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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

44.3—Scoprendo L'Eroe Tra Due Mondi (Part 3 of 3)

I entered the Etruscan exhibit expecting to be charmed by the artifacts of a sweet ancient people. So I was surprised but intrigued to be greeted by a large poster entitled Un eroe tra due monde—A Hero Between Two Worlds. 

The exhibit, the mission statement said, was part of a larger project dedicated to Hercules who is “the hero of indomitable strength, but with a fragile humanity and extraordinary courage, fiercely challenged by the hardness of living.” In facing his trials, the statement added, Hercules won immortality. And it was for this reason that he has become a symbol of heroic humanity throughout both ancient and modern art.


The Etruscans were a small people—not tall or concerned with matters of empire. Not heroic by the standards of popular American culture. Or by the standards of ancient Rome where virtue was defined by manliness exhibited in war and therefore not an attribute of women who were praised for their modesty. 

Near the beginning of the exhibit was the content of a tomb transferred intact. The artifacts reveal modest living, and the figure in the corner is of person who made me look imposing—as my shadow in the class shows.

Now, I know my one visit to an Etruscan museum and the perusal of several books does not make me an expert. Also, my interest in the Etruscans was part of a personal, not an archeological quest. What that personal observation revealed throughout the exhibit of artifacts from 800 to 200 B.C. was a supremely happy, creative, and peaceful people, particularly in the earliest days of the culture. The
Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion
only weapons I saw were in pottery paintings depicting the labors of Hercules.  

The Etruscans were primarily artisans, builders, and traders in what was then the global marketplace. They were competitive. But not ruthlessly so. Trade was more what the name implies—exchange, not only of goods but of cultural influences, especially with Greece and Carthage, their chief competitors. 

But the small sweet traders were not pushovers. They had warships and used them against Greek and Carthaginian pirates. They also teamed up with Carthage against Rome during the Punic wars. Not for land and or power. Rather they wanted autonomy from Rome that was beginning its power sweep across the world. The small sweet people, of course, lost to the empire. Or did they? More specifically, why were they part of the hero project, exemplars of Hercules and heroic humanity…?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

44.2—Scoprendo La Pergola di Uva (Part 2 of 3)

Finding the Grape Arbor

A month before I left for Rome, I felt a mounting apprehension. 
I’d reached an impasse in my life. I called it age. But it was something bigger—the feeling that every dollar, every minute, every gesture had to count. Hard as I tried to hold on, life was slipping too fast through my hands. In one of those great ironies of mind, the terror of this was so profound, I couldn’t do anything. 
Looking back, I think the mold had already started to take hold.

A week before departure, my sister reminded me I didn’t have to go. 
“But I do,” I told her. And then added—surprised to hear myself say it—“I’m going in search of my grape arbor.”

The grape arbor in the yard next to my grandmother’s house was where I went the day I played hooky in second grade. While I hated the world of school that turned everything into to right and wrong answers, going to the grape arbor was not an act of defiance. I simply went there in an act of free will, drawn by the quiet mystery of leaves and the sweetness of grapes. After a peaceful morning, I went home for lunch and found myself facing my father and the system that both came down on me so hard that the only way I could survive was to conform to the world of linear expectations. “That day at the grape arbor,” I told my sister, “was the last day I was truly myself.” 

I’d thought I might rediscover my grape arbor in the ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins—those women chosen at seven or eight to serve for thirty years, denying their own lives to keep the sacred fire of Rome going. But all I felt was the grief of young women who for daring to exercise their free will by expressing their love were buried alive.

Several days later, as I was awaiting for confirmation that I could escape the mold by moving to an apartment with windows, I set out for the Villa Giulia—the Renaissance palazzo that now housed Rome’s collection of Etruscan art. It was a long walk, so I’d waited for a day when it wasn’t raining. The map led me to the edge of a wooded park where, off the beaten track, the map suddenly proved useless so that I suddenly found myself lost in a damp dark place with nothing but the belief that it couldn’t possibly go on forever. A November chill and the smell of decaying leaves filled the air. Was it the mold, the antihistamine, or the place that made me think if it was all just a dream? 

At last, light at the end of the trees. I stepped out—and there he sat in his white marble chair like thunder in the off-white morning: 

Poeta Azerbaigiano Nizami Ganjavi  1141 - 1209  

holding quill and ppwer in his bronze hands so large and powerful they appeared alive with god-like energy, his gaze so fierce that I turned to see what he was gazing at. 
But what he was seeing was not the museum of modern art across the street that lay at the foot of a wide long flight of steps. 

What was an  eight-hundred-year-old Azergbaijani poet doing in the middle of Rome? Had I like some Italian Alice wandered down the coniglio hole?

But then, up the steps came a woman who knew where I was headed. 
And very soon, I was paying my admission at il Museo Etrusco and asking how to find the ladies room. Through the courtyard to the left directed the woman in the book store. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

44.1—Scoprendo Gli Etruschi (Part One of 3)

Discovering The Etruscans: 

People, I tell you, if it’s possible to have a love affair with an ancient civilization, I did:

It happened quite unexpectedly but splendidly. I remember studying the Etruscans in junior high: They were ancient and wrote funny. From their name—Etruscans—I pictured them as people who dressed in furry outfits and adorned themselves with tusks. They lived somewhere, you know, over there.

When I was studying in Florence in 2011, the school offered a field trip to the Tuscan hill town of Cortona (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame). Walking along a grassy ridge, we came upon a rock slab slightly larger than a grave stone. On the slab were strange markings. “Gli Etruschi,” our guide remarked, over his shoulder. We all took pictures and walked on—oblivious to the connection between the names Etruscan and Tuscany.

