Suddenly, it was over. Years of dreaming. Months of planning. Twenty eight days and now we are flying back over the Atlantic to the place we call home. This is why they say the days are long but the years are short…four weeks literally flew by. We came. We saw. We conquered. It is done.
But not really. In the end, it was Italy that conquered us and I suspect it is not finished. She captured us in her history. Her geography. Her personality. Her people. She captured us in the moments that are now ours together. None of it written in marble or travertine, but on time itself. Eternal.
We make journeys to see and experience those places that are not ours. We leave that place we call home to “get away from it all” in a way that is not the reality of our life. If we’re lucky, we find something other than those things we went seeking. The views, artifacts, food, places, and whatever else draws us, are only part of what awaits. Under the veneer of the known hide worlds of wonder waiting to be discovered and, along the way, new stories to be written. They are our stories and they are written in the places, and with the people, we encounter along the way.
Our last day with Cecilia was a journey to the beginning of Rome as we now know it. Founded in a story of fratricide as Romulus killed his brother Remus for possession, power, and legacy, the story of this city and those we call Romans is as wildly improbable as the Christianity that rose through it and the country now calling it the Eternal City.
After our driver, Juri, dropped us off, Cecillia took us to the heart of Ancient Rome in the ruins on top of Palatine Hill – the chosen center of Romulus and the she-wolf emblem he would adopt as the symbol of its civilization. Along the way, we saw Mamertine Prison, the underground cells that held Roman prisoners waiting to die, including Peter and Paul, who produced a miraculous spring from which they baptized Roman guards who were later martyred for their conversion.
Along the way, we learned of Roman traditions and their many influences on our current society (architecture, language, government, military, etc.), the Caesars who ruled it, the slaves who built it, and the brutalities of life in a civilization that for all of its amazing art and culture, valued life and human beings so differently than we do today. We also learned the origins of many of the underpinnings of our own civilization – from words to traditions.
Did you know that the Colosseum was named for a massive sculpture of Nero that he had erected in his honor and for a long time stood outside of the amphitheater that we now call the Colosseum? It was originally placed across from the Colosseum in a temple Nero created for himself. Later, the 100 foot statue called the Colossus was moved beside the amphitheater and the stadium took the name Colosseum many years after it was built.
The Colosseum and the games it held are legendary. Gladiators were trained for at least two years before “taking the field” and were placed into various categories with certain types of armor and armament. They were in fact celebrities within the Roman Empire, and though slaves, were treated very well.
The centerpiece of the Colosseum was it’s floor, essentially a massive wooden stage with sand on it that sat on top of elevators, trap doors, and a labyrinth of tunnels below to move man and beast unseen. An earlier version of the Colosseum did not have the stage or tunnels and was able to hold enough water to stage marine battles. Cecillia told us that though the movie, Gladiator, was not accurate in its story and some of its details, the mood it set and workings of the Colosseum were amazingly accurate.
The stories of the Colosseum are brutal but still quite reminiscent of the professional sports that capture the imagination of fans worldwide today. The gladiators were treated as heroes and admired for their prowess and personalities, very much like modern professional athletes. The games of the Colosseum were all about entertaining the mob of Rome, a place where the massive gulf between the elite and the plebeians was always a concern for the ruling class and anything that might entertain and distract, even for just a little while was a good thing for maintaining control.
Cecillia moved us around another set of crowds, highlighting the key artifacts, stories, and places within the ruins. She shared her enthusiasm for the history of Rome, her Catholic faith, and the current city, in all of their beauty and imperfection. She was even-handed with the bad players, often finding positive places in their legacies, and hers was almost always a positive view on all she shared, finding the silver-lining in many of the worst behaviors. Returning to our hotel, we took photos, hugged, and bid each other farewell. Thank you Cecillia, you were amazing!
That afternoon, Sally and I visited a few more Basilicas (we found the skull of John the Baptist, the tombs of St. Philip Nero and St. Agnes, as well as what looked like another Caravaggio hidden in the dark, however it turns out that it is a copy of Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ and the original is in the Vatican). We enjoyed a quiet dinner with mom and dad, then returned to the hotel to pack.
That morning, I had a chance to talk to Fabrizio, the Barista I had gotten to know during the week. He told me to sit down and brought me my usual, an Americano and a chocolate cornetto. Today was his last day and he was taking a holiday for the week. Saying good bye, he reached across the counter, held his hand up in the arm-wrestling position and clasped my hand in a soulful handshake – it felt like brotherhood, appreciation, and a wish for a buon viaggio. Fabrizio and Roberto has been a fun part of every morning in Rome – Grazie Mille my friends!
