november 2002, roma (rome)


a quick note before we get going: i have moved the pictures around a bit, so that pictures of similar subjects are together. i find that this helps manage the fact that there are way too many pictures to view in one sitting. i also extracted the tour of tuscany onto its own page, with a link in case you want to view them in order.

when i was at the university of waterloo, at one point i worked full-time for professor oldford, a professor of statistics, and a great guy. it turned out that some italian guy, giovanni—gio for short—also worked part-time for the same professor. he saw me first, but from behind. unfortunately i had long hair at the time, 2" past my shoulders, and he thought i was a girl. he was very friendly initially, but then i turned around :) we ended up friends, and in november of 2002 the plane finally left berlin, several months and one hour late. i missed my connecting flight in münchen. i went to the counter to find out which plane i was meant to go on, and ended up behind a long angry line of italians trying to get home. there was much yelling and tempers flared, but eventually i reached the counter, last in line.

the frazzled airline employee looked at me like she wanted to plant a bullet in my forehead and said, in german, "yes?" i smiled, and acted as if it wasn't her fault that the flight computer had died in berlin, causing the delay. i let her know that i had missed my flight and needed to get to rome. when she asked what kind of seat i would like, aisle or window, i told her it wasn't important to me. the plane arrived and i boarded. people were arriving seemingly neverendingly, and i watched all the rows filling up, except... my three seats! even the most tired and frustrated airline employee has a way of saying thanks. people looked at me with a mix of curiousity and fear, wondering what kind of mafioso boss i must be to get three empty seats to myself on a plane that seemed not to have a single empty seat anywhere else. even the stewardess treated with me reverence. if you are the woman in münchen who gave me these seats, thank you! i had fun pretending that i always travelled like this.

for just a few seconds after leaving münchen, i saw beautiful jagged mountain tips covered with snow—the alps—and then clouds. after a while, just as we started to come out of the clouds, i saw more mountains. i figured it was still the alps, but we landed in rome soon after, so it was the appennines. i had no idea there were mountains in italy south of the alps, but apparently they go almost the whole way down the middle of italy.

the temperature when i left berlin was just a degree or two, but in rome it was close to twenty. although not sunny. after dropping off the car at gio's place, we headed downtown. the old part of rome is very large. people live in buildings that in other places would be national monuments. there are apartments everywhere, right next to all the famous tourist attractions, and all over in between. a very large part of this consists of these beautiful old, beat up buildings, mostly pastel in colour.

property values in rome are outrageous. in berlin you can live in the best parts of town, in the nicest apartments, for around €2.500-3.000 (in europe the thousands divider is the period, and the decimal is demarkated by the comma) per square meter. if you want to be near something famous in rome (and rome is so full of attractions that it is almost hard not to be), you shell out about €15.000-20.000. imagine spending €200.000 and only getting 10 m2! unbelievable. and the average price anywhere in the old part is perhaps €10.000. away from the old part, but still in a decent area, you can get away with just €2.500, which is like the best parts of berlin.

anyway, it got dark quickly, and we went to this cool standup bar somewhere famous. campo de' fiori? we bought some drinks and stood around for a while. i heard english, german and... danish, but little italian. neat place, but the tourists were out in full force.

they say the sky is small in rome, and for good reason. they also say that all roads leads to rome, but that doesn't fit into my story so neatly. the roman streets are very narrow, and the sky is often a mere sliver above you. the buildings are old, dirty, and worn, but charming, and everywhere there are churches. some don't look like much from the outside, but inside they are all stunning. the italians used to be very pious but apparently it isn't the same now, at least in central and nortern italy.

the elephant is by bernini. in one church, instead of a dome there was a painting of a dome. from near the door it looks right, but from below it just looks weird. one wonders what the story behind that was. "well, we have no money for a dome, but i have a cousin who paints...". there was also a caravaggio painting in this church. the tiny little church in the dark street was funny. they had slanted the walls of the neighbouring buildings together towards the church, and sloped the road upwards, so the church gave the impression of being much larger than it was. in fact it was tiny, not much taller than two average men stacked.

when you eat out in rome, be prepared to wait if the place is busy. they will come when they are ready, and if you try to hurry them, they have ways of showing you who is boss. three oriental guys next to us—perhaps japanese or korean—acted bossy in their best italian-macho imitation, and subsequently got slower service than everyone else. we haggled a bit about the smallest amount of wine we could buy, but had to settle for 1/2 litre of red house wine. since gio was not drinking, i was getting besotted, but slower than expected. italian wine is not so strong, not because they can't handle it, but because they drink all the time.

