12 Rome

La Bella Roma  November 15th -18th, 2010 

 Above:  Looking south along the Tiber across the Ponte Principe Amadeo Savoia Aosta Bridge, with the Vatican looming in the distance. 

Above:   The Colosseum can be seen in the left distance, the remnants of the Forum  lower right, and several of “The Seven Hills of Rome” on the horizon….

  A late afternoon view from atop the Capitoline

Above:  The dome of the Parthenon, walking distance from our hotel.  Raphael is buried here.

Above:  Colosseum in the distance left; Roman forum ruins lower right

Above:  Magnificent light ricocheting of a city of angles and domes.

Above:  Note the line of trees running through the middle.  The landscaping  can be overwhelmed by the beauty of the buildings in Rome, but it, too, is stunning and complementary.

It didn’t make any sense.  Why wasn’t I more frightened?  

We were in a vortex of traffic that some have described as the most frenzied and chaotic in the world, and it’s true that bumper-to-bumper cars, scooters and motorcycles were accelerating through intersections, careering around corners and weaving through crowded pedestrian crossings, missing people as if by magic.  I had been alarmed at first, in the cab from the airport, there’s no denying it.  But now, walking around, I eventually noticed—to my surprise when I did finally notice it—that, far from being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and alarm, I was alert but comfortable, aware but unconcerned, despite the vehicular craziness all around us. 

How could this be?  I started to pay attention, to watch more analytically, and found that if you looked carefully enough, you could discern some patterns, and I set about trying to decipher the unwritten rules, if, indeed, there were any. 

Here is the frame of reference I brought to the process:  Boston, Massachusetts drivers are the ugliest, nastiest in the world, and, I believe, the most dangerous.  I’m sorry, but it’s true, and by this I don’t mean to malign people from Boston in any other respect—their character, their families, their way of life or the Patriots—only their driving, and, in that regard, I stand by my story. Drive anywhere within thirty miles of Boston and you will begin to feel it:  They are rash, aggressive in a particularly mean-spirited sort of way, unpredictable, unforgiving and reckless.  In every respect related to getting from one place to another via automobile, they are unpleasant.  Accordingly, I hate going anywhere near Boston in a car, and will avoid it if at all possible.  Growing up in Connecticut,  going to school upstate near the Massachusetts border, visiting not only my sister who lived in downtown Boston but also lots of other friends going to school in or around or north of Boston, I know of whence I speak:  Been there, done that, don’t want to do it unless I have  to. 

I’ve driven in many other cities around the world, too.  Atlanta is no picnic, either, and Brussels is phenomenally dangerous because of one particular traffic law that gives people entering from the right the absolute priority.  This is true even if, say, you are proceeding at speed down what you think is a main thoroughfare and they are entering from what anyone else on earth would consider a side street, but it’s on your right, and even if the line of sight is poor, they will barrel into the thoroughfare without slowing, comfortable in the knowledge that they are exercising their full rights under this strange and dangerous traffic law, and, therefore, rarely even slow down. 

I have an acquaintance who killed a man in this manner.  The fellow I know was the hapless occupant of the larger road, going less than the speed limit (no charges were brought) when the other fellow, virtually unseen, came barreling in from the right, not likely to be comforted by the fact that he had the right of way, as he died.  My acquaintance, who is French and therefore not unaccustomed to European traffic in general, refuses ever to drive in Brussels again, understandably. 

Still, nothing, absolutely nothing, matches Boston. 

Based upon what I observed in Rome, it should be worse.  On its face, and at first exposure to it, the traffic in Rome is completely insane, and it should be scary to walk around in; but it’s not, and I think I figured out why.  My sequential observations about it, one piled on another, eventually led me to something of an epiphany not only about the traffic in Rome but, by extension, Rome itself, and maybe even Italians at large. 

When it comes to traffic in Rome, the first thing you need to understand is that they have a very different idea of the concept of “personal space”.  That is, in Rome you are certainly entitled to your “borders”, which will be respected, but the size of the personal space defining the borders to which you are entitled is much smaller than you are accustomed to. Much smaller.  In the case of your person, your personal space ends approximately one quarter inch from your skin; with your car, it ends about two inches outside the sheet metal.  This is understood by all, so even though the concept of “invading another’s private space” has the same meaning it has everywhere, in theory, in practice its perimeter has been so drastically narrowed that those unaware or unaccustomed could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking the rules of personal space have been suspended altogether.  They have not; they have merely shrunk, and you need to know that, unless you enjoy walking around in a constant state of righteous indignation (which, in fact, I do, but it’s not something I’m proud of…) 

In the case of cars rocketing around, the sensation of outsized and unusual pandemonium is not because they are driving any faster or any crazier than they do in, say, Paris or even London— but because they are doing it closer.  I noticed this within seconds of hopping into the cab at the train terminal as our driver sped us towards our hotel near the Plaza Navonna.  I don’t know how they manage it, whether it’s a learned skill or something they’re born with, but all the cars and cabs find ways to bob and weave within just two or three inches of each other, back and forth and around and through, so close that, in New York for example, significant offense would be taken at the invasion of the unspoken lines of personal space, even for cars, an invasion that would be deemed aggressive and insulting, inviting retaliation if only of the hand gesture sort. 

But not here, and that was the second thing I noticed—the reaction of people to what I would have thought was an aggressive invasion of their space, which was no reaction at all.  How so?   Was it because they had a greater tolerance for having their space invaded, their “boundaries” crossed?  No, it was because they had not, in fact, been crossed at all.  That’s just the way it’s done. 

All this was assumed and accepted without complaint, ceded without emotion, by our driver to others, even as he decided, say, that our two lane street was actually plenty wide enough for three, and darted between two cars, missing each by no more than a hair; and likewise accepted by him, in turn, when he was on the receiving end of a similar gambit.  A two lane road quickly becomes a three lane opportunity, a three lane avenue (rare in Rome, limited to thoroughfares like the Via Veneto) invites cars to hurtle ahead five abreast. 

They are all very, very good at this.  When it is time to give way to the other guy (because he has earned such deference by virtue of having gained an ever-so-slight situational advantage, measured in no more than millimeters), the nearly imperceptible yielding occurs instantly, as it must, given the almost non-existent room for error.  The gesture is immediately processed by the recipient, who takes full advantage of it and then just as quickly turns his attention to the next challenge, the next situation, in a rapidly and continuously evolving quasi-racecourse—and all this happens without any of the vehicles ever separating from the others by more than a few inches.   Watch it long enough and closely enough and it takes on a balletic quality, quite fluid and beautiful, in a death-defying sort of way… 

A local resident, surveying all that he commands.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all, however, before I got to understand it, was the relationship between the cars and the pedestrians.  Walkers traverse continuously from both directions, never breaking stride as the cars, rarely slowing, jog left or right as necessary, just enough to miss—but just barely—the people as they proceed.  

These crossings, the ones painted with the diagonal white lines, exist in most European cities and it is widely understood that they represent pedestrian priority walkways, where vehicles must stop to let the pedestrians go, no matter what.  It is an absolute pedestrian priority. 

In London, these are called “Zebra” crossings and the rules are strict.  If a walker puts one toe onto the crossing, the cars will come to a screeching halt and not move a muscle until the person’s last heal has left the street and they are safely and completely to the other side.  Do anything less and you are subject to severe penalties—so severe that it can actually be funny to watch cars doing the equivalent of a muscle-twitching sit-stay while strollers take their sweet time, enjoying this small bit of autocratic muscle. 

In Rome, the pedestrians have the unconditional right of way on these crossings, too, but the obligation of the car isn’t to completely yield to the pedestrian from start to finish— it is simply not to hit them.  If a driver can speed up just a tad and zoom through in front of them, without causing the walker to have to slow down or change his or her pace— they’ll do exactly that.  If they can slow down ever-so-slightly and squeeze in just behind them, they will seize that option, too.  

They can do anything they want, since their entire obligation is simply not to hit them.  That’s it.  Anything else is okay. 

Italian pedestrians are accustomed to this.  As they proceed down the sidewalk they know the drivers are watching everything, are aware of them, can tell from their body language when they are going to turn onto the pedestrian crosswalk.  When they do, the pedestrians never break stride and have full confidence that none of the cars zooming in front of them or behind them is actually going to hit them.  Okay, maybe not full confidence, but if their cup is less than brimming in that regard, they will never admit to it or show it. 

The rest of us have to work a little harder, at least at first, to screw up our courage and become believers in this system, believers that the car speeding towards us as we take advantage of our pedestrian right-of-way isn’t going to do what we would have every right to expect it to do, given its speed and trajectory, which is kill us.  I saw several people fail in that regard, all Americans, who lost their nerve mid-stride, catching in their peripheral vision the oncoming taxi or car or scooter.  In that instant they did the one thing that actually can get you in trouble:  They stopped.  The driver would screech to a halt, the American pedestrian glare at them for invading their space, not realizing that they were in a place where their space had not, in fact, been invaded.  The driver or scooter jockey would shake his head, wait for the pedestrian to exhaust their need to vent their annoyance and get back in motion, and then speed on, completely unconcerned and unruffled. 

They won’t hit you. 