As I delved into various histories of Rome, I found they all began with a brief description of the Etruscans—invariably called “mysterious." Scant evidence suggested that earliest kings of Rome were Etruscan. Archeological evidence, however, showed unequivocally that these mysterious folks were a smart and enterprising people who settled central Italy. lived there from about 700 to 200 B.C., and developed a prosperous Mediterranean trade. They were also probably the ones who drained the swamps of what was to become Rome. 

Last year, my friend Kathy gave me a map with a pictorial history of Italy. And there were the Etruscans—the first civilization in Italy. Beneath the drawing of a sculpture of a woman found in the Museo Etrusco in Rome, a caption revealed that “Etruscan women…enjoyed a social status far above that of women in Greece or Rome.” Cool. The synopsis of Etruscan accomplishments revealed that the people were so wary of their Greek trading partners that they remained oblivious to the rise of the Romans so that one by one their city-states fell to their conquerors. Had to be a sad story there.

Intrigued, I logged onto Amazon, typed in Etruscans, and among the scholarly works found one by D. H. Lawrence called Etruscan Places: Travels Through Forgotten Italy. “An uninhibited, elemental people,” said the book description, “the Etruscans enthralled D. H. Lawrence, who craved their ‘old wisdom,’ the secret of their vivacity….” Wow! What could possibly enthrall the creator of Lady Chatterly and her lover?
I bought a used copy with a single click. 

The small slim book immediately opened a world to me that I’d yearned for, without realizing it. Perhaps because I had never believed such a world was possible. This was surprising because in the book, Lawrence is describing his exploration of Etruscan tombs throughout Tuscany
Images of the people in those "easy centuries"

“The tombs,” he wrote (p. 28), “seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.”

Longing to know these people and life in those "easy centuries," I planned to visit il Museo Etrusco in Rome and then take the train to old Etruria. As it turned out, the mold worked in mysterious way to open my mind and soul.

Monday, November 17, 2014

43—On Seeing Shakespeare Performed in Italiano and Other Crossings of Culture

Well, dear Readers, there are only two more postings to wind up this avventura. One will have to wait for processing until I get home on Wednesday. Thanks for following along.

My first full day in Rome, before the mold took hold, was All Saints Day. My explorations began when I happened on the Mexican Catholics of Rome inviting passersby to their Altar De Muertos. The Day of the Dead was originally celebrated in August but rethought to coincide here with All Saints Day. I joined them.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in every household with an altar reverently built to commemorate those who have departed this world.  The altar is filled with symbolic items chosen to facilitate the journey of the spirit—incense to purify, sugar skulls for children to eat, flowers, candles, food and drink that the departed preferred. The ceremonies and tributes at the altar form a link of communication with the dead.

That evening, I went to a big Escher exhibit.

The day set the stage for the strangeness of the unexpected dimensions to my trip and my communication with spirits rising up from the ruins.

The trip ended for the most part yesterday at Teatro Brancaccio for a production of Riccardo III, known to English-speaking fans of Shakespeare as Richard III. And as my current quest has been full of questions, we might end with this one: Would you trade your kingdom, whatever it might be, for a horse? Riccardo would have.

But as you Shakespeare lovers know—spoiler alert—it was too late. Historical tragedy aside, if you ever have an opportunity to see The Bard performed in Italiano, do it! And pay the big bucks for a good seat. I didn't and would have been disappointed. Luckily, the audience at the early Sunday performance was scant, so some guy in a nice black suit invited all us plebeians to move up. I was in the seventh row, just left of center. Has anything like this happened in an American theater?

What with the passion of the Italian language and inherent drama in the national character, the translation and performance of Riccardo III was more opera than Shakespeare. But I believe the spirit of the thing was way more Shakespeare than what we experience in a lot of English-speaking theaters and certainly in most schools. The audience clapped, as in opera, after every great speech and scene. And there were plenty

Lorenzo Cutuli did the set.
It was stunning. And I don't just say that because he may be related to the Unruli Cutulis.
The set was a huge round charcoal cylinder—like so many of the ancient tombs here—set against black. Around the cylinder were posts, like the points of a crown.
The cylinder opened to reveal the stage, and throughout the production closed at the end of a scene, turned, and opened for the next.
Interesting lighting effects cast silvery abstract designs as Riccardo's world turned.

The actor who played Riccardo...I learned from Anna before the actually a singer.
Anna had just gotten back from visiting her nephew in New York and showed me some pics on her phone of Picasso from MOMA and the Boston historical walk.
At the end, the ambitious Riccardo, for whom no murder was too much of an obstacle on his way to the throne, emerged bleeding from the heart and lamenting the death of the horse he needed to fight on to retain his power.

He then fell bloody and dead, front and center stage. The cylinder tried to close repeatedly, but kept hitting the murderous king's lifeless body which sent it wrenching and heaving. At first the audience was stunned by the gruesome scene but then went wild.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

42—Quixano Sand

After an hour at the MAXXI, Rome’s hip modern art museum, I stood on the second level and looked through a long black doorway at the ribbed metal stairs. 

But were they really stairs? 
An escalator that was out of order?
An exhibit?

I was searching for third level. I couldn’t find it
It was there on the diagram, like the promise of Heaven or the “life that will get better when you just get over the present hurdle,” but where?

