It’s been 8 years since I was last in Europe; time for a revisit. This summer we are spending in Rome, working for the Paideia Institute, and toting around our two five-month-olds. Rome is a city I know well, and it’s full of ghosts; some are mine, and some belong to us all.
Our first stop on our little trip through Italy was Florence. There are new fast trains from Rome to Florence which arrive in less than an hour and a half. Before we knew it we were lugging our bags past Santa Maria Novella and over the Arno to our guesthouse.
I have to admit that Florence is not a place I really look forward to going to. Catherine really wanted to see it (she had never been there), so we were going to go; but even twenty years ago people were calling the place “Disneyland Rinascimento,” and at times it really does feel just like that – a Renaissance-themed Disneyland. In summer, on the streets in the center of town, there are probably twenty tourists for every resident. You hear all the languages of the wealthy of the world – Arabic, Japanese, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, English most of all – but so little Italian. It’s enough to make even the most naive tourist a little self-conscious. Even Santa Maria del Fiore, the vast and ambitious cathedral at the heart of town which is always surrounded now by vast lines of tourists trying to get in, looks somehow fake and saccharine and (to me) silly: its exterior is all red white and green marble, as if Willy Wonka had intended it as the centerpiece of a theme park: the Candy-Cane Cathedral.
Then there is the shopping-mall aspect of the place. I’m sure I literally don’t even know the half of it, because I don’t recognize the names of these stores, which I’m sure are very alta-moda and very expensive. But I do recognize some of the stores with shops there: Coach and Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton (I still don’t know how to pronounce that last name, nor do I want to know) and Abercrombie & Fitch and Swarovski and many others. On the Piazza della Signoria where Savanarola held the Bonfire of the Vanities, Gucci has not only a store but a whole museum dedicated to Gucci.
But I’ll admit that even though I’ll never own anything from any of these stores it is kind of fun every once in awhile to people-watch outside of them, and people do legitimately seem happy when they’re shopping, and I do like happy people. And then there’s the art. Walking down the Via dei Calzauoli from the Candy Cane place, you walk past a Disney Store and a Stefanel and just before you get to the Occitane, there’s Verrocchio’s Doubting of Saint Thomas. There it is, just in a niche, right there. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s a copy but it’s a superb copy, a million-dollar copy with everything but the patina, which it’s slowly developing.
I have a special place in my heart for this piece. Of course there are the obvious theological reasons: there are crazy religious people, some of them even Catholics, who in a million years would never think to put the words “doubting” and “saint” together. That Christ could accept so blasphemous and complete a doubt – a doubt that insists on sensory evidence – and that the Church could canonize such arrant dubitation, suggests a Christ and a Church more accepting and capacious than these people would ever want to be part of. It’s one of those parts of the Christian story, present from the very beginning, which a certain sort of mind blocks out.
This statue traveled to New York in 1993, and I was lucky enough to see it then. In fact, our theology teacher, Anthony Conti, thought it was so important he pulled us out of class to visit it. (I really cannot complain about my education, I suppose). We looked at it from different angles, looked at the faces, contemplated what it all meant. From one side Thomas’s body looks like a wedge and Christ seems to bend around it, as if being pierced again; from the other side Christ looms over Thomas, his hand raised almost as if to strike him down. Christ’s face is a masterpiece of modeling, equally suggestive of forgiveness and disappointment. The angling of Thomas’s body suggests excitement about his opportunity, but the strange angle of his arm shows his hesitation. At the very center of the composition is the wound in Christ’s side, out of which poured the blood and the water. It is a gap in the bronze. I remember Mr. Conti looking at that wound – he was a man of a kind of C.S. Lewis-type honesty in his Christianity – for a long time, before he said, “That hole looks like it could swallow him up.” It was a statement that was obviously literally false: it was meant to have a meaning.
Andrea del Verrocchio is one of the many Florentine artists that one discovers in time – the unpopular artists, the artists who don’t get the crowds that Botticelli and Michelangelo and Leonardo get. Florence is filled with their work, and they are one of the main things that makes Florence so lovely and so worth returning to, even if you don’t know what Dolce & Gabbana actually sells.
And Botticelli and Michelangelo and Leonardo are lovely – if you accept that crowds now come with them.
I consider myself an old pro at backpacking – I started traveling in Europe with a backpack in 1994, coming back many times (never gone longer than eight months, but that’s still a pretty long time), and doing a lot of pack-hiking trips in the U.S. When I do long-distance biking, I strap a backpack onto the back of my bike. It’s what I know best. But how does traveling with two six-month-olds change things?
Well, by the time we arrived at Roma Termini, and laid down our duffel bags and heavy backpacks, and we took the babies out of their baby carriers, we had an answer: traveling with six-month-olds is a lot heavier. It’s not just that you’re carrying baby gear and baby clothes – the gear can be minimized, and the clothes are small – it’s that you’re also carrying them. And you have to carry them up front, where an extra twenty pounds (which is about what they weigh nowadays) really does make a difference. It’s like carrying a Lewis and Short Latin dictionary – and a Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon – and a Webster’s unabridged English dictionary everywhere you go. In addition, of course, to your normal backpack. Now that I’m older and a bit stronger, I think I was a bit cavalier about the extra weight. But with kids in tow, you really have to be ruthless about what you bring. You figure out how much stuff you can comfortably carry, and then subtract the child’s weight from it: that’s how much you should allow yourself to pack. Strollers might be nice, but in Italy they are mostly impractical, where you have to deal with cobblestones, narrow walkways, steep hills, multiple forms of public transit, stairs, or crowds. You have to be ready to carry.
