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An Education in Vatican City

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Every day thousands of people make a pilgrimage to Vatican City, a tiny village nestled inside of Rome, and home to the Catholic church. Inside those imposing stone walls, the Pope and his buddies plan the rights and wrongs of guilty Catholics across the world, and in their spare time, plant gardens. After 27 years of Catholic church, time-outs issues by Brooklyn nuns, and sneaking baggy jeans in under a plaid skirt, I didn't feel the draw to the Vatican for any specific religious reason; I've had enough guilt in my life. But this oasis, quiet and untouched in the middle of one of the world's busiest cities, has more to offer and maybe even something a little spiritual for the non-believer.

A little tactical information for you: You can grab a local bus near the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps that'll take you to the gates of Vatican City in about 40 minutes. You can attempt the metro, but as many lines close midday for maintenance, you might find yourself stranded. If you've purchased a Roma Pass, discount card to the city (a great idea for even a quick stay), you'll be tempted to use it here. But it won't work. The Vatican operates on a separate city system than the rest of Rome, which means no discount applies to the museum entrance fee. From here, you'll wind up, down, and around hallways of both traditional and modern art; statue and canvas; furniture; all between. And eventually, following this path, about an hour later, you'll end up at the Sistine Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online, cost 15 euros and do not grant access to any of the basilica's as of the date of publication.

Soon after picking up tickets and maneuvering through well-kept bathrooms, I stumbled upon a tiny courtyard. My travel partner took this break as a pictorial pause, pointing and clicking at every crevice, stone work, statue, and flower in a five mile range. I decided to sit on a little bench at the far end of the courtyard and soak it all in: being in Italy, being at the Vatican, being a part of something. As I sat and watched, I noticed three specific groups of people pass through: tourists in tours, art students, older Italian women.

The tours were bright eyed and bushy tailed, stacked with DSLR's, clicking away, pointing and murmuring. At this point in the long walk they were attentive, smart and interested in every nuance of every piece of art. Catching up with them about 30 minutes later was a different story. They were aching to rush through, pushing to see the Sistine Chapel, this holy grail of the Vatican Museum walk. Though I walked on a slower pace and perused statues with a light eye, my attentiveness had held through the end. Lesson learned, courtesy of my fellow Americans.

The art students kept a similar pace. Whether pencils, pens, camera phones, or whatever medium they chose to document the halls, they ran through with the velocity of someone on a hunt or a mission, searching for something. And when they found it, they knew. Ceiling tile, statue, stuffed beast, they'd stop all of a sudden, make the art-ponder face, sit down, and interpret. I envied their eye and ability to just know exactly what they were looking for. Like a very astute intuition. Amazing, and very unlike the indecisive American girl in the corner garden.

Finally, as I sipped my water, an elderly woman walked by. The term "walked" is an overstatement as she, hunched over, slid her way across the pavement to an area of birds, tossing bread crumbs to feed them. She packed up her bag and sauntered back the way she came, and I got the impression that this was not the first time she'd fed her feathered friends. This was ritual. This was a mutual partnership between her and the earth she visited: they'd be there for each other.

Within twenty minutes, while my partner searched for the Vatican through the lens of a digital camera, I had seen it in the people who inhabited the halls: wonder, intuition, faith. I'm sure the Pope was hidden somewhere behind some enormous door. I'm sure there was an amazing mass happening in some church, but for me, these people would create my impression of Vatican City.