Search and Find
Rome, Rome! I am in Rome! I am in a gorgeous city that is warm and friendly and pulsing with the ages. I cannot remember ever being more pleased to be anywhere. Perhaps that is freedom’s colossal high, truth’s freewheeling zenith. Nowhere else to be but here.
We dump our bags on the beds in a small apartment near the Vatican, grab the cameras and head straight out for lunch at a little delicates- sen. Sitting in a basement at the foot of a small set of narrow wooden stairs, at a table with a red checkered cloth and a mound of white bread, the journey proper begins. We order wine. I order vegetarian antipasto, which comes, eventually, loaded with chunky cured meats. Ben orders spaghetti bolognaise; I can’t believe he’s come all this way for a spag-bol. We practice filming as we wait. We film the elderly waiter going up and down the stairs, bringing food for all the guests but us. We raise our glasses and film a toast for the road ahead. We interview each other for the camera and laugh at our self-consciousness and our Australian-ness, stark against the ease of the Romans. The Romans!
We spend the afternoon walking around the streets, laughing in the heat of the day about the burning in our shoulder blades from the daypacks, know- ing that it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse. We return to our room and collapse on the beds, rolling about laughing as we kick off our shoes with tell-tale groans because our feet are hot and tired and the walk hasn’t even begun. And we breathe in the simple pleasure of our small apart- ment, because come Saturday, September 22, two days from now, when day equals night and the sun turns on its heels for its southbound run, even the simplest of comforts—a clean bed, or any bed; a hearty meal, or any meal—will no longer be ours for the asking. For me, the madness is about to begin. For Ben, the madness is about to begin again. It is a privilege to be sharing this walk with my son. He has a grace and ease about him that is uncommon in our world. The first leg of his journey was a quintessential rollercoaster ride of challenge and fun, filling him with the lightness of being that comes to those who meet life as it presents. His is a steady eye and an open heart. This is the gift of the road.
Late in the afternoon, we decide to experiment with night filming at the Fontana di Trevi, the city’s famous Trevi Fountain. We roll into the crowded evening, following our senses with the grace of tumbleweeds into the breezy, fluid night.
At the Trevi Fountain, in the company of Neptune rising, sea horses galloping and the berobed virgin who found the source of the gushing water in the first place, among tourists crushed alive with the night and locals fishing coins from the water with long magnetic poles, in the heart of a city that hasn’t missed a beat for three millennia, my world stills and I tilt my head to the night, listening ham-radio curious for the ones who walked this way before. Before me. Before you. Before.
I look to the night sky and come face to face with the colors of antiq- uity: a gold half moon, crisp and poised on its tip, egged on by an audacious indigo sky. Longing rises in me like sap to the warm sun, and I glimpse the obsessive fervor of the artisans, the crazed desire that commanded them to reproduce the ethereal, to give it form, to make it solid, to arrest God and celebrate their genius—or go mad in the try- ing. Face to the heavens, I smile at the enormity of the challenge before them: to find that blue on Earth!
We wander home, munching on a handful of Baci chocolates, shortcut- ting through the backstreets and plazas of the eternal city, happily lost among ruins that keep surprising us from the shadows, iconic stone beasts and statues, massive buildings and pillars and…the Pantheon! We look at each other blankly, knowing we’re in the presence of some- thing important. What’s the Pantheon? I’m sorry I haven’t read “I, Claudius.” We stick our new-world noses in the door and, startlingly alone, bounce our ignorance around the walls of the cavernous stone chamber. Ben shoots some impressive footage inside and out before we wander on into the night.
We meet the main road, east of the river, just in time to be accosted by the ring-roar-racket of a parade caterwauling its way through the traffic. A brass band cruising the night, afloat on a float, Radio Radicale with a message for the world: “No Vatican. No Taliban.” No Vatican. No Taliban. Sounds like a fair trade to me. I take a good long look at the people around me. Put a gladiator helmet on their heads, winged with gold, and nothing has changed! They are the same people as those who have gone before. Same hair, same beards, same noses, same foreheads. Same sky, same dirt. Same heart. Just one long steady stream of humanity, generation after generation giving birth to each other, passing on the city, passing it on, passing it on.