the joie-de-vivre in this restaurant was outstanding, something we would encounter again and again. romans love life. it took some getting used to initally, but now i love it. water, then wine, then antipasti arrived, slowly, and then my pizza quattro formaggio, which surprisingly had no tomato sauce, just dough and cheese. italians make very simple pizzas, nothing like in north america. i ended up appreciating that as i love simple food.

and then an indian magician passed through. he was deliberately using only the cheesiest of tricks which were completely transparent, and he spoke with a very thick accent (probably exaggerated, since gio remembered the guy from his early university days): wah-da wah-da wah-da (guarda, guarda, guarda, ie. look, look, look). wah-da carta (shows a card), wah-da mano (shows empty hand), wah-da, wah-da, and so on. very cheesy! his last trick was to point to his head, wah-da testa, and then rip off his toupée and collect tips in it.

after we left, we went past piazza navona, with its three fountains by bernini. this guy knew how to sculpt! the fountain of four rivers in piazza navona has four statues on its corners, and one is looking up at the church in front—which was designed by bernini's arch-rival—with an expression of horror. they say that bernini designed it like this, to show how ugly the church was. unfortunately for the story, the fountain was built first. perhaps bernini knew it was coming...

then we turned a corner and ran straight into the most fascinating building i have ever seen: the pantheon, dark, brooding and mysterious. it was built around the time of christ, in 27 b.c. according to one book, 118 a.d. either way it certainly was old. pantheon means "all gods", and they are who the temple was dedicated to. i ended up coming past here again and again, and it remains my favorite building in the world. it little raises the hairs on the back of my neck each time i bump into it. it looks incredibly solid, yet dynamic. pictures do it no justice. it lives in a tiny piazza, barely large enough to contain it, and when you find it, it is as if you had opened your bedroom closet and found the pyramid of giza inside. picture 10 is a composite of two images. sadly, there are supposedly plans to clean it. i think that losing the darkness will make it a completely different experience.
then we hailed a cab to go home, which turned into an adventure of its own. rome's streets are very complex, and even something as simple as a short trip across town turns into a negotiation between driver and occupant, even if it is a roman occupant. i can't imagine what cabbies do to tourists. every little turn was discussed, and we often proceeded by trial-and-error, guessing the fastest way, which streets were one-way at the moment, where there was construction, and so on. gio was an expert, and managed to make only one mistake, and maintained a friendly mood between them, while avoiding getting ripped off. anyway, we arrived at his place and crashed.


i saw so much stuff today that i will never be able to name it all, most of it churches and piazzas. i used nearly two sets of 4 AA batteries, and i am at the end of my first 128mb memory card (roughly 100 pictures). the main items were the spanish steps, the pantheon by daylight, a quick glance at the outside of st. peter's, piazza navona and much more. i will leave the pictures from st. peter until the day where i went inside. the spanish steps are more properly known as "scalinata trinita dei monti", amply demonstrating the need for a shorter name.
i am beginning to be able to make out fragments of conversation. italian has felt very opaque to me until now, but i get the feeling that within a short time, i would break through some kind of barrier.

rome is incredibly compact and bursting with buildings, piazzas, cars, people, churches, and most of all, swarms of scooters, like swarms of mosquitos! they are everywhere, working their way through traffic, weaving in and out on both sides of the street, in both directions! on sidewalks, going through red lights, driving between cars, passing busses on the left, crossing over into oncoming traffic! with their buzzy little sounds they filter up to the front at each light, and then take off like a formula 1 grid! and they are parked everywhere. it is nearly impossible to take a picture of the streets of rome without a scooter in it.

unsurprisingly, italy is home to many of the smallest cars in the world. in fact, they now make a vehicle which is a cross between a car and a scooter, with a tiny little engine pumping out a few horsepower, but licensed as a scooter. the little red guy in the middle is a fiat 500, and is actually a proper car. the silver one on the left is a scooter, however. the one on the right is the smallest mercedes made, an a-class, and is considered small in germany. not so in italy.