It’s absolutely amazing, but they won’t, even as they come very, very close.  That, in the end, is the entirety of the equation, the bottom line of the calculus:  No hit, no foul.  And if there’s no foul, there’s no cause or justification for complaint.  If you are able to proceed across the walkway at the pace you choose without having to alter that pace in any way because of me in my car, and even if I come within inches of you at 40 miles per hour,  so long as I don’t hit you,  you have nothing to grumble about. Move on.  Keep moving.  This is Rome.  Get with the program. 

The Italian pedestrians know this; the others of us learn it.  In fact,  I swear,  the drivers are so good that they can actually recognize a non-Italian in the crosswalk and factor in the potential unpredictability of the tourist, give just slightly more latitude, anticipate the prospect of a bad move, account for it, deal with it if it happens, and proceed, all in the blink of an eye. 

It works.  In a feverishly crowded city, with a lot going on simultaneously, people get where they’re going, and by dint of these homegrown customs and chaotic stratagems they probably do it just about as quickly and efficiently as it could be done. 

Transmute that to just about everything, and you have Rome. 

Something else, adding to the picture: 

Alice and I have stopped for an al fresco lunch in a tiny, centuries old Piazza, charming, and lovely and quiet.  As is constantly the case in Rome, we simply stumbled across it in our wandering.  The streets leading into the Piazza fit one car, just barely.  An unmanned delivery van has stopped catty-corner on one of the streets emptying on to the piazza, and two other trucks are now stuck behind, impossible to back up or turn around.  They beep their horns, short but impatient toots, looking around the piazza to see if they can spot the offending driver.   This goes on for several minutes.  I’ve lived in New York for many years; I’ve seen this scene before.  It doesn’t end well. 

The driver of the offending truck finally shows up.  Both the other drivers are leaning out their windows, gesturing madly, signaling their displeasure, and yelling at the guy.  The offending driver is also jabbering and gesticulating, and he seems to be shrugging and rolling his eyes to the heavens as if to say, “Hey, what am I gonna do?”  All this goes on only long enough for the driver to get in his truck, crank it up and move on. 

Pretty soon they are all three gone and the Piazza is quiet again. 

But there has been something missing in all this, something I expected but which didn’t materialize.  There was no genuine anger from anybody, the kind that in New York simmers just below the surface, ready to erupt in exactly this sort of situation, in a way that can get ugly fast. 

Nothing like that here.  Yes, the two stuck drivers were annoyed, and, yes, they let the offender know about it in no uncertain terms, but nobody seemed actually agitated.   It was what it was, and everybody played their role, and then life went on, and, besides, it’s not so bad to take a few minutes’ break waiting for the guy to get back… 

The Spanish Steps

Finally, a third thing, this one an anecdote from Alice that she told me as we climbed the Spanish Steps and strolled along by the Quirinale on the first evening as the sun began to set. 

“Whenever we had large EC summit conferences, there was always a huge amount of preparation, advance work, right down to making sure there were enough umbrellas for everybody if it rained, and that they were in the right place, detail after detail after detail, just a million things that had to be nailed down before everyone arrived.  When we had a conference in Rome, it was a nightmare.  Right up until the day before the conference would be scheduled to start, nobody knew anything; if you asked if this or that had been set up or attended to, nobody knew, nobody seemed to be in charge, everything uncertain, everything up-in-the-air, nobody accountable for anything, nobody even concerned about it.  Most of this was ultimately my responsibility, so I’d be going absolutely crazy. 

“Then the day of the conference would come, all these diplomats and their staffs from all over Europe would descend on us for several days of events and meetings and a million other things, and as far as I could tell the Italians hadn’t done any preparation at all.  I fully expected complete disaster.  But somehow– don’t ask me how– on the day of the conference, and for its entire duration, every aspect of the conference, everything that needed to happen… worked perfectly.  It was like some weird miracle.  But that’s the Italians:  That’s just how they roll…”

But I still couldn’t put my finger on it, the thing that I was finding so appealing about the city and the culture and the way folks “rolled” here.  Was it that they weren’t aggressive, in the way you would expect in one of the largest cities in the world? 

Certainly not.  As described, the driving and the way people moved around the city was as aggressive as I’ve ever seen.  The businessmen heading to work, the shopkeepers and restaurateurs plying their trade—all with the same level of intensity you see in other big cities. 

No, it wasn’t aggressiveness that was missing here, it was aggression

And that’s when it hit me, that it was just that:  Aggressiveness without aggression.  Perhaps that’s too cute a phrase, but it’s the one that feels right to me.  Rome is a city that has learned over the centuries what it needs to do to get through the day, and to make that day as pleasant as possible, since, what else is there?  There’s a lot that needs to get done, a lot of competing wishes and  desires and directions, and if you’re not going to get run over or blocked or shunted aside, well, you better do what you have to do with some energy and determination.  But aggression?  I didn’t see it, anywhere. 

Aggressiveness, it seems to me, has to do with how you proceed through space and time and how you meet the challenges of the world and try to seize its opportunities; aggression has to do with your attitude towards the people who are doing the same thing, and who, in so doing, might bump into you or breathe your air or want to occupy a space that you want to occupy. 

In New York it is a constant competition for scarce resources, whether it is a table at a popular restaurant or success itself in your chosen field, and it is often perceived, I think, as a zero sum game, where anything one person wins, another has to lose. 

I only spent four days in Rome, so I can’t possibly know for sure, but in trying to figure out why I liked it so much, the way people habitate this world together, that’s the best I can do:  Aggressive without aggression by people who don’t see things as zero sum, but, rather, find ways, large and small, for everybody to get whatever it is they’re trying to get, without interference. 

The pedestrian crossings are the perfect example:  In London, it is “zero sum”.  If I go, you have to stop, completely and for the duration.  It’s the same at the crosswalks in New York with the walk and don’t walk lights.  I go, you stop.  You go, I stop. 

Not in Rome.  Everybody goes, all the time, and if I have to make a slight adjustment to make sure you can go while I go, I’ll do that, and I expect you to do the same, and that way we can all go and we’ll figure it out, and things will work out, so don’t worry.  How about a little Amaretto on the house? 

Over the last several years, I have been having trouble finding a place that feels like home.  I am a tourist in Rome, and I feel like a tourist, and I’m happy to be a tourist.  But unlike most other places I can think of, most other places I’ve been over the last while, there is something about Rome that makes me think that possibly, just possibly, I could live here.  There’s something about it, and I think that maybe it has to do with the crosswalks and the way they have found—and I think it might be a very unique way and a very Italian way—to be aggressive without aggression. 

I like to think there are times in my life when have achieved that:  Aggressiveness without aggression, eventhough at the time I had no notion that that was what I was reaching for, not even recognizing it for what it was, back then, not until I went  to Rome for the first time, this week, happily, and learned, walking the same streets, some of them, that had been trod by people long gone, but whose footprints are embedded,  who maybe had some of the same thoughts I do about trying to learn how to live and be in the world, but who did that 3,000 years ago, or 1,500 or 100, and somehow, after all those centuries and all those souls, this place, their place, has told me something I’ve been wanting to know.

One of the nicest aspects of settling for a few months in Europe is the ease with which you can get to places that, from America, are major journeys.  That morning we had driven from Callas to Nice, a one hour drive, and then caught a 45 minute Alitalia flight to Rome.  We took the train from the airport to “Termini” downtown and then a cab to our hotel near Piazza Navonna, one of the more beautiful, baroque city squares, lined by restaurants, walking distance to the Pantheon.” 

First Pasta: I had the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, Alice had the Spaghetti Carbonara

No jet lag, no travel fatigue.  After depositing our bags at our four star hotel (it deserved two, at most, but then we didn’t plan on spending a lot of time there) we strolled out for a walk to the Spanish Steps where we could get a pretty afternoon panorama of the city. 

But first we had to stop for some authentic Roman pasta.  I had the Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Alice had the spaghetti Carbonara.  Sublime.  Fresh ingredients, Italian know-how, casual, perfect and delicious.  We are in Rome. 


Above: The Piazza Navonna one of the most beautiful (and largest) squares in all of Rome.  Our hotel was a two minute walk from here.

Above:  The view from our hotel Balcony.  

Above:  The veiw from our hotel’s rooftop garden, one easy flight walk up from our room 


What’s with all these Rico Suave cops? 

You have to believe there are at least two reasons there are so many varieties of cop in Rome, although there are probably more (reasons, that is): 

Number one, okay, to keep the peace.  But if that’s the case, why do they all seem so lackadaisical?  As far as I can tell, the job description of these guys is, “Hang out. Look cool, talk to your buddies, group up, lean on something, stroll aimlessly while you crack jokes to each other, and fix your hat so it’s on just right, but, most of all, look cool.  Don’t worry so much about that shirt not being tucked in, or the fact that your Uzi submachine gun is so carelessly slung across your shoulder, so long as the beard is good:  Not too long, not too short.  Five O’clock shadow is okay, because it shows you’re heading in the right direction.  You’re the man, for sure.” 

The thing is, there are a million different uniforms, all very official, but different and never-ending, and if it’s true that the way you can differentiate a rent-a-cop security guard who happens to have been issued a phony-baloney uniform, and a real cop is whether they’re packing, the fact is that all these guys are sporting some kind of serious firepower. 

Firepower and a beard, that is. 

