Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ancient Rome

Today started with coffee at our new favorite café on Piazza Navona – where we met our new best friend Cesare yesterday. Arriving about a half-hour earlier than our first visit, things on the square had not yet picked up. Cesare was there and seated us, taking time away from his conversation with an interesting character in dark glasses and a fringed leather jacket, straight out of a Grateful Dead concert from 50 years ago. A couple Americanos and croissants got us going again.
We both had a terrible night’s sleep – jetlag once again – so being out in the sun and the breeze made things a bit better. On the way over we were discussing how we felt about Rome so far. It’s very noisy, and busy and unfortunately quite dirty with cigarette butts and little obscuring the cobbles more often or not. It reminds me a lot of Barcelona because of the crowds and how the place looks. Overall though I’m finding it an easy place to visit, and what we were chewing on is whether the easiness is due to being experienced travelers or is this just an easy place the get things done without the language and familiarity? In truth, it’s hard to separate the latter from the former but given the common use of good English, a host of fellow travelers and the proximity of the sights to see, I think Rome is easier than many of the places we’ve been.
Our waiter from yesterday showed up just as we needed our check, and before leaving he told us about the mess they are expecting here tomorrow and Saturday because of the EU meetings. In the past, the protests have become nasty with roaming bands of ugly people breaking windows and for whatever reason, attacking sidewalk restaurants. He told us last time they had to roll down the steel shutters, collect the chairs and hide the umbrellas because they were being set on fire. The other “event” of the weekend is today’s general strike by taxi workers protesting the government’s decision to deregulate the industry, allowing for companies like Uber and Lyft to come in. Having left the restaurant on the way to our next stop, we were constantly being passed by ambulances heading down the streets towards the Vatican, no doubt to deal with the fallout from a bunch of angry cabbies. It’s an odd element of travel to Europe, getting caught in these strikes, many of which could leave you completely stranded (trains, taxis, dairy farmers blocking roads) through no fault of your own. It’s not like they put them on the calendar and in most cases I'm sure people arrive and find out the hard way.
Given our foreknowledge of tomorrow’s protests, we’d decided to spend this morning in Ancient Rome. The Coliseum and the Imperial Forum are both within a mile of our apartment and right next to each other and so easily a half-day outing. When we plan a trip, one of the key elements for me is a big dose of history, and coming here has been at the top of my list ever since our bus trip to the ruins of the Roman capital in Spain, Italica. I fell in love with that place instantly, between its small coliseum and wonderfully preserved mosaics, I could have taken in more than they had to offer. But compared to what we just stumbled on here, Italica was small potatoes.
The walk down was rough – a long, busy, noisy, everyday boulevard. Halfway there we happened to look across the street and found the excavation of a couple of temples that belonged to two wealthy Roman families in the waning years of the BC period. Called L’Area Sacra di Largo Argentina the title had less to do with the country than with the original name of Strasbourg, France which was Argentoratum, and the home city of one of the two families that funded the original buildings. Of note was the fact that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the other side of this very square, marked today by three ancient columns and a modern pine tree. Complementing the nicely restored ruins were a lot of teenaged couples making out. I’m not sure if there was an actual connection.


Continuing, we passed the Victor Emmanuel memorial, the biggest pile of white marble I’ve seen since I visited the mausoleum of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. Just enormous and covered with thousands of stairs that we had no interest in climbing.



Finally turning on to Via dei Fori Imperiali, we could just spot the Coliseum down at the end. Mussolini himself redecorated this tree line boulevard so he could look out the window in his office in the Palazzo Venezia and stare into the past and Rome’s glory. Today in front of that very palazzo, a group was having a rally decrying illegal immigration, a theme that seems to be chasing us around. Composed almost entirely of young men, the crowd only seemed lightly interested in the speaker’s fiery rhetoric. Surrounded by yellow crime scene tape a few dozen bored policemen, it didn’t appear that their fervor had any chance of erupting into anything.


Taking a break on a very nice walkway off the Via we sat and admired Trajan’s Column and Markets, both in nice states of restoration. While there, a street vendor saw us as easy marks and stopped to chat us up. His opening line was interesting, asking to compare the color of his arm and mine and pronouncing us “brothers in tone.” From there he went on about our obvious happiness, the birth yesterday of twin daughters, his country of Senegal and how many languages each of us spoke. He liked us so much that he put leather bracelets on our arms and handed three beaded bracelets for each of our children. After insisting on taking a group photo he handed MLW a molded plastic turtle and me a plastic elephant (just off the boat from Guangzhou not doubt) and explained the significance of those animals in his culture. I knew where this was going, and eventually it got there, as he turned to leave he said, “Sir, do you have a little something for me?” and he appeared genuinely disappointed at the 5 I gave him. Ah well, I’m always willing to have these little cultural encounters as long as they don’t cost too much.







The Via here is lined with ruins on both sides so we took the east down, marveling at the Forum of Augustus. About this time, I realized that I actually do have a large but limited capacity for ruins. The first time you see a 2000-year-old building you’re a bit stunned. Then your mind clears and you can appreciate the details of the craftsmanship and engineering. Then they start to look all the same, and after an hour and 4000 columns, I was there. These were certainly extraordinary, but after a while the nuances get swamped by the profusion.

We reached the Coliseum a few blocks later but not before being accosted by another street vendor who began by asking to compare our skin tones before moving on to how happy we looked. Sorry my brother, but once a day is enough. (I did wonder though if his wife had just had twins too.) Looking at the size of the place and the crush of people, we decided we didn’t need to brave the crowds and made the same call moments later regarding an overwhelmingly swamped entrance to the Foro Romano. We decided instead to take a leisurely walk back on the west side of the Via and to appreciate the remains from the platforms overlooking the whole area. It was good decision, because often when you get down at the ground level, the rocks are interesting but it’s impossible to appreciate the whole. Doing it from above made it nicer in a way and certainly better suited to our growing aversion to the crowds.










Stopping by a little pizza restaurant on the haul back home, we picked up a selection of slices to go, or as they say here portar via. I asked the waiter in last night’s restaurant how to say, “food to go” because in every language it’s a bit different. In Spanish, it’s “Para llevar,” “for to take.” In French, “Por emporter” which kind of like say “to export” but tricky because in French you use “emporter” for stuff and “apporter” for people. I don’t remember how to say it in Chinese, but Italian more or less boils down to “carry on the street” which I think makes nice, logical sense. The lesson I received here though was in the pronunciation of “possible” which I said in the incorrect Spanish fashion. Italian adds an extra “i” and thus another syllable, poh-see-bee-lay instead of poh-see-bley. I love these little lessons on the run.
And so back home for a nice lunch and a bit of rest and a never-ending stream of ambulance sirens, no doubt the taxi drivers are still at it.


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