The Maxxi should be called The Mobius. It’s halls are spacious, tall, and white, all connected so that you wind around beliving you’re going somewhere only to find yourself at an exhibit you’d just seen. 

So anyway, there I was at the black doorway. I’d just come down a long white curved hallway for perhaps the third Mobius time. A narrow strip of red light down the center of the ceiling flashed intermittently. I wouldn’t have guessed it. But the red light was flashing the entire story of Cervante’s epic story of Don Quixote—in Morse Code. The artist wanted us to contemplate the first Modern Man struggling against a culture of alienation.

My first reaction muttered quietly aloud was “JSOFBC” (I politely used digital-speak here…a nice used copy of Cervantes to the first person who gets it). “Just read the book F-sake.”

The present exhibit is called Open Rome, Open City.
The lobby exposition told me I was going to explore aspects of the modern city apart from itself in order to understand the whole in more depth. I should experience, participate, and think. 

I wasn’t sure how to participate with a red light. Or the sounds. The exhibit was a barrage of sounds. All loud. The lobby was nearly drowning in the dripping and bubbling water—a recording of water movement deep inside Rome’s excavation sites. 

Exhibit 1 was massive. Black. A large open earpiece like on an old telephone that narrowed and curved then opened up into an identical earpiece. You could look through but not entirely. The exposition told me this showed that in the twists and turns of life, you can’t always see your way through to the other end.       Duh.

Also in this room was a strange pounding. Loud  Unfamiliar. A recording artisans pounding on marble the way they used to pound on marble. We live, said the artist, in a world built on changing modes of creation.      No shit, Sherlock.

Next, an enormous white space. In the middle of which was a smaller square defined by four lights beaming down from the ceiling. You walk into the square and hear all the sounds of the street—traffic, talking, ambulances, music, walkers, hucksters, cafes, whatever….

Now, I understand it’s probably not enough that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” But it doesn’t help to be told that chaos is order, order chaos.” 
Maybe I’m old and tired. Maybe I just want too much.

Ah, possibility at the exhibit that filled two spaces with a big wall between them. The idea is that looking down the hall from the empty room, you know someone, something is there. With the zeal of the quixotic, I proceed and found: a big white space with two empty straight-backed chairs, about three feet apart, facing one another. We were supposed to participate. I sat down and waited. 
The art didn’t speak to me.

Finally! An exhibit that drew me in: A wide flight of old wooden stairs, all different colors. Real stairs. There were drums and singing from a small black speaker box. It all felt young. Primal. Alive. I believed. At the top of the stairs was a big white square floor. Empty. More colored stairs beyond. I climbed them to find a platform with a tall black speaker booming out the sound of drums. Beneath the platform, a dark hallway that led me...JFSOBC...

back to the hallway flashing Don Morse-code Quixote and that big black doorway with the ribbed metal stairs, and beside it the stair exhibit. I climbed the stairs and sat at the edge of the big white square. The exposition said this square represented places where the Occupy movements occur. The drumming and singing, the rise of The Young People. 

Wanting to be a good participatory sport, I tried letting them speak to me.
I wanted to reach out, let them grab me and pull me in. But I was drifting out of reach:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

41—The Sacred Fires of Spin

So in ancient Rome, you might be surprised to know, the center of power was not the military but the sacred fire. For all the
Setting foot on La Via Sacra,
the main street in ancient Rome,
through the Roman Forum
glories of conquest, Romans had not yet discovered the power to be had from damming great rivers, fracking, strip mining, or just blowing the tops off mountains. Fire was, therefore, a big deal. If it went out, there you were, in the dark—no matter if you lived in a hut or mammoth palazzo. The belief was that as long as the sacred fire remained burning in the great hall of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, Rome would remain standing.

The Hall of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth
Inside the Roman Forum
So no surprise, keeping the sacred fire burning was a big deal.

What is a surprise, unless you think about it, is who was entrusted to keep the fire burning. 

The keeper of the flame wasn't some buffed up dude who trained at the 24-hour Hercules Fitness Center. 
The keepers of the sacred fire were six (the precise number is debatable) women. 

Chosen from rich families as girls when between the ages of 6 and 10, they served a thirty-year term and retired with great prestige and a healthy pension.

During their terms, they enjoyed great respect, lived in their own private quarters in the Temple of Vesta, and earned their keep by various sacred duties which included cooking up food for sacrificial occasions, as mola salsa. Recipe here included as it was used back in the day for sacrifice when not pig was handy. FYI in case you run out of pork.
Three rooms to the left, with the kitchen tucked away
to the right of the statue of Vesta by the wall.
Note, that's Caligula's pad covering the hillside.

Vestals got to ride around in their own cool carts, and traffic had to pull over to let them through. Being one of the chosen also gave them magical powers and influence. It's said they could stop a runaway slave with their thoughts. Or even intercede on the behalf of an influential person who was getting bum treatment from another influential person. 

A vestal didn’t have to take an oath as others did because her word was inviolate. So the vestals kept the wills of important people like Julius Caesar.

The catch to all this…isn’t there always one? A vestal had this job for 30 years, during which time she was not allowed to marry and had to remain chaste. To violate the rule of celibacy was treason, as they were married to the state. When the vestal was allowed to marry after her term, she was given away by the Pontifex Maximus, head of state.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

40—Walkabout Rome with Cutuli the Unruli

Welcome, groovy ones, to our Walkabout Rome.
My name is Cutuli the Unruli, and I'll be your guide.

On this Walkabout Rome, we skip the big things. So our day is especially geared for those who are travel weary and tired of paying a bunch of euros to see a lot of stuff that's falling apart.

