Italia: Outtakes

Background

My mother visited Italy a few years back as a part of a 6 week European adventure with two of her best friends to celebrate finishing college. One of the places they visited was the Villa d-Este in a small town called Tivoli, 30 miles outside of Rome. Her pictures looked beautiful, so we added it to our itinerary. Unfortunately, a few days of rain meant that we had to squeeze it in to a half day. We followed the complicated directions and found the right place to meet the bus, but the bus was late (and later, and later). Undeterred, we boarded and prepared for a condensed walk through the gardens. The gardens and fountains were stunning and breathtaking and surreal. A wonderful diversion. We left the gardens with enough time to catch a return bus with some extra time to spare in case the bus was as flexible on their time tables as they had been in the morning. But, we had not taken into account that the return bus would likely pick us up on the opposite side of the street. As we are just opening our lunch of fruit and bread, our bus arrives. We sprint across four lanes of traffic and eye the already full bus that a dozen more people are cramming onto.

Snapshot:

We are the end of the line at the doors in the middle of the bus. Dad gets on. Laura and I step onto the bus and make it as far as the second and third stair leading up to the aisle which is already packed full, let alone the seats. Mom eyes the space incredulously. With her half-eaten apple in one hand, she pulls herself into the bus with her other, on the bottom step. As the sardine-packed, standing room only bus jolts forward, the doors close behind her, with my mother still clinging to her apple and trying not to topple into the locals as the bus winds down switchbacks back to Rome. Her eyes are wide opened and all she can do is laugh.

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Setting: Ancient Roma

Living in DC has given me an appreciation for cities and places that are trying to live within the tension of both honoring and remembering our past while also moving into the future. New buildings cannot be taller than the Washington Monument and any construction on the Mall must be approved by both historic and economic committees. But in Rome, their historic sites don’t merely commemorate the past, they come from it.

It is hard for me to imagine a city that is as layered as Rome. For more than two and a half thousand years, people have lived on this spot building homes, cities, and cultures by keeping the best of what came before and using the rest to advance the current trends or fashions. Passing by sites that pre-date Christ, it is evident that much of the current city has been built upon the foundations of what came before: the street level has risen by several feet. Thanks to this practice of building on the past, the city is now a blended maze of ancient and modern. The Colosseum is surrounded by a two-lane highway, the aqueducts have new neighbors thanks to urban sprawl, and you can take an audio tour of the Roman Forum. But with just a smidge of imagination, contemporary Roma fades and we can see the world of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire running parallel to our own place in history.

Like all good tourists, we began with the Colosseum. At just four stories tall, I’ve always been impressed at it’s ability to take my breath away. I’m sure its had the same effect on people for the last 2,000 years. Yet the building is just a shadow of its former self. The wooden seats were destroyed in a fire, an earthquake in 1349 caved in on one side and the marble facade and bronze clamps that held it were stripped to be used elsewhere during the Renaissance. As we walk through this ancient place, I put my hands on the pox-marked stone walls and try to imagine what the building looked like when it was new. Even now, it’s easy to imagine a roaring crowd with their eyes fixed on the action happening on the ground. A fragment of the floor has been rebuilt, but most of the underground passage ways and holding cells are now exposed and with it, the double life of this building.

I stand on the balcony alongside my family and see the Arch of Constantine and Palatine Hill and the Forum. If you take away the tall trees and the noise of the traffic and replace it with whole buildings and horses, you can just make out what this view would have looked like in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries.

Leaving the Colosseum we cross the street to the Forum – the political, religious, and social hub of Ancient Rome. The passing of time is evident all throughout this strip of land. Buildings that date back to the 2nd or 3rd century were nearly all built on top of older, crumbling structures. The most intact structures were spared from demolition when churches moved in and set up shop. We walk the same street that Shakespeare wrote about in Julius Caesar and see the very spot where he was betrayed and killed.  Tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were imprisoned at the Mamertine Prison which overlooks this Forum. People from all corners of the world are walking along side us, piecing together centuries of Roman history that have reached into the future to impact all of us.

Across town sits the Pantheon, preserved thanks to a clever name change in the 7th century from the Temple to all gods to the Church of all Martyrs. But this switch has worked. Compared with the other remnants of ancient Rome, the Pantheon is remarkable for how intact it is. Walls, pillars, and dome all date back to 127 AD. It’s staggering to think about all they have seen. The building looks like its set into the ground, but in reality, the encroaching city had been so built up around it that the street level has risen significantly.

