This will be my last letter from Rome, as I am resigning as director of Istituto Acton, effective tomorrow, October 1. I started writing these monthly pieces in January 2010 to give you some idea of what it’s like to live and work in the Eternal City, with occasional missives from different parts of the world that I visited. I hope you have found them entertaining, maybe even enlightening. After twenty wonderful years here, it is simply time for a change.
Long-time readers may have sensed some of my frustration in dealing with Roman ways, but I leave with nothing but gratitude for all the blessings I’ve received. How else should someone born to Hindu immigrants in Chicago and educated in a small Catholic parochial school in Flint, Michigan feel about spending two decades in this world-historical city of all cities? I am in awe when I think about it from beginning to end. I cannot leave without trying to boil it down to these top 10 favorite memories.
10. Experiencing Roman commerce. In most developed countries, especially the United States, the customer is always right. Getting a refund if you are not satisfied is relatively easy because merchants want you to return. This never happens in Rome. First-time customers are usually treated as nuisances or suckers. On the other hand, repeat customers are treated like family. Once you find a regular trattoria, gelateria, coffee bar, barber shop, etc., you will be forever remembered and welcomed with affection, even if you never tip. Sometimes you may not have to pay at all.
9. Navigating Roman bureaucracies. Ok, this is not exactly a favorite but it must be mentioned as the flip side of Roman commerce. I cannot count the number of hours I have spent waiting in lines at the immigration and post offices, only to be told that my papers were not in order. Instead of instructing me how to get them in order, the people behind the desk said not to worry because I am an American who will inevitably spend more in Italy than I ever receive in public benefits (they obviously didn’t know I would have two orthopedic surgeries here). It makes me wonder what my experience would have been like if I were an immigrant from South Asia.
8. Learning the Italian language. I studied French in high school and college and therefore carried a prejudice against the language of Dante. With only one month of formal training, my Italian grammar is far from perfect. I never attempted to get rid of my American accent by using every muscle of mouth and throat to exaggerate my enunciation. Still, every Italian I met seemed genuinely pleased by the effort and never looked down on non-natives for butchering their beautiful, sonorous language.
7. Travelling around Italy and Europe. Italy is so diverse geographically and culturally, it’s easy to understand why sentiments of national unity are often lacking at the political level. This diversity makes visiting the country extremely rewarding for tourists, however. The rest of Europe is also just a short plane ride away. Because of my John Paul II connection, Krakow is one of my favorites. Be honest: Would you rather spend the weekend in Cleveland or Barcelona?
6. Getting lost on Roman streets. Rome is a beautiful city if you look up past street level, ignoring the trash and graffiti that seem to be everywhere. (The situation has worsened markedly since the arrival of a Five Star Movement mayor.) It is also small enough that getting lost in the historic center is a pleasant adventure; you never know which church, fountain or courtyard you’ll find around the corner. The experience is certainly less harrowing with the invention of GPS and smartphones. Rome is very pedestrian friendly once you learn the motorini rules of the road.
5. Enjoying Roman food and drink. Who doesn’t enjoy pasta, pizza, and gelato? Where else can you get coffee that is not only cheaper but superior in quality (albeit smaller in size) to multinational chains like Starbucks or Costa? Then there are the very affordable, plentiful wines….
4. Hosting visitors. Having lived in Washington, DC, Toronto and New York City prior to Rome, I was used to visitors. Here it became almost impossible to spend so much time sightseeing and especially dining, at least if one wants to be a productive worker. I soon learned that Italians love to show visitors around their hometowns and will easily skip work to do so, which may explain the depressed state of the Italian economy.
3. Meeting the University of Michigan basketball and football teams and Tom Brady. I’ve remained an excessively devoted fan of my alma mater’s sports teams, so meeting two on their tours of Rome in 2014 (basketball) and 2017 (football) has to rank among the highlights of the past twenty years. I also met UM alum and New England Patriots legend Tom Brady during the pontificate of John Paul II. Brady went on to win four more Super Bowls; the basketball and football teams had terrible seasons following their visits. Coincidence or dare I call it the Francis effect?
2. Making Roman and Italian friends. The best piece of advice I received about living in Rome came from Fr. Paul McNellis, SJ, an American professor of political philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He told me to force myself to make Italian friends, despite struggling with the language and new ways of doing things. It would have been much more convenient to stick with other English-speakers but far less enriching. As a rule, Italians are probably the most affectionate friends you can have; close friends are like family members. Romans tend to be different from other Italians, a bit prouder and harder to crack, but they have a lot of history to back up their privilege.
1. Working for Pope St. John Paul II and Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. I started out on a high note, receiving the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion from Pope John Paul II in 1996. Three years later, I was working for Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Despite (or perhaps due to) suffering thirteen years in a Vietcong prison, nine of them in solitary confinement, Cardinal Van Thuan was the humblest, most serene man I have ever met. I met so many current friends among the millions who came to Rome for the Jubilee Year and World Youth Day in 2000; we were drawn by these two holy men who proclaimed Jesus Christ “yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Cardinal Van Thuan passed away in 2002, with his cause for beatification ongoing. The JPII generation would reunite in Rome in April 2005 for his funeral mass, shortly after I left the Vatican to work for Acton, then for his beatification in 2011 and canonization in 2014.
So there they are, twenty years of memories in a thousand words. Besides the more than 100 letters from Rome, there have been many successful conferences, seminars and Campus Martius discussion groups, which I particularly enjoyed leading. I must give thanks to the past and present staff of the Acton Institute, especially those who hired me – Fr. Robert Sirico, Kris Mauren and Sam Gregg, my quasi-brother/world-travelling companion Michael Matheson Miller and my Rome office colleagues Michael Severance and Rita De Vecchi, who will very ably carry forward the Acton mission. Thanks also to the incredibly generous Acton benefactors, many of whom I have never met. I have absolutely loved working to spread the message of religion and economic liberty in Rome and throughout the Catholic world.
During my time abroad, I have felt more like an unofficial ambassador of American ideas rather than an expat looking for a new home, so I am looking forward to returning to the USA. Rome, however, has become home as well, as it is for all Catholics. Working, living and praying so close to three popes has strengthened my appreciation of the unity and universality of the Church, tested as they are in our multicultural times. I hope to continue exploring unity and diversity in the Church and society in my new endeavors. As I write, my next destination is unknown, but the rock-solid foundation is already set.
For those of you who wish to keep in touch, my personal email is kishorerome[AT]gmail.com.
(Photo Credit: “L’Osservatore Romano”)