Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.


I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj


While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare


Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo


I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo


Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo


Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo


Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”

Cefalu'

Cefalu’


We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.

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Democrats Abroad did its part in victorious U.S. elections

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night's potluck.

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night’s potluck.


About 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood served as a storage area for all the grain, wine and olive oil that came in on the Tiber River. They all arrived in large terracotta vases which, when disgorged, were broken up into little pieces and discarded onto a big pile. The mound, which stands more than 150 feet high, still exists today and is dubbed Monte Testaccio.

Friday night, on Via di Monte Testaccio, the Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter held a potluck, celebrating the Democratic Party’s take over of the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the Republican Party’s stronghold into little pieces.

The irony was not lost on me.

Being an American expat can be lonely at times. Here in Rome, most of my friends are Italian. I have few to vent with about the U.S. circling the drain into the bowels of fascist and racist hell. My rants are mostly limited to unbridled torrents on Facebook, sitting in bed, pissed off at 2 in the morning.

I’d go out with my Roman girlfriend after our Pres. Rancid Velveeta would call an entire ethnic group worthless protoplasm or something earlier that day. She’d see me visibly agitated. I’d fidget. I’d frown. I wouldn’t have to say a thing and Marina would say, “You’re thinking about Trump, aren’t you?”

She knows me all too well.

Democrats Abroad gives me an escape. It’s the one place in Rome where I can meet like-minded, pissed-off people and unleash pent-up anger in an arena where everyone understands and everyone has all their teeth. Friday night wasn’t just a receptacle for hate. It was a victory bash. The Democratic Party took over the House. We have put a blockade on the Republicans’ charge toward a fascist state for the next two years.

We expats made a difference. I made a difference, however small.

According to Julia Bryan, international chairperson of Democrats Abroad, voting among expats around the world increased — get this — 800 percent since the last midterms in 2014. She said she won’t know the total numbers until all the votes are counted but she said we helped flip seats in Florida and New Mexico and may end up helping flip another in Arizona.

“The Florida agricultural commissioner won by a little under 600 votes,” Bryan said from her home in Prague. “We definitely sent more than 600 votes to Florida.”

Democrats Abroad is a feisty, underrated organization that has 150,000 members in 190 countries. There are Dems Abroad committees in 45 nations. Italy has nearly 3,000 members.

We all came to Rome for different reasons. Job. Heritage. Love. Or, in my case, retirement. But we have one thing in common: We hate Putin’s Papaya-Flavored Pawn. Trump has united us. Misery loves company. Despite being 4,500 miles from Washington, despite being that far away from the nearest Trumpeteer, we think of our country’s direction and are miserable.

“I like the word ‘indignant,’” said Neal Huddon-Cossar, the chairman of the Dems Abroad’s Rome chapter. “We’re extremely concerned about the direction the country’s going. People are indignant. That’s why I personally have seen so many people in my social circle who are Americans become more active in political organizing and activism.”

The potluck was a celebration of last week's Democratic victories.

The potluck was a celebration of last week’s Democratic victories.


Take Huddon-Cossar. The day after the Halfwit Tweet Twit won the election in 2016, Huddon-Cossar, started a Facebook group. Using the hashtag #notmypresident, he invited all his friends then learned about Rome’s own involvement in protests such as the Women’s March and Indivisible Movement. More local chapters formed in Italy, and he got in touch with those people.

In two years, this 30-year-old grad student in global energy and climate policy became chairman of Rome’s Dems Abroad chapter. Talking to other Yanks, he learned we were as appalled at what was happening across the Atlantic as the people in the trenches.

“Americans abroad are shocked at what the politics are in the U.S. at the moment,” he said. “It was all driven by the election of Trump. Just the Trumpian direction of the Republican Party has taken over the past few years. A lot of people were complacent under (Pres.) Obama and didn’t think it was necessary to vote or stay engaged.

“But this (2016) election was a real reality check.”

So Huddon-Cossar went out and set up about a dozen get-out-the-vote events, mostly at Rome’s various universities specializing in American abroad students. He set up sign-up desks in expat events such as Expats Living in Rome of which I’m a member and set up a website, votefromabroad.org. He established a ballot drop off at a local school, hosted by a cultural center and supported by the U.S. Embassy. That three-hour event alone signed up 90 people.

