NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Sunday, March 31, 2013

#26—The Sad Sweet Story of How the Pope Didn't Bless Me But Vittorio Kissed My Hand On the Bus

It may be strange to link Easter and my dental emergency, but that's what yesterday came down to.

To begin the day, yes, I was one of the 250,000 in St. Peter's Square to receive the Pope's blessing. Four hours later, I was searching for a dentist as it was now clear that my gum was not healing properly following my February dental surgery. As the easter festival continues into Monday, nothing would be open, no one would be be on the job. Including dentists.

But before we proceed, I must tell you that the plant-gift to la mia familglia has burst into bloom so that it's now more than 18" in diameter. I'm not sure at what point one is required to buy a ticket for a plant. However, Cinzia (we are now on a first-name basis) is pushing the envelope.

Mentioning Cinzia's name makes me think that perhaps Volusia is actually Voluzia. Either way, she's a charmer. I had actually planned to check on her and the spelling yesterday but instead had to deal with my emergenza dentale, as I am leaving for rural Italy on Tuesday where the amenities in my hotel, you may recall, include a hairdryer and mosquito net. One of the things that made me think, ten or so years ago, that I wanted to visit this place was the Web site that said the people of this area like to kidnap the children of rich northern Italians and hold them for ransom...and that you can see psychic old women sitting by stone houses bleeding from the forehead....
All that drew me to investigate this place that informed my genes...alas that was also before I got old and had gum surgery with possible consequences.
So anyway, you'd think I would have learned from last week to stay away from the mob in St. Peter's Square. But no. Initially, I thought I had it all under control. While the swarm was moving forward, I would keep moving back. I could see over their heads, while also being able to breath.

However that was at 10:15 a.m. Thinking myself exceedingly cool, I asked the poliziotto in Italian at what time Il Papa was going to appear. Adesso, he said, sulla balcone. Hey, great...any time now, on the balcony. Forty-five minutes later, I realized that I should know that in Italia, "now" refers to some hour that is probably within my lifetime if I live another 20 years or some moment that could be called immediate relative to eternity. It's like receiving directions. Left is left, as west was west to Cristofero Columbo.
So anyway, I kept moving back...until suddenly, there was no moving back. I was, if you saw the crowd, right smack in the middle of the 250,000 "pilgrims" as the Huffington Post called us. Oh come on, we weren't pilgrims. We were idiots crammed together in the hot sun for two hours.

Not that there weren't transcendent moments:
At one point Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" filled the square. Nobody had to ask us to stand. It was sublime, despite the heat and crush of people. But then a German woman in a bright pink sweatshirt tried to push me out of my viewing spot where I had a perfect view of the balcony between the shoulders of a 6' man and a woman about my height. F U, I said with my eyes in a very non pilgrimesque attitude as this big teutonic blonde tried to intimidate me out of my spot. Hey, I deserved this blessing, and she was not getting in the way of it. But she was also determined, trying to push me aside with her elbow as she raised her massive camera that could easily have passed for some weapon wielded by Attila the Hun. I assumed my martial arts stance. Perhaps realizing I wasn't giving in, she moved in the opposite direction. Okay, I was ready for my blessing from Il Papa!

An ambulance siren drowned out Handel. The ambulance passed. Handel returned. Surely this was the prelude to Il Papa. Hallelujah! But then silence. A prayer. Followed by some huge baroque-sounding music. Surely THIS was the prelude to il Papa. The balcony remained bare...and then, the crowd shifted. I could see nothing but the sky. And there, in the midst of the music, gulls began soaring over the square, and I thought of my little seaside neighborhood in Netarts, Oregon...friends and family from Oregon to Nevada to Pittsburgh, and I thought: What am I doing in this mob of people. I already have my blessing. I am blessed by all the people I care about and those who care about me...blessed by my cats...blessed most of all by all that I have lost in my life and the hard-won lessons of loss...blessed by all I have been given, both deserved and undeserved. The faces of students, the difficult ones and the ones I loved passed through my mind and heart. No one, not Il Papa, no one could bestow a blessing upon me...blessings come from an awareness within. I was never so aware as at that moment of the miraculous wonder of simply being alive. I wanted to leave the square, to go back to my apartment and try to write about my mystical moment. But I was trapped in the mob of 250,000.

My first Sunday here in Rome, I went to an exhibit where one of the descriptions of a painting contained these words: "Faith consists in a marveled glimpse." This is clearly a translation from the Italian. Consists in...should be consists of...or is it really consists in...

And now, someone beyond the crowd began talking in Italian over the loud speaker (No big-screen TVs this week) about the divisiveness of greed and the importance of hope and dedication in bringing peace to...OMG, it was hot, and he kept mentioning the people of Asia, Africa...the entire world. Then suddenly, there was the benediction. But wait, where the hell was Il Papa?
OMG, it was Il Papa who had been talking! He wasn't on the damned balcony. Or if he was, I missed the whole thing! And now suddenly, the 125,000 people in front of me had turned around and were walking down Via Conciliazione, away from the balcony. All I could do was wait for the other 125,000 to plod their way out of the square, back into the world.
It took me nearly an hour to get out of the square, after which I went home to pee. For as wonderful as Italy is, there's just no place in the supermercato or biblioteca to pop in for a pee. No Golden Arches reaching out.

After what felt like the second spiritual release of the day, I had a great gelato experience outside in the neighboring Piazza while also savoring my real blessings in life...I was sublimely happy...after which I returned to my apartment for a coat, as it was now getting which point, I realized I can no longer ignore the fact that my gum was getting worse, for it had now started to bleed.

The recognition of this fact was followed by a terrified online quest for a dentist. This is Easter in Rome.
To make the story of a desperate search shorter: Cinzia was no help, just sitting there getting bigger and bigger. So after an online search of dentists in my area, I realized no one is answering the phone. Across town, Dr. Marullo answers...It's 2:30. She will see me at 6.

Taxis were few and far between. It's Easter in Rome. A well-dressed couple tired to hop the line. I joined in the shriek at a real Italian. I finally get a cab and arrive early just to be sure I'm on time. Her voice had given the impression that she is rearranging her entire life for this appointment. After half an hour, I still have a 45 minute wait. I'm standing in front of the big iron gate of the large apartment building housing her office...watching a woman open the hatch back of her Smart car and then lift 2 3 , no four..."Are you the patient?" she asks. "Yes," I say, "are you the doctor?" "Yes," she replies, as she lifts out the fifth dachshund and sets it on the street beside the others. "Here," she said, handing me two leashes, "you can go for a walk with us."

We return to her office around 5:30. She is somewhat accusatory about my early arrival and leaves me sitting in her large and quite luxurious waiting room. The walls are a rich bright butter-yellow. To my left, puff art of faces. Forward and to my left, dark, haunting religious works. "Oh," she says, coming out of her office, "Is it 5:45 or 4:45?"

"5:45," I tell her...last night we kicked the clocks ahead...a detail she hadn't realized until looking at her mobile phone more closely.
I'm eager to find out the problem with my gum, but she asks if I would like tea or coffee. I'm exhausted, scared, and hungry. I go for tea. She brings me a small plastic glass of tea on a silver tray adorned with a yellow napkin and glass paper weight enclosing a lovely purple flower. She says her Iranian mother would not approve of the tea, but it is a sweet fragrant tea, the best tea I have ever had in my life. We chat. She wants to start a revolution...keeping children healthy with free dental work and access to sports.

While on our walk with the dogs, she asked about my work and wanted all the details. After hearing the story of my excommunication from the public education system, she told me how some Italian schools created popular TV commercials promoting health among children, only to have them cut from the media for no reason.

Finally after tea, around 6:45, we got to the exam. The doctor was typical Italian, her operatic temperament translated into an analysis of my gum issue that sounded like I should just cash in my teeth and be done with it. In the end, she prescribed a gel and found me a pharmacy that caters to anytime emergencies. No serious problem with the gum, really...(I hope she's right), just some gum topical gum infection.

The cost: 40 Euro for a holiday call plus a cab ride across town and the medicine...$60 roughly In America, half of what it cost Medicare the last time I had wax removed from my years on a Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, I had realized that I was actually in walking distance...4 to 5 miles...from my apartment. So I decided to walk back, having received instructions from a nice couple with a dog. "You just go straight and turn left at the piazza," the woman had said, pointing right. Hmmm. "Dritto (straight), I said, "e poi a destra (and then right)?" Si', she confirmed.
What she didn't tell me...I should know by now...was that this route would take me through a tunnel with no sidewalks and a speed limit close to the speed of light.

So I asked this friendly looking man who was passing by if I might take a different way. He spoke no English.
The next thing I knew, he was volunteering to get me on the right bus and accompany me back to my hometown piazza. We exchanged names. Joan...Vittorio. The bus was in ritardo...late. We began to Italian. I am from gli Stati Uniti. He works in a supermarket. I mention my love of Italian bok choy unlike any I've ever tasted in America. He raves about Italian vegetables. I was a teacher...I'm in Italy to learn Italian...he is astonished at my ability to communicate...I love Italy...he is so happy and clearly proud of his city...he is off to Piazza del Popolo, no reason, just for passiagiatta (a word which in English has no translation other than walking around for the entire evening into the night with no purpose except to find out what you might enjoy and have some food and drink). As we waited for the bus, I also explained I'd an emergenza dentale...he was concerned with the fervor or Roberto Benigni in "Life Is Beautiful. The bus arrived...we got on (busses are free!!!) and were standing, holding onto the bars as he asked why am I studying Italian.

