The next morning, Friday November 16 1973, I was up early at the hostel with a plan. Morgan had visited the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel yesterday, but had been frustrated at the big crowds filling the Chapel by the time he got there. I was determined to get their early, head quickly through the first parts of the museum labyrinth to get to the Chapel as quickly and early as possible.
So I ate whatever remnants of food I had in my pack and headed out to walk to the Vatican, which was not too far from the hostel. With my Rome city map all strategically folded so it showed just the rectangle of streets between me and my destination, I navigated the city’s hodgepodge of streets and arrived at a spot on a small street on the periphery of the sprawling connected Vatican complex of buildings. There was just a small stairway up to a nondescript door. I had anticipated the entrance to the museum would be some ostentatious portico, so I thought I was in the wrong place. There was no one around except for a fairly official looking man standing at the bottom of the small staircase, so I asked him in my minimal Italian where the entrance to the “Museo del Vaticano” was, expecting to have to try and parse directions in Italian to somewhere else, hopefully nearby. He pointed to the door at the top of the little stairway and said that the “Musei Vaticani” (apparently it was considered museums plural) would be open in “quarantacinque minuti”, about forty five minutes.
One of the first things you’d learn buying daily food rations at little grocery stores, particularly cheese and cold meat by weight in grams, were numbers in the local language. Now in Italy after spending several weeks in Spain, I noticed how similar the two languages were. A typical amount of cheese or meat I would ask the shop clerk for was 250 grams, a bit more of a half pound. In Spanish that was “doscientos cincuenta”, with the “cientos” (one hundred) and the “cincuenta” (fifty) starting with an “s” sound. In Italian it was “duecento cinquanta”, with the corresponding “cento” and“cinquanta” starting with a “ch” sound. When I rattled off the numbers to a Spanish grocer they slid out of my mouth, but here in Italy they erupted. It was like Spanish was smoother and Italian jauntier somehow.
Back in the moment, it of course struck me that since I actually WAS in the right spot, I WAS THE FIRST ONE HERE! I was thrilled, and as I waited in line I thought through my plan to get to the Chapel as quickly as I could. After about 15 more minutes the line started to form behind me and was nearly fifty people by the time the guard finally opened the door and let us in.
Once I had paid my small admission fee, per my plan, I walked quickly through the big rooms and long corridors of the place as fast as I could without outright running, which I figured would be unseemly and might get me thrown out even. I moved quickly past, with just brief glimpses of sculptures, paintings and display cases full of artifacts. I most remember walking quickly down a long high ceilinged hallway with huge stained glass windows on either wall and giant ancient maps of the world made out of jade and other precious stones lining the walls between the windows. Artifacts of an age when the religious elite of Rome probably saw themselves as the center of the world. I felt like I was heading deeper into some great tomb from another age, that exalted a god I, heretic that I was, did not believe in. I finally got to the Chapel which, except for the docent in one corner of the room who seemed surprised to see me and looked down at the watch on his wrist, was completely empty.
My first take was that it was just a big rectangular room with windows up high along opposite walls like a gymnasium or an empty warehouse. It was all the painted images on those walls and ceiling that transformed the place into something else. Every bit of wall and ceiling space beyond the windows was packed with different scenes and renderings, like some crazed art gallery where instead of strategically placing each painting so it stood on its own with wall space around it, every inch of either wall OR CEILING space was crammed with art work. It made the entirety of the room so visually busy that it was actually hard to look at and gave me a slight sensation of vertigo and being seasick.
Across the ceiling was Michelangelo’s “Genesis” – over 40 different panels, like the pages of a comic book, visually telling the biblical story of the creation of our world. The figures of God, Adam and others were painted very three dimensionally, so they seemed to hang in space above me. Even the separators between the panels were painted as if they were three-dimensional architectural features – pillars and moulding.
