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Wanderthirst: taking my first-generation dad to Rome was my way of thanking him for his sacrifices

For this month's Wanderthirst, Jessica takes her history buff father to the Eternal City while working through her feelings after her mother’s death and her immigrant guilt.

30 Jun

photography courtesy of writer

“I found roundtrip tickets to Rome for $340. Let’s go! I’ll buy them.” 

“Rome, Jessica?” My dad said the first time I mentioned the trip, as if I were talking about a trip to the moon. My dad always told me if he had the choice, he would have been a history teacher or an architect. My newfound obsession with travel and his fascination with old Roman history meant one thing: we had to go to Rome. I knew my dad had idealised “The Eternal City” in Italy for years, as he’d always been interested in ancient Roman history, but Europe was out of our reach due to costs and obligations. My dad had only really travelled twice, and once was when he immigrated from El Salvador as a kid to Los Angeles. 

I kept an eye on flight prices, where it remained under $350, and reminded him every few days. “Rome, really?” he said with a little hint of a smile after the third or fourth time I asked. I could tell that, for him, Rome wasn’t suddenly so out of reach. With that, I purchased the tickets immediately. We were headed to Rome.

We set off for Rome in April 2019, and the first day of our 14 day trip took us to some of the biggest tourist attractions. My dad was in Rome to trace history, and I was there to listen and learn as he recounted what he’d seen on TV to what he was actually seeing in real life. 

“Buying him tickets to Rome was my way of expressing gratitude, my way of giving him something I think everyone should get to experience”

The Trevi Fountain – the famous 18th century fountain tourists threw coins into for luck – was just as magnificent as I’d seen in the photos, though crowded. In April it was still hot, and I could feel the beads of sweat dripping from underneath my sun hat. My dad and I found a small spot right by the fountain where we took some photos and basked in the spring heat. That this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip was slowly starting to sink in and I knew we wouldn’t be here if not for my mum’s passing back in 2015. 

Our life up to that point had been a mix of struggles and obligations to watch over my mum, who was struggling with mental health. Her passing, due to an accidental prescription drug overdose, changed everything, but the ghosts of the past still lingered in the house, and it drove me to obsess over travel. I think that was why I went digging for travel deals so often and eventually stumbled upon this trip to Rome, even if, as a kid, travel was out of my family’s reach.

This trip to Rome was the first time my dad and I travelled together, especially internationally. We explored everything. We headed to the Pantheon, built in 125 AD, which my dad told me was one of the best-preserved buildings in the city. Stepping inside the interior was dizzying; the dome that hovered above us had a circle cut out, an ancient skylight, that draped the interior with natural lighting. Sitting on one of the pews while tourists passed around me and my dad, I soaked it all in and felt incredibly lucky to be there. After such a rough few years of grieving, I felt like these moments were a special opportunity to bond, to appreciate and to hold in my memory for years later when I’d be in Europe again, but this time, permanently. 

I moved out in the autumn of 2019 to Madrid, Spain four months after our Rome trip, and I have struggled with guilt ever since. My life here is easy, but as a child of immigrants, isn’t that the goal of our parents? 

Children of immigrants often carry the weight of their parent’s sacrifices on their shoulders. Be the best, go to the best school, don’t slack off and don’t let their hard work be in vain. For me, after successfully moving abroad and finding a good job, I experienced what’s known as thriver’s guilt, where those who have it easy are weighed down with the guilt of comfort. I didn’t feel I deserved it, not when my mum and dad had such a hard life, not when my dad lived alone while I was off frolicking in Spain. 

“Children of immigrants often carry the weight of their parent’s sacrifices on their shoulders”

But why didn’t I, and he for that matter, deserve to see the world? We do, and that was why buying him tickets to Rome was my way of expressing gratitude, my way of giving him something I think everyone should get to experience. 

Even though I still feel a lot of guilt, there is hope knowing I have old memories and new memories to look upon. My dad and I will be heading to Greece in a few months together to explore another ancient city he’s always dreamed of: Athens. 

The rest of our Rome trip took us gallivanting across the Eternal City – to the Vatican and across the Sistine Chapel hallway, to the ancient city of ash, Pompeii, and the old yellow walled cobblestoned Monti neighborhood where we ate every flavour of gelato we could and copious amounts of pasta. 

On the day we finally got to see the Colosseum, the place my dad was most excited to visit, he said something that I’d always remember. “Wow, I can’t believe I get to see this in real life. I could be here all day, Jessi,” my dad said as he stared up at the crumbling Colosseum of Ancient Rome, where gladiators fought and sports events were held for a crowd of cheering citizens. He was smiling, probably getting a bit emotional, though he was trying to hide it behind his glasses. “It’s all thanks to you.”

I smiled, but really, it wasn’t thanks to me, but to him, for the sacrifices he made, raising me when he was young, working whatever job he could find to pay the bills, taking care of my mum during her most difficult times. If it weren’t for all of that, there was no way I would have had the courage or means to go after my dream of travelling. The least I could do was take him along for the ride when I could. While he credits me as opening up the possibilities of Europe to him, I really credit him. 

Highlights: 

  • The Monti neighbourhood, which is where we stayed. It’s a quick walk to the Colosseum and Roman Forum and is one of the hippest neighbourhoods to visit. 
  • Pompeii, while outside of Rome, is an easy landmark to visit while in the Eternal City, and there are a ton of tours available to take you there. Definitely, a must-visit for history buffs.  
  • Scuderie del Quirinale is an old palace turned art gallery in 1999, where the work of popular artists is often exhibited, like Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo.
  • The Sistine Chapel is one of the most stunning pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Michelangelo’s frescoes are a sight to behold. 

Useful info:

  • The carbonara – egg yolk and bacon pasta – is Rome’s most popular pasta but I recommend trying cacio e pepe cheese and pepper pasta. It’s delicious in its simplicity. 
  • If you’re visiting the Vatican and are also planning to see St. Peter’s Basilica, avoid Wednesdays, as the Basilica is closed. 
  • If you happen to be lucky enough to be in Rome during Easter, as we were, head to the Colosseum on the evening of Good Friday to see the pope giving mass to a huge audience. 
  • Avoid restaurants directly near tourist spots and look for places with chalkboard menus with daily items for authentic eats. If they’re closed in the afternoon, definitely come back in the evening for dinner as the chefs are often using this mid-afternoon break to freshly prepare everything for the dinner crowd. 

This is part of gal-dem’s Wanderthirst series

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