Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In Rome

Our Rome landing found us at the revolving baggage terminal. Electronic ads for a luxury Swiss watch kept changing. A happy family in Manhattan in some elevated townhouse. A happy father showing his son the skyscraped skies from a similarly elevated corner office suite in Singapore. A happy father in London leaving a black cab to show off to his son his brand-name watch. These all symbolized and commodified the bonds that cement us, apparently, in this age of global consumption. We share in that guilt.

Adding our widow's mite to that sum, thanks to a cheaper euro-dollar exchange rate. we waited to spend our euros in Italy. I got to watch those ads so often since I waited in vain for our second suitcase to join mine. But, Layne's luggage had been left behind with that of a few other of our Aer Lingus passengers back in Dublin. So, we left the terminal later than expected, dealing with red-tape and claim forms. We were driven into the city by the friendly couple of women who ran the b+b we stayed in there also ran a few others, and we figured they made a handsome living off what seemed an unending stream of travelers. They offered a welcoming flat, charmingly laid out, and admirably located. To get there, we passed the Synagogue and congestion north of the Tiber. It looked as if London with beige concrete and similar graffito.

Rome does not reveal its iconic views easily. As we would find in Siena, Florence, and Venice too, you can round a corner or come out an alley to find the horizon suddenly filled with a postcard image. We found our walk-up off the Piazza Farnese, where soldiers guarded the French Embassy. In front, big concrete tubs designed by Michelangelo, but to me still looking like tubs or planters, sprouted fountains. As I peered in, I saw the back of six heads in the distinctive habit of the order founded by St Bridget of Sweden in her church occupying one side. Restaurants sprawled. The flag of the Cypriot consulate filled a window over a hair salon, a tiny druggist where three clerks all glowered at Layne when she went in to buy some cosmetics, and the inevitable pizza stand. Near the Campo dei Fiori, where poor immolated Giordano Bruno's statue sulked over Moroccan vendors tossing up rubber lights and slammed down squishy toys emitting a squeak onto the pavement, we could hear the commotion in our room from a restaurant's kitchen from a site we never placed on the ground floor. It kept me up every night, the dishes clatter and the glasses crashing, inescapably Rome.

For the Eternal City never slept either. Adding to my collection of souvenir magnets, I found one with a Vespa and over its little motor, the Colosseum. This combination epitomized the past and present. Both contributed to noise, and both stood for the commotion which, perhaps as in Manhattan or London, Paris or Tokyo, may entice the hardy and reward the intrepid, but which wearies the rest of us. For the constant huckstering for every other (if we were lucky and avoided eye contact or walked a little away) restaurant got to us quickly. Yet we trudged on and although it was only 23 C, I felt the sun burn my scalp. It was humid, and I was thankful that it was not summer here. For the Chinese with their selfie sticks thronged, and despite very off-season, the easy proximity of Europe by rail, car, and plane to millions of us meant that such centers must never now have a truly quiet season.

We nudged the throngs into the Pantheon first. I mistook this marvelously preserved sanctuary for a tribute to the ancients rather than a Roman original,, so intact was it. I learned on the way back home via an in-flight choice of an engrossing BBC documentary with Michael Scott about the invisible Rome that the concrete layers of the roof allowing a larger space to be encompassed under its grand circle of light let in above than even that of St Peter's came from the innovation of lighter mixtures as the dome rose. I looked up and saw the sky, as if no glass. The god's eye perspective, we were told.

Even the Catholic intrusions and the two tombs to Italy's first two kings could not detract from its might. The buttresses outside illustrate that the discovery the Gothic cathedrals made to let in their own filtered beauty were engineered over a thousand years before. It remains a monument, surely.

The days in recollection from a month ago jumble, but we ate at a place recommended on Yelp as  locals' favorite. Tired after circling around the streets in hopes of finding a nightgown for suitcase-less Layne--and a few minutes from our flat nonetheless having done so at a Jewish-run store that had sold "intimates" since the 1860s--we were discouraged as our server, and all who worked there, pushed aside our attempts to speak Italian to inquire "where are you from?" in English. She angled the Belgian couple next to us, telling her name, Raffaela, and obviously seeking a mention in whatever online review they'd post. My anchovy pizza was fine, but Layne's pasta needed more finese, a fact even my Irish culinary palate could discern instantly. I don't think any of the clientele spoke the native language. Still, we needed to eat, right? After, she sought out gelato and we walked.

There was no television, and the net itself was dicey (as often on our journey), so I read up in a fine guidebook there, The Companion Guide to Rome by Georgina Masson and updated by John Fort.  Its density enticed rather than discouraged me, and I wish I'd have known of it sooner to plan the trip. But, as I reasoned to Layne, I'd rather have less of a forced march through the throngs and more of a happenstance approach, and for her as to eating and me as to sights, this worked out better for both.