the sign is from 1733 and says the following:

it is explicitly prohibited for anybody to do any kind of littering, or to have somebody do it, below or around this arch. The punishment will be a fine of 25 scudi in currency, of which a third will be given to the person that reported it, whose name will be kept secret, and other punishments, also corporal. The father will pay this fine for children, the master for the servants, conformly to monsignor excellent president of the streets' edit, published August the 14th, 1733

and traffic lights! there are none, to a first approximation!!! i know how hard that is to believe in a city of 3-4 million, but there are really almost none. i have the impression of having seen only about 5 or 6 in the old core, but realistically there must be closer to 10. it is hard to imagine a big city like this functioning without traffic lights, but believe me, there are hardly any. there are many roundabouts, but not enough to make it sane, by far! try to imagine several million italians loose in a city with narrow streets and no traffic lights! but somehow... it works. no accidents, no dead or mutilated scooter pilots, everything just kinda flows, and with much less honking than i had imagined.

romans are initially a bit rude, but when you dig below the surface, they are very warm and friendly, and sometimes even a little shy. italian girls are very beautiful. dark hair, dark eyes, and precocious. but not shy! once i was riding in a bus with gio, i looked over, and this blonde beauty was looking me straight in the eyes... and she kept looking. it must have lasted at least 15-20 seconds. she just kept looking. in hindsight i think she must have been waiting for some expression on my face, but i was stunned, quite simply. i previously had no idea what it must be like to be a girl and have some guy check you out unashamedly, but now i know. whoa.

the average roman is much fairer than i expected. there were many people with light, or even blonde hair, and a few people with non-brown eyes. i guess the kinds of italians i am used to in toronto are probably from the south. this would make sense, as the first to leave a country are always those whose life is hardest. the south is poorer and life is tougher.

on the way back on the bus, the girl next to me offered to switch seats with gio, so we could sit together. gio said something or other to her, and we ended up chatting with her. surprisingly, she was half swedish, so i spoke a bit of danish to her :) then another woman took the fourth spot, and pretty soon there was a lively conversation going between the three of them about where to take me and what to show me. total strangers one moment, friends the next, and then strangers again.

near st. peter's, there was a souvenir shop which had a beautiful dalmatian. it pretended not to care much about people, but its tail would give it away, and if you were nice to it, it would come back to you again. i scratched it and massaged it gently (try this on a dog sometime: massage its shoulders, its back, and its scalp; they love it!), and it kept coming back, pretending not to care. i didn't take a picture, though i wish i had.

traffic in rome is abysmal. the streets are too small to contain busses in many places, and there are hardly any streetcars. there is only a tiny little subway as well. in berlin, a city of similar size, there are perhaps 20 lines, but in rome there are maybe 3. they have wanted to enlarge it, but rome has been around for millenia, way before the roman empire, and every time they dig, they hit something. work stops, the archeologists come in, the place is declared a national monument and is then excavated. therefore they have simply stopped digging.

here is the fortezza and the bridge in front. under each end of each bridge over the tiber river, there is one homeless person living. in the daytime they just hide in their blankets, but at night it is suposedly dangerous.

another long day, and much was seen. although there was much more than this, i will break the pictures into just a few sections, to keep it manageable.

it is a really nice morning, 16-17 degrees, and i can hear the gentle sounds of someone hammering, honking, traffic, scooters starting up below, scooters wizzing past grid-locked cars, a little girl of maybe 2 coughing somewhere opposite on a balcony, a jet flying by, a dog barking, someone using a circular saw, someone using an electric razor, and perhaps 2 or 3 conversations, all at the same time. rome is not a city for people concerned with privacy. everyone lives so close to each other.

we walked a lot today, and i took a tour of the colosseum. it is very interesting, but there is so much of it missing. apparently it has not been used since about the year 500, and it has continually been looted since then until it was protected. the marble was of outstanding quality, and there are many buildings in rome made from pieces of the colosseum, not the least of which is st. peter's.

the underground structures and the stories are fascinating. they used to have wooden structure under the stage, instead of stone, and in those days they could dismantle it and fill it with water, to swim. the came the stone and the elevators, with lifts pulled by slaves, balanced with weights, to lift up lions, tigers, gladiators, snakes, and even elephants. during a large celebration, the number of animals killed ran into the thousands. there is one section of seating which has been restored to show how it used to look. way back, the colosseum was actually round and symmetrical, but the looting has left less than half of the original perimeter wall. that is gio standing in front of the remaining section of outside wall.