Which, admittedly, does make them seem pretty cool, especially when you add that insouciant stroll to the equation, but, on the other hand, I’m not sure “cool” is what you’re looking for in a cop.  At least, I’m not, but then again, maybe the Romans are. 


You hear all the time about the Rome pick-pockets, petty thieves, grifters and con artists, but I saw neither them, nor any of these multitudinous cops actually doing anything, anywhere.  Maybe it was a good—and perhaps unusual—few days. 

Now, all those different uniforms, indicating all those different types of cop, are tipping you off to the second reason for having so many varieties:  They are government jobs.  Union jobs.  That is to say they are good jobs and prized jobs and jobs that allow you to live well and retire well, and this is Italy where you simply can’t have too many good union jobs, so if you have to gin up a few extra categories of cop to create the jobs, well, Mussolini made the trains run on time, you know? 

Alice? Communist?

There were two active strikes going on while we were there, at least that we knew about, one involving students (issue unclear) and the other involving municipal workers (issue also unclear) but they made a lot of noise and carried a lot of red banners, which makes you think, given the red, that they are communists of some sort, but, around here, there are communists and then there are communists, so you can never be sure.  As you can see from the photo at right, Alice was clearly tempted to grab a flag and join the protest, whatever that protest might have been about…

Food Everywhere, but beware the “Ropers”

Above:  Everywhere, but everywhere, there are restaurants.  How to choose?  Alice and I discovered a fairly reliable assessment gauge, involving the “ropers” out front at each (and every) restaurant.  I don’t think they use the term “roper”, but I’m borrowing it from the carnival world, where the “roper” is assigned the job of not letting any stroller walk by without getting their attention and doing what they can to convince you to step inside (or, in the case of all the outdoor cafes and bistros, take a seat overlooking the piazza).  The thing to look for is not whether they have a roper, since they all do, it seems, even the very best ones, it’s the intensity of the roper.  

Here’s the rule:  The quality of the food and the fairness of the prices is in inverse proportion to the intensity of the roper.  In truth, this has less to do with the quality of the food:  It’s all good, some better than others, but none that we found that could be described as less than wonderful.  It’s just that some is truly sublime.  No, it’s more to do with the fairness of the pricing.  If you are way-layed by a roper who is particulary insistent, too friendly by half (regular friendly is good and common; I’m talking about the kind that you can  always sense, with discomfort, that is over-the-top, not just forced but almost a little menacing in its inauthenticity) then you are sure to get hammered when it comes to the bill, sometimes with add-ons that you had no way to expect.  

How can you judge?  After you’ve walked around a bit you’ll have plenty of points of comparison, since it’s almost impossible to pass one of these places, at least at dinner time, without being approached.  Go for the place where the guy just wants to point out some interesting things on the menu, not the one where the guy acts like your BFF. 

The Young Men of Janiculum Hill

On our first morning, Alice and I are trying to get to the Vatican.  We know it’s walking distance, but the Rome map, like Rome itself, is labyrinthine; it’s incredibly easy to get spun around, confused, lost.  We thought we were taking the Ponte Vittoria Emanuelle II to cross over the Tiber, but we were on the Ponte Principe Amadeo Savoia Aosta, and, flowing from that first mistake and based upon it, all our subsequent moves were exponentially misguided.  Eventually we found ourselves huffing and puffing our way up the Janiculum Hill (okay, I was huffing and puffing:  Alice you would have thought was on a funicular) which is the second highest hill in Rome, although, as it happens, not considered one of the “seven hills of Rome”, despite having acquired its name in the Roman days as some sort of reference to the God Janus.  In other words, as with all things in Rome, it had a history deep and complex and variegated which was blithely ignored, completely immaterial to, the people going about the business of their daily lives in the year 2010.

It began to rain heavily so we dashed into a little shop that was under construction to wait it out.  As we shuffled our feet, our nostrils slightly irritated by the acrid smell of freshly poured cement, a group of three young priests, also avoiding the rain, ducked in for the same purpose.  When the rain lightened up sufficiently, we continued up the hill and were surprised to find a stream of priests, group after group, coming down past us, three here, four or five there, all young, none of them out of their twenties, all speaking American English, all wearing the traditional collar.

More than that, although they had many different physical builds and physiognomies, short hair, long hair, some with beards, even a prematurely bald fellow now and then, there was something about them in common, something they all shared, but it was hard to define, hard to pin down. 

It was in their expression and manner.  With whatever differences might have existed between them, they were all… nice, in a similar way, and a way that seemed very genuine, very at ease with itself.  Every one of them was the type of guy you’d see across a room and say, “That looks like the kind of guy I’d like to see marry my daughter,” because, even though they’re not at all wimpy and look like they probably enjoy a good football game on Sunday (after church, of course), they seem as if they are decent and good-hearted and looking to treat people well.  Obviously, the marrying your daughter part isn’t in the picture, but you get the idea.

It was a narrow sidewalk, curling its way up the steep hill.  We were the only ones heading up it, and each time we met a group of these young priests, which was every few seconds it seemed, they would make way for us and smile as we went by.

Priests, yes; dedicated, presumably.  But in every other way, they were just what you would expect from an animated group of young men, apparently on a break, heading down to scarf some lunch in one of the local eateries.

I had the thought that whoever these guys are, they are a good group and are probably going to be doing fine things with their lives, and, as an American in Rome watching  these other Americans in Rome, I thought, well, we could do worse.

But still, I was wondering what all these American priests were doing here.  Yes, we were close to the Vatican, so that probably explains most of it, but why here, on  this side street, why so many, why all Americans?

When we finally got to the top of the hill and as I leaned pathetically on a lamp post to catch my breath, I saw the sign:  “The Pontifical North American College”.  Yep, they’re training American priests (and Canadians and Australians) because in 1859 Pope Pius IX was convinced by the American Bishops that it would be a good idea, so he gave them the land and allocated the money.

Towards the summit of the Janiculum Hill the ill-formed parade of young priests dwindled and a self-important guard at the Pediatric Hospital imperiously turned us in the direction of the as yet unseen Vatican. We eventually got our bearings and pushed on, but I found myself still drawn to ruminations about the genial young American priests, the glinting softness in their eyes, and the fact that through their varying avenues they had found their way to a faith that was large enough to cause them to willingly offer their lives to its service.

And there was something about it that engendered in me a feeling I couldn’t identify, not even to say that it was a good feeling or a bad one, positive or negative; but strong and nagging…

Their parents, surely, were proud of them, probably grandly so, and maybe even secretly self-congratulatory that their own lives have somehow been made the more meaningful for having provided progeny to the Army of the Lord.

Everywhere you look in Rome, there is beauty. Non-descript neighborhood; look up and through an open third floor window, and you see a ceiling for the ages

The proponents of the God delusion, on the contrary, would deem them foolish and sadly wasting their lives in dedication to fantasy and unenlightened superstition.  I thought of Christopher Hitchens, an avowed and articulate atheist, whose other writing I have admired enormously for years and who is now dying quickly, too young, of a bad cancer and taking the opportunity to assert—only because he is being asked—that, no, there will be no deathbed conversions for him.

As I thought of these things, none of them brought me closer to deciphering or identifying my own strong sentiment, except that I knew somehow it did not stand on an assessment of the validity, of lack of it, of their beliefs.

As we approached, finally, the Vatican and saw the imposing dome of St. Peter’s in the misty distance, it finally crystallized for me:

The feeling I had about them was… envy. 

I envied their youth and the fact that they were at the beginnings of their possibilities, but that was the least of it.  Mostly I envied their clarity of purpose.

I think about that and these young priests and some Jesuits I have known and admired, and I think of St. Anselm and the Church of St. Martin’s in the Field off of Trafalgar Square where I used to go to listen to the choir practice and to find some small moment of serenity, and as I walk and as we find the correct direction to the Vatican so that we can visit it as tourists, for a reason I can’t explain, I am grateful for these young men who have found a faith and a purpose and who are the farthest thing from tourists, indeed, perhaps the diametric opposite, and who are pursuing the imperatives of their beliefs with what appears to be quiet honor and a soft and insistent grace.
“Sophisticated, God, I’m Sophisticated….”Jordon Baker



Above:  Yes, the shopping in Rome is beyond compare:  Italian leather, Italian fashions, Italian couture.  As Alice and I window shop through this area of the high-end stores, I notice the young woman in this picture, standing beside the entrance to Louis Vuitton, perfect sunglasses,  just-so cape, ungodly expensive boots, as she checks her messages for the latest from the small world she probably inhabits, which, for her, might just as well be the whole world.


But, of course, I’m being unfair.  I know nothing about her.  It is not her fault that she makes me think of Jordon Baker, the self-absorbed, oh-so-jaded socialite-manqué in The Great Gatsby, as she casually explains to an inquisitive Nick Carraway:


“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so–the most advanced people. And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated–God, I’m sophisticated!”

Alice found a small shop that she loved and bought a pair of buttery new boots, a graceful and flattering coat, and a soft, stylish pair of slacks to go with it all.  It wasn’t terribly expensive; although, the fact that I could easily afford it and having the Gatsby woman catch my attention—brought back a memory of a very different time in my life…

Connecticut’s new governor, a fellow by the name of Meskill, raised the tuition from $180 per semester ($1,211 in 2010 dollars) to $750 ($5,000 in 2010 dollars), and, to counter criticism, said, “There is not a single student who will be unable to attend as a result of this tuition rise.”

