Catacombe di Domitilla visit attempt number two is what began our third day in Rome, the hottest day yet. Even with the breeze that had previously been forcing me told hold down my skirt, it was broiling. (I learned after day one not to wear a skirt in Rome—I don’t know how all the other women manage to without clenching their fists full of fabric to prevent a scandalous poof of the hem.) Rob and I decided to be risky—aka, foolish—and hop on a random bus from the Metro station that would head south, hopefully in the direction of the catacombs. We were not as lucky as the day before, although we had gotten a much earlier start and so felt relaxed enough to not mind getting lost for a little while. We found our way to the stone wall corner once more, and it only took us two hours this time! We arrived back in the ticket admission office at 12:15.
“We are close,” the man behind the counter said. He was a different man than from the night before. Disbelief and outrage immediately swelled up in my chest.
“What do you mean, you’re closed?” I asked.
“We are close, every day from 12 until 2.” Rob and I looked at each other, and I felt my eyes narrow. We tried to argue with him, saying that the man from the night before hadn’t mentioned anything to us about closing for two hours during the middle of the day, that he’d told us we could come back any time between nine and five, but this guy didn’t care two cents. Disgusted and angry, Rob and I knew there was no point in trying further to convince him to let us in, so we walked out and decided sticking around for two hours wasn’t worth what we already knew from images would be a series of stone tunnels and cave-like rooms. I’m sure it would have been cool, but not worth a two hour wait in the heat, outside the city where there was nothing else to do nearby. So back into Rome we went, where we planned to shop and kill time until our reserved visit to the Galleria Borghese at five and the sunset tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel at eight.
While we were in Frankfurt, Prague, and Vienna, I had snobbily turned my nose up at Starbucks, rebelling against the American comfort want inside of me. There are always Americans at Starbucks cafes worldwide, and I understand why. When you’re surrounded by foreign smells, flavors, languages, and customs, there’s something deeply reassuring in knowing that wherever you are, your venti cinnamon dolce light frappucino with soy milk will always be the same. If you are ever lost, just find a Starbucks; someone there is bound to speak English. But earlier in our trip, I was trying to put America—and Americans—as far from me as possible, enthusiastically immersing myself into the lands of kaffe mit milch, caffe e eis, and Twinings tea bags, as eastern and southern Europeans do not seem to take tea very seriously. Trying to find a good selection of loose leaf green or black, never mind herbal remedy blends, is “not possible”, as the Europeans would say. It’s like they have the boxed selection of Twinings to accommodate the traveling Brits who do understand just how seriously tea ought to be taken, and Americans such as myself.
An iced chai latte, or even hot chai tea, was never on the beverage menu of any of the local cafes Rob and I dropped into. By the time I was about to leave Croatia, I was beginning to miss my iced chai lattes, not having realized just how frequently I drank them back home. By frequently, I mean weekly, but it’s been over three weeks without my favorite spicy, cold, milky, smooth drink, and I felt overdue for a fix. I figured I’d surely find an iced chai latte at a Starbucks once we arrived in Italy. Bari had no green mermaid logos on its hanging signs, and to my surprise Naples didn’t either. Surely a city as large and tourist-populated as Rome would have one. To my horror, I realized upon arrival that Rome was without a Starbucks, too! Not a one popped up as a red dot on my iPhone Google Map! Then I discovered the unspeakable… There. Is. Not. A. Single. Starbucks. In. The. Whole. Of. Italy. I can’t even write that as a whole sentence, as my aunt might accuse me of sacrilege. I am dying at my own indignant Americanness at this lack-of-Starbucks situation. Actually, I am quite okay with it, but it’s just that it’s the only place I imagined I would be able to find an iced chai. I don’t even drink coffee, (although I have been known to order a vanilla frap on a hot day), but it’s the sweet, sticky chai lattes that bring me through Starbucks’ doors back at home. I have to admit that I kind of admire Howard Schultz, the president and CEO of the Starbucks Corporation, for not placing one of his venues in Italy. I’m sure the Italians had something to say about it, too, but upon some research into the subject, I think I believe that Mr. Schultz chose not to invade Italy because of his respect for the Italian way of coffee. Sort of like the British way of tea. Notice that the names of nearly all of Starbucks’ drinks, sizes, and flavors are after Italian inspiration, which I think Mr. Schultz did as a way of paying distant respect.