we also walked through some of the oldest excavations in rome, the ancient rome of the emperors. on top of the hill is where people like julius caesar, augustus and so on used to live. there is a temple inside of which a church was later built, some ancient copper doors, and uncountably many old buildings whose purpose is no longer known. we didn't go up on the palatine hill where the emperors used to live, partly because of time, partly because it cost €8. blocks of carved marble were everywhere, just lying on the ground, waiting for the day they find out where it belongs.
piazza del campidoglio was designed by michelangelo, with its intricate octagonal yet circular pattern. we went through the ancient jewish quarter where gio demonstrates the correct way to drink from a roman drinking fountain, by holding a finger at the bottom, forcing the water out a little hole at the top. then we stopped for a kosher pastry in a dirty old building, crossed the island in the tiber, and then continued on to the trastevere, which is reknowned for its artists and life. it is a bit poor and can be dangerous, but is supposedly worth it. now it is perhaps more run-down than in former days, and there are junkies in some places. we saw a beautiful old moto guzzi, and analysed its suspension for a while. though it is unusual in design, there is both shock absorber and damper on the rear. the column (trajan's column?) and the statue are from other places in rome, but i put them here with the other various pictures. the column tells the story of a battle, i believe.

this is where we went to pienza, montalcino, siena, pisa and firenze. if you want to read the story in order, go here next and then come back.

on the first day back, i headed out on my own to catch some things gio was less interested in seeing. first on the list was the trevi fountain. it lives in a tiny little piazza and is really hard to find, but once you stumble in, the tininess of the piazza combines with the massiveness of the fountain to make sure you will not forget it again! more than half the piazza was taken up by this huge fountain. people from all over the world were standing around, speaking in hushed tones, taking photos of each other from impossible angles. unfortunately there are huge posters on two of the other walls, and a big screen on the third.
the next and final stop on this day was st. peter's cathedral. the square (what a silly name for a round space) was designed in 1667 by bernini, and many parts of the basillika itself were designed by michelangelo, including the dome, i believe, as well as many of the statues inside, and much more. the dome is double-walled, with the stairs running up between the two walls. they get quite tight in places, and it is not unlikely that a very large person may not even make it up at all.

st. peter's basillica is just immense. it cannot really be imagined, but has to be experienced. i thought the berliner dom was large, but it may well fit inside st. peter's completely. the scale of the people near the base of the columns gives an indication, since those columns are a fraction of the height of the façade, which is a fraction of the height of the dome... one could spend a month taking pictures here, easily.

on each side of the façade, there is an entrance to the vatican, of which i have cobbled together several images taken from the dome; it ends just beyond the near cluster of trees. the vatican is really tiny, and is really just one medium-sized park, where roughly 1000 catholics live. the trip to the top of the dome is well worth it, and comes in two flavours: by elevator and by stairs. i would only recommend the stairs for the hardy, but on the other hand, the lift kinda ruins the solemnity of the event, so if you can at all, take the steps. given the general flatness of rome, the view is somewhat subdued, but worth it nonetheless, not least for the interesting insight into a part of the cathedral not really meant to be a part of what people normally see. the little rooves within rooves were fun, and the six little domes look odd from up here.

inside, there are six smaller domes leading up to the large central dome. i have a picture of my hair next to one of these little domes. the inscription is at the front door, right in the middle.

underneath the cathedral, there is a storage area for deceased popes. i don't know if they have them all, but they certainly have many. there is also a little glass cage, where if i don't misunderstand something, st. peter's remains lie buried. there is also some chance that st. paul is around, but my german is too poor to make this a certainty. it might just be that there are some paintings of the two or something. like all people who organise well—and though one could discuss the morality of christianity and christian history for days on end, there is no denying that they are well organised—there is a list of all the popes, possibly excluding the woman pope.

as i left, it started getting dark, a fitting end to this visit. i snapped a (blurry) shot of st. peter's as i went down the street.


on the last day—after finding and buying two bialetti espresso makers for me, a moka express 1 cupper, and a brikka 2 cupper—we visited san giovanni in laterano. this is a proper cathedral, ie. it is associated with a bishop. this is supposedly the main cathedral of early christendom, and parts of it date from 314.
other than this cathedral, we relaxed. the following day i came back home again, exhausted, but what a trip! i will never forget it, but i will also have to go back and spend some more time taking pictures with my hasselblad. the digital camera is great for quick pictures, but enlargements are hassie territory.

one impression that remains of italy is the depth of cultural appreciation. a roman would not bat an eyelid at the cost of restoring some important piece of architecture, but try to raise the cost of wine and you'll raise some eyebrows.

there were suprisingly few german and american tourists, and those americans i did see were surprisingly subdued, polite and careful. i suppose that with the recent terrorism, people are just being more cautious and polite. there were more japanese tourists, i think, but they are always polite, if you ignore their tendency to stand tightly packed together, blocking views.