Word on the Street

In the summer of 2016, through my Book Studies Concentration at Smith College, I had the amazing opportunity to intern in the rare book room of the American Academy in Rome. One weekend morning, on vague instructions from the gentleman that ran the guesthouse I lived in for the month, I walked over to the Porta Portese Flea Market. It was morning, but the light was already brilliant and hot. I had been told to find three staircases, which were shortcuts to get down to the port. The first was a slightly dilapidated wide case at the edge of Monteverde, while the second seemed to take me through a small jungle.  I began to seriously wonder if I would spend another day lost among the labyrinth of Roman streets. But when I got to the third set of stairs, I could see the main road beyond speckled with the tents of the market. The staircase was expansive and enormous in the typical Roman way where everything— from buildings to statues—seems bizarrely huge. As enormous as it was, there was no one else scaling the steps.

I had come to Rome worried that my shy and introverted ways would make me a lonely sight far away from my children and home. And in Rome I was truly alone for the first time in perhaps over twenty years. While I made many fine acquaintances at work, I spent my free time utterly alone. Before I arrived, I had worried that I would feel awkward and terrifically lonely. In some ways I did. After all, I am me. But something unexpected happened. Once there, perhaps as a result of my own maturity or coming into my own as it were, during my time at Smith, I allowed myself to enjoy, rather than lament, being by myself. I gained a perspective upon myself that allowed me to finally accept my reserved nature.

I made my way down the enormous staircase. Because I had no one to meet, no agenda, and no one else to please, I had the novel experience of following my own fancy: following my eye, simply stopping, looking, photographing, or being absorbed by whatever impulse led me. At the bottom of the staircase I turned around to take in my grand accomplishment—I had found my way down the hundreds of steps! That was when I saw the mural painted on the risers of the steps. It was marvelously unexpected, though art is everywhere in Rome. It is through art that the voices of the past and present communicate most profoundly with us. I knew that at any other time in my life I would have felt compelled to hurry forward. I would have felt obliged to get there. But in Rome, the streets were always talking to me. I was richly rewarded when, in my solitude, I finally learned to trust myself enough to stop and listen.

 

Jessica Ryan J17′ is an Ada Comstock Scholar. She will be graduating Smith College in January and going on to pursue her master’s in library sciences at Simmons College.

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