Medium Rare trip to Italy: Roman Colosseum, The Vatican, and Pope on the Slopes

I like the security of having money in savings. I like talking myself into what the 401k will look like in 30-40 years. I like the cheap thrill of an Uber pool. And since my Squirrel side is always burying acorns, by the time we get to the 14th or the 29th of the month, our checking account almost always has the low fuel light on. I'm out there pushing the car to safety at the Paycheck Friday fill-up station.

But sometimes there's this question that sneaks in: Well, what am I saving for? How much of the present am I willing to sacrifice for this future promised land? What will I regret not doing?

No moment was this Squirrel philosophy challenged more than it was four years ago. A phone call came in from my friend Andrew Grillo. Turns out Chris Jones (friend since childhood, playing Defensive Tackle on the New England Patriots) had some extra discounted tickets to the Super Bowl. Patriots vs. Seahawks. The Grillos were excited. I was excited. Ashley was jumping up and down.

But front and center in the brain, somewhere in the accounting department, was the cautious financial squirrel. You know how when there's a big dunk in a basketball game, they'll show the bench and everyone's going crazy except for that one team manager in a suit and tie who's got his arms out, making sure no one rushes onto the court? That's what the squirrel was doing during that phone call.

Because Squirrel still has to crunch the numbers. Two tickets at $800 a piece. Then you gotta factor in flights to Arizona. Plus Food. Drinks. Hotel. Chris, you're looking at $3,000 here! We don't have it. Or, if we did, Squirrel felt far more comfortable with it buried underground. Safe in the savings account.

Thankfully, we ignored the squirrel, hopped on the flight, and sure, there were months of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after the trip, and a lot of time spent inside the apartment to rebuild the bank account, but man, when there's 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Patriots up 28-24, Seahawks second and goal on the one yard line, and there we were, seats in the lower bowl behind the end zone, and there he is! Number 94, Chris Jones running onto the field. The same Chris Jones from Adams Elementary School, same guy from Midland High School. Now he's here, in the Super Bowl, for the final goal line stand. Unbelievable.

But it felt like we were about to lose. The Seahawks already had their New York Giants type of improbable catch. How hard would it be to gain one more yard? Just hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, right? The two sides line up. Russell Wilson drops back, throws to his right. Intercepted! Patriots win! Jones throws his arms up in the air. Jumps on the Malcolm Butler dog pile.

Ever since that game, I've been more willing to challenge the internal Squirrel. I'll give potential memories a little more weight in an argument than current comfort.

Jump forward a few years from the Super Bowl, going from a stadium in Arizona (built in 2006) to a stadium in Rome (built almost 2,000 years earlier), and it really didn't take much convincing to say yes when a sales rep pitched us on a nighttime tour of the Colosseum. When are we going to have another chance to do this?

We went into the Colosseum twice.

I'll never forget walking through one of the archways in the afternoon, going down a little hallway, and then stepping into the main arena. I wish I was a better scenery writer. Wish I could talk about what the smells were like, better describe what I was looking at. The best I can do, really, is just to say, "It was awesome." Like Bill Murray the night of the World Series championship: "It's how I always pictured it." I looked around and just kept thinking, "How did they build this?" Even with modern cranes and Caterpillars, I don't know if we could ever build something as magnificent as the Roman Colosseum.

Seeing it at night was even cooler. We were able to walk around the lower level where they used to store the animals for the gladiator fights. We saw the little elevator where they put an animal or two in and raised it up for battle. I felt like an elementary school kid on a school field trip. My imagination wandering, picturing all of these epic battles. They told us about one lion who killed 200 gladiators before finally being taken down. They used to bring elephants into the arena. Patriots vs. Seahawks was Humans vs. The Zoo. These were some crazy games of football. I was thinking, "They should totally make a movie about this," before realizing, "Oh, that's right, Russell Crowe."

The day after seeing the Roman Colosseum, we went over to the Vatican. That could be an entire separate post but I'll boil it down to three moments.

