In Europe with Bob

After finishing the Camino, I met my brother Bob in Barcelona, traveled with him across the south of France, and then visited Rome. The following blog posts document that trip. It wasn’t part of my walk on the Camino de Santiago, but, in retrospect, it feels like a piece of the same trip.

 



Rome: Forgetting a Cigarette

November 12, 13, & 14, 2017

This post is divided into three pieces:

Pompeii 11/12/2017

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.

A satyr.

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.

The Pieta.

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

Rome: Saskia Steen

November 9-11, 2017

The view of Rome from atop the Janiculum hill

This post is divided into two pieces:

Saskia in Rome 11/09/2017

A long-delayed note from Jim:
I abandoned the account of the traveling that Bob and I did in Spain, France, and Italy with what follows – a description of Saskia’s visit, and then a long digression about the forgotten poet, Torquato Tasso. I wrote this early in May of 2018 and am typing this note ten months later, in March of 2019. What I had hoped would become a meditation on loss and the dubious utility of memory, especially with regard to history and the idea of posterity, became this, instead. I present it here, in first-draft form, because I need to move on to writing projects that are intended for a broader audience. I’ll write something that I expect to be little more than photo captions for the last installment in this part of the blog – the end of our trip, as best as I now can recall it, a year and a half after it concluded.

 

On Thursday morning, Bob and I set out to find the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated. We were motivated mostly by our curiosity about ancient history, partly, but a shameful amount of our interest stemmed from the TV show, Rome; Julius Caesar, unforgettably portrayed by Ciarán Hinds, made such an impression on us that we both feel an unreasonably sentimental connection to the despot who brought the Republic to an end.

We started at the Campo de’ Fiori and then, following the directions in the Blue Guide, worked our way south and east. A dark passageway contained one of the 700-odd paintings of the Madonna and child that can be found decorating street corners and other public spaces all over the city, where their candles used to be an important source of street lighting. This passage opened out into a small open space whose walls still follow the curves of the long-vanished Theater of Pompey. It is impossible to imagine the grand building that rose in this space where Fiats and Smart cars and scooters are now parked.

The Blue Guide said that the assassination had happened slightly to the east, in a Curia on the far side of the theater, so we followed our noses around the block – and found the temples of A, B, C, and D, in a square named the Largo di Torre Argentina. The temples are designated by letters rather than names because they are so old that their original uses are hard to discern. The remains of the temples, bits of marble, and the brick remains of the Curia, are 15 feet under the level of the street. Cars and buses whip heedlessly around the ruins. Two bored guys were using weed whackers among the treasures, and semi-feral cats snoozed atop the plinths. The Curia must have been on the far side of the crumbling brick walls that disappeared under the street on the west side of the square. Down there somewhere, in the dirt and the drainage pipes and the chips of brick, was the spot where Julius Caesar looked down in disbelief at the blood spreading across his tunic. Bob and I were in heaven.

When Saskia arrived at the Termini train station, she sent us a message saying that she intended to walk to Trastevere, so Bob and I agreed to meet her halfway – at the Piazza Venezia, in front of the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, an enormous white pile that is variously nicknamed “the wedding cake,” “Mussolini’s typewriter,” or, as the Blue Guide puts it, “a colossal monstrosity.” After we had spent a few anxious minutes standing under the well-trimmed pines at the south side of the piazza, there she was. She and Bob reunited with smiles and hugs in the middle of the street.

We had lunch at a randomly chosen restaurant just off the piazza. Bob and I each ordered spaghetti. The waiter brought one serving relatively quickly but then disappeared. There had been some brief confusion when we ordered, so I assumed that he had thought we had only ordered spaghetti for one. When our waiter walked by, a few minutes later, I said, “Scuzi!” and explained that my brother had not gotten his spaghetti. Without a word, the waiter picked up the untouched pasta from in front of me and put it in front of Bob. The second order appeared after we’d been there for 15 minutes. The “no tipping” culture of Europe is superior in most ways, but it sometimes leads to this type of disrespect.

Saskia’s English is nearly perfect. It is almost unnecessary to mention this, since the English of virtually everyone from the low countries is nearly perfect. I met one man from the Netherlands along the Camino for whom this wasn’t true; I struggled to understand his accent and he was often puzzled by what I was saying. I wanted to know why all the rest of his countrymen seemed to have done so much better than he, but there didn’t seem to be any polite way of asking this question.

Then we walked to the Pantheon, because I thought it was necessary that Saskia see it, and then to Piazza Navonna, for the same reason, and then, because it had started to rain, we spent an hour in the Museo de Roma, an opulent old building housing Rome’s least-interesting collection. And then to the Airbnb, and then to a home-cooking kind of restaurant just a few doors away, chosen largely because going there meant we wouldn’t have to walk anywhere in the rain.

Here I revert to a direct transcription of my notes for the day, written while in Rome:

 

Trevi fountain

Spanish steps

Trajan’s column

On Friday, Nov. 10, we set off to visit the Forum and maybe make a quick trip through the Colosseum, even though that is the one thing Saskia has done in this town, but the walk over there took longer than we’d anticipated, since we had to stop every few feet to look up details about another ruin in the Blue Guide. There were far more tourists on the street than we’d expected for a weekday in November. By the time we got to the Colosseum, having walked slowly past Trajan’s column and the fine views of the Forum from the road and then going through the metal detectors and getting into the queue, we realized that our plan wasn’t working; we were already hungry for lunch, the line was long, Saskia had already done this attraction, on a previous visit to Rome, and buying the tickets would have obliged us to see the Forum and Palatine Hill more or less immediately, consuming the rest of the day. So we bailed out. We found a restaurant near the Largo di Torre Argentina, where we had pizza, pasta, and wine, and then walked north to the Trevi Fountain, and then further north to the Spanish Steps, and then west to the sadly ruinous mausoleum of Augustus, and then across the Tiber to the Castel Sant Angelo (the mausoleum of Hadrian), and then down the stairs to the water’s edge and south along the Tiber to the island, and then up the stairs back into Trastevere, another restaurant and a little more wine, and then home.

An overturned boat in the Tiber

The Forum

Walking along the Tiber

Trastevere at night

It was a pleasure to watch Bob and Sasia interact. They enjoy each other’s company transparently and unreservedly. Today, as we approached the Spanish Steps, they resurrected a game they used to play when Saskia was an exchange student in Ilwaco; one of them chooses an unsuspecting female target in a public place, walks nearby, waits until she looks the other way, and then casually reaches out and touches the woman’s handbag. Then the other contestant has to touch the handbag, too. Then the first person has to repeat the coup. Whoever gets the last touch, wins. It’s scary and transgressive and innocent and preposterous. I would never play this game, but watching them do it was a thrill.

St. Peter’s, looking north along the Tiber

Tasso’s Oak

Another note from Jim:
On the following day, we visited the 12th century Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastavere, and then climbed the Janiculum hill to the Parco di Gianicolo, just west of the Airbnb, from which we had nice views of the city. We chatted with a well-traveled couple at the top; the man pulled a tattered card from his wallet that displayed a world map, where every country they had visited was decorated with a red dot. We made our way north off the hill, past a carbonized log that was held upright in an iron armature, and a plaque that identified it as “Tasso’s Oak.” When we got to the Vatican, the line to get into Saint Peter’s discouraged us; we slunk away, defeated by tourism, just as we had been at the Colosseum. We looked at the Castel Sant’Angelo and then crossed the Tiber under the statues that line the bridge built by Handrian, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, and then made our way back south through the city.
I include here my notes about Tasso’s Oak, and a few thoughts about why I found it so romantic and why it commingles with my feelings about seeing Bob and Saskia together. I never pulled these ideas together; I present them here without further comment.

