Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Part II.

Click here for Part I.



Day 2

Sunlight warm at 8am, filtering through la vecchia befana's dark wooden shutters. Events of the night before rear up like a lurid phantasmogoria: I vaguely recall a long 3am walk home past the Colosseum and the surreally-rebuilt Theatre of Marcellus (above), the weedy, ruinously lush roadsides sprouting the dozing homeless, all eerily swaddled head-to-toe in blankets like Man Ray's The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse. Feel a little footsore and slightly raddled from the bar's beer and cigarette smoke, but discreetly lounge in bed reading Einhorn's Old French until the thud of the flat door indicates that Dan and the night's gentleman caller have completed whatever aubade was deemed appropriate and have bid each other farewell.

Ablutions done, the two of us cheerfully munch toast spread with the landlady's apple jam (which turns out to be made of oranges), and set off for that day's Cultural Highlight. Trolling up through the central streets of Rome---Dan apparently blithe, me nervous of the traffic and itchily paranoid about the street-vendors---I reflect on our history of travel together. Our first major experiment in this direction was several months in Melbourne a decade ago, a long trip which I have never blogged because at the time I was so brutally depressed and heavily medicated that I simply have next to no memory of it. I had utterly burnt myself out that year striving for a double first, but the Horatian tag caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt had somehow escaped me: in other words, 'wherever you go, there you are', and at the time I was traversing an affectless inner landscape of asteroidal bleakness.

Dan was of course a complete angel at dealing with the whole thing: anticipating the trip of a lifetime with his best friend, he found himself instead forced to play duenna to a somnabulistic, shuffling ghost who had finally gone birthday-suit-bonkers. As we wander the streets of Rome, I catch myself morphing back into this pattern of dependent timidity and have to steel the Inner Man in order to resist subsiding into a bath of elemental shame. Ah, the roles we cast ourselves in: despite clearly playing Sallah to Dan's Indiana Jones, as we push through the heat, bus-exhaust fumes, and squawking hordes towards the Musei Vaticani, I give my latent and preposterous Bovarisme full rein and indulge the self-delusion that I in fact live by the heroic code, fearless and able to cope with anything. I fantasize a world (so close to our own!) in which my true, inner nature is revealed by extraordinary circumstance: no longer a podgy academic erotomane, no siree, but rather a baggy-trousered, bare-toothed zouave, sabre in hand and athirst for adventure.



Arriving at one of the greatest repositories of human cultural achievement manages, astonishingly, to distract me momentarily from the vertiginous mise en abyme of my own narcissism. The Vatican Museums are fearsomely well-organized for Italy: with our tickets bought over the web weeks before we are inside and free to wander within five minutes. If you are not some kind of human supercomputer, they will exhaust your ability to process quite rapidly. 500-foot galleries of suspiciously perfect classical sculpture everywhere: here a mighty eye, finger, or foot juts at you; there looms a massive statue of Mercury with his characteristic flattened World War I helmet, no doubt replaced during the Renaissance. Serried rows of haughty Neronian matrons with ziggurats of ringlets glare down at the viewer, as though auditioning for parts in Fellini films, under painted ceilings like 3D illuminated manuscripts. Past a half-mile long corridor of maps of Italy picked out in hallucinatory blues, greens, and golds, twelve-foot-tall sistrum-shaking Isides and Junoesque Junos bewilder and exhaust the eye. This is long, long before you even reach Raphael's 'The School of Athens' (there's Hypatia, looking nothing like Rachel Weisz), let alone the bafflingly familiar sight of the Sistine Chapel. So much splendour imparts a kind of tristesse: after three hours, both Dan and I look dazed, as though we've been smacked round the face with shovels. Everything somehow so...immoderate, exorbitant, invulnerable. Dumbfounded after such gigantism---of both achievement and sheer accumulation---I feel like I am struggling to free myself from the space-warping gravity well of a cultural black hole, and find myself thinking of Cocteau's aperçu that 'everything in art is monstrous'.

