Featured writer: Danielle Harris
Rome. She is legendary — a woman that was once the toast of the world. Men, wide-eyed with respect, still tip their hats to her. Like a famous, aged courtesian, Rome knows she once had the nations at her feet. Her children, the Romans, remember her glory days. They’ve been raised in the spotlight. Romans have a sense of drama, of the grand entrance, and of commotion. They dress for center stage with a practiced, casual grace. Each day is a pageant, a spectacle, and Romans are the stars playing in it.
The last time I came to Rome, I remember a day when I rode the bus downtown. The driver swung through the cobbled streets like an overweight acrobat. The bus swept by the city walls with inches to spare on its sides. A woman pulled in front of him on her bicycle. With hair flowing and eyes made up heavy like a gypsy, the lady pedaled leisurely toward her destination wearing a long, white, linen skirt. She had a baguette and flowers in the front basket.
The bus driver slammed on the brakes. Livid, he accelerated toward her, coming within inches of her back tire, and honking wildly. La bella donna continued on her way unperturbed. The driver pressed down upon her. Finally, he got a response. The woman flung her head around, eyes flashing. She stuck her rear-end in the air and slowed down slightly as she pedaled in an exaggerated grind. The driver leered, smug at her reaction. Throwing back an obscene gesture at the driver, the woman veered off down another side street and continued on her way. The driver yelled out the window, Voi siete pazzi? (Are you crazy?) and then sat back, clearly pleased about the performance. It was as if the curtain was closing and the driver was taking a bow, holding out his hand for the lady to reenter the stage for a curtsy.
A group of us wandered through the same streets. Rome doesn’t need Saks Fifth Avenue or Rodeo drive. Designer shops are interspersed throughout the city. It isn’t strange to see the golden letters of Louis Vuitton on one lonely alley, and Fendi , Valentino, or Dolce & Gabana down another. They hide away with confidence, knowing they will be found. Rome is built in concentric circles, again reminding us that she is too old for the modern grid, too old to be brought into the hustle of today.
We strolled to the Piazza d’ Popolo, the Spanish steps, and the famous Trevi Fountain where Anita Eckberg drove everyone wild in Fellini’s, La Dolce Vita. We ate cena outside on tables with white tablecloths and under bright-colored awnings; the menus displayed words like spinazi, patate, pomodoro, pane, and vino, which sounds more musical and romantic than their prosy, American English counterparts: spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, bread, and wine.
Our group consists of twelve women and a priest. My sister, Elida, is an artist who teaches art to women. She and Father Bruno (who is Italian) are leading a trip to Italy. We will sight-see, take art lessons, and study the art in the architecture and great museums of Italy.
One of the nights, some of the gals went dancing. Elida and I flung sweat from our arms as we danced. The music mix pounded the repetitive dance rhythm in our ears. We smiled and jumped and waved our arms wildly. I had flung my shoes off long ago and blisters had formed on my feet.
I smiled at Elida and nodded at her as if to say, We’re not as good as we once were, but we’re as good once, as we ever were. She flashed a smile back.
We were a strange group to be upstaging the teenagers’ hiphop scene. Jean waved her hands at me from across the circle as she wiggled her hips. The red and green laser lights flashed on her white hair and glasses. Jean’s getting used to being a widow. Her husband died a little over a year ago after 51 years of marriage. Jan, a pretty blonde woman, is also on the brink of an empty nest. And Nancy is officially an empty-nester. She dropped her baby off at college on the way to the airport. Brandy comes closer to Elida and I in age and stage in life – mother of kids, one of them a teenager. We’re all too old to be there.
Yet, there we danced.
We’ve all taken a chance in coming to Italy with a bunch of women we don’t necessarily know, taking time to create, and sharing what we’ve created. After a long dinner of caprese salad, pasta, wine, and prosciutto, bread, cheese, and wine, and chocolates, and wine, all the women sat around at nights listening to me read what I wrote. I interviewed each of the women and, with their permission, shared each story. This revealing of ourselves, of our lives, bonded us in a way that brought tears and hugs and understanding.
Sharing your work is a risk, but it is less risky than it looks. In the end, it’s worth it. I admire all these women. They are towers of strength. I admire their courage. I admire their fortitude. They have overcome. I can call each of them friends.