Pre-medieval mosaics at the Basilica di Santa Maria


In Trastevere

On the way up the Janiculum hill

I was interested by Tasso’s Oak; I had heard of Tasso, and a more romantic prospect than this reverentially preserved log was hard to imagine. I took a photograph of the plaque, from which I transcribed the text:

All’ ombra di questa quercia
Torquato Tasso
Vicino ai sospirati
Allori e alla Morte
Ripensava silenzioso
Le miserie sue tutte
E Filippo Neri
Tra liete grida si faceva
Co’ fanciulli fanciullo
Sapien-temente

 

Tasso’s Oak today.

Google Translate’s attempt at translating the inscription is practically pederastical:

In the shadow of this oak
Torquato Tasso
Close to the long-awaited laurels and death
He thought silently
His miseries all
And Filippo Neri
In the happy shouts it was done
With childish boys
Wisely

 

Filippo Neri was a priest who was active in Rome when Tasso was writing there. Neri has since been canonized.

Since Google Translate’s version makes something close to no sense at all, I went to Reddit and asked for help. Someone translated it for me like this:

Under this oak’s shadow, Torquato Tasso, being close to the laurel (literary recognition and glory) and the death he longed for, recalled in silence all his misfortunes. And Filippo Neri (a priest and saint famous for helping poor and abandoned children), between happy shouts made himself a child among children, wisely.

 

From a website devoted to the Janiculum:

…Returning to the road and continuing to meet what remains of the Quercia del Tasso; a plaque recalls that in the shadow of this oak the poet, in the last period of his life, had the habit of meditating and resting and later the tree was also dear to Saint Philip Neri who “became a child among the children wisely. ” In 1843 it was struck by lightning and since then it is supported by iron beams.

 

When the Tasso Oak was in its full glory.

A photograph from 1885, after the oak had been hit by lightning.

Here is an unexpected encomium about this inscription. It is from “The Month – A Catholic Magazine: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Science, and Art” – July-December 1908, in an article titled Catholics and Athleticism in Italy, by C. C. Martindale: After quoting the text on the plaque, Martindale says this:

How else, in so few words, could have been drawn the two full pictures – the melancholy, lonely poet; the laurels come too late; the miserable past, the brief, hopeless future: and the grey-haired Saint, mobbed by laughing children, resting breathless after his game, and seeing in the noise and gaiety a fair hope for the City, spread glorious at his feet, and for the Church it symbolized?

 

The poignancy of this, for me, is bound up very tightly with how entirely Tasso has been forgotten. He died in 1595, just a few days short of a ceremony in which he was to have been crowned “King of the Poets” by the Pope. From an article titled Torquato Tasso, a Poet Both Obscure and Ubiquitous:

The legacy of the great Italian poet Torquato Tasso, once considered almost a peer of Dante, is hiding in plain sight. Although he is no more than a footnote today, he was once wildly popular, quoted by philosophers, emulated by poets, and a source of inspiration to painters and composers. Even his sad and tormented life was an obsession for the romantics, inspiring a play by Goethe, a poem by Byron, a painting by Delacroix and a symphonic study by Liszt.

 

Here is Voltaire on the subject of Tasso, from An Essay on Epic Poetry (1727):

No man in the world was ever born with a greater genius and more qualified for epic poetry.

 

I found the following free translation of Canto XV, stanza 20 from Tasso’s great work, Jerusalem Delivered. It gives some idea what he was capable of.

Great Carthage low in ashes cold doth lie,
Her ruins poor the herbs in height scant pass,
So cities fall, so perish kingdoms high,
Their pride and pomp lies hid in sand and grass:
Then why should mortal man repine to die,
Whose life, is air; breath, wind; and body, glass?

 

So, what am I driving at with all of this?

The poignancy of Bob and Saskia’s reunion, and the ruin of the Forum, and the dead snag of Tasso’s oak, are stirred together in my mind. How can I make this clear without saying too much? Bob and Saskia are paying homage to their shared past, to a much greater degree than they are now changing each other’s lives; their visits with each other are not the wholly ill-informed nostalgia of tourists at the Forum, or, even worse, the blind obliviousness of tourists on the Janiculum hill, but that’s the sad progression. Is this a progression? If so, it’s time-sprung, with the oldest confusion being the least forgotten. Or is it three ways of looking at the unhappy fact of forgetfulness?

Bob and I walked Saskia to the train station when she finally had to leave.

Rome: Second-rate Marvels

November 7 & 8, 2017

This post is divided into three pieces:


The Circus of Maxentius.

Arrival in Rome
11/07/2017

Bob and I arrived at the Marseille airport well before the RyanAir desk opened; we spent an hour hanging around in a crowd of Muslim people, all of us looking very tired. One of the early flights was to Nador, Morocco – this must have been where these people were going. It crossed my mind that Bob and I were members of an ethnic minority in this crowd, and that this might have been interesting if I hadn’t been so sleepy, but when I looked around I realized that we all had so much in common that our differences were irrelevant. We were all brothers in fatigue.

The directions we’d been given from the airport to our Airbnb in Rome were incomplete when they weren’t simply wrong. Bob and I took a shuttle to the Termini train station, talked with a contemptuous young woman at an information desk, and then stole a bus ride to the Trastevere neighborhood; we’d have loved to have paid for the bus, but we couldn’t figure out how. We were excited by the tangle of streets in Trastevere, heavy with ivy and age; they were a wonderful change from Marseille. Our Airbnb host was a skinny woman who showed us around the charming apartment where we’d be spending the next week, recommended a few local restaurants, and handed us the keys with a flourish.

Doorways in Trastevere.

At this point, the day was half over, but Bob and I were eager to make the most of it. We walked north, across the Tiber on the Ponte Sisto, and zig-zagged up the dark, narrow, ancient streets to the Piazza Navona*. Even on a Tuesday evening in November, it was aswarm with tourists taking pictures of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, of each other posing in front of the fountains, of each other standing in front of the busking jazz quartet, and of each other with the profoundly uninteresting “living statues.” I took pictures as fast as I could, too. From the Piazza Navona we walked a few blocks east, to the Pantheon – the world’s greatest building, as far as I’m concerned – where I took more pictures. And then, as the sun was fading, we made our way back, stopping for a glass of wine and to watch trash-zambonis cleaning up after a market that had been set up in the Campo de Fiori, where a bronze statue marks the spot where Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. We followed our noses back down the streets as the lights came up, across the Tiber again, and through the lively streets of Trastevere to Eggs restaurant.

Our Airbnb host had told us that Eggs served “the best Pasta Carbonara in Rome,” which Bob and I interpreted as “best in the whole freakin’ world,” so that’s where we went for dinner. It is a tiny place, decorated in a sheet-metal aesthetic that I abhor, but we had a great experience. Apparently “carbonara” is a sauce that is based on eggs and ham – thus the name of the restaurant – but Bob and I are too ignorant to have any clue about things like that, so every trip to a restaurant is an adventure. Our waitress was a big, friendly woman with a reasonable but attractively imperfect grasp of English; Bob came to her defense when I suggested that she looked something like Ernest Borgnine, but Bob must not share my belief that Mr. Borgnine was an exceptionally likable man, except when he was exposing his teeth, popping his eyes comically, or appearing in something as unforgivable as McHale’s Navy.

The food was good, the wine was good, and Eggs was right around the corner from our Airbnb. We climbed the stairs to our cool and comfortable apartment and lost consciousness as quickly and gratefully as we could.

* I will not attempt to describe the history and significance of every building and monument that we visited in Rome. Even listing our bare itinerary makes demands on my readers that are hard to justify. Instead, I am using links to the appropriate Wikipedia pages, for anyone who would like to know more. Bob and I did not have access to Wikipedia while we were in Rome – instead, we relied on The Blue Guide to Rome, a book I cannot recommend too highly. It seems to me practically indispensable for an intelligent traveler in Rome.