We begin with that one and only mood setter for an unruli Walkabout: gelato. So here we are in the heart of Rome in Piazza Navona at the Tre Scalini gelato counter.

I like to start with cioccolato (rich and dark, although the one with hazelnut chips is fabuloso) and amarena (black cherry). The little cup is paper, and you get a tiny plastic spoon. Then you go out into the pizza to savor the experience. And people, do not think gelato is ice cream. Gelato is grace that is beyond amazing, remission from repentance, an invitation to believe in the glory of sensory experience beyond thought, reason, or cholesterol. Of course a cone is good. But a cup is better because the tiny spoon keeps you from behaving rashly with your tongue in public.

And do not people watch while eating gelato. Unless of course, you want to learn what those long thin poles are that hucksters are selling in every piazza. When the ideal selfie is beyond reach, do not believe it.

Do not look at the Bernini fountain and marvel at the power of the gods. You have all that the gods ever had right in your little cup. Besides, you will miss the pigeons watching the tourists from the leg of the river god.

Do look up at the far end of Piazza Navona to the rooftop of the apartment building—the setting for one part of the three-part film starring Sophia and Marcello: Ieri, Oggi, Domani...Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

So now enlivened by Spirit of Gelato, we leave the piazza, reminded by this sign outside a restaurant to be respectful of others and lower your voice. For us, it's not about lowering the voice but about walking about quietly. Looking for the unexpected moment not in the tour books.

Like this weird guy just sitting there watching the traffic go by.

And by the way selfies are good if you want to meet other people who are also walking about quietly. Foks like Shanti and Devi from Indonesia are always on hand to ask if you'd like them to take your picture. It's much more personable than a thin metal rod and is also free and fun!

And by the way, you will be happy to know that with their new president, Devi and Shanti are sure things will be looking up in Indonesia.

39—Moving with Color

“He moved with color,” the grief-stricken young woman said of Ivano (ee VAH noh). When she walked to the front of the beautiful Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the several hundred people shifted in their seats, trying to see her. They came alive, not conforming to those straight-back Catholic benches as when the priest talked. And talked. And talked. He was a gentle soul, comforting the people, as best as I could understand, with the promise that Ivano would rispose in pace nella casa di Signore blah blah blah 

I kept looking up at the exquisite frescos above the altar. But as the priest spoke, it seemed that even Gesù with his
 celestial gold robe, Mother Mary, and their entourage were glazing over, wishing the holy father with just shut the F up.

I enjoyed the sheep parading below Gesù some from the left, others from the right, all meeting the lamb with the halo in the center.

I hadn’t expected to attend a funeral today. But I walked across the Tiber for some of the fabulous zabione gelato I got there last time. Like everything else I had expected of the trip, they didn’t have any. So I got blueberry and chocolate with cream and bits of hazelnuts. 

So then off I went with my sweet little cup and tiny plastic spoon to the piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere to sit on the steps of the famous fountain and soak in the sun. Oh, for godsake, can you believe it: the fountain was running over, down the steps, which were all wet and black with muffa…OMG. 

So I leaned against a potted tree and began watching the tour group in front of the church. Then a green car arrived with men in black suits whose demeanor was unmistakable—Morticians. And, behind another potted plant, the hearse. 

There’s a statue of St. Anthony inside the church that I love. I thought if I wanted to see it, I better go in. By the door was a table with a book to sign in memory of Ivano. I wondered who he was. Inside the church, Istarted toward St. Anthony when I heard enormous clapping for Ivano as six men more him in a box toward me.

Deferring to the deceased, I stood aside. And then it was in watching the mourners, I decided to stay. Let me put it to you this way, I saw only one fashion scarf in the crowd. An orange one worn by a big rumpled man, maybe fortyish, with with black hair and the face of a cherub. Orange, shall we say, is definitely not a fashion scarf.  

But the man was weeping, and I thought later he and Ivano must have moved together in color. Another man, younger, twenties perhaps, was inconsolable. Wearing rimless glasses, a green parka, jeans, and black high-top tennis shoes, he looked like someone who might be cast as the intellectual in a Checkov play.

No one was dressed up. We were in one of the most beautiful and cathedrals in Rome, and it could have been Netarts. There were: tthree women with the dye jobs, maybe worked in the place where Ivano got his hair cut. Old men in faded jeans, plaid shirts hanging down below their blue thermal vests. Little kids. Teens with hip but not expensive clothes. Two butch young women. Grandmothers helped in by their sons. No one was dressed for mourning or church, but for what we would call their blue-collar jobs. Their grief was not over the top. It was deep. Profound. Three hundred mourners or more.

The inconsolable young man spoke, his short talk flooded with emotion and the words sempre, tante, tutto: always, many all. When he finished, everyone applauded—not polite clapping but cheering with hands and heart.

38—How Are the Markets Doing?

The Foro Romano or Roman Forum is one of the top tourist attractions in the world.
Foro Romano: What's left of the market square
At it's center was the market, sort of an outdoor Saturday market kind of arrangement, except it was not limited to Saturday. And the forum must have a happenin’ place in mid March 44 B.C. when, following Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony brought the bloody corpse there for all to see and reflect upon. It’s interesting beyond all the dramatic portrayals of the conspiracy to imagine what you would have thought. 

We all remember what we were doing when Kennedy was shot or the Towers fell. The Romans of that day undoubtedly remembered where they were when Caesar got stabbed. Without Lupo Blitzeri to give a blow-by-blow analysis of unfolding events, people must have gathered together trying to get the latest. 

