Updated: Jun 28, 2019
In the fall of 1995, I traveled to Italy to study for the semester at the University of Dallas Rome campus, located just outside of Rome in a historic area called “Due Santi,” after Saints Peter and Paul. Given their feast day coming up on Saturday, I would like to write a little bit about my first time there, which surely benefitted from their intercession.
During the Rome semester, on class days we studied part of the time on the gorgeous campus and part of the time enjoying on-site lectures in and around Rome, taking full advantage of our rich location. I regularly did my homework sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica, my shopping in Piazza di Spagna, and plenty of exploring all over the city. In addition to fabulous, thought-provoking classes, the Rome semester was arranged to allow for as much travel as possible - long weekends, a five day break, a ten day break, and Eurorail passes. The other students opted to go on the university trip to Venice and Florence, but I decided to travel to Capri and Sicily instead. When I was leaving Taormina, however, I decided I would drop by Florence after all.
The train rattled on its tracks, disturbing my drawing. I was attempting to do my homework for art class assisted by Paolo, a Sicilian who was studying in Florence and on his way back to school. He was sitting across from me in our six person compartment and agreed to model for me. I told him I was on my way to Florence as well, and he asked if I had anywhere to stay. Naive and on a tight budget, I accepted his offer to stay with him and his roommates, despite knowing him for just a few hours. (Looking back I cannot believe I did a lot of the things I did - my kids will all watch “Taken” before traveling on their own.)
When we got to Florence, we prearranged a meeting spot (this was before mobile phones) and then I went to hunt down the UD group. I had one friend whom I had met in my art classes back in Dallas, and we were roommates on the Rome campus. I found her and invited her to join us at Paolo’s apartment for dinner. We made our way to the Church of Santa Maria Novella and found Paolo waiting on the steps. Together we walked to his many-windowed, high-ceilinged, spacious flat, and met his charming roommates, Sebastiano and Andrea. We had a lovely time singing along to the Smiths while preparing homemade pasta and pesto.
After eating, we walked through town with Paolo and Sebastiano to a crowded, blue-lit bar where the boys knew one of the waitresses. My friend and I could understand only a little Italian, and none of the rapid conversation that took place at the bar, but the boys explained that she had invited us to go dancing at a club. We thought that would be fun and agreed to go.
If you have been to Florence, you know how small and very walkable it is. My friend and I thought it was odd that the boys were leading us on a long walk away from the city center to locate Sebastiano’s car when the club was within walking distance, but we went along anyway. Once we found Sebastiano’s tiny, two-door car, he proceeded to drive us even further away, through a seedy neighborhood where the streets were lined with ladies of the night and suspicious looking characters. We asked where we were going and why we were headed away from the city, but the boys suddenly found it difficult to speak English or find the words to fully disclose the situation.
After about half an hour, we pulled down a long drive into an unlit park. Paolo jumped out and ran into some nearby trees, and Sebastiano took the opportunity to explain that in Italy, drugs are not really illegal. I did not know much about drugs, but when we arrived in Rome, the university had made it clear that we were not to mess around - if we were caught with drugs, the university was not going to help us. We would suffer the consequences in Italian prison. To our surprise and horror, Paolo returned a few minutes later with a pretty sizable bag of cocaine. Both of them continued to reassure us that all this was perfectly ok. When we were exiting the park, however, we found two policemen conducting a random car search, and Paolo and Sebastiano panicked. We were pulled over and ordered out of the car, which they subsequently searched. To their credit, the boys told the officers that we were Americans and had no idea what was going on, but the police confiscated our passports anyway. We were genuinely scared, praying Hail Marys and the 23rd Psalm aloud, praying that we would not end up in jail, abandoned by our university to the results of our lack of good judgment.
After a lot of nervous bargaining and begging on the part of Sebastiano and Paolo, our passports were returned and we headed back to the center in agitated silence. After a while, Sebastiano explained in a shaky voice that they had agreed to let us go but wanted to keep the cocaine for themselves. No one felt like going dancing at this point, and my friend headed back to the hotel where the university group was staying. I grudgingly went home with Sebastiano and Paolo, feeling anxious about staying with them now that I knew they were drug dealers but a little afraid of telling them that, plus I needed to get my stuff. We all went to bed, Paolo giving me his room and sleeping on the sofa. I waited until all was quiet and slipped past him and out the front door without a goodbye. I made my way through the city to the university’s hotel and settled myself against the wall by the front door. Eventually, to my relief and in keeping with my Providence-kissed young adulthood, some UD guys arrived back from a late night on the town. I explained my situation and one of them offered to give up his bed and let me stay in their room - an opportunity I jumped on after the events of the evening.
I did not realize that I put the university in jeopardy by sleeping there, since guests’ passports had to be registered at Italian hotels, or that the university had a policy about girls staying in guys’ rooms. The next morning I innocently showed up in the hotel dining room for breakfast with everyone else, exposing my error and resulting in 30 hours of community service back on campus.
The semester was full of other adventures, and I am sure my guardian angel was working extra hard to keep me from dying and other devastating consequences. Amongst other things, I fell in love with Rome that semester. For the next ten years, I would return to the UD campus each summer, and multiple times after that.
When Marc and I got married we spent several months in Rome on our honeymoon, kicking things off with some more Italian adventures (having our marriage blessed by Pope St. John Paul II, almost burning down and flooding three floors of an apartment building and seeing Mother Teresa beatified among them) and we decided to settle our family there
someday. A few years later we did move back with our kids, but we found living in Rome as Italian citizens (thanks to my Italian father-in-law) to be a very different experience. It was during this time that our son Nico was born at San Camillo Hospital and buried in the Children’s cemetery on Via Flaminia. We soon after moved to London, but have returned to Rome on holiday several times since and, the struggles and joys of living there behind us and the body of our baby buried there, we have discovered a deeper connection to the Eternal City than ever.
It all started with that semester in Due Santi, under the patronage of Saints Peter and Paul, and their feast day is laden with magical memories and gratitude. I ask them to pray for us, particularly that someday my kids will get to experience their own UD Rome semester.
Wishing you all many happy returns of the feast, ideally while sipping some Due Santi Vino by the pool overlooking the campus vineyard.
Today Christ the Rock glorifies with highest honor / The rock of Faith and leader of the Apostles, / Together with Paul and the company of the twelve, / Whose memory we celebrate with eagerness of faith, / Giving glory to the one who gave glory to them!
- Kontakion of the Feast of The Holy Glorious and All-Praised Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul