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Behind The Walls: What It's Like To Live Inside The Vatican, For A Woman

No place like home
No place like home
Alina Mrowińska

VATICAN CITY - There are exactly 13 families living in Vatican City. It’s a small group indeed, as just a few of the employees of the Holy See have a right to live “behind the walls.”

Among those who have access to the apartments in Vatican territory are select members of papal Swiss Guard, the chief gardener of Vatican City, who lives with his wife and children in a small house around the gardens, as well as the Holy See's head electrician and his family. One of the electrician's daughters, it turns out, just got married, and thus lost her right to live in Vatican City.

Only half of the less than 1000 residents of Vatican City (the world's smallest city-state) have citizenship: mainly members of the Church's diplomatic corps or papal nuncio. The others hold temporary residential rights to live on Vatican land.

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Vatican City panorama (Marcus Winter)

We spoke with Magdalena Wolinska-Riedi, the Polish wife of a Swiss Guard. She is a Polish-Italian and Polish-Latin translator, working mainly for the Vatican legal entities, the Sacred Roman Rota and Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. She also works on some projects for Polish TV.

What follows is the portrait she paints of life in one of the world's most protected addresses, about to again face the glare of the global media as the Church begins the process of choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI:

Village life

Living in Vatican City, a small community is probably the same as living in a little village. One difference is the security, with everybody observed, every corner monitored, gendarmerie at the gates. They watch when you come and go.

Ten years ago, there were two women from South America, three from Switzerland, a few Italians and two from Poland (native country of Pope John Paul II). Now, there are mainly Italians.

The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci once said that Vatican City is a “male terrarium.” Some of the prelates probably wonder why there are these families of the guardsmen circulating about. Here, women barely exist -- and certainly play no significant role. Not so long ago, women couldn’t open their own bank account in Vatican City.

Still, the few women who do live here say they feel neither humiliated nor ignored, and they understand centuries-old traditions. Pope Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, always made a point of highlighting women’s value. Benedict had a female assistant (even before he became a Pope), named Ingrid Stampa, who edited all of his speeches, articles and books. She is still his confidential advisor.

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There are about 30 women who have Vatican City citizenship, including a military officer, a science teacher at a Roman high school, a kindergarten teacher, and an academic. Once a month they go out together to a restaurant in Rome, some make candles and wreathes during the period of Advent and decorate Easter eggs.

They go to church for a mass not only on Sundays but also on other liturgic festivals. All of the masses in Swiss Guard chapel are celebrated in four languages: Latin, Italian, German and French.

Divorces are not common. There was one divorce couple of years ago, after the wife of one guardsmen had an affair with another. All had to leave Vatican City. There was also the well-known case in 1998 when a young Swiss Guard killed the unit commander Alois Estermann and his Venezuelan wife, Gladys Meza Romero, before committing suicide. The Vatican offered little information about the case, which has been the source of speculation about espionage and a love triangle.

Gynecologists and Armani

Health service is provided by 63 specialists, including a gynecologist and access to a top Roman maternity clinic. Within Vatican City limits, there aren't necessarily all the available services, but a Rome kindergarten nearby serves all Vatican children, while the Swiss Guards can send their kids to a school affiliated with Switzerland's Embassy.

Women obtain citizenship automatically after getting married, but for all it lasts only for the duration of their stay.

Residents of Vatican City have access to use furniture from a Vatican warehouse that includes some objects that deceased Popes and cardinals once used. There are no taxes, and residents have access to duty-free shopping, including luxury brands like Prada, Valentino or Armani. Most residents go shopping “abroad” to Rome as well since food is very expensive in Vatican City.

There are no beauty specialists or hairdressers, but there is a gym and a fitness coach. A gas station is much cheaper than those in Rome.

Gates and curfews

Still, life inside the walls has its drawbacks. Residents must get home before midnight because all the gates are closed. If someone arrives later, one must call the intercom and guardsmen take their names. Likewise, if someone invites guests, they generally have to leave before midnight as well.

There is a widely accepted code of dressing, where uncovered knees and arms and low necklines are frowned upon. Of course, women who live inside the Vatican are allowed to walk in a short dress in Rome, but would have to change before coming back home.

To be clear, wives of Vatican City’s staff who live in Rome wear what they want. For those inside the Vatican walls, only one’s parents and siblings can visit and spend the night -- cousins and friends cannot. Some women would love to have a possibility to sunbathe on their own balcony, but it is not allowed.

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Swiss Guards (Annesov)

To marry a guardsmen, you must be a baptized Catholic -- and a regular church-goer. You also need to have confirmation from a bishop of corresponding diocese and a certificate of conduct from a parish priest. Also, a certificate of good behavior is needed. When all the papers are ready, they need to be handed into a Vatican’s office.

Generally speaking, a woman living in Vatican City can feel happy and secure, if at times a bit lonely in this “man's world.” But it's not eternal: when a guardsman turns 40, he must retire; and that means he has to move out from Vatican City with his family. Back to "real life," outside the walls.

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