Then down one of the walls without windows was his “Last Judgement”, which was amazing in its scope, dwarfing the scope even of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”. A single giant rendering of several hundred people, many lifesize, in various small groups rising into heaven on that mythical day of reckoning for the human species. The sense of motion upward conveyed in the huge piece was almost visceral. In front of this wall was obviously where the podium would be put for the cleric leading any kind of service in the place.
On the other three walls were scenes from the Bible painted by other artists. On one wall a series of pictures depicting Moses’ life and death. The opposite wall scenes from Jesus’ life. The remaining wall showing Jesus’ resurrection and Moses’ funeral.
Morgan had told me that Michelangelo, who was really more of a sculptor than a painter though skilled at both, had tussled with the Pope who had commissioned him to paint the ceiling and the wall areas not already painted by other artists. The artist had wanted to do lifesize sculptures of Jesus’ twelve apostles but the Pope nixed that and Michelangelo ended up painting those “sculptures” in his three-dimensional style high on the walls between the high windows. If they weren’t going to be actual sculptures, well they were going to look like fucking sculptures.
The longer I stood virtually alone in the room the more overwhelmed I was by the zeitgeist of the place and the role Christian dogma had played in shaping our Western culture. I was in the inner sanctum of a religion that championed a god that, a decade earlier, I had chosen not to believe in after difficult internal deliberations, but still a nagging worry, what if I was wrong. A god that presumably still held sway in the churches and synagogues around Ann Arbor, though rarely spoken of that my ears could hear, outside of those places in my home town, or by my circles of family and friends. That “God”, flagged as the one and only with a capital “G”, that lurked in the pages of those bibles salted away in the nightstands of the hotel rooms I had cleaned last summer. Those smartly bound volumes always freaked me out a bit when I encountered one, afraid to touch it, let alone open and read it, as I clung still somewhat tenuously to my atheism.
My mom, ironically I thought, had told me she actually believed in God (I think hers even with the capital “G”), though with her next sentence always qualifying that she thought religion, particularly THIS religion celebrated on the four walls and ceiling containing me at the moment, was the scourge of human society. About five years ago she had joined a “church”, but it was a Unitarian church and the minister, Erwin Gaede, was actually a professed atheist, which I took some solace in when she told me. She had actually joined the congregation not so much for the religion part, but for the connection to all the other church members who were key players in liberal Ann Arbor city politics. It was also the homebase for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women that she was a member of. I actually was a member too, she had paid for me to join when she was the chapter’s membership chair trying to build its ranks any and every way she could.
Back in the moment, my neck started to ache as I tried to study all the detail in the Genesis murals on the ceiling above me. You would really need to lie on the floor to properly take it all in above you. Panel by panel the visual story told of how the bearded and robed old male God made the world and created Adam and Eve to seed the human race. His corporeal progeny then eating the forbidden fruit and being punished by the great flood (I recalled Bill Cosby’s comic routine of God talking to Noah which I had pretty much memorized). Finally God sending down Jesus to redeem his flawed earthly creations.
It was all still a bit discomforting for me, though I tried to take it in more in the way someone like Morgan would, studying an ancient culture from an academic point of view. There was no way for me to tell exactly how long I was the only person in the place other than the docent type person. But after what must have been about 15 or 20 minutes, other museum visitors began to wander in, and I was happy to take that as my cue to move on, not wanting to sully my experience of the thing with the take of others.
The rest of the museum was not memorable. The best part was just walking down the long corridors through a disorienting array of rooms and turns. As often happened with me, I loved the space more than its contents, and I was so pleased that I had had my solo maybe twenty minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and was excited at the thought of sharing this with Morgan back at the hostel, and suggesting that he do the same thing I did by lining up really early in the morning.
