Category: travel

Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 4: Decline and Fall

Whispering in the dark

Information overload manifests itself like a demon in the dark. On lazy days that I spend reading for most of the day, I fall asleep at night to the whispers of passages that I read earlier in the day. These whispers are vague and formless and closely resemble a fever dream. They are difficult to shed. Rising for a cup of water doesn’t always dispel them. Usually, I have to let the voices run their course. This is what I experience on the third night of our trip: whispers of street names and subways stations, of Capuchin monks and Renaissance artists. Some of the whispers are unintelligible gibberish, others are unintelligible because they are in Italian. But at some point, the whispers fade and fade and only the darkness remains and when I open my eyes, I see the first light of day out the windows.

Gibbon and the decline and fall of Rome

For some reason, when I think of Rome, I think more often of the Republic and the Empire, not Renaissance Rome. Today, we are defying entropy. We are visiting Rome in reverse, beginning with the Renaissance (Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica) followed by a jump back in time to the Colosseum. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of this reversal. In the concluding pages of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon offers four causes of Rome’s decline:

  1. The injuries of time and nature
  2. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians
  3. The use and abuse of materials
  4. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.

And what of its rebirth in the Renaissance? On this, Gibbon is, so far as I know, silent. Today, we see both the Rome of ancient days and the Rome of the Renaissance.

Naming names

Breakfast is all about learning people’s names. I meet Greg and Ila1, who have traveled from Australia. I meet Peter and Val, who have come from South Africa. I scribble these names into my Field Notes notebook. I do this whenever I meet someone new as a way to remember their name. And yet, as Peter later would prove, just because I write down a name doesn’t mean I will remember it. When he asks me if I remember his name, I admit that I don’t, and it even takes me several seconds of flipping through pages of my notebook before I locate it. So much for writing things down.

The fried eggs are missing when I go to put some on my plate. The pan is there, but it is empty. I find other food to eat, but keep checking the pan. Only after I am completely sated does the pan magically refill with fried eggs, but I am now too full to eat them.

Patience is a virtue?

I have read about the Sistine Chapel countless times. It is as much a part of my awareness as Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare, I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t know about it. We learned of it in high school art history classes, but I was aware of it somehow, even before that. Will Durant writes extensively about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the fifth volume of his Story of Civilization, The Renaissance. Durant writes of Michelangelo,

To the technical difficulties [Pope] Julius added himself by his impatience to have the great work completed and displayed. Picture the old Pope mounting the frail frame, drawn up to the platform by the artist, expressing admiration, always asking, “When will it be finished?” The reply was a lesson in integrity: “When I shall have done all that I believe required to satisfy art.” To which Julius retorted angrily: “Do you want me to hurl you from this scaffold?”

And I am told that patience is a virtue.

Durant captures the genius and virtuosity of Michelangelo in a concluding paragraph:

Julius died four months after the completion of the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo was then nearing his thirty-eighth birthday. He had placed himself at the head of all Italian sculptors by his David and Pietà; by this ceiling he had equaled or surpassed Raphael in painting; there seemed no other world left for him to conquer. Surely even he hardly dreamed that he had over half a century yet to live, that his most famous painting, his most mature sculpture, were yet to be done. He mourned the passing of the great Pope, and wondered whether Leo would have as sure an instinct as Julius for the noble in art. He retired to his lodgings and bided his time.

Perhaps more than anything else, it was reading that passage years ago that made me want to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel myself. Like Michelangelo, I retired to my lodging; like Michelangelo, I bided my time. Patience, after all, is a virtue. And so I follow the crowd left from the great hallway and find myself in the Sistine Chapel, with guards admonishing me to move toward the the center of the room.

It is a shame, really. The long walk to the Sistine Chapel is quite remarkable, but one is only aware of what awaits at the end. The rest is, as they say, preface, and patience be damned, I rush past paintings and maps (maps!) and Byzantine ceilings to arrive in the Pope’s chapel with hundreds of other visitors.

The long walk to the Sistine Chapel

You have to understand the conditions: a crowded room where people are respectfully trying to keep their voices at bay. Underneath is a panacea of whispers in every language imaginable. It is as if the air in the room is alive with this rush of hushed voices, an eerie reminder of the whispers in the dark last night. I am overwhelmed and I find it hard to focus. I am attempting, mentally, to edit the scene, photoshopping out the other visitors, mixing down the rustling passage of people, and the whispers. I am trying first to recreate the scene Durant describes, with the scaffolding climbing the walls and the old Pope up there with the master, admiring the beauty, and wondering, like any customer of a contractor, when the job will be done.

And then, with a more forceful effort, I remove the Pope and Michelangelo and the scaffolding and the guards and the people and the noise and slowly admire the art. Panel after panel telling the story of Genesis. I look at the faces, which were not Michelangelo’s specialty. It is the forms of the figures, the use of every inch of space to tell the story, the color that brings the scenes to life. For what seems like a brief time, I am the only person in the room, except perhaps the ghost of Michelangelo, who leans in a corner, rubbing his fingernails on his shirt, a knowing smile on his face.

Emerging from this space is like coming out of some deep dream and the sunlight seems too bright, the outdoors unfocused through the tears in my eyes.

The bridge of Khazad-dûm

St. Peter’s Basilica is so large inside that its scale plays tricks on the eyes. Letters that appear toward the top of the space are 6 feet tall, but look tiny from the floor.

Those letters way up there are 6 feet tall!