But we had made it to the train station – though already sweaty and shoulder-sore just from a walk to the Metro, and a walk from the Metro to the train station. This was the beginning of the on-the-road portion of our summer. We had discussed renting a car, and Catherine likes buses, which are cheaper, but it does seem that the train is probably the best way to travel with kids. They’re not strapped in to a car seat, and they have the benefit of continual body contact with you; you can walk them around the train, and find them new sources of amusement; and it’s relatively spacious. Italian trains also typically have empty seats, so we could move them around. The seats are the only place to change babies – the bathrooms are too small and have no flat surfaces – so empty seats were particularly useful.
On most of my trips I’ve maintained spontaneity, often arriving in places without accommodation worked out beforehand, but that’s not a luxury for travellers with kids. So we’ve switched over to Airbnb, which seems to offer more than hotels do anyway. Having a kitchen is particularly useful for us, because another thing we generally need to forgo is many meals out. For one it’s expensive, and secondly eating out is not ideal with children. Our kids in general have been excellent in restaurants, but it works much better in the United States, where service is snappy and you can get in and out of a restaurant within a half-hour without too much trouble. In Italy you’re lucky if you’ve gotten any food by then. We’ve been asking the waiters to do everything as veloce as possible, but culture tends to win out.
And already we know a few things about what life with twins is like: you trim your ambitions to what is possible, and satisfy yourself with seeing a good thing or two in a day; which is enough, I think. If you do two museums in a day, you likely will only remember one anyway. And – this is the thing I miss the most – you lose a lot of your time for quiet reflection. If you get a good visit in a museum, with the kids happy or sleeping, then afterwards you don’t have time to write about it – you have to spend some time playing with them, entertaining them, comforting them, or whatever form the attention they require may take.
But in exchange for this you get to see the world through their eyes. Things which you would walk right by without noticing, to them are sources of utter wonder: the dripping of water, the fluttering of a bird, a source of light, an old woman sitting in a cafe, the colors of a plate of food, the feel of a marble column – these things will not only transfix them, but make you see them as well.
And you observe another remarkable thing when traveling with children. Dostoevsky writes about how a happy memory from childhood has incredible, even salvific, power over us. I think this is true, though the reason why is not entirely clear. But I am beginning to see a possible reason: in our childhood, without even knowing it, day after day we are doing good work in the universe. Children bring joy to the people around them, and you see this especially when you are exposed, as backpackers are, to so many people. Beggars who otherwise look abstracted and despondent – their souls return to their eyes in a moment when a child smiles at them. Tourists who are bored, old people who are lonely, all sorts of people will light up at the sight of a happy child, and we often stop to let people enthuse over them for awhile. Sometimes with a baby on my front I even steer toward a sad face, just to see it light up for a moment. Catherine and I have discussed how we feel almost something like an obligation to bring our children out in public, just to let our children do their good work in the world. We’ve discussed her maybe visiting an old folks’ home with them regularly when we get back to America. To me there is something of this causing the phenomenon that Dostoevsky identifies: any kind of link with our childhood is a link to a time when our joy was perfectly contagious, spilling out of us, and not selfish or self-contained.
And the last thing to say about traveling with twins is how much of a joy they are to us, their parents. Travel is intimate; it’s a break from routine, and habitual comforts. When we travel, we have no room of our own, no blanket of our own, none of the comforts that come from familiar things – and so we turn to our companions. They become our home. And so it is for our family on the road. We are experiencing the world together. They will not remember their hands being held as they tried to step their way across the marble floors of San Clemente in Rome – but Catherine and I will. And we will remember how our experience of the world was greater because we were with each other, and they were there with us. And how by the time they left to return to the United States, a third of their time in the light had been spent in Italy – how it was there, on the floors of churches in Rome and Venice that they first began to sit up, how they heard Italian every day from their admirers, and how the first foods they ever reached for were pizza and gelato and Italian bread. Every day from them we are reconnected to the wonder of being alive, and the wonder of sharing that gift of life – that we do not have to do all this alone. And every day we know we are lucky – lucky to be together, lucky to be blessed with these two children, lucky to be free to wander, lucky to be in this happy, sunny land – but more than anything else, lucky to be alive. Camus writes, at the end of The Stranger, that “Every man alive is privileged; there is only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others.’” I think about those statements a great deal, when I think about the people I have known who are no longer alive; and I think it is important to say that Camus did not know any more than anyone else what happens after we die. But for those who are called to God’s table of life, we are indeed all one privileged class; all other distinctions fade before this one infinitely royal gift. And all those who really love know that we are not meant only to rejoice in our own life, but in all the equally precious lives around us.
Spotted walking down the Via Giulia today in Rome: a pair of falcons with human breasts, sitting atop pilasters on the Palazzo Falconieri. Apparently this oddity is the work of the ever-odd Borromini. Borromini has never been a favorite of mine, and this is no favorite of mine either, but its weirdness is noticeable. One strange vision one man had four hundred years ago, and there they are, still strange all these years later.
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth, of earth we make loam — and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away, oh that the earth which kept the earth in awe, should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.