It’s not easy voting from abroad. Rules are confusing. They vary from state to state. I vote in Colorado, where I worked from 1990-2014, and twice had to call Denver to make sure they’d send me an email ballot. I voted in October. Filling it out was easier than a to-do list.

I voted Democrat all the way down the line. I didn’t look at a single name. I didn’t do one second of research. If I saw a “D” next to the name I voted for it. I’m furious. I want change. Democrats Abroad provided me that avenue. As it turns out, Democrats in Colorado, a battleground state, won four of seven House seats, nine of 17 Senate seats, 37 of 60 State House seats, the attorney general’s race and the governor’s race. I learned the Democrat who won the Colorado governor’s race, Jared Polis, is gay.

I had no idea, nor did I care.

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo


I wasn’t alone.

“We are the bluest state,” Bryan said. “We’re the only Democratic state that had a growth in the primaries in 2016. We had 50 percent growth over 2008. That’s huge.”

How blue? Bryan said two years ago 69 percent of Dems Abroad members voted for Bernie Sanders. (“We are very progressive,” she said.) I didn’t. Bernie was a liberal’s wet dream: He had all the right ideas but no convincing path to achieve them. I voted for Hillary Clinton. If more Democrats had done that, I’d be writing about AS Roma today.

Sometimes I wish I retired to Rome in the ‘90s. That was before Internet, before social media. Our only American political news would come from whatever the old International Herald-Tribune would print. Today with cable TV and every American newspaper and wire service available on your cell phone, I could just as well be in Washington’s Dupont Circle as my leafy neighborhood in Rome. The U.S. government is a train wreck. You don’t want to watch but once you start you can’t pull away.

Italians are up on it, too. When they meet an American, they all have one question.

“They want me to explain how the hell this could happen,” said Jim Sawitzke, a Dems Abroad member at the potluck. “They used to have so much respect for the U.S. What’s happened to us? Like, I’m an American, I have the answers.”

Sawitzke, 55, is an interesting expat story. Raised in Helena, Montana, he went up through the educational and professional ranks as a scientist when three years ago he moved to Rome to work for the European Molecular Biology Laboratories. Like all Dems Abroad members, he and I bonded — and not just because he got his doctorate at the University of Oregon, my alma mater in the knee-jerk liberal town where I was raised. Sawitzke spent 21 years in suburban Frederick, Maryland, where he lived near the apex of American politics.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.


Like me, Dems Abroad has become a safe haven of vent. The potluck was just one example. It was held in the Associazione Rigatteria, a cultural center built in a stone cave that once also served as a storage area for food and wine. Glass squares on the floor illuminate dark tunnels that snake through the area.

A table was filled with finger food, from salami to breads to the one thing you’ll never find at a Trump rally: hummus. We clinked wine glasses toasting the victory. We talked about who we want running against Dingbat Donald in 2020. Huddon-Cossar gave a presentation summarizing all the Democratic victories.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Sawitzki said. “It’s nice to talk freely with like-minded people. I felt comfortable. It reminded me of people I’d speak with in similar events in the U.S.”

Dems Abroad isn’t stopping. Bryan and Huddon-Cossar have reached out to expats for stories about their health care overseas. We all have our frustrations living over here. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. The government is rife with corruption. But Italy’s health care system, like many in Europe, is fabulous.

Bryan will soon take to Congress her stories, including my story of going blind in my right eye in the summer of 2017. The total cost of my treatment, including tests, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery was only 525 euros. In the U.S. it would’ve been nearly $7,000.

The Rome chapter did the same.

“The idea was to share our stories as American citizens living in these countries and what it’s like to live in a country that guarantees health care,” Huddon-Cossar said. “We had a huge, huge response.”

He received more than 300 stories, including his own. Last year he had to get an endoscopic gastrostomy exam after a series of stomach problems. He went to the ASL, Italy’s state health service, and they gave him an appointment in Frosinone, a town 55 miles southeast of Rome. Instead, he went to the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, a private care hospital, on Rome’s Tiberina Island. They had him in the following week. His total cost?

One hundred fifty euros.

Besides health care, the other advantage all expats agree on is the streets in Europe are safe. Rome, a city of 2.8 million people, averages only 30 murders a year, hardly any by guns. Last fall gun nuts barbecued me online after I reacted to the slaughter in Las Vegas by pointing out that Italy’s tougher gun laws were reasons for the low murder rate. The critics pointed out the Czech Republic, which has the most open gun laws in the world behind the U.S., is proof that more guns mean safer streets.

