brain farts

Roma — The Eternal City

Posted on: May 22, 2008

[Note: More photos of Rome can be seen here and here]

As the plane descends into Rome, the captain awakes you by announcing clear, sunny skies and 12 Celsius weather. The Italian man sitting to your left awakes with a start, and you can’t help but admire his ability to sleep through an 11 and a half hour flight without stirring for either food or a bathroom break. He catches your eye and asks, in English, if you’re here on vacation.

“Si,” you say, tentatively trying your hand at Italian. You studied French in high school, but the romance languages share some similarities, grammar-wise and vocabulary-wise, and you decide you might as well give it a shot. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that you’ll both have a good laugh over a butchered phrase. “Sono qui in vacanza.”

He smiles, appreciating your effort, and says that he’s returning from holiday in Phuket, and that he had a fantastic time. “La Thailandia è molto bella,” he adds in Italian, complimenting the beauty of your home, and you don’t care if you sound biased — you have to agree. He is the quintessential Italian man, the kind you see in the movies, read about in the books, and hear about in the songs — tall, dark, and handsome, with sleepy, mysterious eyes (then again, he did just wake up). You can’t help but wonder if you approached those movies and books with a tad too much skepticism; maybe some of the cliches and rumors about this country are true after all.

You exit the airport and take your first step onto Italian soil and still don’t feel that expected rush of excitement. It’s funny — you’ve dreamed about coming to Italy for as long as you can remember, but maybe because of the frenetic year you’ve had, it still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Maybe, you think, it takes time to rub in, kind of like a sea salt wrap at the spa.

As you approach the city, you begin to notice the little human touches that set this city apart from others: Forza Italia!, spray-painted along the side of an aging ocher building; vibrant flower boxes lining the endless balconies, bursting with color; signs advertising panini, linguine alle vongole, and tagliolini cacio e pepe e zafferano. But it’s only when a vanilla-colored vespa whizzes past you do you smile and realize that, yes, you really are in Italy.

The Ancient City looms before you. The Palatine Hill, the Arch of Constantine, the Roman Forum, and of course, the Colosseum. As you work your way along Via N. Salvi, you spot an ongoing game of football taking place in the foreground of the famous amphitheater. Practicing for the next World Cup? Who knows? But talk about the perfect photographic moment.

The road leading toward the Colosseum is heavily cobblestoned, worn and scuffed after centuries of being trodden on by visitors, spectators, and of course, gladiators, a few of whom are standing in front, waiting for tourists to dole out 2 euros for a photo. You refuse their cajoles with a smile and a shake of your head, and continue onward toward the entrance of the Colosseum. You are staggered by the sheer size of it; somehow the pictures never seemed to relay just how colossal it really is.

You’re lucky — today is Sunday, and that means Via dei Fori Imperiali is closed to cars for the day. You set off from the Colosseum, glad that you can explore this immense road at your own pace without the distraction and paranoia of whizzing cars urging you forward. White, silver, and gold living statues line the road, the backdrop of the Roman Forum behind them; they stand perfectly still, not even blinking when a child runs up to one of them and pokes him in the knee, as if to see if he is real or not (or maybe just to test his endurance). A man plays Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence on guitar, while a little farther down the road another man plays a Mozart aria on his violin. As you walk along, you have to keep changing direction since tourists keep stopping smack center in the middle of the road to take pictures of the Colosseum looming in the background. The locals seem completely oblivious to this, though; one can’t help but wonder if Italians regard tourists as being as much a part of their cities as the ancient statues, monuments, and duomos.

You walk, and walk, and walk. Consulting your guidebook, you walk down narrow, winding vias, viales, vicolos, stradas, and corsos. You make a few wrong turns, get lost a few times, but eventually, by sheer luck, find the Trevi Fountain. Swarms of tourists have arrived before you and are already crowding the edge of the fountain, waiting their turn to toss their money away. You’re no different because you get right in line and follow suit, taking what will become the first of (very) many cheesy tourist shots. It takes a few shots before you finally get it right; it’s so crowded that the first few pictures have stray elbows and arms poking into the frame. It’s only as you’re tossing your third coin into the fountain (yes, just like the movie), when it finally sinks in. Holy hell, I’m in Italy! You knew it would eventually sink in. It just takes time, like a sea salt wrap.

Not far from the Trevi Fountain, you spot a gelateria, right at the corner of Via del Lavatore. You step in for a cone of stracciatella, and are delighted when the first bite hits your tongue. At the same time you know that you are forever ruined — no other ice-cream in the world will ever be able to compete with this. You make a promise to yourself to have a scoop of gelato every single day of your stay in Italy.

Lunch consists of a quick stop at a cafe for a parma ham sandwich. Simple it may be, but God, is it divine. Afterwards, you make your way to the Spanish Steps (without getting lost this time). Throngs of people have already filled the steps, staking out spots to soak up that glorious afternoon sun. A French couple at the foot of the steps asks you to take their picture for them, and you’re glad for a chance to use your high school French, appallingly bad as it may be. An American woman by the Fontana del Barcaccia attempts to shake off a small group of African guys who are thrusting fake designer bags at her, an interesting sight considering Via Condotti lies a few meters away, filled to the brim with more Italian designer names than Paris Hilton’s closet.

The busy Piazza di Spagna is a treasure trove of photographic opportunities. You spy a group of Italian men conversing around a horse carriage. One of them is a gladiator in full uniform; the vibrant red of his headdress stands out like a lighthouse in a storm, reminding you of those What-Doesn’t-Belong-in-the-Picture games. A couple of meters away, a blond woman with some hefty luggage in tow stops to pet an indifferent horse, and its owner quickly slides her a smile. Maybe, you wonder, in Italy the men use horses as conversation-starters rather than the more obvious puppy or cooing baby?

