Saturday, June 06, 2009

Rome (Pt. XIV)

Note to readers: This is the fourteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIII here.

From the serenity of Siena I ventured to the birthplace of modern Western civilization, the Eternal City of Rome. As the train approached, more and more passengers came aboard. I met Jan, a fellow American, on the ride down. Jan (sweet, solitary), it occurred to me, was a person very deserving of love who would make any man very happy if he would only give her a chance.

We spoke to each other as if castaways, sending messages in bottles. "I think it would be good to be married," said she. "But how to get there from here . . .?"  She shook her head, bewildered. I understood. We made tentative plans to tour the Vatican together on the next day. But when we got to Rome we were swept apart by the anarchy of the city, by the teeming hordes of tourists. I hope it all worked out for you, Jan.

Rome's Termini station was a beehive of flittering humans. People were running in every direction. To get to the hostel, the only hostel in all of Rome, I squeezed onto a subway car as tightly packed as any sardine tin. I'd been warned about thieves and pickpockets, but the car was so crammed I could not turn around to see the people behind me, let alone determine if they were going through the pockets of my pack.

I made it with nothing stolen. I arrived at the crowded, bustling hostel, full of young people from all over the world all occupying bunks in big, austere dorm rooms. There I met Wilma from Holland. Wilma (warm, smiling) whom I immediately befriended, took me with her on a walk along the traffic-mad streets of Rome to a hole-in-the-wall pasta place where I dined on the best gnocchi I had ever tasted. There was a football game on the tube, Rome versus someplace, and the crowd at the restaurant was loud and boisterous, until the Rome team lost. Then it was sullen silence. Even our waiter was downcast.

But Wilma was so warm and friendly that drunken, surly Italians made not a mark upon my spirit. We had a great time.

The next day I set off to Vatican City. A model of efficiency in the midst of chaotic Rome. There, I found well-kept streets, well-behaved traffic. Not like Roman boulevards where the lanes were defined by the number of cars that can fit side by side so long as no more than 2 wheels protruded onto the sidewalk.

Booty ransacked from Egypt
A long, slow river of humanity queued up, flowing into the labyrinth of the Vatican museum. All along the way, signs promised the Sistine Chapel just ahead. But first, have a look through the amazing collection of pilfered art from Egypt and Greece and Turkey and a thousand other lands.

Emperor Claudius
Along the way, I saw sculptures of Roman emperors, including reluctant Claudius, the grandchild of Emperor Augustus, who purportedly yearned for a return to the Republic. Alas, Claudius, with the hindsight of some two thousand years of history, I tell you, your dream was a mirage. The inevitable tide of human events had outstripped your antiquated yearnings. Republic perhaps, is the pupa from which the heartless imago of Empire emerges.

Michelangelo hints at the Glory
The culmination of the day in Vatican City came when I beheld it: the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo spent four years of his life on his back painting this, perhaps the single greatest human tribute to the Glory of God. From 1508 to 1512, Pope Julius II spurred him on with promises of Heaven, with threats of Hell.

The Final Judgment

Well, if this work does not redeem us when comes the Judgment Day, brothers and sisters, then we are lost. Michelangelo put our best foot forward. Something is shaken inside when you see it. A profound disquiet descends and the world in which we live seems washed-out and faded.

Sten, Wilma, yours truly, Kristin, and Jason
That evening I returned to the hostel where again I encountered Wilma. My Rome-touring travel family was completed with the addition of Belgian Sten (accommodating, low stress), Kristin (fearless, pert) from Portland, Oregon, whom I would meet again years later on the streets of my home city, and Jason (wise beyond years) who had ridden his bicycle to Rome from faraway Amsterdam, who had camped on the battlefields of Verdun, and swore he'd seen the ghostly presence of solemn, sad soldiers in the moonlit night.

Site of Roman depravity
Away, now, from the solemnity of the Holy. We were on to see the works of mortal man standing atop his sandcastle of civilization. It all began with Rome. And there went we to the Colisseum.

Romans erected it sometime around 70AD. It was capable of seating some 50,000 Romans, an ancient pacifier along the lines of today's television. The Senators and the Emperors knew well how to keep a prosperous and bored populace from becoming restive. Bread and circuses! Bread and circuses! Super Bowls and free 2-topping pizzas from Pizza Hut!

And, if it meant the butchering of slaves, social outcasts, and frightened animals? Well, Roma locuta est, causa finita est.

Americans clowning around in the ruins of Caligula's Palace
After the Coliseum, we walked around the ruins in the area: Caligula's Palace (what tales might those stones tell?), the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. So much to see, so much to experience. I was overwhelmed by history deep as the wisdom of any holy prophet.

As the soft Italian night descended, we fell to drinking. There were many people, many travelers and tourists in the cafes. In the bars. We reveled along with them. The night was gentle and warm, like the Mediterranean. In the company of newfound friends, I found that I was quite drunk by the time I climbed into the taxi to return to the hostel. Drunk on beer and friendship and Michelangelo's befuddling genius. And on the epochal experience of, for one brief moment, joining my voice to the song of the Eternal City.
Ave Roma!

To be continued...

No comments: