Over the course of the last three semesters in Rome, I have seen and overheard a few little things – one-liners, Roman witticisms and cynicisms, curious images – that a little taste of the Eternal City beyond the big stuff.
* * *
SPQR – ubiquitous, stamped on everything from sewer covers to the city’s coat of arms, it officially stands for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, “Senate and People of Rome”. Unofficially, I was told by an Italian, it is also Sono Pazzi Questi Romani, “They are Crazy, These Romans!”
From a canon law professor, “In Rome, always does not always mean always, and never never means never.”
I attended a lecture given by a Grand Archdeacon last week. Possibly, THE Grand Archdeacon; I do not know if there is more than one.
To say “good luck” in Italian, you say, In boca del lupo “In the mouth of the wolf!” to which they reply, crepi! “death! [to the wolf!]”
In terms of the question “when does life begin?”, a Vatican official affirmed that the medieval view of the church and its theologians was often that life begins with “ensoulment” – the time when the human soul is infused into the body -, which happened around 40 days after conception. “The exact moment of when life begins has never been clear, though of course now we are very adamant about it.” When someone pointed out this was almost exactly what Nancy Pelosi said that got her into so much trouble a couple years ago, his response was, “Who?”
Italians do not think right and wrong. They think bella e brutto – “beautiful and ugly”.
After one of the Italian church scandals this year, an Italian paper ran the headline, “The Vatican Denies Everything, No One Believes It”, because the Vatican took nearly three weeks to issue a statement of any kind, which was along the lines of “no comment”.
Romans hate giving change. Where an American might go to the grocery store deliberately to break a $50 bill by buying a piece of gum, one gelateria owner reached over the counter to strangle me, only half-jokingly, when i profered a 20 Euro note to pay for a 2.50 gelato.
While in Ancora bookstore, right in front of St. Peters, I spotted a book whose cover was a picture of the font and altar at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.
Speaking of books, I was in the working library of one of the curial dicasteries when I noticed Notre Dame Prof. Richard McBrien’s recent book, The Church. It was sitting on a shelf clearly labeled, “Orthodox”.
Public toilets in Rome usually lack a toilet seat. Apparently, this is seen as a cost-saving measure.
Another canon lawyer, a Roman: “The Law is meant to be beautiful and make people happy. That is why there are exceptions.”
Overheard: “Growing up, i always heard about first-world and third-world – but there never seemed to be a second-world. I think i know now what that is, though: Italy is a second-world country. Something you expect of a first world nation – working internet, easy access to hot water, a generaly operative government and administration, for example – seems to be there, but then sometimes acts like it belongs in the third world. You average it all out, and you get second-world!”
In my neighborhood, a block off of the traditional procession route of popes leading from St. Peters to the Lateran, very near San Clemente, is a small shrine with a very faded fresco that appears to be the Madonna and child, and almost always fresh flowers. Allegedly, this is the monument to Pope Joan, marking the place where she suddenly gave birth to her child in the middle of a Pontifical procession in 855 AD (according to the oft-repeated and equally often debunked legend).
A Roman church-person, commenting on some of the ‘newer’ movements in the church: “The Legion of Christ was founded to make Opus Dei look normal. Then, the Heralds of the Gospel were founded to make the Legion look normal.”
The Europeans understand heaven and hell: Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are English, the engineers are German, the lovers Italian, and everything is run by the Swiss. Hell is where the cooks are English, the police are German, the engineers are French, the lovers Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.