Life changing experiences

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. -Henry Miller

I’m convinced that having fun is the primary reason most people travel to Europe. I think this applies to just about everyone – it’s not just girls that wanna have fun. If enrichment leads to fun — as I think it usually does – then enrichement is just fine, too. I doubt, however, that many people are looking for, or even want, a life-changing experience. Most are quite happy as they are and where they are. But travel to Europe does occaisonally provoke important life changes. This post will describe one.

I studied in Rome in 1969-1971 at the Loyola University (Chicago) Rome Center for the Liberal Arts (now known as the John Felice Rome Center). This turned out to be an important formative experience for me just as it is for nearly everyone privileged to have a junior year abroad.  (It seems that the acaedmic “year abroad” programs of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced by programs lasting a single semester or less.) Later in life my NIH-sponsored research focused on phonetic aspects of bilingualism, and with a colleague in Toronto I developed a study population consisting of Italians who had immigrated to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. I had lots of exposure to Italians, if only through audio recordings.

As I grew older, my 9-month stay in Rome began to seem increasingly more like a piece of unfinished business. Maybe that had something to do with all those Italian voices I had been hearing.  I realized that my memories of Rome were actually quite vague, that I’d come away without having developed a clear idea of how Rome had developed over the centuries and why and how it had become the city it is today. This was surely not due to a shortcoming on the part of the university, I reasoned, but to my own immaturity at the time.


A stretch of the Aurelian walls I encountered on a random bus ride when I visited Rome in early 2006.


Porta San Sebastiano, the beginning of the Appia Antica.

When I was invited to lecture in Rome, I readily accepted and decided to prolong my visit to two weeks, giving myself time to roam about a city I had first encountered in youth.

I recall that when booking a flight to Rome my primary concern was the possibility of running out of things to see and getting bored. I told myself:  “If that happens, you can always buy a good book to read on a sunny terrace somewhere; how bad can that be?”

Needless to say, I didn’t get bored and didn’t begin counting the days until my return flight from FCO. Quite to the contrary.

Before leaving for Italy I bought a couple of guidebooks to get some general notions of Rome. I was already off to a good start|! Buying and reading guidebooks was not something that had ever occurred to me as a college student.

MURa mappe

Phases of wall construction over the centuries in Rome

I soon discovered that for the price of 1 Euro I could ride city buses for two hours. Riding buses became a key feature of my semi-random exploration of Rome. In the mornings after breakfast, I’d hop on the first bus that passed my hotel and ride it until the spirit moved me to descend.

One day I found myself passing by sections of the Aurelian walls. I was amazed at how massive they were (11 feet thick, 26 feet hight). I learned that the Aurelean Walls had been built between 271-275 AD when the walls built in the fourth century BC no longer sufficed to enclose all seven hills of Rome and its primary monuments (an area  > 5 square miles).

Rome remained comfortably within the Aurelean walls until Rome became the capital of a newly unified Kingdom of Italy (1870). Only then did large portions of the vast green space within the walls start filling up with new structures and building outside the walls begin in earnest.

porta metronia

A section of the walls found near Porta Metronia. The new park is frequented by joggers and people walking their dogs.

One stretch of the walls that I encountered on one of my bus trips is shown above. It’s found near Porta Metronia and Porta San Sebastiano, to the south of Circus Maximum and the Baths of Caracalla.


A portion of the Aurelian walls the crumbled, and will need to be rebuilt, hopefully reusing original materials

Several days after seeing the ancient walls of Rome for he first time I met a wondeful Italian woman. We married in Rome 15 months later and 15 months after that I found myself retired, living in a small town north of Rome, and fully occupied with a number of projects – learning Italian, overseeing the reconstruction of a late medieval house, and trying to “train” a Jack Russell puppy. That was a very full year. My greatest challenge? Without a doubt, the dog.

The stretch of the ancient walls of Rome I menioned earlier turned out to be important. As it turned out, my wife owned a appartment whose terrace looks down on these walls.  Our apartment complex was one of the first to be built outside the walls, in the early 1920s. I’ve spent many hours sitting on our terrace, gazing down on the Aurelian walls.

I do indeed see Rome, and especially the Aurelean walls, with different eyes. Being fixed in one place changes your rapport with the place.  Now I have taken part in meetings designed to give local people a chance to provide input regarding the new park along the walls. I’ve learned that the walls, massive though they are, are not in fact timeless and indestructable. They need to be maintained on a regular basis, or else they crumble.  That’s not something that ever occurred to when I first arrived in Rome as a newly retired professor.



About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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