A Papal Election

IMG_0470After a 12 hour journey I got out of the car, somewhere outside of Rome and said thank you to the German priest who drove me from Munich. He had to go to wherever he was going, so he didn’t have a whole lot of time to help me figure out where I was going… basically he dumped me off at the first train station we came to, about 45 minutes NE of Rome’s main train station (Termini Station). The sun was setting and the station looked rather abandoned. I paid the driver and waved goodbye before trekking into the underground station. I couldn’t find a place to buy a ticket and from what I could tell, I was not in a “good” part of Rome. There were some rougher looking characters hanging around but fortunately, no one seemed too concerned with me. I kept my head up though, and tried to stay alert because I couldn’t help but think I would be a good target for someone to rob. 

I ended up getting on the first train headed in the direction of central Rome. I didn’t pay for a ticket because I couldn’t find the machine and fortunately; no one asked for my ticket. I got off the train at the first stop that “felt” like the biggest station and began trying to figure out where I was. Without going through the details of trains, buses, and metros …. it took me about 2 hours to get to Termini Station and by the time I stumbled to my hostel it was well after dark. I was about 5 minutes south of Termini station and fairly relieved to be back amongst fellow travelers.

It is the moments in between locations that test the lone traveler. When traveling alone there is an added pressure to find train stations and hostels because you are acting entirely under your own volition. I love the feeling of figuring it out for myself, but there is much less pressure getting around in new locations when you are with someone. If you travel alone I would recommend doing a bit of research the day before you travel… have hostel/hotel addresses written down and directions, streets, bus numbers, and train stations that you will need to get to your destination. I did not do this as much as I should have… all it meant was more stress when I was bumbling around in new cities, at night, without knowing the language.

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Vatican City and Rome beyond

Alright, so Rome! It was a fortunate time to arrive in Rome. International reporters were buzzing over every bit of news that came out of the Vatican. By the time I got there Pope Benedict had resigned and returned to Germany. The Cardinals were due to elect a new Pope any day, and the crowds were flocking to St. Peter’s Square. The streets of Rome were electrifying and the atmosphere was a mix of eagerness and excitement.

The morning after I arrived in Rome I worked my way to the outer walls of Vatican City; Not sure how much time I had, I was rushing around like a lunatic trying to figure out how to get inside … fearful that I would miss the big event. I finally figured out how to get inside and huffed up towards the front of the crowd in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The atmosphere was one of contained excitement and carried the presence of a rock concert before the band comes on stage. Italian, French, German, English, and Spanish blurred together in a muffling buzz while the crowd waited. Every few seconds eyes glanced towards the chimney hovering over the Sistine Chapel… everyone anticipated white smoke! If white smoke came from the chimney it would mean that the conclave had come to a decision… Black smoke meant there was no decision.

And …. Black Smoke! Agh … Crap! I felt I had positioned myself perfectly to see the new pope get elected, had stood in the rain for over an hour, and shared the mounting excitement with others in the crowd … but there I was staring up at black billowing smoke floating through the dreary morning sky.

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Black smoke over the Sistine Chapel

At that point, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my entire day standing in St. Peter’s Basilica. So I ate some Pizza at a restaurant outside of the Vatican, then worked my way back to my hostel.

A quick note on hostel rooms for solo travelers – I always get a mixed room (male and female) with the most amount of beds as possible. I do this for a couple reasons. First of all it’s the cheapest option and second; it forces you to interact with others in your hostel. The disadvantages include people coming and going throughout the night, lots of noises and snoring, sharing bathrooms, less privacy, and a fairly unclean dorm-like feel. I found that the ability to make new friends, see new cities with other travelers, and enjoying the excitement and chaos of a mixed hostel room far exceeded the disadvantages. Rooms typically range from 4 people per room all the way up to 32+. This was the way I lived in europe and I grew to love it. Life was always exciting and always changing!

Back at the hostel I met up with a french canadian, a spaniard, and aussie, and a US marine. I hung out with them on and off for the rest of my stay in Rome and it’s always enjoyable meeting other travelers. We went and ate and saw the Colosseum for a little while, but then I ended up falling asleep for awhile (I was pretty exhausted from traveling and getting up early to go to the Vatican). I ended up waking up at 6pm and thought, “Dan, you are a moron for sleeping through a historical event.” I woke up quickly and just started walking out of frustration. I didn’t really know where I was going (convinced that I missed the election) and ended up just wandering around. After awhile though, I found that I was subconsciously drifting towards the Vatican again…

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Entering St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of the election

I got off at a metro stop close to the Vatican and found that the atmosphere was alive with excitement that only comes from eagerness and expectancy! The cardinals had not chosen the new pope yet; I was almost positive of it. I quickened my pace, got into St. Peter’s Square and moved towards the front of the crowd. I found some really cool Italians and talked to them for awhile, quickly regaining my excitement. The Italians were curious about what I thought about George Bush and the American wars (these topics come up frequently as an American in Europe); We kept the conversation diplomatic Smile

Rain splashed across St. Peter’s Basilica and the sun had dropped below the horizon; but nothing could dampen the spirit of the crowd. People were chanting, cheering, and smiling everywhere! It felt like this was going to be it … White smoke had to be close! Sure enough, 20 minutes after I got there a voice roared from somewhere in the crowd, “Viva … viva la Popa!!”

Thousands of eyes darted towards the chimney over the Sistine Chapel and thick white smoke was billowing from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel! Cheers and tears erupted from everywhere. People were laughing, crying, singing, dancing and chanting in the rain. The bell tower chimed from the basilica and it seemed like every Italian in Rome began their pilgrimage to Vatican City. In 1 hour the world’s next Catholic Pope would stand before the crowd. 

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Argentina Flag hangs in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

There is a massive balcony centered in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. It looks tiny due to the sheer mass of the building that encompasses it; but when a figure emerged from behind the drapes an hour later, he looked miniscule. It seemed to compound the historical profoundness of the event. 

When Francesco from Argentina, Pope Francis, the 266th and current Pope of the Catholic church emerged from the huge balcony, the entire world held their breath. His presence and influence radiated in front of the crowd. He projected confidence and sincerity; dressed in white and surrounded by red-robed cardinals from across the globe. I am not Catholic, but it was an awe-inspiring ordeal. When Pope Francis’ spoke, hundreds of thousands of people went silent and listened intently to their new pope speak. He started, “Ladies and gentlemen, good evening …”

It was a night I will never forget. The quality and flow of Pope Francis’ words were impossible to forget. Although I couldn’t understand them; they were powerful and commanded respectfully sincere silence. After the ceremony was over, I drifted back to the hostel with the throngs of people and couldn’t help but get caught up in all the excitement. My first full day in Rome had been nothing short of epic.  

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