It is so large, in fact, that despite the crowds, it doesn’t seem crowded. As I do in most of the European churches that I’ve entered, I marvel at the artistry and skill that led to such magnificence. Could St. Peter’s be built today with modern technology? Somehow, I think the answer is no. Some vital ingredient is missing, creativity has atrophied with repeated sequels and sequels of sequels. I think of our church back home, and its modern lines. It is a doctor’s office waiting room in comparison to where I stand now.

St. Peter’s is to big, it makes the crowds seem small.

The golden arched ceilings and giant columns that support the ceiling remind me of the images Tolkien gives us of the dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm. Everyone has their phones pointed upward and for good reason: here there be majesty. Here is the Renaissance personified. Here is what is possible when creativity, innovation, know-how, skill, and artistry blend to form something greater than the parts.

Here, where dead Popes sleep, it seems to me that at night, they awaken to admire their final resting place.

Interlude

All of this has happened between breakfast and lunch. Our local specialist, Christina, has guided us through the halls of the Vatican, through the Sistine Chapel, through St. Peter’s, filling us with information and color about the things we are seeing, and it has all been crammed into the few hours between eggs and bacon, and pizza. This is the downside to a whirlwind tour of Europe and as we sit in a small nearby restaurant with Ken and Pat eating lunch, I think about the yearlong tour of Europe that Theodore Roosevelt took as a child, where there was time to breath, time to contemplate the wonder you’d just seen before moving onto the next wonder. This whirlwind is is like feeding a rich diet to a starving person.

We eat, we shop. I buy some postcards and stamps and mail the postcards from the Vatican so that their stamps will be canceled by Vatican ink. We wander a bit, walking through a long tunnel beneath the street to escape the heat. Soon, we will trade the crowds of the Vatican for the even greater crowds of the Colosseum.

Lost and found

In the Sistine Chapel we are reborn with the Renaissance. In the Colosseum, we die with Rome. I can think of no better symbol of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire than the Colosseum itself. It embodies each of Gibbon’s four causes of decline:

  1. The injuries of time and nature are obvious in its structure. Half of it has fallen apart. You can see age and decay all over what remains. It stands only because of modern reinforcements. When once, it was felt that those reinforcements could be removed, the structure began to crumble all over again and the modern support was quickly restored.
  2. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians–many of whom fought to the death in gladiatorial games held in this very place for the entertainment of the people; entertainment that distracts the populace from the civilization that is crumbling around them.
  3. The use and abuse of material: how much stone was required to build the Colosseum?
  4. The domestic quarrels of the the Romans. I think that battles that took place within the walls of the Colosseum were representative of the battles taking place within Roman society–and at some point, the walls of the Colosseum were not strong enough to contain them and those battles spilled over into the streets.

Lara tells us that of the three tours she has run this summer, ours is the only one to gain entry into the Colosseum. And so we line up for our journey into the past, entering this ancient place by passing through metal detectors and winding our way through lines. It was said that the Colosseum could be filled in 20 minutes and emptied in the same amount of time, but we have apparently lost that bit of technology in the fall of the Roman Empire as well.

The stairs that climb up into the Colosseum are steeper than modern staircases. As we climb, the crowds was pass through made it seems as though a major event is taking place within the Colosseum. The only thing missing are hucksters selling their wares. We learn that the Colosseum is named for the Colossus of Nero, a large statue, and that in its heyday, it was used for about 300 years. I think about Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, which was built in 1914, and has thus been in use for about 109 years, or a third of the time the Colosseum was in use.

A minor incident takes place while we are at the Colosseum, and it is something that I imagine must have occurred countless times in the 300 years of its service. 3 people from our tour group decide to head back downstairs instead of walking around the upper reaches of the Colosseum. Christina gives them instructions for where to go, but when we finally arrive back downstairs, these people are nowhere to be found. A search party is formed while we make our way back to the bus. Eventually, we learn that they have taken a cab back to the hotel.

Pool and dinner

There is an optional tour in the evening that goes to the Trevi Fountain, among other places. It is one of only two options tours that we opt not to take, having visited the fountain ourselves yesterday. The crowds and the rush of the day has worn me out. When we arrive back at the hotel, the kids go for a swim, while I have a drink and relax just outside the pool area. We decide to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, and I have a veal escalop dish that very good. I can’t remember the last time I had veal, but I enjoy this meal immensely.

Tomorrow, we are leaving Rome for Florence, via Siena, and I am looking forward to getting out of the big city and seeing parts of Italy that I have never visited before. Rome has worn me out. I feel the decline and fall, not of Rome exactly, but of my own body and mind, utterly worn out from the day.

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  1. I spelled Ila’s name wrong when I first heard it, so it appears misspelled in my notebook, but I have corrected it here.

Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 3: Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day

Colosseum at evening

Sleep of the Just Plain Tired

There is still light in the sky when I fall into a dreamless sleep. It is something of a miracle in its dreamless quality and in its duration. When I awaken, just after 6 am, I realize that I have slept more than 8 hours, an achievement unparalleled in the annals of my life since cramming all night for an organic chemistry final thirty years ago. I feel both well-rested and lazy for slouching around so long. I dress and head out the door to explore.

Our hotel, alas, is somewhat isolated. Walking down the long driveway and taking a couple of left turns takes me to an area that looks promising, and entirely asleep. Rome is not an early city, and it seems to me that Europe in general (the parts that we have and will visit) is not an early continent. As a Union they stick together as much in this as in their currency.