As I described the upcoming visit to la mia famiglia, he grabbed my hand and kissed it with unfettered flair and began to exclaim the wonder of this in Italian so effusive that it almost turned into music.

We arrived at Piazza del Popolo...or was it? I now have no idea where I am. I see a sign telling me it's across the street and head in that direction in a speed one might call velocemente...not passiagiata. Long story short, Vittorio asked why I am walking so fast. I should relax. go more slowly...tranquillo, tranquillo. Try gelato. Gelato is good for the teeth. I explain I'm tired and need to find the only Farmacia open tonight so I can get my medicina.

He does not appear to understand. It's passiagiata, he keeps saying. A couple in love asks if we will snap their picture. Vittorio takes forever to frame it up. I want to run away, but he has been so kind. Finally, after three shots, the foto is pronounced perfetto by the three happy people. I began walking fast once again. Vittorio suggests getting something to eat will help me. I am now so tired that I can't speak or understand with any clarity. It's at this point I realize I am standing in a piazza in Rome with Vittorio who works in a supermarket and is out for a walk around town and thinks gelato will cure my gum infection...and that I now have only a vague idea of how to get back to my apartment and find the only open pharmacy with the medicina for my gum. And there before me is this lonely Vittorio dressed in a blue blazer, a frayed gray sweater, jeans crumpled up over his scuffed shoes. All he appear to want in this world is for me to slow down and enjoy passiagiata with him.
The only words that come to me are da solo, by myself...he appears stricken.

Earlier, when I'd begun walking fast, he did ask my age. When I told him 70, he was stunned. Forte, molto forte, he cried (strong, very strong). I would put him at maybe lonely he must have been to want an old lady to have a cup of gelato with him...and yet there I was leaving this poor lonely man...after he'd so sweetly saved me from the tunnel of doom. Nevertheless, I left him there alone in Piazza del Popolo...wishing I could bestow upon him some of the richness of my blessings of that morning.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, March 30, 2013

#24.2: Truth and Beauty...dedicated to Volusia

This is just to say that my final musings about Truth and Beauty will be about the old Roman Forum and Trajan's Marketplace, which is across the street from the forum. These sites have been my favorite and before my final reflections, I want to return to them before writing #24.3.
I first encountered Volusia on my way back from my first trip to the forum. I was photographing a block of ruins on Via di Torre Argentina. These ruins date back to a time before Caesar.

Sitting on a bench watching rush-hour traffic zip by was

I then spotted this sign:

As you can see in the last line, there is an invitation to visit the shelter that cares for the abandoned cats who live in the ruins. It took me several tries to figure out that the shelter facility was actually down in the ruins. Ah, yes, this is the shelter I'd read about: Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. This group helped in the effort to remove the vast number of cats that had taken over the Colosseum. Laura, a volunteer at the sanctuary gave me an indoor tour of the large and comfy room for the cats who, unlike the feral ones in the ruins, are adoptable. She said the last cat removed to the sanctuary from the Colosseum passed on to the Big Cat Santuary in the Sky just several weeks ago.

It was also Laura who told me my calico friend was named Volusia. There's another popular calico on the other side of the ruins named Oprah Winfrey. And oh, my you should see the very handsome boy named George Clooney...if you're interested, he is adoptable.

Laura said they've tried and tried to bring Volusia inside, but she hates it and is always sneaking back out. She loves hanging out on her cement bench and hobnobbing with tourists and folks in the neighborhood. She's blind in one one knows how this happened...but clearly doesn't feel sorry for herself.

There are various feeding stations throughout the ruins. And despite the sadness of so many abandoned cats (i gatti abbandonati), it is a very happy place. As the brochure puts it, this is "the place where emperors once ruled and cats now reign."

It's a truly remarkable Netarts own United Paws...and no-kill animal shelters everywhere. There was so much peace in the sanctuary. Especially in the section with the non adoptable cats who had health issues including neurological disorders and deafness. As I was talking to Laura, the deaf cat interrupted us with a very loud MEOW, letting Laura know that she wanted to get back inside her cage for a snack...un spuntino.

There is, I think, a gift that comes with loving animals and entering their world. At least, this has been my experience with the nine cats with whom I've shared my live over the years. Each of these cats has taught me something I needed to know at the time. Entering their world, I enter an entirely different consciousness. And also a different way of exploring the world. I can't recall exactly the words of Henry Beston from "The Outermost House." But what he says is that we need a "more mystical concept of animals" because they come to us from past more distant than ours, with a wisdom about life that we have forgotten or perhaps never knew.

When I get back home, I will be exploring these thoughts more in my blog "The Romance of the Netartians."

Meanwhile, perhaps we should all be mindful of supporting a shelter or spay-neuter organization near us. Instead of more abandoned animals, the world could use more of the wisdom of animals. And oh by the way, Reno, Q and A, and MO, I hope you don't mind that I gave your spring allowances for i vostri spuntini to Volusia!

So, to end this, I say here's to you, my fearless and sweet little Volusia...and to all abandoned and mistreated animals everywhere...and to those humans all over the world who are dedicated to making the world a better and safer place for these animals.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

#25—Truth and Beauty Interrupted

Sunday. Buona Pasqua. It rained all day yesterday. Good Oregon weather. Good Oregon sign:

My musings on Truth and Beauty were interrupted yesterday. I had to go shopping. In Italy, it's mandatory that you take gifts when visiting. Never mind that I am spending hundreds of dollars to journey south to meet the family. I needed a gift. There are also rules...I am getting this from my teacher at the school...pastries are superb...not "cheapo" either, but very expensive pastries...this did not seem like a good idea as I'd have to buy them more than 24 hours in advance of giving them, perhaps even longer. Also pastries would be abundant, given the season.

Flowers are acceptable, but would be surely doomed as the pastries. This left the last option: a plant... and orchid being the most valued gift option.

Two days ago, I bought one a beautiful white one. However, imagining myself carrying this tall, lanky beauty on a five-hour train ride began to concern me. I also checked out the street view of my people's house and discovered the one I previously thought was theirs is not. Now I was really concerned because the orchid would have to be potted. The house I thought was theirs was adorned with plants. The one that is really theirs has a few, not thoroughly joyous plants on the balcony...and so yesterday, I bought another plant. More sturdy, already potted, lovely I think...well, take a look...the wine bottle is there so you can get an idea of the size:

Now here's the thing. Fabio is picking me up on Tuesday morning at 6. I thought I could just walk around the corner for a taxi, but my conversations with the taxi drivers did not convince me that the cabs would be lined up there as they are during the day. I have come not to rely on the words that say si' and the gestures and look in the eyes that say you are, in fact, dealing in unreliable probabilities.

Therefore, Fabio will be dropping me off at Rome's very large ( as it appears from the map) train station at rush hour carrying a large day pack with a change of clothes, a purse with emergency gluten-free food not likely to be found in rural Italy, a secure fanny pack with money and tickets...and a plant. I believe I've decided on the shorter one as it will be easier to hold in my on the five-hour train ride. I have drawn the line at buying the plant a $100 ticket for it's own seat.

I am trying not to picture myself trying to get my ticket out of the very secure fanny pack (small metal loops locking the zipper) while holding the plant. I imagine some Roman commuters will have something entertaining to talk about Tuesday morning at work.

You will notice that the buds are beginning to flower on the shorter plant, which means by Tuesday it will be wider. And I have to say that wondering if my gift will be good is adding to the stress of wondering what to expect at my $50 a night hotel by the railroad tracks (amenities to include a hair dryer and that mosquito net)...and how will the plant and I then find our way to Maierato...only 20 miles away, but without any formal transportation system linking it to the world.

And now there is the question of figuring out what to do with the plant that doesn't go.

The man who sold it to me raved about the white orchid's beauty in a manner that would rival the feeling conveyed in the painting of the ecstasy of St. Teresa that I saw at the Borghese. As a Facebook friend noted about another artistic rendition of St. Teresa's ecstasy: "I'll have what she's having."

There is no messing around with something of this magnitude in a country were e stands both for ecstasy and empire.

I'm not sure how to end this. Except perhaps to be continued in #25.1: "Me and My Plant on the Train to Maierato." Coming to a computer near you sometime this week.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, March 28, 2013

#24.1—Truth and Beauty: The Crossed Roads of the Cross

My first thought upon entering the Colosseo (coh-loh-SAY-oh)...was: Hey, this reminds me of going into the Pitt stadium. Pitt Stadium was where the Panthers played football when I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh (1960-64).