Just walking down the street in Rome, you pick up a sense of an ancientness which is not like other ancientness. Rome is of course old and beautiful and charming and many other things, but still it is different – even different from the old and beautiful and charming places. The Middle East is older, and generally grander and more impressive; in France everything is more beautiful – even the ruins are more beautiful; places like Ireland have a coziness which really is quite charming. But Rome is different – different even in a surprising way from every other city in Italy. It is not just that Rome is old – as I have said, the Middle East for the most part is older – it’s that Rome is garbled, wildly garbled, by having been so important for so long. It is all awry. Things have been reused in so many wild ways, by so many odd minds, that the result gives the whole place the appearance of a chess-board after little children have been playing with it: it is chaos afterwards; it no longer even looks like a proper game of chess; any chess-player knows that this is not even a remotely possible position for the pieces. In Rome it is a kind of weirdness which is in many ways ugly and disturbing – as well as beautiful and reassuring — but certainly mad. I can imagine re-using an ancient column in a building; but I would re-use it as a column, finding a place for it where it was needed to support a span. There are many such re-used columns in Rome. But there are also others that are simply used in place of bricks, built right into the middle of a wall, and no longer serving the function of a column at all, but instead the function of a curtain – an utterly wrong use for a column. And often the owner of the building will break the stucco-work to reveal the bits of antiquity inside the wall – which only contributes to the sense of insanity.
This is true for the whole city – there are arches in the brickwork where there need be no arches, chunks of carved marbles used as brick or ashlar, corbels or cornices where there is neither any need nor any imaginable need, courses of bricks laid on top of things which should never have been considered proper foundations for them. The ruins are not just old – I have seen old ruins all over, and they don’t look like these ruins. The Roman ruins are actually hard to understand – even the normal old houses of Rome which are not ruins are hard to understand. Part of it is that archaeologists and owners have peeled layers off, sometimes removing towers and additions that explained certain things that were present. But there is also a weird madness the Romans have had in using ancient fragments – a madness which I will exemplify by the pedestal of the statue of Cola di Rienzo on the Capitol, though this is only a single example, and the madness is everywhere in Rome (I will add some more pictures, but myriads more could be adduced, and in Rome the effect is produced by the ubiquity of the phenomenon). The statue, erected in 1874 at a time when Rome was not short of building materials – when in fact the quarries of Italy were producing marbles for the whole world, and when Rome the new capital was flush with capital; and particularly not short of pedestals, of which there are a thousand unused ancient ones lying around in the Forum just on the other side of the hill from the place of this statue; and yet the Romans saw fit, for this expensively commissioned bronze, to cobble together a pedestal of perhaps twenty different pieces of different types of marble, held together by brickwork, some of the pieces with clashing and elaborate decorative motifs, one of them with large legible letters of an unintelligible ancient inscription. A ten-minute stroll through the Forum could probably produce seventy or eighty tons of marble fragments which would at least match – but the Romans saw fit to do otherwise.
And almost every single medieval Roman house contains at least some wall-fragment built in a similar insane way. Walking through (very medieval) Trastevere we could see them – bricks that don’t match, columns inserted into walls, marble fragments stuck into place; Catherine espied what looked like a marble mouse built into a wall, but not in an obvious place, in a place that was neither ornamental nor out of the way, as if a parent had asked a child where to put the mouse in the wall, and the child had responded in a way to make the parent regret the offer, putting it in the least artful place possible. The art of it, one might say, consists precisely in the utter artlessness of it.
And it’s not that the Romans needed to use, or believed in using, every fragment available to them: everywhere there are more bits of antiquity to be had. Broken bits lie in the vestibule of all the old churches; all over the Forum and Palatine and all the “archeological” areas; whenever a pit is dug in Rome some piece of something is turned up.
It all contributes to a sense of Rome as irrational and callous, even ferocious: to leave the beauties of the past so utterly to chance and caprice, to reuse them utterly without reverence; to take the noble dust of Alexander to stop a bung-hole.
Si sal evanuerit, in quo salietur? – Jesus
Dinner-time conversation in my house, as is custom for those who have already found wedded bliss, occasionally strays to the topic of personal solutions to our unwedded friends’ singledom. For one of our friends the solution seems obvious: “Mr. Darcy” – and why not have some fun and call him that? – “should just do more yoga. He should just make the rounds of all the NYC yoga studios, where there will be lots of cute liberal disposable-income women who look good in yoga pants, and isn’t that really all he wants?” “I told him that, but he’s found too often that a crazy factor that attaches to yoga – the ‘it’s so sad anyone has to die of cancer when they could’ve just drunk wheatgrass juice, which cures cancer in like three months but the Hillary-Rodham-Clinton-establishment won’t let you know that because chemotherapy is like the single largest business in America right now.’” “Oh,” Catherine replied, “so he wants falsifiable yoga chicks.”
She said it as if to say, “I give up, your friend has no chance” but I thought it was a good, workable goal. I actually googled it, because I thought someone might have started a Falsifiable Yoga Studio, where the yoga instructors limited themselves to claims about yoga or life that could be substantiated, but I got zero results. Having a religious streak myself and hence having to deal with people who have religious beliefs, I do appreciate the problem. The world is an amazing place as it is, and it gains immeasurably in its mysteriousness and capacity to fill us up when allowed to be itself; whereas all our projections and fictions are far less interesting.
I feel the same way about writing about Italy: it’s a real place with real problems, and to reduce it to gastronomico-sexual-artistico la-la land does not interest me.
So my demons got roused when Catherine said, apropos of our first meal in Italy, “My God, even the salt tastes better here.”
Now I know that salt is salt – the salty part of it is just sodium chloride, and it’s the same everywhere. You can flavor salt and add silly little minerals and things but that’s not what makes it salty. Nothing but salt is salty. “If salt is not salty,” said Jesus, “how the hell will you salt anything?”
