Roman Colosseum

Rome the Roller Coaster

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Jean Wong, UW Journalism & Public Interest Communications Major 03/30/2022 April 2022 Perspectives
Jean Wong outside the Colosseum in Rome.
"No matter how much you prepare and research about a new city, unexpected surprises are inevitable and unavoidable," says Jean Wong, who spent Winter Quarter 2022 in Rome. 

Before I landed in Italy for the Rome in Residence study abroad program at the UW Rome Center, I imagined my life for the next three months would be nothing less than an Italian vacation. Cappuccino for breakfast, pizza for lunch, pasta for dinner, every day on repeat. Visiting ancient ruins and learning Italian as I immersed myself in a new culture and lifestyle, I’d bring my old self to the city and take a new version of myself on the way out. Study abroad would be a life-changing pathway to the new me — a more fun, social, adventurous me. 

Now that my time in Italy is over, I have more insight into what they don’t tell you in the studying abroad handbook: No matter how much you prepare and research about a new city, unexpected surprises are inevitable and unavoidable. Just because you’re in a foreign country 5,000 miles from home doesn’t mean all problems in the world immediately come to a halt. Even as I was immersed in a brand new cultural setting, life was not always beautiful in the most beautiful city in the world. 

Over and over, the highs and lows of Italy kept me on my toes, each day brimming with mystery and anticipation.

Jean Wong UW Senior, Communication Major
portrait of Jean Wong

Rome is a roller coaster, the most daunting one at an amusement park. The city made me nervous, a little scared before I arrived, but at the same time I couldn’t help but love the feeling. In the Eternal City, the sharp turns and twists of the ride kept me wanting to explore more. 

Going up on this roller coaster, I could see the skyline of the city, from the stooped dome of the Pantheon to the colonnades of St. Peter’s Basilica and the markets of Campo di Fiori. Rome from up high took my breath away. In the Eternal City there is so much art and history to explore. Mariella Mastrogiacomo, our art history professor, told stories from her archeologist days, when she traveled the world uncovering its histories. Each week, she brought our class to two different sites, with our first class being in the Colosseum.

Montage of popular sites in Rome.
Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and the Roman Forum (from left) are among Rome's well-known sites. 

Over the course of the quarter, we embarked on what can only be described as a tourist’s fever dream. We visited the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and the Baths of Caracalla, where we discussed gladiators, Vestal Virgins, and emperors from antiquity. We viewed prized art and sculptures by the greats — Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio. We saw a large handful of some of Rome’s 900 uniquely beautiful and historic churches, including the treasured St. Peter’s Basilica. Masterpiece after masterpiece, each excursion left me bewildered and blessed to witness the creativity and knowledge of the past.

Plates of cheese and prosciutto
A classic aperitivo accompanied with meats and cheeses — one of the many delicious Italian traditions. 

And ascending even higher — the joys of Italian dining. On this trip I experienced the best meals of my life, from the pizza and pasta to the gelato and pastries. One bite in and I immediately knew what dining in Rome would be like: euphoric and thrilling at every meal. I tasted carbonara for the first time, and my brain exploded. I bought fresh mozzarella and pesto to be enjoyed in my own kitchen. I took a cooking class and learned the ins and outs of making my own pasta dough and ravioli. Meals there weren’t only something to feed the stomach, they were fuel for the soul. 

Then the roller coaster drops and I freefall.  The first week of the program, two apartments were already in quarantine mode, as people started testing positive for COVID. In class, the sick ones joined us from their homes, as their faces were projected on the screen over Zoom. To come overseas, we all had to test negative and be triple vaccinated, but that didn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t fall victim to the virus. Throughout the term, more and more people got sick and the virus loomed over our heads as we did our best to avoid it, but simultaneously tried to have the time of our lives. 

Jean Wong with about a dozen friends from her Rome program.
Wong, second from left, with friends from the Rome in Residence program. 

But eventually the roller coaster climbs up and I’m soaring once again —  I saw as much of Italy as I could during my 10-week stay. In Florence, I met Michelangelo’s David and ate sandwiches that now rank as the best I’ve ever eaten. In Venice, I rode a gondola, and celebrated their tradition of Carnevale by wearing a Venetian mask. In Sorrento, I indulged in the coast, the sun, and the seafood. Each time, I took advantage of a new city to gain a global perspective and exposure to magnificent ways of Italian living. 

And up even higher — unforgettable stories from the kindness of locals. During a weekend in the small town of Cortona in Tuscany, my friends and I met an Italian stranger as we walked through the square. He took us into a quaint art studio that he ran in his retirement, brimming with paintings and art supplies. We painted, we chatted, he invited us to dinner, we eagerly said yes. At night, we visited his home in the hills of the little town, where he prepared us an extravagant dinner. He told us stories about his life and took us for a midnight tour of the town. I remember my excitement during the entire night, as I felt special to be a bystander of the moment, like I was living out a scene in a travel movie. 

And when you least expect it, the ride spirals with another drop, and stress and panic follow. Challenges occurred that were out of my control, and I could only do my best to stay composed and carry on. On a random Thursday night, my phone and wallet were stolen as I chatted away with an Italian local, one of the first Italian friends I had made. Another day, I incorrectly invalidated my bus tickets as I rode the bus to the train station and was fined 50 euros by a guard who inspected the buses. On these days where things went awry, my friends comforted me and I went to sleep wishing it had been a dream. 

The expanse of the Roman Forum.
A visit to the Roman Forum at the heart of Rome. Photo by Jean Wong.

But then the ride ascends higher — I was stunned by how many exceptional people I met and how easy it was to make meaningful friendships. Study abroad draws a certain type of individual — one who isn’t afraid to live outside their comforts, one who seeks adventure and thrill. There were more than 50 people in my program, and very early on, we had all grown and bonded closely together. We’d get a meal together after class, or spend time in each other’s apartments, or travel in groups on our off-time. Leaving Rome, I’m thankful to have shared my time with so many great people. 

Cascading down again, as the end of the ride nears — I said goodbye to the city I’d learned to love, not knowing when I’d be back. At the Trevi fountain, I stood with my back to the water and threw a 50-cent euro coin behind my right shoulder. Legend says that if you do this, you’ll return to Rome. I love whoever coined the myth and I believe it is the truth. 

Rome was a roller coaster where I discovered new strengths and abilities to handle whatever life threw at me. Over and over, the highs and lows of Italy kept me on my toes, each day brimming with mystery and anticipation. As my journey came to its end, I knew that the decision to embark on this ride changed me. Studying abroad was not as easy as I imagined, with challenges I could never have anticipated, yet it was an extraordinary time. Some parts of it were crazy, some parts were difficult, but I want to remember it all.

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