An Abroad Retrospective: Time is Out of Joint

A junior returning from a semester in Rome reflects on life back in Gambier.


Retrospective, p.1: Time is Out of Joint

Let me put you in my shoes: you are walking down Middle Path. This morning you talked with Francesca, who is from an hour north of Naples and who you spent days upon days with in Rome, where you both were studying. Everything you see looks a little like Italy. Tiny droplets of the coffee bar from Garbatella live in the steam rising from the Wiggin Street coffee maker. The feral cats that still sometimes roam around campus make you think about the two cats in Nocelle who rubbed against each other affectionately and purred loud enough you could hear them from three feet away. And who loved you, too, with reckless abandon, and leapt into your lap simultaneously and fought for dominance over your hands in the empty piazza (it's a very good thing you had two hands).

And then, when you walk past Caples, you realize it looks like one of the cement public housing projects on the outskirts of Rome (not a compliment — not really an insult either, I guess. Just weird). You're trying not to think too hard about it. There's no use in melodrama. You're here, it's Kenyon, it's nice, and the world isn't ending. You just miss Italy, that's all.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria, a church dating to the 340s AD, outside of which is some outdoor seating for my favorite pasta place across the street.

I complained about it today at dinner, and one of my friends at the table told me, "Well, Daniel, you kind of signed up for it." She's totally right. I did. I don't regret it. The cliche “'Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all” is a cliche for a reason (thanks, Tennyson.) I knew going in that building roots would make it harder when the airplane took off — in that storm of a moment, that life would be uprooted down to the very tiniest branches. I wrote about it a little bit, in the moment when I first left Rome:

I’m on the plane now going to Munich, where I will have a brief connection before I embark on a daunting 9-hour flight back to Chicago. It’s bizarre and upsetting to me that you can build a life somewhere, and then once you get on an airplane, it can all just disappear for the rest of the foreseeable future. Just sink away into memory. It’s all so real, and then you say your goodbyes to the restaurants that know your name, your relationship with Fra, your favorite landmarks, and, you can’t help but fear, your favorite memories, too. And then before you know it, you’re in the sky overlooking a snowy German winter scene and you’re left to ponder how it all happened so fast.

The me that wrote that still wasn't ready for the complex reality of adjusting to life back home. It's a liminal space, in between two lives. I'm stuck between then and now. I visited a museum in Rome where the huge marble steps in front of the main entrance were blanketed in bold, capital letters, with a quote from Hamlet: "TIME IS OUT OF JOINT." We were welcomed to the city with a warning. In a city 3,000 years old, where columns built a millennia ago sit next to virgin apartment buildings whose windows haven't even been smudged yet, both available to the public with nothing dividing them from a salad of history, time dissolves. The city takes chronological history and makes an elaborate disappearing act out of it. Walking through the streets for the first time, I reeled.

"Looking back, there's still this crackle from the fire that Rome was in my life. It's not going anywhere, and I embrace it. If the passage of time is a bit of a joke anyway, then sure, I'm in Gambier. But Rome exists alongside me, next to every other place I've ever cared about, all in a constant state of inexplicable happening."

Daniel Weiss '24

The warning was against more than the disorientation, though. Ever since I got home, it has felt like it was a warning also against some kind of time-dissolving pathogen: when I look back on all my memories from Rome, each exists at the same time as every other one, all of them in a constant state of happening all at once in a great explosion that could rival the Hindenburg. Sometimes my head hurts when I browse through my camera roll. There's a life in there. Maybe memories and their chronology have never made sense. But even so, I don't know how else to describe it except that these memories make especially no sense.

In the name of throwing a few more logs into this great bonfire of history, this series looks back on my timeless (in more ways than one) experience in Rome. Looking back, there's still this crackle from the fire that Rome was in my life. It's not going anywhere, and I embrace it. If the passage of time is a bit of a joke anyway, then sure, I'm in Gambier. But Rome exists alongside me, next to every other place I've ever cared about, all in a constant state of inexplicable happening. Besides, Rome has been there for 3,000 years. It's not going anywhere. It'll be there when I come back.

It's true that I'm stuck in a liminal space right now, adjusting to life here, remembering life there. But I realized something in Italy that I'm sure has no practical value, but which changed the way I saw things, and has made the adjustment easier: at no point did anybody look at a building of antiquity falling into disrepair in Rome and then, one thousand years ago, place down a flag and declare, Yup! These bad boys are ruins now. No doubt about it. They weren't before, but now, they are! That is to say, the transition to ruination never officially began or ended. It was occupied, then it was occupied less often, then it was remade into a home, then abandoned again, then left alone for a while, then used again here and there for this and that, and then left alone for a while, and now we guess it's "ruins." The transition to ruination never began or ended because there was never any separate, distinct "transition" to label except the normal passage of time.

In that same way, my adjustment to Gambier is not a self-containing entity of hardship: it's another adjustment out of millions I make all the time in one expanse of a timeline that sometimes feels like it's melting away. Separating one transition from another is arbitrary, because they never begin or end. Time just passes. Labeling periods of time has helped me feel more in control of the past, but I've given up (in a good way). There's no containing Rome. I've seen it, and it swallowed time like a lemon drop. I'm living in the liminal, between Rome and Gambier, but I'm always living in the liminal, because the liminal is all there is, so does this really need to be all that hard? I'll be back in Rome at some point anyway.

(I have become my worst fear: the student with big eyes who gushes about how study abroad changed my life! I never believed them. Well, tit for tat, I guess.)

Most of the posts that follow were written while I was in Rome as a journal project, set up as a series of entries following my life through the program. A few of them are written from Kenyon looking back. I hope this project helps prospective students or students considering study abroad. I miss Rome. I do. And despite it all, I would recommend it, even when I'm sitting in bed wishing I were back playing chess with Fra drinking wine, or doing my sociology homework in my favorite cafe. There's a grief in losing a life. And there's a thrill in building a new one. I went to Wiggins twice today, for the first time in forever. That's how it goes. That's the biggest coming-of-age story I had. There's a grief in losing a life. There's a thrill in building a new one.

To be clear, though, it's wonderful to be back. Now that I've rebuilt a life at Kenyon, there's also a huge pride in being able to say that, in one year, I have lived two lives.

Until the next entry.