I spent my first afternoon in Rome laying in my narrow hostel bed, talking to the Australian boy I’d just met, who was laying in his matching bed across the room as torrential rain poured on the charming front garden for hours. We had one of those intense conversations you sometimes have when forced into proximity with an affable stranger – I told him about a breakup, he told me about why he decided to leave Australia for a year. (Because that’s what 20something Australians do, mostly, but there were other reasons.)
After dark the rain cleared, and I headed out to meet my friends Kate and Dawson. We were all bouncing around Europe on spring break from our study abroad program in Paris, and they’d just come from three days in Vienna. I’d spent those three days walking around Florence alone, which partly explained my readiness to pour my heart out to an Australian stranger. My friends were confused as to why I wanted to be alone on vacation, but I’d found it soothing: the red bricks of the city coated in rain, the smell of the leather market, the goblet of Chianti I drank in a little restaurant I ducked into one night. I got yelled at taking a picture of the David, I told them. They laughed.
The three of us split a bottle of Limoncello in their hotel and headed to a touristy piazza, where we purchased and consumed a pitcher of gin and tonics, or maybe two. I’d thought I’d split a cab with them and head back to my own hostel, but it had started to rain again, and my hostel was on the other side of the city, and it was very late, and the warmth in the back of the cab was making me sleepy. I’m staying with you guys tonight, I announced. Somewhere on Facebook is a picture of me grinning wildly, holding three pizzas we somehow obtained and brought back to the hotel after this, which I don’t remember. I also don’t remember crawling into bed with Dawson, but this wasn’t unusual – both bad sleepers, in Paris we passed out platonically spooning after too much wine on most weekend nights.
So I was only half-alarmed when I was forcefully awoken at eight am by Kate loudly announcing that we were going to the Vatican. I did a quick assessment: in wrong hotel, not ideal. In Dawson’s bed, okay. Up at eight, not great, but no headache, no nausea. I actually felt pretty fantastic. Must have been the pizza. I asked to borrow a clean shirt, mashed some concealer on, and we all bundled into a cab. We set off through Rome towards St. Peter’s, a 15-minute ride that seemed to stretch on and on. Why is this taking so long? I moaned. What is this traffic? The cab was stuffy. I had a sudden desire to rip off my borrowed shirt.
The traffic was because we had fortuitously arrived in Rome on the first day of the papal convocation, a fact I was aware of but not particularly interested in. I had divested myself from religion officially at age 14, when – after taking confirmation classes at my parents’ behest – I wrote a letter to our Protestant minister explaining that for me to be confirmed as a nonbeliever would be hypocritical and generally a waste of everyone’s time. We’re going to see the cardinals process into St Peter’s, Kate told me. My family will kill me if I don’t go. Very good, very good, witnessing a historic event! We’d see some red hats, check out St. Peter’s, I’d send a few pictures to my Catholic-school-educated father with a wildly inappropriate joke, and then we’d eat some excellent pasta for lunch. It was still earlier than I liked, but if I’d been in my own hostel I’d still be fast asleep. It was better to get an early start.
The plaza of St. Peter’s was packed – the side of the plaza facing the basilica itself was blocked off and occupied by media from every corner of the world: a vast array of screens, scaffolding and cameras pointed straight at us. I had a sudden longing to be there, covering the news, rather than appearing in it. The rest of the plaza was madness, with tourists, locals, and countless groups of nuns and monks who looked absolutely delighted to be standing in the rain at nine in the morning. We pushed our way into a crowd, and then we were filing along the front side of the basilica and then we were in the basilica, and we crossed the back of the church and pushed forward along the edge of the crowd until we settled on the left side, about halfway up. Despite my heathen status, I’ve always loved cathedrals. I looked up at the ceiling, ornate with gold, and felt suddenly unsteady.
As I was happily examining the ceiling and trying to stay upright I heard chanting, and a frantic rustling as everyone leapt to their feet. In the center aisle of the cathedral I could just see the tips of two hundred red hats bob solemnly above the top of the crowd. People were hoisting phones and iPads in the air. Kate was losing her mind like a 1960s teenager at a Beatles concert. You’re in the same room as the future Pope, I thought, trying to impress the weight of the moment upon my mind. And now that we’ve seen them, we can go.
