Italian Memories

Friday, June 3, 2005 - written by Jan LaDuke

When does one day end and another begin when flying eastward? Who knows! Passing the time is a challenge: some folks chat to seat mates, some try to sleep, some walk the aisles stretching leg muscles, some write. Perhaps a new day begins when one awakes from slumber. What if there is no slumber?

How much sleep did we get last night? Not nearly enough. Much too soon the pungent aroma of strong coffee wafted through the cabin - announcing a new day and our imminent arrival in Madrid.

Madrid Terminal

Before long the plane was on the ground and we were scrambling to collect our carryon items before dashing for another departure gate on the far side of the terminal and our final flight to Rome. What beautiful structures these terminals are! But beauty counts not at all when there is a flight connection to make. Julie shooed her chickies onto the cross-terminal buses and herded us through another check-in before a final long hike/sprint down endless hallways and scrambling aboard our connecting flight…only to discover that we were delayed a bit in take off. Soon - soon - soon we would get there.

Rome, Italy - Right around Friday noon it was…the end of that two-hour flight was so welcome. Fifty-five weary folks dragged themselves off the Iberian bird and trudged down more long halls to the baggage claim area. The scene there was laughable…if you weren't in a hurry! The Italian folks all crammed right up next to the carousel, elbows angled out, feet planted firmly and mouths spewing cascades of sound. People-watching at its best. Of course, it took forever for the luggage to arrive at our claim area, and it was only time, but we were so tired. Small clusters of Chorale folks dotted the baggage arena emitting exclamations of joy with each reclaimed suitcase from the luggage merry-go-round.

Our next hurdle? Customs. But that turned out to be the easiest part of the trip as we were shepherded together into our 'MCI group' and introduced to Domenico Popolo…our tour guide for the entire trip. This native of Rome will accompany us wherever we go, coordinate schedules and appointments, count us one by one to make sure that we are all present, interface with hotels, restaurants and local tours, and be our #1 problem-solver. I'm sure his job description is considerably longer than that, but all we wanted from him right then was to get the show on the road! Where's the nearest ATM? I have no Euros! Did anyone see a restroom? When do we get lunch? It's been forever since that little breakfast tray on the plane.

Domenico was the bearer of good news - and our first test in flexibility. The original itinerary called for us to tour Imperial Rome for several hours after our arrival before checking into the hotel and having a leisurely dinner. Gosh, that sounded good after 12 hours of flying and no sleep since early Thursday morning! But wait…a small change here. After weeks of communication with the Vatican to secure permission to sing mass at St. Peter's, we finally received our answer through Domenico. Yes, we would be singing mass as requested, as long as we could sing the 5:00 PM mass that evening! You can imagine the wide eyes, the amazed expressions as we checked our watches - 2:00 PM - and here we were, huddled together in Rome's Fiumicino Airport, surrounded with luggage, tired and hungry.

Loading the Bus

Fifty-five folks schlepped their suitcases en masse out of the cool into the warmth of a summer afternoon in Rome - headed to a beautiful double-decker bus with glorious air conditioning awaiting our weary bodies. Spirits were high for this first adventure of our trip, but the flesh was taking a beating. Once more, the belly of a bus gobbled up our earthly possessions while we scrambled aboard to see the view from the upper level or merely flung ourselves into the nearest available seat. This will be our 'home on the road' for the next week, and I must say, it is quite plush. Our driver's name is Nikola, a true artist with a steering wheel, if today's travels are any indication.

The trip across Rome to the Hotel Regent took nearly an hour, but who minded with the bombardment of information provided by Domenico in his crash course of "when in Rome, do as the Romans." We learned all kinds of useful information like…our director's name was Mrs. Julia! And we could secure funds at a bankomat, not an ATM. NO jaywalking - you can get into big trouble with that - and always cross on the zebra. Tobacco shops sell newspapers, postage stamps, prepaid international calling cards, and lots of things other than tobacco. We further learned that many neighborhood or small town shops are usually open from 9AM to 1PM and 4PM to 8PM. That gap in the middle is for lunch and siesta. It makes a difference in cost if you stand at the bar to drink your coffee or sit at a table. It also costs money…not much…to use the public toilets in many places. (There was a whole long history of how this came to be, but I'll check with Google if I ever need that information again.) And one of the most amazing facts was that there are 800,000 scooters in Rome. AND on our way to the hotel I saw a mannequin riding on one of those scooters…behind the driver, of course!