Zach and I head down to breakfast together, a preview of the breakfast we will have for much of the tour. It is a buffet with fruit and cheese and meats, as well as all kinds of breads, cakes, yogurts, and even some hot food like scrambled and fried eggs, bacon, and sausage. There is juice as well.

Once the rest of the family is awake, we decide what we want to do for the day. Our tour officially starts late this afternoon, so we have most of the day to roam Rome, and we decide to start our day at the Trevi Fountain and wander from there.

Mixed Signals

Instead of taking the subway, we decide to Uber into the city proper. There are mixed signals about Uber in Rome. As we made our way through part of the city yesterday, I recall seeing signs in certain places indicating that Uber is illegal. Yet at the airport, Uber has massive advertisements all over the place, extolling its virtues for getting around Rome.

I finally solved the dilemma to my satisfaction by realizing that the signs I saw about Uber being illegal were at taxi ranks. Maybe Ubers couldn’t pick people up from those locations, but anywhere else was fair game. I order an Uber and one appears for the us five minutes later outside the hotel lobby and carries us through the streets of Rome to the Trevi Fountain. As we get closer to the fountain the ride gets more interesting. The streets narrow and deform into cobblestone. At times, I am amazed that this big car can squeeze through these narrow passages. This is a different part of Rome than what we experienced yesterday.

Finally, the car stops just short of the fountains and lets us out. It was a short and easy ride, and we now know that Uber works just fine in Rome.

Two Views of Rome

Trevi Fountain is full of people, a major tourist attraction. It is the most crowded place we have seen thus far and we don’t linger here long. The water of the fountain is turquoise and glistens with countless coins that have been tossed in. I give a Euro coin to each of the kids for them to toss into the fountain. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that the Aqua Virgo once terminated here, one of the aqueducts that carried water to Rome. When I visit old places, I try to mentally peel back the modern layers to see the ancient, but I found it difficult to here. Perhaps it was the crowds.

kids sitting in front of the Trevi Fountain
The kids at Trevi Fountain

Looking at the modern city of Rome, overlaying the ancient city like strata of rock enclosing fossils in the Burgess Shale, my favorite Seneca quote occurred to me:

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.

Natural Questions, Book 7, somewhere in the 1st century A.D.

Seneca was certainly right, but the inverse is also true, I think now, standing beside the Trevi Fountain where an ancient aqueduct once carried water to the Romans. It seems amazing to think that such a city existed more than 2,000 years ago with its modern roads and aqueducts, with its art and war machines. Put another way, Seneca may have been selling himself and his people short. They managed to accomplish some amazing feats. And of course, what will people think of our “modern” Rome far in the future, when memory of us will have been effaced?

We wander away from the Trevi Fountain, away from the crowds and into the shade of the narrow streets of this part of Rome. I am trying to see the old city, but there is too much to see, too much happening, my head is turning this way and that, my eye caught be an antiquarian bookseller (closed) and then by a gorgeous narrow alleyway and then by tiny cars that navigate the streets. In the tourist areas, there are people who approach us trying to hand us all kinds of trinkets and I think of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and what he learned from Diognetus:

Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it.

And yet some of it is inescapable when overwhelmed, and we manage to acquire at least one bracelet for a Euro or two out of sheer bewilderment.

The problem is focus: I can’t seem to find mine. I think of Marcus’s admonition:

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

But that only raises my anxiety. I am well aware of the time limits. I want to see everything I can in that time. Later, I’ll learn that perhaps this was a mistake, but now, in the heat of the day with the roar of traffic and the unfamiliar signs and the ancient builds, all I can do is gasp for air like a goldfish out of its bowl.

What better for calm and solace than the quiet of a church. We find that we have wandered to the steps of Piazza Santi Apostoli, where the Church of the Apostles resides. There is a calming quiet within, which reminds me that churches are high on my list for quiet places to read. Despite the calming effect, the architecture takes my breath away, its Byzantine style a jumble of busyness that makes it difficult to focus the eye in one place, so that the interior of the church, despite its quiet, compliments the rush of activity out on the streets.

Sitting among the pews, I try to imagine what it was like to construct such a building. Perhaps only Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth can come close to recreating what such an undertaking must have been like.

Back on the street we wander some more, coming to another church, this time the Church of the Apostles were inside, I find the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola as ornate as any as I have ever seen.

tomb of st. Ignatius of loyola
Tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Gelato and Ghettos

Just across the street from the Church of the Apostles is a small gelato shop. We stop in for gelato and a restroom. We are successful with the former, but not the latter. Actually, I am the only one who doesn’t partake in the gelato. The best gelato I’ve ever had was in Venice, Italy, some 16 years ago, and I have decided that I am holding off on gelato until we arrive in Venice.

