I know I’m not the only one who didn’t become a frequent traveler until in my early twenties , but I also know this creature is exceedingly rare nowadays, at least in Europe. This became apparent to me after a number of conversations I had with fellow travelers on different occasions. In one such instance, I remember discussing being on airplanes with a girl from Donegal in Ireland.
‘I’ve been abroad about twenty times,’ she told me in her lilting accent, ‘so plane trips are a normal experience for me.’
I replied I thought she was well traveled and laughing she asked me,
‘How often have you flown?’
I told her my flight to Rome a few weeks previous was only the third time I had ever been on a plane and that I had been a little young to remember in great detail the flights I had taken as a child with my mother to London and back again. She responded that she was ‘definitely well traveled’ in comparison to me, then.
I’m sure you all remember your first experience of leaving home properly, whether it was just for a week or for a month or longer. Doubtless then, you can remember the nervous energy coursing through your body in the hours leading up to your trip and the thoughts of ‘Will I go? Or will I just call it off?’ In my experience, one of the times when home is most appreciated is when you have to leave it. This is how I felt just before my flight to Rome in the summer of 2009. I wasn’t even going alone! Yet I was super agitated. One of my aunts, God bless her, volunteered to accompany me to Rome as she is a frequent traveler and she knew the ‘ins and outs’ of travelling. My sister also decided she would come along. Altogether, they spent five days with me, touring the ‘must sees’ of Rome. It was like plunging into the deep end of a swimming pool with a life jacket on, easing into the whole experience of being submerged in a new environment.
Those five days came to an end all too quickly, at least for my liking. I had settled down, nerves-wise, during my first day or two of being in the Eternal City. I had quite enjoyed seeing all the marvels Rome has to offer and had NOT enjoyed paying seven euros for some ice cream at a gelateria, which I had unfortunately already licked before being charged (Pros and cons, I suppose!). But the moment of removing my metaphorical life jacket came and my aunt and sister had to say goodbye. I swallowed a lump in my throat at one of the Metro Stations which would take them to the airport and said goodbye. Now the real trip had begun.
‘Il gelato’ – so very tasty, but so very expensive!
My reason for flying to Rome was actually a working holiday. I had been lucky enough to even hear of the opportunity to work in a place called the Irish College and luckier still to be offered the position of ‘Pilgrim Helper’ there. The Irish College is a seminary during the academic year. Clerical students predominantly from Ireland study there, I believe, but during the summer months, the College opens it’s doors to holiday makers and other travelers to the city. My job was to generally assist those visitors and to clean their rooms in the mornings. I also had to sing in the choir during the masses held in the College, which is something I remember with great fondness, unfortunately for the wrong reasons (I was susceptible to fits of giggling). Overall, though, we still did a good job, even creating some original harmonies. To my knowledge, the College employs students from Ireland every summer, so if you are interested, send them an email through their website. You can do the same if you are simply interested in staying there for a few days.
The view from the gate of the Irish College.
After leaving my aunt and sister, I had to walk for fifteen minutes to reach the College. I had presented myself there a few hours earlier and been greeted by our manager, a very friendly Irish woman just a few years older than me and my co Pilgrim Helpers, who I had yet to meet. Well, meet them I did, when I arrived at the College for the second time. And they were the worst bunch of- only joking, of course! We shared some great times. We wrote random songs together on subjects like cookies and fragole (Italian for strawberries) in the rooftop garden and discussed topics at dinner like how many times that day we had already had ice-cream (Two times… – IT’S TWICE!) before making plans to go for more at twelve o clock at night. The boys of our group also developed signature styles of walking, which incorporated train movements or randomly flailing our limbs about, to the bewilderment of the locals. Perhaps sinfully, given the weather, we went to see the latest Harry Potter film twice in a week. And not that there were ever bad times (we routinely discussed how we had the best job in the world), but we supported each other through the somewhat painful task of dusting the College’s library of books. There were so many! Speaking of books, I could write one on that summer in Rome. Just thinking about it now makes me tingle with happiness. It was one of the best summers of my life. Needless to say, I am still in touch with all those great guys, in one way or another.
(Left)The Pilgrim Helpers (Right) We saw too much Harry Potter, I think…
The College building is surrounded by a small area of courtyards and gardens along with an outdoor swimming pool and a small multi-sports pitch. Most of our afternoons were spent swimming and lazing by the pool. The heat in Rome during July was quite literally blistering, as my legs found out one day at the beach, after I had fallen asleep in the sun. Imagine that your skin , instead of being smooth and supple, looked like red raw bubble wrap. That is what my legs looked like under my knees. I think you can imagine how good that swimming pool was in generally preventing such burns to our fair Irish skin. Two pieces of advice I can unreservedly offer are to be very careful with your skin if you plan on visiting Italy in the summer and drink more water while there than you have ever drank in your life. Seriously (The water in the city’s fountains is free and never did me any harm).
(Left) Blessed source of heat relieving bliss. (Right) Me, drinking from a fountain in St. Peter’s Square (Some random kid there.)
As I reflect on my time in Rome, it is quite clear that I would have none of these fond memories if I had chosen to take the safe option that summer and stay at home. That’s what my gut told me to do. Yet I knew I had to override that survival instinct because I would have never known what I had missed out on. Now I know that it would have been one of the worst mistakes of my life to spurn such an opportunity. It inspired me to leave home again and again over the last few years with a positive attitude toward the journeys I have made. For me, it is one of the greatest lessons I have learned so far, that sometimes, you have to be brave, you have to step out of your comfort zone, to receive something great and to grow. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to take the plunge!
Me in the rooftop garden, glad that I had ‘taken the plunge.’