This is a revision, as read at TenX9 on January 25, 2016 at Douglas Corner for their monthly storytelling show. The theme was “Whoops”.
Snoozing in the Sistine Chapel
By Paulina Combow
Sleep deprivation isn’t something you prepare for when studying abroad. You imagine all the food you’ll eat, places you’ll visit, and souvenirs you’ll bring home, but you can’t possibly conceive that you’ll be sleeping on a lumpy mattress with your feet hanging off, a flat pillow, no air conditioning, and two other girls snoring next to you for five weeks. And those are school nights. During your weekend travel you sleep on trains, buses, hotel rooms meant for half as many bodies, and makeshift hostels inside old circus tents. I’ve dealt with my fair share of sleep disorders, from sleep talking to sleepwalking, insomnia to teeth grinding, and nightmares and night terrors. Domestically, the strangest place I’ve fallen asleep was the Spaghetti Factory, while having dinner with my family. I was carb loading since dad was picking up the tab. But that was small potatoes compared to the epic nap I would take in Europe.
In college I studied abroad the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I spent months looking forward to an art program in Italy, but it filled up and I was placed in a more generic cultural program in Austria. I would be grouped with a collective of students from colleges all over Kentucky I’d never met, but I would also be joined by one of my sorority sisters whom I barely knew, and seemingly had nothing in common with. She was beautiful, smart and confident, and had been PanHellenic president, Greek Woman of the Year and Homecoming Queen, just to name a few. She was the classic over-achiever. I on the other hand was well…not. My highest honor to date was “Most improved GPA”, after I was finally shown where the library was located. The two of us got to know each other and grew to appreciate how well our personalities complemented each other. I provided comic relief and always had candy while she read train schedules and kept me from walking into traffic or being sold into sex slavery. I was the Dharma to her Greg, the Pinky to her Brain, and we traveled together every weekend along with a few other girls we’d gotten to know.
On one of our free weekends we went to Rome, the city I had originally hoped to spend my entire summer, but now had to reduce to three days. We crammed in a whole Lizzie Maguire and Roman Holiday’s worth of sightseeing into that weekend. We saw the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Roman Forum, bought knock-off designer purses, ate pizza, ate spaghetti, ate tiramisu, ate gelato, ate bread, and of course visited the Vatican.
Against our program director’s advice, we took a night train there. In Europe, you can travel anywhere on the EuroRail, which we all had had passes to ride. The night train was a much longer, slower ride, but the idea was that you would sleep and then be at your destination when you woke up. We were too poor to spring for the sleeper cars, so four American girls took over a passenger car meant for eight people. We laid all eight seats down so it made one big cumbersome futon that the four of us flung our bodies across. That worked out smoothly until a man wearing a tan suit and white floral embroidered blouse opened the door and squeezed himself in. I never would have let this fly back home, but we didn’t know the rules, and he inserted himself into our dogpile like it was a normal occurrence for him. I told myself personal space was a subjective concept, and tried to go back to sleep. Moments later, I woke up to find the man cradling me in complete big-spoon position. Cultural tolerance was replaced with rage as I jumped up and screamed. “Get the F— out, you pervert!” The other girls awoke confused. I told them I had been groped by Borat who conveniently didn’t understand English. One of the girls, was a Black Belt in karate, or Zumba, or something so I yelled, “Kick this guy’s ass!” There was a scuffle of arms and legs and shouting, and somehow I scooped up his luggage and threw it into the hallway. Language barriers aside, he got the hint and left. Fun fact, you can’t lock a passenger car, but I did tie my pashmina around the coat racks as a blockade after that.
The next day was our big sightseeing day. We bopped around from tourist attraction to gelato stand to souvenir shop for hours. It was finally time to go to the Vatican. The Church had recently elected Pope Benedict, so all the Pope John Paul merch was on clearance. Everything about the Vatican is lavish and ornate with so many shiny things to look at. We bought tickets to the Vatican Museums which end at the Sistine Chapel. No one ever told me you had to walk through the entire museum to get to the famous ceiling, and I was getting impatient. After a while of looking at thousand year old oil paintings, intricate draperies and priceless sculptures I got bored and went ahead of my friends so I could wait for them in the Sistine Chapel. I rushed through what seemed like hundreds of rooms and millions of stairs before finally reaching the Chapel, and it did not disappoint. All the stories of the bible were illustrated in brightly colored frescos, including the most famous piece- the Creation of Adam- where God touches fingers with Adam E.T.-style in the clouds naked. I stood there looking up for a while until a seat opened up on the benches that lined the perimeter of the room. I sat down and rested my head on the wall so I could comfortably gaze up. I was still and relaxed, and the sounds of hundreds of people whispering and tiptoeing around me created a white noise that put me to sleep.
A moment later, I opened my eyes and realized I had drifted off. It was just a second, but I felt rejuvenated and refreshed. I looked around but still didn’t see any of my friends. None of us had cell phones since it was 2005 in a foreign country, and we were poor college kids, not Japanese businessmen. I had no idea what time it was; only that it was still daylight outside. I started to leave when I saw a guy from my group who seemed excited to see me, and led me outside. I was welcomed by everyone in my entire group, not just my three friends, lying on cobblestone sidewalks in the blistering sun like they were harpooned on a desert island. When they caught sight of me, my sorority sister jumped up, “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you since we went into the museums!” I explained how I dozed off for just a second and they must have snuck by me while I was sitting on the bench. “We’ve all been waiting out here for you for over an hour!” I apologized, but probably not enough for what I put them through, and I was assigned a buddy in public from then on. I knew it was irresponsible of me, but there were higher forces at play here, and who am I to argue with divine intervention.