Afterwards I went around to the other side of the Vatican complex to St. Peter’s Cathedral. I was taken by the immenseness of the place inside, bigger than Notre Dame. I guess it made sense because this was the world capital of sorts of the Christian, or at least the Catholic part of the religion. There was a canopy in the center of the Nave, with ornately carved pillars, which must have been 50 feet high. And the dome above the nave was so broad and high above the floor, like St. Paul’s in London but I guessed even more so. And sure enough, like with St. Paul’s in London and Sacre Coeur in Paris, there was a way to get to the cupola above. I of course had to do it, and enjoyed navigating the labyrinth of the various winding narrow staircases and narrow passageways up to the external observation deck at the top of the cupola.
Mostly alone, from that high perch I could look down onto the piazza on one side and all the other buildings of Vatican City on the other, which I knew was actually its own tiny country. And then the city of Rome sprawling off in all directions around it, as I watched the sun descend below its western horizon. Being able to see off into the distance encouraged my mind to think more about the big picture of my travels. Looking down at the urban landscape of block after block of buildings and crowded boulevards out to the horizon, graying in the twilight, I realized that I was burnt out on “sightseeing” in these big urban places. Not just here in Rome but in whatever city it might be next.
The only thing other than going home that really appealed to me at this point was Switzerland. I had talked with some guys at the hostel who had told me about a place called Grindelwald in the Alpine valley adjacent to the famous mountain, the Eiger, the one in the Clint Eastwood movie. They said the hostel there had a big fireplace in the main room and views out the windows of the town below and the mountains across the valley. It sounded wonderful, like some sort of heaven on Earth, rather than here below the darkening sky, above and amidst all these trappings of urban society, of these massive human edifices. I longed to be in a simpler, cozier, more natural place.
So I decided that after going to Florence and Venice, I would skip Vienna and go to Switzerland and spend a handful of my remaining days in Europe in Grindelwald, even if it was just sitting in the youth hostel lodge by the fireplace and doing nothing for a few days, maybe just a little Christmas shopping down it town below.
That relentless auditor in my head, that made those determinations as to what I needed to do to be worthy of my own and other’s esteem upon return to the States, saw fit to bless swapping out Vienna for Grindelwald, but also stipulated that I should follow through on the “circuit” (as I heard one of my fellow backpackers call it) and go to Florence and Venice first. I mean how could I tell anyone I had gone to Italy but not been to Florence or Venice along with of course Rome? To have dessert, Grindelwald, I had to eat my vegetables first! Hopefully Florence and Venice had enough about them to nourish my flagging interest until I was worthy of retreating into the deliciously snowy mountains, and I felt like this next week in Italy could not go by too fast.
Ever the compulsive planner (and that planning always helped remind me that there was light at the end of the tunnel if nothing else) I recalibrated my timeline in my head. I would now plan to get to Amsterdam the 2nd of December, the actual day my rail pass expired, which seemed like perfect timing, and spend a few days there, taking the much backpacker recommended tour of the Heineken brewery, if nothing else. This timing I figured would work better for my departure from London on the 11th, so my last days in England, including hopefully visiting the Canes and the Clays again, wouldn’t be such a rush. So I had maybe 25 days left in Europe, and again I felt that they could not go by too fast.
It occurred to me that my brother should have gotten my telegram by now. I really hoped he could get me that ticket to see Alice Cooper. It also crossed my mind that I better start counting every coin I spent to save as much money as possible so I’d have plenty for the presents I envisioned buying. Maybe I was crazy to use my money that way, but it would be so near Christmas when I returned and I felt I had such an opportunity to get neat things here I couldn’t buy in the States. As I sat alone for the moment up in the cupola, I finished my day’s journal entry with the following observation…
I am very distracted these days. I think all the time about the future. I plan and plan and plan.
Now feeling the darkness and the increased chill without the sun’s rays, that primal urge to seek familiar shelter hit me as it often did, and I headed back down through that labyrinth of small staircases and narrow passageways that took me from the lonely cupola back to the touristy bustle of the nave of St. Peters below. I retraced my steps on the winding streets back to my hostel, the closest thing I had to any sort of familiar shelter here so far from home, the lit streetlights now giving the buildings on either side of the narrow streets perhaps a more signature “eternal” glow.
