November 12, 13, & 14, 2017
This post is divided into three pieces:
As I flew west across the Atlantic on November 15, 2017, I tried to catch up with the notes I’d been taking of the trip. When I review those notes now, in March of 2019, I wish I’d spent more time tabulating the events of the trip, and the order in which they occurred, instead of devoting long paragraphs to the shortcomings of Wonder Woman, the in-flight movie whose only unique virtue was the transcendental loveliness of its Israeli star. My notes end shortly after I document Saskia’s arrival, with the sadly revelatory sentence “More snacks arrive in this wonderland of an airliner.” I had expected to complete these blog entries quickly, while the trip was still fresh in my mind; now, a year and a half later, I will write this final entry and publish the collection of entries, recounting what little I remember of our last few days and including the photographs that jog what small memory I possess.
Saskia left us on the evening of November 11. Bob and I walked to the Termini station with her and hung out at a cafe table, under an enormous underwear advertisement, until it was time for her to leave. In the interim since she left us in Rome, she and her husband have had a baby. Saskia still seems much like the kid who lived in Ilwaco with Bob and Annie, but of course she isn’t a kid at all, despite my misgivings on the matter. The second greatest surprise in the lives of most adults is the realization that children age. The greatest surprise of all, of course, is the realization that we are aging, too.
When Bob and I returned to Trastevere, we poured a couple of glasses of wine and raised a toast to our mother; it was the one-year anniversary of her death. If it had been possible to have taken her agoraphobia from her and set it aside, it would have been wonderful to have taken her to Rome. She would have complained about the opulence of the Church, and what that opulence says about its long history of theft, but she would have loved it, all the same.
Bob and I had agreed not to visit Pompeii until Saskia arrived in Rome, thinking she would be sure to enjoy it – since who wouldn’t, after all – but she surprised us by saying that she didn’t have any particular interest in making the jouney. I had learned that it was possible to see Pompeii as a day trip from Rome, given an early enough start and a willingness to be exhausted by the time we got back home; since Bob and I had no trouble getting up early, and were perfectly happy to punish our future selves by working them too hard, we set off just as the city was beginning to come to life on the morning of the 12th, bound for the ruins of Pompeii.
The train station at Naples, where we were obliged to change trains for the short trip to Pompeii, nearly defeated us; it was on multiple levels and filled with contradictory signs. I remember looking out the window of the train at the early-morning light on the bay as we rolled under the slopes of Vesuvius on the approach to Pompei.
November 12 was a Sunday; the streets of the modern city of Pompei (a name that is distinguishable from that of the ruined city of Pompeii by its unitary “i”) were full of people in their best clothes, chatting placidly in the courtyards of the churches near the train station. Bob and I had a breakfast of coffee and pastries at a cafe on the square, eating at a sidewalk table, looking at the map, and planning our visit to the nearby ruins.
We spent all day walking from one incredible site to another. I will not attempt to describe the day in any detail here, allowing the photographs and their captions to do most of the work. Our reactions were delight at the beauty and romance of the ancient city, shock and sadness at the fate that befell it, amazement at the similarities between these ancient people and ourselves (the lovely aesthetics of the interior courtyards) and at the dissimilarities (their frank sexuality* and also whatever weird foods that were served from the enormous jars at the many streetside delis), irritation at the familiar inadequacy of the official information for visitors, and, eventually, fatigue at having walked our legs off. I remember nothing at all of our trip back to Rome; I was too tired to retain any of it.
* In addition to the evidence of unembarrassed sexuality in the brothel district, and in the many frescoes, Bob and I saw the following curse, a graffito that had survived the eruption and was now preserved under plexiglass in a small museum:
If someone who was born beautiful has not
offered his buttocks to the pleasure of others,
may he, when in love with a beautiful girl,
never have the good fortune to enjoy her.
From Villa Arianna, Stabiae, 1st century AD
Bob checks the map.
A shop that sold prepared food to the Pompeiians.
One of the few birds-eye views of Pompeii, from the steps up to the modern bathrooms.
A fresco from the brothel.
One of the brothel’s beds. It is very small and it is made out of concrete.
Pompeii and Vesuvius.
Terme del Foro, a beautifully preserved spa.
Close-up of the “telemone” at the baths.
Detail from Terme del Foro.
Note the wagon-wheel ruts in the stone street.
Bob and me in the Villa of the Mysteries.
A roomful of frescos at the Villa of the Mysteries.
Detail of a fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries.
Detail of the walk back from the Villa of the Mysteries.
The sun sets in Pompeii.
Casts of some of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius.
Bob stands in front of a sign that used to advertise a shop.
Sunset over the modern city of Pompei.
The Vatican 11/13/2017
We gave Monday the 13th to Saint Peter’s and the Vatican museums. There was a long line snaking through the square to get into the basilica, under a sky that threatened rain. Afterward, we followed the directions in the Blue Guide, and the drift of purposeful tourists, to find our way to the entrance to the museums. We went through the incredible collection as slowly as we could but much too quickly, ending in the Sistine Chapel just before closing time booted us out onto the street. Again, I will allow the photographs to do much of the storytelling. Most of my photographs are of pieces of art that I will omit here; you can see better pictures and get more information simply by looking up “Vatican Museums” online.
