A White Cloud

The only time I ever saw him was at the Festival of the Immaculate Conception in Rome.

It was raining. Veiled with a flickering tenderness of sunlight through shadow, clouds covered the sky and the grayness was only broken up by the occasional bird or swoop of a helicopter circle the crowds who had gathered in Piazza di Spagna to see him. The Spanish Steps were cloaked in a sea of umbrellas. Red. Blue. Green. Even the brightness of those colored shields barely brightened up the grayness of the day. But people didn't care that it was raining. Wandering tourists and devout Catholics alike pressed in together, pushing towards the statue of Mary and yet unable to break the wall of police men who stood guard, holding the crowds back and blowing their dull grey whistles.
I was pressed against the wall. Erik and I both were. We were pressed against a plexi-glass store front that shook every time a helicopter passed overhead. They passed often. The air was vibrating as much as the building. We’d already been waiting for two hours and there was another two left to wait before he came. 

It continued to rain, but no one seemed to care. We were wet, but nobody noticed. A choir stood on the steps of the Spanish Embassy beside the statue of Mary and began to sing Ave Maria. The street lights turned on before it was dark. That’s what happens when it rains in Rome.

Mass began. I hadn't known there would be a mass. I knew that he would pray when he came, but I hadn't known that mass would be held. I have attended mass many times over the past three months. Never before had I done so crushed between the coats of strangers while standing in a crowd, unable to see over the head of those in front of me. Famous men walked down the street and the crowd cheered. One was the mayor of Rome. I never discovered who the others were, but they all wore immaculate blue uniforms covered in red tassels and gold medals. They laid flowers at the base of the statue. Everyone laid flowers at the feet of Mary. The air smelled faintly of roses, and the air was full of rain and religion.

I didn't think I would see him when he came. I thought the crowd was too thick and I’d never catch a glimpse. But there he was. In his special glass macchina, his pope-mobile. The Catholics crossed themselves and the tourists snapped pictures. He is old, the Pope. Very old. A red cap was placed carefully on his white head and there were two security guards and a camera man inside the glass car with him.

“Can you see him?” Erik asks me, as the crowd pressed us harder and harder against the store front window.
“Yeah, I can see him.” I reply, smiling. “I can see il Papa.”

When he arrives at the statue, the choir stops singing, the mass continues, he begins to pray, and we leave. Its finals week for those of us Studying in Rome, and four hours taken out of our day to wait for the pope was all the diversion we could allow ourselves for one afternoon. But still the piazza is like a ring tightening around us. We have to walk pressed closely against each other, in order to escape the clawing crowd of Catholics and the sea of umbrellas flooding the Spanish Steps.


  1. Happy 20th Birthday! (It's now December 10 here in the U.S.)

    Or should I say "Buon compleanno"?

    Am enjoying your Italian travelogue posts. You're a wonderful writer.

    Heidi Addison


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