The Baths of Caracalla
11/08/2017

Ten years ago, Bob was married and living in Ilwaco, a deteriorating fishing village near the Columbia River, in Washington’s southwest corner. He and his wife took in a Dutch foreign exchange student, Saskia Steens, who quickly became the daughter that Bob never had. Saskia is adventurous, funny, and smart. I have often noticed her watching someone else’s conversation with an appraising eye, obviously calculating the power dynamic and level of commitment that was being displayed. Saskia understands and shares Bob’s sense of humor and used to relish the preposterous games the two of them would invent. She and Bob stayed in touch when she moved back to the Netherlands. She was about to join us for a few days in Rome.

Saskia had been to Rome before, but Bob had no idea what she might have seen on that visit; we agreed that we would spend the next few days seeing second-tier sights, so that when Saskia arrived we could hit St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museum, the Colosseum, the Forum, and Pompeii – or some subset of these, depending on what she wanted to do. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice to put off the biggest attractions for a few days; we were sure that we would be more than satisfied by diversions that were slightly off the beaten path. We didn’t suspect that our attempt to see second-tier sites would provide some of the best experiences of the trip.

Breakfast on our first morning in Rome was eggs and a baguette we’d picked up while walking back the night before – perfect except for the miserable squirts of coffee we were forced to content ourselves with. The apartment contained one of those pod-consuming coffee devices. The “Large cup” button produced about a thimbleful; the “Small cup” button produced a brown stain at the bottom of a demitasse, a stain that might help you remember a delicious cup of coffee that you had once, maybe shared with a lover, when you were younger and luckier and thought that coffee was one of the things that would never fail you.

After breakfast, we set off east through Trastevere, heading generally for the Baths of Caracalla, which we had been reading about in the inestimable Blue Guide to Rome. As soon as we crossed the Tiber and negotiated the dense stream of traffic on the riverside road, we found ourselves gazing at a couple of lovely ancient temples, which the Blue Guide told us were remains of the Republican period and thus real treasures. They were probably the best-preserved ruins of that age we saw on our whole trip, and we had simply stumbled across them. These were the Temple of Hercules Victor and the Temple of Portunus.


The Temple of Portunus.

A few minutes later, we found ourselves at the Circus Maximus, which is entirely unguarded against tourists like us.

“We could walk right down the middle of this,” Bob observed. “Want to?”

“Oh yes yes yes yes yes,” I said, gushing like an American coffeemaker.


The Circus Maximus.

The ruins of ancient palaces on the Palentine Hill decorated the slopes above us as we strolled down the sandy track. It is impossible to imagine what that scene must have been like 2000 years ago, when it was packed with cheering people and the aroma of garum-smeared dormice wafted up from the expensive seats and fans of the blue faction traded insults with fans of the greens and charioteers were whipping each other and pulling each other out of their chariots right exactly here, where Bob and I were walking slowly in the November sun. The long-vanished seating around the circus had been four stories tall and accommodated 200,000 spectators. On race days, everyone thronged to the circus, men and women alike; Augustus took to stationing soldiers around the city to prevent looting in the suddenly deserted streets. But now there is hardly anything left except a low mound in the middle of the track, a few brick ruins of the old entrance gates at the eastern end, the walls of ancient palaces on the Palentine Hill, and a sense of the scale of this thing: the enormous size of the track, the immense popularity of the sport that was played here, and the gulf that separates us from the people who screamed themselves hoarse at these spectacles. Among the fragments we still possess about chariot racing is this inscription, from an enraged and vindictive fan:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.*

 

Not a breath is in any of their bodies now. There is no reason to summon demons to destroy your enemies, when patience and history and the incomprehension of posterity will obliterate them with no malice being required from anyone.

From the Circus Maximus it is a 10-minute walk along a tree-lined street to the entrance of the Baths of Caracalla. The ruins stand on a 33-acre site, spotted with trees, scraps of brick and marble, and nondescript outbuildings. In the center are the monumental brick remains of the therma itself. Bob and I walked the grounds, explored the tunnels outside the baths that had been built to tend the fires that heated the water, and wondered how the hell to get into the vast ruined building, which the Blue Guide described in some detail but whose entrance was not at all obvious. We had been there for an embarrassingly long time before we saw people moving inside the ruins and decided to follow a confident-seeming couple around an unpromising corner.


A view of the Baths of Caracalla.

Construction of the baths was completed in 217 AD. They were in use until the 530’s – more than 300 years – before the aqueduct was cut and their ruination began. The date that is usually given for the fall of the Western Roman Empire is 476; even if we grant that this date is more a convenient marker than a definitive endpoint, it still means that the Baths of Caracalla were being maintained and used by crowds of people for more than 50 years after the tax base that supported them had practically vanished. It’s enough to make me suspect that there might be something about this I don’t understand.


Me in the Baths, holding the Blue Guide to Rome.

The baths must have been incredible when they were new. The remains of brick archways overhead are 130 feet high. Intricate mosaics covered all the floors, and still exist in fragments, leaning up against the walls, and under protective walkways where the tourists walk slowly up and down. Something like 120 statues used to decorate the facility; now, we have examples only of such treasures as the Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules. Nothing like this facility has existed anywhere in the world since the fall of the Roman Empire; opulence has continued, but this combination of scale, public access, refinement of taste, and the fulfillment of civic responsibility, has not been equaled.


Bob and me in the Baths.

* I relied on the following web page for much of my information about the Circus Maximus: https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/chariot-racing/

The Via Appia
11/08/2017

It’s a little less than two miles from the Baths of Caracalla to the Via Appia, and then a scant mile south until the motor traffic on this ancient road is mostly shuttled off onto other routes. The Blue Guide says of this stretch of the Appian Way, “…it is unpleasant to tackle the first part of the road on foot, since it is very narrow and filled with fast and noisy traffic.” Bob and I decided to do it on foot despite this warning, not understanding that the word “unpleasant” should really be replaced with “dangerous.” “Suicidal” would also be a good alternative. The city of Rome should not allow cars to drive on the Via Appia, since it is part of humanity’s patrimony from a glorious past, but if vehicles must be allowed, pedestrians should be banned. Asking people on foot to share this space with cars displays a casual disregard for human life.

The Via Appia was created to enable Republican Rome to move soldiers and supplies into their expanding territory. The first part of it – the part that Bob and I were walking on – was built in 312 BC by a man named Appius Claudius Caecus (“Appius Claudius the Blind”), who was also responsible for building a major aqueduct that solved the problem of supplying water to Rome. It has been in continuous use ever since – moving a steady stream of soldiers and matériel, trade goods, people, horses, cars, trucks, and the wet, tumbling bits of luckless tourists.

Bob and I were walking on the Appian Way partly to see some catacombs, partly to go for a long walk (my legs still being accustomed to 20-mile days), but mostly to soak up some of the romance of walking along an ancient Roman road.

“I wonder what that old pile of bricks over there was used for,” I roared over the traffic noise.

“Jesus! That blue car almost got you!” Bob screamed.

The ugly commotion of traffic had churned off in another direction by the time Bob and I arrived at the Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura. We ordered enough wine to calm our nerves at the little cafe on the grounds and sat at an outdoor table, raising a glass to the beautiful day and the wonderful fact of our continued lives. An English-language tour of the catacombs started in 15 minutes.

Here is a paragraph from Wikipedia that tells you most of what you need to know about the catacombs:

The first large-scale catacombs in the vicinity of Rome were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. They were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. The pagan custom was to incinerate corpses, while early Christians and Jews buried the dead. Since most Christians and Jews at that time belonged to the lower classes or were slaves, they usually lacked the resources to buy land for burial purposes. Instead, networks of tunnels were dug in the deep layers of tufo which occurred naturally on the outskirts of Rome.