But imagine yourself standing there with the wine and grain you just bought when Mark Antony arrives with Caesar’s corpse for all to see, bloody with the multiple stabbings. He then leaps to speaker’s platform just past the market square and reveals to the crowd that the leader who had appeared such a threat to the people by accepting the role of dictator had willed his fortune to the people. 


I eavesdropped on a stylin’ middle-aged guide telling the story—an American woman with a hearty mezzosoprano voice and a gift for punching up the Shakespeare’s tragedy into a CNN-type report with the oops ending.
A slender dark-haired Italian guide draped with her fashion scarf and striding along in leather boots with those lethal toe points mentioned the assassination of "Caesar, the dictator" and moved on.

In the end, Caesar’s greatest gift to Rome was probably his chosen heir—Octavian aka Caesar Augustus, who only nineteen at his ascension would, over the next 41 years lead Rome from Republic to Empire. But also during his reign, he became an architect of peace with his famous Pax Roma. I visited the Ara Pacis museum where there is a replica with bits of the temple he built to the goddess of peace.

Ara Pacis
It must have been a stunning sight. All marble and peaceful, small compared to the majorly huge everything in Rome. And no statue of the goddess. You walk into the replica of the Ara Pacis (Ahra Pah-chees) and it’s quiet, as it must have been in Augustus’ day. The friezes inside and out are of fruits and flowers and people and figures representing peace and prosperity. There’s a narrow walk around a large marble altar. There is inside a presence. Perhaps like whatever it is that I believe exists in most people but remains unexpressed as we bustle about our many markets and fight our wars, both personal and national: an understanding that stuff and guns are not the way.

In front of the temple was an obelisk designed to tell people the time and day by the sun. On September 23, Augustus’ birthday, the obelisk cast a shadow from itself into the entrance. I like to imagine what the discussions with his design team might have been like.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

37—Muffa and the Bear

Would it kill them to put up a few damned street signs? But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Today was my first visit to the Aventine. The Aventine, being one of the seven hills of Rome. The decision on the route was made in a narrow back street when I realized it wasn’t a shortcut, with the three of us putting our heads together over my street map—me, a woman in a fuchia jacket and white helmet straddling a white motorcycle, and a wafer-thin woman in shades of gray smoking one of those Italian cigarettes that smell like Nero’s cenari (remember the ashes that gave way to the trees filled with devils masquerading as crows?). 

Anyway, it was decided that il più facile (easiest) way to the Aventine was to head over to the old Roman Forum, turn right at the Colosseo, then walk along the Palatine Hill….now a hill of ruins but back in the day, home to all rich—Palatine, hence the words palazzo and palace. Caligula had a pad on the Palatine. 

Attraversing the street at the end of the Palatine, I’d walk past the old starting gates of the Circus Maximus, il Circo

Massimo. Remember all those chariot races? Well, this is there they took place, the red, green, blue, and white teams duking it out to the delight of the 250,000 people the stadium could hold. Michigan Wolverines—with il più grande stadio in the U.S. at a mere 109,901—eat your hearts out. Today, however things were quiet at the Circo, only a few workmen doing whatever.

Lots of restoration going on around town. You might have seen the story on 60 Minutes about how some wealthy Italian citizens are pitching in to tidy up the ruins. Crews are cleaning the Colosseum with small brushes and all manner of machines. The scaffolding is impressive—as is the before and after effect.

And as I was walking, I began to notice people moving about confidently, with purpose. Why am I not one of these people:

People rushing to work in the midst of 2000 year-old ruins, completely unconcerned about the effects of empire on their lives. Street vendors hopping on the hip new thing, selling thin metal arm extensions for selfies. Some guys in orange suits way up high over the road in white cherry pickers, trimming those famous Pines of Rome, also known as umbrella pines. The chain saws were buzzing, branches getting ground up, big rounds of wood getting carted off. Ah, the sights and sounds of Oregon. And the 4.5 million tourists who come to to the ruins  each year with their guide books and people they love sitting at cafes unafraid of their food. The guides followed by their happy little groups, the two connected with blue headphones through which the guide directed them to look—no road signs required.
Pines of Rome and Rush Hour

Imagine what the grand opening in 80 A.D. must have been like with fifty to eighty thousand people filing in all the doors. And the crowds undoubtedly went wild as over 9,000 wild animals were killed in the inaugural games. 
But then my mind turned to my map. I was going to a doctor. And I was walking as a kind of test. I'd experienced the relief from the cold after three days. However, I was not well. Difficulty in breathing would come and go. Very strange. I would feel better outside but not in. I was walking the hour and a half to see how I would be.

Reading a detailed street map of Rome is like looking into your plate of spaghetti. There are less complicated versions that are not always helpful because you get lost in the complexities between the obvious.

But the real problem is that streets are not always clearly marked, sometimes not marked at all. Confusion always seems to distract me. So now in need of help, I was noticing the business men. Two at the corner of the Circo Massimo and the Aventine put me the direction of la statua di Garibaldi…and then it was just one sinestra turn followed by a destra turn, and i would be at il dottore. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

36—La Triviata Flees Pronto Soccorso and Gets Ahead

And on the third day, they arose—Gesù, Cutuli the Unruli, and Giovanni il Batistta (though only his
head, if indeed it was his head). However, before we enter Paradiso, there is that tricky trek upward.
And just for the record, I'm wearing my Dante T-shirt.
It's late Sunday afternoon. The story begins about 26 hours ago. The shortest verse in the Bible tells us "Jesus wept." In my case: Cutuli coughed.
It was one of those coughs that feels and sounds as if you've just torn a lung.
My worst fear realized: I had bronchitis. This after thinking I was getting better.

