I have just exhaled a breath that I have been holding since my friend Ellie Whittington left for her European adventure with the People to People Ambassadors. She, like her mother – Paula Eller – and me, had big expectations for a place that called to her. I have never known a young lady as interested in the Holocaust as Ellie, especially as experienced through the eyes of Anne Frank. It was the place she most desired to see – and the last stop on the tour.
When she expressed this soul yearning, her mother and I exchanged knowing looks and simultaneously said, “The Sistine Chapel!”
Her ‘Anne Frank House’ was our artistic ceiling by Michelangelo. And we began to give advice fearing that she might experience a little disappointment in the actual structure. We certainly had.
We arrived in Rome and bought the ‘Hop on, Hop off’ bus ticket that had been recommended for traveling safely around Rome. Problem was, it didn’t stop near anything, was frequently stalled in traffic, and the maps of the city didn’t include every street so that it was easy to get on the wrong one. We spent most of the day looking for places and waiting for the bus. By the time we got to Vatican City, they had stopped allowing tours to enter although it was in the afternoon. We learned right away about the flexibility of Italian time. The next day, with beloved Pope John Paul in the hospital – he died about a month later – we summoned the courage to take the metro.
It had not been recommended but we figured we were smart ladies, and found that the stops were conveniently located near everything we wanted to see. There would be no more buses tied up in traffic for us!
I considered telling Paula that I might cry. I felt like I had been called to this moment since we were in high school and I had learned all about Michelangelo and how he painted over the dark blue ceiling with little yellow stars with his spectacular vision of Biblical interpretation.
As it turns out, she was thinking the same thing.
Anxious to get to the Chapel, we barely noticed the decorative ceilings and walls of all of the rooms we snaked through – including the Raphael Rooms of his paintings. What were we thinking?
Then the doors appeared. We knew we were close and would join the next group allowed in. Moments away from seeing what I had been waiting to experience for nearly thirty years, my heart pounded. Then it happened.
The doors opened and we were herded inside. What?
Was this it? Why was it lower than I expected? Why didn’t it glow? Where was the Ceiling of my imagination?
Then the crowd began to murmur and we were ordered to remain silent and another American was escorted away because he tried to sneak a picture, and then our time was up and I was crushed.
This was not the experience I expected. Nor was it for Paula. We stood outside of the Chapel and looked at each other with blank expressions.
It was a let down of enormous proportion. We moved on, still looking for something that would strike the chord of ‘AWE’ in us.
One day as we traipsed around seeking the Pantheon – which was a pain in the neck to find – we found many little side treks. Then after being duly impressed with the Pantheon, we moved on again. But not far. A surge of students was approaching and there was an open door into a rather plain looking structure of a Church. Quietly, we slipped inside.
It was Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva or Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Italian. Inside of its non-assuming door, I was immediately aware of a change in atmosphere. It felt Holy and Divine.
The tombs of St. Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico were encased near the altar. I looked up, and amazingly, I found the right ceiling. It was dark blue covered in little yellow stars. Oh Michelangelo, what did you do to the little Chapel in Vatican City?
We recounted this tale of appreciating the unexpected and looking around for the ‘Aha’ moments that unveil themselves to those who are flexible enough not to plot every stop to Ellie. And we cautioned her to enjoy single moment and not to hold her breath waiting for the Amsterdam leg of the journey. But I have been holding mine.
I hope her trip was everything she expected and that there is no let down from the place she has longed to see.
I’ll let her tell that story when she gets home. She is currently mid-air back to the States.