Sunday, 28 October 2007

Today we said our goodbyes to Filippo and his son David and muddy Sofia, had one last round of badminton, then took off for Rome. On the way we took a little detour to Civita di Bagnoregio, a tiny hill town we had read about. We parked in nearby Bagnoregio, a completely quiet little town. It was Sunday afternoon, and I like to think that everyone was either taking a nap, or spending the afternoon with family gathered around some table dipping bread into olive oil.

To get to Civita, a town now populated with only 15 people, we parked our car and walked on a footbridge, the only thing connecting Civita to the rest of civilization. No cars enter the ancient city walls. It was once an Etruscan village, and sits high atop a rocky hill. The ground below is blanketed with grape vines and farming fields, and the wind whistles past the old stone walls, overlooking it all. We didn’t do much. We got some ice cream from a tiny bar that was open, sat in the square and watched the other souls who had ventured up the steep foot bridge, and walked down the one narrow lane in the city.

An old woman at the end of the lane sat on a low stone wall and said something in Italian, motioning us into her backyard. We handed her a Euro and were wow’d by the view from her garden. She had a lot of old things hanging on a garden shed wall, including a shield and breastplate, metal shovel heads, and unidentified tools.

While we loved Civita, we were getting a little nervous. The time changed that morning, the sun would set an hour sooner, and we still had to get to Rome and turn in our rental car. So, we hit the road, me gripping the computer in my lap tightly and trying to tell myself that navigating Clay through Rome would not be so hard. I cannot think of a city more different than Civita than Rome, just two hours down the road. The traffic was incredible, the most nerve-wracking thing were the motorcycles that would race up behind you, between the lanes, surrounding you on both sides as you all waited at a light. Everyone in Italy drives crazy, they don’t stay in their lanes but drift somewhere in between.

We found the hotel, which is right across from Vatican City, and I unloaded with the kids while Clay took off with the computer as his navigator to return the rental car. In the dark. We hadn’t made it in time, the sun had set. If this was a movie, the music would turn ominous right about now.

We went up to the room, and Alayna immediately went to the bathroom and checked out the supplies. A teeny tiny toothpaste tube and telescoping toothbrush were a cool find. She was extremely impressed with the shoe shine and sewing kit, excellent craft supplies! The boys got our their legos while I found a spot for everything (we’re in a five person family room this time, all sleeping in the same room, but it’s nice and big).

An hour and a half later, Clay returned, triumphant, but a little frazzled. He had a horrible time finding the rental car place. He pointed to where it was on the map, and it couldn’t have been more in the center of the city. It was dark, and when the computer said, “You have arrived at your final destination,” there was nothing there but a park and a tangle of streets all coming together. He drove around and around, narrowly missed running over two Italians (he said they were crossing the road in the dark, and he stopped just feet from them), and finally just parked the car in the middle of the road on some painted stripes so he could get out and try and find it on foot. When in Rome!

He found a parking garage, and remembering that he had returned a previous car in a parking garage, he went inside, wound around, and eventually found the Europcar office. No signs, of course. So, he went back to the car and gratefully turned it in. Then he had to find the subway station to get back to the hotel. He went down some steps and continued to walk down, figuring he’d hit the subway eventually. Too bad he didn’t find some new Roman ruins! He did find the subway, and he did make it home, but I don’t think he’ll ever drive in Rome again.

It was late, we were tired, but we hadn’t eaten dinner, so out we went. We found a nearby restaurant and tucked in to some pasta. Benji fell asleep on my lap, and there were heavy lids all around the table. We dragged our overstuffed selves home and gratefully fell into bed, remembering to set Clay’s watch for 6:45AM since we had an appointment at the Vatican the following morning. Good thing it’s right across the street!


Monday, 29 October 2007

I woke up very early this morning to the sound of Alayna wheezing through a very narrow windpipe. She actually had the same problem the night before in Tuscany, something made her very allergic and she’s had a lot of trouble breathing. Clay had been up with her earlier in the night, giving her water to help with her cough. We turned on some hot water and sat a while in the bathroom until the steam helped her breathe, then went back to bed. I couldn’t sleep, I kept going through the scenario of how we’d find the hospital if she got really bad.