Exhausted, we pause for lunch near the Pantheon, in a square which illustrates the principle that foreign grime somehow contrives to be picturesque: I feel expansive and worldly about eating at an outdoor table under a tumble of plastic vineleaves, yards away from a heap of sweaty binbags filled with elderly fish-heads. The waiter charmless, and the meal itself not brilliant---Dan's tagliatelle alla carbonana fearsomely salty, so we swap. Cold beers and pistachio gelati delight---notwithstanding the vague arrière-goût of merluzzo---but as we eat the shutters are loudly flung back on a first-storey window a few yards to my right. From the window emerges as hideous an old crone as I've ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. Dan has heard at length my piteous laments about the uncannily iterative, impersonal way in which I seem to attract Mad Old Women, and not for the first time I feel like a character in a medieval romance---perhaps a beleaguered youth labouring under a particularly arbitrary curse. Now, I can cope with the hardbitten, wisecracking old dames in kaftans and Edith Sitwell turbans, but this is, as my friend Luke would say, hissing with pique, summink else. We watch open-mouthed as the sinister hag leans from her balcony ('Romeo's long gone, dear', quips Dan), places one withered hand over her right eye, and fixes us with a beady stare of gibbering malevolence. A cold, self-destructive impulse creeps over me. (Is she about to produce a pointing bone? Must I go out at once into the Bush and expire of despair? Am I in a remake of Suspiria?!!) At this point, still giggling to herself, the grisly old trout lets down a wicker basket on a string. Everyone seems to ignore this surreal, Commedia dell'Arte scene: she cackles and rubs her lips at us, one eye still covered. With the solipsism of latent Catholic guilt, I cannot escape the feeling that this demented, gummy mugging is all somehow aimed at me personally, belonging to the fairy tale-symbolic. (Help! Magical thinking! What am I supposed to do?! Offer to cut out my heart and place it in the basket, releasing her from some kind of spell?!). After a few minutes, the apparently gleeful hag winches up her empty pannier and withdraws behind her peeling shutters. Dan and I turn to each other, blinking and bemused.



* * *

Remainder of the day---and the trip---less demanding on frayed nerves: no other ill-omens or lowering beldams slinking into the sharp Roman shadows. That night we venture out into Garbatella, a faintly run-down neighbourhood south of the flat, looking for this delightful place, Ristoro degli Angeli. After a wrong turning out of the metro station (we walk several times past the same group of half-arsed, teenage Roman goths, death metal blasting out of their open car), we eventually find the restaurant and settle down to an exquisitely delicious meal with friendly service. Antipasti utterly perfect: artichoke hearts, wonderful salty Parma ham, anchovy fillets on delicate crostini. As we glug Frascati, Dan opts for vegetarian meatballs, and I enjoy ravioli stuffed with smoked cod in a velvety potato sauce (nothing like as carb-heavy as it sounds) and an orgasmic pear-tart with an extremely good glass of Muscat. Heavy of belly, we walk home at 1am, trading high-speed banter in the Mapp & Lucia mock-Italian which had been the holiday's humorous demotic ('Giorgino mio! After all these piccoli disturbi, we must have a little divine Mozartino to put us back in touch with beauty once again!')

Home on Alitalia the next morning. That afternoon, contemplating the greyness of the Piccadilly Line on the way back from Heathrow, I wonder why we had ever even considered going anywhere other than Italy. Next stop: Sicily, perhaps, as I want to see Agrigento and stand on the lip of a decent smoking crater, contemplating the death of Empedocles. Possibly Venice would be better, in the wintertime; after all, as Dan said wryly, 'We'll both be ending up there eventually anyway...'

2 comments:

Christopher Pressler said...

Bo - yet again another beautifully written post. Rome brought to dark (actually it's sunny) Cambridge. Brilliant!
Chris

Bo said...

Glad you enjoyed it!

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