Bryan, who grew up in a liberal family in Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Prague 20 years ago to head up a design section of a startup and now has a software company. She said guns nuts are missing the point.

“The thing to understand is the Czechs don’t have open gun laws,” she said. “They have really intelligent gun laws. They’re really strict about who can have a gun. If you have any mental problems you’re not allowed to have a gun.

“The Czechs take away guns. You can lose your reliability status if you are deemed to have excessive use of alcohol, if you commit a crime, if you commit misdemeanors. The health clearance is an important part of the license process.”

I left the potluck early and went to Marina’s. I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. She didn’t ask me a thing about the Decomposing Jack-o-Lantern.

Why Rome? From loathing to loving, the long, twisting journey to my dream retirement spot

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Italians are very curious people, like anthropologists but better dressed. They ask you a lot of questions. Where are you from? Where are you going on vacation? Where did you buy your shoes? Things that matter to Italians.

As a subject, I’m different. I’m a novelty. I’m retired. Four and a half years ago, at age 57, I left the U.S. to start a new life in Rome where I plan to end my life as well. It was a colossal leap of faith, a major risk with a downside of winding up dead broke in a foreign land with no family or friends. So Italians, most of whom work until they die, always raise a coiffed eyebrow when I tell them my situation. And they, as well as tourists, all ask me the same question.

Why Rome?

It’s a long story, one made longer by the many twists and turns the journey took since I first visited here in 1978. The political and economic climate changes in Italy like its fashion scene. That made each visit unique and challenging in its own way. Most expats here all have the same story. They came to Rome for the first time and fell in love, either with the land, with the food, with a man or with a woman. The beginning of my tale is different.

I hated this place.

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo


In 1978 it was particularly bad. Inflation and unemployment poleaxed Italians, exhausted from a decade of economic chaos. The right-wing fascists, left-wing Red Brigades and Mafia all fought over the ugly daily headlines. On May 9, it suffered a particularly gruesome one-two punch. Ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, the leading figure in the dominant Christian Democracy party and who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks before, was found murdered in the trunk of a car.

On May 1, Peppino Impastato, a noted leftist and outspoken critic of the Mafia, was kidnapped by his hometown Cosa Nostra in Cinisi, Sicily. On May 2 he was dumped on the railroad tracks with sticks of dynamite tied to his torso. Later that day, his body parts were found over a 300-meter radius. He was 30.

So this was the romantic Italian landscape I came skipping through as a skinny 22-year-old with a beat-up duffel bag and a dog-eared Youth Hostel card. I arrived in Italy a frazzled, filthy mess. I took a 27-hour train ride from the flaming shithole port town of Algeciras, Spain, to Milan. I stopped only in Barcelona just long enough to take a shower in what turned out to be the home of a screaming homosexual with gay porn spread around his bathroom. I blame only youthful naivete for not picking up that his Peter Pan slippers were a telltale sign. Fortunately, his shower didn’t work — or the lock — and I excused myself out his door before he could show me his paella.

In Italy I followed the American tourist path more beaten than the Atlantic City Boardwalk: Milan (Newark with a big church), Venice (too impossibly romantic to visit alone which I didn’t — if you count the 20 snoring, drunk backpackers with whom I shared a Youth Hostel dorm) and Florence (more excited about the John Travolta disco leather boots I bought for $25 in the flea market than Michelangelo’s David.)

Then, tired, hot and thirsty, I reached Rome. At the end of a two-week Italian run, I was arted out. I could suddenly understand why that mad Turk vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in 1972. He’d seen too many damn Michelangelo statues. He went crazy. So did I.

More than Renaissance art, I wanted a glass of ice. At the time in Rome, ice was distributed with the frequency of winning lottery tickets. Rome, even at that time in early October, seemed as hot as the inside of a Ferrari engine. Living in Oregon my whole life, I never felt humidity that was more appropriate for African violets. Also, the Italian language apparently didn’t have a phrase for “emissions control standards” and Rome’s smog baked me in the inside of a gray, smoky coffin. The Italian sun, the one I dreamed of growing up, was nothing more than a blotted, filtered orange ball.

Never a coffee or water drinker, I survived on room-temperature Coke, citrus fruit and a vile swill called Peroni beer. I was miserable.

