The next morning was Saturday November 17. Jen and Sarah were off to the train for Florence. Hopefully I might see them again there. Our other comrades from last night’s dinner had not been in the common room . But I met Morgan there as planned and we decided we’d do the whole ancient imperial Rome thing today.
But first we adjourned to the bakery across the street where they had fresh loaves of Italian bread called “ciabatta”. Not long and thin like French baguettes, but more flat and oval shaped like a deflated football. We each bought one and sat at a table by the front window of the bakery, tearing apart and devouring the warm yeasty, chewy cooked dough. After all this wonderful bread I had had in Europe – soda bread in England, pumpernickel in Germany, baguettes in France and now ciabatta in Italy – I would never be able to go back to eating shitty Wonder bread in the States.
Sitting across from me at a tiny table by the front window of the bakery, still chewing a mouthful of the warm delicious doughy bread, Morgan mumbled out his words, gesticulating with a torn hunk of his loaf.
“I’ve been thinking about your mom’s friend’s theory about the beginning of ‘patriarchy’ with the written word five thousand years ago.” He finished chewing his mouthful and swallowed it. “Is she published?”
I was enjoying watching him eat, it was exuberantly wanton, half chewed food in his mouth while he spoke, particularly in contrast to his nerdy academic persona. I was totally comfortable with him and his physicality. The thought suddenly danced through my brain that if he had been Steve and asked to get in bed with me in that hotel room in Granada that I might actually say yes. I imagined being naked with him and exploring each other’s bodies.
“Is she published?” He repeated his question.
I startled back to the moment.
“Well… not really”, I finally managed to return to the conversation, though that image in my mind of our naked bodies touching persisted behind my words. “She always said she was ‘post literate’ and did not want to contribute any more obsolete artifacts to civilization’s collection of linearized narratives.”
Morgan burst out laughing, barely managing to keep the latest wad of half chewed bread from tumbling out of his mouth.
“She said that?”
“Well… something like that. That’s the kind of stuff she would say.” Then thinking some more, “She did do a kind of words and pictures thing with Marshall McLuhan. I remember seeing it, kind of a booklet. It was printed, but I don’t know if it was actually ‘published’.”
“Do you remember the title of it?” Morgan was lusting after the information. He brushed the long brown locks out of his pale face. I liked that lust and imagined it directed at me as well, wanting all the visual and tactile information about all the parts of my body currently, but not irrevocably, concealed under my clothing. Maybe if we could get stoned enough we could forget that we were both guys and just go for it.
“Hmm… let’s see…” Not remembering the title but stringing him along so he continued to look lustily at me waiting for my mouth to move.
The attraction I felt for him was not like the libido thing I had with women. That was biological. Chemical. I’d get a sense of their breasts under whatever sort of top they were wearing, or the shape of their butt or vulva under jeans that revealed those contours, and I could just feel the triggered hormones juicing my brain and crotch. I mean I liked female people for their minds, their personalities, their souls. But that essence that I loved was packaged in bodies with those libidinally provocative body parts which I physically reacted to, and made them all the more fun to be in the presence of.
The attraction I felt for Morgan did not trigger hormones. But I still wanted to get naked with him, maybe even touch each other, beyond just a platonic “meeting of the minds” with all our clothes still on. I could never ask him to get in bed with me, I was still too shy even to ask a female type person, let alone another male type. But again, if he asked me, like Steve had done back in Granada, I think I would now say yes. It felt like Steve had wanted me like men conventionally want women, as a sexual conquest. With Morgan it would be something different.
I returned to the moment and shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t remember.”
Morgan gave a begrudged nod as his eyes shifted from the focus on my face to now looking out the window, the gears spinning in his head for where to go next with the conversation.
“I haven’t read much McLuhan”, he noted, his dark eyes behind Clark Kent black plastic glasses now unfocused, but then again honing in on mine, “But I did read The Mechanical Bride, plus that long interview with him in Playboy in 1969”.
He grinned and his eyes sparkled with the lust of an unrepentant nerd confessing to a fellow traveler. “I liked Mechanical Bride. I liked how he looked at lowbrow and highbrow aspects of contemporary 1950s U.S. popular culture, like a historian, or anthropologist even, might look at and try to extrapolate the larger cultural context of some ancient dug up civilization.”
I saw concern cross his eyes as he continued, “His whole communication technology determinism thing in the Playboy article didn’t resonate with me at the time, though I’m into the whole Hegelian, Marxist dialectic theory. But when you expounded on your mom’s friend and that argument about phonetic literacy transforming human society five thousand years ago, creating that rule of the father ‘patriarchy’. I’m going to have to explore that one and maybe even give McLuhan another look.” His frown had morphed into a grin.