Restrooms are at a premium in Italy, it seems. Either culturally, or because of the age of the place, it was not designed for restrooms. Public facilities are available here and there for 50 Euro cents. And coffee shops often have facilities available for use with a purchase. Ultimately, Kelly finds just such a shop across from some excavated Roman ruins, Largo Argenta. While the girls are in the restroom, I lean on railing and take in the excavation. Here is a place where I can see some of the ancient city whose streets the like of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca walked in their day.

largo argenta
At the ruins of Largo Argenta

Once again, I find it difficult to separate the modern from the ancient, even looking down at the old stone walls and pillars. The modern look of the surrounding buildings, the sounds of motors, the rumble of buses distract from the presence of mind required to see the city as it was 2,000 years ago. The tranquility of the past is as allusive as any other getaway, as Marcus Aurelius well knew:

People try to get away from it all–to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic; you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Here I play the role of the idiot, wanting but unable to escape to this glorious past that I can almost see, save for the modern distractions. And so I write about and in so writing, I become Macbeth’s lament: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

These maudlin thoughts are the result of jet-lag, I’m sure. I recover soon enough. We have been making our way slowly toward the Pantheon, but I note on a map that in the opposite direction, about the same distance, is the Jewish Ghetto. Someone (an uncle, a friend?) told me that if I was in Rome, I should go see the Jewish Ghetto, and so we decide to change direction. It is not a long walk, but the result is mildly disappointing for once again, I am unable to visualize what this place must have looked like in ancient times. Now it is another cobblestone street straddled by low buildings that house kosher restaurants.

At the far end of the street we discover some of Ancient Rome and my mood brightens a bit. Down a flight of steps, we enter an area containing the Theater of Marcellus and the Portico of Octavia. Here, although the path, are scattered ruins, overturned columns, blocks of stone that once served as part of a structure. Here, many of the modern elements of Rome were hidden and I could catch glimpses of the ancient city.

The theater, which can be seen in the background of the central image above, was a project that began with Julius Caesar, but wasn’t completed until the reign of Augustus. The Portico of Octavia was refurbished by Augustus, and later twice burned to the ground in 80 A.D.and again, after being rebuilt, in 203 A.D. It was damaged by an earthquake 500 years later, making one wonder whether or not it was meant to stand the test of time. But it had and we stand before it underneath the hot Roman summer sun.

I reach out and touch stone, once part of a structure, and wonder, as I have done in the vomitoriums of the theater in Miletus, and the castles in Ireland, what other ancient people, slave, peasant, or emperor touched this same stone and in doing so, made some tenuous connection with the distant future, as I make the same connection with the distant past.

Tourist Traps

Finally, we made our way to the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Parthenon, which I did both in my notes and in the first draft of this piece). We don’t go inside. The lines are long, it is hot, the kids are becoming a little restless from all of the walking. And the crowds are large. I wonder if the crowds were this large in the past when this served as a Roman temple instead of tourist trap? It is a well-preserved building, and when I look at it from certain angles, it stirs images of ancient times. The large square on which it resides helps with this, but the modern splash of color and clothing almost at once dash the illusion.

Parthenon in a beam of sunlight
“Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

I am hot and tired and the crowds are beginning to get to me. I have mostly stopped taking pictures. We soon escape the crowds into a narrow street that provides some shade and quiet. There are a few stores catering to tourists, as well as a Coop. Kelly and the kids decide to look around the Coop while I stand across the street and people-watch. I am trying to turn the crowds of modern tourists into ancient Romans, and ancient travelers, but my tired imagination is failing me. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it is folly to try to see it all in a day, a week, or even a month.

We move on, making our way to Novona Square, and this is where we are accosted by people who attempt to hand us bracelets and other trinkets and then ask for money in return. We escape all but one, who hands Zach a bracelet before he can refuse. He then asks for a few Euros. I hand him a 2-Euro coin I have in my pocket. He takes it but asks for “paper money,” presumably because the lowest denomination that I am aware of is 5-euros. This we decline. “For my family,” he says as we are walking away, but I just shrug with a “whatareyagonnado?” look.

As we leave Novona Square, I note the contrast between the ancient and the modern when I see large billboard ad behind the fountain at one end of the square. It makes me wonder if I had been here 2,000 years ago, would I have seen advertisements painted on the building surfaces?

We find our way across the Tiber on bridge teeming with peddlers of all kinds of junk. I find that if I walk across the bridge with the same blank look and attitude one wears when walking the streets of Manhattan, I come through the other side unscathed. On the other side we stand before the Castle Sant’Angelo. We decide not to tour the castle, in part because we are all tired. But this is the place where the emperor Hadrian is entombed–the same Hadrian who built a wall with his name in Britain.

Crossing the bridge to the tomb of Hadrian.

Uber, Pool and Beer

Our plan is to find a nearby subway station to take us back toward the hotel. I locate one nearby and we head in that direction. But I have made a tactical error. As we arrive, I realize that the stop I located is a bus stop, not a subway stop. The nearest subway is quite a distance. The sun is blazing down, so we walk toward a hotel, find some shade on a side-street, and I call for an Uber, which arrives quickly and whisks us back to the hotel lobby. We are all glad to be done walking for the day.

There is a large pool on the resort and Kelly and the kids change so that they can cool off for a while. Near the pool is a bar, and I order a beer and sit watching the kids swim and listening to the constant sound of locusts filling the background. There is an ashtray on my table, reminding me that I am no longer in the U.S. The beer is refreshing after the day’s adventures.

Our Tour Officially Begins

At 5pm, we gather in the lobby to meet our tour director, Lara, a tall woman with a delightful Australian accent. Lara hustles our group (there are 47 of us in total) to some tables out by the pool, where we can sit in the sun and provide flesh and blood to the nipping mosquitos and no-see-ems. Lara tells us she finished giving this tour to another group just 15 days ago, and it is her favorite tour to lead.

Unlike our tour of Ireland, which was half-full and made up almost entirely of Americans, this tour is just about full, and there are people from all over the world: a few of us from the U.S., several people from different parts of Canada, people from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia. I may be missing some, but that is all I have written down in my notes. It makes for a variety of accents. Even for those people within the U.S., I detect distinct accents from northern New England and New York.