I hit all the tourist sites and remembered being so exhausted at the end of the Vatican museums that I laid down on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, not for a better view of the ceiling but merely to rest. My highlight was jumping the fence at night with two Englishmen I met at the Youth Hostel near Olympic Stadium. We roamed the Colosseum’s corridors sans even small floor lights until a growl of a distant dog chased us back over the fence like the miserable, dirty degenerates that we were.

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo


I also saw history. On Oct. 4, I was one of 60,000 people who crammed into St. Peter’s Square to see the funeral of Pope John Paul I, who died Sept. 28 after only 33 days in office, launching a cottage industry of conspiracies that have lasted to this day. He died the night neo fascists shot at a group reading L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, killing one boy.

My memories of food in Rome were no better than of the food in my elementary school cafeteria. I lived on $15 a day. I ate salami and cheese out of grocery stores and pizza slices from the portable carts in the overrun piazzas. The pizza crust was as sharp as shrapnel. And what’s with only one ingredient? The combo pizza at my old Pietro’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield, Oregon, was better.

And during this year-long solo trip around the world encompassing 24 countries, nowhere, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, not communist Hungary, did I find a population that spoke less English than the Italians. I met no one.

On my way out of Italy, I found it absolutely no coincidence that fascists blew up the railroad track near Bologna and I had to change trains and stand the last two hours of the trip. It symbolized my entire Italian adventure. It bombed.

I didn’t return to Italy for 20 years.

I may never had if not for one chance encounter. I was covering Major League Baseball for The Denver Post and one day in 1998 in the Coors Field press box lounge I talked travel with Mike Littwin, at the time with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He said he loved Rome.

“Rome?” I spat, as if he said he loved Karachi. “It’s a shithole. I hated the place. I’ve had better pizza in frozen food sections.”

But he went on about the Pantheon, the food, the wine, the art. I walked away thinking, Hmm. Maybe I should give Rome another shot.

That weekend while reading my Sunday Post by my pool, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, heard my private message to myself. There in the travel section was an ad offering a dirt-cheap round-trip flight from Denver to London plus one other European city. The list included Rome. I left my lounge chair, went up to my apartment and made a phone call. I was leaving at the end of baseball season.

Single and wanting to explore Rome’s romantic side, I thought, who could I invite? How about a Brazilian lingerie saleswoman in Zurich? That’s right. I had met her in Rio two years before while she was on business and we had recently lost touch. I sent an email and the timing could not have been better. She wrote that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and would meet me in Rome.

Thank you, St. Christopher.

Suddenly, Rome didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, a 24-hour romance one could read in a dirty novel ended abruptly on Day 2 when I returned to the room. She told me her rich ex-boyfriend was flying to Rome that afternoon and if she doesn’t meet him, he’d kill himself.

“So let him,” I said compassionately.

“No. He’ll do it. I’m going.”

“Are you serious? You’re falling for this? He’s bluffing.”

She packed her bags and left. I never heard from her the rest of the year. This was problematic. We had agreed to meet in her hometown of Natal, Brazil, that spring for a travel story assignment I received on dune buggies. The last thing I wanted in a sultry, sexy Brazilian beach town was a mere roommate.

As she walked out the door for the airport, she told me to wait by the phone and she’d call me. She spoke excellent English and I’m assuming she clearly understood my American idiomatic expression, “Fuck that!”

I explored Rome.

At the time in 1998, Italy was on an economic upturn. Investments and exports were rising. Economic growth was at 3 percent. The Red Brigade was all but dissolved. Romans were going out again. Chic wine bars, known as enotecas, were surfacing. Even the air was breathable.

I was out all day and night. Rome seemed cheaper than most American cities I visited on assignment. I could get a glass of wine for less than a Coke, and I discovered a wine that remains my favorite to this day: Barolo. I learned pizzas in traditional pizzerias have as much to do with the crap served on the piazzas as the Sistine Chapel has to do with a 7-Eleven.

I researched a travel story about day trips from Rome. Every day I went somewhere new: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port; Tivoli, the town filled with old villas of Ancient Rome’s aristocracy; Frascati, where I had a lovely picnic with porchetta, the sizzling suckling pig famous around Rome, and Frascati’s trademark crisp white wine; Nettuno, a beach town only an hour away with water swimmable in November.

