If there’s a texting shorthand that applies to Rome, you know what it is: OMG.
The ancient Roman port of Civitavecchia welcomed us with an explosion of tarred grit. No idea what it was; when we got up they were swabbing the decks in the outdoor restaurant, which meant no one could eat outside. Naturally, we all assumed some mulish, peculiar maintenance program had shut down the deck, because they’re always doing something on the vessel. You come back from an excursion and the railing on your veranda says WET VARNISH. Since no could go outside, the dining room was a madhouse, with the usual trills of goomornang! from the staff. The eggs were watery, too. Mood in the buffet: murderous.
The room’s veranda was covered in sticky goo, too. Benvenuto!
On the bus at 7:45 and out through the countryside until Rome crept up, gathered itself, stood up, and glared with its inarguable authority at the little people creeping in, the parade of supplicants, mendicants, fortune-seekers, criminals, holy men, vestals, and pleasure-seekers eager to taste the water of Trevi. Oh, it was good to be back. I knew I would; threw the coin the last time, after all. Many decades had passed. Nothing had changed. Rome sniffs at change like a dog sniffs at a carrot.
We had a real-a Italian, eh? For a touring guide. She was having good-a English, and she was funny and knew tutti le cosi, eh? It was amusing to hear cartoon Italian-English, with vowels-a appended at a random, and the interrogatory “eh?” that was always an expression of assumed affirmation. She took us first to the Vatican City:
Daughter was thrilled, since she’s really into micronations these days, as kids are wont to be. First Monaco, now VC: a micronation enthusiast’s dream vacation. Stepping over the border gave her a big grin: she was here! The first order of business on the tour: bathrooms. We were more or less ordered to void our bladders. I was already hot and thirsty, having forgotten to bring a bottle of water (I’m just not a bring-a-bottle-of-water guy, partly because you have to do something with the end product, and in a big city you don’t know the whens or wheres) but I knew better than to drink from the sinks. Especially since the signs said NON POTABLE. So I wandered off, looking for Beverly, and settled for a Diet Coke. We assembled with the group. I asked wife and child if they wanted me to buy a bottle of water.
“I just drank from the sink,” daughter said.
Sharp glance to spouse: what part of NON POTABLE was unclear? For God’s sake, it’s Rome! Probably lead pipes down there! Well, we’re on the countdown for digestive calamity, aren’t we.
Into the church. Two doxies showing excess limb were turned away for reasons of modesty; always nice to know that happens now and then, here and there. We shuffled inside and, well, GOD ALMIGHTY.
I’d forgotten the scale, how it seems to be built for Titans, how you cannot really comprehend the dimensions of the place. You cannot imagine how they built it with the tools they had, how they achieved this unsurpassed level of grandeur, ornament, and precision. No time to contemplate, though: there’s no wandering, no quiet moments of reflection - you’re in the pipe, five by five, moving along to your eventual destination, which is the exit. It was noisy as a State Fair poultry barn - crammed and hectic, everyone holding cameras in the air to shoot the obligatory things. I did not. No picture does it justice, and I don’t want to see Europe through the LCD screen of the camera.
Don’t know how long we were there, but it was not enough and too much. I hope the Pope sometimes just gets the place all to himself.
Next stop: the Flavian Amphitheater.
This was my great Roman Moment, and since I’ve been reading so much about the Empire it was high inner drama to walk where the Caesars walked to get to their box - Caligula walked up this path the day he was stabbinated! - to touch the stones, to see the marble remnants, to walk up the steep stairs imagining the crush of plebes streaming up the stairs to the vomitoria, the way the arena below must have looked through that window in the stairwell; to stand on a balcony and see the Arches of Titus and Constantine, and the Temple of Venus and Rome, and put flesh on the bones and know this was where it was. What it was you are seeing. It’s still here. Beat to hell but Time has fought it to a draw, and not many things made by the hand of Man can claim that.
