“There’s a message” Paul said sounding more than a bit perplexed.
It was 8 a.m., and I had just crash landed on the bed in our hotel room and was busy testing which pillow was most nap friendly after our overnight, no-sleep, transatlantic flight to Rome.
Four days and nights of childless abandon in The Eternal City with my husband, brother, and sister-‐in-law had just begun. Paul and I had honeymooned in Italy 14 years prior, but our 10-‐day excursion was spread far too thin across five locations, including a hectic two‐day stop in Rome.
My memory of Rome had unfortunately mostly faded. The Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum had all been right in front of me. Yet, 14 years later my most vivid memory was of the gypsies I had been forewarned would target me, the naïve, lost looking, blond tourist with the fanny pack. A wrinkled old woman shrouded in a long black robe approached me along with a swarm of tattered-‐looking children who surrounded and scared the life out me.
“I don’t!,” I nervously snapped at them when they asked if I had any change to spare.
“Buongiorno! Welcome to Roma! I’m waiting in the lobby so come on down as soon as you’re ready. Ciao!” announced Father John in a message over the telephone speaker.
We had agreed to meet up with an acquaintance from home, a young Catholic priest we had met a handful of times through family. Since we last saw him, he had ventured back to Rome to study for an advanced degree in Canon Law. He was 30-something, gregarious, tall, handsome and clearly an early riser and very eager tour guide. We splashed water on our faces and rushed down to the lobby.
It’s worth noting that brother Andy, sister-in-law Tracey and I are not Catholic. But my husband Paul is a devout Catholic and was immediately drawn in by Father John's welcome to "Disneyland for Catholics."
When in Rome, I highly recommend spending as much time as possible with a Catholic priest by your side. It is the equivalent of walking through a New Jersey town with Bruce Springsteen in tow; a priest is a rock star in Rome. Crowds part as you walk the sidewalks, lines disappear at cafes and gelatarias, and no restaurant reservation is out of reach. Despite his Polish descent, Father John spoke beautiful Italian and proved to be an expert in all things Roma. He expedited our way through the cobblestone streets with purpose and efficiency. At each stop we were fussed and catered to as if paparazzi would be arriving at any moment. Day one was complete and not a gypsy in sight.
The Basilica of St. Peter awaited us on the second day and specifically, the Scavi Tour. The Scavi is an underground tour of the Necropolis, something very sacred and very difficult to arrange. Most visitors have applied for their tour more than a year in advance.
“Hurry, hurry, we need to get started everyone,” Father John was saying as we flocked behind him. Father John, it turned out, was working as a Scavi tour guide during his time in Rome and had secured us a spot on his tour. He led our group of 15 through various dark levels of excavation, past Roman city ruins and upon grounds once navigated by pre-Christian Roman nobles. It culminated at what is believed to be the tomb of St. Peter, a sight that stirred great emotion for many in our group and brought Paul to tears. At the completion of our tour, we emerged on the favorable side of velvet ropes protecting the Papal tombs from the throngs of tourists. In keeping with the mood, Paul lingered over each of the tombs with profound devotion.
“Over here,” Father John motioned the four of us, now splintered from our tour group, down a descending hallway to the private chapel of Pope John Paul II.
Andy, Tracey and I marveled at the history of the room and its craftsmanship, while listening to Father John explain the private uses of the chapel by Pope John Paul II during his reign. Paul spent his time praying at the kneeler and accepted Father John’s offer to briefly hold the Pope’s staff.
We continued the day walking with our own personal rock star guiding us from one “must see” to another. We laughed and talked freely with Father John, sometimes forgetting his role as a priest and simply enjoying his company as our friend. He offered, more than once, the opportunity for Paul and me to renew our wedding vows in the Vatican. I deferred to Paul and laughed along at the ensuing jokes each time the topic was raised.
“Does he get another bachelor party?” Andy chimed in.
“Can I write my own vows — I may have a few things I'd like to change?” Paul joked.
“Do I get another diamond ring?” I threw in the mix.
On the third day, we navigated the streets of Rome without Father John. It was a slower pace, to say the least. We had knocked off all our “must see” items in the first two days and now were just taking in some of the surroundings and relaxing a bit.
Lingering over a late lunch, we talked about our trip’s highlights and how we would spend our remaining time. Paul surprised me when he shared that he had accepted Father John’s offer for the two of us to attend a private mass in the chapel of Pope John Paul II at 7 a.m. the following morning. Andy and Tracey had declined the early morning invitation.
“Great, that sounds wonderful,” I said. I knew how special it would be for him and took pleasure, as partners in life do, in his wide eyed enthusiasm.
Toward the end of our lunch, I shared a mildly interesting fact about myself. “I have never tried espresso,” I offered.
Paul proceeded to tell the story of our honeymoon in Italy 14 years earlier, at which time I neither
drank coffee nor wine. I somehow had managed a 10-day trip to Italy drinking only tea and beer. I have since grown to love coffee and wine. Espresso, however, still eluded me.