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo


The lone problem came at night. After the Brazilian dropped me like so much rancid pepperoni, I drank in a new cafe every night, alone. Looking around I could tell Romans invented the term “public display of affection,” known during Ancient Rome, I believe, as “coitus minimus.” Everywhere I went, Roman couples were wildly making out. If I saw one more swarthy Roman bend a woman over a fruit cart, I swore I’d get one of those cat scratching poles.

I tucked Rome away as a regular destination in the future. Flash forward to fall 2000. I found myself in full burnout of sportswriting. Baseball bored me. My girlfriend at the time, a public radio reporter in San Diego, was equally burned out. We both needed new challenges, an adventure, a different direction in life, not to mention live in the same time zone for a change.

The Denver Post union contract allowed year-long sabbaticals. We could do anything we wanted during the year — write, travel, rob banks, whatever — and were guaranteed our jobs back. Maybe not our beats, but we’d have a job waiting. A Post news reporter friend named Joe Sinisi, an Italian-American, had just spent half his year in Italy. One 10-minute discussion hearing of the food, the landscape and the people convinced me.

I’d be a travel writer in Rome for a year. Rome would be perfect. It overflowed with travel stories and is centrally located. I could fly anywhere from Great Britain to North Africa within a couple hours. It was relatively cheap. Italian would be easier to learn than French or German (HA!) and sexier than Spanish. It was warm, a major consideration with a woman coming from San Diego.

So that November I took my girlfriend, Nancy, to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas and on the first night gave her a wrapped present. It was a long narrow tube with a bow around it.

“What is this, a feather boa?” she said.

“Just open it.”

It was a rolled-up poster of St. Peter’s at night. I said, “Want to move to Rome for a year?”

(Guys, take a tip: If you want to score some points with a woman, try the above.)

After the shock wore off, she agreed but first we felt we should go on a recon mission. So that February 2001 we flew to Rome with backpacks, pens and paper. We took notes on every cost an expat would incur: public market food, public transportation, Italian lessons, utilities, wine, restaurants, apartments. We looked at neighborhoods with vacancies. She wasn’t impressed.

During one trip to the scruffy part of Trastevere, she said, “This place looks like Queens.”

However, after a week of wining, dining and exploring without a jacket in February, she turned to me as we sat over the best homemade pasta of our lives and said, “I’ll sell everything.”

We set our departure for that November. That’s November 2001. Yes, what better time to launch a career as a full-time travel writer than two months after 9-11? In one of the savvy career moves of my life, I tried selling travel stories when some newspapers weren’t running stories on destinations to which you couldn’t drive.

In the aftermath, 25,000 Americans cancelled their flights to Rome, which Homeland Security put on Yellow Alert, meaning there was a “significant risk” of terrorist attack. We went anyway and had the best 16 months of our lives. They were also the hardest. We moved to a foreign city where we had no home, no friends, no language skills and no job. We were living together without ever before living within 1,000 miles of each other.

Moving to Neptune may have been easier. The language seemed impossible; so did some of the kitchen appliances. She struggled to find a new line of work; I struggled with Italian school. The tension was palpable. At one point we were exchanging gunfire daily.

But, like an aging actress who gets herself back in shape, Rome slowly revealed herself as the great city it remains to this day in my heart. We found a beautiful, spacious apartment near the Vatican. We had all kinds of adventures. I spent two months in Rome’s gladiator school. (Yes, there is one.) I did a story on Solo Per Due, the world’s smallest restaurant, featuring only one table for one couple per night in the most romantic setting in Lazio. I made more friends than I ever had in Denver. I traveled all over, from Tunisia to Latvia. She joined me to London and all over Italy.

And the biggest discovery of all came from the realization that no matter how confused you get with the Italian bureaucracy, how frustrated you get with the language, how worried you get about money, one thing in Rome is certain.

You always have dinner to look forward to.

Unfortunately, my sabbatical ended — at about the same time our money did. We returned to Denver in April 2003 with the commitment to return some day. For ever. I became The Post’s national college football writer; Nancy took a job at a public radio station in Greeley, a small agricultural town 60 miles north of Denver.

The return was a quasi disaster. I had one of the best jobs in American journalism; she disliked her job in Greeley, a long commute to a town of slaughterhouses and air constantly smelling of cow pies. She hated the cold. She had few friends. For her, Denver was Karachi.