Lara tells us, “We are here for a good time, but not a long time,” and this sounds to me like the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. She outlines the tour, and answers a lot of questions before they are even asked. After about 30 minutes, we head en-mass to our bus, and meet our driver for the duration of the tour, Ferdinando, or “Ferdi” for short.

Our bus is taking us to dinner by way of a driving tour through Rome. I learn that St. Peter’s Basilica is the place where Peter was crucified. The Castle Sant’Angelo that we visited earlier in the day was a fort for the Pope and there are tunnels that connect the castle to the Vatican. I learn that 90% of Italians live in apartments. I want to know more about this and jot down a few questions that I never come back to. We pass through the Borghese family estate, which makes up the largest green space in Rome, and we pass through or by several of the ancient aqueducts and parts of the old Roman wall that surrounded the city. I learn that the correct saying is “All roads lead out of Rome,” not “all roads lead to Rome.” I learn that Ancient Rome is one story below the Rome of the modern city. This is something of a relief, as it helps me understand why it was so difficult to see the ancient city within its modern counterpart earlier in the day.

Dinner, Opera, and the Colosseum

We have dinner at a restaurant called (I think) Le Terme del Colosseo. We enter as a group and then descend one story (into Ancient Rome?) where rows of tables await us. This is where we begin meeting the other people on the tour. Sitting across from us is a couple from Florida, formerly of New England, Ken and Pat. Ken reminds me vaguely of Norman Spinrad, although it may be his goatee. Also seated at our table are Kathryn, Taryne and Sandra from the Toronto area.

For dinner, the kids on the tour gather to make pizza, while the adults chat and get to know one another. From the room behind us comes the sounds of opera singing. There are two performers singing for another group, and we benefit from it.

The food is plentiful, as is the wine. Grace tries some white wine, but doesn’t like it. When dinner finally ends, we made our way, all 47 of us, plus Lara, up the narrow street to the Colosseum. We will be inside the Colosseum tomorrow. For now, we gather together for our first group photo, and then break up into small knots of families for photos of our own. Tired, and perhaps a little impatient after a long day of sightseeing, I snap a single, quick photo of the Colosseum that happens to catch it in the last light of sunset.

Colosseum at dusk

We all board our bus and make our way back to the hotel, passing Circus Maximum along the way, passing the Stone of Truth, passing the Temple of Hercules. Lara warns us that tomorrow will be the most hectic day of our tour, cramming in the Vatican as well as the Colosseum and lots of sightseeing into a single day. Today already seems cramming and I can barely recall how the day started out and everything that I have managed to see.

Dosing off, I think about Seneca’s quote and remind myself that our universe is, indeed, a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate. I’m glad that in this age, we have the opportunity to investigate the very past from which Seneca wrote his prophetic words.

Read about day 4.

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Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 1-2: The Miracle of Modern Travel

air air travel airbus aircraft
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A Remarkable Number

It seems these days that almost every travel article I read tells me how bad air travel has gotten. Airlines are nickle-and-diming passengers. Passengers are getting into fights with airline staff. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Airlines do nickle-and-dime passengers. The overall quality of the airline experience has gone down considerably in my memory. I can recall more seat room in my youth, and not because I was smaller. I can recall better food. I remember a cross-country flight on a DC-10 that had a lounge where one could get a drink. Alas, I was too young at the time to take advantage of that. Touring the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Ireland last year showed just how elegant air travel once was.

The same could be said of the movie theater experience. Flying, like going to the movies, used to be An Occasion. In that sense, it is an occasion no more. Still, whenever I venture off on a trip that takes me across the Atlantic Ocean, I have to remind myself of the miracle of modern travel. This time, I put a number to that miracle: 15:33:53.

In 1778, John Adams, along with his son, John Quincy Adams, set sail from Boston for the Continent. Their trip took five weeks, involved rough seas, storms, and a battle with a British ship, before finally landing in Spain. Five weeks on the ocean, in what I imagine was not the most comfortable of settings. As Page Smith wrote in his 2-volume biography of the senior Adams:

In place of a threatening enemy, the ship faced threatening elements. They were in the Gulf Stream when the storm struck. For three days the frigate was slammed about like a chip. It was impossible to stand upright, or indeed, to lie below without being tossed and battered. Everything not securely anchored broke loose and crashed about below decks… Cabins, bedding, clothes and food were soaked with salt water. The main topmast was struck by lightning, three sailors were struck by the same shaft and twenty-three men injured by falling rigging. For three days the crew and passengers lived in chaos, catching snatches of sleep and gulping down cold meals.

The Miracle of Modern Travel

I think of this passage frequently on travel days like this one. We step out our front door at 1:40pm Eastern Daylight time and drag our five suitcases and our backpacks to the awaiting Lincoln Navigator. It is hot out, but this enormous vehicle is cool, and gets us to the airport in less than 30 minutes.

The family leaves home for Europe.

We are flying Aer Lingus to Rome via Dublin. It was one of the more exciting things for the Littlest Miss–getting to fly Aer Lingus again. We drag our luggage to the Aer Lingus check-in desk and find the only line of the day. We are 3 hours early, but so is everyone else and we wait for 20 minutes as people and baggage zigzag through the line. Once we arrive at the front, our bags are quickly weighed and swallowed by a conveyor, and we are issued our boarding passes.