The current civilization in my country is just over two hundred years old. I savor the liberation of the new world—and sense the mourning that comes with it for the loss of the old ways, favorable and terrible or both, depending upon your place in the endless chain.
I get a stitch in my side as we make our way back up the hill west of the Vatican. I cannot remember a time when I have been as unfit as I am at the moment. I guess that’s about to change.
Morning comes, and with it the familiarity of waking with my son sound asleep in a narrow bed in another corner of the house. Ben never wakes willingly, unless of course there’s an extraordinary imperative. There was a time when that did not include catching planes or, fur- ther back in time, going to school. I, to his bemusement and, depend- ing on the circumstances, frustration, wake with the sun, shamelessly alive and enthralled with the morning no matter how much sleep I’ve had in the night. Needless to say, I have never missed a plane.
I am so pleased to be in the same room as my son, wrapped in my sleep- ing bag, content to lie alone with morning teasing me through cracks of light in the blind. Church bells shatter the silence. They ring their immodest dominion over land and life, reminding me I am once again in Christian lands. I would have thought, had I thought about it at all, that the Vatican would have beautiful bells. Musical bells. Hallelujah bells. The Vatican does not have bells: it has saucepans donged with wooden clubs. Clang-bonngggg thud, clang-bonnggg thud.
I am a long, long way from my husband (speaking of saucepans). I hold up my left hand and twirl the diamonds of my wedding ring around to the outside of my finger. There are three things I travel with that are gifts from my husband: my wedding ring, a pashmina of wool so soft it sits like angels on my shoulders, and a beautiful black and gold pen. I gaze at the ring, still astonished by its presence in my life. In the weeks leading up to our wedding I dreamed often of the number nine. In choosing the ring I could have had seven diamonds or nine, and I went with the dreams. Much later I Googled nine. Nine for completion, which I understand to mean nine for the consummation of my life’s journey. Nine for my relationship with the universal presence some call God. Nine for the courage to stay true to my path. The ring may have entered my life via marriage, but it stands for all of me.
I survey the shining stones and, momentarily free from emotion, con- sider my husband. I am ready to rewrite my story of our time together. This is my prayer for the road. Because it is only a story. And it’s only my story. And because it’s my story, I can tell it any way I want. I drop my hand to the bed, bored now. I roll up pieces of scrap paper and reach for a rubber band from the bedside table. I fire little white balls of paper across the room at Ben. He stirs. He groans, no doubt with the joy of having his mother in the room.
“Rome!” I announce to the dead weight in the blue sleeping bag in the far corner. “Let’s go!”
We kick off the morning with a visit to the venerable Don Bruno Ver- cessi, the Vatican’s head honcho for pilgrims. It’s not often these days the affable Don has cause to bless a pilgrim fresh in from Canterbury, and rarer still that he gets to bless one on his or her way to Jerusalem.
Getting through Don Bruno’s door is a feat in itself: first past the blue and orange Swiss guards who stand watch at the wrought-iron gates on the Vatican’s west wing, who as far as we are concerned take themselves far too seriously considering their white lizard collars and jester outfits; and then past the officials inside the gate, who insist we hand over our passports. It takes a while to get in, but Ben is not a man for “no,” and besides, he has a longstanding date with Don Bruno. Ben, I learn in the months to come, is a man who likes his stamps, and he wasn’t leaving Rome without his pilgrim passport validated with a blessing from the good Don.
We sit in Don Bruno’s office among wooden desks and shelves and carpets worn with the timely needs of bureaucrats, administrators, and scholars of the ages. Through these rooms and corridors, I begin to get a sense of the passage of time. Don Bruno takes us on a tour of the Vatican, down into the stone underbelly of the Catholic nation, through the backwoods and byways of the world’s smallest sovereign territory, along marble floors all the colors of the Earth, to a small private chapel dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. Here I impress Ben with my recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, in unison with Don...