After four years, she had enough. She moved back to Rome in 2007 with the idea that I’d join her. I didn’t. I came close three times but each time jobs fell through, twice after I acquired work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago.

While long-distance relationship are trying, try one from 7,000 miles away. We saw each other twice a year, one time rendezvousing in Kuala Lumpur for a backpacking trip in Borneo. We swapped limoncello for leeches.

We finally set a deadline. I’d return to Rome by fall 2010 or we’d break up. I didn’t make it. I failed. An 11-year relationship ended because I couldn’t reinvent myself in Italy.

However, I reinvented my means to move. Unable to find a job, I decided to save my money and retire. I went back to Rome in 2011, again with pen and paper. I came up with a financial figure I needed to reach and met with my genius Denver broker, Stephanie Gudka. We strategized.

I reached the figure in August 2013, I spent that fall football season working on my visa and announced my resignation Dec. 26 in a crisp one-line text sent from the Palm Springs airport. I flew to Rome Jan. 10. It was a one-way ticket.

It’s 4 ½ years later and the thought of hating Rome seems as distant as my first words at 3 years old. Rome has given me a joy, at 62, that few can comprehend , a garden of adventure that never ceases to deliver. The sights. The tastes. The sounds. The smells. Rome is a kaleidoscope of pleasure that surprises me every day. I would never live anywhere else and I’ll never leave.

Nancy and I both found new life partners, and I truly hope she’s as happy here as I am. Rome is home. A rocky, tumultuous trail has led me to this lovely corner of the world, a place I could write about forever. I could write more now but I must go.

I have dinner to look forward to.

The world has many hidden treasures: Remnants of the Roman Empire

By Gary B. Keller

The Roman Empire was one of the most expansive and important civilisations the world had ever seen. Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the Roman Empire has an unrivalled legacy in art, politics, medicine, and city planning. Today, you can check out ancient the empire’s contributions to art and architecture by visiting some of its surviving infrastructure.

CHAPEL OF SAINT VITTORE

In the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Ambrogio is a small, hidden chapel that’s has a decorated floor-to-ceiling dome with ancient 5th century mosaics. While the basilica around it was destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, and redesigned over the centuries, The Chapel of San Vittore remains the same. Art historian Marina Zaigraykina discussed the craftsmanship of the mosaics, particularly the one on the golden dome depicting the martyr Saint Vittore, was unequalled at the time. You can find this in Milan, Italy.

SEPULCRAL ROMANA

In accordance with ancient imperial laws, the Roman city of Barcino buried its dead outside of city walls from the 1st to the 3rd century, resulting in small cemeteries near roads leading out of the city. One of those cemeteries survived to this day, in the modern city of Barcelona. It contains 85 graves, the remains of an estimated 200 people.

AMMAN’S ROMAN THEATRE

What is now the capital city of Amman in Jordan, North Africa, used to be part of the Roman Empire, and they left behind one of the steepest and most intact theatres they ever built. Amman’s Roman Theatre was built in the 2nd century and up till now, its 6,000-person capacity is used for musical concerts, poetry events, and other performances because of its steep cavea, which provides perfect acoustics.
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ROME’S BURIED CITY

Modern Rome was formed during almost 3000 years of building and rebuilding. Thousands of years of new infrastructure built beside and on top of the civilizations before it, which is why Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent, and short height. It’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that ancient Rome pioneered the very idea of proper city planning.

Forbes described the situation best when they called the city a complex archaeological layer cake. While most tourists congregate at the Coliseum, the Temple of Jupiter, and other aboveground Roman relics, not many are aware that underneath Rome lies intact remnants of its ancient past. Travellers can visit the Mithraic Cult chambers – underground places of worship for a mysterious religion practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th century.

The fact that many of these places have survived is part of the reason why the Romans continue to have such a strong hold on the modern imagination. The Roman Empire has been celebrated in fiction for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to the Oscar winning Gladiator. Historical Roman figures such as Julius Cesar and Spartacus are household names. Even those who don’t know their history will recognise their stories from films, TV, books, and games made about them. Spartacus in particular has been made famous through fiction and his connection to the famous Roman sport of gladiator fighting. The Stanley Kubrick film, which featured the iconic “I’m Spartacus”, is the most famous example, but the character has also appeared in other media. The Foxy Bingo game Spartacus Gladiator of Rome incorporates the famous story of the gladiator who led a slave uprising into its gameplay. With interest in the Roman Empire still running high across media platforms, more people will travel the world to seek out Roman treasures.

