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My dad had told me stories of Bavaria, brought back little porcelain dolls and carved wooden girls with puppy dogs from his business trips. I have two German children’s books on my shelf from his travels, the words incomprehensible, but the pictures cheery, with red-cheeked elves and smiling children. Literary travel brochures for the youthful imagination. I pondered German beer and hospitality as I sat at the Forum eating pizza and a fried pasta ball of foreign, but delicious, taste. In Rome, they sell fast-food by the kilo. The shop was next door to the bus station, two doors down from the ticket office (eight euros to change my outbound destination), across the street from the Metro. The men inside were loud and smelly, and when I had asked if I could take their picture, they had erupted into giddy laughter, flattered and intrigued by the American girl who takes pictures of cheap pizza joints and their greasy chefs. I lit a cigarette. I didn’t smoke before that summer, but traveling does that. You wrench yourself away from your own world, and you pull and you pull, as ideas become tight and compressed together into delicate threads - what you knew and know and used to be and are - and then a snap, and that tether is gone. America, and family, became distant concepts, separated by more than an ocean and people. Cigarettes had become essential. Cheaper than food, they have antidepressants, and the stimulants enabled lonely, semi-conscious vigils on the three day bus rides: watch your bags and make sure you leave with approximately the amount you came with, a basic lesson far too many neglect. I had learned to ration the carcinogens, smoking only half at a time. I had learned how to patch a broken one together, holding fingers in just the right way, so when the cheap variety from Amsterdam split in half they were salvageable. I had learned the invaluable ice-breaker of that pantomimed gesture recognized worldwide, paper-covered stalk clenched between teeth as fingers flick at an invisible wheel – do you have a light? I watched the smoke catch in the wind, swirling upwards with the dust spiraling around the broken marble columns. Almost everything in the Forum is red Roman brick, but there are patches of pure ivory flashing through, just the straight, tall columns remaining from a temple or patrician mansion. There was one tree. It was tall, its branches leaping outwards thirty feet up, arms outstretched over the ruins. I wouldn’t want to be that tree, I thought in distracted melancholy, seeing it hovering there above a crumbling villa, forced to stare at the grove to the north, reaching out but rooted firmly, with contact limited solely to dry whispering skirls from its own dead leaves. At least the columns were reconstructed in groups of threes and fours. I walked along the guardrail above the Senate chambers, imagining Antony’s speech, the triumvate, bread and circuses, Caesar’s death. The wind leapt down, over the barrier and into the hollow, echoing up whispers of dust and concave sound; it whistled over the empty plain, cries of you as well, conjuring ghosts of the screams of shocked recognition
and betrayal, of resignation rolling low over the fallen columns; it crept, murmuring, through the back galleries, out the back doors, down the back alleys once dark and covered, wet, dank homes to the homeless Epicureans and glittering knife stabs like flashing Jupiter’s laughing thunder – now only passages exposed and warm like dry bones of a dead empire. But the wind…no, Rome never died. It slowly spread over the years, seeping (like the slow creeping percolation of ink spilled on paper, leaching into the veins, coagulants mingling with contemporaries, a network of colonies and tributaries feathering outwards) into the cultures it touched, fingering its way through the root systems of Europe and Anatolia, until the world was choked and saturated in it. The Pantheon, and capitalism, confirms it. The Pantheon is about a mile from the Vatican, across the river. It used to be a Roman temple. Now it houses Catholic weddings and American tour groups. There’s a hole in the roof - the imperfection of the Roman dome, incomplete without the cupola; they were forced to build it with that open ring at the top holding the arch together, the weight dispersed evenly among the keystones. But they invented concrete, soon, and their methods improved. The Pantheon remains as a reminder of early Roman engineering. The hole was never covered. It still rains through the roof, and the drains in the floor still divert the water away into a culvert which runs under the streets of the city. The dome is massive. The hole is probably forty feet across, if not more, but a reasonable estimate is hard to get, as the roof is so high above. The curving ceiling and the crenellated walls skew perception until the building seems to stretch around you and pull away. A single observer is dwarfed. Its construction is simple, and immense. The decorations of the Roman Catholics detract from it, drag the ceiling down towards eye level; the ornate flourishes and censers ruin this cenotaph’s silent memory of an ancient empire, the vastness gone and only heaviness remaining, akin to the Empire’s bricks and aqueducts still standing with the feet and mouths they served lost and dead. It is easy to see why the Romans rejected the Greek scale of beauty. The power of the building makes me want to cry, my voice lost in a room of echoes, and admit my frailty as a single human. The modern trappings ensure that only this despair lingers. I watched the storm begin to start. Lightening splintered through the columns, the friction heavy and hot in the dry air. I tried to capture it on a camera I had bought in a shop across the street from my hotel. I had motioned to the one in the window, asking the price. Five euros. I nodded. The lady behind the counter smiled, and her husband came over to take my