Now, after four days alone and feeling like crap with no view of the outer world, I had descended into the worst version of my worst self. We could call this the Inferno—that place where you get what you deserve, which for all of my sins—that had for four days been dancing all around me—was, well, Verdi called the lady with the cough La Traviata aka The Woman Who Strayed. Our straying was different, but straying is straying, just as bronchitis is bronchitis. I was a useless wreck of a soul, worthy of nothing but becoming infected with the bacteria of my misdeeds alone in Rome.

Except I had neglected to notice that one cough does not bronchitis make and over the next two hours of stewing, I had not coughed once.
As I mentioned before, Italians say ho paura. I have fear.
In English was say, I am afraid. Well, I was fear. And when I am fear, I become an idiot, which was
what led me to head out in the night for Pronto Soccorso, what we in America call the Emergency Room or Urgent Care. This is when stupid went to bizarre:

I am in a taxi: frantically trying to think of the word for behind. Actually, I'd been right. Dietro is Behind. But apparently revising your destination to a taxi driver in transit in Rome is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. So it was that we sped by the big bright and welcoming Pronto Soccorso just across the bridge, on our way to Fatebenefratelli. It sounded like a nice place, the name consisting of three words roughly translated as do, well, brothers.

In the driver's defense, we were speeding down a one-way street, weaving in and out of Saturday night traffic when I cried, "Pronto Soccorso qui...fermate....aspetta...dietro...è più vicino al mio appartamento." Freely translated: Emergency room's closer to my apartment."
There was nothing in Rosetta Stone or the Practice Makes Perfect workbooks that had prepared me for this.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

35—Il Raffreddore

Which would you rather have? A cold or un raffreddore? oon rah-frehd-‘dohreh—go ahead, my American friends, say it before you decide. 

Since I’ve had to choose, I’m going with un raffreddore. 

As it turns out, they’re the same. Except when you’re lying alone, entombed in an apartment in the center of a fallen empire, it’s hard not to think of the thousands of dollars you spent for the experience and then begin excavating the ruins of your tragic life. But Italia is also the land of opera, and raffreddore is way more Pucciniesque than an achy old cold.

“I need an angel,” I said out loud yesterday morning to the 15th-century wall outside my barred window. Yes, I have begun
Looking tired at the end of a climb up the mountain behind
and a trek through the once-buried town to the forum—the once
bustling market place...
imagine how it was once filled with goods and the spirt of
gods honored in the temples all around. To the right,
the names of teachers inscribed to honor them
and the profession.
talking to the wall. 
Fresh from the site where Vesuvius buried Pompeii in molten ash on August 24, 79, I’d become suddenly terrified of being lost to the world. The ruins of Pompeii were not discovered until the late 16th century. And by accident. They were looking in the wrong place—by the sea, where the city had been. But the volcanic matter had filled in the bay so that Pompeii was now inland.

Pompeiians had a warning in the form of an earthquake seventeen years before the eruption. But hey, in 79, who knew about volcanology? And what was an earthquake but an angry god.
On the other hand, even with all our advanced warning systems and self-help books, are we any better at paying attention?  

Fast food at McPompeii A.D. 79
exactly as it was buried

Russell C notwithstanding
gladiators, like others of the
time were not tall people.
Imagine, getting up one morning, heading off to the Pompeii Starbucks or McPompeiis. Yes, they had fast-food places in Pompeii. The houses were small, fire was a hazard, cooking difficult, so many people often ate out, as it were. So anyway, there you are, a regular Mad Man in the Pompeii PR business and running late for a meeting with a local politician. The guy is up for reelection and wants you to promote hims by reminding the people of all the really fun gladiatorial spectacles he’s brought them—and like how totally awesome is it to watch a guy armed with a short sword and body armor matched in a death fight against a guy with a long sword and shield.

Gladiator training field
So now you see the big man standing by the wall in the street where you plan to paint his political ad when !BAM! the mountain behind you blows its f'n top. ! WTF!

And for two days, the mountain keeps majorly barfing up this flowing fire river of rock and shit. But hey, it will never reach you. Some wimps are running. But not you. You move with the power people and have things to do. Plus you’re a Pompeiian, tough, not like those rich second-home vacationers from Rome over in Herculaneum. You’re not going to let the terrorist mountain win. Except by the time the rock fire flows into town like your god of war gone mad, you’re folly’s fried and cast in stone….

Thursday, November 6, 2014

34—On Becoming an Orange During the Red Alert

Having read about it as a psychological proposition, I imagined the unconscious as you might think of an orange back home on the counter while hiking—a cool sweet fruit, the juice, the pulp, the peel, more real to you in your desire than any orange could ever be.

A reality not there. But making itself known to us in dreams. Or madness. But also in those moments when loss sharpens the senses so the world becomes too much to bear, and angels reveal themselves. 

I arrived in my Unconscious, not as I would have expected in a dream but through a clogged sinus cavity in Rome. Do not confuse this cavity with the ancient aqueducts bringing water or with sewers that for millennia have carried off waste. Rather I have been in bed for two day with a stuffed head, fever that hovered yesterday like Satan, and a body aching for health and home. Oh, and there were terrible cramps in my feet.