I was that student.

For three and a half years I had managed by pushing lawnmowers for $2.50 an hour ($16.82 per hour in 2010 dollars). Add room and board to the tuition, something for books and supplies, travel expenses to and from my job each weekend, and I was getting by on almost exactly $1,350 per year ($9,000 per year in 2010 dollars).  If  I worked every day in the summer, every weekend, every vacation, there were enough hours to just cover it.  On the occasional Sunday—Sunday’s weren’t part of the cafeteria meal plan, so you were on your own– I would have to sell a tie or a non-essential book to eat, but still, I was making it.

The increase to $750 might have been a million, it was so out of reach, and I had no access to financial aid.  My father was a doctor, but, long having moved away, he provided no assistance, and, maddeningly, without having to expend any effort being so, stood as an insurmountable impediment to the possibility of obtaining assistance elsewhere.

“You need to have your father fill out this income statement so that we can establish need,” the Financial Aid Officer said as he slid some papers across his desk to me.

“He won’t  do that”, I said.

“He refuses?” the Officer  asked, surprised. “He doesn’t’ want to get help with your tuition?”

“He doesn’t care.  I send him the papers but never hear back.  I have no contact.”

“What does your father do for a living?”

“He’s a doctor.”

“A doctor?” 

“Yes, but I have no contact with him.  I haven’t seen him in years.”

“Do you know where he is?

“Oh, sure, he’s Chief of Pyschiatry at a big hospital in Florida.”

“Have you asked him for help?”


“what does he say?”

“He says, ‘No’.  That’s if he says anything.  Usually I don’t hear from him.”

The financial aid officer slowly shook his head.  He looked at me.  “I’d like to help you,” he said, “But you need to understand:  There are too many students here who need  help as much as you do, but their fathers aren’t doctors.  We can’t use our resources to take over the responsibility that your father is perfectly capable of handling.  Perhaps you should get legal advice.”

I knew already that the prospect of having this conversation produce anything useful or helpful had ended, but his statement made me feel defensive, as if I had somehow been falling down on my own responsibilty by not doing  legal battle with my father.  It made me feel as if I owed him an explanation, which I didn’t, but I gave one anyway as I stood up and prepared to leave.  “The newspapers called my parent’s divorce ‘the most vitriolic in the history of the state of Florida’,” I said.  “I think they’ve had enough.  So have I.”

That afternoon I packed my things and drove off, having no real direction in mind, but before long I found myself living on Block Island, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean fourteen miles north of Montauk Point and twelve miles east of the coast of Rhode Island.  In the summer it is a thriving, bustling resort.  After Labor Day, it drains and only the locals are left, a couple of hundred at most, and people like me– people who are there because they haven’t figured out where else to be, or how to get there. 

I was doing construction and living in my car, which was a VW Beetle.  I am six feet four inches tall, so living in a VW Beetle might seem problematic, but you can do it if you remove the passenger seat, go to the dump and find a large piece of plywood, cut it out so that your head can rest against the back seat and your feet slide under the glove compartment. 

You can sleep comfortably in a VW Beetle if you take out the passenger seat and cut a piece of plywood into a bed

Locate a mattress to lay on top of the plywood and it’s actually roomy and comfortable.

It even had a sun-roof I could crank open, so when I retired for the evening (this usually after closing time of one of the local saloons) I would drive out to the south side of the island, carefully inch down a long dirt path leading to the cliffs overlooking the ocean 150 feet below, open the sunroof to watch the stars, and drift off to sleep to the sound of the surf below.  I thought myself quite clever and fortunate to have such pleasant and, more importantly, affordable accommodations.

A stop the next morning at the public showers, and perhaps an occasional afternoon spent at the Laundromat, and life worked out.

Until the cold sets in, that is, which begins in late September when the cotton-soft, kid-friendly summer breezes turn sharp and start to pick up the growing ocean chill and the sky turns gray and the water grayer still, until, by early October, everything has changed on the island and has become serious and grown-up, not to be trifled with, the kind of seething, salt-air cold that makes you think you’re naked to it, even when you’re layered in wool and your pant legs flap.   There’s no sleeping in your car then; you don’t fool with this at all. 

I had already been saved once by a man named Mullens.

We were behind schedule on a structure we were building, a grocery store whose design, intended to be complementary to the island architecture, resembled a super-sized cape-cod-style house.  Our foreman had a last name that you could find inscribed on the Settler’s Rock out on the East End, by the lighthouse, that listed the first families who arrived on the Island after Adrian Block had discovered it in 1614.  You knew several things about a man with a last name like that:  They were probably “land rich” as it was called, with property deeded over the centuries that now had the enormous value associated with prime resort real-estate.  They would sell it off in small pieces, disgorging proceeds so large that it could sustain the whole family for years.  These descendents of the first families tended to be tradesmen and artisans, along whatever line their forebears had set, and proud of their skills and their traditions.  They were working folk, and you wouldn’t know they were rich, but they knew it, and, as is always the case with locals who see the rising tide of off-islanders taking things over, one stubborn yard at a time, they resented it even as they prospered as a result of it.

Another thing you knew was that they were going to say “some” a lot, as an all-purpose modifier, the way the Massachusetts crowd a little to the North used the word “wicked”. 

“That’s some house you’re building there.”

“I had some headache this morning.”

“That’s some load of groceries you have there.”

And the final thing you knew was that they had a fondness for a hard, well-poured drink, and a dedication to the rising and flowing but never ending waltz with the bottle.

Our foreman, with that last name that had so many streets and coves and outcroppings named the same, and who was as true an ‘Islander” as you can be–  not like those arrivistes whose families settled a mere eighty or a hundred years ago and whose only saving grace was that they weren’t something worse, a summer resident, or, the worst of all, literally beneath contempt, one of the “day trippers” who came over on the ferry from Point Judith each summer morning to Bermuda-short their way to the public beach or rent a motorbike and nearly kill themselves–  our foreman was a heavy drinker so severe that it would eventually kill him, but he was a skilled and valuable construction man, when he showed up.

He was savvy and deft in the arcane ways of making things last in this harsh, exposed island environment, and even able, on occasion, to make them beautiful, too, with elegant lines and sweetly patterned cedar wood shingling.

But sometimes he didn’t appear in the morning, and sometimes that went on a few days, and then he would return with a gruffness accompanied by no apology and a strong word to us for not proceeding further in his absence.  So, instead of having our structure sheathed-in by November so that we could spend the winter sheet rocking and finishing the interior, shielded from the worst of the season, we found ourselves outside on the roof, bracing ourselves against an icy and antagonistic wind, our nostrils filled with the scent of the salt and the seaweed, as we wrestled the plywood 4X8’s onto the just-now completed system of rafters, and rolled out the tar-paper and slung the heated pots of tar around to cover the nail holes, all this forty feet in the air, exposed to the hurtling and careering winds laced with razor cold that seemed to come from every direction all at once.

Our site was just on the edge of the small town, at the main crossroads splitting the island into quarters corresponding to the North End down the Neck Road; the East Side with the public beaches and the burned down mansion right there at the beach-end of Mansion Road; the West Side with its fat land and all those new summer houses; and the South End where the old Victorian-style Vail Hotel sat all by itself, and where you could stand on the cliffs and see just about forever. 

During our lunch break on a particularly bracing day whose morning I had spent shivering and miserable, hammering away, trying not to slide down and off the roof, a man named Mullens came out from one of the two-room cottages across the road. He was tall with cropped gray hair and deep facial creases of the type seen on those who had lived on the island a long time.  He walked with long, slow strides, his shoulders hunched against the weather.  His blue eyes were watery in the wind and a slight smile gave him a kind, unthreatening look as he came toward us, and then, to my surprise since I had never met him before, although I had seen him around, he approached me and handed me a shopping bag that was old and looked as if it had been scrounged for the occasion or discovered under the kitchen sink, but was filled.

“These are some things I don’t need anymore.” he said. “I’ve been watching you up on that roof and it looks like you might be able to use them.”  He put the bag in the corner, a signal that he didn’t want me to go through it right then.  We offered him a beer which he accepted, and we all chatted island talk, fishing and the weather with the occasional jibe at the “mainlanders”.

At one point Gilly hitched his way up the walkway, favoring that bad hip, another grizzled old islander of indeterminate age, who had in is life only two things he valued, his wife and his truck, and he had lost his wife two years before, so all that was left was the truck.  He drank a lot, Gilly did, every day, and you could say that he was nursing the hurt from the loss of his wife, but he had drunk just about as much when she was around, and would have drunk more when she was around, probably as much as he does now, without her chastising and moderating influence, so it wasn’t that, so much as the inevitability of the island syndrome,  that most of them eventually just accepted and tried to learn how to deal with, as Gilly did, and one of the ways he did that was to go to the dump and string used tires all around his truck so that when he got drunk and ran into things he wouldn’t damage a fender or worse, and that meant that he drove around in what for all the world looked like a tugboat, but, then, it worked.