I was pleased with my timing and thanked the universe that as I entered the hostel, steeled for continued loneliness and a common room lacking any of my new comrades, there instead they all were. Morgan, Jen and Sarah, plus the two guys from Manchester among others.
“Coopster… you’re back just in time mate. Join us for dinner! Cheap lasagna, dio mio!” It was Jen of course, the leader of the group, likely the leader of any group she was part of, spotting me and gathering me into the fold. Given the context it was the perfect place of shelter for me, and I thanked the universe again that I had not come five minutes later and missed all of them.
There were nine of us in the group, fitting three abreast on the sidewalk though having to temporarily adjust our ranks when a pedestrian came through from the other direction. Some natty Roman saying “scusi” as they slid by and checked us all out briefly, cracking the slightest smirk perhaps at all our big hair (except Sarah) and our much less natty, seemingly standard issue jeans, flannel shirts and backpacker down jackets. The first rank was Sarah, Jen, and some new guy with a big Aussie voice that Jen had likely snagged in the common room, complimenting him on his hair or boots or even his butt, which did look pretty good in his tighter jeans. Given he was walking next to the goddess herself he probably already had a nickname that we’d all hear at some point.
I was in the middle of the second rank, Morgan on my left, and another newbie to our cabal on my right. As she fell into our procession next to me she introduced herself, with what sounded like a German accent, as Berta, and had also apparently been drawn in by our big magnetic Aussie majordomo.
“So Jen calls you ‘the Coopster’?” she asked, somewhat reverently even, like I was some bigger than life character myself.
I chuckled. I felt her unsureness and wanting to be accepted by the group, the way I always felt around new people. I thought to say what I would want to hear if I was in Berta’s newbie shoes.
“To the rest of us mere mortals I’m Cooper. Good to meet you!”
She responded with a similar chuckle, obviously getting the whole reference to charismatic Jen, nodding and relaxing into her welcome spot in our cabal.
Behind me were the two guys from Manchester, whose names I still did not know. I had a bad habit in that regard, entering into conversation and even connection with people without asking their names, or worse, forgetting names after they were told to me. They were in an animated discussion with the last new member of our little band, another Brit by his accent, all laughing and expounding on English soccer teams, what they and the rest of the world called “football”. Having watched and even played my share of soccer, it struck me that the game that we called “football”, a more violent even militaristic contest with its helmets, extensive colorful uniforms, and offensive and defensive lines, and one that really involved very little of the foot to control the ball.
So here I was in the middle of my own little mobile sanctuary in the here and now. Not persisting through the centuries like the Sistine Chapel, but here at least for the moment. It was certainly enough for now and I indulged in that moment and went with its flow.
Jen walked backwards at times to better join in the conversations behind her and generally bask in the energy of all her entourage, Sarah feeling the need to still face mostly forward to make sure her charge didn’t blunder into some sidewalk obstruction or an oncoming pedestrian. When a slight course correction was needed, say to avoid one of those pedestrians, Sarah would place a hand on Jen’s shoulder and push or pull as needed, a barely visible extra bit of grin on Jen’s face as she would continue walking backward and participating in the conversation behind her.
We got to our neighborhood good cheap lasagna trattoria and arranged chairs and small rickety tables so we could all sit together. Of all the cheap pasta formats, lasagna was truly the best deal with its hot gooey melange of noodles, oven baked cheese, and zingy marinara sauce, plus of course an additional liberal sprinkling of no-extra-charge powdered parmesan or romano cheese and spicy red pepper flakes on top, a plate for just 250 lira or about fifty cents U.S. Such a deal!
