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, 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. 
Starting Gate

An English-speaking doctor was in a group, the online website promised, of highly qualified specialists in all fields. The site
The Track: 2,037' by 387'
shows a picture of the office—what appeared to be a red-brick building you’ might find in a suburb of Portland. What I found was an old red-brick building in a suburb Rome. And, people, you don’t really like to see a homeless person buried under covers outside the place where they’re going to care for you. 

I buzzed #5 of the ten or so options. They buzzed me in. I took the winding stairs as the ascensore looked like a leftover lift from one of those coal-miner movies.

When I got to the door, I was pleased that having read SPINGERE, I didn’t make a fool of myself by pulling. The two women at the reception desk ran a tight ship. The form for new patients was simple. Name, local address, country of origin. Yes/No for insurance. 

I waited, sweating from my walk but relieved to see the place was clean. Efficient. The doctors came out, greeted their patients, and invited them in.

I tried reading my little book by Rilke on the poetry of angels. The patients here were like those I saw in the waiting room of my Portland dermatologist and gastroenterologist. The Aventine felt emotionally safe. Unlike Pronto Soccorso. But the place, comforting as it was, was old. America is so new. What does it mean to be new? No one is new. We are all born into the history of humanity. The history of everything really, back to the beginning of forever. Those who are new have simply not dug beneath the present to see what lies beneath. What civilizations have come and gone? Who and what do we allow to remain under the soles of our rushing feet. What part have we played and continue perhaps to play in the burial?

I was reflecting on the causes and effects of empire when a short pleasant brown-haired man appeared and said my name, the sound of it in Italian so beautiful and pure that I almost acted like a nervous American by apologizing that the i a the end had been changed to a y. There is no y in Italian. 

But Dr. Bacci, a 60ish board-certified internist, made me feel immediately at home. He had no nurse, taking all information himself and typing it methodically into his MacBook Pro. The office was simple, reminding me of my father’s practice where the essence of everything was listening to the patient. Commenting on my Dante T-shirt, Dr. Bacci asked about about the reason for my trip, sincerely interested, if not slightly amused that I had come here for several weeks to write and think about the meaning of my life and empire. “You must feel good for that,” he said as we returned from the examining table to the desk for diagnosis, “the meaning of life and empire.” And the diagnosis:

“Mold,” he said. “These old palazzos are very bad for mold. Especially the one you describe. This is why you feel well when you go out.” After assuring me I would would be fine, he added, “I will write you a note saying you should get out as soon as possible. But I will also give you an antihistamine if you need to stay.” 

As I was checking out, he spoke confidentially in Italian to the women running the tight money ship, then waved goodbye to me. As I pulled the eros from my little change purse, she said, “Dr. Bacci said only 90 not 130.” 

Muffa. Mold. The mold of empire. I wanted to get to know empire, to absorb the sights and sounds and meaning of it. And so I have. 

View beneath the Colosseum floor where animals
and prisoners were kept before shows.
On my walk home, I thought of the people ate up those old spectacles in the Colosseo. Tens of thousands of animals slaughtered, gladiators going at it unto the death, emperors currying favor by offering prizes to the people and giving them the games. The arrival and milling of thousands of people. The cries for blood. The devastation to wildlife in North Africa. 

As I heard tell of it, only once did the slaughter get too much for the people. As elephants were being killed, they began wailing. The people began to protest but eventually got over it. The were apparentl not bothered by the strangling of giraffes, the stabbing to death of tethered bears, and the trampling of prisoners by elephants.

In more recent times, the Colosseo became the scene for activists against capital punishment, abolished in Italy in 1948. When a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world, the elliptical ruin is illuminated at night with gold light. As it was when New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009.

My favorite story is of empire, or the one I will take home, is of the prisoner who managed to kill the boar loosed on him so the fight manager decided to send in a bear. The bear, however, refused to leave his cage. 

I’m likely going to be leaving sooner than thought. I’m going home, ready to trade in my prison for a cage.

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