Be careful what you ask for, you may get it. 
I came to Rome to contemplate the meaning and direction of my life. 
I studied up on empires. Living now in the prevailing one, I thought to get a handle on which way the chips off old blocks fall.
And living on the edge of an earthquake and tsunami, both real and of the spirit, I booked trips to Vesuvius and Pompeii—as if it is possible to confront the disaster that befalls us all, buried as sure as we were born in the ineffable ash of a day that stands at our backs like a mountain waiting, just waiting… 
And what can we do but pray in our way, so it was that I planned a trip to Assisi and a climb up Mt. Subasio to St. Francis’ hermitage. The tender saint would reach out over 800 years to touch my heart with the hand that caressed birds. And the wolf of my fears would lie down, and I would be brave and clear and love what it is that God would finally become to me.

The answers came but in a way I did not expect, could not have predicted:
The sky turned dark, and thunderous rains put the great city of Rome under “red alert.” Yes, this place of sun and love, fell all around me into the chaos of water, sirens, and the damp chill of the stone-cold empire. 
Gone was great city, so magnificently slow and hot and full of the histories of fruit and cream and grain that have outlasted emperors and the plague and the debauchery of entertainment that killed thousands of animals a day.
And with the swamping of Rome, my head filled. As from some ancient sewer in my soul, the phlegm rose saying, “You want to know who you are. The answer is not in the history of empires, not in blogs of travel or photos. Do not pin your meaning on the poor lost dead of Pompeii. Or seek the favors of St. Francis. He was a slight man, ill from the poverty of self-inflicted faith that only the poor and fully understand. And you, you faithless one, you go to bed with a stuffiness.”

And the fever came, sweaty and mean and confusing me into wishing I had stayed home with my cats.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

33—Travailing Across the Centuries

L'elezione degli Stati Uniti had top billing today on Channel 3 here in Rome. As I heard it, Meetch McCohnell and i Rehpublicahni hanno conquisto la sinistra (the left) in a—(the word is the same in both languages—"debacle" per il presidente. . . .

Two days ago, I was walking around the tomb of the Emperor Caesar Augustus.
In the immediate area are apartments with window-box gardens, a lovely cafe with folks enjoying beautiful lunches and wine with the background music of a guitarist singing "Cahn-tahreh...." Tourists wander about with bags of souvenirs, through a quiet back lane, along a major street congested with traffic, many stopping in off the street for a quick prayer or picture at a 16th century cathedral.

I draw no conclusions about this. Empires rise and fall. People somehow survive.

Photograph by Stevi Carroll

However, in watching a 48-lecture series on the History of Ancient Rome, I found this theory of "the fall" disputed by Professor Garrett Fagan of Penn State who contended that the empire did not fall, it merely changed in order to adapt to changing times. It seemed to me this could just be opposite sides of the came Roman coin.

At the moment, thoughts of empire are too big for conclusions. For one thing, I'm sick with some some sort of respiratory thing that is threatening to turn itself into a bad cough. A fever earlier this morning sent me in and out of harrowing dreams like Alice in Wonderland.

It's after six-thirty in the evening, and I haven't seen the light of day. However, I am bonding with my dungeon (more pics soon).

Things can always be worse. As my friend Charlie noted in a Facebook comment regarding one of my stories:

.... reminds me of waking up in Cambodia with lizards all over my room. Remember - the root word of 'travel' is travail' ---
■Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from travailler to torment, labor, journey, from Vulgar Latin *trepaliare to torture, from Late Latin trepalium instrument of torture, from Latin tripalis having three stakes, from tri- + palus stake — more at POLE

Speaking of travail—

It doesn't get much worse than being buried under a volcanic lava flow. Yesterday I walked up Mt. Vesuvius, then went to Pompeii. It's definitely disconcerting to watch steam rising from the crater of this still active volcano that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Still, three million people live in its projected lava flow. Bizarrely, as I understand it, the most expensive properties are higher up the mountain. All this seems like folly. On the other hand, I am living on a coastline just waiting for a 9 earthquake followed by a tsunami of mythic proportion.

More details on the Vesuvius/Pompeii outing to follow, but let me set the stage: The trip itself was on a tour with our guide Antonella handling all arrangements—telling us when to pee and where the toilets were at our "comfort stop" between here and Pompeii. She advised us on the best souvenirs at the Monte Cassino (her fave being some sort of lemon liqueur)," got our tickets for the mountain, arranged lunch, and bought our tickets for the ruins, entertained us with stories and information to fill a good part of the three-hour bus trip from Rome to the Naples area.

Hey, did you know:

Monday, November 3, 2014

32—Between Keats and the Fashionistas

First off, I received an email from Ann mentioning that while in Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria del Popolo, I missed the head of St. John the Baptist. I am grateful for the heads up on this. And with apologies for having deprived you of a description of this artifact, I promise to remediate my deficiency asap. Readers, continue to speak to me, we are all in this together.
Last time I mentioned Ali and the gifts he gave me. The elephant is for good fortune and peace. The tortoise is for long life. I must not, he said, give them to anyone. I won’t. Why wouldn’t he share that pizza with me?

Day before yesterday, on my way back from Piazza del Popolo, I took an unfamiliar back narrow street just to get away from the crowds. As an aside, streets here are a maze of diagonals. It’s easy to get lost. Two nights ago, for example, I thought I knew where I was going and at 11:15 p.m. decided I was hopelessly lost until aided by a British couple with a cell phone and map-quest savvy. It turns out I was not only on my street but eight doors away from my apartment. Even the tech-saavy guy stood looking at the little bright square of a map saying, “Via die banchi nuovi—that street should be right around here, but it’s not clear where.”