The next day, we struck out past the Pantheon. But the St Maria Minerva church and gallery of the Dominicans nearby was for no reason we could figure out closed. As elsewhere on our trip. We headed past the Vittoriana's "wedding cake" palatial grandeur, and a old man in gladiator costume, up the hill to another Dominican outpost, their Angelicum seminary. On the way up, we passed the stark facade of the only proto-Protestant sect to survive the medieval times, the Waldensian church. Now its acoustics hosted not a dissident preacher, but performances of La Traviata. Next to it was a hotel named Pace Helvetica, and this appeared not a coincidence. At the hill's height, we took a turn into the imperial fort of Trajan's ruins, and without warning descended into the Forum. I suppose I thought of Gibbon, inspired there to write his history, after his own Swiss stay and Roman holiday. But the roads now rise over the structures' remains, so you look down into them as they creep up or lay flat. I always figured I'd be like one on a Grand Tour, staring up into the sky to see those fluted columns.

The sun beat down, so my peering at them was brief. The Colosseum loomed soon above, and so did a subway under construction across the street from it. I imagined what archaeological discoveries awaited the diggers. More touts urged us in "the last tour of the day," but despite our shared desire to peek at the cats, we opted for the cheaper view. We peered through the bars at the inside arena, and after all, that BBC documentary above gave me a fine perspective of the inside, and the interior below. The hydraulics involved, the flooding of the floor, the capstans and pulleys: truly a marvel.

But that came at a price. Half a million animals killed. Men and women mauled to death for the dim amusement of fans. Slaves laboring beneath the bread and circuses. Those who, Scott tells, were too late in opening the trap doors from which beasts popped out to fight were themselves summarily compelled to replace the lions as their instant bait. This cruelty tempered the awe I felt for this site.

We kept going, towards St John Lateran. We reckoned that basilica might host some fine art. But after going quite a stretch up a long incline, and at last entering a street where for a few minutes no other pedestrian, car, or Vespa thundered us aside. we ate late lunch at a cafe where, truly, the locals did eat. So much so it took us a while to get our own meal, a basic and hearty pasta. Revived, we found the basilica closed (why?), but the slight decline down the street past remnants of imperial walls on the left and a hospital on the right led, eventually, to San Gregorio al Celio, as the name indicates, on one of the capital's seven hills. You can even, as I later found out, stay here as a guest of the Camaldolese monks. Not the most peaceful location for a retreat, but a few might welcome a chance to do so in a five-hundred year old setting where the Church has had a presence for a millennium before.

We then threaded down a shady path, into tunnels, with the Baths of Caracella between us and the river, into the park around the Palatine. Passages cut into stone and hills felt much more antiquated than they might have been. The Circus Maximus lived up to its name, as we crunched the gravel and I mused at the horses and chariots that once rushed past. It was good to be away from the urban hustle.

Returning to it to cross the Palatine Bridge, we followed the east bank of the Tiber. Shouts of swallows and martens shrieked, filling the riparian dusk with clouds of black wings. We noticed and so did many. Some women walked under umbrellas. Some cars were entirely pattered in bird crap. We later found out this was not out of the ordinary, but it went on for a long while, disturbingly.

On we went, as the tall dome of St Giovanni Battista stood in for St Peter's until Castel S. Angelo signalled that Vatican City neared. As we waited to cross at the Amadeo bridge intersection, we watched tour buses shove cars into the junction so the buses could turn left. So much for piety.

Whatever slope the historical Vatican was on, we bypassed it down a darker street, named after penitents. For a short time, we had escaped the constant hum, past a church that creeped out Layne. It had a banner proclaiming Mother Teresa and under it, a beggar woman slouched. Congregants streamed out of an evening mass. Not for the first time, Layne logically wondered why Rome boasted so many churches when it boasted already the largest one in Christendom. I guessed that that same proximity to papal power attracted other affiliates, hangers on, and wannabees, much as Disneyland spawns around it more hotels, Knott's Berry Farm, a pirate restaurant, a wax museum, and fast food. Not the most elegant analogy, but from Constantine on, this pilgrimage site meant business for many.

Under the lights, the space in front of St Peter's looked handsome. As it was so familiar to my eye, seeing it up close (we did not go on the tour as it required hours in line and a security check to boot), I marvelled still when we crept up through the throngs of smokers (so it seemed, a bit sacrilegious). I tried to imagine it as a medieval pilgrim, staff and wide hat in hand, a palmer as they called them, who'd walked across Europe, head craned to take in the figures of the apostles atop the facade, and all the saints' statues high over the two arched pavilions gracing it. We had checked into tickets to teh Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, but even off-season, they were sold out. Barriers prevented us from going in through the exit, as an endless stream of people exited the sanctuary. I caught a glimpse of Swiss Guards behind a half-plywood wall, so I felt my visit was complete. We were jostled by people of every land and shape as I found my souvenir, a magnet with Pope Francis' thumb's up.

Its message was  simple. Even my Italian grasped it. "La carita, la pazienzia e la tenerezza sono tesori bellissimi. E quando li hai, vuoi condividerli con gli altri." Fine by me to motivate. Layne mused about the trinkets that Benedict must have generated, and their mercantile fate, compared to the sales of his successor. I doubt our dour Tubingen theologian profited from bobblehead royalties.

