I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday reflections

A slightly more modern view of Lisbon.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Welcome to the working week

Tram driver in Lisbon.

It was disconcerting at first to see that all of the tram drivers had fire extinguishers at their feet. Then I realized that the trams are in fact mostly made of wood. And fire extinguishers are probably a very good idea.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Welcome to the working week

A gondolier taking a cigarette break in Venice.

When they're in context, propelling their ornate little boats down the canals, the gondoliers don't seem silly, partly because of the sheer muscularity of the job, and partly because there's a certain silliness to Venice herself.

But off the boat, sitting alone in a campo, there isn't a man alive who can pull off a hat with ribbons.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Alps from the air

Bad weather at Newark delayed the Rome flight last night, so our own flight back to Newark was delayed three hours. Let's just say that the offered mimosas were gratefully accepted once we were finally on board, and the giddy good humor only increased when we flew over the Alps.

As always, click to enlarge.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The mind is an ancient and famous capital

The mind is a city like London,
Smoky and populous: it is a capital
Like Rome, ruined and eternal,
Marked by the monuments which no one
Now remembers. For the mind, like Rome, contains
Catacombs, aqueducts, amphitheatres, palaces,
Churches and equestrian statues, fallen, broken or soiled.
The mind possesses and is possessed by all the ruins
Of every haunted, hunted generation’s celebration.

I've been thinking of this poem ever since I got here, so one last picture of the ruins for Mr. Schwartz.

House of Augustus

I knew I was feeling more charitable about Rome when, after seeing the Forum, I decided to hike up the Palatine Hill again, wanting a chance to see it in better weather.

And it was a lucky decision, because whatever mysterious alignment of stars rules the schedule of the House of Augustus was in my favor, and it was open.


Only five people are allowed in at a time (at least according to the sign; the woman at the gate seemed to wave through a random number based on how long she could stand to interrupt her conversation with the man sitting outside her booth.) The line was long and, since it was mostly on a steep cobblestoned path with iron railings on both sides, uncomfortable.

So I waited in line over an hour, to spend perhaps ten minutes in three small stone rooms with vivid, fragmented red and blue frescoes. And it was absolutely worth it.

Augustus lived in this house for forty years, and the frescoes were painted the year after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, when he was still Octavian, long before he became emperor and required a palace just to hold all the titles bestowed upon him by an ostensibly grateful Senate. There's nothing very grand about the house or the frescoes, but to stand in rooms where Augustus once stood, where he scratched his nose or rearranged his toga, where he maybe stared at the painted walls and thought about how to handle the latest conspiracy, or whom to appoint to manage some province, or what Livia might be up to now, was -- there's no other word for it -- thrilling. (No flash allowed so the photos aren't great, but I don't think it matters.)

Aftermath of the ides of March

This altar, hidden behind a wall and easy to overlook, marks the spot where the mob, possibly responding to a speech that Mark Antony may or may not have made, built an impromptu pyre for Julius Caesar in the middle of the Forum. After the Senate declared Caesar a god, Augustus built a temple around the altar.

It would be a nondescript pile of dirt except for the flowers, which are reportedly left by monarchists and neo-fascists who see him as the symbol of the glory of Rome.


Coming back to the Forum with fresh eyes, I realized that part of what bothered me about Rome is the huge disorder. It's not so much the way the monuments pile upon monuments, churches with priceless artworks elbowing their way in among all the other churches with equally priceless artworks.

It's how careless, and cluttered, it feels. Rome is full of these old marble pedestals, pieces of columns, toppled capitals. And every single one of them is just left where it fell, as though in two thousand years no one could be bothered to pick them up and straighten them out.

If there are enough of them, the Romans simply put a fence around them, but even in the Forum, where every bit of marble is presumably historically valuable, there's very little effort made to order or preserve any of it.

Anyone who's tired, or needs to read a map, just plops down on the nearest piece of marble, something that would be unthinkable anywhere else.

The other Rome

It was fun to see Saturday afternoon in Rome from the windows of my bus, watching people strolling or shopping or sitting in a park, and seeing streets where apartment blocks that could have been in any city in the Western world were not cluttered with brick ruins and marble pedestals.

By the time the return bus deposited me in the vicinity of the Forum, I felt up to facing the ruins again.

Spanish Steps

After I left the Keats house I went to Babington's, the English tearoom on the other side of the Spanish Steps. It was cool and quiet -- there weren't more than a half dozen people there -- and I lingered over tea and a slice of cake, watching the waitresses in their retro long skirts and white stockings.