But I had to pause because – well, it did seem like the salt tasted better. And not like anything else – just particularly salty.
Now it may just be because it was warm and our bodies had lost some salt while sweating and so we craved the stuff. But it sure did taste nice. I put a pinch of it into my hand. It also looked different: it wasn’t like the big flaky sea-salt products, which always seem to me to just bounce off food anyway, and it wasn’t like the regularized factory-perfect salt cubes either. It was highly irregular: irregular as to size, and irregular as to shape, many of the fragments elongated into odd shards like daggers. Looking at it, it actually reminded me of the grains of the Roman bread I had next to my plate: in the bread could be seen all kinds of irregularities, large bits of chaff, much of it of the same elongated, dagger-like shape. The Italian mechanisms for grinding may produce a similar, nation-specific shape for both salt and wheat. It is also possible that this was some specially milled salt: it was just the salt that was in the shaker in the apartment we rented. We know nothing else about the stuff.
Looking at it I concluded that it was possible that the shape of the salt meant that it probably bounced less and stuck to food more, with the result that we were eating a bit more salt than we were used to. It certainly did taste good.
But who knows, perhaps falsifiability is impossible in Italy.
Memory is fickle: inaccessible when we need it, so ready to hand when it is redundant. Here we were, in Rome, and now, for the first time since I was gone, I could remember it all. The espresso bars opening onto the streets, the pairs of professional women making comments as they walked down the streets, the long legs and short shorts of the German tourists, the blue skies, the cool breezes of the morning – it hadn’t changed at all, and it wasn’t new to me – I remembered it all. Now it seemed strange that I had forgotten. The dusty darkness of Viale Trastevere; the sidewalks of broken asphalt lined with dirty travertine; the broad, trafficked modern streets and the crooked, narrow, medieval ones; the worn, stained, cracked, sun-bleached stucco, ten times repaired and in every sense showing its age; the madonnas looking down on the compiti; the dull, slow thunder of the Trastevere tram, and dull, impassive faces of its morning riders, the universal face of all commuters; the way every Italian man wears long pants no matter how hot it is; the way every woman’s clothing shows her figure; the little lava paving-stones, each and every blessed one of them slightly irregular and I presume chiseled by hand; the way the temperature drops ten degrees when you step over to the shady side of the street; the way the motorino riders weave past narrow gaps in stopped traffic, pointing the wheel now left and now right, their feet scraping the ground; the smell of bread mixed with olive oil in the air; the electric grind of contractors’ saws, the distant clink of silverware, the chainsaw-buzz of motorinos and the cheeping of swifts in the air; it was all as if I had never left it. Even just walking a few blocks down off Viale Trastevere we saw all the crazy brickwork of Rome, the random bits of antiquity that looked like they were eroding out of the walls, the walls built in four different types of brick from four different centuries, the look of deranged decrepitude that tinged all the beauties – something ferocious and human and a bit mad.
So there we were, standing in the Piazza della Piscinula, where there is a church, San Benedetto in Piscinula, whose name makes no sense and no one knows where it comes from or what it means – Saint Benedict in the Little Swimming-Pool – looking for the apartment we had rented. Google maps had pinned it here, but we couldn’t find it. The Airbnb address was number 9, and we were near 200 in this spot. So we asked an Italian woman who happened to be seated in the piazza on a Corinthian capital doing nothing – of course she was – and in true Italian fashion she warmly and pleasantly directed us in precisely the wrong direction. So we walked in that direction and found nothing; then back in the other direction, a long way, before I finally dropped the bags and left Catherine on the steps of Sant’ Agata, now converted into a baptist church, so I could move more quickly, doubting if the information we had been given was correct. I also decided to call the proprietario of the place to see if I had the address right. He didn’t answer, and I was beginning to fear a fraud. But then he called right back, and in fact the Airbnb address – we looked at it again, we had not made a mistake – was entirely wrong. The map, however, had been correct. We doubled back to a place near the woman on the column, where our host Alessandro was waiting for us.
The place was entirely to our liking; perfect in every way, in fact. I suppose it had better be, considering how much we paid for it. A kitchen and a living room open up onto the lovely and lively Via della Lungaretta, the main pedestrian thoroughfare of that part of Rome which Augustus Hare calls “the least altered from mediaeval times, and whose narrow streets are still overlooked by many mediaeval towers, gothic windows, and curious fragments of sculpture.” A perennial passegiatta of people goes by under our two front windows; but at the back of the apartment a bedroom opens onto a private patio, hemmed in by massive brick walls and sealed off from the noise of the street. We are here only for a week, before the rooms booked for us by the Paideia Institute open up; which I am sure will be even nicer. We put our bags down and Catherine nursed the kiddies while I went to get us some food.
Even sixteen years ago, when I spent a spring in Rome, there were rumblings that a change was coming to the Roman lifestyle. The first supermarket had opened in the Campo Marzo, the central, medieval quarter of Rome, and it was beginning to succeed. It used to be that grocery shopping would take an hour or more: you had to go to the butcher for meat, have some small talk with him (he was not very fast); then a cheese-store for cheese, where you went through the same thing; then a baker for bread, a wine-shop for wine, a grocer for fruit (and he or she would choose for you, mind you – no touching the fruit), and if you wanted sweets or processed foods those were in other stores too. It was complicated and very very fun. But even us tourists who had time on our hands knew how nice it was to just go to the supermarket, where you could get it all in one stop, and get better prices too. By 2007, the last time I was in Rome, the supermarkets had cannibalized most of the small businesses in the older parts of town, and the old bakeries and frutterie were gone, replaced by tourist knick-knack shops or bars or other things. But here at least on the Via Lungaretta the old way was preserved, in part because the shopowners had accommodated to tourism: our place was opposite the “Antica Frutteria,” which survived by selling not only fruit but drinks to the tourist crowd; down the street was an espresso bar, which survived by selling beer and wine in the evening; a tiny grocery; a bookshop, which had added books in English; and a bakery, which also sold cheese and sliced meats. After a short trip down the block I not only had food for us but had introduced us to all the shopowners.