“Quattro caffè espresso per favore,” Paul proudly asked the waiter in his broken Italian.
I sipped the espresso at first and then gulped the remainder as I had seen done countless times by others. It was strong, quite bitter and not hot enough for my decidedly British taste. I was glad, though, to have checked it off my bucket list. Paul, Andy and Tracey anxiously awaited my review and seemed disappointed when I simply stated, “It’s O.K. I guess.”
“This is not the right place for you to have espresso. I will take to you to THE place,” Paul declared.
And so, on a stroll back to our hotel two hours later, we stopped at an espresso café known for its authenticity, and I drank my second espresso ever. Wiser since lunch and eager to please, I appeasably proclaimed, “This is fantastic! I love espresso. I can’t believe I haven’t tried it before today.”
Later that evening, we met up with Father John for our final dinner together. While I was deep in discussion with Tracey about the itinerary for the following day, our last, Father John proceeded to order a round of espressos to conclude our dinner. I declined at first, but gave in to the expectant looks and peer pressure surrounding me ... and I drank my third espresso in six hours.
That night was a blur. A fast, pulsing, spinning blur. I lay awake all night feeling my heart pounding, my blood pumping and drowning in the ticking clock and drip, drip, drip of the shower faucet. I could not close my eyes and could not slow the thoughts whirring in my head. Espresso was my tequila.
The hours passed, and Paul rolled over on several occasions and pleaded with me to close my eyes and get some sleep.
“We have an early wake-up call for the special mass at the Vatican in the morning,” he needlessly reminded me. My inner voice sinfully cursed his every heavy sleeping breath.
“Three espressos in six hours – was I mad? How could I have done such a stupid thing?,” I screamed only to myself.
The phone rang at 6 a.m. I needed no wake-up call since I had not slept the entire night. Paul looked at me with a furrowed brow.
“You’re O.K., right?," he asked. "You can make it with me to meet Father John, right?" He cautiously awaited my reply.
There was no way I could say anything but, “Of course. I’ll be fine.”
We arrived at the Vatican at 7 a.m. sharp. I had been too tired and too ill to look in the mirror. My hair had been haphazardly gathered into a ponytail and my mustard yellow sweater hurriedly tucked into my twice-worn khaki pants with the dime sized marinara stain on the right thigh. My lame efforts to mask my all-nighter and my on-going nausea had clearly not worked when I saw the look on Father John’s face upon greeting us.
“Everything good? We need to hurry, I only have the chapel for 45 minutes,” he said, not waiting for a response and bounding across the piazza to the Vatican door. Off to the side, I had just enough time to tell Paul that I was sure I was going to throw up.
My espresso hangover was peaking just as we reached Pope John Paul II’s private chapel. Paul was immediately immersed as Father John proceeded through the familiar routine of mass. I, on the other hand, feverishly searched the room with my eyes for a garbage can that I would seize when the inevitable sickness overcame me. There was none. I felt sweat beading on my forehead as the vision of my vomiting in such a sacred place swirled through my head. I focused solely on the 45-minute time limit Father John had mentioned and counted down in my head how much longer we had left to go.
It was then that Father John asked us, “Would you like to renew your wedding vows now?”
That sounded like it would take a while, I remember thinking to myself. Paul and Andy had been joking about this for days — hadn’t Father John heard them? I looked like an extra from the “Thriller” video – hadn’t anyone else noticed that? What was he thinking? I scrunched my nose and waved my hand as if declining a second sour dough roll from a waiter.
So it was with great surprise to me that Paul said out loud, “Yes – absolutely” and looked at my motioning hand with utter bewilderment.
Espresso hangover aside, the concept of renewing my wedding vows was not something I had ever considered. When I had heard of others renewing their wedding vows, it had always hinted to me that perhaps there was a need to do so.
We renewed our vows that early morning in the private Chapel of Pope John Paul II, and thankfully I did not throw up. In contrast to our wedding day 14 years earlier, there were no guests, no flowers, no music and only one photo taken by Father John who, mid-ceremony, broke from his role as officiator and snapped a photo with my cell phone camera. There was no reception either. Instead I took a taxi back to our hotel to recover while Paul roamed the city with Father John on his motorino.
The memory of that day grows more special to me as time passes. Perhaps there was a need — a need I hadn't known about. A lot happens in 14 years, and events have a way of shedding light on things. Parents die, children are born, friends come and go, and homes are built. An on-going seesaw of ups and downs fill your weeks and months that quickly turn into years. There is no way of knowing what each new day will bring but since that day I am a believer. Once I stripped away the wedding gown, the 14-piece band and the outside eyes upon us, what was left between Paul and me in the eyes of God is what means the most.
On my way back into the hotel that morning, I was approached by gypsies who pleaded for money. I don’t recall their faces or much about them, and I wasn’t scared. I remember that when asked if I had any change to spare, I decidely replied, for the second time that morning, “I do.”