Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

The Colosseum and me from the porch of Hadrian's Temple to Venus.

My list of what I want to see in Rome is now much longer than it was before I arrived.

It was impossible for me to fully realize Rome in absentia in much the same way I could not have understood the American desert southwest before regarding it face to face.  I had seen pictures and Roadrunner cartoons featuring the buttes and canyons of the big square US states.  But not until I stood flatfooted on the high desert plain and saw mountain ranges hundreds and hundreds of miles away as clearly as houses across the street, could I begin to comprehend the vastness and the immense privacy of that awesomely desolate place.

So too was my experience of Rome.

I have seen pictures and paintings of the Coliseum so often in my life that, like Devil’s Tower to the characters in Close Encounters, I could probably have reproduced il Colosseo in some detail before I ever actually climbed into the stands of that most storied stadium.  But, as I made my way onto the Palatine – the hill on which the city began – I found myself experiencing the oddly familiar surroundings of this eternally famous place in a wholly unexpected way.

It is inexplicable to me that such a wonder as Rome could have sprung up in a time when most people were living under hides stretched over sticks.  I can see how those who are so disposed, could easily make a case for the intervention of some extraterrestrial or interdimensional  intelligence intervening to alter the course of humankind forever by creating the anomaly that is Rome.  In context, the achievement, is as alien and unexpected as such an outlandish explanation might suggest.

Dazed, I wandered through rubble still so monumental in its ruin as to impress and amaze a man who had actually flown across the world in less than a day for a glimpse.

The ruins of the Roman Forum still nicer than many of the neighborhoods where I've lived.

My day on the Palatine and in the Forum was too long without food or water.  Unlike most of Rome, there was not a cafe on every corner.  In these places of ancient sanctuary the very stones are accorded protected and endangered status  and are unblemished by Cafe Romulus or any such blasphemy.  So, by the time we’d made our way through Severus’ palace, Domitian’s Stadium, Augustus’ living room, Trajan’s Market, Saturn’s temple and the Basilica of Constantine, I was in a kind of dehydrated, creatively hallucinatory state.  Since Xanadu had already been written – the poem not the musical – I turned my unfettered thoughts to the improbability of the city around me.

We took refuge at a cafe in the Piazza Novona.   I sat sipping limone te and contemplating the plashing waters of the Fontana dei Quatro Fiumi– calling it the Fountain of Four Rivers is like singing Puccini in English, just not the same in translation somehow.

The Fontana dei Quatro Fiumi and company in the Piazza Navona.

Hundreds milled about me.  Some idiot woman was desecrating the site singing whiney-American-lady-pop-music.  I tried to avoid eye contact with any of a roaming band of mimes for fear they would endeavor to “entertain” me.  I wondered at the place.  I tried to imagine the cheering multitudes and the thundering hooves of the horses orbiting the circus of the hippodrome that had once stood where I now sat dipping indescribably good bread into drinkably fresh olive oil.

Suddenly, I saw it.

I understood Rome.  Perhaps it was just that it was nearly five in the evening and I had yet to have lunch.  Or maybe it was a little belated jet lag.  Possibly it was just a little too much science fantasy  and SimCity over the years.  But I don’t think so.

Rome is a trap for the smartest animals in the world.

I hate to use the world trap because it sounds so negative, but there it is.  Unlike the more innocent creatures of the wilderness, a cage or a pit wouldn’t hold us for long.  Many simpler creatures in fact simply stay, never thinking to leave.  But people are tricky.  You have to make them want to say, fight to stay, work to stay.

This bit of Serverus' Palace plumbing was around 200 years old when Christ was born -- I was much younger then, too.

First, you have to get them there.  Well, they say all roads lead to Rome, but that’s not quite true.  The fact was all the roads started in Rome, so they had the effect of leading there, but really served as much as an enticement as mere transportation.  The roads of Rome were among the greatest, if not the greatest, technological achievement of their day.  They were the equivalent of today’s telecommunication in their effect on the world they connected for the first time.  Christianity owes as much to Roman roads and the common language of Greek as to the words of Jesus himself.  Without the Greek lingua franca and Roman roads to carry those words, Christianity might be a small middle eastern Jewish sect.

Okay, so now the Roman roads have led the “prey” into the city.  How do they keep them there?