After some breakfast we all took a brief nap, and then I got up to head off to a meeting for work. I had to go to the office, which was up on the Janiculum above Trastevere. It was not far from where Reginald Foster used to teach, so I was going over much familiar ground. It amazed me how little it had changed – the Bangladeshi men were selling clothing in precisely the same spot, perhaps under the same tents, the restaurants were all in the same place, there was still a supermarket down in the basement of a department store – though the names of both had changed, the thing itself had not. Those old plane trees still reminded me of Paris, though the Romans had filled up the sidewalks in various ways – seating for cafes, open-air markets, parking – and the walking was not nearly so pleasant. Going up the hill I could feel my body start to sweat in the Roman heat. It was just as it was in the past – to me a kind of pleasant heat, excessive for sure but nothing my body couldn’t handle. It was appropriate for summer.
Finding the office proved a bit difficult, the way everything is a bit difficult here. I was looking for number 70. The numbers went on one side of the street from 65 to 71, with a building in between, but that building had no entrance or any other information. On the other side the numbers were in the 20s. Of course the place I was looking for was on the other side, several blocks away. 70 was several blocks away from 71. But I found it eventually, did the meeting, and soon was walking back home to my wife and children.
In Rome you can so easily find yourself in a place you’ve never been before. The city is quite big enough to keep a person going for several lifetimes. When I first came here as an eighteen-year-old I decided I would, in a day, walk the old city walls to get a sense of the place. I failed miserably – did not even walk half of the circuit, in fact. I am told it is only a twelve-mile hike, but of course it’s not all easily followable on foot – the roads don’t necessarily align with the walls – and it’s complicated by all kinds of later additions to the city, such as the Borgo – the area around the Vatican, which is now walled in. Anyway, I found myself walking along the old Trastevere walls, on the outside of them, in a place I had never been. It was amazing, seeing modern life in such an ancient place – a Heating and Cooling Repair shop called “Madonnina” tucked into the old defensive bends in the walls, warehouses, and so forth – and seeing the botany of the place for the first time. The last time I was in Rome, I knew no plants; now I could see things. There were capers (Capparis spinosa) growing on the old walls, with impressive flowers as staminate as a protea and looking like white St.-John’s worts; and what looked like some kind of violet or lobelia; and acanthus all over the weedy shaded slopes. Some had bemoaned the loss of the flora of the Colosseum – the archeologists had the plants ripped out, though they had been celebrated and book even written about them – but the walls of Rome still had a rich flora, if someone would walk them and examine them.
I couldn’t go through the city without some memory intruding – of something done or undone – which filled me with both happiness and a certain melancholy. The life that I have had in Rome has seemed, for a long time, to be far away. It’s not like life in the Catskills, here; and I like the more natural, more physical, and more genuine me that has developed in the past nine years since I last was in Rome. But I get the sense that now I am capable of revisiting and reincorporating much of what for a long time was merely past. I read a very wise saying not long ago, which went as follows: “You cannot change your future; you can only change your past.” This is brilliantly paradoxical – the literal-minded will simply scoff – but for those who know what it means, it cannot be put any better. Most people are caught by their past, and have no room to transform it, or transform themselves. This is really what most of us are hoping for in life: a present which somehow allows us to change our past. Because that is the part of us that most needs changing.
I feel I have been given an opportunity here, and I want to try to grab it.
We expected trouble when we boarded the plane with our four-month-old twins. It was their first flight, a nine-hour transatlantic redeye to Rome. It seemed so obvious that it would be a miserable trip that my boss had given us a travel gift: a pair of talismans with a glass depiction of an eye, to ward off the malocchio. “People are going to be giving you such looks,” she said, “getting on the plane with twins. Everyone’s going to be saying, ‘Please please don’t be sitting anywhere near me.’”
This ended up being precisely the opposite of the truth. We were given terrible seats – crammed in the back, on either side of an aisle, hence not even actually next to one another, with people passing through the aisle and hitting the kids’ heads all night long -but we were surrounded by Italians – a group of eleven Sicilians flying back to Italy after a month in America. They considered it the great blessing of God that they were seated next to such “bellissimi bambini.” “Davvero! Sono gemelli! Che bello! Complimenti! Sei fortunato!” and on and on. They held them; they played with them; they entertained them as no one had ever entertained them before. They were screaming with laughter – all of them, twins and Italians. I learned all kinds of things about how to entertain them – the materfamilias had a great trick I’ve since used, of saying “a-CHOO!” at them, faking a sneeze, which the kids found the single funniest thing that had ever been done in human history, a pure piece of the divine joy. I’ve been doing it for days afterwards and it just works and works and works. This part of their childhood will be over when it stops working, I suppose.