credit card. She loaded the batteries into the camera, cranked the advance wheel, flashed it at me. We both smiled and laughed childishly. Film - two euros roll. Her husband leaned forward, handing me a box with generic Italian film, his cheap gold chains clanking against the glass countertop. I nodded, holding up three fingers. Tre. The couple looked at me, and, in a sudden burst of laughter, called the other man over to look at me. All three stared at my hand, their dark eyes focused on my curled thumb and pinkie. Tre, the woman exclaimed, bending her pinkie and ring finger downwards. Tre. The rain began to fall, slowly at first, then fast, hard and heavy. The lightening continued to flash, and I imagined I could catch it, get the exact moments when the electrons ripped through the air behind the columns. I ran through the Forum, following trails around the ruins, trying to find the best place to view the storm, the best background for the beginning of my photographic career. I reached the northern edge of the park, a small opening in a copse of trees with a panoramic view of the new city. The lightening flashed behind the basilica, and I imagined myself famous. I imagined catching the second it drove itself downwards into the (complete) dome of the Popes chapel, the sharp crack of the thunder drowning the splintering of wood and metal and the sad rumble of masonry as the Vatican collapsed and Rome regained its ancient gods. I imagined the impossible rebirth of an empire that had never died, but was only permutated into modern society. A fantastic photographic, etched solely in the film of my mind. I rewound the camera, my roll empty, and slowly walked down the hill toward the Coliseum, past the tourists huddled under the cypresses, ignoring the peddlers suddenly pawning umbrellas, their voices getting slowly more frantic as the sudden shower began to end. The Coliseum shouldn’t have been so famous, I thought. All the death, and violence, and the historic blood the people imagine as they walk around with those little speakers pressed to their ears (10 euros, only. Hear the grand history of the Olympics and the Coliseo), or the movies they recreate in their minds as they follow the college students who tour for tips - all that was only the violent distraction of an empire; they moved the throne down to the bottom of a hill and pretended that the true politics lay in a quavering thumb, and that they could appease all of their past ghosts who haunt them on the eves of battle by enacting play-war and killing their proverbial enemies. So the Senators began to buy houses on the western side of the city, so their slaves didn’t have to carry them as far to work, and, instead of debating, they learned to boo and bet. And, instead of a republic, Rome became an empire. I shouldn’t have been there that day. I should have been in Barcelona, heading towards Munich, visiting the colonies, the ancient patrician duty.
But goddamned karma. I had insulted the Pope, argued with his guards over the necessity of a skirt to enter the Vatican, when all I had were trousers. I suppose lightening is too dramatic and cliché in this day and age. God, and the Pope’s lackeys, employ more subtle methods than the Old Testament’s mass death and terror. But still, I thought, standing in the upper levels of the Coliseum, there’s something to be said for being thrown to the lions. All that hiding and those secret pacts, and then a stoical scream as a tortured animal tears you to pieces for a political spectacle. It has a nice climax to it. I had gone underground (like an ancient Christian, before the beliefs had become their own bread and circuses), to the modern catacombs, dens of pickpockets, where the skeletons of empty and ruined travelers cried sobs drowned by the feet of the city and the wail of the metro. A nice lady (not Italian, but Lebanese) had stopped, held my hand, led me to the police. They had been politely disinterested - a robbed tourist was nothing exceptional - and had given me a list of phone numbers and a copy of the police report. Get a new passport, the man at the embassy had said on the phone, unable (or unwilling) to comprehend penniless a poor Virgil trapped in the Purgatory of the state department. I caught a bus back to my hostel. I found a seat for myself in the corner, by the window, my bags tucked close around me. I examined my souvenirs, the cheap scarves and flags I had bought from the Asian vendors outside the Coliseum. I looked out the window as the bus drove through the city, and noticed the bright rainbow pace flags hanging everywhere: from balconies, from windows, across doorways. We passed one apartment house that was covered in a fluttering coat of them, every window brightly shouting peace. The mama fussed over me that night, washing my clothes and making me food. I had been checked in by her son, but he was gone for the evening. We watched telenovelas on the TV in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes and smiling in Italian. She was a little lady, short and round, and would duck her head like a pigeon-bob, shyly grinning, when I smiled at her, or said gratzi with my Spanish inflection. We had whole conversations of smiles. I watched the street below, that night, smoking a cigarette from my window on the fifth floor. The building was an old one, like in the movies, with the gate for the elevator, and a grand, heavy, carved door. Below my window, there was a café, and I watched Romans sit with wine and coffee, chuckling and talking, their voices rising upwards in the dark. A car drove up, some people got out, somebody laughed, and it sounded like my sister. Further off in the night a dog barked, slowly, once, twice, then fell quiet. The moon rose silently over the apartments, and, across the street, the pace flag in the window fluttered with a soft whisper that reminded me of Latin, and the dying sigh of an emperor.
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