This trip has had a few of those episodes of awe and glory. Four, at least. So that’s four moments. Four seconds. that breaks out to how much money per second . . . well, never mind.
Next stop: lunch. I expected a typical tourist trap with fiaschi and accordion music, but no: this is grown-up Disney. We stopped at a hotel restaurant, spare and refined in the classic Italian manner. The kids were all delighted when they served the food: pasta! Heaping plates. Everyone finished their portions, except those who knew that Secondi was on the way. The main course came with wine and sparkling wine and, at the end, grudgingly, coffee. (It would have been barbaric to ask for it before, even though I was dying for a cup.) When everyone was sated and the adults lulled into siesta by the vino, it was back in the bus and off to the Villa Borghese. The kids watched a commedia dell’arte show, and since my wife stayed to watch it as well I bolted for the broad baked ellipse of the Piazza del Popolo. It’s a tremendous space, almost too big. Twin churches on one side . . .
an arch on the other, an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center, and a high classical sculpture group on the other side.
The biggest anteroom for a park in the world.
. . . and then back to the park, with its innumerable busts of poets and scientists and writers and politicians.
Everywhere, a piece of Rome propped up on a plinth, its context and original home long lost:
The amusing thing about photographing these headless statues: the camera always says FACE DETECTION ERROR. There should be a ROME setting.
Arrogance, thy name is fascism. Or vice versa:
Perhaps my favorite photo of the entire trip:
The light seemed to be early autumn; already a few leaves had turned, but the gold of the day was mined by summer. It was just glorious.
A detail above, which probably goes unnoticed, its story untold:
We threw our coins in the fountain and drank from the spout, the ritual of the transient, then had some extraordinary gelato and wandered around. I was looking for a street on the PFM inside album cover - they were pretending to play loaves of bread as if they were instruments. I found the street by accident on my high school trip, as if lead there by Divine Providence, and had my picture taken.
I’ll find it again, some day.
On the bus and back to sleep. Saw much; saw nothing. Florence I love but Rome fascinates like nothing else. Even the egregious civic architecture is something to behold:
The Victor Emmanuel monument celebrating unification. Always loved the Wedding Cake, to be honest. Ton upon ton of noble marble frosting, but the size is astonishing, and it’s still brilliant as the day it was finished. On the way to the bus, I saw something sitting in a corner that made you pause:
Just an enormous statue of a woman. Who? A goddess. Perhaps the Great Goddess. Might explain the face; can’t be weathering, can’t be the hands of the multitudes. Perhaps an angry hammer blinding the pagan eyes, silencing the pagan mouth. The Christian overlay of most things from the pagan days is more or less complete, right down to the cross in the Flavian Amp - oh, okay, stop being a know-it-all, the Colosseum - but as the tour guide explained, that was a political decision to protect the antiquities, keep people from living there. They said Christians were martyred there, even though there’s no proof - the heavy-duty Christian-killing for public amusement went on at the Circuses.
Back from the adult bar. Very drunk Brit who was on a well-deserved holiday: suburban London firefighter. Up until the last minute he said he’d been told his leave might be cancelled. Bloody hell, I think the exact quote went.
Then a conversation with a nice American couple who live in Mallorca; that’s where he’s stationed. She was in the publishing industry - buying for independent bookstores, I believe - and we chatted about the industry and historical mysteries. Or rather I declaimed; I was in a mood to orate, it seems. At 11:45 I went back to the room, and passed the giant screen playing over the middle pool. Wall-E.
On a cruise ship. If ever there’s a company without a sense of irony, it’s this one. But no one goes to Disney for irony. No one appreciates anything they do ironically, either; isn’t that interesting? It almost repels an ironical approach. Unlike, say, Scooby-Doo, where you can watch the drivel and laugh at its failings or tropes (that’s a serious word you use when you’re discussing pop culture in the academic sense) or semiotic mysteries, Disney is what it is, and no one watches Bambi because it’s so bad it’s good.
TOMORROW: the City of the Dead, Alive.