As we finished chowing down on our bread, I told Morgan the story of my mom and Mary Jane piling our combined families, three adults and six kids into our car and driving to Toronto four years ago to see the musical Hair. How the next day we drove to McLuhan’s house and rang the doorbell but he wasn’t home. Morgan listened dutifully for me to finish my story.
Swallowing the last mouthful of the delightful ciabatta, Morgan asked, “Well shall we trod the hallowed ground of Roma Antiqua?”
At this point I’d follow him anywhere.
It was an easy walk, no more than a couple kilometers, to the Forum and the rest of the ruins of the ancient city. It was mostly remnants of the foundations of buildings with an occasional wall or archway still standing. Morgan took us through where the Forum building had been, the place where the Roman Senate, the council of the patrician elite, met.
Standing in the ruins of its foundations, Morgan flung out an arm theatrically. “This is where Cato the Elder railed against ostentatious displays of wealth and Cicero pontificated about just about everything.”
Then we walked to the grass covered remnants of what looked like an old amphitheater, just next to what had been the Forum.
“Here was the Comitium”, Morgan pronounced, again throwing out his arms for emphasis. “The meeting place of the plebeian assembly, where the Gracchi brothers held forth and advocated for the REAL revolution with agrarian reform that would give land to the common people. That is until they were both assassinated in turn by a clique of Senators who did not want to give up any of their power, because power was all about land back then.”
I sat on a stone block as Morgan orated and tried to block out the traffic noise around us and imagine the place over two thousand years ago. But despite his narratives and big gestures pointing at structures that were once there, it was hard for me to get any sense of what these locales had once been. It all seemed so small and insignificant now, amidst the huge modern city.
It was a short walk from there to the Colosseum, which though also basically a ruin, was intact enough for me to get more of a sense of the thing in its day. The place was smaller than I imagined from its portrayal in movies like Ben Hur, a rather intimate venue considering that it held what Morgan said was over fifty thousand people. Down in the center of the arena floor looking up at the stands, I tried to picture what it would be like to stand in the arena looking up at the crowd waiting for your blood to be spilt. Despite the wanton savagery of it all, what really appealed to the theater person and imaginative play lover in me was that they even occasionally flooded the arena floor to have mock sea battles with real ships. Now that seemed pretty fucking cool!
We then caught the bus to the catacombs, and took a tour that lasted about 20 minutes. We walked down a narrow stairway into a warren of small passageways with burial vaults along the walls and a small room here and there that had been used as a chapel. It was essentially a clandestine subterranean cemetery, where some 100,000 Christians were buried in five different levels, though we saw only one. For every narrow passageway we were led down there were many more going off to the sides into blackness. The experience was much more immersive than the ruins above ground, my imagination could really construct some sort of sense of the place and the religious insurgency, coalesced there, that challenged the polytheistic Roman order above it.
I resonated with the sense of that insurgency, even though theirs was built around a deity that I didn’t believe in. I felt like my cohort of fellow hippie backpacker types were in our own way metaphorically underground or at least under the radar and out of the older generations judgemental gaze, plotting with our own kind the reinvention of the conventional world as it was. We held a vision that we mostly kept among ourselves of a more egalitarian world where we were all comrades and freely moved about, making ad hoc connections with each other as fellow travelers, in both a metaphorical and actual sense.
It was late afternoon when Morgan I parted company back at the hostel, he off to an appointment at the National Central Library and an evening of doing research there. With Jen and Sarah off to Florence, and Berta and the two guys from Manchester nowhere to be seen in the common room, I sat at a small table near the check in desk, wrote some postcards and noted the days events in my journal. I had enjoyed all the great company I had had since I got to Rome, but any moment when I was on my own that gnawing homesickness returned. I did not want to head out on my own to eat at the nearby trattoria. At least here in the common room I could feel among my own comrades even if they currently all were ones I had not met yet.
So I just ventured down the street to the market and bought my backpacker meal staples and brought them back to the hostel common room. In this case, salami, asiago cheese, an orange, and of course bread, more ciabatta though not warm like this morning. Plus a bottle of Italian S.Pellegrino mineral water to drink. I was becoming a fan of the austere bite of the small bubbled bubbliness of the European mineral waters, as opposed to the sweet syrupy carbonated Cokes. Perrier in France and now this stuff here in Rome.