The piazza surrounding the temple-church is always full of people, but unlike the areas surrounding the Colosseum and Forum, these people all seem to be moving, just passing by this huge stone structure on their way to work, or to the market, or to some other, more eye-catching tourist attraction. At first, we are these people, just passing by en route to other adventures. But we return and linger: to touch the cold, ancient stone; to glimpse the sky through the oculus in the ceiling; and to imagine all that came before.

Setting: Modern Roma

When traveling, I have a firm belief that airports don’t count. Flying through O’Hare doesn’t mean you understand Chicago. The Newark airport is blissfully not indicative of what NYC will be like, and Fiumicino will not prepare you for Rome. But exit the building, cross the threshold and step outside – with these actions, our story begins.

We are greeted by a young Italian man resembling Dustin Hoffman who quickly exhausts his English vocabulary after welcoming us and confirming our destination. The streets of Rome are packed with Fiats, Smart Cars and scooters who operate under a “lane line optional” philosophy while weaving in and out of traffic. Our driver follows their cue and leads us down one-way stone roads that, other than his insistence on driving down them, seem to be little more than pedestrian-filled alleys. He parks in front of a smallish church and signal that we had arrived. And so we have.

The Trevi Fountain has materialized majestically in front of us as we enter the piazza. Imagine, if you will, that this story is a play being performed on a vast stage. The curtain has just opened, and for a fleeting second, all you see is the backdrop. Soon, it will fade out of your mind’s eye, but it is there all the same. Fontana di Trevi will serve as our backdrop. Up 88 marble stairs and you will be in the catwalk where a two bedroom apartment perches; two 7 feet tall windows open to the fountain, while three others let a cool breeze run through the house. The noise of the four-story fountain and the tourists who visit well into the evening act as our very own symphony.

Down below, half a dozen polizia are stationed at the fountain, but their presence seems to be for show, rather than function. Their primary occupation is smoking and directing tourists to the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, or metro. Back up in the apartment, I feel like a benevolent care taker, graciously allowing these throngs of people to visit the fountain in my own backyard. In this way, I feel that all of Roma is mine, or maybe, perhaps, that I am hers.

Venturing into the crowd of people below, you have two choices: to move with them, observing the city and her people as an outsider, or to move through them, embracing the city as your own. There will be days for joining with them; for standing in line and walking only down the main streets. But for today, we take this second path and find that the city opens up to us. Parks, neighborhoods, and markets are ours to explore and to enjoy.

Away from the buildings, umbrella pines fill the landscape. Parks are dotted with fountains and benches that invite you to come in and sit for awhile. Further in, you remember that Italy is a hospitable, restful place. There is no need for wrist watches; church bell towers will tell you the time. And with shops closed for two hours in the middle of the day, very little seems urgent in this city.

In the Parco di Traiano, children of all ages play soccer while their parents join in or read nearby. A girl and her grandmother slowly make their way through the park. A family celebrates a young child’s first birthday. Everyone is greeted warmly in rich, effusive Italian. On the other end of town, in the Borghese Gardens, men in impeccable suits walk together during their lunch break while joggers run by on either side of them. Older women sit on park benches and seem to do little more than contemplate the day or admire the many dogs out for a stroll in the spring sunshine. The parks are an oasis from the rest of the city and remind me that it is the ordinary and the mundane that make up much of the beauty of our lives.

In many ways, the markets are complements to parks, showing off another side of Italy. Where the parks offer rest and solitude, the markets are fast and noisy. In the parks, nothing in Italy seems urgent. But in the markets, everything is now – the produce is “da oggi” (for today), the conversations are short and fast. You either know what you want, or you get out of the way. But even at the markets, the people are friendly and gregarious. There is a pride in the people who are selling but also in the people who are buying, knowing they will find the best ingredients for the day to perfect their legendary Italian cooking.

This too, this ordinary every day, will come to fade into the background of this story. It is these scenes that help tell the story of my time is Rome. As we move through ancient Rome and into the Renaissance, modern Roma looms just behind the veil, waiting to be noticed. Pause for a moment in the midst of the blur of travel and you will see it again, discovering that it has been present all along.