Meanwhile I had a serious conversation with another Italian, a Milanese, in the row ahead of me, about how special Rome was. He agreed it was unique and amazing. Something then came up regarding Italian history, and I decided to ask him what the hell all those street names in Rome actually meant – Via Venti Settembre, Via Venti-Quattro Maggio, Via Quattro Novembre – we expats always used to make fun of these names, which seemed such silly names for roads, but we never even really knew what we were making fun of. He began by proclaiming that Venti Settembre was the date of the freeing of the city from the Nazis, “dagli Americani” – but then he began to hesitate. He asked a man three rows away – “Lui e molto intelligente” – but got no good answer to the question, and soon five or six men – all men – were in a spirited discussion about the significance of those dates. No conclusion was reached, though many plausible theories were hypothesized.
It continued like this. In short, the flight was delightful, because it was full of Italians. The problems all came from the airline itself. The seat was atrociously small for a man of my size; there was no room in any of the overhead compartments for baggage, so we had our carryon bags at our feet (they did not fit under the seat in front of us); the flight was absolutely packed and they had made no special accommodation for our two lapchildren (often a bulkhead seat is reserved for travellers with young children, but not in this case). Nevertheless the children were delightful, quiet and playful and in good cheer the entire time except for one incident.
About two-thirds of the way through the flight, when it was three in the morning Rome time and the lights in the cabin were all down, I was walking through the aisle with Mary, when, right in front of us, a man began shaking violently and foaming at the mouth. His wife grabbed him and started shouting, “Chris! Chris! Are you all right? Chris! Don’t stop breathing!” His body began going stiff. Immediately a rustle of panic went through the entire crowd; people got up from their seats to look, people started asking each other what was going on, et cetera – it was not loud, but it was certainly a commotion. Mary immediately turned to me and threw her mouth open and began crying, which increased the general sense of confusion. I took Mary out of the situation immediately, right to the very back of the plane, and going up to a flight attendant told her that the man in that seat where the commotion was appeared to be having a seizure. Doctors were called, and it turned out to be only a seizure, which was good; I had feared it could be something like a heart attack as well. The man was restrained for awhile, and the fit passed; he was fine when we got off the plane three hours later in Rome.
Meanwhile it took Mary a good hour to calm down afterwards, and I was impressed at how these waves of emotion can pass through crowds, and how completely tuned in to them Mary – in particular – was. John had been nursing at the time, and Catherine said he noticed the commotion but kept nursing. Mary was closer to it, of course, but this has been a consistent difference between the two, that Mary seems to be affected by the emotional atmosphere around her more than John is. We are very much herd-animals: an alarm is raised, some kind of sound is made that is different than normal, and soon every human being within earshot is aware that something is wrong. Babies can be very terrified when they know something is wrong.
Eventually Catherine nursed Mary and all three of them fell asleep, while I could not sleep at all. I did not want to turn on my light, for fear of waking them, and I could neither read nor write in the darkness; so I just sat there and counted minutes, most unhappily. But eventually the cabin lights came in; the flight attendants came by with coffee and chocolate croissants; we descended into Fiumicino. The Italians all around us declared positively that ours were the best and most beautiful bambini that had ever ever been. Thinking about the flight later – the combination of human warmth and a general sense of social eventfulness – I determined we had already been in Italy for several hours.
When we were on the ground they brought out one of those rolling staircases and we walked down the steps onto the tarmac, and there they were, the umbrella-pines of the Campagna, and the low, flat, somewhat unappealing ground of Fiumicino. I will confess I had some anxiety about returning to Rome. It was a place I had fallen in love with decades ago; now I was coming back; it was like getting together with a high-school flame twenty years later, hoping for love to still be there. Looking for an apartment for us to stay in, I had been appalled at the prices – they were fully twice what they were eight years ago, and three times what they were twenty years ago. Twenty years ago we students would be eating six-dollar dinners at good restaurants every night; now the euro had joined with a massive tourist industry to align Roman prices with other European capitals (especially in summer), airbnb had turned the whole centro storico into a hotel and there were no Romans anymore, the middle of the city was now filled with Australian bars like Ned Kelly’s selling overpriced pints to drunken English college students who had turned Campo de Fiori and Trastevere into public latrines. I could go on like this, because I had seen some of the changes beginning myself, and had heard about it from many others: expats who were thinking of getting out because the city had been transformed into Cancun for the British Isles, a spring-break destination for meatheads. I had heard about the incident of the Brit who had stripped himself naked and was parading around in puris naturalibus when he was attacked and beaten by a Roman mob who had had enough of this behavior and left him for dead; apparently there had been other incidents as well.
And in addition, everyone said the city had become more expensive, more “European,” less Roman, less Italian, and so I was unsure what to expect.
We came in the doors of the airport terminal and found a vast – an unbelievably vast – line for passport control. It went so far beyond the area for passport control, we were at first unsure that was what it was. We walked all the way down its length, and then had to walk all the way back. Lines like this drive me crazy, because of course passport control can know in advance precisely how many people will be going through at any given hour, based on flight times. So lines like this at 6:30 a.m. on a weekday in perfect weather are a sign of terrible management. And we had two little babies who had just done so well on a nine-hour flight; now we were facing a multiple-hour wait just to get a passport stamp. We waited and the line barely moved. It was utterly dispiriting. And then a woman came up to us and said we had babies, we were special travellers, she pulled us out of the line and walked us past what must have been more than a thousand people and put us on a special line that had about three people on it. A smiling, barbate Italian man at passport control made all kinds of funny faces at the babies, praised them as bellissimi, told us now we had “una coppia” (a boy-girl set) so we were done. I told him we were Catholics of the old school, we were only done when nature said so, and he laughed and said that then “e ben cominciato,” he stamped all four of our passports, and we were through.
