Saturday, April 16, 2011

Roma, final post

I've been sitting on this final post that I wrote over several days as my trip to Rome drew to a close because I thought I might create a number of posts out of it. Hasn't happened, so here it is, as is. BTW, starting to mount photos on my Flick site ... many more to come in the next week or so.

April 6: So, it's my birthday. And I am sitting on a train to Florence at 7:15 a.m. per long-standing plan. I keep reminding myself that it is my birthday because it just feels like my last day in Italy. I keep my trips short deliberately because I want to be hungry for more when I leave ... and I have succeeded in that on this trip. Definitely not looking forward to leaving tomorrow.

The train is, as you'd expect, smooth and comfortable. The chairs are firm and contoured with fixed foldout tables at every seat. Lots of leg room. A brown and tan decor. Very tasteful.

Two elderly and refined gentleman sit opposite me in similarly styled tan windbreakers. They moved back and forth several times before taking their seats, evidently trying to ascertain that they indeed had the right place. A quick pleasantry to me which I did not understand, but it was clear that they did not expect a reply so I nodded and smiled.

Across the aisle are what I can only describe as two vulgar young Americans. They have brought along a huge bag full of McDonalds which they are loudly crunching. The entire car is filled with the stench of the food. A young Italian man got up and changed seats without hesitation once they dropped their sorry behinds into their assigned slots next to him. The man is dressed like a slob showing all manner of hairy parts that we do not want to see, including at one point his misshapen stomach when he returned his ticket to his traveler's belt. No wonder Europeans think of us as the fat slobs of the world.

Oh well, they will probably fall asleep shortly ... that is my plan, as it were.

Twelve minutes out of the station and we are in the green countryside. No point in taking photos as the window is streaked and dirty, and the sun is low in the sky and glaring at me.

I love trains, and this quick Roma/Florence/Rome trip is itself a present. The capper will be the Ufizzi, and a quick tour of the sites. I have already stood at the spot where holy mother church burned Giordano Bruno to ashes because of his intelligent reflections that did not coincide with their then-operant theocracy. I shall shortly stand at the spot where holy mother church burned Fra Savonarola to ashes after gruesome torture because his insane fundamentalism came to represent a threat to them. He made quick, once in power, to condemn homosexuals to death ... fundies are that. They just can't stand other people having fun. But his virulent opposition to pleasure was not what got him condemned.

Our vulgar American fellow travelers have now turned their iPad into a gaming device, sound on, so that we all get to listen to various explosions and death chortles in low static-y volume. Italy is a loud place, that is certain, but it is voices and music and, horrors, screaming radio and TV that form the ambient sound. So I resent these little creeps for invading my sound space. The old gentleman across from me is looking down his nose at them as they giggle and play.

Deploy the earplugs!

I am going to turn to the International Herald Tribune for a few moments.


Dozed a bit, and so did the vulgars across the aisle per prediction.

The Herald Tribune has a story about French secularism. Western societies must defend secularism at all costs or we slide back into the hell of theocracy. The left likes to pretend that Islam is some kind of religion of peace, as it were. Nonsense. Across the globe, it is Islam that is practicing the ancient art of auto da fe with virulence and abandon. I don't trust holy mother church, but I can live next door because we have them under control. I don't trust Islam, but if we have to live next door to it, we need to control it too. Religion is a private matter, and its apperance in public space is always an immanent threat to freedom.


April 7: I am now on the 11-hour flight to San Francisco, and it is the day after my birthday. I thought I might just pretend that I was still on the train, but that makes no sense.

So to continue my thoughts on the secular and the sacred, everywhere we are reminded of the conflict. In most places in the globe, the threat of the religious to freedom is on the ascendant. The only hold-outs are Europe (minus Poland and such parts of the former Soviet Union as we might consider European), the English-speaking countries (minus the United States), and China and Japan. Did I forget anywhere? Perhaps most of South America.

Visiting Europe engages this personal conversation because the memory of religion is everywhere, and the evidence of the victory of the Enlightenment over it surrounds and smothers it. Even the bizarrely phrased message from the Ratzinger Pope on the back cover of the guide to the Vatican Museum notes that even though some of the visitors may not even be believers, they should recognize the value of the church for having preserved so much. Pretty cynical that, considering the vastly greater quantities of lives and relics that the church has systematically destroyed over the centuries.

We face that threat now again paradoxically precisely because the technological advances have lengthened and brought into brighter light the unsupportable distances between the bottom and the top. Religion exploits that and when it is victorious it hardens those social separations and makes them unbreachable. That is the curiosity, or more properly the recognizability, of the current reactionary impulse in America. In the name of all that is holy combined with a illogical populism, a bunch of purple faced morons will drive millions into poverty and ensure the steady separation of the rich from the rest of us.

This is a theme in what I think, and I will return to it. Now I want to think about my recent trip.


Random episodes:

As I was leave the Termini train station in Rome on my birthday, an orchestra apparently celebrating the second anniversary of something was giving a free concert in the entryway. I stayed for their Bolero which, in my inexpert opinion, seemed competent and moving if not sublime. It appeared to be mostly a youth orchestra with a few gray beards sprinkled in for what I imagine was mentoring. I listened to several speeches because I love the sound of Italian. It seems like a language that would not take me a lot of trouble to achieve some semblance of competence. I've always said that if I had a second lifetime, I would include Italian in it. Perhaps I should move that project one lifetime forward.