We linger over long dinners held at our camp. Our hostel advertises words such as “bungalow” and “chalet,” which are euphemisms. In the states, we’d call them trailers — but they are the clean straight kind found in our own camping areas. The hostel is called Camp Roma and it is situated about 5 miles out of town, filled with Italian, German, English and American tourists. Our chalet is a suite consisting of one double bed and a bathroom on one side and a twin and a bunk bed on the other with its own bathroom. Our kitchen supplies plates, glasses, mugs, silverware and pots and pans but it lacks dishwashing liquid, cleaning supplies, shampoo, and towels — all those liquids you can’t bring on the plane. There is a 2 euro towel fee.
The benefit of “camping” in Rome is the ability to cook. At our bus stop exists a symbiotic relationship between the camp and a large market. The market is filled each night with hundreds of campers buying what they need for the night. Italian staples such as prosciutto, cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, pasta and wine are cheaper than at home. Father Bruno fixed us pasta and white sauce one night and pasta frigioli the next. The women provided wine, prosecco, cheeses, sliced meats, bruschetta, and tiramazu or cookies. Being able to feast for long periods of time and the wine never running out feels so much better when you don’t have that tight feeling in your tummy about those euros disappearing so fast.
During the day, we eat at the local restaurants. In Italy, a table fee is charged which, with the lot of us, usually breaks down to between 2-3 euros a person. The tip is built into the price. Anything extra would be only if your waiter is extremely good. Maria clued me into this, having lived in Rome and married an Italian. Yet, Italian waiters have grown accustomed to Americans not being in the know, so we sometimes get the cold shoulder when we just pay the price.
Italians think Americans are barbarians for mixing our food on our plates. To begin a typical meal, start with the antipasta, followed by a first course, second course, and a main course which includes meat. Salad comes last. Each course can be gotten for under 10 Euros and the main course for between 10 and 20 euros. The portions are large, so Elida and I discovered a system of sharing a first or second course with a cup of wine and feeling satiated for the day. Water is never free, so when in Rome … you might as well have prosecco. The Italian day stops from 1-4 p.m. for this large meal which can take hours to eat followed by a rest. Then, the Italians return to work until late in the evening.
Gelaterias grace every cobblestone corner. True to form, Italians transform their heaps of gelato into beautiful art sculptures by adding real fruit and nuts to the display. Some of the interesting flavors I tried were: tiramazu, pistacchio, white fig, ginger and cinnamon. As I strolled through the piazzas, licking my cone like a tourist, I enjoyed looking in the windows above and seeing people going about their business — rocking babies, talking on the cell phone, or smoking. Bells ring from the churches around. Street musicians play the Spanish guitar or typical Italian music.
If you visit Rome, I recommend taking the metro to Flaminio to the Piazza del Popolo. When you climb up the stairs, you’ll feel the hustle of a busy city. You’ll hear the honks of impatient people. You’ll see the litter, the plastic bag floating by, and the souvenir and newspaper shop on the corner. Then, walk around a corner and WHAM! You’re in ROME! Standing there on the street and looking through the arches has about the same contrast as Kansas and the land of Oz.
Stroll through what was once the grandiose northern entrance into the city. Bernini created the arches to celebrate the Queen of Sweden’s defection to Catholicism. The elegant elliptical piazza was used for centuries as a site for public executions. In the center stands a 36 m piece of loot — an obelisk from ancient Egypt. Beyond it twin baroque churches tower over the red bricks.
The recognition that you are now in Rome rumbles over your spirit.
Stroll through the twin churches and through the cobbled streets of Rome. Pass by charming shuttered windows, double wooden doors with iron hinges, white awnings and tables with white tablecloths. Boutiques situated on random corners bear the austere names of Fendi, Armani, D & G, and Valentino. Wander through the narrow lanes and watch the Vespas and scooters swish by. Press against the walls while cars and even busses squeeze through the ancient streets.
We wandered toward the ‘sinking boat’ fountain and ascended the Spanish steps, a misnomer. The French gave Rome the steps along with the church at the top of them, Trinita dei Monti. Italians call it by its correct name, Scalinata del Trinita dei Monti. Several groups of people lounged on the colossal escalade without blocking them. The house where Keats died flanked the stairway.