Juri picked us up on time and gave us his own tour on our way to the airport. Juri owns his own transportation company and has a few vans and drivers. We’ve had him most of the week and he is a wealth of information and quite a historian himself. He told us of the “modern era” neighborhoods (those only 300 years old or so) and the various changes in architecture. He showed us the “square Colosseum,” a Mussollini era office building with arches reminiscent of the Colosseum and still used as offices in the commercial district. We got a great look at the ancient Roman ruins on Palatine Hill and a sense for their size and the scope of the Circus Maximus – a popular place to marty early Christians in between chariot races. Dropping us off, he shook our hands warmly I told him “alla prossima!” – until next time.
The nearly nine hour flight home was demanding. Fortunately, the kindly Fredericka from American Airlines in Rome, was able to get us paired together from what was originally going to be separated middle seats. Traveler’s tip: you may pick your seats, but when it comes to the cattle car, they are going to shuffle you as needed. The best place to negotiate (or better yet, beg) is at the gate and kindness is the best strategy. Sally and sat in the last row, but we were on the aisle and close to the bathroom. Another traveler’s tip: the back rows can be nice for bathroom access and the ability to easily stand up for a bit, however, you may find yourself with the left overs on meals – the better options had been cleaned out by the time they got to us.
New York was a harsh wake-up call from the idyllic journey to the old world. Customs is a wholly unfriendly process and a truly horrific way to greet those coming to our country. The line for US Citizens took up the entire four winding rows of the labyrinth and the visitor’s side was not better. It was nearly an hour getting through it. Shuffled upstairs, we had to go through US security and were shuffled along harshly by the mini-tyrants manning this particular screening station.
As the alarm went off, I told the TSA Agent I had an artificial hip, she glared at me and replied in a voice filled with contempt, “Sir, you know this is a metal detector. Why did you come to this station?” The venom in the rhetorical question only heightened the general sense of anxiety all around this area as I watched families and even seasoned travelers stressing under the harsh commands and tones that fully affirmed how truly stupid each individual traveler really was. I was pulled into a very comprehensive frisking as was my dad and we spent nearly 30 minutes as they impassively determined if we were truly the threats that our prosthetic limbs suggested we may be. As I worked to maintain my patience, a sarcastic “Welcome Home!” kept running through my mind. I can’t even imagine what Ellis Island felt like a hundred years ago.
That Hole in Each of Us
Will you spare a few more minutes for some additional observations? Our encounter with the TSA agents (BTW: not all of them were completely unkind) reminded me of a broader theme threading through the story of Rome, Christianity, and the Italy we experienced over the last 30 days. Actually, this thread is universal. Nearly 1600 years ago, St. Augustine opened his famous Confessions with the line, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The beginning, middle, and current state of the story of Rome, Italy, and beyond is one of seeking to fill the restless hole that sits within each of us. In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Violent Bear it Away,” young Tarwater is visited by the “stranger,” a voice in his mind, who tells him, “It’s you or Jesus.”
And that’s the choice we’ve been wrestling with from the beginning. What do we try to put in that restless center? History repeats over and over and over again. The story of the Roman Empire, its Emperors, and its disappearance is centered on the perpetual choice about what is placed in that restless center – what is my life really about? The Emperors built monuments to themselves, and claimed divinity, even demanding worship from those in the Empire. It is the story of seeking the Divine or seeking to make oneself the Divine – to others and/or to oneself. The Colosseum and its mission to distract citizens from the struggles of their lives, was ultimately an effort to distract from the restless emptiness sitting in a center not ordered to the Divine and magnified in the struggle to survive.
The idols remain, they just aren’t as grand. The Roman Empire collapsed on itself as the center rotted away and it came to represent nothing but self-interest. Even the great struggles of the Catholic Church that rose in the vacuum left by the Roman Empire have centered on the battle of the center as it has ebbed and flowed through the extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-interest amid the greater call to realize that our lives are not really about us and the restlessness within cannot be sated with the many idols that still consume us. The choice remains and we continue to wrestle with it. From the petty tyrants of the security checkpoints to so many notorious dictators, past and present, we see that putting ourself at the center pretty much always leads to less – less charity, less caring, less joy, less fulfillment, less abundance.
So Much More
There is so much more to be explored. We’ll be unpacking our trip, its lessons, and their wonderful implications for our lives for many months to come. Italy has earned a place in our hearts and her story is now part of our story and some of her sons and daughters, our new friends. It has been a tremendous gift and though there is truly no place like home, we’ll always carry a part of her with us. Today, we rejoin our life in Indiana, our family, and all the preciousness of its experience. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Post Script: Silvia checked-in on us daily throughout our final week. “These 4 weeks are literally flew away! It seems yesterday when you called me because you didn’t see the train platform!” Her final text: “Text me when you arrive at home! (I’m the typical Italian mom!) Buon Viaggio!” Thank you Silvia. We are missing you already.