There is no line at the security checkpoint. Indeed, there are more security personnel milling around than there are passengers and we zip through security in just 2 minutes. No need to take devices out of backpacks, which is new. We arrive at our gate at 3pm, and now have plenty of time to kill before our flight begins to board. We find ways of filling the time. I listen to the conversations of other passengers around me. The worry I have is the tight connection in Dublin: just one hour.

By 4:40pm, we are on the plane and in our seats and the plane begins taxiing just after 5pm. The pilot informs us that our scheduled travel time is 6 hours and 45 minutes and that we are expected to arrive in Dublin at about 5 am local time, which adds some buffer to the one hour layover.

When dinner is served, I think about John Adams’ first passage across the Atlantic (he made a total of four crossings in his lifetime). I think of the waves and the nausea. I think of the wet blankets and soggy food. I think of the dangers of the sea and that those dangers permeate the entire voyage, a voyage which lasts five weeks. I might be crammed into a smaller seat, but I am eating decent food. The kids have video screens that play movies on-demand. The cabin is dry and comfortable, despite being 7 miles into the atmosphere and tearing through the air (with push of a tailwind) with a groundspeed of nearly 600 MPH. Crossing the Atlantic takes less than 7 hours. John Adams’ crossing took 840 hours. Put another way, we crossed the Atlantic 120 times faster than Adams did in his day.

A Remarkable Number, Revisited

We land in Dublin at 5am, cross the airport to our next flight, board the plane–more than half empty this time–and are off again, this time heading southeast. We cross over London and the Channel, shrouded in clouds. It looks as I imagine it did on June 5, 1944 — when Operation Overlord was delayed for 24-hours because the channel was socked in.

The family is asleep. Modern travel might be a miracle, but it doesn’t make it easy to sleep. They are tired enough from the first flight to fall asleep, but I don’t seem capable of sleeping on planes so I keep vigil over the passing scenery. I am specifically waiting for when we cross the Alps, another miracle of modern travel.

Crossing the Alps.

These Alps are the same Alps that Hannibal crossed with his elephants more than 2,200 years ago. It took Hannibal a remarkable 16 days to cross the Alps. But the by the miracle of modern travel, we fly over the Alps in what seems to be about 10 minutes. From there, it is a short downhill ride into Rome.

There are no lines at passport control and our bags are among the first off the conveyor at baggage claim. We quickly find a taxi that can take us to our hotel and learned another miracle of modern travel: the taxis in Rome go almost as fast as the the airplane we flew in on. There isn’t a car on the highway that we don’t pass at high speed. I am a little nervous since one of the seatbelt’s in the van isn’t working. In preparing for the trip, I read that a taxi ride from the airport to our hotel takes about 40 minutes. We made in 20.

We step into the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, St. Peter’s at about 11:30am local time. I check the timer I set when we stepped out of our front door and see the remarkable number for the first time: 15 hours, 33 minutes, 53 seconds from our front door in Arlington, Virginia to the hotel lobby of the Crown Plaza, St. Peter’s. Fifteen and a half hours to travel farther than John Adams and John Quincy Adams traveled in 5 weeks at sea.

Rome, Underground

We learned last year in Ireland that the best way to fight jetlag is to push through. Although I have now been awake for about 24 hours, we decide to explore some of Rome on our own. Our tour doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening so we might as well push through and see what we can see. A woman at the concierge suggests we visit the Chapel of Skulls located beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

To get to this underground crypt, we take to the Rome underground. We walk about a mile from the hotel to the Cornelia underground station. On the way, we stop at a McDonald’s for some soft drinks. I always find it a little disconcerting to see familiar restaurants in ancient places. I am reminded of a piece of art that accompanied a Harlan Ellison story. In the picture, a hiker was making his way through the mountains to the mythical Shangri-la, and just above the next rise, what do we see, but the golden arches of a McDonald’s. Ronald Coleman and James Hilton are rolling in their graves.

We descend into the Rome underground via a flight of stairs and I am reminded of our local Metro in the Washington, D.C. area. After there stairs there is an escalator and we take the escalator down. Then there is another escalator, and one more after that. Finally, we find the machines from which we purchase our tickets. But we are not quite deep enough for the trains. There is one final flight of stairs that takes us down to the track level.

We take the A line train to the Barbarini station, a ride of about 20 minutes. Rome is on holiday and the subway is not crowded. We all find places to sit. Unlike the Washington and New York subway, the cars of the Rome underground are wide open to one another. There are no doors to pass through cars and you can look down the length of the train and watch it twist and bend around curves. The train emerges once from the depths to cross the Tiber and then dives back underground.

We emerge into sunlight, bellies rumbling and find a place to eat our first Italian meal together. We sit in the back of a small Italian restaurant, Enoteca Barberini, and I eat a dish of gnocchi soaked in bacon, mozzarella and pistachio that is rich and savory. What I like best is that it is just the right portion size. I don’t feel stuffed when I finish.

The Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is just up the street from the restaurant and we take the self-guided tour. The tour takes us through the museum first, before going down into the crypt. Everyone wants to see the crypt of bones, and the curators know they have a captive audience. Fortunately, there are some amazing things to look at, especially the old illuminated books that they have on display. Unfortunately, I walk through the museum in something of a travel-and-sleep-deprived fog. Looking at a photograph of Padre Pio, for just a moment I think I am looking at Sean Connery.