When Clay’s watch beeped, she was a little better. Not great, but better. We tanked her up with some Clarinex and Advil, had some breakfast downstairs at the excellent breakfast buffet (they have eggs!!!), then skipped past the line across the street that was already gathered at 8am. We became Patrons of the Vatican earlier this year, which allow us to have a private guide take us through the museum before it got swamped with crowds.

Romina, our guide, was awesome. She took us through a long, silent hall lined with painted cupboards that she said were filled with books, the Pope’s library. Then to a “secret passage” as we made our way to the Sistine Chapel, the goal to get there before anyone else. We walked through a plain, thin passageway, and then Romina opened a pair of nondescript doors and stepped back, a look on her face that said “you guys aren’t going to believe this!”

She was right. It was like being a bride, after all the bridesmaids have marched down the aisle and they close the door while the bride takes her place in front of the doors, this moment of anticipation. And then the doors swing open and you see this amazing scene in front of you, everyone standing to see you. So she opens the doors, and we walk in to this brilliant color everywhere. I looked up to see God and Adam, touching fingers, just like I knew they would be doing. Only seeing it in pictures doesn’t come close to showing what it’s really like.

The colors are much brighter than I thought they would be. And the figures, they are three dimensional. Like statues way up there on the ceiling. And they are all twisting and turning, movement is everywhere. Michelangelo was brilliant.

The kids impressed us. Benji was the only one to notice that the angels didn’t have wings. Nate was the only one to remember why Michelangelo painted the likeness of a man named da Cesena in The Last Judgment. Da Cesena got on Michelangelo’s bad side by complaining about all the naked people in the picture. So Michelangelo painted him as Minos, judge of the underworld, with a snake wrapping itself around his body.

Our guide told us all sorts of interesting tidbits. When the restorers were working on the ceiling, they found all sorts of little things, like cards hidden in the crevices of the walls (from when the apprentices and Michelangelo played cards during a break, someone cheating by hiding one in the wall), and a spoon, left and forgotten. She pointed out a dog that could be found in several of the paintings around the walls of the chapel. These were all painted at the same time by a crew of talented painters including Botticelli and others. This dog was apparently present while the men painted, a sort of mascot that frolicked around on the floor while they worked. The kids loved the idea of a little dog running around the chapel.

We saw the Raphael rooms, marveling at more bright colors and intricate scenes. We saw The School of Athens, where so many famous thinkers and artists were all featured together in one giant fresco. We met with a very nice priest who told us about the search for Saint Peter’s tomb, and the evidence pointing to the fact that they found it some years ago. We ate cookies and chocolates in his office, with views of the city all around. Then, we did laundry.

After finding the self-service laundry down the street, and grabbing some lunch while it washed, we came back to the hotel for a little siesta. While Clay and I slept, the boys played legos and looked at magazines, and Alayna made an adorable elephant out of cotton swabs, cotton pads, a black piece of foam, buttons, and a stick. A glue stick was all she needed to make the kits from the bathroom into a masterpiece.

After a rest, we were ready to go out and see a little more of the city. We walked along some very busy roads, the traffic roars up from behind like a beast, and crossing the road is a tricky thing. Making eye contact with drivers and gripping the boys’ hands are both important. It seemed like this city was just one big, loud, brawl. And then, we turned on a side street, walked about a block, and encountered silence. It was amazing.

We looked up to see huge flocks of birds flying in groups, like shape-shifters in the sky. Nate said, “it’s like Rome traffic in the sky!” They would all fly one direction, then another, while higher up a different group was doing the opposite. Benji said, “This is a once in a lifetime bird scene!”

I loved this little walk, down one narrow street after another. Along the sides were tiny little shops, each inhabited by a craftsperson doing what that person did best, whether it be painting, sanding a door, or recovering a chair. It was quiet and industrious. The building stretched two or three stories tall, and these are always cozy kinds of streets. It was quiet enough to hear a dog’s toenails approaching from behind.