After the free concert, I wandered to the Via Gaeta to have dinner at the Ristorante La Famiglia per my twitter friend @jonvox's suggestion. I sat on the sidewalk and had an excellent vegetable soup and a risotto pescatora that featured two complete unshelled shrimp, heads and all, that I was not white sure how to handle. I squeezed and chewed on them as best I could and got some meat and flavor. I didn't want the staff to see my struggles. Why should I care; they see tourists once and then never again, and they will hardly remember a fortnight hence. But we all have a certain pride in the moment that others will respect us, think that we are something more than the run of the mill.

It's a vain conceit, unsupported by any evidence in life. When I look at tourists in San Francisco, I am not judging their authenticity in any sense. I admit I am looking for the good-looking ones, just because it's nice to look at nice things. And there it is, as a tourist, you let yourself become a thing for a while, a pampered thing, but a forgettable, disposable thing. Travel for me is this see saw between admitting that and hating it. Regardless, I find it hard to embrace my touristy thingness, and so I stumble from confidence to ineptitude by turns.

Traveling alone also mean that there is a lot of silence. Something I seek, again for the reflective character in it. But that too is maddening, and further underwrites this stumbling from ineptitude to confidence. I had hoped on this trip that I would turn that tension into writing, but I was not aggressive enough with myself until the end. That wil be first on my list of pointers I make for further reference. Just slap down the iPad in some cafe and write hello 15 minutes after you hit the ground running.


This plane flight itself changes a few patterns. I ended up with an aisle seat, and I admit that it is a real pleasure. I normally conspire to sit by the window so I can gaze out, but the downside, as one well knows, is that getting up involves moving inert humanity.

Also, the reading light in my seat does not work, and this part of the cabin is actually a little too dark for comfortable reading. So I watched a movie. I never do that. The movie was The King's Speech, which has been roundly and repeatedly recommended by all my friends. Certainly an excellent movie that at several points had me welling up. Beautiful colors and fine portrayals.

The movie is about charisma, and it is a flaw of secularism that we have lost touch with the power that charisma has and still exerts. Charisma inheres in authority, not in authenticity, and the modern secular world prefers to focus on authenticity rather than authority. That is why religion feels so pallid and farcical to us ... it may be authentic in some contexts, but it is no longer authentic in ours, so it is a drama, a performance, a spectacle to be turned off, as we douse the television before we go to bed.

I have no complaint with this. It makes for a life that is less ecstatic, where meaning is always contingent and ambivalent. But it makes for a world of discovery and reality, where everything human is part of us, where we do not need to pick one highly articulated truth to the exclusion of any other.

So the charisma in the film inhered in the position of the king, even as he confronted the modern realities of a new kind of performance. George VI certainly understood that his lack of personal charisma was irrelevant to his bearing the charisma of monarchy. The film is about a very personal, banal battle over that contradiction. His daughter, of course, has the royal charisma bug just right. One moment that struck me as very real was when the young Elizabeth gives a refined critique of Dad's big speech, that he has stumbled at first but got better toward the end. Queen Bess understands "the firm."


more quick hits:

The angelic beauty of the, I think, Danish boys who ate across from me at La Famiglia. They were evidently part of a much larger group of boys and girls - we are talking 16-ish - as various small mobs of them passed on the sidewalk between us and interlocuted. Again, I have to note how adult and self-possessed European youth seem. Sure they were kids, giggling and gaggling, but without the imposition and indiscipline that we have to put up with. Every time I come to Europe, I am impressed by how our revisionist approach to parenting does not stand up to comparison. Given that I have essentially nothing to do with children, and only encounter them as they misbehave in public, I suppose I am shooting hot air through a hole in my hat. But that's the way I see it.

Twice I was asked what I thought of Berlusconi, first by the driver from the airport, and then by a 20-something waiter in the pizza place on Via dei Guidari on, I think, Monday night. Both of them laughed at my response and said "bunga bunga." I guess that means something like "nooky nooky", and it is commonly used in the Italian papers when referring to the old fascist's dalliances. The phrase in Indonesian, for what it is worth, means flowers, and that has a certain referentiality given the deflowering and all that. The young waiter asked me first if I liked Obama, and I said I did. Then he asked me if I liked Berlusconi, and I shrugged my shoulders. That's when he laughed and said "bunga bunga." We later talked a little about football - he is an Inter fan and they were playing on the TV - and i told him about how my team had won the world series. Either he did not understand or was unimpressed.

On coffee: it is going to be hard to return to the pitiful excuse for espresso that we have to put up with in America after the delights of Italian espresso. I had a cappuccino at the Caffe Farnese across the piazza from the Palaccio Farnese that was a revelation, so smooth and frothy. Even the offbeat places had good coffee. I came to prefer cafe doppio lungo, or a long double espresso. In the States, you just cannot get them to make a long espresso ... they just don't know what it is. This again illustrates a difference between Europe and the States, one that lies, I think, at the core of the special loathing that the right wing has for for Europe. It has to do with greed and apportionment. Everybody always wants more for themselves, but it is possible to balance that with restraint. But restraint in the States seems like it is giving something to somebody else - it is the zero-sum game fear that haunts the American soul. If you are doing well, than that must mean something is going wrong for me. The vast double soy lattes with whipped cream that we order is a way getting more and more. I have long argued with American baristas that cappuccino is a question of proportion not amount when they ask if I want a large, ultra-large, or stinkin' extra effin' huge. So I order a macchiato and tell them to put 2 teaspoons of foam in; I still normally have to scoop out 4 or 5 tablespoons of foam only to find that the espresso is really a cafe au lait.

More, folks, is more. More is only better sometimes. Other times it is worse.

Coffee teaches us this.

1 comment:

Matte Gray said...

I much enjoyed these posts and agree wholeheartedly with your comments on religion. That said, my favorite line in the whole thing was your comment on being a tourist: "you let yourself become a thing for a while, a pampered thing, but a forgettable, disposable thing".