When I went back outside, it was even more crowded in the plaza and the surrounding streets, and I was suddenly in danger of losing the positive feelings I had started to develop towards Rome. It was just too much: choked with people, choked with monuments, like something a hack director who thinks "Felliniesque" means crowded and confused might produce. I had planned to go back to the Forum; instead I stayed on the bus all the way to the end of the line, enjoying the gradual thinning out of the obvious tourists, and interested to see if there were parts of Rome that just looked like an ordinary city.

Casa di Keats

The house where Keats spent the last four months of his life is now a museum. This is the view from the bedroom where he died, overlooking the Spanish steps.

There were only a few other visitors, and the contrast between the hushed reverence of the paintings and letters and first editions in the dim rooms and the life, teeming and bright and raucous, outside was heartbreaking. I was never all that fond of the Romantics, but I can still recite most of Ode to a Nightingale by heart. (Not, of course, if anyone's looking.)

Keats knew that he was a great poet and he also knew that he would die, at 25, with most of that poetry unwritten. He lay in this room listening to the fountain, the horses, the laughter of passersby, so much life on the other side of those windows.

Saintly voyeurs

The next item on my list was Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa, in a church called Santa Maria della Vittoria.

The church wasn't on the map, but I managed to find Largo Santa Susanna, the square where it is located. Then, because there were of course no signs, I located the correct church among the dozen or so candidates by simply walking into each one until I found the crowd of tourists.

And there she is, St Teresa, in all her orgasmic splendor. It is even more outrageous in person than in photographs, from the way her mouth has fallen slightly open, to the lush disarray, meticulously carved, of the bedclothes.

My favorite touch, which you don't see in photos, is this balcony of men to the right, observing and discussing. It feels almost indecent.

Roman fashion

I was looking forward to seeing what women were wearing in Rome, which has a reputation for stylish dressing (in Venice, the big news was leggings, leggings, leggings.)

The problem was finding any actual Romans to observe, or rather picking them out from the millions of tourists milling in the streets.

A man in a uniform is always a safe bet to be a native, and the gentleman to the right in the picture is certainly wearing a beautifully cut coat.

But that hat! I've never understood the reasoning behind hats that teeter on top of the head instead of sitting firmly -- and attractively -- farther down on the crown. It just looks silly.

Rome, Day 2

I left the hotel this morning feeling much more forgiving about Rome -- though I suppose my opinion was so low at that point it could only have gone up. The weather was clear and sunny, and I decided to walk to the Spanish Steps, taking in some of the churches along the way.

This madonna is on Santa Maria Maggiore, a church so huge it is actually marked on the map, like the Colosseum and the Forum and almost nothing else I actually wanted to see.

I'd noticed in Venice that almost all the beggars were women, as though the Italian men considered it beneath them. The same was true in Rome, where every church seemed to have a woman sitting at the door. This woman blew me a kiss when I gave her a euro.

Friday, April 15, 2011

House of Livia

It was, of course, closed.

But you could peer through the windows and see something of the frescoes inside.

The house of Augustus didn't even offer that much: a tree, and some walls behind a fence, and a sign indicating that the Casa di Augusto was indeed beyond that gate and down that walk. But no clue as to when, or if, it was ever actually open.

I sent a picture of some brick rooms on the outside of Livia's house back to New York, and tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. If nothing else, I figured that the sixteen euros I hadn't had to pay for admission should be more than enough to persuade one of the thieving cab drivers to take me back to my hotel.

And so it was.

Never look an Ingresso Gratuito in the mouth

I chose to visit the Palatine Hill rather than the Forum first for one reason: Livia, or rather Livia as she appears, unforgettably, in I, Claudius. I've read Tacitus; I know the real Livia was a good wife, and she and Augustus lived simply on the Palatine long after they could have gone the ancient Roman equivalent of nouveau riche. But she'll always be mixed up in my mind with Sian Phillips explaining sadly how she poisoned Augustus by smearing poison on the figs while they were still on the tree.

I wanted to send pictures of Livia's house to friends in New York while they were still at work Friday, so I ignored the temptations of the Forum and climbed the hill, where I found stone paths, grassy fields, and a lot of brick ruins that all looked alike.

And an occasional directional sign, indicating that the Casa di Livia might, just might, be somewhere over in that direction. Or, perhaps, not. This is where a lesser people, less determined to treat tourists as badly as possible, might have succumbed to the temptation to provide actual maps with the tickets, or at least a large You Are Here sign.