Heading back, we stopped in the San Giovanni church before heading down the way I liked best in my short stint in Rome. Via Guilia was dark, damp, cobblestoned, lined with old walls the whole way. A few artisan shops stayed open. In one, two burly bearded men reclined, each on a divan, reading. It seemed so stereotypical, as did a elderly man I glimpsed looking exactly like Marcello Mastroianni. A younger man strutted in a lavender scarf, many men sported ascots, and when apparently the weather dipped anywhere on the peninsula below 20F, woolly scarves draped both men and women against the dire chill. People did dress better in Italy, testimony to their stylish flair.

We ate baccalao, fried fish but better than that British version with chips, at a famous cafe for it. We drank cheap beer and made a whole meal in basic Italian, for they were about the only items sold. A constant stream of customers came and went, and by the end, the line for a later dinner was out the door. Down the street, three smiling Pallottine fathers, two younger Africans, one elderly Italian, stood in their vestments, maybe after mass, maybe not, to welcome and bless--or was it to solicit alms from--passersby. Somehow this alienated rather than charmed me, and I don't know why.

In the Campo de' Fiori, North African vendors again tossed the lights high and slammed the squeaky toys down. Three of them mocked a competitor, who across from them set up a cardboard table and set out a handful of travel converters. The trio aped and gawped at him, but he gamely persisted. An African woman, in her fifties at least, in a tank top and short skirt, dishevelled, ate a meal on the steps of Giordano Bruno's statue. On the small plinth, where this Dominican friar was stripped, gagged, bound, and set afire in 1600 for many heresies, cans of Foster's Lager were quaffed by reclining couples. I was pleased to see a wine bar or 'enoteca' (the Greek word attesting to the antiquity of such stands) on the piazza named Nolanus, after his Latin name, one celebrated in its Irishness by Joyce.

In the narrow street off the square, a pretty student sold the Communist paper, its headline the perennial one of "guerra." Nearby, a small bookstore with the stenciled hammer and sickle on the stone wall hosted its cabal of bearded youths, huddled around inside. The other end of the Campo, an attractive tall girl in black hair in an American accent kept hustling passing tourists to enter the sidewalk cafe, and it bugged me that each time we went by, we were targeted. I wanted to blend in.

Our last day in Rome to wander, Layne had to eat at a well-reviewed place on the other side of the city. So, off we went. I petted a cat, we strolled up the narrowing streets of Travestere on the other side of the Tiber, and edged up the hill, despite the rush of cars and motorbikes, past monuments to Garibaldi. Great view back over Rome, but it was hot, mid-day and I was cranky. What was on the GPS a half-hour turned nearly two hours. A policeman shrugged as we showed him our destination.

We passed apartment flats, into a decidedly non-touristed working-class district. On we went, despondent, until finally we figured the way to lunch. It did not live up to my expectations, but Layne was pleased. We ate outside on a patio as a large group gathered for their meal, with younger people late and older ones scowling. Pressed for time, and tired, we agreed a taxi was a must back, as our tickets were reserved for 4 p.m. at the heavily advertised Balthus exhibition at the Quirinale. Our genial, blonde, scruffy, longhaired cabdriver practiced his English, about the trouble he had with Russian, as he tried to learn its difficult grammar from his girlfriend, and of his love for barbeque.

We found the Balthus pieces but intermittently engrossing. Each room represented a phase in the artist's career. Of Polish-Russian bohemian-Jewish origin, he excelled at the famous depictions of "The Street" and of course female pre-pubescent awakening, but after that, he settled into photography and landscapes that could have been anyone's. Oddly, the exhibit petered out after showing his brother Pierre Klossowski's and other contemporaries' work. Still the splendid vista over the city from a window was worth the admission, and we neared dusk braving the crowds at the nearby Trevi Fountain. So jammed were its tiers that I was unsure if our coins tossed for us, our sons, and for luck and health made their mark in the water, rather than falling on the heads of our fellow tourists. Our day would end with takeout pizza and the Prosecco bottle our hosts had left for us in the fridge, but first, we headed past high-end stores in the Via Tritone and Via del Corso, glad to find room on the sidewalks, full of shoppers. The Spanish Steps were scaffolded, but I recall the stop I insisted we make at the little chapel of Santa Maria in Trivio. The photo I post above is set there.

Layne and I looked at the tomb of St. Gaspar de Bufalo. She noticed his pose, different than other effigies. Look at his position. He holds his crucifix lovingly, curled up like a cat, comfortably. He seemed a fellow we could relate to, more like one of us than a stiff ecclesiastic. I learned about him later. Son of a baker who worked for a noble, he grew up humbly in Rome. He preached to "brigands," reminding me of a tale I have begun and enjoyed, the first real novel in Italian, Alessandro Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), begun about the same time as the saint died. In the photo, Bro. Krzystof Surowaniec, C.PP.S., from the Polish Province of the Precious Blood Missionaries, prays at the altar of their founder. I chose this image as it sums up a lot about Rome.

We think of cassocked clergy in pious poses, but fewer walk the Roman paths today as recognizably such. They do good deeds by blending in, so we may not notice them. Perhaps this is more true to their Christ-like mission in a post-Catholic, global, challenging era, rather than standing out from us?

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