As with Pitt stadium, you enter il Colosseo from underneath the bleachers. It's dark, and there's nothing but the massive cement and steel underbelly of the bleachers. Well, actually, in Rome the seats weren't referred to as bleachers. But like stadiums today, there were cheap seats and not-so-cheap seats. Wealthy women were in the third tier, below all of the poor. Politicians, of course, were in the first tier, closest to the slaughter, with wealthy male citizens in tier 2.
I pause here in the narrative to note that in recent years, Pitt Stadium was demolished so that the Pitt Panthers then played downtown in Three Rivers Stadium, also home to the Steelers (Stillers to you Pgh. fans)...which was also in very short order...30 years...demolished and replaced by Heinz Field. Wow, that's a heck of a lot of demolishing in a country that makes up 5% of the world's population but uses 25% of the world's resources. I'm sure someone had very good reasons for demolishing two massive stadiums during my adult lifetime, but whatever those reasons were, they annoy me. Maybe I still haven't gotten over the tearing down of Forbes Field where from the 10th floor biology lab, I saw Maz hit the 1960 World Series homer to beat the Yankees in that final game.
But I long as I'm annoyed:
I went to see an exhibit on Cubism (more in another blog) where there was a preview of the next 2015 Universal Exposition on sustainable living for the planet to be held in Milano. Check out the official site at
Click on 125 partecipanti and look for the American flag among the participating nations. I guess gli Stati Uniti must have been all booked up through 2015.
And did you know: the use of capital punishment in Italy has been banned since 1889, with the exception of the period from 1926 to 1947...during rule by the Fascists. I believe that currently in America it's possible to project how many prison beds we will need in the future by looking at the current reading scores of third graders. Perhaps those states that have not abolished the death penalty should reflect on these details, as well as the fact that we're learning through DNA that those on Death Row are not always guilty of the crime for which they've been convicted. And maybe we need to do some more serious reform of our education system. Race to the Secretary Duncan calls it. Race to the Top of What?
I also believe that it was in 1749 that Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum a sacred place because of the martyrdom of Christians there. He did this by posting the seven stations of the cross around the oval amphitheater. However, the Pope's motivations were not entirely spiritual. It seems that Romans were forever ripping off marble and brass from the place and recycling it for more contemporary uses.
In fact, the seats in the Colosseum are all gone...recycled...and its possible to see big holes in the huge block walls where the the brass spikes used to hold them together have been dug out. In short, while earthquakes, fire, and time have taken their toll on the big oval amphitheater, it should also be noted that after Romans gave up empiring, they took up recycling.
Oh my, but life is full of's tough when even your annoyances are ironic.
So what did they do with...the debris or whatever the word is for that which has been demolished...imploded, which is apparently what they did to Three Rivers...and all those old Las Vegas casinos. Garbage. Landfill. Wait...let me google it...I'll be right back....
I wish I hadn't looked. The Carnegie Science Center actually raffled off tickets to determine who got to push the button to implode the stadium...not quite 31 years old. By contrast, the Colosseum opened in the year 80 A.D. So anyway, after Elizabeth King of Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh pushed the button, it took just seconds for the stadium to implode into 8,000 tons of scrap metal and concrete. In fact, the YouTube video was 38 seconds, only half of which was the actual implosion.
I couldn't find out what they did with the mess. They biggest concern, so I read, was that debris would fall into the new stadium, Heinz Field, which is only 65 feet from the old stadium.
Pittsburghers, is this true? It sounds so crazy I am having trouble believing it.
65 feet away? Wait...I've got to google this again....
Yep, from the pictures, this appears to be the case.
Every Good Friday, the Pope leads a procession around the stations of the cross at the Colosseum. I wish I'd gone last night. I understand it is quite a mystical experience, no matter what your faith. I'd forgotten about this event and made a reservation at the Borghese Gallery late in the day. It's quite a walk away. I haven't been pacing myself and last night at 8 p.m., I just crashed.
Honestly, the beauty of the Borghese was exhausting. Oh yes, the Bernini sculptures, the Caravaggios, and the Raphaels were stunning. But the gallery itself a structure of such opulence that it's hard to wrap your mind around it. I found it almost crushing to the spirit.

The gallery was the palace of Cardinal Borghese who had no particular faith but was nephew to the pope so got himself a very lush appointment. Cameras are not allowed inside which, as you might imagine, thrilled me no end. More later on how that changed the viewing experience. For now, I will just say that it's impossible to describe the massive rooms painted and gilded and filled with paintings and sculptures from antiquity through the 17th century. The bust of Cardinal Borghese reveals a man who loved food, wine, and beautiful things. We would all enjoy hanging out with him, I think, but in the end it might be voting for someone for president because we'd like to have a beer with him.
Anyway, in Bernini's sculpture The Rape of Proserpine, the marble fingers of the brute actually dig into the marble flesh of the woman. You can actually feel the woman's frantic cry in her marble of struggle to get away. Bernini's David is in the act of flinging the stone at Goliath. How is it possible that marble can move? I believe it was Napoleon's sister who posed, quite scandalously at the time, in the nude as Venus for sculptor Antonio Canova. The marble that Canova turned into a fine silk coverlet doesn't quite cover Ms. Bonaparte's butt's astonishingly real that I felt kind of pervy marveling at it...until two exceedingly refined German couples began discussing it in what sounded, even in German, like delightfully pervy detail.
You have to strain your neck to look up at the ceilings in the Borghese. My first glimpse of what I was about to behold was through an ordinary doorway leading up from the entrance. The gold, the color, the marble, the vastness, the pure unadulterated opulence literally stopped me in my tracks. I didn't understand just how high the ceilings are until I climbed the stairs to the second floor. They just went on and on and on.
And you know how my friend mentioned that Caravaggio was not a nice man? Well, there's a painting Caravaggio did of David holding Goliath's decapitated head. That head is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. The painting was apparently a request to the Pope to forgive his breaking of the Thou Shalt Not Kill commandment. The artist had fled and wanted to come home. The face is grim, dark, and haunted, painted with no hint of compassion for himself and without any hint of the chemistry of the fireflies he ground into his paint to illuminate the faces of those called by holier spirits.
No, I wasn't there for the stations of the cross last night. The Via Crucis. But I guess in a way that writing this was a trip down that road...forgive us for what we are doing to our planet and ourselves as a people, for we know what we are doing but continue to do it anyway.
I will continue my walk down the Way of Truth and Beauty...thumbs up, down, and sideways in 24.2. I hope you will join me.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

#24—Truth and Beauty

Last Monday, I took a guided tour through the Colosseum,

and I am going to fill you in on the real truth about the ancient emperors and the whole thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing as I learned it from the guide, Valentina. In short, what you learned from Russell Crowe in "Gladiator" and Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus" is not entirely true. But before getting into the nitty-gritty of this, two things must be said:

First, don't ask me what that damned cord is and why the heck didn't move two feet to my left before asking that nice young Chinese man to snap my photo.
And second, it must be said that a young dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian woman, say Valentina, who speaks English with a serious Italian accent and some grammatical errors is without a doubt the most sensual presence on earth. Whereas, a small gray-haired woman, say me, who speaks Italian with a serious American accent and some grammatical errors gets an E for Effort. No one said life would be fair...but does it have to be this unfair?

On the other hand, who, other than those who don't pay attention or don't care, would say life is fair. Certainly not poor John Keats...whoa!, what's England's famed poet doing in a blog about Rome? In fact, the other day I went to the Keats—Shelley Museum that stands right next to the Spanish Steps. Here's why Keats is remembered in Rome: In 1820, after a year when his writing flourished, the young Keats tried to save money by buying a cheap outer seat on a long cold and damp coach ride through the English countryside. Immediately afterward, he developed the first signs of the TB that would take his life at age 25. He had thought getting away from the English winters to the mild Italian climate might save him. But no, he died in his apartment—Piazza di Spagna #26, right next to the Spanish the Keats / Shelley Museum.

It's odd to think that John Keats actually had an address. We're used to meeting him in our high-school texts, as in Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Well, no, that's not all ye need to know. Ye need to know that if you go to this museum without your passport for ID, you're going to have to walk back nearly 2 miles to your apartment to get the damned thing. Why in the name of heaven and poetry do you need a passport for admittance to see the room where John Keats died? It's actually quite macabre. The bed on which he died is there, along with the original fireplace and the original ceiling (except for the smoke detector and sprinker) and the chandelier. Beside the Italian walnut bed is his death mask. Is there a terrorist list of those who might toccare the silk cover on the bed when there is a very large sign telling everyone non toccare.

Keats is buried in Rome in the non Catholic cemetery under the fabulous epitaph: "His name was writ in water." Oscar Wilde proclaimed the gravesite to be the holiest place in Rome.

To be honest, it wasn't my kind of museum: four small and dark rooms lined with books you couldn't touch and glass-covered cases with letters and manuscripts from 19th century literary luminaries who either had terrible penmanship or wrote so small that reading them would have surely led to a serious headache.

However, there was a great documentary video about the second round of Romantic poets: Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I enjoyed observing the contrast between the staid voice of the British woman narrating the facts of their lives and the passion with with the three lived and wrote against conformity and political and intellectual decadence. My personal fave of the three Romantics was Shelley. You gotta love these lines upon feeling all the autumnal currents ever present in your life: from "Ode to the West Wind": Oh lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud...I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed...."

If you ask me, and no one at the museum did, that Romantic passion is very Italian. The video, however, was presented with an academic highly British attention to fact that was impressively informative and, well, presented with a reserved and precise diction that was the antithesis of the nonconformist lives being described.

Those three Romantics lived with passion driven by freedom and love of nature. Tragically, they all died young.
Not long after Keats succumbed to TB, Shelley drowned while sailing in a storm. The fiery Lord Byron took a more political stance in his poetry and in a magazine called "The Liberal. However, he was driven from England by contemptuous criticism and, like Keats, caught a chill in a carriage ride and died. Why are poets not appreciated in their lifetimes? I guess they're safer when dead.