I accepted that my Starbucks chai fix will just have to wait until France, and in the meanwhile, I made hopeful requests in vain at every caffe Rob and I went into. That is, until we went into Babington’s Tea Room at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Everything about this elegant and spacious tea house beamed with class, and it charmed me with its little black cat logo on everything that was for sale in front, from tea pots to oven mitts to bags of real loose leaf tea. Rob and I decided to take a break from all our long walking and have a refreshing course of afternoon tea. Lo and behold, they had masala chai on their menu! I ordered it iced, and Rob ordered one, too, and we decided to share a snack of toast spread with cinnamon ginger jam. The whole experience was peacefully replenishing. There’s nothing like a soothing cup of tea on a busy and stressful afternoon. It was served to us in little glass pitchers, ice cubes clinking as the waitress set it down. Rob gave my aching feet a massage as I closed my eyes and appreciated the quietude, centering myself into a state of Zen I haven’t consciously practiced until then on this trip. I’m not a dedicated meditator, but I do take time in my usual routine back home for some mental R&R and physical checking in.
Revitalized, we made our way to the Galleria Borghese, the museum that houses the most beautiful private art collection I have ever seen. I even enjoyed it more than the Vatican Museum later that night. The rooms were tall and spaciously laid out, but it felt intimate. Everything was stunning, the paintings, the woodwork in the doorways, the etched stones. The sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini captured my imagination, almost all of them inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. I found unexpected and intense emotions arising inside me with each one I looked at, finally understanding how art is supposed to make me feel in a way I never fully did before. I felt romantic hope as I looked at the statue of Apollo running away with Daphne; lustful awe as I stared at David wielding his slingshot, jaw set, his anatomically perfect muscles rippling in the stone; captivating hedonism in the smile of the woman carved in “La Verita Scoperta dal Tempo”.
The sculpture titled “The Rape of Proserpina” moved me the most. Proserpina, or Persephone in Greek mythology, is the innocent maiden abducted by Pluto (Hades in Greek). It was the terror in Proserpina’s eyes that moved my own to tears; the resistance in her body language as Pluto grips her so tightly that I can almost see the bruises that would be pressed into her marble thighs from his large hands; the gleeful smirk on Pluto’s face as he relishes his conquering victory, no doubt excited to take the virginity of young Proserpina while she cries her stony tears. Her perfect curls extended straight out behind her, as if she were frozen in mid-stranglehold trying to escape. Her eyes begged for someone to help her, her hand desperately pushing away Pluto’s shameless face. She looks defeated, frightened, desperate, and panicked. Everything about Pluto repulsed me, especially his mocking smile. Poor Proserpina.
Thinking we were ready to once again take on the crowded streets of Rome, Rob and I quickly realized how tired our poor bodies really were by this point. We’d known it was an ambitious day, but damn. We hadn’t the physical energy to walk to the Vatican, or the mental energy required to figure out which train to take, and if we did either, we surely wouldn’t have the strength to walk around the Vatican or the Sistine Chapel once we got there, so we told ourselves that we deserved a cab ride. I love cabs. I wished our Roma Pass covered unlimited taxi fare for three days as well as the trains and busses. There’s something so luxurious about hopping into the back seat of a car, telling the driver where you want to go, and relaxing to take in the passing scenery as you don’t think about a thing. Then poof, there you are!
The Vatican has a list of what I consider to be ridiculous rules. While I respect other cultures and their ways of doing things, when it comes to religion-inspired law and order, I have little patience, as they’re usually sexist and unreasonable (burkas, anyone?). Alas, usually cultural ways of doing things and religion-inspired rules are often tied together. The Vatican forbids women from showing their legs, feet, and shoulders. This meant that most of my wardrobe would not be sufficient, but fortunately I had brought jeans and a couple t-shirts, and if the guards made a stink about my toes showing through my high heels, then I’d say fuck them, and go back to camp. It was too hot to even think of wearing my rain boots, and my hiking shoes would have required socks, also hot, and aside from the unwelcome flip flops, peep-toe heels were all I had. I managed to get through security without anyone noticing my feet. One other reason I’ve always had it in for the Vatican: a couple of years ago, I found out that they house the world’s largest and most breathtaking collection of erotic art, and that it’s locked away because they don’t want anybody to see. it. I find the hoarding of beauty meant to be seen and shared not only unspeakably selfish, but maddeningly prudish and condescending. Erotic art is my favorite, so I find this personally beyond aggravating.