I returned to the common room, which was now filling up as more backpacker types checked in and some of those already here were doing similar to me and eating their store bought food. I considered sitting down at an occupied table where it sounded like an interesting conversation was underway, like Jen would. I also considered sitting down at a table with someone else that was by themselves. But my shyness was in ascendance, and I chose one of the few remaining tables that was still empty.
But with the influx of new people checking in and current residents returning from their daytime ventures, other new arrivals of my cohort soon asked to join me. Two Canadians, both named John, from Windsor, and an American guy, A.J., from Los Angeles. At my suggestion they crossed the street to the market and came back with their own array of grocery items for our now shared breaking of bread (and slicing of cheese and preserved meat).
We engaged in the typical (and enjoyable) protocol of building common ground and connection by sharing where we were coming from, how long we had been or might be here, and where we were headed next, plus maybe a particular recent highlight or other insight of note. The Johns had just driven in from Florence, and before that Venice (on the “circuit”), and were here for “a few days” before heading to Paris and on to Amsterdam. They said that Florence was great, but Venice was dark, dirty and depressing, though the “busses”, at least in the old city where the main tourist sites were, were all actually boats. A.J. had come to Rome from Sicily, where he had seen the active volcano Mount Etna, and the site of the observatory that had been destroyed by lava from its latest eruption two years ago. He, like me, would be headed on to Florence, again “in a few days”. No one (except maybe Morgan doing his research) had definite plans or reservations to be in a certain place on a certain day. Most everyone was mainly just here until they got bored and decided to push on to the next place.
I finally took my turn and chimed in that I had come from France and was headed “soon” to Florence. I told my story of losing my passport and rail pass in Bar-sur-Aube, trying to dramatize it as much as possible, like Jen would. Waving my arms around and leaving them hanging before finally hearing from the oh so officious French conductor that the documents had been found on the tracks and then my wait in Mulhouse before “finally” getting them back from yet another very taciturn and businesslike conductor on the “midnight train from Paris”.
Inspired by Jen, and recalling my mom and Mary Jane holding forth at their boisterous parties, I was realizing that the telling of big dramatic stories was more than just drawing attention and puffing oneself up. It created a kind of gravity that the listeners could orbit around and connect more easily with you and even each other, reacting to that drama. Though shy of course, I was a theater person and used to presenting a dramatic character on stage. In any small group, particularly if no one else put themselves forward to tell a tale, well I certainly could don a persona and do so myself. Thus inspired, I also told my first person in the Sistine Chapel tale, “having run through the long corridors and labyrinth of the Vatican”.
Continuing to play my Jen-like gravitational thing for my little table group, I suggested we all head out to check out the sites of the city at night.
“Rome can feel like any other big city in the daytime”, I said then pausing for dramatic effect, “But it becomes ‘Roma’, ‘La Città Eterna’, the ‘Eternal City’ at night!” I said my highlighted words with a gesture of the hand and my best stereotypical Italian accent. Then I smirked as if to say “so they tell me”! My tablemates seemed to enjoy my theatrics and the shared orbit it put them all in, and agreed to our joint quest. Comrade Jen, I thought, would be proud of me. The Coopster indeed!
So we headed out, me in the lead, A.J. beside me and the “Canada Johns” (I wasn’t brazenly Jen enough yet to actually bestow that name on them) forming the second rank. Our goal was just to walk about and see the cityscapes at night, and the monuments in the center of the big Roman piazzas were particularly impressive all lit up. That said, I personally found the Trevi Fountain a bit disappointing, with all its ornate over the top statuary, it seemed a bit full of itself and lacking any real purpose other than to show off. But hey, it fit the theme that I had set for our adventurer.
It WAS hypnotically soothing to sit and listen to the hissing water while the Canadian Johns told me the story of their ongoing effort to sell the car they had bought three months back in Amsterdam, because they were headed home as soon as they did. They actually needed the money from the sale of the car to purchase their plane tickets home. If they could not sell their car here in Rome they would drive to Paris and try there, and finally back to Amsterdam if necessary, their last chance.
Talk about living on the edge! More so than me, they were walking the travel tightrope without a net, and their easy acceptance of that impressed me, I would have been a wreck with worry.
We walked by a couple bars and found one we all liked that looked less touristy and full of locals rather than tourists, figuring it might be cheaper and more authentic. It was interesting that with my intense frugality around my daily budget, buying a couple beers or a bottle of wine with my comrades was not an issue, it was part of the requisite social lubrication and sharing of intoxicants with members of my cohort. But breaking down to buy a raspberry filled chocolate bar, for myself alone, I saw as busting the budget and a more difficult decision.