The staid tone of this very British museum was a fascinating contrast to the Italian temperament bubbling eternally about it. First, no admittance without a passport. And then, I believe it's without exaggeration that I tell you I have never received more specific instructions on any process than from the young British woman who, after checking my passport and graciously receiving my 5 euro entrance fee, gave me the directions into the room with the video. Now, we were standing in a tiny room with a curtain off to the right of the cash register, about six feet away I'd say. With three of us buying tickets, it was hard to move about. You could hear the video playing behind the curtain. Any idiot would have guessed what was happening and would have known what to do. Step through the curtain to watch the video; follow the arrows up the only stairs to Keats' apartment. Yet the instructions were detailed to the point of being redundant.

Contrast this with instructions by Italians. "To the left," may be absolutely correct but without taking into account that after one goes left, one will be faced with five or six choices of diagonal streets going off in every direction. As I went upstairs after watching the video, ticket in hand, rather than pocket, as per instructions, I thought that Byron would have ignored the order of things and gone upstairs first just to be ornery.

Now the orientation video was superb, don't get me wrong, but also academic in the manner of a scholarly thesis. Even the tragic descriptions of the deaths of these three great English poets were fine tuned to the last detail. "Now I will go to sleep," said Byron, and he did, among all the historical dates of carriage rides, meetings with friends, and other ho hums. And yet, the passion with which this museum was founded and has been maintained for a hundred years is profound.

On my second walk back to the apartment, I began to think:
The temperaments of the Italians and British could not be different. But the passion for beauty and truth in any language is forever linked.
People may disagree on what beauty is. And the search for truth is confounding in any language. But the passion with which those who wish to preserve beauty and seek truth is an unbroken bond shared now and forever by all lovers and seekers.

And there was something else...when Italian speakers read the poems of the Romantics, it was lovely, but not so lovely to me as when English speakers read them. It's been tempting while here to wish I were Italian. At my age, perhaps at any age, I could never have become a native speaker. But as I heard my native language of English spoken beautifully, I was reminded that British and American English can be beautiful. Although I do recall a conversation with two young men on a train from London to Salisbury. They asked what I did for a living, and I said I taught American literature. Oh, one said, "I didn't know you had any."
That was back in 1985, and I'd been trying to think of a comeback ever since. Finally, on the way to the airport for this trip, Pete came up with, "Oh, yes, we've improved on yours." Well, I guess satisfaction 28 years late is still satisfaction.

So why aren't we in America prouder of our language?
Why have our schools allowed children over the last three decades to become so lax in their language? My grandfather went only to the sixth grade, but when he went to Washington to work during WWII, he wrote many letters back home about the war effort. They are exquisite in their description, and beautifully and correctly crafted.

Is texting such an obsession that the lost of conversation will become so lost that we forget it exists. A statistic in Harper's magazine back in 1990 pointed out that teenagers averaged 30 seconds of meaningful conversation with their parents per day.

Has the elimination of the arts and respect for the humanities in our schools diminished our capacity as a people to understand our history and creative spirit...or even to articulate it except in bumper-sticker phrases such as "We're #1."
#1 at what? Look at what we've voted into Washington where language is used to insult, avoid, confuse, and manipulate truth.
What is beautiful to us as a people?

A friend mentioned the other day in an email that I've perhaps been a bit too hard on photographers. I haven't meant that. I have also taken lot of pictures that I will enjoy for the rest of my life. What I've meant is that in these hurried times, too many people appear to be living through their digital appendages. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the finger on the button or touch screen.

Yet, I can't help wondering what we humans are going to do to ourselves and our planet if we don't take the time to experience and reflect on what has been made universal through the thousands of years of human experience.
Yesterday, I went to see Michelangelo's Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli. The church opened at 3 p.m. A crush of people pushed through the door and rushed to the the church where standing jammed in front of Moses, the snapped pictures and were gone before 3:10. A few of us lingered on.

Now, you can view Moses from two sides...naturally, one would think that the best angle is frontal. But I found that standing on the side offered a different, possibly even a more direct look at Moses' face. I didn't find him the terrible purveyor of Old Testament commandments all the books had led me to expect. What I saw was the face of Michelangelo's David grown older and even wiser in his understanding of the gigantic task before him with all of its implications and hazards. He knew that despite his mighty strength, the effort would depend more on inner fortitude.

Another friend emailed me to point out that while Caravaggio may have been a master artist, he was a disreputable character, leaving death and destruction in his wake. In fact, in an earlier post, I mentioned that it's thought that Caravaggio ground added the chemical from fireflies to his paint to achieve that luminous effect. Does being a great painter give one the license to squish probably millions of fireflies to death?

Stay tuned for more musings on truth, beauty, Valentina, thumbs up, thumbs down...and thumbs sideways in the Colosseum.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, March 25, 2013

#23—Why in America don't stores sell...

oranges with leaves? Or do I just shop at the wrong stores?

And oh yes, here is my consolation that I mentioned in #22: Amarena a destra (on the right) and cioccolato a sinistra.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, March 24, 2013

#23—Habemus Papem...sort of

Palm Sunday. Quando a Roma, si deve fare come i romani.
or something like that.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

The Vatican announced on the internet that the Pope would be offering blessings at 9:30 a.m. Having gone to bed around 2, I got up at 8 and prepared to join the crowd. This amounted to drinking only a small cup of coffee. I figured that the last thing you would want is to have to pee while standing in the middle of a hundred thousand people.

So off I went, bundled up for the chilly morning. Except an hour later the sun came out. The legendary Roman sun. Also by that time, the modest crowd had turned into a throng behind me. You may have seen me...I was about thirty yards from that big the right of it facing the basilica...and about six rows back from the fence separating those standing from those who somehow got seats.

After an hour of the massive sound system fading and rising, they seemed to get things under control. There was a kind of pause in the religious proceedings going on far in the distance on the steps of the basilica (see below). All of a sudden organ music blasted across the Square like something from the beginning of a Bela Lugosi movie.
Ah, at last, it was time for the Pope to come out on the balcony. I watched the curtained door for il Papa. Nope, no Papa. The proceedings on the steps continued.

After about two hours, it seemed that the mass should be winding up...when all of a sudden three priestly looking men got up and began telling the story of The Last Supper. Now I'm seeing this from afar. Or rather I'm not seeing it...except on the occasional moments when I get a glimpse of one of the large TV screens to the left and right of the Basilica.

The story of the Last Supper gave way to the denial of Christ by Peter and the betrayal by Judas. Hey, wait, this is Palm Sunday. They were getting ahead of themselves. While I was impressed that I could follow the Italian, I suddenly began feeling a bit dizzy from the heat and dehydration. I became panicky that I would turn into an emergenza. I remembered the temptations of Jesus and all the saints and tried to ignore the fountain...the large gushing fountain...the sound and sight of water...lovely darling close yet so far.

Finally, the stories ended...I watched the famed balcony for a hint of the white-robed blessing. But then a gentle voice began delivering what had the sound of a potentially long homily about living in the way of Jesus and experiencing the joys of that way. He had to be kidding. I was shriveling up out there in the sun. Where the hell was the Pope? I glimpsed the TV...OMG, it was Il Papa delivering the homily. My bad.

A man's cellphone began ringing. Rispetta. Rispetta! came the demands for respect. A woman in an orange scarf began trying to work her way to the metal gate holding us back from the favored crowd near Papa Francesco. This set the nearby crowd aflame, which only aggravated the woman more...words began flying...until a motherly looking woman spoke quietly to her...all I could hear was the word tranquillo...the woman with the orange scarf settled down.

To my right, a tiny ancient woman in a fur coat began turning white and fanning herself. She needed air. Her daughter began looking around for a way out that did not exist. The crowd, full of charity, parted willingly to let the old woman and her daughter up to the metal barrier where she could see and get a breath. Now, it's not very Christian of me, but I began to wonder if the brisk manner in which the two moved through the crowd might have suggested duplicity.

I did notice on my way to the Square a stooped beggar woman in threadbare black garments...a heartbreaking sight indeed until I turned around and glimpsed the good-looking high-heeled boots under her mourning garment.

So anyway, as the religious proceedings began winding down with those involved processing off the steps, I figured Papa Franceso would dash up on an elevator to wave us all a blessing from the balcony. Suddenly, people all around me began lifting their arms, waving their palms...all I could see by standing on my toes and peering through was a string of priests making their way around the perimeters of the crowd. The priests were shaded from the ungodly sun by men in crisp black suits carrying large yellow and white umbrellas. By this time I was beginning to mutter bad words to myself because I was caught in a terrifying crush of people and being claustrophobic began to feel a panic attack coming on. What was happening...oh, communion for those who could reach out beyond the metal barrier. Was this some kind of sadistic joke on those beyond reach....

For one like myself who finds holiness in stillness and quiet reflection of the natural world, the fervor was disquieting. Still, I thought how glorious to be swept away by such faith.

Even so, I decided to us all my inner resources and past experiences of moving against the crowd to exit the crush. Finally, I made it past the worst of it. But then I was really ticked off because Papa Franceso had hopped on the Popemobile and was moving through the crowd right past the metal barrier where I'd started the morning.