Once inside, I was awed by how many works of art there are to behold. It was overwhelming. Each Egyptian mummy I passed, each Roman sculpture and ancient pitcher, seemed so well preserved that they all looked fake. It honestly took away from the impressiveness of it all, because it was hard to convince my mind that these were the real deal, that although they had gone through restorations, they were original artifacts from thousands and thousands of years ago. The tapestries in the hallway blew me away the most, some of them taking well over twenty years to complete. I couldn’t even imagine where to begin weaving such a masterpiece as Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” into a hanging rug.
The Sistine Chapel is very awesome. Upon entry, the guards are quick to reprimand you for the pictures you instantly begin to take, saying, “This is a holy place.” Hmph. Art is art is art, and I’ll say it again, I believe it’s meant to be shared! I don’t find anything unholy in quietly taking a photograph of something beautiful. Occasionally the murmering voices in the chapel would reach a volume level louder than the guards deemed appropriate, and they periodically would holler out, “Silencio!” It was only a matter of seconds before the murmering would start back up again. Rob and I had plopped ourselves down on the bench to the chapel’s stage left, contemplating Michaelangelo’s art on the wall opposite. I’ve never studied art history, and I generally prefer the Impressionist depictions of nature and people going about daily life to Biblically-inspired Renaissance-era paintings. I mean… don’t all the holy haloed people start looking the same after a while, with their pointed fingers and pasty complexions, or am I the only one who finds this boringly repetative? Michaelangelo was a badass, don’t get me wrong. I find his art to be more fascinating than most from his time. As I pondered the domed ceiling of the Sistine, I realized that Michaelangelo had painted the twelve sons of Jacob, their names spelled out in old Latin beneath their depictions.
Rob and I moved to the other side of the room, where we started another one of the many deep conversations we’ve had on our journey. This one was about dreams and visions. I swear we’ve communicated in our sleep, and the more I learn about dreaming, the more convinced I am in our ability as humans with “souls”,whatever they are, to visit each other while our bodies and minds are in a state of unconsciousness. The coincidences Rob and I found in the dreams we’ve had over the years, and the dreams we’ve had since being on this trip together, were beginning to weird us out in the most riveting way. Dreams are a very personal subject, so I won’t share Rob’s. Actually, since mine are rather tied to his in the coincidental ways I just mentioned, I had better not share mine either. I guess I’ll just have to leave you all hanging… But trust me, it was a perfect, deep conversation to have inside one of the world’s most revered and inspirational places.
We trudged back into our campsite late that night, spent, sore, and completely wiped out from the day. Between this and the day before, we realized we had walked over thirty miles, in grueling heat with poor footwear and inadequate hydration. I’ve been trying to drink less to avoid going to the bathroom more, as I’ve already waxed poetic on the atrocious state of Italian toilets. Want to hear the latest? In Lake Garda they don’t even provide you with toilet paper. The bathroom amenities are truly third world in this stunning, otherwise civilized nation. I don’t understand why the Italians wouldn’t want to sit down to do their business, and at the very least be able to clean up after themselves. Do they do like the Indians and wipe with their left hand only, accomplishing everything else with their right? It’s a good thing I haven’t been forced to shake hands with anybody, as I couldn’t help but wonder where they’ve recently been. I’ve taken to bringing my own roll of toilet paper with me when I use the facilities, and I’m not above buying my own seat to tote around the next time I see an IKEA. What a funny, shameless sight I’ll be, walking around these gorgeous old towns with a toilet seat tucked under my arm and a roll of toilet paper trailing out of my purse. In my dreamland, this will make a statement to the Italian mayor who sees me and thinks, Hm, maybe we should add seats and toilet paper to our public bathrooms to avoid looking like we have the hygenic standards of Bangladesh. As I said, in my dreamland.