How glad we were to arrive at our hotel! Located in a neighborhood with many small hotels, Nikola sidled the bus up to the curb where we tumbled out to retrieve our bags and locate rooms. The newest timeline given was "report back to the lobby in 45 minutes for a brief warm-up, then the trip to St. Peter's." Flexibility was required to get into some of the rooms as the locks were unusual…but the lights were more so. It took the longest time to figure out that we needed to put the room key into a little slot near the door and leave it in there if we wanted to use the lights.

Surely we should have been given awards for actually cleaning up a bit, digging out the performance uniform and getting back on the bus in a timely fashion. At some point the adrenalin checked in to replace hunger pangs, stiff bodies and sleep deprivation.

All Cleaned up.

The phrase, 'You clean up good!" took on new meaning! Music folders in hand, we rushed to the hotel lobby, adjusted our tops, zipped our zippers, straightened out ties and took the pitch from the pitch pipe - multitasking at its best. Julie led us through some warm-ups and a few phrases of a couple of numbers. We still had no idea what we were singing! Back on the bus for the twenty-minute ride to the dropping off spot. It was filled with more sights, facts, history and stories as Domenico continued to acquaint us with this amazing city. Piazzas, boulevards, flowering bushes, umbrella trees, bridges, portions of the Roman wall, scooters, rush hour traffic, the Tiber River…so many mental pictures, so many facts, such lovely surroundings.

I suspect that our walking experience this evening is indicative of what we will find throughout the trip. The bus was allowed to go only so far before we took to the streets and viaducts to walk the final blocks to St. Peter's Square. A combination of narrow, congested streets and safeguards during these times of terrorist activity surely has made these arrangements necessary.

And then…we were there. We were standing in the middle of the square looking up at the building which occupied our television screens for days as the power of the Roman Catholic Church passed from one pope to another. Up the stairs, through the checkpoint and into this immense, impressive edifice. Awe! That is the only word I can find to describe those first moments in St. Peter's. Two beams of light appeared to stream from heaven. To the right, against the wall stood Michelangelo's sculpture, "Pieta." Gold gleamed from innumerable surfaces. Pillars rose to incredible heights to support decorated ceilings. Everything was a work of art. Every direction you looked was a new vista of beauty. Every surface provided adornment of some sort.

The High Chapel at St. Peter's

As we wove our way through the crowds and tried to comprehend the incredible sights we were seeing, the adrenalin checked in once more. We were here…we were really here…in Italy…in St. Peter's Basilica…about to sing high mass. Dreams were coming true as we made our way to the choir loft. The Choir Master of the Vatican Choir, Monsignor Pablo Colino, spoke no English but he and Julie poured over the music to select our contributions to the mass with the aid of the organist, who knew some English. Singers arranged themselves in the loft and paused to look around. Brilliant sunlight streamed through the yellow-gold sunburst window high above the main altar. People ambled in, and we were beginning this familiar worship form that has the same meaning in Champaign, Illinois or Rome, Italy. The fragrance of incense stirred memories while the prayer-like clouds dissipated into the expansive area above the altar. The drone of timeless ritual reminded the worshippers of the beat of life and the constant message of hope and forgiveness.

Then we were singing…"May thy holy spirit…" The sound rose and rose, higher and higher, hung in the air and fell to the ears of the worshippers. This is what I had come to Italy for - the sound of our music in magnificent worship spaces. "Bless the Lord…" - with a wide-eyed Kent on the bench of the organ giving new meaning to the words of praise and adoration. "Go ye now in peace…" - sung twice with special messages of peace and benediction from our land to this land, from me to you. "All that hath life and breath…" - filled with the Chorale's energy and joyous cacophony, finally exploding into full organ exuberance by the Vatican organist as he continued our song of praise to its thunderous conclusion. My heart was filled to overflowing. At the conclusion of the service the Choir Master, again through an interpreter, repeated several times that he was moved by the poetry and passion with which the group had sung and the rich sounds we had produced.

And then it was over and we were headed back to the Hotel Regent for the long-promised evening meal. Dining in the hotel was a blessing as we shed our performance gear for something more comfortable and shared our first meal in Italy. If our trip should end tomorrow, I would return home having realized the dream, the secret wish I hold for this adventure. Forever I shall remember the sound, the Chorale sound as it echoed and reverberated in St. Peter's. Home seems very far away as I recall the events of the past 36 hours.

the previous day

the next day


touching the spirit... enriching us all