I followed his course around the square by watching the pointing of cameras up in the air. As he came directly in front of me, a small child behind me on her mother's shoulders began to shout, "Papa! Papa!" The crowd swept forward, as if drawn by a magnet. Even the police abandoned their posts. This was Big.

This is what I saw:

This is what I had waited for three hours to see. I suddenly felt obsessed by the need to see the Pope. I'd invested an entire morning. But then in a flash of insight that I'm sure was as bright as the one Paul saw on his way to Damascus, I realized that my obsession was idiotic.

So off I walked, freeing myself from the inferno. And looking up, this is what I saw: The Pope in his Popemobile on the big TV screen on the street leadiing into Saint Peter's Square: la Via della Concilazione. The Way of Consolation.

I will not be repeating this experience for Easter. It could take until then to resurrect myself from heat exhaustion and dehydration. I think instead I will go across town to Santa Cecilia and turn my thoughts to what I will do when I get home from this grand adventure. The anti Christians cut off Cecilia's head for what she believed. What would I be willing to give up my head for...or perhaps just some of my time.

Meanwhile, I'm off for my real consolation of the day.
Stay tuned for a picture.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

#22.1—Images Worth 1000 Words

What you miss if you rush by on your way to see the Caravaggios:

My apartment. Via Teatro Pace #36. (The dark orange with the white car in front of it.) That's me on the first floor, which in Italia is really the second floor.

See where the one shutter is closed, third window from the right. I'm sitting inside that window typing.

Laundry day the little plastic lines on the rack, lower right, leave creases on the clothes so I look like I just unfolded myself.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, March 23, 2013

#22—My Moment with Carravaggio

Well, it all started out when I got to the famed Spanish Steps and found them blocked off by metal gates and giant speakers. There is, as I write, a big international gathering sponsored by WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, for people concerned about the welfare of animals. I am one of those people, but I am writing this and dedicating it to gli animali instead of going...because, people, it would be a long walk back to the Spanish Steps. And having got lost to and from there already today, I decided to stay home and do my rather large Italian assignment for Monday. Plus, I am tired and already had quite day...I mean, it's not every day that four hundred years vanish between you and a great master so that your eyes meet in a moment of shared tenderness and grief for the world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I discovered the Spanish Steps were closed, I hoped on an elevator because I didn't realize there were side steps. In the elevator was a man who suddenly began talking to me about the state of the world. It was only 2 flights up, but by the time the door opened, I knew he was from Bangladesh, had been in Italia for 3 years, and was going to meet his brother negli Stati Uniti next year. There are no jobs in Roma, no work, no food, no beds. He is going to America...I didn't have the heart to warn him. We said goodbye overlooking Rome as the crowds flowed along the road.

I'm sure it wasn't this jammed with people when Lord Byron lived across the street in #66. Or when Keats came to ponder his mortality before dying of TB.

It was not a day for pondering my mortality but for breaking free of the crowd. It's also in this area where Gucci, Prada, Versace, and their pals peddle their wares. Window shoppers appear in droves. And by the way, I thought Swatches were inexpensive watches. Ha. The one I liked best was 85 euros. So off I went down a side street. Very quiet...when all of a sudden I came upon the Rome Museum of Modern Art featuring an exhibition of works by writers and artists from 1900 through the 60s...Pirandello, Ungaretti, Moravia, and many other Italian Futurists.

I don't think the work of the Futurists, Italian or otherwise, has ever been made so clear to me: The fragmented abstractions that comment on the coming of the machine, the possibilities of travel, and the growing complexity of life with all it's various facets...the still lifes showing the importance and difficulty of focusing on the everyday things to anchor ourselves in the mechanistic and changing world.

I liked the thought expressed by Ungaretti that the artist must live in the extreme because this is the only way of getting to the bottom of things...and the thought, I believe by De Chirico, that the time for depending on myths and fables was over...he preferred adventure with all its contradictions and risks as a way of escaping the cultural myths. It seemed to me that this described my own desire for my current adventure. The poet and artist have always been among my favorites. I thought it interesting that a form at the end of the exhibit asked not just my opinion of the exhibit. but also with which artist I identified most closely.

So many of the artists were influenced by the two World Wars. In a way, the exhibition was like Pirandello's 6 characters, all in search of truth in words.
All the artists were grappling with disappointment in a world besieged by suffering brought on by the absurdities of war. They acknowledged the need to find new ways of looking at reality, yet despaired in that reality. The art was not depressing but rather reflective. Like looking into a mirror and seeing myself in this time when in addition to the machine, we have technological devices that have turned the world into a place run by programs and systems and menu items.

The different technologies have different rules, strict and unyielding rules like medieval religion. As with my iPhone. Before leaving America, I called Verizon 4 times so thought I was good to go, had covered all bases. Nope. As you may recall, I had to buy a phone here so I could call to find out how my iPhone worked. Even then, it took three more people to get me to the person who told me what to do. It was as easy as touch tapping one OFF to ON. This is crazy.

I learned from Frontline just shortly leaving that there are even more PTSD cases among soldiers operating drones than pilots flying actual bombing missions. Remote war saves people's lives but blows their minds. What the hell are we doing to ourselves?

The museum itself was a gem. Quiet. Not many interested in contemplating the Italian Futurists. They were playing music, friendly Italian music, very much like a CD I've had with songs made for waltzing with cats. It's driving me nuts...the title of the song with that mellifluous Italian tenor voice...oh when I dance with a cat, how light I become on my clumsy feet, sweeping about the living room with my big round and bunchy orange prince Reno until he refuses to put up with the humiliation. How sweet of the museum to remind me of those tender moments of life in the midst of the Futurist response to twentieth century decadence, suffering, and mechanized complications.

Time for gelato after the long walk back home. Amarena. Made from Italian Amarena dark cherries often used in a syrup. It was cheerful...with creamy swirls of red and pink and white and bits of the dark cherries. I like Tre Scali gelato. It's outstanding plus they give you a really big cupful for 2 euros. Gelato spoons are teeny tiny plastic spoons made for teeny tiny tastes to be slowly savored. I was refreshed and ready to continue my day.

From the piazza, I went around the corner, not knowing of the mystical encounter awaiting me in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi...the French National Church here in Rome. The attraction drawing the mini swarm making its way to the left front corner of the church: the three Caravaggios: The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

I've always liked St. Matthew, the teacher. And Caravaggio, master of light. The thing is, these large paintings are tucked up in that left corner of the church that is completely dark unless someone puts a euro in a box to light them up. I never timed the light, but I'd say you get about five minutes per euro. During that five minutes, the people swarming in front of the marble railing start elbowing each other as they try to snug up to the rail to get just the right angles...left...right...straight on for their pictures.

Every time the light goes off, you hear this loud "Ahhhhh," as if the home team just couldn't get the ball from the first-yard line over the goal for the winning TD. Not one cheap maniac with a camera ever put in a euro for light. I watched. I had time to watch because when I finally made it to the rail, the light went off. I stepped to the right to drop in a euro and the small space I left filled so I now had to work my way up again. Nature and photographers abhor a vacuum.

From behind the swarm, I looked at the pictures in the little camera screens. I wondered what these people were going to do with their pictures. I mean, they didn't really look at the real Caravaggios. How much genius can you see through a lens...or in digital image, no matter how many pixels...I watched them holding up iPhones with one hand, trying to remain steady as other iPhones and clickety Japanese cameras were going off all around and in front of them.

And yes, The Voice was back: Silenzio. No Flash. Silenzio.

A woman in a Campbell's soup T-shirt zig-zagged in front of me, shot The Calling, Inspiration, and Martyrdom with her white iPhone and was off.
I looked at St. Matthew's astonishment at being called by The Lord...the light on his did the master do that?...perhaps in the spirit of the universal moment, both saint and artist were also anticipating the astonishment of the present moment.

In the Inspiration, St. Matthew has paused in his writing...the angel suspended in the air above him appears to be counting fingers. I'm sure there is a religious symbolism to this...but with the somewhat quizzical look on the saint-teacher's face, he appears to be doubting that in the future people will be as ridiculous as they are and that it is his job to write something to teach them what spirit means.

In the Martyrdom, a perilous figure is standing over the saint who is lying down. The perilous man has a weapon in one hand and with the other has grasped the downed saint's a marvel of art, it is difficult to tell whether Matthew is reaching for or refusing a branch extended to him by an angel floating over the grim scene. Perhaps that lifeline could lift him from the grasp of the diabolical strength of cruelty. Is he reaching for or resisting salvation...then again, when it comes to sainthood, maybe resistance is also reaching.

I finally made my way again to the marble rail. The colors...the figures...the magic of light in all three works are all infused with an indescribable spirit. How did Caravaggio do that?

The light on the paintings went off. "Ahhhhh."
Silenzio. No Flash. Silenzio.
I heard the sound of a euro dropping into the box. The light went back on. The swarm came and went and came again. Finally, I could no longer stand the jostling and stepped back behind the swarm.

In the upper right corner of The Martyrdom, Caravaggio painted himself, dark eyes and beard, into the picture, gazing over the crowd, unable to get past the gaggle of ineffectual onlookers to the endangered saint. And suddenly, our eyes met—Caravaggio, master of light, and me.

