Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the twilight of the BC years and made this city his own. Caesar Augusta made it marble. Almost 1,000 years later, Alfred the Great of England took a break from slaying Vikings to venture to Rome and returned a changed man. The popes claimed it. Michelangelo adorned it. The barbarians laid waste to it (and what they didn’t destroy Bernini did) and Richard Coeur de Lion had his mother and unwanted bride follow him here as Queen Eleanor pestered him to “consummate the marriage already.”
Ah, Rome. The eternal city. A collection of ruins and monuments and history that changed the course of the Western World more than once.
My trip to this mecca of history and Roman Catholicism in the Jubilee year of A.D. 2000 begins like so many other overseas adventures: a long wait at the airport and an even longer plane ride. To be honest, November is not shaping up to be a banner month for me. Job woes. Soured relationships. The IRS writing to say I owe them more money. So, in true egomaniacal pessimism that the universe IS out to get me, I fully expected the plane to do a belly flop into the ocean within minutes of take off.
It was worse.
Not only are Kate (my friend who went with me on the trip) and I the youngest people on the plane, the entire cattle-class section is filled with sixty- and seventy-something retirees off to cruise the Mediterranean for a few weeks. The woman behind us is not only blessed with the most obnoxious Southern-sorority accent imaginable, but she is also loud and squeaky. Throughout the movie she keeps repeating what are supposed to be funny punchlines, except they aren’t funny, especially not the second time around.
If it is bad for me, pity the flight attendants. Example:
Squeaky: “Stewardess, do you always start serving dinner from the front to the back?”
Surprised and wary flight attendant: “On this flight, yes.”
Attendant: “We just do.”
Squeaky: “Then people like us in the back never get our choice of steak or chicken then do we? Now that doesn’t seem fair to me. What if I don’t like steak or are on a restricted diet?”
Attendant: “We usually have enough, and you can order special meals if you want. Are you on a restricted diet? Do you need us to prepare something special…”
Squeaky: “I’ll have the steak.”
Squeaky’s companion (her husband or perhaps a very large, very manly woman who keeps kicking the seat, hard, giving me whiplash and very strange bruises.): “I’ll have the steak, too. Oh, this is tiny. Can you give me another one of these little meals?”
And then, Squeaky: “Oh, Betty, you made it! I’m so glad you’re going to be with us on the boat.” She stands, climbs over her companion, using Kate’s head as a brace, trips over my seat and grabs a woman standing in the aisle, hugging her so tight I hear thin bones snap. “Are you excited or what? Did you know that…”
I realize then the plane has already crashed and we are bound for purgatory in a crowded tin can. In despair, I take the Tylenol PM Kate offers me, down them, beg for more, and promptly pass out.
Five hours later, or maybe six, I am stumbling like a drunkard through the Leonardo da Vinci airport, half-filled backpack hanging off my shoulders like any other fashionably low-key tourist. I produce my passport and wait in line behind a gaggle of soon-to-be boat people. One is very slowly, very loudly speaking English to the Italian immigration officer who pretends not to understand a word he is saying. Another inspector looks at me and then waves me through.
No passport inspection.
No questions about how long I plan stay in their beautiful country.
No interrogation about whether or not I’m a member of the Dutch Liberation Movement here to protest something or other.
So we go through the turnstiles and find ourselves in fresh air, in Italy, just south of Rome. It is Nov. 18, 2000, and I am outside the ruined gates of the eternal city. We grab a taxi and settle in for a long ride in bumper-to-bumper traffic. My head bobs against the leather seatback in a drugged dance as the driver tells about the beauty of Rome, the places we must go and the sites we must explore.
He zigzags through the tiny medieval streets before slamming on his brakes. “Your hotel is through there. The road is too narrow for my car. And,” he says as a final warning, “beware the gypsy children.”
Tomorrow: The truth about the Dying Gaul