I recently went to Italy and Croatia with my brother. Between the two of us, we took 1,500 photographs. I did a lot of scribbling in a bubblegum pink Mead notebook—some about our travels, most about whatever rubbish was rolling around in my head. Capturing an entire trip in pictures is almost as hard as capturing it in writing. It would be like trying to document prayer.

So instead, I’ve decided to compose snapshots. For each of the cities we visited, I’ll post one (maybe two) photo(s) and one piece of writing. The piece of writing will likely spring from the bubblegum notebook scribblings, but it will be revised. In some cases, it will be completely disregarded. I’ll put these together in chronological order, which means I’ll start where we arrived: Rome.

Rome has been on the top of my “to visit” list since I first learned it existed. In all our travel preparations, I labeled every pertinent email “To Rome!!” because it was the crown jewel, the prosecco, the tiramasu after the perfect pasta dinner. Having now been to Rome, you might ask, am I disappointed, disillusioned? No. Rome was not a dream, but that was the point.

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The piazza and church of Santa Maria Maggiore at sunset

To Rome

It’s become a nightly habit to sit on the marble counter and soak my feet in the bathroom sink, dissolve the dust and grime, let the bandaids soften and peel away. I time this ritual to a precise fifteen minutes by the bell in Santa Maria Maggiore, the church and tower just outside our hotel. I feel like I should have a cigarette between my fingers, only because everyone else does, but instead, I dip my hands in and out of the water.

Nothing is ever as we imagined. I’m amazed at the congestion, the throngs of humanity on every narrow street. Noise travels high and wide, and sacred spaces have become things to gawk at, to point and click at, no flash, please. Every time I turn around, my brother is at our fifth floor window, watching the choreography of chaos below. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s said, “I can’t believe the traffic here.” We’ve yet to see an accident.

I keep the water hotter than I should, watch my feet brighten to red. It’s still early enough in the season that the city cools down after dusk, and we open the screenless windows wide to the night, which does a better job of chilling the room than the ancient air conditioner. We try to ignore the bugs that fly in above our bed. At nine, the church bell chimes for five minutes straight, signaling the day’s end. Farewell! Goodnight! It’s time to go inside! But Rome carries on regardless.

On our first full day, we go to the Trevi Fountain, swarmed by people who have no idea what they’re seeing, and I zoom the camera lens as close as I can to get all statue and no man. We step inside monuments to God, where utter silence is requested but never received, and so it’s requested again via loudspeaker every ten minutes, in half a dozen languages, followed by a long, insistent, Shh…The international signal for “be quiet.” But Rome is never quiet.

Wherever you go, there you are, and trouble follows even here. Rome is St. Peter’s and the Colosseum and the Pantheon, but it’s also hoards of French teenagers and African street merchants and Korean children who try to cut us in line. It’s pizza and pasta and gelato, but it’s also menus that cater to tourists and waiters who respond to whatever we say with “please” and blackouts so routine each staff member knows how to jumpstart the breaker. It is, like everything, not exactly, and yet, just exactly as I imagined.

There are exceptions to every rule. When we go to Santa Maria della Vittoria, we enter to find—of course—French teenagers, slumped in pews, unimpressed. I move to the front, stand before Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and I wait. I wait because I’ve learned, if I wait long enough, the tourists who’ve cycled in will cycle out, and before the next wave, there’s a pause. And in that pause, yes, there’s a silence, even here. And this is what I came for.

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Marveling inside Santa Maria degli Angeli