I have no photographs of the last part of our evening, which was the most memorable part of the day. I took the picture of wine corks among the cobbles at a little restaurant in Trastevere where Bob and I had dinner. We struck up a conversation with a young couple at an adjoining table, who were visiting Rome on a vacation from England. When they said their goodbyes and went off into the night, Bob said he regretted not having suggested that all four of us get a beer somewhere – an idea that hadn’t occurred to me, but which seemed friendly and reasonable, now that he mentioned it. He and I finished our meal, paid the check, and began walking back to the Airbnb – and there they were, at a streetside bar! This gave Bob the chance to make the offer that he’d regretted omitting a few minutes earlier. Ten minutes later, the four of us were gathered around the table at our Airbnb, with a new bottle of wine and a deck of cards.
Attentive readers will have already noted that I cannot remember the names of these young people. I will call them “George” and “Linda,” for now. Linda attempted to teach us the rules to a card game, but it soon became obvious that she didn’t remember the rules herself, that she preferred joshing and happy exclamations to the game, and that she was already drunk and getting drunker with every sip from her glass. George was attentive to the developing problem but didn’t seem particularly worried and was never unkind or judgmental. At one point Linda said that she needed to go out to the street; I thought that she was probably feeling ill and might be hoping that some fresh air would improve things, but actually she just wanted to smoke a cigarette. She asked if I wanted one, and, when I demurred, stood up against me and held her cigarette to my lips, wearing an expression of drowsy, greedy expectancy. That drag on that cigarette, on a cool night in a dark street in Rome, was the most erotic moment I’ve experienced for years.
George soon made his apologies, saying that he and Linda should really be getting back to the rooms they’d rented near St. Peter’s. Linda was capable of walking, albeit unsteadily, so Bob and I ushered them down the stairs to the front door and wished them well. We had traded phone numbers with George earlier, in case of I can’t remember what. We watched them disappear into the darkness, George with an accommodating arm around her waist, and then went back upstairs to get ready to go to bed.
Fifteen minutes later, we found George’s wallet on the card table.
We didn’t have the address where they were staying, and George didn’t answer his phone. We left a message on his voicemail, telling him to get in touch with us as soon as he could, and that we would get his wallet back to him by whatever means necessary, and then waited anxiously for him to call us back. It was almost midnight, long past our normal bedtime, when the phone rang. (I can’t remember at this point whether we were using the Airbnb’s wifi and Skype to call, or whether we had figured out a solution to our chronic cellphone problems.) George told us that he had not answered the phone when we first called because when it rang he was busy carrying Linda, unconscious, through the streets south of St. Peters. He wasn’t sure how we might reunite him with his wallet, but Bob and I solved the problem by volunteering to bring it to him on foot.
It took almost an hour for us to find their rental, walking through the dark, deserted streets. I followed Google maps, which led us through an empty parking garage that was much easier to enter than it was to leave; after a lot of unproductive, slightly frightening wrong turns and dead ends, I had to ask a custodian to point in the direction of the exit. The colonnade at the entrance to St. Peter’s square was now filled with homeless people, sleeping at the bases of the columns. When we found the apartment, George buzzed us in and fed us cookies by way of thanks. He said that Linda had collapsed just a block from our place and, when he had been unable to rouse her, he had physically carried her the three kilometers back to their place. She was now sleeping it off in their bedroom. Bob and I didn’t stay long, since it was now after 1:00 and we still had to walk back home. We took a less circuitous route back, walking along the Tiber, admiring the lights of the bridges scintillating in the water below.
I doubt she remembers us.
Corks among the cobbles next to our streetside table at dinner.
We set off for the Vatican through Trastevere.
The facade of St. Peter’s.
Bernini’s baldachin, built over the high altar, immediately under the dome.
A detail from one of the mosaics, which are so beautifully executed that they appear to be oils.
An ancient relic and an Egyptian bust, in the Vatican museums.
Bob in the hall of statuary.
We listened to the audio guides as we toured the museums.
The hall of tapestries, on the way to the Sistine Chapel.
An ancient map of the New World. Note that Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) is depicted as an island here.
Staircase on the way out of the Vatican museums.
A typical dinner scene.
The Colosseum and Forum 11/14/2017
November 14 was our last day in Europe. Bob and I had stood in line to get into the Colosseum with Saskia, but we had given up before getting in, so this was our last chance to see it. We awoke after having had too little sleep and too much wine the night before, shook off the fumes, and walked the half-hour to the arena.