 

A gentle, soft-spoken man led us through the underground maze, pointing out inscriptions and warning us to mind the gap. He told us all at the beginning of the tour that photography was not permitted; when a foolish woman pulled out her phone to take a picture, 10 minutes later, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I usually try to start the tour by saying that photography is not allowed. I must have forgotten. I’m sure it’s my mistake.” The tour ended at a couple of family tombs that have only recently been unearthed. The painted decorations on the walls of these tombs are still bright and crisp, but they are exposed to the air now, and the colors fade a little more every day.


Giuseppe Giorgetti’s excellent sculpture of Saint Sebastian.

The Basilica di San Sebastiano is built over the crypt of the skewered saint. We were led through a room containing a wonderful bust of Saint Sebastian, attributed to Bernini. A recumbent statue of the saint is also terrific – it is by Giuseppe Giorgetti, a sculptor I’d never heard of. Not all of the art is so inspiring, though. The church displays a couple of crude stone footprints that we are asked to believe are the physical remains of a meeting between Paul and Jesus himself, although nowhere are we told how or why Jesus left footprints in solid rock. I’m sure the church continues to display these as a nod to history and as a kind invitation for us to contemplate the credulity of our ancestors and, by extension, our own areas of blindness, but I’m afraid it’s hard for me to imagine the simple naiveté that ever allowed anyone to take this seriously.


The footprints of Jesus.

The day was lengthening, so Bob and I set off south, to see whatever the next ruin might be. These turned out to be the Circus of Maxentius, which the Blue Guide calls “the best preserved of the Roman circuses and one of the most romantic sites of ancient Rome.” It is a flower-strewn greensward whose crumbling towers and circus were an excellent spot for Bob and me to enjoy what remained of the day. We had the place almost to ourselves for the few minutes before one of the attendants came to say they were closing and to glower at us as we returned to the road.


Bob leans against an ancient milepost on the Appian Way to take a photo. The circle of light is a beam from the setting sun, coming through what had been the rose window of a ruined church across the street.

We walked a few feet farther south, to check out the Tomb of Caecilia Metella and the ancient three-mile marker of the Via Appia, and then turned our faces toward home. It was unthinkable to walk up the Appian Way – the traffic was even worse now, and the sun had set – so we found a bus stop and waited in a little niche in a wall while the cars blared by. We rode the bus illegally, again, because it was once again impossible to buy tickets. We didn’t see anyone by the side of the road as we roared north into the city, toward another dinner of pasta, another bottle of wine, and an evening in our cozy Airbnb, but we weren’t really paying attention. Bob and I were too busy congratulating ourselves for the brilliant day we’d just had to notice any thumps or screams during the ride.


Adornments overhead near the Temple of Portunus.

Arles and Marseille

11/5-6/17


The theater at Arles.

We were sure we had walked to the right neighborhood for our Airbnb in Arles, but the street number we were looking for was nowhere to be found. My contact was not answering my attempts to get in touch with him, or my phone wasn’t working – it was hard to tell which. We established ourselves at a café, where I used their wifi to fire up Skype and Bob asked people to show him number 7. Soon a man emerged from a nearby restaurant and brought us inside, where he kicked at a sleepy young man who was slouched at a table. This person jumped to his feet, rubbed his eyes, and pulled out an envelope, which had my name on the outside and a set of keys on the inside. Then he led us around the corner and showed us our room. The Airbnb process doesn’t work very well for people who haven’t figured out how to use telephones in Europe.


The square where we couldn’t find #7. Bob is visible here, sitting at the left, guarding our packs – his parka is a spot of red.

The door from the street opened into a dark shaft into which a narrow spiral staircase had been built. The light switch was on a timer; experienced residents could probably hit the switch, climb the stairs to their door, unlock it, and get inside before the lights were extinguished and the stairwell was plunged into darkness rivaling the inside of a Japanese neutrino detector. But I couldn’t. I was well short of the landing when the lights went out and I was reduced to navigating by groping and echo location. Not only that, but the wall near the top of the stairs bulged out in one spot, just enough to graze my shoulder and nudge my center of gravity out over the abyss. And not only those, but the apartment itself was on two floors, and the second floor bedroom was reached by climbing a ladder that was more intimidating with every glass of wine. I can’t imagine how anyone has ever moved furniture into this building. I have stayed in many dodgy places, but this was one of the very few that I’d describe with the word “treacherous.”

We were rapidly running out of time before everything in Arles was going to close. We dumped our bags and hurried off to the remains of the ancient theater, where we had half an hour to wander the paths around the marble fragments, enjoying the low light and the absence of other tourists. When it closed, we slowly circled the arena, taking pictures of it and the lovely surrounding streets. This arena is being restored in a way that I’m ambivalent about; the conservators aren’t arresting the decay, they’re replacing decayed pieces with new stones, perfectly executed, with nice sharp corners and crisp carvings. If they keep this up, in a few years the city of Arles will have a perfect reproduction of a Roman arena, but the arena itself will be gone.


Bob and other ruins at the theater.

Dinner that night was at a little Italian restaurant on the plaza, which attracted our attention when we saw that some people inside had been served food, even though it wasn’t yet 7:00 in the evening. The waiter had penetrating, acrid, memorable B.O., but the lasagna was good and the wine was welcome.

The car was due to be returned at the Marseille train station by 11:00 on the following morning. Finding the rental agency was stressful, as usual; without the help of our phones and the onboard GPS system in the car, I don’t know how we would have managed it. When we pulled up to the car-return kiosk, I said “Hertz?” to the guy at the window, who immediately responded in English; he knew by the way I uttered one brand name that I am an American. Bob and I experimented with French ways of saying “Hertz” for a while, competing to see who could sound most like Inspector Clouseau, and then switched to exaggerated American accents – “It hertz, doc! Jayzuz, it hertz!” I wish I had a talent for languages. Yvan, our host in Nîmes, hadn’t known what I was talking about when I said we were going to Arles; I had been pronouncing it “Arl,” like a pirate sucking on jujubes, but Yvan was expecting something like “Arless,” as in “Present fears arless than horrible imaginings.” At least we were doing better than a woman Bob had met, who told him that she had had a good time on her recent trip to “Marcel”; Bob had to ask her to repeat herself before realizing that she was recommending Marseille.


The view of Marseille from the steps of the train station.

The city of Marseille has little or none of the charm that Bob and I had started to take for granted of cities in southern France. Any of the streets that can support several lanes of aggressive traffic do so, and one-lane streets make up for their deficiency by increasing the speed of the cars to that delicate line dividing “break-neck” from “insane.” The businesses that line the streets are aimed at a moneyed clientele, or at specialty niches that could not have supported a storefront in a town like Carcassonne or Nîmes. Half of the people on the sidewalks look like north Africans or “other” – not French, at any rate, if it is reasonable at the end of 2017 to talk about how a person from a western nation might look. It is still reasonable to say that a person doesn’t look Moroccan or Libyan or Syrian, but French or German? Not so much.

We stayed in an antiseptic and personality-free hotel right on the Vieux Port. The comfort and cleanliness were almost shocking after our recent string of Airbnb experiences; we were sorry to be missing out on the randomized charm of Airbnb, but it was useful to be staying in a place that had a front desk where we could print the boarding passes were going to need for the next day’s flight to Rome and where somebody could call us a taxi. Also, the Vieux Port appeared to be Marseille’s leading attraction; since Bob and I would have only one afternoon there, it made sense to put ourselves in the center of the action.

November 6 was cold and windy. Bob had to put on two t-shirts, two button-down shirts, and then wear his parka – five layers – before he was comfortable. We tucked our hands into our pockets, ducked our heads, and battled the wind to the end of the harbor, where we intended to visit the fort. This turned out to be closed for the season, but we had chosen that destination largely because walking there would take us along the edge of the water and because it was halfway to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which looms over Marseille on a hill just south of the port; we greeted the news that the fort was closed with a shrug and walked up the hill to the church.


