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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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