The crypt of bones is the real draw. Mark Twain visited the crypt and wrote about it in Innocents Abroad in far more detail and much better than I could do even if my brain was fully alert to everything I am seeing. No photos are allowed, but the crypt is as impressive as one might imagine a crypt decorated in the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuccin friars bones to be. And yet, as I pass through each chamber, I experience the same uneasy feeling as I did years ago when we saw a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater. There is something macabre about turning places of death into tourist attractions.

After the tour, we are all exhausted and we reverse our course: back underground, back to McDonald’s (this time for ice cream), back to the hotel, where our rooms are ready, and finally we can finally rest. Our tour begins tomorrow evening, which gives us most of the day to explore more of Rome.

My mind is now fuzzy enough where even simple math seems complicated, but I work out that I have not slept for thirty hours. I suspect I won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight. How many times could John Adams say that on his five week voyage across the Atlantic? Even now he is tossed from one side of the cabin to the other in a 3-day storm that seems like an eternity.

Read about Day 3.

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A Lonely Lighthouse

With our vacation coming to an end tomorrow, thought I’d write a little about some of the places we visited. For fun, I’ve decided to write about these places in no particular order. And I wanted to begin with a lonely lighthouse: the Presque Island Lighthouse.

The Presque Island Lighthouse, Est. 1873

One of the first thing I learned upon entering the lighthouse was that I’d been mispronouncing Presque Isle. This is what happens when your only experience with the name is through maps. I’d been pronouncing it “Press-key”. Actually, it is pronounced “presk.” The lighthouse rests along the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is amazing how much like and ocean the lake looks like from the shore.

Canada is about 26 miles across the lake, which I think is the same distance as the English Channel, but I am too lazy to check this at the moment. The light from the Presque Island Lighthouse can be seen for 13 miles. As it happens, a companion lighthouse on the Canadian shore to the north can also be seen at a distance of 13 miles. So ships in the middle of the lake can see both lighthouses as they pass by.

The first lighthouse keeper felt that it was too lonely out there by himself on Presque Isle. The longest resident lighthouse keeper lived at the lighthouse for 26 years, from 1901 to 1927. Interestingly, he retired when the island became too busy with tourists. Apparently, he enjoyed the lonely lifestyle, the mile long walk to the bay, and the canoe ride to shore when he had to reach the mainland. (Today, the island and lighthouse is reachable by road.)

Without it ever being tacitly agreed, visiting lighthouses has become a theme of our road trips. We’ve visited several lighthouses in Maine (most recently the Portland Head Lighthouse), a lighthouse in upstate New York, the St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida, a lighthouse in Mystic, Connecticut. It makes for a nice little collection that we look forward to adding to on our trips, a special kind of souvenir.

We all made the 78-step climb to the top of the lighthouse to see it demonstrated. (Today it uses an LED bulb.) There was a spectacular view of Lake Erie from up there.

Lake Erie, looking north

I like visiting places like the Presque Island lighthouse. It didn’t seem that lonely to me. It seemed peaceful.

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Where In the World Is Jamie Todd Rubin?

I’m interrupting these regularly scheduled posts to drop a quick note from our road trip vacation. Today, we are here:

I’ll have more to say about our trip in the days to come but so far we are having a great time.

Now I’ll return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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Back from Pittsburgh

I have been in Pittsburgh for work since Tuesday. My days have been long (between 12-13-1/2 hours a day) and I haven’t had any time to write here. I got back home late yesterday afternoon, and was so sleep-deprived that I was completely out-of-sorts. After a good night’s sleep, however, I am feeling back to myself again. I noticed that Kelly has the new house looking completely unpacked and setup. All that’s left to unpack is the other half of my office.

I had a view of this church during my stay in Pittsburgh this week. I desperately wanted to get to a game at PNC Park. Wednesday looked like the prime night, but I ended up working late. When I got to the hotel restaurant, the Pirates were losing 7-1. But they came back and won 8-7 so that would have been quite a game to be at.

There is also a small bookstore that I meant to get to around the corner from where I was working–Desolation Books. I didn’t make it there this time, but hope to get back there the next time I am in town.

I Have Arrived in Los Angeles

It’s my first time back to L.A. since 2011, and I’m finding it to be a very interesting experience. For those who don’t know, I lived in L.A. for nearly 20 years between 1983 and 2002. I used to come back for work more frequently, but haven’t been back for a while now. Having lived back on the east coast for the last 12 years, I’m noticing all kinds of things about L.A. that I think I just didn’t see when I lived here. Enough, perhaps, for an entire blog post…?

I won’t post the “picture from my hotel room window” because in Santa Monica, it would inevitably look out onto an anonymous apartment building and pool1. Instead, here is a picture of inside my hotel room:

Hotel Room

It is not the hotel I usually stay in when I come to L.A. for work, and being the orderly creature of habit that I am, I find it slightly disconcerting and am therefore more likely to mock it. But it’s right around the corner form the other hotel, and still within a short walk to the office… which means it is also a short walk to the ocean.

Even though it is almost 10 pm EDT, I have dinner plans with a good friend from high school in about an hour. Since I was up at 6 am EDT that makes this one of those looong days. But at least I got my writing done.

Tomorrow is the beginning of two very heavily scheduled days, so if things get a little quiet around here, please cut me some slack.

