When in Rome….
I got back from my second-ever trip to Rome two weeks ago, filled with satisfaction. Although it rained almost every day while we were there, it seemed far preferable to splash through puddles in The Eternal City than to trudge through rain at home. As I was climbing the Spanish Steps, filled with exhilaration, I jestingly asked my Swiss friend “Is it always this much fun to live in Europe?” “Definitely not,” he replied promptly.
I talked with two Americans who are currently living and working in Rome. Both of them wish to go back to the States due to to Italy’s precarious economic situation. “I’m tired to death of the Romans,” one of them told me; “I can’t stand their attitudes. They have these odd, superstitious habits that annoy me. Remember the old ‘don’t-wear-white-after-Labor-Day’ rule in America? Well, the Romans all put on their winter coats on a certain date and don’t take them off even if the temperature heats up again. You see them on a sunny winter day and they’re all miserable, they’re definitely hot, but they won’t take off their coats! It’s crazy.” Indeed, the streets were filled with Italians wearing stuffed down coats and scarves even though the temperature was quite mild.
But who am I to tell the Romans to take off their coats? For myself, I found Rome delightful. The grass was emerald green and unbelievably lush. Shrubs with purple blossoms were still flowering here and there despite the season (late November/early December). Tiny white daisies studded the lawns and there were late roses in many places. Umbrella pines stretched their boughs on hilltops and tall pointed cypresses stood like dark exclamation points in the landscape.
While in Rome we went to pay our respects to the graves of Keats and Shelley. The cemetery is one of the loveliest places I have ever seen, packed wall to wall with graves and planted profusely with ferns, ivy, trees, brilliant cyclamens and other flowers. The gravestones have a quiet dignity and pathos that is very moving. The grave of Shelley, who drowned while sailing, carried a short line from Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” song; and the grave of Keats gives no name but carries a sorrowful explanation that he wished “in the bitterness of his heart” to have only the inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” The carving at the top of his gravestone shows a lyre that is missing half its strings. Cold marble is all that remains almost two hundred years later; and yet the birds sing overhead and flowers bloom all around.
We did not see any of the cats that are supposed to inhabit the cemetery, which was surprising since the place is apparently known as much for its cats as for dead poets. Rome is filled with fat feral cats who are fed by the populace; they lounge around on the bases of antique columns that have fallen, and hunt lizards in their spare time. Largo de Torre Argentina is a square containing ancient Roman ruins that lie at a level some 15 feet lower than the modern city; it is also a no-kill cat sanctuary where the animals are fed and cared for and where citizens can go to pick out a new pet. A pungent odor of cat came wafting up from the depths as we walked past; there were over a dozen kitties visible lounging near our end of the ruins as we walked past.
At the Forum, the black volcanic paving stones that marked the ancient streets are still in place and can be walked on. Near one corner a long rut had been worn into the stone by countless cartwheels passing by. Back in the days when the Forum was the city’s heart instead of merely a vast ruin, drivers would guide their animals so that their cartwheels would lock into that rut, and their carts would then swing smoothly around the corner with little effort. Think of the number of carts that had to roll over those hard stones before that rut formed! Today the rut is filled only with rainwater. And nearby, fresh flowers are placed daily on the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated nearly two thousand years ago on the Forum. Rome is a place to think about the past, and in what ways we have changed, and in what ways we have stayed the same.