As we walked away, Catherine said, “Well, that made that a lot easier.”
“Now we have to get our bags,” I said. “Who knows how long that will take.”
We stepped into the baggage claim area, where all the fire alarms were going off. Signs were flashing INCENDIO INCENDIO INCENDIO. Absolutely no one cared. Guards with AK-47s were standing around, wearing green combat fatigues with blue feathers stuck in their caps – I am not making that up – and doing absolutely nothing, as if the alarms had always been going off, and for all I know, they always are. Needless to say, after a few minutes of it – compounded I suppose by the fact that I had not slept at all – I felt I was beginning to go crazy. We went to our baggage claim area and found that the conveyor belt was not working: bags were coming out of the outlet, but just piled up on top of each other, creating a massive jam. People were scrambling onto the jammed bags trying to sort through them, the fire alarms were going off, guards with AK-47s and blue feathers were just standing around joking with each other – my God, I thought, nothing has changed in Italy at all. I began to take off my little baby-carrier, presuming we would be there for a long time. But then Catherine saw that our bags were there – right there, at the bottom of the pile, but visible. Both of them were there, right next to each other. And then the belt lurched forward, then stopped, then lurched again, and fitfully began to move, but in the wrong way – taking the bags through a doorway and out of sight. I couldn’t move – I had a baby half-on and half-off – and Catherine lunged and grabbed both bags, including my bag which had about forty pounds of Latin dictionaries in it.
We couldn’t believe it. We were through passport control; we had our bags. We walked out of the airport – the fire alarms going off everywhere, our ears really beginning to hurt. Catherine began wondering what this was doing to our children’s ears. We went to the train station, alarms blazing. Minor chaos – there was a ticket office, a bar, a private ticket agency, another private agency, and a newsstand, and every single one of them had big signs in English saying they sold train tickets there. Every one except the actual ticket office, that is. I smelled a scam. We got on line at the ticket office, but the line did not move at all. I went to a ticket machine while Catherine waited; they only took cards, not cash, but did not take my card (I tried two machines). Catherine had still gone nowhere. I realized we would miss the train. So I went to the newsstand, bought the tickets at their face value, we convalidated the tickets, and then we got on the train.
We were bound for Rome. And I could tell already it was going to be everything it ever was.
Today is Good Friday, and an unusual one: it’s also March 25th, the day of the Annunciation, traditionally New Year’s Day by the Catholic calendar. It was believed to be the day God created the world, and hence the day He began it again with the Incarnation; the day of the Passover as well (in Exodus it says that this month should stand at the head of the calendar, hence it was the first month of the year for Christians).
Good Friday fell on March 25th in 2005, but don’t let that make you think it’s a normal occurrence: it won’t happen again this century, and the last time it happened before 2005 was 1932. The most famous concurrence of this sort was the year 1300, when it so impressed Dante that he made it the day the Divine Comedy started.
And so I call this a “Venerdi Dantesco,” and we’ll read some of the Commedia today in his honor. The conjunction of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion and the commencement of Dante’s interior journey seems like a day worth commemorating. Whether the Creation of the World occurred on this day is a bit less certain, but it must have happened sometime, and if anything’s worth celebrating, it’s that.
And now our children were safely born, we looked around us. The midwives were cleaning up. The children’s water had not broken until they were being delivered, and for our daughter that meant right on the bed. The amniotic fluid was mixed with blood and formed a pool in the center of the bed where Catherine lay. The midwives just used a bowl and scooped it out, putting it all into larger bowls we had provided. It amazes me to say this, but there was not a drop of any kind of stain on anything when the midwives left. We had used our good sheets which we had brought from New York – we don’t really have many possessions, and so we use the ones we have – and they were in perfect condition. The midwives had all along been placing mats and moving Catherine around to make sure this would happen, but it had happened so unobtrusively that I hadn’t even noticed it going on. The sheets got more stains the day after the birth than the day of.
We were exhausted, but also filled with a nervous, joyous energy – how could we have slept at such a moment? – And so I called Catherine’s family, and invited them over. It seemed like they arrived in a flash – but time had already begun to change, and move more quickly – and since she has a large family, all of a sudden the house downstairs was full of bustle. Mom and Dad were there, and five sisters, and one sister’s fiance, and two grandmothers, and an aunt, and a cousin, and some people I didn’t know but they were welcome too. They were cooking, they were talking, they were opening bottles of champagne. By ones and twos they came up to visit Catherine and the two new little people. They set up a big table downstairs – our little dining-table seated only four – and were eating, and were happy, and the babies were brought downstairs and slept in their arms. Simply to have someone cook us a meal in that moment was a sublime act of kindness – Catherine in particular was hungry – but there was more to it than that. I loved seeing my children this way – surrounded by people who loved them. I loved the life of it – the wild, crazy, vitality of it. When the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother arrived – people were arriving by carloads – I was carrying out a bucket of blood to dump onto the compost pile. While the wine was flowing and people were laughing and picking at their plates downstairs, there were still bloody rags in waste baskets upstairs – I had stopped the midwives from cleaning out some things, so I could sort things out for the compost – and the large, bipartite fused placenta which had fed the children for months was sitting in a bowl. Some other bloody bowls sat in a cold room upstairs, to be brought to the kitchen later and washed.