The basilica from below.

The basilica has a good view of the ordinary mid-size modern city splayed out below, but it was noteworthy mostly because of the interior, where model ships hang from the archways and paintings of shipwrecks adorn the walls. It wasn’t exactly clear to us what was going on here, or in the many paintings of sickbeds and other tragedies; I have been in churches that were decorated with offerings of thanks for bits of good luck, or with requests for divine intervention to turn bad luck away, but commemorating undeflected disasters in a sacred space seems deliberately obtuse.


Model ships hang from the ceiling of the basilica.

We paused on the way back to the hotel to scratch the ears of a friendly cat and then to examine a statue of a naked man being attacked by a lion. “He’s getting his ass chewed,” Bob observed thoughtfully. I had no idea what story was being represented here, but a little research reveals that the statue is a copy of a piece that is displayed in the Louvre – the Milon de Crotone, by Pierre Puget, a 17th-century sculptor from Marseille. Here is the French Wikipedia page on the subject, edited for concision and English felicity:

The statue illustrates the death of the Greek athlete Milo of Croton in the 6th century BC. He was a famous champion of the Olympic games. He has become a symbol of hubris (for imagining that he could use his bare hands to uproot the tree that has trapped his left hand) and the vanity of human endeavor (since he can not escape his destiny). The legend speaks originally of a wolf having devoured him. Here he is attacked by a lion, an animal considered more noble and powerful.

 

This lesson was wasted on Bob and me. Not only did we miss the classical allusion completely, Bob and I didn’t have problems with hubris or any illusions about the vanity of human endeavor. Unless you count our certain knowledge that we will never be hungry, never be truly old, and continue to be lucky, forever.

The taxi to the airport picked us up very early the next morning. Bob was impressed by how aggressively the driver raced through the empty streets. “I wonder how he’d have driven if we’d asked him to step on it,” he mused. But we arrived without incident, of course. We will continue to be lucky forever.

 


Bob and I take warring selfies at the arena in Arles.


Streets radiating away from the arena in Arles.


The Milon de Crotone.


Bob finds a friendly cat.

The Pont du Gard

11/5/2017

The Pont du Gard is 902 feet long and 160 feet high. It is almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and it’s 100 feet wider than London’s Tower Bridge. It is within a few feet of the height of Niagara Falls, and it’s only slightly shorter than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. It is more than six times taller than the 1933 King Kong. If Babe Ruth stood at one end of the bridge and hit his longest homer, the ball would land halfway across. If a hamster were blown up to the size of the Pont du Gard, its turds would be larger than my first apartment.

It’s gigantic.


Figures on the first level of the bridge give you a sense of its size.

Bob and I threw our bags into the Captur on Sunday morning and drove off under a cloud-flecked sky, rolling through charming villages and under the flickering shade of the plane trees that lined the road. I usually try to stick with aircraft, trains, and buses when when I travel; renting a car brings extra expense, the stress of navigating, and the burden of looking after a big, expensive object. Sometimes, though, there isn’t much choice. The trips to Collioure and Carcassonne would have been difficult without a car, and seeing the Pont du Gard would have been practically impossible.

The Pont du Gard was built in the 1st century AD as part of the aqueduct that supplied water to Nemausus (Nîmes). It was part of a 31-mile system, at one time, but now the aqueduct exists only in scattered fragments. The bridge that remains was spared because it has been a valuable way to cross the river ever since it was built.

The ticket office is next to the parking lot, tucked into the base of a hill. Visitors can’t see the bridge until walking under the trees for a few minutes and turning to follow the river upstream. The first sight of the Pont du Gard comes as a shock. We knew it was enormous before we saw it, of course – we had made the trip because we knew we’d be impressed – but the reality of it left us speechless.

When we arrived at the base of the bridge, we climbed stairs through scrubby oaks and, when the stairs disappeared, we followed trails to vantage points. The south end of the aqueduct continued on its course through a tunnel, perhaps 8 feet in diameter, that the Romans had chiseled through the rock; Bob and I explored the nearby trails briefly, to see whether we could get to the far side of the tunnel, but gave up when it became clear that this might become something like a wilderness expedition.

We had to clamber back down to the first level to cross the river and get to the museum and restaurant. This level was used as a toll bridge for a millenium, give or take a few centuries. It is a miracle that the bridge is still here. In the 1620s, a mouth-breathing duke decided to move his artillery across the bridge, widening the road by cutting away two-thirds of the thickness of the second tier of arches; for some reason, the bridge didn’t crumble into the river, either at this insult or from any of the other disasters that have befallen it over the years.


The incised slab next to this ancient olive tree is covered with words that pretend to have been written by the tree itself. The inscription begins “I was born in 908.”

The museum and restaurant are designed to accommodate hordes of tourists during the height of summer, but the facility was nearly deserted when Bob and I were there. The museum is a sad waste of time. It told us next to nothing about the history and engineering of the Pont du Gard and instead centered its efforts around a movie that consisted almost entirely of long, uninterrupted drone shots – nausea-inducing footage that swept above and around the aqueduct that everyone in the auditorium had just walked slowly across. A poorly rendered CGI dragonfly had been inserted into all these scenes, converting the footage from anodyne to irritating. We agreed it was like being being asked to spend 20 minutes watching “Clippy,” the rage-inducing mascot from antique versions of Microsoft Office.

Bob and I headed back for the car in mid-afternoon. We had already blown our chance to see much of Arles – by the time we got there, everything would be closing. That was okay, though. The Pont du Gard had been worth it.


Bob and a row of plane trees.

Nîmes

11/4/2017

Our first stop in Nîmes was its remarkable Roman arena, just a few yards from the stairs that had led us, blinking, from the underground parking lot into a cool, overcast day. We rented audio guides, which I usually revile, but these turned out to be indispensable. The producers had kept the swelling music, absurdly plummy accents, and puerile philosophizing to a minimum, and had concentrated instead on giving their listeners the facts they needed to bring this ruin back to life. Bob and I were horrified by the description of the carnage that had occurred on the sandy floor in front of us. I will not repeat the stories here; they are available in gruesome detail to anyone with a web browser. We listened to the descriptions and thought sadly about the simple facts of human nature that made such bloody sports so popular for so long. I’m sure that some of the distaste I have for these games is the result of my cosseted life; I have next to no experience with the realities of death, but I have watched thousands of actors die as part of my daily entertainment. It’s easy to imagine that a citizen of ancient Rome might react with similar horror to aspects of our culture that we take for granted: the irrelevance of personal honor in warfare, animals harvested with no thought of sacrifice, religions whose gods have been stripped of humanity, universal sexual repression, the almost complete absence of any sense of the sacred in our day-to-day lives, and, above all, our having substituted screens, walls, and automobiles for the vitality of shared community experience. I can imagine this, but even so, even so. Humanity remains disgraced by Rome’s arena games.

And then we walked to the Maison Carrée, a beautifully preserved Roman temple, just five minutes away. We climbed the stairs to the portico and then walked through the door to the interior, hoping for a reconstruction of the original shrine, or maybe a museum space explaining the Roman presence in this part of Gaul, but what we got instead was a movie theater, where an informative short film dramatizing the history of Nîmes was just getting underway.

From the Maison Carrée, it was a short, pretty walk along a canal to Les Jardins de la Fontaine and the remains of the Temple of Diana. We paused to watch a bunch of older guys who were playing pétanque with shocking accuracy; in the five minutes we stood there, we saw only one throw that missed its target. (Pétanque is akin to lawn bowling – imagine a combination of horseshoes, curling, and darts.) Then we climbed the hill to the Tour Magne, admired the view of the city, watched uncertainly from the fringes of what appeared to be a Muslim wedding party at the foot of the tower, and walked back into town.

