An American Couple in Delft
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Roman Holiday

Rome is chaos.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. We had been wanting to visit Rome before the end of this year and when our son Bruce and his girlfriend Corey said they wanted to visit us in Delft, Lynn and I thought this would be a good time to do it and take the kids for a few days.

Our entry to Rome started with Bruceís bag getting lost. The initial customer service person said the bag was still in Zurich and would be delivered that evening, and she gave them a sheet saying that even as they were reading the sheet, the airline was busy searching for the bag. Right. Next morning there was no bag. Bruce called the numbers. Repeatedly. Mostly there was no answer. Finally an actual person, or something that sounded like one, told them the bag had never left Amsterdam but it would be delivered that night. Next morning there was no bag. I already said that but Iím not repeating myself. The sun had risen a second time on their baglessness. They couldnít go much longer in the same clothes so we replaced some of their things. We stopped back at the hotel in the afternoon to see if there was a change in bag status. Seriously, do I have to say if there was? The kids were leaving us that evening to take a train to Venice and we were going to meet up with them when we got to our transfer point in Zurich but they were really edgy. The clerk in the hotel had suggested that they go back to the airport before they left on the train because sometimes they just donít bother delivering lost bags. So they went back to the airport and there it was.

It was raining as hard as Iíve ever seen as we took the train from the airport into town. Happily it slowed to a hard drizzle by the time we got there. Iíll go back to where I started this piece: Rome is chaos. Corey and Bruce wanted to buy their tickets to Venice to get that chore out of the way. So we spent a half hour looking for a ticket office. The walk from where our train terminated to the main office was about four blocks (no kidding) but we didnít know that. After a couple false starts on bad advice, we found an adjunct office. We now had to walk only about four blocks from the train station to the hotel (after the four blocks within the station) but the traffic was maddening. We had to cross some major intersections with no lights for control. One enters a crosswalk and the traffic is supposed to stop. They stop if you look like youíre willing to walk in front of their speeding cars. Of course, if you arenít quite to the place in the crosswalk where they will be, they donít slow down. Itís not for the faint of heart or anyone with anything resembling an infirmity. We learned that crazy Roman traffic is not a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries. Julius Caesar imposed restrictions on the time of day when chariots could be driven in the city. Before the specified time in the evening, chariots had to be left outside the city gates. No mention was made of the parking rates.

At this point in the trip having gone through lost bags, heavy rain, and crazy traffic, the score was Chaos 3, Us 0. We were worried we wouldnít make a comeback. We did.

Rome is, of course, the heart of the Catholic world, so we started our trip with a visit to the Vatican. We were there on a Tuesday so the Pope didnít make an appearance and the crowds were not overwhelming. We went into St. Peterís Basilica. St. Peterís is 500 years old and is the largest church in the world. Itís built on the site of a Roman chariot race course (not the one depicted in Ben-Hur Ė thatís at Circo Massimo closer to the Coliseum). Itís about 600 feet across and can hold 60,000 standees. The dome is about 430 feet high. The artwork and the opulence of the place can make one dizzy. Itís easy to see how someone raised in Catholicism would walk into this place and feel his spiritual home.

From the obelisk in St. Peterís Square facing the basilica, if you look toward the right, there is a gray building. The Popeís apartment is on the top floor and farthest to the right. We saw no evidence of him sneaking in an afternoon nap.

We went down to the crypt where one can find the tomb of St. Peter and the graves of several Popes including John Paul I, John Paul II, Paul VI, and John XXIII. In Dan Brownís (of the DaVinci Code) book Angels and Demons, he describes people going into the crypts but in the book it sounds like catacombs, dark, dank passageways with little light and totally spooky. This isnít that at all. Itís well lit and has a feel of reverence to it but I was very glad to walk out.

Next we went to the Sistine Chapel and I had my first "oh, wow" moment which is my informal gauge as to how much I like a place. One has to leave the Vatican grounds and walk about a half-mile along the outside walls to get there. Thereís also an admission charge to enter the Vatican Museum and the Chapel. The chapel, even for a non-Catholic like me, is overwhelming. There are benches along the side to sit on while viewing the ceiling. Spending all that time looking at a ceiling can hurt your neck and the people next to us brought in a mirror for easier ceiling viewing. Our book didnít say anything about a mirror but it did have a description of each of the scenes that Michelangelo painted and knowing what we were looking at increased our appreciation of it immensely. Over the centuries, the ceiling had become dull from the residue of carbon from burning candles and the general pollution in the area. When it was restored recently, art experts had to reevaluate what they thought they knew about Michelangelo because they had previously thought his colors were muted and dull when it turns out they were quite bright and lively, just covered with soot. A very small portion of the ceiling was left in the condition before restoration to show the difference. I have no pictures of the Sistine Chapel because none were allowed.