We popped out in Piazza Navona, a quiet little romantic square with a statue in the middle and restaurants lining the edges. Apartments on top gave glimpses of homes inside, warm lamplight and clinking silverware. We walked on to another square, also quiet with someone playing violin in the center. We saw the Trevi Fountain. The boys bargained for cheap toys. Little light up discs that you can send spinning into the night sky and then try and catch on your launching stick. We sat on the Spanish steps and ate roasted chestnuts. Clay said they taste just like chicken!

We got back home late, but what a different a day can make! We took a cab, and were dropped off at our door tired and full, but peaceful after our leisurely walk through Rome. It is a city I would never want to live in, but a city I want to explore for a while longer. We’ve got two more days . . .


Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Today we walked to the forum, which is actually a huge complex of ruins that once were temples, government buildings, arches to commemorate victories, and houses for vestal virgins. It is amazing to see huge columns soaring into the air, maybe a giant beam of marble stretching across two columns, and that’s all that is left of what was once a huge temple. In one area there were three huge arches, just enormous, that were once part of a large justice hall. I could imagine men in togas whispering across a marble floor beneath these arches. Now there are just little boys climbing over crumbled bits of marble.

The kids loved clambering over the ruins when they weren’t roped off, or looking for pedestals they could stand on and pretend they were statues. One of the most interesting parts of the ruins was a large arch, still pretty much intact, that was built to commemorate a Roman victory over Jerusalem. When the Israelites refused to worship the emperor as a god, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and carried off 50,000 Jewish slaves. Those stories from the Bible are starting to fit into place with the history we’re absorbing as we travel. Real people, real stories.

For some reason I imagined the Coliseum as a huge amphitheater that would be empty when we arrived, our voices echoing across a vast expanse as the kids ran around on the stadium floor pretending they were gladiators. This was wrong. There were long lines that we managed to avoid by purchasing our tickets elsewhere, we were approached by at least three “guides” who offered to give us a tour for ten Euros a pop, there were turnstiles and security checkpoints where we put our bags on conveyor belts. Once we finally entered we jostled for position at railings where we could get a peek at the maze that is now exposed since the actual floor of the stadium has long since crumbled or been pilfered. The maze once housed animals that were raised to stadium level to fight with the gladiators.

It was impressive, realizing it was 2,000 years old and Romans really sat all around and yelled and cheered while men were killed before their very eyes by brutal animals. But it wasn’t what I expected. Huge chunks are missing out of the concrete walls, Clay speculated that the walls were once covered in marble that was taken from the site to be used on other buildings in Rome, and when the marble was removed it took a chunk of wall with it. I think one of the things that we found most interesting was that this structure, and all the surrounding ruins, languished for hundreds of years before being noticed. We overheard someone reading from a guidebook that sheep actually grazed on the site, with columns peeking up out of the ground.

We passed several field trips while we were there, groups of third or fourth grade kids herded by teachers and trailed by several parent volunteers. Just like back home. Can you imagine, having a field trip to Roman ruins? The scary part was watching them crossing streets to get there, a bunch of kids in backpacks hustling across streets while cars and motorcycles were bearing down on them.

A word about cabs. We’ve taken several since we’ve been in Rome, one of the kids sits in the middle of the front seat with Clay, while I sit in the back with the other two. One driver offered Benji a cigarette, he thought that was pretty funny. My strategy for successful cab riding is to focus on the seat back in front of me, not letting my eyes stray to the narrow misses. The cab narrowly misses colliding with busses and motorcycles, and accelerates towards parked cars, dodging them at the last minute. I could never be a cab driver.

We hung out at the hotel after exploring the ruins. Alayna is chewing on some Dickens, we got her a nice fat book in the hopes that it will last a little longer. She’s reading Oliver Twist, a challenge but I think she’ll do just fine. After a little respite, we grabbed some paninis and had our dinner on the roof of the hotel, watching an approaching storm. It was ominous looking.

That night thunder boomed and lightening flashed. I think it was the first time we’ve heard thunder since we left Austin in August, a good old-fashioned thunder storm. It was a nice sound to go to sleep to, all safe and dry inside.


Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Happy Halloween! While we’ve seen a few little decorations here and there in shop windows, Halloween is just not a big deal here. We made plans to celebrate on our own, and set to work drawing masks on paper. Alayna drew a ¾ view of a face that could be a girl when she added big lips and eyelashes, or a boy if she added a moustache. Benji made a dinosaur mask, and Nate and I made aliens. Clay made an angry beaver face, in honor of my scary beaver face. We first discovered my angry beaver face last year, and I pull it out every now and then to scare the children.