This is where the 40 ft statue of Constantine stood in 308 AD and where I stood in April 2011 A

Like any seduction, Rome is at once attractive and illusive.   For thousands of years there’s been so much to see and to do in Rome, but it has been and remains, very hard to stay.  So our trap draws people in, “captivates” them and then makes remaining in the delicious snare a personal achievement that one might work a lifetime to maintain.

That’s a pretty brilliant trap.

The Pyramids are great – new and old world.  The Parthenon and its environs are the seat of philosophy and forms of governance that we are still debating and perfecting without, as yet, much improving – though women are allowed to vote now and we have dispensed with the whole hideous slavery aspect of ancient democracy.  But no place represents the same kind of achievement as that of Rome.  There are cities/traps modeled after it, but there’s no debate about the source of their form.  We’re still building coliseums and filling them with gladiators.  Many new roads surround us.  Our prey arrive in cars and ships and planes.  People pour in and then work themselves literally to death in order, not only to stay but, to pay for the care and maintenance of the trap.

I don’t think that it was aliens or that the Roman’s ever thought about the building of Rome in such terms, but the effect is undeniable.

I try to imagine the world then — not as myself, who will not walk on the grass in front of my own house or go outside if it can be avoided, but — as a noble savage.  It was a green and abundant world unspoiled by the civilization for which Rome is the ultimate blueprint.  My savage self might spend his days wondering through this simple world, tasked only with my survival, plucking olives from the trees, making fires for warmth and cooking, living out a brief but uncomplicated life as free as the birds of the air or the other creatures in the forest.  Or I could go to this violent, foul smelling crowded heap of stones and waste called Rome.  There I could fight and claw for enough shiny metal to buy the very fruits and flesh I might have plucked or hunted for myself for free so that I might live out my short and dark life surrounded by and in the company and close proximity of the most vicious and dangerous creatures on the planet.

All that's left of 40 ft Constantine and a lot of extra me -- thanks pasta!!

Intended or not, that’s a pretty awesome, impressive and fearsome achievement.

And then Cafe Navona brought my lunch.  A perfect, pizza caprese, a bottle of still water and te caldo and I was ensnared, as content and as captivated as the other simple savages who’d come before me, charmed by the most beautiful and successful trap in the world.

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The blisters on my feet are gone for the most part.  A little more work with the pumice and the luffa and they’ll be just a memory.  The pants that I struggled to button in Florence are falling off me now.  And, of course, there’s the ear I can’t quit talking about, still “pressurized” since landing at Heathrow on the way home from Venice.  But none of these are the memories I take away from this dreamy excursion into unfathomable history, iconic art and a glimpse of the exquisite.

I loved Italy.

Ah, Venice. Now this, for me, is the happiest place on earth.

I’m a little surprised how much.  I knew it would be a wonder.  I expected to be amazed by the art and the sheer historic gravity of pretty much everything.  But they don’t call me princess for nothing.  I’m a pretty good sport and a good traveler.  I can bear up when things go wrong as they so often do on extended trips.  Still, I’m like a silk shirt – best under ideal conditions.

I figured Italy for a sort of Mediterranean, late-for-a-nap kind of ambiance, delayed everything and disinterested people fatigued of being trampled by ugly Americans.

The late-for-a-nap part was kind of true.  There were some surprising gaps in the service at some of the more remarkable and elegant locales, but the Italy I found defied my preconceptions and much of what I had been told to expect.  I suppose it’s the Isenberg Principal.  My Italy is unique, having as much to do with what I brought as what I found.

It’s like with everyone’s friend: Angry Guy.  Angry Guy gets to the restaurant, or the store or the hotel or the DMV and begins yelling at people.  What do  you know, everyone is shitty to Angry Guy.  Angry Guy believes he lives in a world out to get him, acts accordingly and, presto, that’s where he lives.

It was like that.  For whatever reason, though I was certain I would be amazed by the gravity of what I saw, I had very few expectations otherwise.  The trip was a gift so I had almost nothing to do with any of the planning.  The hotels, the schedule, even the airlines seats were a surprise to me.  Christopher, the friend who gave me this amazing birthday present, has known me a while, so I’m sure he made choices with me in mind.  But, honestly, I was freed of expectation of much beyond simply being in Italy for the number of days specified.