Perhaps you know of the movie and song of the same name, Three Coins in the Fountain. The fountain is the Trevi Fountain. It sits in an old part of Rome that is mostly a pedestrian area. The fountain is 85 feet high and 65 feet wide. Itís beautiful by day and really beautiful (and really, really crowded) by night. Itís a romantic place, even for an old goat like me. We had fun watching our own kids, and even were fortunate enough to find and young couple, Suzanne and Peter from Dublin, Ireland, at the moment of their engagement.

We visited the Roman Coliseum (actually called Flavian Amphitheatre) which was built in about 80 A.D. This is where the gladiators did their thing. The floor, visible in the pictures, is not the floor used then. There was a layer of boards that was the actual floor on top of what you can see now. What you see now were underground passages then. Sometimes the place was even flooded and some of the games in there consisted of naval battles. Even seeing it in person I canít imagine how they pulled that off but thatís what the books say. Only about a third of the Coliseum remains with the rest having been destroyed in earthquakes or by nasty neighbors who used some of the large stones to construct their own homes. Rome gets pretty hot and the emperors needed some shelter from the heat and sun while watching the slaughter so they devised a way to cover the stadium with canvas, when necessary, to keep out the sun. The Coliseum in Rome thus was the worldís first retractable domed stadium.

Next to the Coliseum is the Arch of Constantine. Constantine was the emperor who defeated a rival in 312 A.D. and legalized Christianity. Before that time, one could be killed for being a Christian. This gentle soul removed that problem. However, if one wasnít a Christian, well, we wonít go there.

The Roman Forum is a short walk from the Coliseum. It was the center of Rome for religion, commerce, and, of course, politics. The main square of the Forum is about the size of a football field. This is where Rome began and was a very crowded place. (The crowds have merely grown and moved elsewhere these days.) At one time the buildings here were all of marble but they are now mostly in ruins, but walking through in here and letting the imagination run a little amok can generate the picture. Still standing is the brick Senate building. Built in about 280 A.D., it was restored in 1930. Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate but it wasnít here. The Senate was temporarily meeting in another location (which we walked passed on our way to the Vatican) and that place, Area Sacra was the site of the murder. In the Forum is the Temple of Caesar where his body was burned after the assassination. This is also the place where Mark Antony, according to Shakespeare, said, "Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your earsÖ"

The Pantheon is the best-preserved of all the monuments in Rome and has been in continuous use since it was built in 27 B.C. It was rebuilt about 120 A.D. and is a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods as its name suggests. This dome influenced both the one on the Florence Cathedral and also the dome at St. Peterís. Even the U.S. Capitol dome was inspired by this one. The top of the dome is 142 feet high and thereís a hole in the ceiling, the only source of light in the chamber, thatís 30 feet in diameter. Since rain can come in and these guys were no dopes, the floor is built so that the water will drain through small holes and toward the outside walls. The first Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, is buried here.

Rome isnít all ancient stuff. Our guide book recommended a restaurant open only for lunch. The book promised great food and great prices in a place catering mostly to local office workers and the restaurant delivered on the promise. The waitress translated what was on the menu. My knowledge of the Italian language is miniscule so we appreciated her help. There was something on the menu that said pollo which I knew to be chicken. Shortly after we ordered, a young couple sat down beside us carrying an English language tour book. I noticed they werenít speaking English but didnít think much of it because English is frequently used as a common language by Europeans who donít speak each otherís language. Then I heard the woman say to her companion that one of the items was roast kip. Kip? Ding, ding, ding. Bells went off in my head. Kip is Dutch for chicken. I knew that, too. I asked her if she was Dutch and she wanted to know how I knew. Welcome to our world where everyone recognizes us as Americans without us saying a word. In this case, though, it was her language not her shoes or hair or whatever it is that makes us Americans stand out. It turned out she was from the University of Utrecht, about 40 miles from Delft. She was spending some time in Rome doing research. She spent some time last year in Washington doing research on the same topic: counterterrorism. This sweet, young woman probably has a thing or two she could teach the head counterterrorizer in D.C. Heaven knows heís need it.

See all my pictures of Rome.

See videos from Rome.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008