By this time, the host at our Airbnb was probably home from work. We needed to find a wifi signal so that we could use Skype to call him.* A café next to the Maison Carrée was perfect; as we sat there, savoring our wine, the light failed, the temple was illuminated by floodlights in the pavement, and lightning flashed in the clouds overhead. Our host, Yvan, spoke about as much English as we spoke French, making the Skype call little more than a series of mutually encouraging noises, but I was able to communicate the idea that we would be at his door at 7:00. When we got there, at 6:58, we discussed our confusion while I played with the intercom at the door – and then the door was opened by Yvan, a rounded shortish man, friendly, charming, effeminate, and, immediately, our best friend in the city.

The building where Yvan lived and where he rented out a bedroom as an Airbnb had been a palace in the recent past. He led us up a broad central staircase, over wide marble steps, into his apartment, where we met his cat and admired the 15-foot ceilings and tasteful appointments of the bedroom where he established us. We opened the tall windows to admit some of the rain-washed air. From somewhere nearby, we heard strangely familiar music – a fight theme from the original Star Trek.

Maybe my imaginary Roman would be sickened by the shortcomings of Western Civilization, but I’d love to take that guy out of the arena and give him a tour of the palace where Bob and I were spending the night. I’d show him the shower, and the soft, thick towels, and our incredible variety of foodstuffs, and I’d show him the episode of Star Trek where Kirk fights the lizard man. We have our faults, but we do very well for ourselves.

* I had picked up a SIM card for my phone in Pamplona, thinking that it would work throughout Europe, but it stopped functioning in France. Bob had done something similar, at Heathrow during a layover on his way to the continent; his SIM didn’t work either. Europe is full of Americans who have been able to figure out how to make their phones work, but these people possess some crucial information that has been denied to Bob and me. It would have been very useful, very often, to have had phones that worked in France and Italy, but we made do with wifi signals, wishful thinking, and wild hand gestures across great distances.

Carcassonne

11/2-4/2017

“Croque-Carotte” is a kid’s game Bob and I found on a shelf in our Airbnb in Carcassonne. The object is to move little plastic rabbits to the top of a little plastic hill. The box said that the game has 4 out of 5 stars for luck and 0 out of 5 stars for thinking.

Bob and I opened a bottle of Jack Daniels and wrote our own rules. The new rules featured zombies. I put the camera on the kitchen counter, set a timer, and Bob and I posed like the excited kids on the box.

Very late in the evening, when I put out my hand and, with an easy gesture, crushed his puny hopes and dreams, Bob moaned, “You zombified my Bunny Queen!”, and I knew my victory would be sung next to the flickering fires of Occitanie long after these little plastic rabbits had returned to the ooze from whence they sprang.

Carcassonne is famous for the Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress that covers a hill above the modern town. It looks just the way you would hope a medieval fortress might look, and so it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is swarmed by tourists, all of them romantic, slightly delusional about life in the Middle Ages, and eager to take photographs that are indistinguishable from the thousands of other photographs that are taken there every day. People just like me, in other words.

Bob and I didn’t visit the fortress until our second day in Carcassonne, spending the first day driving there, doing chores, and seeing the modern town. We parked the car in a lot at the edge of the village and walked in, stopping at the Tourist Info center for a map and directions to our Airbnb. We had lunch at an outdoor table in a charming square. We ordered vin rouge, but our waiter said that they were out, and that we had to drink rosé. I shrugged and agreed, but when the server left, I told Bob that something about this situation seemed strange.

“A French café that has run out of red wine? Does this seem possible to you?” I asked.

“Sure,” Bob said. “Why not?”

“It’s like we’ve gone to a Starbucks that has run out of coffee,” I said. “Besides, there are two grocery stores within a hundred yards – why don’t they just go buy a few bottles?”

“I don’t know,” Bob answered. “Maybe it’s too expensive. What’s your theory about it?”

“I don’t have a theory,” I admitted. “Maybe the waiter is screwing with us. Maybe they have a bet going in the back about who can sell the most rosé.”

Bob sighed and said, “You can decide that the waiter is lying to us and that the restaurant is conspiring to sell us rosé wine, if you want, but I’ve decided that he is telling the truth, and that the rosé is going to be fine, and that even if there is some underhanded wine scheme, it doesn’t matter, because our sandwiches are going to be delicious.”

It’s true that the sandwiches were perfectly fine, and that the rosé wasn’t too bad, but I still say that waiter was pulling a fast one.

We met our profoundly charming Airbnb hostess, Jeanne, next to our apartment at precisely 3:00. She rode up on her bike and, as she air-kissed our cheeks, she held one hand off to the side; blood ran in a thin stream from her hand onto the cobbles. It was nothing, she said. She had been bitten by her parrot. Our apartment had an excellent location and two bedrooms and a big sofa and an ill-equipped kitchen and Croque-Carotte – we couldn’t have asked for more.

On the following morning we found a lavandería, or whatever it’s called in France, where I settled down to guard our laundry and Bob went off to get a haircut. He was back soon – having learned that all of the barbers were planning to close at noon for the siesta and so couldn’t accommodate him – bringing with him some kind of cantaloupe or papaya chunks in a clear plastic container. Orange chunks, at any rate. Which turned out to be pumpkin.

We left the pumpkin at the laundromat, our clean laundry at our Airbnb, and set off for the fortress.

Thank God we are no longer paying for film; we are able to take all of the photos we desired of crenellated walls, drawbridges, slate roofs, towers, and other varieties of romantic decrepitude. The narrow streets of the Cité de Carcassonne are clogged with places to buy overpriced chocolates, wooden swords, artisanal olive oils, brass commemorative medallions, and other garbage, but nobody in town had anything like the Pirates of the Caribbean daypack that Bob was carrying. He had found at a thrift store in Seattle. It may have been the only one of its kind in France.

We bought a couple of sandwiches that I’d have called boccadillos back in Spain and ate them while seated comfortably next to a slit in the wall from which the Visigoths might have shot their arrows at the attacking Franks, or the Cathars at the attacking Franks, or the Franks at the attacking Moors. Then we walked over to the chateau, where we paid a few Euro for the privilege of walking along the top of the city wall, gawking down the modern town of Carcassone, at the surrounding grape fields, and at the rooftops of the medieval city itself. This chateau had not been built as protection from marauders from the countryside; its function was to protect the richest citizens of the city from the hoi polloi in the surrounding village. After a few hours of slow exploration, we had walked up and down every street in the old city. We sat down next to a heater at a random restaurant’s outdoor tables, drank two of the worst glasses of wine we had been served in Europe, and then made our way over the drawbridge and back down the hill.

On the following morning, as we packed our things, we cast a long, covetous glance at Croque-Carrote. Surely no visiting child could derive as much pleasure from this game as Bob and I had. Surely the total amount of happiness in the world would be increased by taking it with us. But no. Theft is theft. And besides, Jack Daniels is expensive.


I wish this place were still a boulangerie.


A typical view inside the old cité.


A view from the city wall.

Pilgrimage to Collioure

November 1, 2017

This post is in three pieces.

  1. The Perpignan Piece
  2. The Patrick O’Brian Piece
  3. The Collioure Piece

1. The Perpignan Piece

I flew to Barcelona in 2012, intending to cross the French border and see a few places in the Occitanie. A surprise transit strike in France made this impossible, so I changed all my plans while sitting on a bench in a Barcelona train station and had a wonderful trip in the south of Spain, instead. I don’t regret that trip in 2012, not at all, but my original ambition has never been far from my mind.

I had wanted to see the medieval city of Carcassonne since I first learned about it, in the late 70’s. The Pont du Gard had been on my list ever since I watched Sir Kenneth Clark picking his way along the riverbed beneath it in the opening minutes of Civilisation. I had heard that the Roman ruins at Nîmes and Arles were some of the best in Europe. But, most of all, I wanted to see Collioure.