We did school in the morning, and while Alayna and Nate finished up their homework, Benji and I set out to do some laundry and find a candy store. We were successful in all our endeavors, and brought Clay and the kids back to select their candy. Each person bought four pieces of candy to give out during trick-or-treating later that night, keeping their selections secret.

It rained all day long, Benji remarked it was perfect Halloween weather. That afternoon we all donned our rain jackets and headed to St. Peter’s Basilica, eager to visit this massive church. We were surprised by the massive line that greeted us when we arrived in the square. It wound all the way around the entire circle, it was huge. A giant mass of colorful umbrellas. We got to the end, and were relieved to see that it moved very quickly. It only took about thirty minutes to get inside.

Once again, it wasn’t what I pictured. Yes, it was huge. Impressive. Breathtaking. But it wasn’t really holy, at least at first. Tourists jostled to get a good picture of Michelangelo’s pieta (ten feet away, behind bullet-proof glass, but it was still beautiful), and tour guides help up their umbrellas or scarves on poles or stuffed flowers to lead their dutiful group around the church. Lots of noise, nobody even tried to be quiet. The tour guides droned their canned lectures with little enthusiasm. I passed a man in a t-shirt that read “A balanced diet means a beer in each hand.”

We walked underneath the dome, craning our necks to see to the top. We admired the mosaics, copies of famous paintings like Bernini’s Transfiguration. These were really amazing. But I wanted holy. I was angry that so many people were allowed to come in and treat this place that was built to be a place of worship as just another tourist site. And yet I was one of these people. We made our way to a side chapel to say some prayers for friends and families, and this is where we found holy.

A sign outside warned that no pictures could be taken inside the chapel, no talking, the chapel was meant for prayer. A curtain separated it from the rest of the church. We took a deep breath and ducked past the curtain. Inside people were kneeling or sitting quietly on pews. In front was an altar with some beautiful statues, lots of gold, paintings, and the holy sacrament (consecrated bread like what’s used for communion) in a golden starburst.

I breathed deep. I closed my eyes. I prayed to myself. Our kids prayed quietly, Clay prayed, we were quiet together in this little chapel and if finally felt like a church. When we left, Benji whispered that after he said his prayers, he sang a little song in his head about God and Jesus. I told him I thought God liked that very much.

As we left the church we were walking behind a small Asian couple. They looked perfectly normal except that the woman’s hair was electric blue. I couldn’t help but notice. Not a tint or a shade of blue, but electric blue. Such a funny little eccentric old lady in her tennis shoes, holding on to her husband’s arm, with her bright blue hair. Who knows, maybe she was dressed for Halloween.

The kids were really excited about the upcoming festivities. We got some provisions for dinner at a grocery store. Bread, cheese, carrots, apples, a banana, some nuts, sodas for the kids and a small bottle of wine for Clay and me. We were ready. We spread a towel on the floor of the hotel room and ate our dinner while we told ghost stories. Or just plain old stories.

After dinner we shook the towel out and took our places. Everyone had chosen where their “home” would be. I was behind the curtains, Alayna was under the desk (she actually decorated, her lair was covered with a bath towel, and she had hung her pajamas to look like a ghost), Nate’s was in the wardrobe, and Clay was in the bathroom. The idea was, each person would take a turn trick-or-treating at each “house” and collecting candy. Then take their place at a house so someone else could go. Benji went first, knocking on something hard at each house and receiving his treats in his cupped hands.

We howled like wolves, cackled like witches, and hammed it up, getting progressively more “hammy” as the night wore on. After everyone collected their candy, we spread out on the beds and dug in. Then we found a movie in English that the kids could watch on TV and cuddled up together for movie night. I think we did pretty good celebrating Halloween thousands of miles from home. Clay even came up with some pretty clever Halloween Rome jokes, I’ll just share one. What did the cannibal say after eating a woman in the Coliseum?  He was gladiator. (Get it? Glad. He. Ate. Her.)