And I knew just from his look that he had been waiting, watching over all these 400 years for those who would recognize that Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Meek, and those who Mourn, for they shall be comforted as they maintain the light in this dark world. Blessed, too, are the Artists and Teachers who remain fearless in answering the call to walk into the dark of the human heart to bring forth the light.

Blessed also are all the animals, to whom I dedicate this on a night of international commitment to recognizing that the quality of a culture is evident by the way the people treat animals, both wild and domestic.

And finally, Blessed are those who can just put down their cameras and phones for two minutes and then shut the F*** up while they see, feel, and absorb the wonder of art instead of taking home a digital image that's no more real than the Colosseum turned into an ashtray.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

#21—Going With the Flow

The first time I used the washer in this apartment, I thought the clothes came out wet because I took them out too soon.

My first hint should have been that on the first day Signora Stella said, Be sure to hang the clothes in the bathroom. Or put a towel under them on the wood floor.

You see, in Italia, people do not use dryers. I got used to clothes hanging all over my Florence apartment. But at least the washer would wring them dry.
This washer...the first time my violet jersey was wet on only one side. Same time this go round. I only hope it was the other side.

The bottom half of my cranberry jersey is totally dry; the top is sopping.

The bath towel: sopping. beyond sopping.

My black cotton slacks: sopping.

I have only two bath towels, and I didn't want to wring out anything the remaining dry one. So okay, I'll use the blanket on my bed. I mean, if I don't get some of the water out, they'll never dry. I'll figure out what to do with the wet blanket later. Except. And I do not exaggerate. The blanket did not absorb any moisture whatsoever. whatthehell??? The blanket, after I wrapped dripping jerseys and slacks in it, is still totally dry. The clothes will perhaps be dry tomorrow. It took 29 hours for underwear and the sopping half of the violet jersey to dry.

I got a quote this morning from one devoted reader recalling Galieo's thoughts on reason. I think that even this master of truth would be stumped by all of this.

Stai calmo...sei a Roma.
Yes, I am in Rome and calm. I used an extra sheet to remove some excess water. But even the sheet was pretty non absorbent.

With both traffic and water in Rome: you must go with the flow.
And the traffic like the Tiber is full of history. Not the facts of what happened but the currents.

The cars move fast. Most drive those small Smart cars and motorcycles because there's really no place to park. They go fast. I mean really fast. The only time any Roman appears to obey rules is when red lights turn green. Little as the vehicles are, the drive big like the ruins...with the attitude of Empire. If someone is lingering in a crosswalk, there is an immediate cacophony of horns and epithets filling the air.

The day after I arrived, I was terrified to cross a busy street so I followed a man with a baby in a stroller and a baby in his arms. It was at a crosswalk where cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians. But even the man with babies and a stroller had to swerve. But in a way, it was like a dance.

I mean, it all moves here like molecules in the sea. For all the speed and craziness, I have seen not even a single fender bender. I have read that in the cosmic mathematical mind, every particle of water in the sea knows what every other particle is doing. The Butterfly Effect, I believe it's called. That's Rome. No one ever stops. They may slow a bit or swerve. But unless there's a red light, no one stops. Even if there's a red light, the drivers seem to keep moving. The readiness is all. Like cats waiting to pounce. Like Hamlet awaiting providence in the the fall of a sparrow.

Everything keeps moving as it has moved for over 2500 years. The traffic is like the Tiber, full of the currents of history, changing, the same...I love the story of a political race for a top job in Ancient Rome. The race got so hot, the candidates were afraid to go out in public. When one candidate tried to speak on the rostrum, now part of the ruins, those favoring his opponent went up on the stage and pulled him off.

The rostrum is where Marc Antony roused the crowd against Caesar's assassins. Beware. The flow never stops, but the currents are alive with a mind of their own. I really do hope the washer got the other side of the violet jersey.

Yesterday, there was a bus strike. A million Romans had no way to get to work or school or wherever. Nothing, however, seemed to slow down.

My teacher was a big late. She was in favor of the strike.
Potere al Popolo, we said raising our socialist fists. It was a nice bonding moment across age and cultures. (She's probably in her late 20s)

The conversazione led from one thing to another. How could Romans be so crazy. No one got a majority in the last elections because so many Romans were crazy enough to vote for Berlusconi, who promised to pay back people's taxes, and a whacky blogger. Bersani, the man of intelligence, will now have to work with the idiot factions.

I commented on the i politici pazzi...crazy politicians negli Stati Uniti.

Perche'? we asked...Why?

You know what we both thought about our countries?
The root of the problem, we agreed, lies in our education systems.
Young people for too many years have not been educated to think critically and for the greater good.

So, it appears that I may have come to meet the Italian Cousin of America's Ghost of Christmas Future here in the place where the first grand Empire came and went. The currents, it would seem, flow only in one direction.

In the short term, if I'm lucky: the washer hit the armpit it missed last go-round, Congress won't slash Medicare, and I won't be so eager for the next gluten-free pizza that I will rush too carelessly across that busy crosswalk.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, March 22, 2013

#20—OMG: Zabaglione...and Senza Glutine!

Okay, there are people in this world with real and serious illnesses. I am very grateful that I'm not one of them. Still, celiac disease can be a tribulation, especially when traveling. Everything you put between your lips could make you sick. At Christmas, I mistakenly ate a cracker and the side of my face swelled up for two days. It's not like an allergy. Celiac is an autoimmune disease, so ingesting anything with gluten can have consequences, both external and internal. It's very difficult and socially isolating to be afraid of food, especially when traveling.

I walked around Florence and now Rome where streets are lined with marvelous restaurants of all sorts...where people sit outside enjoying some of the world's greatest food, I must order a salad while others order pizzas and pasta that look so beautiful they should be in a museum. It doesn't help that I'm a vegetarian as well.

Of course, I ordered the book Gluten-Free Italy. The title was hopeful. The reality was not. Until today:The Florence choices never panned out. I didn't have high hopes for Rome. However, I had read about this place that has gluten-free pizza. You know me, I love the quest. #33 Giubbonari. It's a short street after the very large and commercially crowded Piazza Campo di Fiori. Sorry, Rick Steves, I don't find it the charming place you claim it to be. Nice fruits and vegetables. But crowds. And wares upon wares loaded with gluten.
So map in hand, I go looking for my last best hope. Probably a fool's errand.
On this short block that starts with #77. No way is there room for #33. Except I remembered the nutty numbering system in Florence. My apartment #66 was next to a store, "25." So I plodded on...#44....#37...ah ha...a Spagettetaria...!!! #33. I walk in. Speranza in my step. The conversation commences in Italian. Not only do they have pizza vegetariana senza glutine...they have an entire gluten-free menu. I was on my way to Trastevere across the Tiber so asked if I had to order ahead...was there some secret to getting this freshly made delight. No just stop back.

Now, this is ridiculous, but I walked down the street with tears in my eyes. Food. Real Italian food in Italy. Pizza. Real Pizza. Sorry, Amy, you try with that frozen stuff...but it's just not pizza. I was so excited I decided to buy myself something to celebrate. I stopped on the bridge to Trastevere and bought a bracelet from a sweet old man from Honduras. I chose the red and black leather, although for 5 euro I'm pretty sure it's vinyl, Red and black, I said to him in Italian, the colors of revolution.
Oh, no, no signora, red is the color of love.

He was very excited that all his bracelets came on and off with lo stesso sistema...the same system. And it is pretty clever the way he's worked it out so you don't have to tie the end, but just slide the twiny stuff at the ends. Bad description. Blame it on the tumbler of wine (story to come below)

So with my red and black braccialetto, the colors of revolution and love...whatever...I was off to check out Trastevere, home of the churches of Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria...I was early for Santa Cecilia...they close mid-day. On my way to Santa Maria, I stopped at Fiori di Luna, Flowers of the Moon for gelato. I don't know why I picked it, but something was in the senza glutine...and, there was this very charming young college woman behind the counter, working while her on her semester abroad...we chatted about how we both wished we spoke better italian. So, I asked her as I gazed through the glass at the colorful creamy wonders, what in the world is Zabaglione? (I have since learned it's a well-known Italian dessert.)
Oh, she said, as if delivering enlightenment from one of the archangels, its kind of the flavor of eggnog with Marsala through could actually see tiny wisps of the Marsala.
Oh, I said, why not. Would you like something sopra (on top), she asked.
Well, maybe some of that crema.
I paid a modest sum as gelato goes and went on my way.

But after the first tiny plastic spoonful of Zabaglione with a touch of Crema, I stopped dead on the Via and said aloud: Oh my God.
Now, I've had some pretty fantastic gelato. But eggnog with marsala topped with crema: All I can say is that it's so good, no one should be permitted to eat it in public.

And you don't have to take my word for it. Ask that woman outside the Church of Santa Maria. She was practically dancing.
All who'd tasted of the Flowers of the Moon settled down and went inside Santa Maria of Trastevere.

It's hard to describe churches. This one was exquisite with the giant mosaic above the altar where Jesus had his arm around his mom, introducing her to the world. It was even in its opulence and magnitude very tender. The face of Jesus in this mosaic, like the face of Jesus on the altar was the face of a man you could believe in: More simple than sacred, more real than the stunningly beautiful marble inlaid and undoubtedly highly expensive floors...even as prices went in the 14th century. Oh, yeah, right where the church now stands, someone discovered oil back in 30 B.C. I wonder what Rome would have become if it had been a major gusher and not just a handy reserve for lighting lamps?

