Friday, May 28, 2010

My Roman Holiday

Still a little worn out from the packed day Wednesday, on Thursday I jumped into the tourist madness to see the only two sights I'd always had on my list for Rome: the Colosseum and the Mouth of Truth.

After a relatively short wait in line, I bought a ticket to enter the site of ancient sport. The Colosseum, as I mentioned in an earlier epistle, is breath-taking and amazing - the fact that ancient Romans could construct something that would survive centuries, generations, wars, natural disasters and, most of all,'s just mind-boggling. Especially when you think about how our engineers can't even build Adams Street in a ways that will prevent a big hole from appearing near 17th Avenue every time it rains a few drops.

Despite its amazing structure and history, though, I didn't want to stay long in the Colosseum. It's an arena and if you didn't know better, you wouldn't be surprised to hear vendors selling hot dogs and cotton candy. But it wasn't baseball they were watching - it was sick, inexplicable torture of men and animals. As an addict to politics, the whole concept of gladiators and their battles disturbs me. Roman rulers provided these bloody shows, in part, to cater to the masses - to unite them around a hobby or a "team" (gladiators had the equivalent of fan gear and ad endorsements!) and to help create loyalty by allowing them to participate in that common hobby free of charge. What is it about human nature that could allow so many to unite around the lowest common denominator: the desire to watch others suffer and to have group power over the life or death of another human being? What could have possibly been in the minds of the "vestal virgins" as their celebrity status required them to watch countless bloody fights in one day?

If you're depressed or annoyed by these dark thoughts, you'll understand why I only spent about an hour in the Colosseum.

The Roman ruins brought no such sadness, however, and they enthralled me as I walked toward the Basilica di Santa Maria and the famous bocca contained within. Every time I thought I'd passed the ruins, another would suddenly appear. When I glimpsed the building in this picture, I audibly gasped.

La Bocca della Verite is actually somewhat hard to find - it's in a part of Rome where citizens actually do business. The church is in a corner under a very large, grand building...and a sign on the door of the grand building explains somewhat impatiently, in English, that this is a municipal building for the important municipal business and please, for God's sake, keep walking around the corner if you're a tourist. I laughed when I saw it because I can imagine exactly how some low-level city receptionist finally snapped after a day of map-carrying idiots in "I heart Roma" t-shirts came in an out of her office and slapped a sign on the door in hopes of never seeing one of them again.

The sign did do the trick, though, and this map-carrying tourist walked on to the church. (Note: I was not wearing an "I heart Roma" t-shirt!)

There was a short line and it took a few minutes for me to realize that the Mouth of Truth was there, at the front of the line, right in the entryway of the church. No grand curtains or removable plastic gates guiding people past engraved explanations of the Mouth's, just a gate enclosing the entryway. The Mouth, and the face attached to it, is allowed to look out over a busy street and piazza day and night. If you want your picture with him, please deposit .50 euro in the box and wait your turn in line, mille grazie. My surprise about this is better understood when you consider that I spent 5 euro to have a photo taken with smoking, overweight, cynical "gladiators," and .80 euro just to enter the restroom at the Termini train station. .50 euro to stand where Audrey Hepburn once stood: PRICELESS.

I will spare you the details of the rest of my time in Rome partly because it is dull and mostly because I don't want to think about it. It involved four hours of being jostled among uncaring, impatient strangers at the train station - two hours because I got there early to avoid missing my train, and another two because somehow I managed to miss my train. It was an afternoon full of the sentiments that solo travelers try never to express: frustration, loneliness and, most of all, the desire to get on a train, plain, boat or automobile - any vehicle that will immediately take you home, where everyone speaks your language, you are not limited to parrot-like repetition of the few phrases you know ("hello," "goodbye," "thank you!") and where you never, EVER have to try to remember how to plug something into an electrical outlet.

After a few tears (hidden by my ridiculously oversized but wonderful sunglasses I bought in Rome), I was once again a zealous wanderer ready to take on Tuscany...

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