You wander away from the stagnant crowd of the Piazza di Spagna and head off in the direction of Piazza del Popolo. A quiet stroll through the smaller vicolos shows an abundance of shrines of the Virgin Mary; the sentiment behind them reminds you remarkably of the similar shrines you see back at home, in Thailand, of King Bhumibol. Eventually, you end up in Via Margutta, a serene, picturesque street where artists have set up their wares, each one lovelier than the next. Your student wallet may not be able to appreciate their beauty, but your eyes certainly can, and you look your fill, silently delighting in the colors of the various regions of bella Italia that have been transferred lovingly onto canvas.

Late afternoon finds you in the vicinity of the Vatican City. In case the soaring dome of St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t indication enough of its impending nearness, the increasing density of nuns and priests certainly is. As you approach along Via della Conciliazione, you can see the remains of mass that morning in Piazza San Pietro — hundreds of thousands of chairs lay in haphazard rows before a huge screen reserved for the Pope. The line leading through security check and into the Vatican rivals that of a Green Day concert; you are surprised to learn from a passing Vatican employee that the line that day is “short.”

“Jesus Christ!” your brother remarks. “I don’t even want to imagine what the line is like when it’s long.”

You hit him on the arm. “Did you forget where you are? Or did you not notice the ginormous cross?” After all, if ever there were a place for God to strike one down with lightning, wouldn’t this be it?

No more Jesus Christs slip from the brother’s lips for the entire evening.

As you enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you are instantly floored by the sheer enormity of it all. But just as you’re about to drink in the details, a scuffle begins to form behind you, and you’re soon pushed to the fringes of the crowd. You ask a dark-suited Vatican employee what’s going on, in English, as your Italian is unfortunately limited to the confines of an Italian phrasebook and what few lines you can remember from watching Cinema Paradiso a countless number of times.

Processione,” he says, an apologetic look on his face. He looks above in earnest, as if by doing so the English word will drop from the sky (from God?) and through his lips. You wish you knew how to tell him that he’s not at fault for not being able to speak a foreign language in his own country.

“Ah,” you say. “A procession?”

Si! Processione! Then messa. Mass, hai capito?”

You don’t believe it. You accidentally made it just in time for Sunday afternoon mass. Maybe attending mass at St. Peter’s Basilica will make up for all those Sunday masses you missed in lieu of being a dental student slave/drone at the university clinic. No? Oh well, it was worth a shot.

The procession enters the basilica, but no sooner do they enter than you hear the collective soaring soprano of its followers. From above the heads of tourists greedily snapping photos, you can make out the gleaming gold of a cross being held by someone at the front of the procession, bobbing along as it delves deeper into the basilica. You work your way along the aisle and notice that a beam of the afternoon sun has seeped through the windows of the dome, casting brilliant rays of light onto Bernini’s Baldacchino. The sometimes skeptical Catholic in you is instantly quieted; this is a deeply personal and profound moment for you.

Nearly 2 hours later you exit the basilica. Just as you’re stepping away from the doors, a short, balding man — who you later learn is named Luciano; yes, like the late opera singer — approaches you with a camera in hand. He has a barrel-shaped silhouette and an enormous smile. The laugh lines around his eyes tell you that this is a man who knows how to enjoy life, or at least approach it with a sense of humor.

In a booming voice, he says something to you in Italian, but it’s too fast and you can’t pick out any of the words that come tumbling off his tongue.

Mi dispiace,” you apologize. No parlo Italiano. Puo parlare piu lentamente, per favore?”

He repeats himself, slower this time, just like you requested, and gestures wildly to a large group of at least thirty people behind him, as if this might help you understand what he’s saying. This time you manage to catch the words fotografia and famiglia. He wants you to take a picture of his family.

You frame his family on the screen of his digital camera and see at least three generations looking back at you; four, even, if the gurgling infant is of any indication. “Allora,” you say. “Sorriso!” The only reason you know how to say smile in Italian is because of the few times you’ve strayed to the Fashion channel. (Not that those constipated-looking models do much smiling, though.) Who says National Geographic is the only channel that can teach you something?

He reviews the picture you’ve taken and gives an appreciative laugh. Then he surprises you by grabbing your face with both hands and planting a hearty kiss on each cheek. You know this is common in Italy — not to mention plenty of other European countries — but you’re still taken aback at first. You quickly recover, though, and laugh along with the rest of his family. I mean, how can you not? The charm of this country — not to mention its people — is quickly rubbing off on you.

Yes, just like the sea salt wrap.

8 Responses to "Roma — The Eternal City"

Oh pretty… the pictures *and* your narrative!

wow, this is so compact i will use this as my Rome guide..yeah? lol. so u r back huh? btw, the italian embassy called this morning…! lol.

Wow Lynn this is extraordinary!!!! Plus, you really gave it a shot with all the italian, didn’t you? Bravo! -Tweet

your writing is fantastic as always! you know, i’ve actually never had a desire to go to rome but now i really do! hm… actually i kind of feel like i’ve been there already!!

Excellent writing, Lynn, even making me feel like going to a country I don’t like and swore I’d never return to!

Love your funny but all true tale of Italian men (from what I heard) in your intro.

Love all your pics of Italy!


Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Liter

Hi Lynn-

You have a gift for writing…when i go to Italy i will consult you. :)

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