On my way back to Santa Cecilia, I bought a purple sweatshirt from Ahman from Bangladesh. He took Italian lessons upon arriving here so we compared schools. He had started out hustling me, offering me 7 euros less than the going price for sweatshirts so after we exchanged names and stories about learning to talk Italian and he convinced me the purple really was better than the blue for me, I gave him the going price.

Then down the road to Santa Cecilia's. Breathtaking, really. Although not only for the simple pale blue beauty of the marble walls and modest but elegant appointments. St. Cecilia's tomb is right up in front of the altar. There is a marble likeness of her carved by the artist who was there when they opened her original tomb and saw her body whole before it turned to dust. On the marble sculpture, there's a gash in the neck. Cecilia was beheaded for her beliefs. I sat in the church soaking in the simple beauty and wondering what I would be willing to give my head to.

Now, you'd think someone working in that church today under that kind of pressure to give it your all would be quite other worldly. Not the jolly nun in the old traditional habit working the book store. She spoke no English, so we kind of made do as I asked if it's really true that il Papa leads a candlelight procession around the Colosseo every Good Friday. It appears that this is true, although she didn't know what time. And so I was off pizza vegetariana senza glutine.

Oh, but before we leave, how would I describe the section of Rome called Trastevere. Home to these two exquisite churches, yes. But the place itself has an attitude that could be summed up by this sign outside a small, informal ristorante:

I decided to bring my pizza back here, relax after a hard week at language learning and enjoying the heck out of Rome. Well, actually, that's not the real reason. I didn't think I could eat the standard...looks like possibly a 16" to 18" pizza. And I wasn't sure how to ask for un sacco per il canissimo...or if they do doggie bags in Rome.

So anyhow, while waiting, I ordered glass of vino rosso. Now, I thought it would be like most places. A huge glass. A tiny bit of wine. But no. What I received was...well, how to describe it... a short tumbler filled with exceedingly delicious chianti.

Now I had a dilemma. This was enough wine to last me more than an evening, and my pizza, my nice hot senza glutine pizza would be ready presto. What a sin to just leave wine in my glass. In short, I drank the whole thing, finishing up several minutes after the arrival of the steaming hot pizza. The waitress was quite thrilled to here this was my first pizza ever in Italia. She lifted the lid and showed it to me. I thought I was going to cry. It was beautiful, laden with tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, olives.

Not tipsy but elevated, I set out with my treasure box, choosing the quickest, surest route back. A hapless old man got in my way. I almost jammed him with the corner of my box. It was only when crossing near the mobile telephone store that I realized that unlike last Saturday, I now knew to turn right and zip around the corner back to my apartment. Exactly a week before, I had taken this same route but missed the apartment by twenty minutes as I was racing around trying to figure out how to get my phone and internet working. I also had no idea where the grocery was and no point of focus that wasn't clouded by jet lag.

The pizza senza glutine was thrilling. I loved the cardboard box...the whole ritual of opening it, laying out the lid, rolling the roller over the pizza, lifting up a slice dripping with the savory tomato sauce, kind of collecting all the saucy stuff up in that little valley of pizza crust...and yes, the'd never know it wasn't real gluten crust. It looked, tasted, felt, smelled like real crust. It even sounded like pizza when I sheared off the first bite...crisp but also chewy. I was sublimely happy. Maybe the happiest person in the world. There is one slice left, only because I could not bring myself to eat the whole 17" (let's give me the benefit of the doubt between 16 and 18)....
I think I better go for a walk.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, March 21, 2013

#19.1—From Creation to The Last Judgment

Perhaps it was being caught up in the swarm yesterday that led me to this stream, or shall we call it swarm of consciousness:

When last I left you, I was going up the down stairs into the Sistine Chapel. La Cappella Sistina.

It must be said right from the first that any attempt to describe this work of surpassing genius is impossible. One can only describe the experience of seeing it. All along the way there were signs reminding the visitors that the chapel is a sacred space and that one should behave accordingly. Visitors would probably have understood. The swarm, no. Just as you can hear the sea from a distance, I could hear the chatter rise as I ascended the steps and joined the swarm swarming into the holy place.
You enter on a marble floor raised three or four steps into the chapel which I recollect from reading is 143' x 44'.

Above you, Michelangelo's holy figures step out of the biblical times which suddenly become real. "Silenzio," cries a strong Italian male voice. "Silenzio! No Fotos. No videos. Move off the steps." (English is the universal language for instructions...Instructions follow in Italian, French, German, and something I think is Dutch.) The swarm quiets...for about 10 seconds. The chapel is dark, like twilight in your house in fall. Still the colors above and about are vivid and alive. I move across the raised altar to the far wall just to comprehend the majesty of the chapel without being jarred or carried away in the swarm.

There is a kind of bench along each side of the chapel with a step up. The benches are packed. I sit on a step. I breath quietly, trying to separate myself from the swarm. I feel it begin to happen. The frescos tell me the same stories of creation, the flood, and the prophets that I learned in Sunday School some sixty years ago. In the back of my little church was a stained glass window with Jesus praying in the garden just before...

A bench seat opens up. I'm there. I begin the tour with Rick Steves. I chose not to get the audio guide because I wanted only to look. to feel It was the right choice. Rick gives me just enough info to get my bearings. Glad he pointed out the "two moons" in the fresco illustrating the separation of day and night...sun and moon. Some guy is mooning the viewer. It's great. I feel like Michelangelo and I have suddenly become friends over the century.
The chapel is now real, not a grand work of art meant to take away the breath, although it does from time to time when I stop studying the intimate details of each section of the ceiling. And...when I suddenly stop looking forward and up and look back at the wall over the altar: OMG:
In English, we would say The Last Judgment
In Italiano: Il Giudizio Universale
The sound and feeling of the latter really captures the spirit of the thing.

Now here's an interesting point: The characters in the back of the chapel, Michelangelo did first. When they took the scaffolding down so everyone could see, everyone but the artist was blown away. The characters, he thought, were too small. Isn't that just like an artist, apparently of any caliber, it's never quite right. So anyhow, the characters that he went on to create were bigger and more dramatic.

I didn't just see the blue of Mary's garment. I know you will think I have already been in the land of opera too long when I say to you that blue changed my life. I don't know how to explain it. The blue was so pure that it took in my spirit and woke it up. The background of The Last Judgment wall is blue, but this blue transcended all blue. It was blue. Heaven. Summer, the season of fullness. Truth. Comfort. Mom telling me yes when Dad said no and then talking him into Yes.
Silenzio. No fotos. No videos.
I wanted to help this man by shouting: Will everyone please shut the F*** up.
Just stand here and look.

The swarms came and went. I remained. Not saying a work. Not wishing I could have a video or foto. Trying to memorize the place the feeling the spirit for I might never see it again.

Michelangelo completed the chapel after war and corruption had torn his world apart. The Renaissance was fading. He had lost his faith in humankind. In the middle of The Last Judgment, at Christ's left foot, St. Bartholomew is holding a flayed skin with the head of Michelangelo himself, twisted, grey, shriveled. Below are the damned. The whole thing is beautiful until you notice that this judgment thing is serious business. No one is laughing or happy, even those going to heaven.

I thought of that mummy back in the Egyptian room. so still in the midst of the swarm. I got up from my bench seat and walked into the middle of the swarm.Above me, the Creation of Adam. Ahead of me The Last Judgment. I looked at individuals in the swarm chattering away. I wondered if there were any molecules of air in the chapel that Michelangelo might have breathed. Did he and Raphael hang out or do lunch on their breaks?
The swarm reminded me of the chaos among the damned in The Last Judgment. But as I looked at the individuals making up the swarm, I felt an overwhelming compassion for us all...mummies in the making.
Suddenly, music. A celestial chorus. The swarm fell silent. Where was it coming from? What was the meaning of it? The music continued, and the swarm went back to swarming.
Silenzio. No fotos. No videos.

I seemed to be alone with the music, a choir of filling the chapel. The music would be what Michelangelo would have created had he been a composer.
Like one among the condemned looking up toward that pure blue of promise, I studied that gray shriveld face and wondered if Michelangelo felt what I now felt. The art in the end is irrelevant. The music filled the chapel. A tear rolled down from each of my eyes. I wanted to sit down on the floor and weep.
Silenzio! No fotos. No videos!

I wanted to shout at the swarm Could you just Shut the F*** up for 2 minutes.
I remembered old white-haired Mr. Stilley leading the hymns in my little hometown church. There was just that one window. It was a plain little mill town church. But as a child, I had the same feeling there as in La Cappella Sistina. The same feeling when I am at the monthly potluck at the Netarts Community Club. The same feeling I had in the classroom on those magical days of teaching. The same feeling I had when I would stay up on Christmas Eve watching St. Olaf's choir with my mom because I knew one day there would be a Christmas without her. The same feeling I had sitting at the lunch table with my dad listening to his same old stories because I knew one day the sound of his voice would vanish.