The last of the cardinals filed in. The huge doors closed behind them. The crowd settled; those in the seated areas sat. The cardinals made a semicircle; a priest began speaking in Latin. Oh fuck, I thought. We’re staying for Mass. How had I not realized this before? Were I less tired or Kate less determined, perhaps I would’ve escaped, but it was too late now. I’d been hovering at the back of the crowd for air, but I slid up to find Dawson and share my discovery of Kate’s intentions. Raised by hippies in Northern California, he was observing the proceedings with detached interest. I think we’re staying for Mass, I whispered. He shrugged. I gestured for him to lean down so none of the faithful around me could hear me whisper. I’m drunk. In the Vatican. I’m still drunk. He made a face indicating that he would have laughed if we weren’t in the middle of Mass, and also that I was totally fucked.
I slunk to the back of the crowd and tried to occupy myself. At one point I skittered up to one of the docents who stood against the walls to obtain a pamphlet listing the program, which was impossibly long. I also sauntered toward the doors, looking for an escape route, but there was none. I mostly just ended up staring at various places in the cathedral, trying to appreciate its beauty and vastness, but something about the alcohol made it impossible for me to process anything but tiny pieces of information. I couldn’t take in the whole scene, it was too overwhelming, but I could intently examine one filigreed corner of the ceiling with the utmost admiration.
There were a few moments when the sublime beauty of what I was experiencing broke through my drunken haze. There were readings in half a dozen languages, and while I was zoning out at the marble floor tiles I suddenly heard the first English in what seemed like hours. It was from Isaiah, and someone – Jesus, I assume – said he had been sent “to bind up hearts that are broken,” which struck me as a sentiment so beautiful I nearly began to weep. Then I wrote it down in my phone so I wouldn’t forget it. I was also fascinated by the groups of nuns and monks, of what seemed like every ethnicity, each group with its own twist on the traditional habit. I looked at them singing psalms and tried to imagine what it must be like to believe in something so much. I didn’t think I ever had, or could. My inner life suddenly seemed impossibly shallow and selfish and cruel, all about boys and writing and booze.
I transitioned from drunk to hungover in about the time it took me to have that reverie and start feeling bad about myself. I was dumb and self-absorbed and unworthy of this holy spectacle, and also I really, desperately needed to throw up. I looked around in a panic. The floors were glossy marble. There were docents in dark suits everywhere. There were nuns everywhere. I don’t know what I was expecting – to find a trash can just sitting out in the middle of the floor? I bulled my way through the crowd again to Dawson, who was obliviously sketching in a tiny notepad. I nudged him with my elbow. Daws, I hissed. Uh, what happens if I throw up in here? He turned around suddenly and hissed back Don’t. Go outside. Go.
Vomit was rising in my throat as I walked slowly toward the back of the basilica, trying to look casual. There must be an exit, I thought. For emergencies. I commanded myself to breathe. I’ll beg. I’ll throw up on a Swiss Guard. The thought of throwing up induced another wave of nausea and I stopped walking to will it away. I shut my eyes and forced myself to breathe. I had maybe 80 feet until I reached the back wall, where there was surely an exit, in case an elderly pilgrim had a heart attack or an idiotic hungover American had to puke.
My back was to the congregation when there was another sudden rustling, and then singing. It was over. My friends appeared at my side, whisking me out of the church, where I started laughing hysterically. A passel of excited nuns was being interviewed by a reporter next to me. You have no idea how close I was to throwing up, I said. Kate was still giddy. Dawson was alternating between looking for a way out of the crowd and peering at me worriedly. A headache was emerging under my temples, but the air was damp and cold and perfect, and with every breath I could feel the nausea receding. I’m happy to announce that I didn’t throw up at all that day, and that The Time I Was Accidentally Drunk At The Vatican is my lapsed-Catholic father’s favorite story I’ve ever told him.
Jessie Lochrie is a Boston-born, Brooklyn-based writer who tweets @jessieflux and has plenty of travel stories that don't involve near-puking or desecrating holy places. Really.