The prostitutes were out that night, a number of them near the hostel, certainly bumping up my whole “Roma” by night schtick. They stood by the road in revealing tops and short skirts under heavy coats to fend off the cold, though open in front to show off their bodies. And interestingly, each one of them burned a little pot of charcoal on the ground in front of them, I imagined both to advertise themselves but also to maybe help keep warm during the chilly evenings. Cars would pull over and one of the young women would approach the driver’s side and engage in a quick discussion, which would lead to either her walking away or else coming around and getting in on the passenger side, the car driving off to somewhere where her services would be rendered. Ironically, there was a police car in front of the hostel but the police there didn’t seem to be concerned about what was obviously going on within view. I wondered if prostitution was actually legal here of just unofficially condoned.
My three male comrades and I made comments about the “hookers” but kept our distance. We certainly didn’t have the money to afford them, but even if we had and wanted the sexual experience, we would probably have still been intimidated, in awe even, and stayed away. Though none of us were prudish or moralistic about doing or selling it, our young Italian female peers pawning their bodies was part of that conventional world we envisioned ourselves challenging. We appreciated, or at least I appreciated, the young women trying to survive in that conventional world that somehow my generation would overturn with our very different worldview.
We did linger a while by the hostel entrance watching them conduct their business. We saw several of them get into cars and head off, but I was curious to see one of them return and see her body language after presumably having sex with the guy in his car. Would she seem diminished or be unfazed.
Cocooned in my sleeping bag that night, back in my hostel bunkroom, I thought about those young Italian female people, not that unlike me, but the accident of birth giving them breasts and vaginas that male types craved, plus all dolled up to match guys’ fantasies. They were probably all still out there trying to make their living as best they could, so beyond anything I would consider or could imagine having to do to survive.
I also thought of the catacombs, the small dimly lit spaces crowded many centuries ago with fellow adherents of the religion of Jesus, perhaps the hippies of their own day. I certainly felt like some sort of latent insurgent myself, the nature of which was still emerging.
Doing my nightly self check, it had been a good day with Morgan and amongst the other members of my own cohort. Tomorrow was Sunday and I decided I would stay one more day before continuing on the “circuit” to Florence. I really wanted to stop at the American Express office to check for any mail and maybe stand in St. Peter’s square for the weekly appearance by the Pope, just to say I did it.
Morning came and Morgan was there in the common room and up to accompanying me on my errand followed by a “possible peek at the Pope”, he laughing at my alliteration. But the American Express office turned out to be a big disappointment for me. There was only one letter, from my mom, just a short one, which indicated there should be several other letters for me coming, since she had told several other people, including family and friends, to write to me at the Amex office in Rome. Letters that if they did arrive I would never see.
I had been primed for a fix of news from home and confirmation that my circles of family and friends were following the progress of my journey. But as to connections with back home, I still at least sent off a quick postcard to my mom with a picture of the Sistine Chapel describing my encounter with the big empty room, and letting her know that I planned to check mail again in the Amsterdam American Express office on about December 2nd. Later someone told me that the Italian postal service was subject to a lot of strikes and work stoppages, and that sometimes when they had tons of backed up mail they would actually burn the backlog to help them catch up.
From the Amex office we proceeded to Vatican City to the Piazza San Pietro and were there in the big oval space with the huge cathedral on our left with several thousand others awaiting the weekly appearance of the Pope. Morgan explained to me that he would appear in a little balcony about four or five floors up from the ground level, on the top floor of the Vatican office building overlooking the piazza. And a slender figure in a white robe and cap appeared and spoke for a few minutes in Latin and then chanted a prayer. His voice was amplified all over the square with a big public address system, and it was all rather surreal, the tiny figure in the window and the big amplified voice. There was some sort of Catholic clergyman standing next to us speaking English to this older American woman. He had what seemed like a Brooklyn accent, and was talking about how the Pope spent most of his time shut up in his Vatican apartment and wasn’t as popular as some of the other recent Popes.
My main experience with Papal politics was Tom Lehrer’s great song, “Vatican Rag”, satirizing the Church on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) where it was decided that Catholic Sunday services could be spoken in the “vernacular”, the local language, rather than in the traditional Latin. Lehrer lampooned this attempt to make the Church more relevant to contemporary society, by writing a popular song to make it more hip. Morgan hadn’t heard of Lehrer or the song so I sang some of it for him…
First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect and
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original
If it is, try playin’ it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate
He loved it, and this time at least I was able to give him the album name, That Was The Year That Was, so he could look it up later.