What I experience in the chapel was not the feeling of living in the moment that is so popular today. But rather the aspiration that I might live like that color blue in the midst of noise and people who take pictures instead of looking, in the midst of injustice and war, in the midst of careless attitudes toward life and the creative spirit.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

#19—Goin' To the Chapel

Full discloser: I am not fully responsible for the contents of this blog post.
I would like to sat the illumination comes from above. But I am and have been for a somewhat short while been drinking A Montepulciano d'Abruzzo called Illuminati.

So first off, what would you think if the person who sold you a very expensive ticket for il Museo Vaticano so that you could skip the line said, "You go to St. Peter's Square, and on the left side, you will find an office where you give them the ticket. They will show you where to go. So you would go to the square, right...and look for the office on the left, right? Wrong. The office is on the left, but down a street and around the block where you will find lines of people numbering in the hundreds. Actually, 30,000 people a day. It's Easter, and we've got a new Pope.

Gasp. I didn't drink a lot of water at lunch because Rick Steves said sometime il bagno is closed. By the time I raced to make the designated time, I arrived at the museum parched and in a state of high anxiety...relieved to find myself staring at all the lines beside a couple from the U.K. She asked me if I knew where the online reservation line was. I asked her if she knew where reservations not made online were. The only calm people were the massive groups of teenagers led by well-informed guides.

I was here for a mystical experience in the Egyptian and Etruscan rooms, in the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The teens were having a great time texting, bantering, and being young and loud.
So the UKers and I figure it out, get in, go through security, and wish each other luck. I am told by a guard that I take my reservation to "the woman under the sign." I go to the woman under the sign. She gives me a ticket that I tuck in my Rick Steves book. We have greeted each other in Italiano. "Oh," she says recognizing my accent, "would you like me to speak to you in Italian."

"Sure," I reply. I get the directions but in the stressful process forget that she has given me a ticket, so the guy upstairs says my reservation slip is no good. I need a ticket from the woman under the sign.
I say I have been to the woman under the sign and she sent me up here.
He shrugs. The Italian shrug. I go downstairs. I have been to the woman under the sign, I say, but she told me to go upstairs...the man upstairs tells me to go downstairs...the bell of mercy and condemnation rings...the agent closes her window on me. I want to shout...what the F****...but she has closed her window to help me get to the woman under the sign...who shows me the ticket I should have...which I forgot I had.

I follow the swarm of people to the entrance of the museum. I cannot describe what it feels like to be in a mass of wall to wall people going through...well, how about the teenage girl making a cellphone call while standing in front of the mummy of the woman who died 3 millennia ago. I wondered what that ancient woman would have thought if she suddenly came back to life and met that young girl with her cellphone. I wondered what that ancient woman wanted from life...did she get it...her mummified hands were so sweet, delicate...her face seemed peaceful...nice haircut, short and did ancient Egyptians cut hair. People are swarming all around me. Hundreds of people. Cameras are flashing. So many have not come to look or commune but to take pictures. I am freaking out. This is crazy. I retreat to the Etruscan Room. No one is there. Who the hell were the Etruscans? No one cares about the Etruscans, the more civilized neighbors of the early Romans. They have some cool vases and stuff. But everyone is just passin' through, goin' to the chapel.

In the Room of Muses, there was an incredible bust of Pericles. Alive. The marble was inhabited by the mind and spirit of the great man.
So was the bust of Julius Caesar in the map room.
Even in those blank marble eyes, there was wisdom, power, and spirit.
It seems interesting that of all the marble around Rome, these two heroes of their time were able to inhabit the marble in ways the gods and lesser figures could not.
The Map Room was wild with a spectacular gilded ceiling and ancient maps all over the world. But it was wall to wall people.

Some kid kept tapping people on the shoulder so they would turn around and find no one. In the days of the ancient maps, the world was still flat. To bad it still wasn't so that kid could fall off.

I moved with the swarm into the Raphael Rooms. The School of Athens...everyone remembers that great work laying out the duality between science and faith.

The old finally gave way to the new...through neither science nor faith, just plodding along...the contemporary collection acquired in recent years by the Vatican. My fave was a very fat cardinal in red walking across a green field. It was called "Going to the Ecumenical Council."
Il bagno was open at the foot of the stairs where the swarm was makin' its way to the chapel. I stopped...and then...I was tired of it refusing to go with the flow any longer I went up the down stairs to The Chapel...stepped through the door...and...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Well, nothing says Rome like fountains. Here I am at the Trevi with my envelope of coins I would soon toss over my left shoulder to fulfill the wishes that some sent with me.

I realize I am not hip here in Rome in my orange bag and sneakers. In Rome, it's leather purses and tall leather boots, often with heels that would have me in knee surgery within the day. But, hey, I'm not hip in Netarts either. Perhaps one day I will rise to the level of eccentric and my casual attitudes toward dress will be justified.
I have wondered if the Italian attention to fashion has to do with the fact that it is difficult to feel important here where each tiny person is surrounded by ancient, massive and beautiful gods breathing marble into life. When your head would fit in the hand of one of these gods, you think twice, at least subconsciously.
In America, the land of incessant reinvention, everything is new again and again.
It's not quite 8 in the morning, so I am not even going to try to draw a conclusion from this.
Oh, there is a story of reinvention. Remember the restaurant, Scalette Degli Artisti? Well Maddelena started it at another location back in 1939. It was bombed to smithereens during the war in 1943. A single mom with kids, she started again at the present location. It was an old building with a staircase (scallette) up through the middle of it. The place was filthy, but she apparently had it all spiffed up in three days and open for business. It was very popular with everyone, especially the artists.
Now, the Pantheon is a place where the gods, Christians, and artists come together:

Here is Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon:

It was said that Nature resented the artist when he was alive and when he was dead wondered if it could ever rise to his level.

Something extraordinary flows from Rome. History, spirit, and the human condition with all of its possibilities, tragic and creative. Yesterday, I went to the old forum, today to the Sistine Chapel...I am wandering the maze of glory. A sign on at an art exhibit said Faith is the miracle of wonder.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#17—Entering the Ruins

Good morning, Everyone,
Looks like another sunny day like yesterday in the Eternal City.
First, it must be said that there are these gluten-free crackers I found that are not the usual semi-delicious gluten-free snacks one comes to expect. I am extremely glad they describe the caloric content in figures unknown to me.
And of course, there is the gelato. Sadly, the pistachio I started with was nothing to write home why then why am I writing about it. Duh. But il cioccolato. OMG. Rick Steves told me that Tre Scalini has the best chocolate, so hey it's Rick. I went. The choice: with or without nuts. Nuts. for the protein, because Rick also said protein is good for jet lag. And of course we all know that chocolate boosts seratonin levels. I had all bases covered. All I can say is that I do not know why I practiced Zen all those years in order to transcend impermanence. It happened for me right there in Piazza Navona with the Fountain of the Four Rivers gushing forth. I was ruined for any other gelato the world over.
All this took place an hour or so after dinner at Scalette Degli Artisti, a small place I came upon while wandering around dragging my invisible chains of jet lag. Sunday night. Italians eat late, so I was the only customer...I like the way waiters and waitresses stand outside the restaurants and hustle business. I pause, having notice the word artisti. The conversation began about vegetariana and senza glutine. Ah, they could make a special risotto for me. Come, come, inside or was a bit chilly, but what the heck, out. They lit a big propane heater next to me. Something to drink...water to rehydrate after my day traipsing about Castel Sant'Angelo aka Hadrian's tomb.
To get there, one has to cross a 1900-year-old-bridge which is in tip-top shape. I am definitely not in Portland or Pittsburgh.

Now, I haven't seen the pyramids. But I have to say, in my view, no one does tombs like the Romans.

I sprang for the audio tour. The highlight was at the end, just below that bell you can see to the right of the statue on top. It's the bell both of mercy and condemnation. It's so Italy! The audio tour ended at the climb to the top level of the immense cylinder by instructing you to look up at the parapet just to the left of the bell, from which Tosca jumped to her death...and suddenly the audio was playing Puccini. And there was Rome all around me at my feet bustling and ruined, dead and alive, tragic and eternal.
Back across the old bridge where some yogis were doing their thing.

See the wooden stick one is holding to support the other?
Earlier in the day, I decided to walk to the Vatican, which is just to the left of the castle. Story of my life: thousands, and I mean thousands of people were walking away from the Vatican as I was approaching. The Pope had just given his first blessing. But I missed it. I was disappointed. On the other hand, I would soon have the blessing of that cioccolato gelato.

I stopped for mass in St. Peter's Square. It was jammed. I was in standing room only. Next to me was a young man who had some mental disorder. Maybe 30 years old, with probably his father. He kept rejoicing and reaching out with his hands, to touch something, it seemed. People were shushing him. I wondered what he may have been touching in that sacred space.

There was a sign off to the left (note for those who care...I can't do accent marks on my iPad external keyboard, so I add them so - e')
Chi a voi e' senza peccato sceglie il primo pietra.

Come on, you can get it...hint: peccato is sin and pietra is stone.

Oh yeah, my dinner. The waitress was a young actress from Santiago, here with her husband who is studying music. I was going to save money by not ordering wine. How stupid was that. I had a white which until the gelato was the ultimate bliss. The risotto was a sensation of sight, fragrance, and taste. What is there about food that .... well, what can I say, I'm such a hypocrite, rejoicing that we now have a pope who took the name of the dear, impoverished saint who lived only for God and social justice.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad