Get Me to a Nunnery in Rome
By Story and photos by Susan Van Allen



With images of flowing habits and flying nuns in her childhood memories, a visitor to Rome decides to cross the Italian curse barrier and stay in a convent.


Nun walking through Rome

I'm in Rome, strolling down Via Corso with my friend Mario. Up ahead, gliding towards us, is one of my favorite Eternal City sights: a pair of nuns, all decked out in crisp black habits. I raise my hand to give them a Salve, Mario swats it down.

"Stop, stop!" he growls, dragging me across the street to the tune of beeps and curses from drivers.

Once we catch our breath, he schools me in yet another Italian superstition. Nuns, or suore, as the Italians say, are bad luck, according to Mario. Passing one is like having a black cat cross your path. To ward off the evil, Italians "tocca ferro"—touch iron. And since iron is not readily available, Italian men, as Mario discreetly demonstrates, touch their balls. Then to totally insure the spell hasn't landed on them, they say to the next stranger walking by, "Suora Tua"="Your nun"—or the shortened version: "Tua"—to pass the curse along.

In 1999, a trio of young Italian nuns, sick of being shunned by their fellow citizens, rose in protest. They recorded an album, Suora Tua-Tocca Ferro to dispel the superstition. The song got some play, but did nothing to stop the centuries old Italian nun-avoiding tradition.

Growing Up With Nuns

Nuns in Rome When it comes to nuns, I am not at all Italian. They probably hold a fascination for me that I share with many of us Catholic women who grew up in the sixties. Back then there was loads of inspiration: Julie Andrews romping through the Alps in The Sound of Music, Sally Field getting airborne every Thursday night in The Flying Nun.

Closer in was my beloved Catechism teacher, Sister Ann: a full-moon-faced beauty in a long black habit, and clickety-clackety rosary bead belt, swishing through the classroom aisles in a perfume cloud of faint frankincense. She was a woman of mysterious powers. She could terrify us eight-year old First Communion students, sweetly telling the story of the little boy, who skipped mass, went fishing, drowned, and was dragged down to burn in hell. Or she'd send a thrilling rush through me as she pressed a gold star into my prayer book, nodding her head with a beatific smile, after I'd perfectly recited the Act of Contrition.

Avoiding "the near occasion of sin", as I pledged in that Act of Contrition, was the focus of Sister Ann's teachings. She told us our souls had been purified by baptism, but in our eight years of life, God had been watching our every move and tallying black marks on our pure white centers. I knew I had many sinful thoughts and deeds. I trembled in the confessional, whispering to Father Gary behind the smoked glass. Oh, how heartfully sorry I was for cheating at Go Fish, stealing Milky Ways from my brother's Halloween candy stash, and calling my baby sister "Stinky."

I fantasized about becoming a nun, to keep those pesky near occasions of sin away. But then came puberty, the boys, the realization of a nun's vow of chastity. Thus, the fantasy fizzled.

Yet the fascination stuck, filling me with awe every time I spot a nun. Not that I see them much in Los Angeles. But in Rome they are everywhere. Strolling through the piazzas. Eating gelato. Buying panties at the shop around the corner from the Campo dei Fiori market. On a Wednesday papal audience outside Saint Peter's, I was surrounded by gangs of them—clambering over each other to stand on chairs, as if at a rock concert, waving their arms, shouting, "Papa! Papa! Viva Papa!!"

Convening With the Nuns

Convent fountain

I love being amid these suore. They're all decked out in crisp habits—white, brown, navy. My favorites are the Brigattines—a Swedish order, uniformed with tight headpieces accented by a white band and red studs. On my perfectly timed days, I stop by their church on the Piazza Farnese in the late afternoons, where they gather to sing vespers in sweet harmonies. Runners up are the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master (aka the PDDM sisters), who dress in pale blue. They kneel in the front pews of Saint Peter's Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, silently devoting prayers to the Eucharist.

Mario is dismayed when I tell him I've booked myself in a perfect Roman accommodation: Fraterna Domus. It's a convent, near Piazza Navona, filled with real live nuns, that offers cheap guest rooms. Plus, I've heard the meals are excellent--some travelers I met who aren't even staying there slip in for bargain dinners, all nun-made.

"You must take this with you," Mario says, stuffing one of his prized possessions into my purse. It's a corno—or what we in New Jersey called "an Italian horn" -- a curvy red pepper charm that's supposed to ward off evil.

"Nothing bad is going to happen," I say. "It'll be heavenly."




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Read this article online at: Get Me to a Nunnery in Rome

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.


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100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go

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50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go

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Letters from Italy

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