We had already seen arenas in Pompeii, in Arles, and in Nîmes. None of them was as colossal as the Colosseum, but they had other charms; the arena in Nîmes, especially, was excellent. The Colosseum is dilapidated, in the original etymological meaning of “taking the stones away,” and it is crowded, and it is presented to the tourists almost without context. Bob and I were sick of what this edifice says about human nature. I will quote here from the notes I took on the airplane, just after watching Wonder Woman:
Since I’m talking about repulsive entertainments, I should mention that neither Bob nor I fully understood the nature of the games that went on inside Roman arenas until visiting a couple of them. We have seen the HBO series Rome, and Russell Crowe in Gladiator, and so on, and I’ve read some history, although I’ve forgotten practically all of it – but we had somehow never grasped the unalloyed barbarity of these games. Executing criminals by tying them to stakes and releasing wild animals to kill them. We who are about to die salute you. Criminals dressed in flammable clothes that were set alight, and dancers who accompanied the agonized writhing of the victims – can this possibly be true? We read that entire species of animals were driven to extinction by centuries of this treatment – maybe this is what happened to the Atlas lions that used to live around the Mediterranean, I don’t know. I should look into this, although there is no good news to be had in this research.
We were tired of all this.
It rained intermittently while we found the entrance to the Forum. Here, again, Rome’s tourism department failed to give us the information we needed to make sense of what we were seeing. The Forum is a hodgepodge of ruined buildings from many different epochs, built atop one another, facing random streets that had disappeared and then reappeared later in new positions and orientations. As Wikipedia puts it, “the Forum today is a sprawling ruin of architectural fragments and intermittent archaeological excavations.” Without specialist training, more time, or a very good guide, there was no making sense of it.
Bob and I walked slowly up and down through the ruins, and then climbed the Capitoline hill to look down on the whole site. When we couldn’t absorb any more, we returned to the Largo di Torre Argentina, whose age and scale and historical position were more comprehensible to us, and found a place for pasta and a bottle of wine.
On the following morning, I carried my pack through the predawn streets, over the Ponte Sisto into the oldest part of the city. A small group of crapulous teenagers fell out of a taxi nearby, leaving it vacant, so I hopped aboard and took it to the airport. I remember going out through an arch in the old city wall, and then lights. My long trip to Europe had come to an end.
Bob and me at the Colosseum.
A view of the west end of the Forum.
Posing with a chunk of roseate roof decoration that must have fallen with an almighty kerchunk.
A view of the east side of the Forum as we climbed the Capitoline hill.
The Forum from above.
Bob fondles a humongous pinky toe.
A selfie from above the Forum.
Bob is looking fatigued, after three hard days and late nights.
One last look at Largo di Torre Argentina.
My old friend, Jim Nielson, used to inveigh against the phrase “memories that will last a lifetime,” as though the idea were an insult to memories, the notion of permanence, life itself, and the concept of time. To be honest, I’m not sure why this phrase is worse than the word “unforgettable,” since the meaning is equivalent, but listening to him rant about it was such a pleasure that I didn’t really need to understand him. I have more pressing issues with memory than this.
I have already forgotten the names of most of the little towns I walked through in Spain. I can’t recall in any detail the conversations that Bob and I had, hour after hour, as we traveled together. I remember very little of the history I imbibed as we visited Roman ruins and medieval castles; as the years go by, I’ll remember even less. My memory is appalling.
Even if this weren’t true – even if I recalled names and dates with the omnivorous accuracy of Ken Jennings, the Watson computer system, or my intimidatingly retentive friend, Frans – it would still be the case that these memories would have no importance to anyone but me, and that they would die with me. Some of the people whose body casts we saw at Pompeii had wonderful memories, and could have told you with hilarious accuracy about the time, twenty years earlier, when the soldiers blundered out of the brothel because they thought there was a riot, laying about them with their fists, drunkenly battling each other in the darkness. Their prodigious memories meant nothing at all when the ash began to fall.
And even if this weren’t true – even when a person’s memories do seem to matter, even in the case of geniuses who dedicate their lives and talents to transcribing their memories in a form that might matter to posterity – they might well end up like Torquato Tasso, remembered today only by academics, and commemorated for people like me only by a charred snag on the side of a hill. And Tasso was a giant. How entirely absent are our ancestors who were no better than excellent?
It isn’t possible to remain present with one’s history, however much we may cherish it. The volatility of the past is irresistible. Bob and Saskia still love each other, but much of their affection is a testimony to the love they used to have for each other, when they were present, daily, in each other’s lives. This is the love that all parents have for their grown children, and that lucky children feel, to a lesser extent, for their parents. Everything sloughs away, for everyone, until the only thing left is the system from which they have disappeared. Our lives are air; breath, wind; and bodies, glass.
Despite all this – despite the evanescence of absolutely everything, without exception – I will finish this account. These words, and the events of my travels in 2017, may be no more permanent than I am myself, but it is not impossible that they could produce a small moment of aesthetic pleasure in someone, at some future date. Moments like this are more important than the ability to retain them. Tasso’s poetry is not insignificant, even if it is largely forgotten, because it added in a small way to the experience of pleasure among the people who read him. Lovers are indispensable, even after time has passed and the love is attenuated or gone, because of what that love was while it filled their lives. It is the moment that matters, not any attempt to retain it.
Jim a few years hence, do you remember pulling smoke into your lungs, with the fingers of that young woman, whatever her name was, up against your lips, on a chill night in November on the streets of Trastevere? Can you still taste it? Can you still feel her weight? No? That’s all right. Living it was important, but remembering it is not.
Jim Bogar, March 23, 2019