At night, each night, he would pick one of the island bars that hadn’t yet closed for the winter and get started there, but then, after that, with a cool flask and active memories he would select one of the hundreds of spots on the island where it is pleasant to go and sit for a while and look out to the sea and think about things a bit, and sip some and maybe get a little mellow, to the point where things seem as if they might make some sort of sense and be all right.  He was a wise man, Gilly, and understood that even with all the protective armor on the truck, all the tires set up to cushion a drink-forged impact with an unknown object, even still, that was not enough, so he had the presence of mind, each night, at the proper point of inebriation, to get out of his truck, leave it wherever it was, and walk home.

The next morning, having no recollection of where he had left his beloved truck, but understanding that the parameters of a mid-ocean island only seven miles long and three and a half miles wide meant that it must be somewhere within reach, he would come to our construction site under the theory that since the fifteen of us came from all parts of the island each morning to get to work, one of us most probably spotted his truck and could point him in the correct direction.

Since this occurred every morning, each of us was quickly habituated to keeping an eye out for Gilly’s truck, and sure enough, every morning one of us would have seen it, Gilly would arrive around noon, as he did this day, and, without having to be asked, we would tell him where he had left his truck the night before.

On the very rare occasions when no one had seen it, we would organize after-work search parties where we would fan out and check some of the cubby holes that can’t be seen from the roads, and before long Gilly would be reunited with his truck and all would be as it had been before.

So this Mullens man came and gave me a shopping bag and we chatted for a while, and Gilly came and joined us for a few minutes, was given directions to his truck, and then they both, Mullens and Gilly, tossed their now empty cans of Narragansett beer into a garbage bin, and Gilly moved off to rejoin his truck, and Mullens went back to his small cottage and slowly closed the door behind him.

In the shopping bag were a couple of pairs of long underwear; a thick, down-filled vest that would keep your torso warm while leaving your arms free to swing a hammer and cut a board; four or five pairs of genuine woolen socks; some gloves with the fingers cut off; and, best of all, a pair of nicely broken in construction boots, exactly my size, with serious,  hard-gripping soles, to replace the sneakers that had been making my time on the roof so treacherous.

I never saw Mullens again because the next day he went to the mainland to the pre-arranged hospice in order to die of the cancer than had been eating at him for several years and which he knew was only going to allow him a few days more, but I learned something from him that has stayed with me ever since…

I found a family who, for the very small fee that was all could I afford, allowed me to bunk down in what was essentially a shed on their property, although, as I think of it, it wasn’t essentially a shed, it was actually a shed.  It had no heat, electricity or running water, but they permitted me to use the shower and bathroom in the house and, being sheltered from the wind and farther away from the chill ocean waters than my prior automotive solution, it was tolerable if I buried myself under as many blankets as I could find.

It was tolerable, that is, at least for a while, but after a few weeks it was clear to me and to the family that was letting me use the shed that I was going to freeze out there—literally.  The Patra Familia came to me with an offer to let me use the little cottage that they normally closed down in the winter but rented out during the summer.

“It has a propane heater in the Kitchen,” he pointed out.

Embarrassed that I could afford no more than what I was already paying for the shed, I demurred, lying that the shed was “Fine for now”.

He was a kind man and had been around.  “If you’re willing to pick up the cost of the propane you use, you can stay there for the same price you’re paying.”

It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I was the grateful recipient of the kindness of strangers; I moved in that afternoon, and not since Prometheus discovered fire has anyone been so happy for a little heat.  It had a kitchen and a living room and, up narrow flight of stairs, a bedroom.  It also had a bathroom and a shower and, so long as I kept things at a base-level of warmth, the pipes wouldn’t freeze and I could use both.

After life in the shed, this was magisterial, one of the greatest strokes of good fortune of my life, then or now.

In addition to the heat provided by the propane radiator in the kitchen which did a remarkably good job of making the entire place livable wearing just a think wool sweater and some heavy socks, and in addition to the shower and the real bed, there was something else that, over the time I stayed there—which was nearly six months—I found pleasurable and valuable and for which I was grateful:  A bookshelf in the living room.

It contained a broad and eclectic selection, probably seeded with volumes from the family who owned the property, but subsequently supplemented over time by all the people who had rented through the years, reflecting their various tastes, ranging from pot-boilers to classics.  There was no TV to provide distraction, and almost nothing to do, other than fish or drink, on this resort island, deserted and almost comatose in the winter, growing dark early in the day, so I read my way through the bookshelf, exposing myself to many things I would not otherwise have thought to delve into, enjoying it all.

I happened across Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir recounting his days as a young man in Paris in the 1920’s with his first wife Hadley, eager for success and recognition, trying to find his voice as he forged intense and sometimes difficult friendships with the likes of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Hilaire Belloc, James Joyce and, most interestingly I thought, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  (Hemingway posited that these days were a “feast” of ideas and events that would stay with him forever wherever he went—a feast that was, accordingly, “moveable”.)

The final chapter is particularly forceful, dealing with Hemmingway’s irritation at, and eventual disgust for, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As we all know, Hemmingway liked hanging out with hard drinkin’, blue water fishin’, game killin’, bull fightin’ genuine hombres with some serious cojones.   To say that Fitzgerald was none of these things badly understates the matter. Fitzgerald lacked both confidence and assertiveness.  More bluntly, by Hemmingway’s lights, he was a hand-wringing pansy.   Most distasteful of all was Fitzgerald’s inability to get Zelda’s craziness under control and his unmanly unwillingness to stand up to her.

Reluctantly, since he admired some of Fitzgerald’s’ writing and thought that there was a possibility—just a possibility and maybe a remote one, given Fitzgerald’s seeming inability to macho up to anything, probably including a typewriter—that he might someday amount to something; and against his better judgment, Hemmingway agreed to train trip with Scott and Zelda.  By the end of it–  a days-long exhibition of Fitzgerald being browbeaten, cowed and manipulated by Zelda– which came none too soon for Hemmingway, he had resolved to never associate with Fitzgerald again.  Both indirectly and, to a degree, directly, he let Fitzgerald know that he simply wasn’t his kind of guy, that he would prefer that they go their separate ways, however much he wished Fitzgerald well.  Really.

Several weeks later, late one night, as Hemmingway lay on his bed listening to the sounds of a torrential Parisian downpour, he heard a tentative knock at his door.  There stood Fitzgerald, shivering, raindrops dripping from his nose, holding a box in front of him containing a manuscript.

He begged Hemmingway to read it, explaining that he had no idea if it was good or if it was worthless, but that he respected Hemmingway and if only he would read it and tell him what he thought of it, he would accept Hemmingway’s assessment, no matter what; and if he was a terrible and hopeless writer, and Hemmingway let him know that, he could accept it.

Hemmingway was annoyed.  Here was yet another example of Fitzgerald’s timid uncertainty, his cringing lack of the mannish assertiveness.

To terminate the discussion, he took the manuscript and sent Fitzgerald on his way, back into the dark and drenching night, to find his way home.

Curious, and as a matter of honorable obligation since he said he would take a look, Hemmingway began to read.

He didn’t stop, and when he had finished, when he had turned the last page and set the manuscript back in the tattered cardboard box in which it was delivered, he resolved that any individual who could write something so magnificent– he would be proud to be that man’s friend, no matter how annoying or distasteful might be the person’s personality, no matter how much he might find distasteful the way they chose to conduct themselves in their relationships and in the way they set about to present themselves to the world. 

It was the manuscript of The Great Gatsby.

I, too, turned the last page, of Hemmingway’s book, wondering what I had missed about Gatsby when it was force-fed to us in high school.  It had left almost no impression, although I recalled being bored and disinterested when I read it.

What had I missed?  For Hemmingway, the notion of friendship was freighted with great implication; he did not offer it capriciously.  I thought to myself that maybe next time I take the ferry over to the Mainland, I’ll stop in a bookstore and see if I can find a cheap copy, and give it another go. 

It was still early evening, so, having finished this thin volume, I trundled downstairs to select something new to start.  As I slipped A Moveable Feast back into its slot, before I had even finished the motion, my eye was caught by the green and white spine of The Great Gatsby.

It was a schoolboy’s edition, highlighted and notated in the marginalia, probably similar to the ones I had done in order to get a grade when tested, not reflecting any insight or real appreciation.

I began to read… 

Perhaps it was the impetus Hemmingway provided to look more closely, to read with less inclination to dismiss or trivialize the seemingly superficial concerns of this strange cast of characters.  Maybe it was just that I was older and more thoughtful, more able to recognize and appreciate what Fitzgerald was grasping for, what he had been attempting to capture, what he had clearly been wrestling with and the ways he found to try and articulate it, to be able to admire the literary brushstrokes that had been completely lost to me the first time through.

I began to understand, and with that understanding came, increasingly, pleasure, the kind you get from watching someone do whatever it is they do, just about as well as  it can be done.

Since that day I have read “Gatsby” at least five times, always finding something new, some pearl that I hadn’t previously noticed.  It prompted me to read the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, uneven and at times frustratingly below his other achievements, but always interesting and always, somehow, noble in its determination to dig for the hard thing, to try and get at “it”, not unlike Gatsby, intent on the green light at the end of the dock….

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This is an odd memory to have, as we walk the streets of Rome, but somehow it has to do with the boots;  the new ones for Alice, the old ones, given to me by a man dying of cancer, that might have saved my life, and the decades in-between, and the good fortune both then and now.

 More street scenes of Beautiful Rome

Above:  Rome has a population of 2.7 million and its recorded history spans two and half thousand years.