We caught an early train from Barcelona’s Sants station. The Halloween parties had ended, but the dark streets still contained groups of reeling teenagers who were reluctant to go home. An unsteady young man approached us and said something about beauty, living in the present moment, and comfortable footwear; I edged away, saying “Ha ha yes I’m sure oh my,” while Bob engaged with him, taking real pleasure in his youth and happiness, agreeing with his philosophies, and shaking his hand as we left.

I had read that the cheapest way to rent a car in Europe is to return it inside the same country where you pick it up. Therefore, we were taking the train across the border, into Perpignan – the first French city of any size – and picking up a car there. If you were thinking about planning something similar, here are some things you should not do:

  • Do not arrive in a town on the morning of the Day of the Dead and expect to find anything open. No buses, no restaurants, no taxis. Just forget it.
  • Do not rent a car and expect to find it at the address you have been provided. That place will be closed.
  • Do not carry everything you own into Perpignan on your back and then spend hours schlepping it up and down the deserted streets.
  • Do not expect to be charmed by Perpiginan tourism. Perpignan has a cathedral whose exterior is unremarkable and whose interior is closed because it is the Day of the Dead, a canal, and a tourist information office that could possibly direct you to interesting sights, unless it is closed because it is the Day of the Dead.

There is one thing we did that morning that I can recommend, however. Do share some food with a well-spoken homeless person in the train station and thank him for his advice about how to see the town, just as Bob did. It was the highlight of the morning.

After a wearing amount of uncertainty and stress, finding an operating taxi by pure luck, and a search for our rental car agency that cost us more than €50 in cab fare, we finally found ourselves established in a comfortable, glistening, quiet, and, above all, nonfictional Renault Captur. Bob took the wheel as we drove away from Perpignan. With any luck, we will never see it again.


Bob and everything he owns pause to take a picture in Perpignan.


A French cat watches Bob with undisguised revulsion.

2. The Patrick O’Brian Piece

Collioure was the home of Patrick O’Brian for 50 years. He and his wife, Mary, moved here in 1949, living first in a walk-up apartment on the Rue Francois Arago, where they struggled to make ends meet, and then in an unprepossessing white farmhouse at the edge of town. In a small room in that farmhouse, Patrick O’Brian wrote the 20 novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series – books that have given me more pleasure, in repeated re-readings, than anything else I have ever read. This trip to Collioure was a pilgrimage.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels are set in the same historical moment as Jane Austen’s work, and they take for granted much the same level of education and portray the same relative wealth. The novels of Jane Austen, however, were written by a woman, about women, and largely for women, whereas the Aubrey-Maturin series was written by, about, and largely for men. Jane Austen is a bonnet-bearing colossus, but the insularity and luxury of her world – the absence of domestic help from the narrative, despite their necessary ubiquity, the limits of the known universe extending hardly beyond the hedgerows of the estate, and the virtue and utility of men being entirely bound up in their potential use as domestic objects – make it difficult for modern readers, and especially modern male readers, to feel that the solutions to her romantic problems have any real importance. In Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels, on the other hand, Naval Surgeon Stephen Maturin and Captain Jack Aubrey are citizens of the world, returning home only occasionally, to domestic concerns and women that are deeply important and beloved but also baffling and irritating. Their domestic lives are fundamentally incidental to their interests in warfare, politics, science, and the maintenance of their floating world.

I make this comparison between O’Brian and Austen because most intelligent readers are familiar with the genius of Jane Austen, but many people seem to think that Patrick O’Brian occupies a different place in literature, imagining that the Aubrey-Maturin novels are something like an upgrade to the Horatio Hornblower series, maybe with a commendable dash of Barbara Tuchman thrown in for gravitas. But O’Brian has produced something far more valuable than that. In their richness of vocabulary, their exquisite historical detail, their deft humor, their deep affection for characters from every social class, the excitement of the conflicts they portray – most of all, in the superb polish of their writing – they equal Jane Austen’s best work.

I automatically incorporate parts of Patrick O’Brian’s rarefied and idiosyncratic vocabulary into my own writing. I used the word “marthamble” as a goofy joke in my description of a church in Bayonne, for example; sailors in the Patrick O’Brian universe sometimes came down with cases of “the marthambles,” a disease that O’Brian admitted that he knew nothing about. I said that a little girl in Estella “clapped a stopper on it” when she stopped crying – this is a foremast way of putting words together, lifted with silent gratitude from the O’Brian books. I only wish I could also appropriate some of his grace and intelligence.

Bob has read the Aubrey-Maturin books, too, and reveres them, but it’s safe to say that I was the only wild-eyed O’Brian fanatic in the Renault that rolled down the hills toward the Mediterranean on November first.

The Internet is brimming with good information about Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey-Maturin series. This web page is a useful resource for O’Brian fans who might be interested in visiting Collioure. Some information on K.C. Borden’s account of her literary pilgrimage to Collioure was useful to me, especially the clues it gives to the location of O’Brian’s grave. I’m sure it is my fault that Bob and I were unable to find the grave on our first attempt; here is a map I made that gives the exact location of the grave and of the other three sites that are interesting to fellow pilgrims.

You can find an interactive version of this map here.

3. The Collioure Piece

The village of Collioure is on a little Mediterranean bay, seven miles north of the Spanish border. It is charming almost to a fault – a Walt Disney dream of Mediterranean life, a Year in Provence village with the added romance of a lovely harbor. Patrick O’Brian described it like this: “The village is altogether absurd…rose colored roofs, blue and pink houses, streets with hardly room to pass, strong smell of the sea, nets.”


The Rue Arago, where Patrick and Mary lived when they first moved to Collioure.

It appeared that everybody in this part of Catalonia had decided to take advantage of the holiday to bask in Collioure’s cuteness. The place was packed. Collioure maintains four parking lots on the surrounding hills, all of which were full to bursting with Citroens and Renaults and Peugeots. Bob and I drove slowly past all the pretty little houses and then on, winding along the Mediterranean, to the next village, where we finally found someplace to park the car. We had an expensive but perfectly delicious and 100% French lunch at a café overlooking the harbor. We were surprised to find that we had ordered steaks – chosen only because they came with “frites,” a word we understood – but the meat went down well with the bottle of wine we had accidentally ordered when we’d tried to procure two glasses of vino tinto, I mean vin rouge. We couldn’t stop ourselves from speaking mangled Spanish to the amused waitress, a good-looking woman in a sheer top, who called us “amigos” when we left. By now, it was late enough in the day to make us hope that the tourists in Collioure were beginning to drive back to their homes.

When I booked us a room at the Hotel Templiers in Collioure, I knew that it was charming and old, crammed with art from the Fauvists and locals who had made the village famous 100 years ago, but I hadn’t been aware that its bar was Patrick O’Brian’s favorite place to relax. This felt like a stupendous stroke of luck. When we checked in, we asked the middle-aged woman behind the desk about him.

Bob: “Do you get many people who come here because of Patrick O’Brian?”
Réceptionniste: “Pardon?”
Me: “We like Patrick O’Brian, the writer. We have heard that he used to come here, to the restaurant.”
Réceptionniste: “Patrick?”
Me: “Yes. O’Brian.”
Bob: “He died a long time ago, so maybe you haven’t hear of him.”
Me: “He died in the year 2000.”
Réceptionniste: Blank look and wavering smile.
Me: “He is very famous.”
Réceptionniste: “I am sorry, but I do not know this name.”
Me: “He was a very private person.”
Bob: “No problem. We are happy.”
Réceptionniste: “Perhaps the tourist office?”


Our room at the Hotel Templiers looked like a high-schooler’s idea of a brothel.