On the way back to the hostel we went by a little trattoria that sold roast chicken and potatoes. Morgan and I split an order of potatoes, which were fried and greasy and seasoned with what looked like short pine needles! Whatever the seasoning was, they tasted really good. We talked again about each of our paths forward. He was staying in Rome to do more interviews and research for his degree work. I was continuing on the “circuit” to Florence and Venice. Morgan gave me a list of places to see in those two storied old cities, which I duly noted in my journal. But then I told him what I was now really looking forward to was not those cities, but going back up in the Alps to Grindelwald. He said he’d heard of the place but had not been there.
At Morgan’s suggestion we went and saw the Pantheon, which he said was perhaps the best preserved building from ancient Rome. The main rotunda was amazing, a circular room some 43 meters across and the same 43 meters in height, as he explained it, so it would exactly fit a sphere of that diameter inside it. The center of the dome was open, letting in the natural light, and the rain, and built to let out the smoke from the burning of animal sacrifices to the Roman “pantheon” of gods and goddesses. The dome was made with “Roman Concrete”, an ancient building material that combined cement with volcanic ash. The pieces of the dome nearest the top central opening were made using that cement mixed with pumice, to make the load lighter. Morgan went into great detail on the architectural physics of the place and how the load of the heavy concrete pieces was distributed throughout the dome.
Continuing to play tour guide, Morgan walked me to the Piazza de Venezia, which was a central hub of some of the main streets in the city, a city that at times seemed somehow to have more cars than people. We climbed up the big sets of stairs onto the monument with its long straight colonnades of pillars and stone balconies looking out in every direction at the sprawling city of buildings and cars. I noted in my journal…
Nothing like these buildings back in the states! I take them for granted over here!
My last evening in Rome Morgan and I went out for pasta at the neighborhood trattoria with another big group of backpacker types. Without Jen and Sarah it wasn’t as memorable, but we all exchanged stories of what we’d seen and done, and mine of my twenty minutes alone in the Sistine chapel was still a big hit. I didn’t chip in for or drink any chianti, figuring I had to be extra thrifty so I would have my six dollars a day to last me through until my flight back from London on the 11th of December. On the way home from dinner I said my goodbyes and wished him success on his research and the completion of his masters. I was tempted to give him a hug, like Steve and I had done in the end, but he stuck out his hand to shake so that’s all we did.
Though I had really connected with him during our three days together, including that brief somewhat sexual fantasy, I did not make any effort to try and stay in touch with him, get or give him an address to write to. This had emerged as a pattern with me. Over the previous three years, with a lot of my theater group comrades that I had had very intense experiences with in the course of working on a particular play together, when the play was over I would mostly not make any effort to keep the relationship going, except for Lane and Angie. Being shy, but also craving at least platonic emotional intimacy with other people, I found sharing intense projects or experiences with others a very robust environment for those moments of deep connection. But once that intense context was gone, I did not feel the connection could be reestablished, or else I was too shy to do the work to create a new context to reestablish such an intense connection with that person. (Forty some years later this still seems to be the way I am.)
The next morning I left the hostel, pack again on my back after several days traversing the city without it, on my own again headed for the train station and the train to Florence. As I waited for the train I devoured my last big loaf of fresh ciabatta bread from the bakery across the street from the hostel. With a belly full of comfort food and memorable experiences with memorable comrades, that all felt pretty good. Still the bouts of extreme loneliness whenever I did not have comrades around dogged me.
A song started playing in my mind’s jukebox, but unlike how it usually happened, it was one that I had never heard before. This time it was not one of that array of other people’s songs that seemed to spring out of my subconscious based on the situation, but my own invented tune and words. I sang it over and over to myself in a whisper. It was built around the rhyming scheme between the last word of the verse followed by the first word of the chorus…
[verse] I want to see those faces glad
I want to see my mom and dad
To feel accomplishment and then
The mellowness of home
[chorus] Rome, I got nothing to say
Ro-ome, I got nothing to say
Rome, I got nothing to say alone
Later as I got ready to board the train to Florence, the song still monopolizing my mind’s ear, I cobbled together a less poetic more consciously constructed second verse…
[verse] A part of life I did not see
All the people who need me
I need them and I need me
I gotta get back home
[chorus] Ro-ho-ome, I got nothing to say
Ro-ho-ome, I got nothing to say
Ro-ho-ome, I got nothing to say… alone
The chorus after the second verse was sung more boisterously than the first, climbing up the scale while singing each syllable of “Ro-ho-ome”.
Yeah the place I was leaving was really “Roma”, but that screwed up my clever rhyming scheme and meter of the song!