Not the Romans. If you want to see the Casa di Augusto, they are going to make finding it an achievement you can be proud of.  Because although I retraced my steps several times and tried to follow every sign I saw, I kept ending up at the thermal baths, which were large, arched, and spectacularly uninteresting.

They were also overrun with students who, with the twin advantages of being teenagers and being French, gave off such palpable waves of disdain that they were guaranteed no one wanted to get within fifty feet of them.

In which I attempt to visit the Palatine Hill

I think there were more people milling around the plaza between the Colosseum and the Forum than there were in all of Venice. And part of the reason for the milling was undoubtedly that there were are no signs or maps to provide direction to the poor disoriented masses.

I knew what I wanted -- the combined ticket for the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill, good for two days -- but it took a lot of milling on my own part to find the magic locations where such things were to be had. I asked the young woman behind the ticket window for the combined ticket and she handed it to me. I waited for her to tell me how much it was. And waited. She watched me rifle through my euros with an apparent lack of interest, and finally roused herself to say, "Madam, it's free."

I wanted to ask her if it was still good for two days, but she was clearly on the verge of dying from boredom as it was, and one more question from me might have pushed her over the edge.

Photo: Early tourists in Rome trampled under the determination of the Romans to ignore their existence.


After the great accomplishment of successfully hauling my luggage over the Grand Canal and onto the train, and a very pleasant ride on the Eurostar through Bologna and Firenze, I arrived in the chaos of Rome.

Chaos, quite literally, as there was a transit strike, and the area in front of the train station was clogged with hundreds of cars and cabs, and thousands of milling pedestrians. Although my hotel was theoretically within walking distance, I couldn't find a street sign so I could orient myself on the map, and I quickly gave up and got a cab. And I didn't even argue over the fare when it turned out that the cab drivers of Rome are even bigger thieves than those in Athens and Warsaw; I just wanted to get to my hotel.

I had been to Rome once before, when I was a college student with a backpack and a railpass, and my friend Ann and I had fled after two days because the Roman men harassed us so unrelentingly. It wasn't just ogling and rude comments; it was grabbing and fondling and kissing. One man sitting at a cafe reached out and pulled me down onto his lap as I walked by; a waiter in a trattoria grabbed my face and stuck his tongue in my mouth when we went in to ask for a table.

So it isn't surprising that I've never had any burning desire to go back. But one of the great benefits of being a middle-aged woman is invisibility; strange men no longer kiss me without my consent. And since my one regret about Rome was that I never got to see the Forum, I thought I should seize the opportunity.

What I didn't expect was that I wouldn't love, or even particularly like, Rome once the predatory men were out of the equation. It was partly the weather -- gray and a little drizzly -- but the streets were drab, and sucked all the drama out of what should have been a big reveal: the Colosseum!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Arrivederci Venezia

One last ride on the Grand Canal before going to dinner, this time enjoying the details: mosaics, arches, quatrefoil windows, all the hodgepodge of centuries of influences floating above the water.

I love this woman's face. It's so different from the faces on either side, which are more classical. It must have been copied from someone the sculptor knew. And, I'd like to think, loved.

La vita in rosa

Away from the Grand Canal, Venice is full of pinks, roses, ochres, oranges, every imaginable shade of red.

Say a prayer to St Anthony

If you grew up in a Catholic household, that was the response whenever you complained of being unable to find something. I always thought it was poor reward for a life of great piety to spend eternity locating the car keys of the faithful.

But that a saint who joined the Franciscans because of the simplicity of their lifestyle should have a tomb more suited to a Moghul emperor seems even less appropriate somehow. Judging by the many thank you letters and photos posted around his tomb, he remains active in the granting of miracles and the finding of misplaced objects.


Just past the Palazzo del Bo, this woman was celebrating finishing her degree. The new dottoressa wore cardboard shoes and underwear outside her dress, and her friends doused her in red wine and champagne.

Much as it was done in Galileo's day.

Palazzo del Bo

Because I was able to get an earlier slot at the Scrovegni, I had time to walk to the Basilica of Sant'Antonio. It's on the other side of Padova, but I have a friend who is very devoted to Saint Anthony and I wanted to get her something from his church.

So I only spent a few minutes at the Palazzo del Bo, the ancient headquarters of the University of Padova. The walls and ceilings surrounding this courtyard are covered with coats of arms from centuries of students. Galileo once held the chair of mathematics here, and you can still see his lectern on the guided tour, but I had already chosen the saint over the scientist for this visit.

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