its people (especially males)! The guy at the entrance got the whole place packed and was now flirting with a waitress from a nearby café. That’s multitasking for you! Can a healthy Italian male go through a day without flirting? It is what gives the daily drudgery a taste of la dolce vita even when la vita is tough on you! What a marvellous place! And there is an Italian flag over there – bellissima! What was it about Roman evenings that made me wish they had lasted forever…? I’ve got to try and cook those amazing gnocchi with a beautiful cheese sauce back home! I’m a big lover of cheese and combined with the charm of Italian men and the serenity of Roman evenings, it boosts my sense of wellbeing and make me fall head over heels with la vita! Grazie mille!
On our way to our hotel we popped at Largo di Torre Argentino that was just around the corner to watch the Roman cats. What were they up to as the night was approaching? Did they feel lonely? Anyway, we were pleased to keep them company for a while if they needed any. I loved being here at this time when there were hardly any people. I love being out at night as it makes me feel I’m more in control of where I am – I’m there because I feel like it and even though it’s late! Enjoying the moment rather than going to bed and missing out on all the felicita has this sweet rebellious edge to me I believe… More late-night views of my favourite snow white monument, another dolce gelato and here we are in bed with our reflections and fantasies (of varying degrees of holiness) staying true to our religion! Amen! Bonne Nota!