Later, we approached several of the people working in the restaurant and bar and asked them about O’Brian, but everyone reacted with the same incomprehension as the receptionist. There were no photos of him on any of the walls, no simple plaque saying something like, “Patrick O’Brian, noted writer, dined here frequently, enjoying a red La Clape and a dish of mussels.” When we sought out the tourist information office, even they appeared never to have heard of him. We were shocked. This was like going to Stratford on Avon and having people answer our inquiries with puzzled looks and the question “William Who?”


Inside the restaurant at the Hotel Templiers.


Patrick O’Brian may have sat exactly here, reading his newspaper.

We walked up and down the breakwater in the harbor, watching happily as a little sailboat capsized in the stiff breeze and then repeatedly failed to right itself, as people in a nearby aluminum skiff tried to help by leaning over the gunwales and making broad gestures. Bob accidentally soaked his shoes while testing the temperature of the water. We had dinner at the Hotel Templiers, of course, admiring the art on the walls and the TV in the corner, where Real Madrid was getting its ass kicked by Tottenham.


The fort guarding the harbor at Collioure.


A bronze frame on a post creates an irresistible photograph.

On the following morning we walked the hills around town, looking for the grave of Patrick O’Brian and his wife, Mary. I had found a description of the cemetery that said it was near a roundabout above the village, and I had found only one such roundabout on the map, so that’s where we went. After exploring every one of the roads that branched off from the roundabout and finding no dead people, though, we admitted defeat and walked back into the village, where we packed our bags, settled our account, and took advantage of the wifi one last time, looking for some clue about where we had gone wrong. There it was, a second roundabout, not too far from the area we’d just explored.

And so we found the grave. Patrick O’Brian intentionally obscured most of the details of his private life, leaving him a cipher to his fans, but his gravesite seemed less about the man and woman buried there than it was a place to acknowledge the magnificent gift he left behind. This chiseled slab seemed to us to also be the grave of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, who are as real to me as many of the people I have known. We took photographs and strolled around the tombstones in the sun, the gravel crunching underfoot.

Patrick O’Brian deserves better than this in Collioure. He should be remembered at the Hotel Templiers. The people behind the desk at the Collioure tourist office should be able to tell tourists all about him. There should be two bronze figures at the foot of the breakwater, one a large man with his hair in a queue and his hat athwartships, pointing out to sea, and his slight companion in an ill-fitting wig, who ignores the pointing figure and instead bends over a handkerchief in his palm, where visitors like us would see an anomalous beetle rendered in bronze.


Patrick and Mary’s grave.

Recherche du Temps a Trouvé

Barcelona. October 31st, 2017.

I waited for an early bus from Muxia to Santiago in the predawn darkness, quietly nursing a café con leche in company with some other muzzy pilgrims. A coffee shop had opened at a terrible hour just to give us bus-catchers a place to shelter. When the bus arrived, we queued up obediently, stowed our luggage, and filed aboard. My seat was soft and the bus was quiet and warm. For the next hour and a half I watched out the window as the sun rose over the hills that I had just spent three days crossing on foot. I recognized almost none of it, although when we rolled through the little town of Negreira at daybreak I had a glimpse of the bench where I had sat and watched a skinny young couple walk slowly by, happily breathing each other’s air, and there was the grocery store where I’d bought cheese and bread for the day’s sandwich, and then the town was behind us. The houses got bigger, industry and traffic increased, and, by the time the sun was unequivocally up, the modern outskirts of Santiago had obliterated any of the exoticism that attracts me to foreign travel.

My walk on the Camino de Santiago was over.

My brother Bob and I were planning to meet in Barcelona, spend a few days touring in southern France, and then visit Rome for a week. I visited Barcelona during my first trip to Europe, in the late 70’s, and then again in 2012; my porous memory allows me to laugh hard at Seinfeld reruns that I’ve seen half a dozen times before and has left me with almost no impressions of my teen years beyond the smell of the sets in our production of South Pacific, the laugh of the girl I loved, and an apparently endless series of inexplicable boners, but Barcelona remained vivid in my mind. My evenings on La Rambla, wandering in the Barri Gòtic, the flowers and pig heads in La Boqueria, the incredible Palau de la Música Catalana, and especially La Sagrada Familia, felt in my memory like a series of postcards I could flip through whenever I wished. I would stay in Barcelona for only 24 hours, on this visit, before Bob and I left for Collioure and Nîmes.

I was in my early 20’s when I first visited Barcelona. I spent almost no time there, choosing to “get my money’s worth” out of my Eurail pass rather than to fully appreciate the places I was visiting. I blithely expected to be back in Barcelona someday, and thought it made sense to depend on futurity to provide the depth and insight that my limited budget, time, and wisdom prevented on this first trip. I have been able to return to Europe several times, just as I’d thought I would, but the depth and insight I’d been depending on have been elusive, and the optimism of that first trip has tattered as I’ve aged. When I left Barcelona this time, it was with no confidence that I would ever be back.

Bob had rented a room for us at the Generator hostel. I climbed out of the metro, practically in the shadow of Gaudi’s Casa Milà, and followed the map on my phone through the busy streets.

Bob and I grinned at each other and shook hands. I ditched my pack in the sterile and hipster but perfectly adequate room. We bought burritos at a place Bob knew and then set off to visit La Sagrada Familia.

The west facade, the touts, the cranes, the crowds, the bored, grim security, it’s all terrible, but my God, what a building. Then we walked south into the Gothic Quarter, admiring the Catalan flags that were displayed at apartment windows and on the balconies. We bought a couple of beers at a table on a little square. We found a pasta restaurant, where the lovely young server was kind to us and whose decolletage, I’m sorry to say, is almost all I remember about her. As we were leaving, children dressed as witches and zombies ran into the restaurant, shouting for candy. The dark street outside had swirling knots of costumed kids, going from door to door, and occasional teenagers in outlandish outfits, looking pleased and self-conscious. A shop that produced customized hats was still open; we stood and watched a machine embroider the word LUST in big pink letters on the crown of a billed cap. And then we bought chocolate croissants, eating them as a bright moon rose in the canyons of the Barri Gòtic. Standing in the dark street, with people streaming by and bittersweet chocolate filling my mouth, I thought about how different this experience was from the last time I had concentrated my attention on the moon, three weeks earlier, when I walked out of Castrojeriz on a cool dark morning and watched it set over the meseta.

The differences were uncountable, but the most important of them was that I wasn’t alone. Bob had an intelligent interest in the stresses and stone at La Sagrada Familia, which I would probably have been blind to if I’d been there by myself. The beers were his idea; we sat outside, under a gas heater, admiring the families at nearby tables and joshing with the waitress. He was in the mood for pasta, and that’s why we found Maccaroni restaurant, and experienced the trick-or-treaters, and got lost in the dark streets. It was Bob’s idea that we get chocolate croissants, too. We exclaimed at the quality of the light, discussed the Metro system, stood guard over a leather shop while the owner ran off to buy a slice of pizza, and goggled at a sign advertising a show of Northwest Coast Indian art at a small museum. We laughed at each other’s jokes, frowned over the maps, and grinned at each other around bites of chocolate croissant. Being with him was such a relief.

I’ll never eat another chocolate croissant on a cool evening during the last moments of October, in the old quarter of a city on the Mediterranean, halfway through my 61st year, with my brother at my elbow. I will never again walk into the moonset on the ridge west of Castrojeriz. And a good thing, too. I don’t want to waste my time revisiting such moments, when I could be doing something that might bring about another unpredictable sublimity. Bob and I were leaving for France on the following morning.

I couldn’t wait.


Bob, in the lower right, admires La Sagrada Familia.


A spiral staircase in one of the spires.


Light from the setting sun pours into La Sagrada Familia.


Gaudi designed upside-down, using weighted strings to find the catenary curves that are perfect for load-bearing ribs in the dome.


The moon rises over the Gothic Quarter.