For anyone interested in history and culture, the Roman Empire remains one biggest reasons to travel and see the world.

(Editor’s note: As I organize my notes, quotes and photos from a long trip to the Republic of Georgia, this guest blog is written by Gary B. Keller, a history teacher with over 10 years experience. He has taught and traveled around the world and wants to share with fellow enthusiasts the places of interest he has found. In his free time he will be found with his nose in a book.)

Champions League final? The Vatican had its own championship soccer game

St. Peter's Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday's final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

St. Peter’s Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday’s final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.


Every seminary student in Rome studying to be a priest sets himself on a personal mission. He is dedicating his life to carrying God’s message, to bring joy to people, to build fraternity among his fellow man.

Saturday afternoon the mission for Stephen Cieslak, ordained as a deacon just a week ago, is to stop a penalty kick from Robert Kayiwa, a seminary student from Uganda. There will be more important times in these two men’s lives, but without a Bible in hand and clerical collar around their necks, no moment may be bigger than right then.

The two were engaged in a penalty shootout in the championship game of the Clericus Cup, a Vatican soccer tournament involving 16 teams made up entirely of seminary students and priests. Organized by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, it started 12 years ago when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, wanted soccer to teach the “language of the world,” billing it “Prayer and Player.”

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.


Saturday was the morning of the Champions League final. About 1,500 miles to the north in Kiev, Ukraine, Real Madrid and Liverpool would play before a worldwide TV audience and two fan bases that don’t take a back seat to any in the world. Going from one extreme to another Saturday, I took a bus to Centro Sportivo Italiano’s nice sports complex a long goalie kick up the hill from the Vatican City walls.

Past a basketball gym, swimming pool and soccer fields of various dimensions is a main field with a small grandstand where the third-place game had just finished. I met Mark Paver, an Englishman who just won third place with Gregoriana and is a four-year veteran of the tournament. Tall, lean and fit, he looks younger than his 42 years. I asked him why he plays soccer while studying to enter the priesthood.

“It’s a chance to be a Christian with one another and secondly to be seminarians with one another,” he said. “In my case, at this point, to be a priest and create an environment and set an example for others to see and think, ‘Oh, yeah. Those are normal guys. I can be a priest, too. I can be a Christian, too.’”

Paver started playing soccer at 6 years old in Manchester where he later played in semipro leagues for several years. Most of the players in the tournament played as youths then in other cities as they went through their religious studies. These are serious, pious men, dedicated to a religious calling where righteousness is at the forefront of their lives.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.


But they play soccer. Many soccer players communicate on the field through conversational profanity. I asked Paver the obvious question.

Do you ever hear swearing?

“We picked a different way to live our vocation but we’re still human beings,” he said. “We still have blood running through our veins. And that blood goes to our heads sometimes.”

I asked what’s the worst he’s ever heard. He paused.

“I’m not sure I can repeat it,” he said, finally. “We try to let each other know when we think we’ve been wronged. Let’s say that.”

I walked through the fence onto the field in front of the two finalists who entered side-by-side in single file, just as Real and Liverpool would do later that night. These two teams were from opposite sides of the world: an American side with THE perfect nickname, the North American Martyrs. Their opponent was the defending champion, Pontificio Collegio Urbano, a group from all over Africa. Pope Francis even greeted and congratulated them at the Vatican earlier in the week.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.


Appropriately, the Martyrs were dressed in red, white and blue and Collegio Urbano wore uniforms of bright yellow and white. They looked like sprinting Vatican flags.

Without their religious gear, they looked like any rec league players, except the African team was almost universally short and the Americans were almost all boyish and almost, well, virginal. But they were all fit. I was curious about the level of play.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m still playing it,” Paver said. “That answers your question.”

If the level isn’t high, the passion is. The small grandstand seating 200 was packed, all with mostly students from the 80 seminaries around Rome. On one side hung red, white and blue bunting, the kind you see draped around baseball stadiums during the World Series. Behind it and the Cyclone fence were Americans yelling “USA! USA! USA!” and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” On the other side, Africans with yellow and white stripes painted on their faces banged drums and sang the entire game, ranging from Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” to the rhythmic chant, “VAI! VAI! VAI! COLLEGIO URBANO! (GO! GO! GO! COLLEGIO URBANO!)”