 Above:  The Palazzo Venezia.  It was from the balcony midway up that Mussolini gave his famous speeches.


Above:  The fountain in the Piazza della Rotunda, which faces the Pantheon


Above:  The fountain in the Quirinal, the plaza fronting the Office of the President of the Italian Republic.  It sits atop the Homonymous Hill, which is the tallest of the seven hills of Rome.  We arrived here late in the afternoon the day we arrived, and if felt good to be in a bustling city after several weeks deep in the woods of Provence.


Above:  Check out the way the little red car is parked.  The streets are as narrow as you will ever see in a city, the cars are small and there are a lot of them… and scooters, scooters everywhere.


Above:  Looking down from the Spanish Steps as the sun begins to fall.


Above:  How to move into your new apartment in Rome.  Stairs?  Elevator?  No chance.  You see these lifters a lot and they are fast and efficient.  The crane is put in place, the moving truck shows up, and pretty soon all your furniture has been lifted throught the window.


Above:  It seems that everywhere, in every way, people pay attention to making things lovely.  This is a pharmacy we went into.  Even the tiled floor is interesting and pretty.


Above:  Everywhere you look there is something beautiful and elegant to see. 


T H E   V A T I C A N

 Above:  Approaching the Vatican from the Via della Comciliazione, St. Peter’s Basilica towering over the square.  Hey, what’s the difference between a “Basilica” and a “Cathedral”, anyway?  See below.   

Above:  St. Peter’s Square.  They say it can hold 60,000 people for a formal service. 


Above:  The Egyptian Room at the Vatican Museum.  I almost didn’t go to the museum at all, since I had the wrong impression of it.  It thought it would be relatively small exposition of, say, Pope’s robes over the centuries with an old chair here, and chalice there.


No, the Vatican museum is one of the most extensive, varied and extraordinary collections in of antiquities in the world.  You walk through majestec hall after all, and, even aside from the objects on display, the feeling of floating through the domed, ornate, galleries, often washed in  a soft light from skylights high overhead, is powerful and humbling.


In addition to the Egyptian rooms there are Greek and Roman rooms, Etruscan, a whole gallery half a football field long with nothing put ancient tapestries– each one an intricate map of a particular Roman region– to say nothing of the Appartamento Borgia.


Easily, you could spend a month there, or a month in the Raphael rooms alone.


Above:  The Raphael rooms at the Vatican Museum contain some of the most beautiful and celebrated frescos in the world.  Eventually they lead to the Sistine Chapel, where Rapheal ceded a large portion of his glory to Michelangelo’s ceiling.  However, strictly no photographs in the Chapel, gruffly enforced by milling uniformed guards.  (Not that I tried; but others did.)



Above:  The beautiful light streaming in from one of the domed galleries in the Vatical Museum.  This one is reminiscent of the Pantheon


Above:  The famous Vatican Museum staircase.


What’s the difference between a “Cathedral” and a “Basilica”, anyway? 

Okay, you have St. Patrick’s “Cathedral”.  And you have Notre Dame in Paris; I believe that’s a “cathedral”, too.  But in Rome, or, more accurately, the Vatican, it’s St. Peter’s Basilica.  What’s up with that?  I mean, it looks like something they call a “Cathedral” everywhere else.  Is it also a “Cathedral”, maybe, but of the “Basilica” variety?  Or the reverse? And which one trumps the other, nomenclature-wise? 

Is it architecture that makes the difference between a "Basilica" and a "Cathedral"?

If you’re like me, you thought it had something to do with architecture, maybe hinging on the big dome.  All those French “cathedrals” only have spires, no dome. That’s it:  It’s all about the dome.  If it has a dome, it’s a basilica; no dome, a cathedral.  Got it. 

But what about St. Paul’s in London?  That has a dome and it’s a cathedral

This issue was threatening to take full control of my OCD, so I decided to do a little sleuthing to see if I could educate myself and thereby relieve my mind from being overly occupied, stuffed, if you will, with ricocheting thoughts about this.

A “church” can be anything from your living room to St. Peter’s, and everything in-between, anyplace people gather to worship.  “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them”—Matthew 18:20 

  A “cathedra” is a chair.  That’s right, a chair: The kind that has two armrests.  Nothing special about it, other than those two armrests (if you consider that special). 

A "Cathedra" is a chair

Nothing special, that is, unless it’s the chair (the “cathedra”) that the Bishop sits in, his very own, the one that he occupies when he makes pronouncements that you’re supposed to pay attention to because if you don’t, you burn in hell for eternity. 

Now that’s a special chair, if you ask me, armrests or no armrests.  Suppose the Bishop is sitting in some other chair, not his “official” chair, and he’s making what appear to be pronouncements.  Well, that’s just jawboning, because he’s not sitting (literally or figuratively) in the chair, the “cathedra”.  You can pay attention to those pronouncements if you want, but you aren’t necessarily buying a one-way ticket to Palookaville if your mind should wander. 

But be careful:  If he is sitting in “the” chair, what he’s saying is described as being said ex cathedra (“from the chair”), and those things you better listen up for, because they’re official.  Very official. 

Where, you might ask, is the “cathedra”, the official bishop’s chair, kept? 

Aha!  It’s kept in the Cathedral!  And that’s what a “cathedral” is, and that’s all it means:  It’s where the Bishop’s official chair is kept, and that’s important, because when his rear end is in that chair, lightning strikes, so to speak.  It has nothing to do with architecture, except that, as these things tend to evolve with the inevitable over-attention to detail, the “cathedra” is usually situated in a special place relative to the main alter.  But that’s not official, it’s just customary. 

There are about 5,000 Bishops around the world and every one of them has an official chair.  Wherever that chair is kept, whether in Notre Dame or a tool shed, it’s a cathedral. 

What about a “Basilica”?  Maybe that’s where the dome comes in, no? 

No.  For a “Basilica” what you need is a corpse. 

But not just any corpse, it has to be an important one, like a saint. 

St. Paul’s Basilica is not named “St. Paul’s” just to honor and remember him—it’s named that because St. Paul is actually there, or, well, his remains are there: Actually there, entombed. 

If you run across a “Basilica”, you can be sure that whoever it’s named after—and sometimes a lot of other important folks, too—are buried there.  That’s what makes it a “Basilica”. 

Can a “Basilica” also be a “Cathedral”?  Sure, if the Bishop’s “cathedra” is there, but that’s not the case with St. Peters’.  The Bishop of Rome’s chair is kept at The Basilica of St. John Lateran in downtown Rome, so that Basilica is also a cathedral.  But not St. Peter’s:  It’s a Basilica and even though it’s a lot bigger that every cathedral you can think of, it’s not a cathedral itself.  But, yes, it’s a monster:  It has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, holding 60,000 people. 

So who, then, is the “Bishop of Rome”?  Well, the Pope is, and since the Bishop of Rome is the head guy (Rome being the head place and all, historically), when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra, he is theoretically speaking from that chair over at St. John Lateran, although, in actual fact, he’s speaking from anywhere he damn well pleases.  Let’s not forget:  He’s the Pope. 

Still with me?  Are you wondering the same thing I am?  Are you wondering whether the Pope is a bishop?  I mean, they keep talking about all these “Cardinals” and wasn’t the current Pope a Cardinal before he was Pope, so aren’t Cardinals a step up from “Bishop”, one step closer to “Pope”? 

And besides, the Catholic Church seems to have all these other titles, like “Monsignor” and “Vicar”, to say nothing of “Abbot” and “Prelate” and, oh my gosh, “Archbishop”.  Good grief!  Where does that fit in and who can keep up with all this? 

You Catholics are probably well aware of all this already, but, for the rest of us, here it is in a nutshell: 

Think “Bishop”.  That’s the main deal, the big deal– that’s what you want to be.  There’s no higher rung than “Bishop”, not even “Cardinal” because “Cardinal” isn’t even a rung, it’s a job description. 

That’s right, think of the “College of Cardinals” as the Pope’s advisory “cabinet”, like the President would have a cabinet.  The Pope decides who he wants them to be and appoints them. 

Is a Cardinal always a Bishop?  Nope.  The Pope can choose anybody he (and, so far, it’s always been a “he”) wants to.   Yes, there are Cardinal-Bishops, but there are also Cardinal-Priests.  There are even Cardinal-Deacons, selected from the Laity (that’s you and me), so, theoretically, you can go from zero to Cardinal in the blink of the Pope’s eye.  Why would such a thing happen?  Well, here’s one reason it might:  If you were the Pope and wanted someone keeping an eye on the billions of dollars of assets controlled by the church, would you want a person who has spent his entire adult life studying St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, or would you want a summa cum laude from Wharton with a concentration on macroeconomics? 

I thought so. 

Are the Cardinals called “cardinals” because of the red robes they wear, making them look like the bird?

Exactly wrong.  It’s the reverse.  The bird is named “Cardinal” because its red plumage echoes that of the church Cardinals.

So why do they wear red, and, come to think of it, if they’re not named after the bird, why are they called “Cardinals”?

They’re called “Cardinals” because they are incardinated to the Pope.  “Incardinated”?  Right.  That’s a fancy word for being under somebody’s jurisdiction.  “Cardo” means, roughly, “hinge” in Latin, so if you are “incardinated” to the Pope (as opposed to being incardinated to just some old Bishop) you are connected or “hinged” to him and you are also in the “College of Cardinals”, so you get to wear the red and sometimes appear on the cover of Time Magazine.  By the way, you can also be excardinated which means exactly what you suspect.

