On Visiting Rome for the Second Time

October 8, 2010

Here I am, on the plane, heading back home. Many times this week, I found myself wandering off to a corner café, ordering cappuccino, and simply sitting there, thinking. The beauty that surrounded me gave me no choice but to ponder it for a while. I was captivated by what I saw, and I would often think about a certain sculpture or painting for the rest of the day. I have never done so much contemplating in one week. Being surrounded by beauty and rich culture was inspiring. The atmosphere I inhabited this week transformed me into a more appreciative, thoughtful, creative person.

December 21st, 2014

Four years and three months ago, Italy captured me. The day my senior class boarded the plane, I was sixteen going on seventeen, and I spent my seventeenth birthday staring in awe at the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican Museum. That week, I laughed by the minute, I ate gelato with every meal, I wondered at Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy. That week, I realized how much I treasured my classmates; I realized that somewhere along the way, the Caldwell kindergarteners had become men and women, each of us so unique. I saw the Pieta and the David, and I wandered the paths of the Villa Borghese and the ruins of ancient Rome.

This week, I did it all again. I didn’t plan it that way, of course. But Mary wanted to see Rome, and remembering how much I loved it, I agreed to go. I expected the cobbled streets, the grandeur of the Vatican, the enormity of the Colisseum. What I didn’t expect, and what I was wholly unprepared for, was my reaction to seeing all of it for the second time, and pondering all that has transpired between then and now.

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” –Herman Melville

I am standing in Blackwell’s book shop. It is my last night in Oxford; I leave at 4 a.m. tomorrow for Madrid. It’s cheesy, and also you haven’t even read Moby Dick, I think to myself. You’re reading this out of context, sentimentalizing language and literature. Isn’t this what you critique others for doing? I look at the poster again, a black-and-white etching of a compass. BUT IT’S TRUE, AND I LOVE IT, I respond to myself, and resolutely, I grab the poster and buy it before I can change my mind. You’ll be glad later, I tell myself.

And I am glad a week later. I am glad as I stand on the top level of the Colisseum, peering into the past. What is this place? This land of emperors and conquest and lavish games, of architectural masterpieces that we replicate to this day, of forums and temples that are still standing, over two thousand years later.

Our first night in Rome, Mary, Emma, and I are simply enjoying the dazzlement of being together in a new city. We explore the piazzas and the cobbled side streets, and it’s warm enough to eat dinner outside, so we laugh and talk over gnocchi, ravioli, and eggplant parmesan at a table outside. Christmas lights adorn the entry to the restaurant, and a man across the way is playing Christmas carols by rubbing the rims of different-shaped wine glasses.

As we make our way back to the hotel on Via Settembre, Emma points to some old-looking buildings and suggests that we make a detour, so we do. We all cross the main thoroughfare differently: Emma scampers, Mary glides, I stride. And suddenly, all of us are speechless, for we have just stumbled upon ancient ruins. To the left of the main road; no fanfare, just the remains of huge columns, steps, and a patterned floor. We look to the right, and there are more, and the sign tells us that this was a marketplace. It is dusk, between day and night, and maybe this in-between light is making me feel extra charmed, but I can imagine the Roman citizens going about their business, buying and selling here all those years ago. Carrying their goods, worrying about that evening’s dinner, fending off thieves. I imagine that they weren’t so very different from us, and again, I am awed by the way that we are only separated by time, not place. Several birds hover around the ruins, and land in the trees nearby, and I expect that they did the same thing when this space was used for buying and selling two thousand years ago. It is remarkable, but all of our remarks seem like pebbles in the face of these massive structures of stone. Pebbles. Two thousand years, it is still here. It makes one feel small.

Yet four years, and I am back, and I never thought I would be, and I am so different. Four months spent teaching in Tanzania, four months working in a hospital in Ethiopia, two years at Eastern, a summer in Camden, a summer at Governor’s School, and a semester at Oxford – it’s enough to change a person, but I’m still surprised every time I think of it. In a way, it’s similar to imagining the Roman citizens walking through these places. I imagine my seventeen-year-old self, simultaneously starry-eyed and worn, wondering about so many things, asking so many questions. That hasn’t changed, I suppose. I still wonder about so many things, and I still ask so many questions, but I’m different now – it seems that I have a better grasp now on what questions are worth asking, and why.

A few dusks later, I stand in the monolith that is the Colisseum and miss Evensong. I want to welcome the dark with music, I want to let evening come, but I am in Rome, and not in England, and I am standing in the Colisseum, and the employees are beginning to shoo people out. What an interesting time in history for Christ to come, I think as I look across to the other side. How Advent of you, I respond to myself, sardonically. But then I grow serious. What a turning point. And how interesting – everyone thought his coming would be something like this – fanfare, crowds, an actual triumphal entry. An empire, perhaps. Instead, we have the weakest, most powerless, most desperate entry into time and space imaginable. We have a tiny, whimpering baby born to a nondescript Jewish girl in a backwoods town in the Roman Empire. The Savior of the world, not in a luxury villa, but in a feeding trough amongst animals. That is a remarkable thing. But again, remarks are like pebbles to this mystery.

What is a place? I wonder again, and the sun sets. Everything is coated in a haze of burnished light, and Emma finds me, and we walk back to the hotel together, occasionally throwing a gaze behind us at the Colisseum. Pebbles.


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