So anyway, earlier in the afternoon, I wandered into a back street to avoid the crowds when I came upon African men sitting in small clusters of 4 or 5, all with big blue plastic bags of street wares and personal items. Leaning back against walls filled with graffiti, they were listening to boom boxes and talking. I didn’t feel afraid but intrusive, as if I’d just barged into someone’s home without knocking.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

31—OMG, It’s La Donna del Menu and L’Uomo del Sostegno Technico

What a difference a day makes. Wifi in the neighborhood is working, and Orlando came yesterday to fix the problem resulting from the outage. Turns out the outage affected the modem. The other good news is that Romaine still appears to have a sweet leafy interior. It is not helpful to begin a spiritual with murder by paranoia on one’s hands.

With that I decided to walk up to Piazza del Popolo (Piazza of the People) as a kind of time check be Tuesday’s meeting of the tour group to Pompeii. 
Selfie with Orlando 

Typed while Orlando was fixing the modem. After communicating previously with the cable company, the agreement was he would call them if he couldn’t get it fixed. He could not. And called. As the phrase “calling the cable company” numbs my soul with terror, I decided to record the event. Here is how it went down in real time, although coming face to face with the Charter Communications of Italia was surreal:

Orlando is not having luck. The company called TIM told him to call. He has on his speaker phone and is speaking with Charter’s version of Menu Woman. I love everything Italian. Except Menu Woman. La Donna del Menu? Well, first off, after you chose the correct number option, Italian Menu Woman sings. Something that sounds like what you might hear at Il Ristorante Napolitano in Branson, MIssouri. No kidding. And as she sings, her twin L’Altra Donna del Menu says periodically: “Hold on, please.” Ah, we’re through now to Tech Support Man. “L’Uomo del Sostegno Technico? I am not advanced enough to know what is happening, except for the words “non funziona.” It’s not working. Now we need a pin. No pin. Where did I put my travel sewing kit? The pressure is on…where’s a damned pin. Oh, but wait the little toothpick with the British flag that came in the pizza. (I have no idea why. But to still your curiosity will find out.) Still, even with the toothpick, non funziona. L’Uomo del Sostengo Technico is speaking now to several o women, everyone talking at once. It sounds like Christmas dinner with la famiglia italiana. 

Meanwhile, things could be worse. At the piazza this afternoon, I checked out the church called Santa Maria del Popolo (Saint Mary of the ——fill in. were you paying attention above?). A bronze tablet on the church tells how a walnut tree sprang up from the ashes of Nero and was infested with devils disguised as crows. So the church was built by Pope Pasqual in 1099 to exorcise these devils and in honor of the liberation of Jerusalem at the end of the first crusade. Well actually, the pope didn’t build the thing in that Il Popolo paid for it. 

What’s that? Could it be…“Funziona.” 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

30—How I Came to Freeze the Romaine

I froze my lovely head of Romaine out of fear. The crisis surrounding this is not that my hopes were dashed for some big Caesar salad thing tonight. Did Caesar ever eat such a salad? And do we call Romaine a head since it looks more like a vegetable that couldn’t get its head together. I can’t check on any of this because the wifi is down for the entire historical center. How did they manage to found the Republic and Empire without wifi?

But getting back to the death of the Romaine. It began with, well, shall we call it a false expectation. I’d read on the rental website that my apartment is in an early 15th century palazzo with a “private” courtyard. Which raises another question? Are the pictures of rentals deceptive? Or is what we see wishful thinking? 

Whether light is a particle or a wave depends on how you look at it.

Anyway, I’d been swept away with the romantic notion of staying in a palazzo dating back to circa 1400. Who wouldn’t be, right? Each morning, I would step outside into my courtyard and feel the light filtering down from the blue Italian sky while enjoying my morning chi gong exercises. 

I was so jet lagged yesterday that I didn’t get the roman numeral o above the door exactly right. But it definitely says 1400 with a few added years so that construction was way before Cristofo Columbo’s quest for a route to enhance globalization of the spice trade but instead led to the genocide of 8 million people and a variety of environmental devastations in what we now call America.

Flash lights up the hallway
looking down into the courtyard.
So yesterday afternoon about 1:30 p.m. local time, I walked through the big wooden front door, down the hall, into the courtyard and experienced what must be the model for every depressing dungeon in Italian opera. The walls look seven hundred years old. It’s cold. And dark, like entering the womb of the history of everything that has happened in this building over the last 700 years. And that was probably plenty, given that it’s on a street called Via dei banchi nuovi—Street of the New Banks. Kind of a 15th century Wall Street?

I admit to feeling a perverse consolation after a woman on the plane, here for two weeks to visit her priest (what’s that about?), spoke condescendingly of my failure to write nine months in advance which is required for a tour of the catacombs. So bite, it lady. This isn’t a tour. I’m living it. 

Right after arriving, I got a call that my beloved soulmate-cat Reno might be having a health issue, as the day before I left, Dr. Dan had wondered if the unusual behaviors Reno was exhibiting might be something more than an adjustment to his thyroid meds. 

Fortunately, my very attentive landlord Orlando had left me a device that enables me to get online. But only if I sit in the courtyard. Unfortunately, trying to figure out with the cat sitters what’s going on required a phone. It was unclear due to several circumstances whether my Global Package from Verizon is functioning which mean I could owe Italian Roaming services something that would impress even those banchi nuovi dudes.