I swear, the air smelled like roses. In December! The puddles and the rain didn't matter. The huge bus carrying us from the train station squeezed ponderously through the narrow streets with the cars parked by twos or threes on each side. Instead of watching the street, the driver turned to us, shouting something in Italian, singing and gesturing effusively. One thing about Italy was consistent: my mouth hung open all through my stay there.
The time in Italy was one of the most significant periods in my life. What astonished me most was that, God's Grace was just there, waiting for me, as soon as I looked for it, even without me knowing, what I was looking for. Italy's beauty was also there, independent of anyone's thinking or anticipation. It burst forward, radiant, triumphant.
A woman on the sidewalk crossed herself passing the church. That shocked me. Here faith in God wasn't hidden or sneered at. It was a normal, even important part of life here, to believe. For me it was still very new. An acquaintance introduced me to an Italian young man. During our date I told him about my recent spiritual experiences. In the beginning of our meeting he flirted and was behaving seductively. At the end, he only thoughtfully kissed my hands.
From the time when I first felt God's Grace and love for me, praying was the only thing that alleviated the cultural shock and loneliness. We went to Vatican for a Christmas mass (Christmas or Vatican meant nothing to us then, beyond an interesting cultural phenomena). As the service progressed though, I felt more and more caught up in prayer. My heart (and my eyes) were overflowing. The feeling came over me of the most tender love and forgiveness.
Everything I learned to cherish since my childhood I saw in a little traveling, that we could afford in Italy.
Michelangelo's Slaves in the museum in Florence knocked me out of my misery and stirred my mind to higher aspirations. The St. Marco's Piazza in Venice was a beautiful antidote to the marble-clad heavy architecture of the Soviet era. It looked like a concoction made from egg-whites and sugar, instead of the stone. The Russian immigrants walked around, sighing: "Wow, just like in Venice!" We couldn't believe that we were really there.