In the pretty much obligatory protocols of our cohort’s conversations, if anyone was new to the group, everyone had to share where they were from, where they had been on their travels, and where they were headed next. That would lead to sharing any helpful tips or sightseeing suggestions based on others’ itineraries, like the tip I had gotten the day before about Grindelwald. Our Aussie newbie Drake was from Perth on the other side of the Australian continent from Jen and Sarah. You could see that Jen was enjoying his big loud energy, not unlike hers, though I could also tell by subtle nonverbal clues that Sarah thought he was a bit much. Jen was already calling him “Drake the Snake”, presumably based on his shiny snakeskin boots. And as to names and nicknames, I did find out the two guys from Manchester were named Malcom and Mordred, going by Malc and Dred, and quickly nicknamed collectively “Maldred” by Jen. Their newbie mate, Freddie, was from nearby (to Manchester) Liverpool.
Berta was from Baden-Baden Germany, on the northwest corner of the black forest. The alliteration was just too much for Jen.
“Baden-Baden Berta. Sounds like a Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs song. Or the yank’s Beach Boys.” Jen started to sing to the tune of the rock classic “Be Bop A-Lula”.
Baden-Baden Berta, be my baby
Baden-Baden Berta, be my… baby now
Berta looked uncomfortable, like she wasn’t sure if Jen was paying a compliment, pretending to hit on her, or mocking her. Sarah picked up on that as well.
“Don’t mind Jen, she’s just a touch insane”. I got to see Sarah deliver one of her signature lines in the moment, delivered in this instance kind of conspiratorially to Berta in her delicious deadpan, while she gave Jen a symbolic punch in the shoulder,causing Berta to laugh and relax again.
Jen pretended to recoil in pain, then said, “Do you see what I have to put up with?” Then she focused on Berta. “Sorry lady. Meant no offense. I hope you’ll forgive me.” Jen wound her finger around her ear. “Touch insane indeed!”
Berta laughed again, guardedly, but then nodded.
Finally opening up a bit, Berta shared with us that her travel partner Anna was under the weather and hopefully sleeping it off at the hostel. I could hardly imagine how hard it would be to be sick on the road backpacking. I had been lucky that I’d only had a bit of a cold at one point, but not enough of a malady to not keep going.
I ceased a moment to share with the assemblage my twenty minutes virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel and was acknowledged by everyone for my cleverness and sheer determination. After that, Jen, determined herself to steal the show, got up on her chair (and tried to climb on the table until Sarah stopped her) with her glass of the cheap, fairly yucky chianti we were drinking with dinner, and proposed a toast. “To all my fellow sheilas and blokes lugging your kit on your back!”
The rest of us in our little group lifted our glasses, along with another half dozen or so backpacker types in the place, and vocalized our approval in our best imitation of working class mates at their local pub, not something I think any of us had experienced ourselves, rather seen on TV or in the movies. There was a part of me that wanted to stand on my own chair facing her and propose a complementary response, but even if I’d thought of a sufficiently clever turn of phrase, there was no way that part of me, that I could occasionally tap into to perform a bigger than life character on stage, could be rolled out to do so in real life. I did manage to catch Jen’s gaze, give a thumbs up, and do my best nonverbal facial “indeed!”
We sat and ate, drank, gabbed and laughed for several hours until Sarah broke in to let us know that we better head back so we didn’t get locked out of the hostel. Her statement sent my mind off on a quick fantasy of the nine of us forced to pay for a single cheap tiny hotel room and sleep there for the night, all chockablock on the bed and floor. But in the real world we returned to the hostel, and parted company in the common room for our various bunkrooms.
Ensconced now in my own sleeping bag, with none of my comrades even in the same bunkroom, I was back in my own inner sanctum of sorts. My own most consistent, familiar and intimate space since I had left Angie behind in London some seven weeks ago. The walls of my mind were filled with all the moments of this day, one of my most memorable so far. As good as alone in the Sistine chapel, looking down at the Eternal City from the cupola of St. Peter’s, the trek and dinner with my comrades du jour. My loneliness was momentarily at bay, particularly because Morgan and I had a plan to hook up in the morning and venture forth together. The physical fatigue of a long day of walking and the effects of the alcohol sent me off to dreamland with dispatch.