Saturday, February 05, 2005

Part II: Tredici giorni da non dimenticare mai (5/30/02)

I've had rotten luck this week with lost drafts of messages. I doubt that this one will be finished by the time I have to get offline in an hour, but I am going to go ahead and send whatever I have then, and finish it over the next couple of days. This is the third time today I have sat down to compose this particular message, and in the other two cases the drafts were gone from the draft folder when I tried to get into it to pick up where I had left off before.

We arrived back in Salt Lake City at about 9:30 last night. Sheila's sister Sue was there to pick us up, along with her husband Dave and our son Colin. They made a couple of remarks about my appearance. The first was that I looked like I had spent a lot of time in the sun, which of course was true, and the observation did not surprise me. The second one did: they all told me I looked like I had lost some weight. What with the huge meals and numerous trips to the gelateria, I actually thought I had gained some weight in Italy. (In fact, on my last visit to the pizzeria in Bolsena, I pointed my finger at the nice signora I told you about, and in mock-accusatory terms said I had gained weight on our trip, and it was her fault. She laughed, and of course I bought some more pizza.) But perhaps my relatives are right after all. I was quite active physically throughout the trip, and in the 13 days I estimate that I walked somewhere between 60 and 80 miles, some of it while hauling our luggage, and practically all the remainder while carrying a backpack. In addition, of course, there were the "47 charming steps" -- so says their webpage -- at the Dei Mori, and the hill I had to climb in Bolsena to get to the convent. On one day I had to climb up that hill three different times.

I sent mass e-mails on all but two days of the trip, the two days in question being Sunday and Monday of this week. Sunday, of course, was the day I told you I would probably not be sending anything. I can summarize the weekend in Bolsena by saying that we did little more than relax and enjoy the view from our window. Saturday night the workers at the convent had a party for someone who was graduating from the university, and Sheila and I were invited to attend. She remained present for about an hour, and I stayed for perhaps 15 minutes beyond that. For most of the time, I conversed with an intelligent and amiable fellow named Carlo. The following night I was doing our laundry when one of the workers stuck her head in the door and invited me to come eat a meal with them. (It was about 11:00 p. m. then.) They also sent a plate to Sheila, who was not feeling well that evening and had decided to remain in our room. For the next hour or so, I enjoyed the meal and the company; and even though I was the only foreigner present and was, in addition, twice as old as any of the others who were there, everyone seemed to want and accept my presence at the gathering. One of them asked me if I had watched any Italian television during our visit, to which I responded by saying yes, and telling them about that dopey program I had seen at the Faenza train station, which I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. This revelation was followed by a collective shriek of horror, and someone expressed the hope that I would not judge Italy by such things. I told them not to worry, and that Italy did not have a monopoly on idiotic television programs. I then told them about "The Bachelor," and everyone seemed to find this information somehow reassuring.

Monday was just plain chaotic, for reasons I have already partly discussed. My decision to visit the Vatican on that day, and under those circumstances, was probably a mistake, since the hurried and stressful trip sort of defeated our purpose in having deliberately planned a slow-paced vacation. By the time I arrived back at the convent, it had been more than eight hours since I had departed. Although I discovered later that if I had left about fifteen minutes earlier than I did, I could have reduced the time by perhaps an hour, the experience convinced me that we could not possibly make our flight the next day unless we left that afternoon and spent the night in Rome. One of the two daily buses for Orvieto was scheduled to leave in just about exactly an hour, and we decided to take it. (We could have gone to Viterbo instead, but there we would be faced with having to move our luggage to the train station, uphill this time; moreover, the bus to Orvieto would drop us off at the station, and the train to Rome would be an IC (intercity). So we really hustled, and in the process lost our 220-volt converter, as I mentioned. Fortunately, we did not lose anything else on the trip, and we did make it to catch the bus on time, although only barely.

I had wanted to take a packaged bus tour of Rome, but of course that did not work out, which actually proved to be a good thing. Mimi and her husband and daughter drove us all around Rome in a whirlwind tour that proved to be more fun and satisfying than any packaged tour could possibly have been -- even though it was late at night and we were in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm. We managed to see most of the notable monuments and attractions of Rome, even though in some cases we could barely see them through the rain and the steamed-up car windows. We arrived at the Trevi Fountain just as the rain let up for a few minutes. Sheila and I got out of the car and went through the ritual of throwing some coins backward into the fountain, which, according to tradition, means that the person throwing the coins will someday be able to return to Rome. We remained there for about ten minutes. Mimi took pictures of us kissing in front of the fountain; Sheila took pictures of Mimi and me sitting together at the fountain; and I bought Sheila an overpriced rose from a street vendor. She is keeping the rose, and wants to have one or more of the petals laminated.

One of the landmarks Lucio pointed out as we passed it was an Ethiopian obelisk. The next morning I bought the day's edition of Corriere della Sera to read on the flight home, and on the front page there was an article about this obelisk, which was brought to Italy as a war trophy after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Mussolini had ordered it placed on its present site in 1937, to commemorate his glorious victory over the Ethiopian military colossus; and in 1947 Italy agreed to return the obelisk to Ethiopia, but for various reasons never quite got around to it. The article appeared in the paper because shortly before midnight Monday -- not more than an hour or so after we had passed it -- the obelisk was struck by lightning and severely damaged, with about 40 fragments of it breaking off and falling into the street, barely missing a passing car. The Ethiopians are rather ticked off about the whole thing, and who can blame them? I have often felt that Mussolini would have been among the great buffoons of history if what he did had not led to such tragic results for his country, and this incident is yet another, albeit lesser, reason for history to condemn him.

It looks like I may actually finish this message after all, and toward the end of the week I will send one last e-mail, with my general impressions of the trip and advice for anyone contemplating a similar journey. After that I will go back to giving all of you the individual attention you deserve.

In one of the numerous travel books I consulted in preparation for this trip, the author remarked that if the nations of the world could be likened to a high-school student body, Italy would be the homecoming queen. I have often reflected on this observation, usually because I wish it had originated with me so that I could claim it as my own. I cannot do that, of course, but perhaps I can sum up my own Italian experience thus: I have always loved to travel, and ever since my childhood, Italy has been one of the three or four countries in the world that I have most wanted to visit. Now, just prior to my 49th birthday, I have finally had my opportunity. For 13 glorious days in the month of May, I have submitted myself to the pleasing spell of this lovely and bewitching country, basking in the warmth and hospitality of its people, partaking of their wondrous cuisine, pondering their unique contributions to the civilization and refinement of the world, and marveling at their ability to savor life in spite of the daunting problems Italy has had to face throughout its long and turbulent history. I have spoken and listened to their beautiful language, which, to borrow an apt phrase from Will Durant, represents the triumph of the vowel over the consonant. And for months and years to come, amid the travails and cares of life, I will rejoice in my memories of this singular episode in my life, and of its individual, kaleidoscopic components. This land and its inhabitants have won me over, and I know that henceforth and forever, some part of me will always be Italian. I hope someday to return to Italy, but in the meantime, I know my life has been immesurably blessed and enriched by my having been there once. Arrivederci, Roma -- e Firenze, e Ravenna, e Bolsena.

I am almost out of time, and regret that I will have to send this off without proofreading it. But I hope it has turned out okay -- and that this time -- on my fourth attempt -- I will finally succeed in sending it off.




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