I realized even then, in my relishing of the crazy vital humanity of it, how I had been transformed. All during Catherine’s pregnancy, I had expressed some skepticism about fathers who were overly involved in the actual birth. What did I know about childbirth? And how much knowledge could I really acquire? It would always be something I could only observe, not really know inside me. I thought the man’s place, when it came to birth, was downstairs with his whiskey and cigars. And to tell the truth, I was brave about many things, but things medical and bodily were not among them. In seventh grade – I still remember it vividly – we watched in science class a video of open-heart surgery and I had to leave the room, I got so sick seeing it. It was there for the first time that I got the strange feeling that I always get when I get queasy – and it is only medical things that do this to me – I feel the skin at my elbows is too tight, and they feel weird and weak, as if the marrow is about to flow out of them and onto the floor. Scenes of torture in movies, blood in real life, dissecting lab animals, and people discussing their surgeries, all produce this sensation in me. When I’ve had blood taken – even just the small amounts required for blood tests – I’ve always felt faint, and twice I’ve passed out. When I heard friends both male and female talking about birth – the blood, the flesh tearing, the pain – I’ve always felt my place would be in the next room, pacing. Otherwise I would just faint right away.
And yet here I was, carrying this bucket of blood and amniotic fluid through the kitchen where dinner was cooking, and out to the compost bin, after my wife had actually given birth right on top of my body, and I was doing it all blithely, joyfully, without even batting an eyelash – something had changed. I could feel it: I could feel that my understanding of what it meant to be human had altered. People often think that people have a hard time being religious, or being spiritual, but I think for most that is the opposite of the truth. It is easy to conceive of yourself as a spirit, and to think of the flesh as really just a series of indignities and obstacles and uncleanliness. It is much harder to be human: to reconcile yourself to having and being a body, to reconcile yourself to the fact that the stuff flowing through your veins, the minute it is delivered of your little boundaries, belongs on a compost heap: with the ends of the carrots and the paper towels and the unpopped popcorn kernels. It’s not a very dignified place in the universe, it seems. The body is so distressingly weak – just a thin bag of water constantly in danger of being punctured – that it is hard to relate it to this proud thing that I am. You don’t want to see your blood spilling into the gutter, or getting turned into fertilizer – I’d always rathered [sic] see my blood get absorbed by little medical gauze pads, thrown into one of those “bio-waste” receptacles that make it seem like our bits and pieces are radioactive and dangerous and important, and be “properly disposed of” – whatever that means. It wasn’t me, it was biowaste – I was a spirit, not some quivering mass of blood and guts. Even to think of the inside of a body was disgusting to me. But not anymore. Now I felt different – I felt my blood belonged to the soil, and the soil belonged in my blood – I felt far more part of things than I had before – my body included. In that house food was coming in, and blood was coming out – of course. Why not? Wasn’t the blood just food in a different form, transmuted by the processes of digestion and blood production? The upstairs still looked like a crime scene – the bloody rags, the lump of placental flesh in a bowl – while the people feasted and rejoiced downstairs. This too felt right. If I were just looking at it, it might seem crazy. But there was more going on than that. I was looking at it, but I was also looking from it. It was my flesh and blood that had just been born out of that woman; it was my flesh and blood that was to be fed from those cookpots in the kitchen. When you look from reality, rather than just at it, you see in an entirely different way.
Over the next few days, I would see people hold my babies, or change their diapers, and I could see my old discomfort with the body in some of them. A baby was weird and alien, fragile and breakable to some – and I saw that, and recognized that I had been like that. But other people were different – a baby sat naturally in their arms, as if it were an extension of their own body – which, of course, it really was. Some people found the whole business of changing a diaper, and having to clean someone else’s genitals and posterior just a little bit – uncomfortable. But for others it was no more trouble than it would be to bring the carrots in from the garden and clean them. And I had now become one of the latter group. I had seen birth – I had really seen blood and sweat and tears, and piss and poop and amniotic fluid and just about everything else. A woman had in fact given birth right in my arms, while I held her up – now I was going to be put off by changing a diaper? I felt prepared for anything now.
This may well be a universal experience – it would be hard for me to say. Birth is so private in our society, and it’s not that much talked about to begin with; and new parents are too busy and exhausted to write very much about the experience; and as time goes by the freshness of the impressions fades, and the lessons are internalized and are hard to put into words. But it is definitely the case, I think, that parents do have an altered relationship with the body, one which is far more intimate and less standoffish. For me it was an obvious transition because it all happened at home, in the room where I slept and in the kitchen where I cooked. I really could not have imagined myself before the birth being comfortable with leaving a bloody bowl in the room next door – “ah, we’ll get to it in the morning” – or sorting through blood-stained paper towels to see what should get composted. And yet I was. I most definitely was. And I was so happy – so happy and alive.
A few days after the birth some friends were arguing that Christ did not teach, and Christianity did not imply, pacifism. I disagreed with this position, and one of them called me out on it: now that I was a father, did I not understand violence? Would I not have done anything to save my children from someone attempting to harm them? And I can say I don’t know what I would do in any given future situation, but what I felt, after the birth, was quite the opposite of any kind of homicidal protectiveness. I felt that every human life was sacred: that it was terribly, frighteningly sacred: that even a marauder who broke into my home was some woman’s son, and his mother labored over him and laughed and cried when she saw him for the first time. He too had a day when he was born, and the light came into his sacred and venerable eyes just as it came to my daughter and my son. Having seen God’s power to create, I did not wish, even for a second, to countenance the thought of destroying it. When I heard of death – a young boy washed up on a beach, a man shot by police – my thoughts were: my son, my daughter. And I do not think that I was wrong.