Wearing the original red hat-- the galero-- that started it all

Why do they wear red?  It has to do with some hat they no longer wear.  Back in 1245, Pope Innocent IV wanted everybody to be able to recognize the blokes who were incardinated to him, even when they were in a parade with a lot of other people, so he had them wear red hats, called a “galero”.  Eventually the hat fell by the wayside, but the tradition of wearing red robes remained, and, a lot later on when some ornithologists were starting to put names to the various bird species they found in North America (although I’m not sure they were called ornithologists at the time; maybe just bird geeks…) the Cardinal became the Cardinal and, eventually, a baseball team in St. Louis.  (Get it?  St. Louis?  Saint Louis?)

Okay, to recap:  A Cardinal is a nice thing to be, I’m sure, and prestigious, and maybe in terms of politics or the organizational hierarchy it means something, but it’s not a designation on the holiness ladder.   If a Bishop is a Cardinal, that’s good, but it’s the bishop part that tells you where they are situated, holyness-wise.

Okay, then, what about an ARCHbishop?  You know, like Desmond Tutu.  Surely, an Archbishop must be closer to the Big Guy than a mere Bishop of the non-arch sort.  Surely.

Well, no, the “arch” part had to do with the size of the territory, not the hight of the holiness level.   A regular Bishop is in charge of a diocese, which is a defined area, geographically.  Sometimes the area is so big, like Chicago, that it becomes an archdiocese, and the Bishop in charge of that is an Archbishop.  The Archidiocese might even have some dioceses within it, but, again, think politics, not holiness.  An Archbishop might have more political clout than an Bishop, but, as far as God is concerned, they’re equal.

What about something like a “Monsignor”?  Same sort of thing:  It’s an honorific, a “title” that might be very nice to have, but which won’t necessarily get you a cup of coffee, holiness-wise.  It’s like being called “Sir” if you get knighted by the Queen.  The title “Monsignor” is just something granted by the Pope, usually at the request of a local Bishop.  You can’t call yourself “Sir” unless you’ve been knighted, and you can’t call yourself “Monsignor” unless the Pope says it’s okay.  Beyond that, there’s not a lot to it.

A Vicar is someone who acts on behalf of someone else.  You know:  The Pope is the “Vicar of Christ”.  But there are lots of them and that’s all it means:  Acting on behalf of someone else.  It least, that’s all it means in the Catholic world.

What about the gazillion “Vicars” that show up in all those Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte novels?  Well, those are Anglican “Vicars”, and in that world it has a broader usage, referring, essentially, to the simple Parish Priest.  That’s why there are so many of them.

A Prelate refers to nothing more than somebody who has boss privileges over a kind of rogue territory, a loose filly that is not otherwise corralled within a diocese.  (Still with me?)  Theoretically, they could be a pretty big deal, depending on the size of the territory, but, again, all this is political not ecclesiastical.  The only other kind is the personal prelature, where the guy has jurisdiction over a group of people who are not otherwise attached, instead of a territory that is not otherwise attached.  These days, there’s only one of those, and it’s called Opus Dei and if that sounds familiar, it’s because Dan Brown made a very big deal of it in The DaVinci Code.

An “Abbot”?  The head fellow in a monastery, appointed by the Bishop or, when elected from their members by the monks themselves, approved by the Bishop.  Once again, a political or honorary title, not a rung on the holiness ladder.

Do I have to say this again?  Think Bishop.  Everything else is window-dressing, political, or organizational.

One final thing about this “College of Cardinals”, this group of advisors appointed by the Pope:  They’re the ones who decide, by vote, who the next Pope should be upon the demise of the Pope who appointed them.  Think about that:  It gives the current Pope a lot of power in determining who his own successor is likely to be, capice

It’s true, also, that the selection of that new Pope is one of the great dramas throughout the world and throughout history. 

The Cardinal Electors, consisting of all the Cardinals who are not yet 80 years of age, gather in the Sistine Chapel (yes, that Sistine Chapel, with the ceiling) and cast their paper votes. Currently there are 203 Cardinals, 121 of whom are eligible to vote.  (Correct: Do the math and you realize that there are 82 Cardinals over the age of eighty.  Yikes!)  After the votes are counted, the ballots are burned.  If no decision has been reached, some powder is added causing the smoke emanating from the chimney to be black, letting the crowds outside know that the question is still at issue.  If a consensus is reached and a new Pope decided upon, the ballots are burned without the powder, so the smoke is white, and the throngs erupt in cheers outside.  (Depending, I guess, on whom you were rooting for.) 

When you think that this same ritual has been going on for thousands of years (with not a little intrigue along the way, I might add), it’s sort of comforting, in an odd way.  Some things really don’t ever change, even if you have an iPad. 

Scenes of ancient Rome:

 Above:  The Palatine

Below:  Views of the Roman Forum


The Col0sseum


What’s the difference between Bronze and Brass and what’s that got to do with either Rome or Oboes? 

The picture above is of the statue of Marcus Aurelius done in 176 AD.  There are several interesting things about it—actually, more than several, but I’m just going to mention a couple: 

First of all, notice that he has no stirrups.  That’s because they weren’t invented yet in the West.  They had stirrups in Asia, but that’s because, then and now, the Asians are a lot smarter than the rest of us.  (If you don’t believe me, check out the admissions statistics and GPR averages at Stanford University…)  So, if you’re watching a movie and they’re showing the Romans of this era riding all over the place using stirrups, well, that’s why they invented the term “anachronism”. 

Secondly, this is an example of the “Wax” technique that the Greeks and Romans used to such great effect, and it’s the simplest thing in the world; I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.  What you do is this: 

You take a big old hunk of wax—yes, just the kind you’re thinking of, extremely soft and malleable and easy to work with, receptive to great attention to detail—and you carve your sculpture, just the way you want it.  Then you take moist clay and smear it all over the thing.  Once the clay has dried and you now have a hardened carapace over everything, you drill little holes in it and pour in molten bronze, which melts the wax and eventually cools into your beautiful bronze statue, revealed in all its glory once you knock away the clay. 

They made hundreds of these statues, all over Rome, but now they’re all gone, except this one, and this one is a replica, made in 1981, because they wanted to preserve the original, which now sits in a local museum. 

What’s nice about this replica is that you get to see what a bronze statue actually looked like, when it was kept shiny instead of letting that green patina take over the whole thing.  The original in the museum still has the patina because, as everybody knows, you don’t mess with an antique, unless you’re like one of those folks on Antique Roadshow who don’t know any better and scrub off the patina to make it “all nice and shiny again” and thereby reduce its antique value by somewhere between 99 and 100 percent. 

It’s a beautiful statue and the deep muscularity of the bronze makes it clear why they liked using that material so much, and it makes you think that it’s too bad they melted them all down over the years, primarily to make coins and sometimes weapons, but also because the Christians in the Middle Ages considered them pagan and therefore sought to expunge them. 

As I’m looking at this thing I’m thinking to myself, you know, what the heck is bronze, anyway, and what’s so hot about it? 

I knew that bronze had been important enough to have a whole period of time named after it, The Bronze Age, which was either before or after the “Iron Age”, or the “Stone Age”, or maybe during the same time, or something.  As you can see, my grasp of this subject missed perfection by a smidge, so I decided to dip my toe in, just a bit. 

Copper is the great ballerina of metals, lovely and supple and able to do magical things, not the least of which is to conduct electricity just about as well as that can be done, but that would come later. 

The problem with copper is that it’s sort of girlie, and, believe me, I consider that overwhelmingly a plus.  Nevertheless, copper becomes much more versatile as it gains strength, physical strength, and that comes when it gets “married” to something else. 

When it gets married to tin, it becomes bronze. 

When it gets married to zinc, it becomes brass. 

More or less.  It’s slightly more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. 

One of the nice things about both copper and tin is that a lot of it exists right there pretty much out in the open.  If you’re digging around, you can say, “Oh, there’s some copper; I’m going to take some of that and make something…”  Or tin, same thing:  You can quarry it.  In the case of tin, much of that quarrying was occurring in Cornwall, in England, which became something of the tin suppler to the western world, even back in the Roman days. 

Zinc, which you need to make brass, is a little different:  It hides out in other things and you don’t even know it’s there until you do whatever you have to do to release it, and the people who know how to do that all work for Dupont, so I have no idea how the Romans figured it out. 

“The Bronze Age” is not a period of time, worldwide, but, rather, a culturally specific time period that varies somewhat from culture to culture.  It simply refers to the period of time, in that particular culture, when they had figured out how to make bronze (actually, there is some naturally occurring bronze, but instead of tin its married to arsenic, yes, of the “Arsenic and Old Lace” kind and, besides being poisonous in the extreme, it was rare, so forget that).  In any event, no matter what culture we’re talking about, it occurred thousands of years ago, so who cares?  The important thing is what you can do with it, and its cousin, brass, and they both have two qualities that affect you and me, to this day: 

Number one, it is resistant, almost impervious, to corrosion from water, specifically salt water.  That’s why many of those huge, multi-ton propellers on tankers and cruise ships are made of bronze or brass. 