The soccer wasn’t as bad as I thought. They passed well. They dribbled efficiently. They had a plan. Cieslak made a nice stop on a free kick then a cool one-handed grab of a corner kick. His counterpart, Emmanuel Umanah of Nigeria, had a couple of sliding stops on one-on-one confrontations.

Yeah, guys dribbled the ball out of bounds a couple of times. They kicked the ball over the goalpost more than under it. Cieslak’s goalie throws looked like a third baseman pegging one to first base. None of it bothered the fans who kept up the beat of the drums and the Americans’ chant that couldn’t prevent me from smiling: “LET’S GO MARTYRS!”

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.


Regulation ended in a 0-0 tie, leading to the penalty shootout, leading to Cieslak staring down Kayiwa. With the Martyrs converting their first penalty kick, Kayiwa took a long run and kicked a medium-speed line drive to the right — just about where Cieslak was waiting. Kayiwa walked back slowly with his head down. Umanah, showing fraternity, gave Cieslak a fist bump. Matthew Goldammer, a hulking redhead who looks a transfer from the Vatican rugby team, banged one off the left goalpost, making it even.

But Collegio Urbano’s Victor Tibanyendera from Tanzania skied one over the goalpost and William Nyce scored easily to clinch the shootout, 4-2, sending him storming into a sea of hysterically happy seminary teammates.

Cieslak, 26, comes from Portland in my home state of Oregon and went to De La Salle North Catholic High School. A goalkeeper since second grade, he showed up as a freshman and quickly became the starter when the regular keeper got angry and punched the ground.

Was it because he swore, he showed anger, he failed to show moral restraint and the school benched him to teach him a lesson?

“No,” Cieslak said, “He fractured his wrist.”

OK, it wasn’t the first dumb question I’ve asked in my career. Soccer is, in a small way, part of the plan for all these future priests. It’s not only to show their human side but it helps them work on the same skills they’ll need in a future parish.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to grow in fraternity,” said Cieslak who soon goes to a parish in tiny Tillamook, Oregon, for a year. “A lot of the things we try to do in seminary formation is to relate to each other on a fraternal level and on a personal level. When you’re out playing with other guys who are working toward the same goal, working to become priests, it’s amazing.”

Being a sportswriter for 40 years, I know athletes pray before games. I asked Cieslak who would God favor in a game if both sides are seminary students and all are praying.

“He favors us all,” he said. “There’s no favoritism with God.”

Then what’s the point of praying? I asked.

“It’s to thank God,” he said. “Thank God for our athletic gifts, gifts of our bodies and we can glorify him and we can glorify him whether we win or lose.”

The two sides greet each other after the game.

The two sides greet each other after the game.


But what does He think when you swear?

“We’re all capable of sin,” he said with a smile.

Soccer and religion transcends the world. Umanah, 28, the Collegio Urbano goalkeeper, started playing when he was a little boy in Nigeria and his friends kept taking him by the hand from midfield to the goalpost.

“They said, ‘Since you’re not good, stay here,’” he said. “‘If the ball comes, you take it.’”

Like the others, Umanah sees a direct connection between soccer and the priesthood.

“The world today, just like Pope Francis tells us, it’s a world that really needs people to go to the different areas to find people,” said Umanah who’s studying canon law. “I think football, apart for the passion I have for it, is also entering society and meeting people like me who are out in the world and trying to dialogue.

“Just like every other social activity (soccer) puts you in contact with people. For example, I never knew some of these footballers. Today, we and the Americans got to know each other. Now we know each other from different realities, from different countries. We get to share our stories and experiences.”

Later that night, I went to my soccer pub and watched Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius make two of the biggest errors I ever saw a goalkeeper make. In the Champions League final. In front of the world. He was last seen walking across the field crying, trying to hide his face and tears with his jersey. It was a night that may scar him for life. I’m interested to see what will happen to him, if he’ll ever recover.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.


It’s all about perspective. A few thousands miles and even more levels below the action in Kiev, Umanah put the Vatican spin on sport.

“Today was a very nice match,” he said. “We could really see the evangelical spirit. If someone gets down, the other one helps the person. To me, that is the gospel.

“We lost and I’m smiling.”