  1. See what I did there?

Hertz and JetBlue: 3 good customer service experiences in one day

Before it slips my mind, I should mention the series of events from Monday that led to three good customer service experiences. The family was up early on Monday and we packed the Little Man and Little Miss into the car with all of our luggage and made the drive from Newport, Rhode Island to Boston, Mass. We pulled into the Hertz at Logan airport and, as usual, one of their people came by to check out the car and give us our receipt. I was about to unload the kids from their car seats when the fellow says, “Would you like a ride to your terminal in the car so that you don’t have to unload?”

“Sure!” we said.

So he got us a driver and we piled back into the car. The driver took us right up to the curb outside the JetBlue terminal and helped us with our luggage, too. We avoided having to get all of the luggage out of the car, as well as the kids, loading it all onto the shuttle bus and then waiting for the various stops until we got to ours. It probably saved us 30-40 minutes. Way to go Hertz!

Once inside the terminal, we headed to check-in where, as it turned out, there was no line. We checked our bags and retrieved our boarding passes and then headed to security where there were lines. However, we didn’t even reach the line when one of the security people took us aside and led us up to the front so that we could zip through with the kids and our luggage. This helped save some time as well. Nice job, Boston TSA!

Finally, we got to our gate and discovered that our flight was delayed about 40 minutes. The cheerful gate agent (dressed up as a hippie for Halloween) asked if we wanted some animal crackers for the Little Man to keep him happy while we waited through the delay. When it was finally time to board, they took us right away.

The entire day was made easy because of these folks at Hertz, TSA and JetBlue going just a little above and beyond for us. This was our first trip traveling with both kids. We’ve heard some nightmarish stories, but these folks helped make our return trip painless.

And there is a postscript! Ultimately, our JetBlue flight was delayed about an hour. Late yesterday afternoon–without any prompting on our behalf–we each, Kelly, the Little Man, and I, received an email for a $25.00 credit on a future JetBlue flight. The email apologized that our flight did not go as planned. Now, $25 may not sound like much, but keep two things in mind: $25 x 3 = $75; and I think we paid $49 each way for our tickets, so it represents a 50% discount on our flight.

That’s pretty darn cool if you ask me.

Travel day… with 2 kids

It would seem that I didn’t post yesterday and I hope you will forgive me for that. Yesterday was a travel day. We headed up to New England for a wedding this weekend. It was also the first time traveling with both kids. The Little Man is an experienced traveller by now. Far more than I was at his age. Yesterday’s flight marked his 15th time on a airplane (by my count) and so it was old school to him. But we also had the Little Miss and lots of luggage and that added to the complications.

Confusion started the night before. We were trying to figure out what time to leave the next day and I was basing my estimate on the fact that we were leaving out of Dulles airport, about 25 minutes from our house. When I went to check the status of the flight, I noticed that the outgoing flight was out of National airport and not Dulles. I had a momentary panic: I thought perhaps I’d booked us out of one airport and returning to another. But it turns our National airport was our airport both ways. I had just completely forgotten about it. That meant we didn’t have to rush quite as much because we live only 15 minutes from National.

We took a lot of stuff with us. A garment bag, containing my suit and Kelly’s dress. A suitcase packed to the gills with the rest of our clothes and clothes for both kids. We had 2 strollers and a car seat for the Little Miss. We each had a backpack and Kelly also carried a diaper bag.1 We left the house at 9:45am and made it through security to our gate by 10:40, about an hour before our flight was scheduled to board.

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  1. In all of this, something is bound to get forgotten. And indeed, it wasn’t until we were on the airplane that I realized I hadn’t packed a tie.

Delayed a couple of hours on my way to Readercon

I woke up at 4am and discovered that my flight to Readercon had been canceled and I had been automatically rebooked on the next flight out of Dulles. I was originally supposed to depart at 12:30 and now my flight is scheduled to leave 2-1/2 hours later at 3pm. That gets me into Boston at 4:30, just in time for rush hour traffic I imagine. If all goes smoothly, I hope to be at the hotel between 5:30 and 6pm. That’s not too bad, it will allow me to check in, and grab something to eat before my first panel at 8pm.

“First panel” has a double-meaning in this case. Not only is it my the first panel I’ll attend at Readercon 22 (my third Readercon overall), it is the first panel EVER on which I am a participant. I’m excited about that.

And while I am disappointed that I’m not going to get up the convention hotel as early as I’d planned, I’m trying to take it in stride. I plan on leaving for Dulles around noon, heading into the Red Carpet Club once I’m through security, having a beer (in honor of #marygoround–one drink each time Mary Robinette Kowal is delayed) and getting some more writing done.

ETA: I’ve been rebooked on a 1:30 US Airways flight out of Reagan. So I” only an hour behind schedule.

Homeward bound

I’m inboard my flight back home just waiting for everyone to finish boarding before we depart. My seat was changed to an even roomier emergency exit row.

Still not a great night’s sleep last night but I’m happy to be heading home and seeing Kelly and the Little Man. I’ll probably be spending most of the flight reading the August 1940 Astounding which is good since I didn’t have much time to read during the week.

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Travel day

I head to Los Angeles this morning and by the time this post goes out I’ll be more than 40 minutes in the air. This was a last minute, work-related trip. I’m taking the early flight out because it gets me to LAX around 9am and I can get into the office by about 10 giving me a nearly-full day. That is above and beyond the work I have to do on the plane.

I hated saying goodbye to the Little Man last night. He just got back from a trip of his own on Thursday and now I’m heading off for 4 days. It’s getting harder and harder to leave him behind, to say nothing of Kelly.

The flight is less than half full and that means a quick boarding and maybe a little extra room.

Back with you on the west soon…