Secondly, somebody, somewhere along the way, a very long time ago, discovered that these two copper alloys, bronze and brass, have amazing sonic qualities.  Make a gong out of lead and you have a big piece of metal that you’re making an unpleasant and not terribly impressive noise with.  Make it out of bronze or brass and you have yourself something you could put into a philharmonic orchestra and call a cymbal.  Oh, wait, that’s what they actually do… 

So, let’s see:  You have a metal that, number one, sounds good, has all kinds of neat vibrating characteristics, and, number two, doesn’t corrode when it gets wet. 

Okay, then, suppose we were going to invent something that you spit into in order to make a pleasant noise,  something like, I don’t know, a trumpet, saxophone, trombone or oboe? 

I’ve got an idea:  Given those two great qualities, and obviously applicable to this particular challenge, why don’t we make them out of brass, put them all in that same orchestra with the cymbals, and call it the Brass Section? 

I don’t believe Marcus Aurelius had a part in any of this, but his statue is something to see, and if you work hard and think hard, and try hard to imagine things as they might have been, and you see in your mind’s eye this magnificent, sun-drenched city surrounded by the seven lush, verdant hills and populated with bronze statues like this one, only everywhere, you start to get a sense, just a sense, of why the Romans might have thought of themselves as gods.

Decimating Decimation 

You remember awhile back, in a previous post, I talked about how much I hate it when people use the term “Begging the Question” incorrectly? 

That’s the way I feel about the word “decimate”, only more so. 

People use the word “decimate” to mean “to lay waste”, to “obliterate”, to “wipe out”. 

It means none of those things. 

And by “People” I’m referring to people who should know better:  People who write for a living and should have some regard for a word’s actual meaning.  Educators.  That’s right, professors, who teach others as their job, for which they are paid.  Newscasters.  Okay, not them, they can’t be expected to rise to any kind of linguistic standard, but still… 

Even more, I’ve done a study, and if someone uses the word “decimate” incorrectly, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that they’re going to use “panoply” incorrectly, too. 

And here’s the worst part of all of it, I think:  Both those words, “Decimate” and  “Panoply” have been so widely misused with such increasing regularity for so long a time—that their very definitions are caving in to the mis-use, rather than standing firm against the bastardization of good words that have specific and useful original meanings, meanings that distinguish them in important ways from their synonyms, the synonyms they are increasingly becoming subsumed by and undifferentiated from. 


Okay, here are some sentences, each one using the words incorrectly.  I’ll start with “decimate” since you come across that one the most.  You tell me if you haven’t heard lots of sentences just like these: 

“The small village of Ungaro has been decimated by a wave of typhus; there is almost no one left alive.” 

“The company was decimated by a swarm of product-liability lawsuits; it had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.” 

“When my boyfriend left me for a Chimpanzee, I was decimated.” 

“The moles decimated my lawn; there’s nothing but dirt left.” 

Okay?  Am I right?  You’ve heard a lot of things very much like that, am I lyin’? 

There is no better place to discuss the meaning of decimation than here in Rome since it derives from a custom of punishment—also implying leniency—practiced by the leaders of the Roman Legions. 

Bear in mind that the root word means “ten” the same as “decade” (ten years) “decathlon” (ten events) “decimal” and so on. 

If a group of Roman soldiers succumbed to cowardice in battle, the commander could impose a “decimation”, meaning every tenth soldier would be selected by lottery and clubbed to death by his compatriots. 

The leniency comes in for the nine who are not clubbed to death, despite the fact that cowardice was punishable by execution for all who engaged in it, and so the other nine deserved it as much as the poor schmuck who drew the short straw.  We might look at “decimation” as cruel and barbaric, but it was considered at the time to be enlightened, lenient and compassionate.  Whether it was effective is a matter of some debate, although, in the fullness of time it was decided that making guys kill the crap out of their good buddies– doing that themselves– when they knew they were just as deserving of the punishment as the pal they were clubbing, had such a deleterious effect on morale that it was abandoned, for the most part. 

Nevertheless, even if it does seem like a pretty brutal practice, various forms of it have been used for a very long time.  One of Stanley Kubrick’s most powerful movies, I believe, is Paths of Glory, which was banned from being shown in France up until few years ago since it presents a none-too-flattering portrait of a French WWI General (played superbly by Adolph Menjou to oleaginous perfection) who orders a futile charge out of the trenches and is embarrassed when it fails, as it was certain to do, and as he was repeatedly warned it would do.  To divert attention from his own incompetence, he orders the entire brigade executed for cowardice (after all, that’s the only reason his brilliantly conceived maneuver could possibly have failed), but is convinced by the unit’s field commander (Kirk Douglas) to employ, instead, a quasi-decimation where three fellows are selected by lottery to die to atone for the cowardice of all.  I saw this movie when I was twelve years old and it was the moment I first understood the thunderous power that a well-made movie can deliver, and if you see it, you will have no confusion as to why it was banned in France for so long. 

“Decimation” is not obliteration, it is not laying waste, it is not eviscerating—it is simply a process of reducing a group by ten percent, in a manner that is, okay, unpleasant.  That mole that “decimated” the lawn?  That means it ate ten percent, sure, and that’s not a good thing, but ninety percent of the lawn remained just fine.  If the village was decimated by typhus, that means that ninety percent survived.  The boy who left his girl for a chimp might have devastated her, but he didn’t decimate her, unless of course, he chopped off one of her ten fingers before he departed. 

Don’t get me wrong:  Decimate is a good and useful word and a lot of people use it exactly correctly.  Look for it.  When you hear it used to mean what it’s supposed to, it’s a pleasure.  (And now that you’ve read this, I’ve ruined you, because every time you hear it used incorrectly, it’s going to grate on you, just like it does me.  At least, I hope so.) 

There are a whole panoply of reasons why the users of the word “decimate” get led astray.  There are?  Well, no, because “panoply”, another word with roots in the ancient world, doesn’t mean anything close to what it would have to mean to make any sense in that sentence, at least not in its original meaning,  but since it’s been misused for so long, it has now disengaged altogether from that first connotation and acquired a new one that is particularly distant, completely unrelated, really, to its original intent. 

So, what it now means—and you can look this up in the dictionary—is “a magnificent or impressive array.” 

It’s original meaning, and its meaning for the first, say, three hundred years of its life as a word, starting in the 1500’s, was, are you ready?  “A full suit of armor.” 

You read that correctly.  “Panoply” refers to, and means, quite simply, “A full suit of armor” and for one thing, it’s singular.  You wouldn’t say there are a whole panoply; you’d say there is a whole panoply… 

How do you get from “A full suit of armor” to “a magnificent or impressive array”?  Simple: You create a word that sounds like it ought to mean “a magnificent or impressive array” even if it doesn’t, and then you let people use it incorrectly for a couple of hundred years.  If you ran across the word “panoply” and didn’t have any idea what it meant, you might think it sort of kind of sounds like it means something like “array” only one with a lot of fireworks,  Not just an array, but an ARRAY. The first known reference to “panoply” being used to mean “a magnificent or impressive array” is in 1829, in an environment, admittedly, where the need to refer to “a full suit of armor” had diminished considerably for any number of reasons the most pronounced being that hardly anyone wore any armor anymore, let alone a full suit, except, of course, those British guys, late at night, when no one was around… 

“Women’s History Month brings a panoply of events”.  This is an actual headline promoting a college event. 

No, Women’s History Month isn’t bringing “a full suit of armor” of events, obviously.  It’s an array of events, no, I mean an ARRAY of events, a veritable panoply of events. 

It suffers from the same sort of malady as the word “penultimate” which is taken by some to mean not just ultimate, but VERY ultimate—PENulltimate—when all it means is “second-to-last”. 

Is “panoply” ever used correctly anymore?  Actually, yes, but it’s a rarity, which is a shame because, like “decimate”, the word’s actual meaning, if it could be retained, is useful. 

“The little boy was protected by the panoply of his quick and cutting wit, as he did battle with the bullies who sought to humiliate him.” 

One question—maybe not the question, but one question—is whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for the meaning of words to be malleable or ephemeral.  Linguists can and do argue about this sort of issue all day and well into the night.  If you can avoid every single thing he ever wrote or uttered on politics and stick to his work on pure linguistics, Noam Chomsky is a good place to start.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing for a word to adopt a new meaning based on usage, even if that usage is technically incorrect?  “Sure,” say some.  “That’s what language is about; it should be”, they say, “a living thing that evolves and grows and gains life and vibrancy from such kinesis.” 

“Heck no”, others say:  “Language gains its utility through the very precision that your cockamamie theory completely undermines.  Either words mean what they mean or they don’t, and when they stop meaning what they’re supposed to mean, that’s the beginning of entropy, of the corrosion of communication, because, let’s not forget, language is the only thing that separates us from the beasts of the field, so we better take care of meaning, or we’ll find ourselves pulling a plow.”  Or something.  You get the idea. 

I suggest you establish your own position on this issue without delay.

# # #

N E X T :  Toulon


One Response to 12 Rome

  1. OK. Thanks for the superb photos and descriptive passages, the backflash to Block Island, etc., but now I learn I should get a panoply if I only decimate the beautiful dinner Mary has prepared for me. That’s an education – and thank you for it!

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