The scene hurriedly broke up when raindrops fell in scattered splashes. As people ducked for cover, the rain burgeoned into a downpour. Rome gets 270 days of sunshine and more rain than London. So when it rains, it rains. We dashed under the awning of a shop and others crowded around us. The Italians used the moment to light up cigarettes, chat, and laugh before braving the elements. Peddlars appeared at the edges of awnings sporting umbrellas for sale. Americans bought umbrellas or took taxis to their destinations. Eventually, the shower ceased.
From the Spanish steps, we wandered down the Via del Tritone to the Fontana di Trevi. The baroque fountain showcases Neptune’s chariot being led by seahorses. It almost fills an entire piazza and is Rome’s most famous fountain. I wished Paul beside me because the place exuded romance. La Dolce Vita is only possible with my man.
I thought of Paul – his twinkling eyes, his golden-boy good looks, his dimpled grin, his wit. I wondered how he fared juggling construction work and four busy girls. Guilt swept over me. What was I doing? Why had I come?
The answer is still unknown. I’m searching, I guess. I’m searching for a way to live a life that is different. The path must be trusted, not to take me to a certain place, but to arrive somewhere. If the path is there, it must arrive somewhere. Our life is so uncertain. All we have is now. I have an opportunity. I should take them as they come. Thus, I’ll write and hope and seek and find.
There is a house available in Italy through a connection with Father Bruno. Should we live here awhile? Paul and I want to escape the crushing, the grinding, the dull, chronic pain of our hurried culture and empty gains.
Is that okay?
The next day, we visited the Pantheon – the temple built to all gods by Augustus’ Caesar’s best friend, Agrippa. Augustus Caesar (Octavian) had the temple built to reignite interest in the religion of the day because Rome was crumbling and Octavian could see it. He knew the people needed to return to faith – to hope and good deeds, to hard work and simple virtues, to building rather than consuming – Rome was a crumbling empire without a foundation anymore.
Much like America now.
Along with this temple to all of the gods, Octavian also commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid. WhenVirgil read the first draft to him, Octavian was very pleased, but Virgil never was. Virgil didn’t really believe in the gods anymore either. The efforts by Octavian failed. The gods diminished into children’s books and literary allusions.
A new God replaced them. And a new Church, terrible and beautiful to behold, rooted in eternity and sprinting across time with swords drawn and banners flying. Crosses cap most pagan monuments.
From the Pantheon we went to the Piazza Navona with a circle of four fountains. We ate at the local Campo Fiori (field of flowers) where the tents and the busy market erected and deconstructed itself everyday. A few of us spotted Wilhelm Dafoe. The next day was the Vatican. I spent too much time in the peripheral halls and had to rush to the Sistine Chapel. I stared for a long time at the Last Judgment – at Michelangelo’s skin hanging loosely over the demons and the lost souls. We met at another piece of Roman loot – an Egyptian obelisk crowned by a cross. We gazed at Castel San Angelo and stopped at the 14 stations of the cross. Between the angels on the Ponte San Angelo, I sketched the bridge over the Tiber River and the Vatican.
The next day was the coliseum and Circus Maximus. Father Bruno compared the buildings to a stimulus package – a way for the wealthy and powerful to pacify the masses – get them to forget they were starving. Building the stadiums provided jobs for awhile, made the rich really rich, and fed the masses a diet of blood to satiate the anger and hatred in their hearts. Revolt was what the ruling class feared. People realizing what is happening must remain hidden. It was an ingenious plan. You can’t argue too much with free bread and entertainment. The Roman mob, starving and stinking, having nowhere to go, no hope or future, cheered for their gladiators and ate the bread during the half-time entertainment of the Christians being thrown to the lions. But of course, it couldn’t last. It wasn’t a solution. And TANSTAAFL: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
But I didn’t think about stimulus packages and government solutions while I stood there looking at the paths for the chariot races. I tried to feel the thirst, the anger, see the filth and the fight, the gore, hear the cheers, and bet on the brutal games. I stood there and felt the momentary power of transporting oneself elsewhen. I didn’t pass judgment – it all comes from within. Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. I breathed deeply and felt the decadence, sampled the plates of humming bird tongues, gloried in the profane art, ignored the sexual diseases, licked the decay, chewed the rotting, and joined in the toppling of Rome.
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