First was seeing the Sistine Chapel. When you walk in, you turn and look at The Last Judgment scene first, then crane your neck to look up at the ceiling. The most famous one up there is The Creation of Adam. Look over to the sides to see the various Old Testament and New Testament scenes. Any one of these individual paintings would be a crowning lifetime achievement for an artist. The fact that Michelangelo did all of these, plus oh by the way, there's the Statue of David and at least 40 other sculptures, it's all incredibly inspiring in terms of output. I mean I feel overwhelmed when I put up two blog posts in a week. The thought of painstakingly working on these paintings every day for four years is remarkable. And what's funny is he didn't even think painting was his thing. During the process of painting the Sistine Chapel he wrote, “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

All of that effort and I'm guessing half of the people who go in (myself included) initially thought, "Wow, Da Vinci totally crushed it here."

Second most memorable, the climb up the narrow stairway of St. Peter's Basilica. Over 500 steps and sure, the view of Rome at the top is worth it, but it's an intense climb through sweat, tears, not a whole lot of ventilation, and a whole lot of B.O. About halfway up, we passed a couple who had stepped to the side. One was mid-panic attack, the other was trying to calm them down. You definitely earn that view from the top.

And third, this feels weird to list right next to the two major landmarks of the Vatican, but what stood out the most to me was a random tour guide. He had pulled two people aside to talk about one sculpture. It was the most passionate I've ever seen anyone ever tell a story. He never broke eye contact and was so into every word he was saying. I naturally gravitated over to listen. The couple was smiling, totally engaged. I thought to myself, that tour guide is the happiest guy in the world. He's figured it out! Just tell stories for the sake of telling stories.

This really hit home with me because I've spent so much of the last four years, probably more like ten years, spending time thinking about all the extra crap. What are the pageviews? How many visitors? How many books sold? How do I get more people to the site? More people buying the book? Is it worth all the time spent? Is it worth being late again for work because I can't put the laptop down?

When I was listening to this storytelling Vatican guide, it finally clicked for me, "That stuff just doesn't matter."

I hope I never lose this mindset, but everything I've written since Italy, I truly write just for the sake of telling a story. Even if there's ten people reading it, or even if I'm like that tour guide, maybe it's only two people, it doesn't matter to me. I want to tell stories that I hope you enjoy. It took me a good ten years and an eavesdropped conversation at the Vatican to figure this out, but it has changed everything (at least for now).

Later in the tour, our guide was telling us some tales about Pope John Paul II. She talked about how he was an avid skier and how, even when he became Pope, he was determined to still get out to the ski slopes. Why? Simple. He loved to ski. This caused panic in the Vatican. How do you take the Pope skiing? What a nightmare to try and put that excursion together. The Pope isn't supposed to ski. He's just supposed to, you know... Pope around, right? 

Like the tour at the Colosseum, my imagination started wandering again. I was at the earliest stages thinking of a comedic book or movie about the Pope wanting to and eventually going skiing. Not sure if the title will change, but right now I've got: Pope on the Slopes.

And I'm sure there will be moments ahead where I'll think, "Who am I to write this? I'm not even Catholic." Or this is a distraction. I should be working on something else instead. What's the point of spending a year or two working on this. What's the, what's the, what's the.

In the end, I think it becomes similar to that Super Bowl phone call or a nighttime tour at the Colosseum; I'm sure there are plenty of rational, logical reasons not to work on a project, but where's the fun in that? What's the better story to tell? What's the better memory?

Sometimes you gotta just hit the slopes.

On Monday we'll head over to Venice. With Florence, Cinque Terre, and Siena on deck. I'm calling this overall series: "A Medium Rare Trip to Italy." October was Medium Rare philosophy posts. November will be more of an account of each city, places to go, stories, maybe throw in some photos. More to come!

If you missed any of the Medium Rare Trip to Italy previous posts, here they are:

Here or There

Hitting your Happiness Deductible

Relaxed People Stress me Out

But Maybe "living in the moment" is Overrated (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)

From London to Rome, with a side of Jetlag

If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, just enter your email address in the box below or email me directly at Thank you for reading and see you next week! 

Leave a comment