The Ponte Vecchio and il Turistica Vecchio. It's a bridge and a jewelry mall (the Ponte not the Turistica).

Everyday in Italy turned out to be a surprise party.

I guess every vacation is to some extent.  Each morning we’d meet for breakfast and decided what we were going to try to see.  Then, we’d see what actually happened.  Like placing a bet.  Some days went as planned, but we had just as much fun on the days that didn’t.

And oh my God, what I saw.  Just the thought of having lunch across from the Pantheon in a piazza where Augustus Caesar might have sat and contemplated the events of his day 2000 years before.

The Pantheon from my lunch at Augustus' usual table at Cafe Napolitano. That baby at the next table was out of control.

Or sharing an artist’s vision and as he struggled to express himself and his talents while being restricted to painting or sculpting on the same couple of dozen Christian subjects over and over again.  Or witnessing the love that the Emperor Hadrian had for his lover Antinous writ large in massive sculptures that endure to this day.

Antinous got up as Dionysus -- the one camera right.

Or seeing how the sensibilities of the Europe’s first banking family, the Medici, still inform the attitudes of the modern city of Florence.  Or wandering through the living work of art that is Venice and realizing the it was born as the dream of people trying to escape the persecution and pillaging of those who surrounded them on land.

By the time it was time to come home, I truly had difficulty bringing to mind what it was like to live in West Hollywood.  The trip was like a long, vivid dream I could not seem to awaken from, even when I returned home.  It wasn’t just those I-don’t-want-to-come-home-from-vacation Blues.  Indeed, I was completely exhausted and ready to come home by the time we were done.  I guess after spending so long in a heightened state of awareness in order to navigate a world so completely outside my experience, it was hard to slip back into the sleepy indifferent comfort that one feels for home.

One of the many renderings of David with the head of Goliath I saw that day at the Vatican.

Whatever the case, the trip seems almost illusory and improbable now that I’m back in familiar environs, but like tinted glasses, the perception of life that I found on that dusty old peninsula still colors how I see everything.

. . . More soon.

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Il Mio Ritorno*

Gentle readers,

I hope you can forgive my long silence.  I returned from Italy a month ago today and have yet to write a word aside from the occasional Facebook bleat.

I came back deliciously exhausted by three weeks filled with excessive quantities of inexcusably delicious food,  heart stopping scenery, beautiful Italians and hideous tourists.  Few of the clothes I’d packed still fit, I was so tired I could not hold my head up and I could not have been more pleased with how I got my extensive blisters.  To my dismay, so far the most lasting memory of this most amazing trip has been more than a little disconcerting.

For the past thirty days, I have suffered the oddest malady.  On the first leg of my return flight home, as my flight from Venice descended to land at Heathrow, my ears “pressurized.”  It was not my first flight so I wasn’t unaccustomed to the uncomfortable sensation, though this seemed especially painful.  We hung at the awkward altitude for a bit as we waited to be cleared, so it was also a bit more protracted than usual, but still.  My left ear went back to normal as we landed but not the right one.

It’s been thirty days.

I’ve been through doctors, anti-inflammatories, endless anti-histamines, even steroids and no change.  Thursday, another specialist and I hope . . . but we’ll see.

My point, dear readers is to let you know I haven’t forgotten you.

I have however been hopped up on allergy pills, roided into a stupor, sleeping at odd times and fitfully even then.  My protracted case of the mini-bends has put half my world on mute and given a mild case of inner ear disorientation, but that’s not the worst of it.  There has been a bad horror movie sound track – all heart beats and breathing (mine) – echoing in my head since London THIRTY DAYS AGO!

You know I almost never use exclamation points so you can tell just how strung out I am.

Meanwhile, every time I sit down to write, it’s not bad enough I’m hopped up on some med or other, I feel as though I’m appearing in a bad version of the Tell Tale Heart.

But I can bear my isolation no longer.

It is time to write about Italy, at least.  I can wait no longer (and the pictures are too good not to share).  So I’ll see how it goes.  If you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know there’s Raven, perched on the scalp of some Italian souvenir bust or other, croaking at me in triumph “Nevermore.”

On the plus side, unless Thursdays’ specialist is a miracle worker, I probably won’t hear him.

* This could possibly mean “My Return” but don’t take my word for it.

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