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Why we travel: Finding the Rome within

by Steve McKee on July 28, 2010

With the sun starting to set over Rome, there came a slight breeze that cut the warmth of the day down enough that all four of us McKees could start to get comfortable. No longer dripping sweat, we could be our usual selves with wisecracks and antics all around. When a siren went by repeating its two notes over and over, Wesley joined in and then Melody started to harmonize and then we all did. Whenever we passed a statue, one of us stood in front in the same pose as the statue no matter how pompous (with photo taken to commemorate the act.) These sorts of thing are what passes for wittiness in my family. It’s actually pretty fun.

We were coming from an uncommon treat: a visit to the upstairs flat of a local family, made possible by a facebook connection Gwenna had with a theater arts buddy from UCLA. So we passed part of the afternoon in a simple but charming Roman apartment with round barrel vaulted ceilings. The small rooms were crowded with birthday revelers, many of whom hung out on a delightful large covered balcony lined with art and small plants. The dad in this international family was from Germany and, after twenty years in Rome, had opinions to share about life and society in Italy. (Aesthetically superb, he said, but totally stagnant because projects that should be done for the public good become transformed into private sources of personal gain, rendering the country incapable of any change or progress. He also thought the best thing America had going for it was the willingness of Americans to work, something Europeans have lost.) He didn’t believe in air conditioning, a source of dispute with his American wife, so the end of the sofa near the oscillating fan became a popular spot for party guests.

For this brief visit we had ceased to be tourists and were instead guests of Rome, but now we were back in tourist mode, prowling about the “Eternal City” in search of good visuals.

Away from some key busy streets, Rome is mostly curved narrow cobbled lanes perfect for walking. The sides are lined tightly by very solid four and five story buildings, every window covered with heavy duty shutters in various states of openness. Motor scooters and smart cars are parked tightly together along one side. A narrow street will often times open up to a larger space in front of yet another church or fountain, or maybe even to a view down into a sunken set of two thousand year old ruins – rambling brick foundations and chunks of marble columns. The ruins always sort of thrill me. That’s the genius of this city, the way the ancient is revealed to be under us and all around us. It is us.

Just down the tight curving street from our friends’ apartment we found a very large set of sunken ruins that I later learned was named the Augustus Forum. I really liked the way that four intact towering marble columns with grand Corinthian flourishes at the top right stood right alongside the massive brick remains of a grand wall that set into the hillside. A large set of cracked marble steps at one end helped establish what was the front of the old temple. (A temple to Jupiter, I later learned.) Taken together, it was easy to sense the scale of such an imposing building, and that’s why I proclaimed to my family that these ruins were my new favorite. One look at the remaining foundation and column fragments and the mind could fill in the missing corners of the building and then proceed to populate the whole city with such grand structures.

I must admit that I’m a bit of a geek about these two thousand year old vestiges of the most amazing civilization of all time. At our best, the rest of humanity took another 1500 years to get up the energy to even just imitate what these Romans had created on their own. Though many of the aesthetical forms were derived from Greece, the Romans took that ball and combined it with such imagination and innovative engineering that they invented a whole new game with fully formed cities of dazzling splendor and livability. Ancient Rome rocks. (True, there was all the slave labor that was needed to build it, but that’s not as much fun to think about.)

We almost missed this walking adventure because the kids had lobbied for a cab ride instead of hoofing it back to our hotel, but in my role as the “one-who-hemorrhages-money” during these trips, I was setting the limit on cab rides. There would need to be compelling reasons for these rides that were averaging about seven euros (ten dollars) a pop, like this morning’s need to make it to the gorgeous little oval church by Bernini on the Quirinale before its noon closing, or like yesterday’s need to save a very long trek back to the hotel after everyone had been a good sport about the lengthy walk out through all the interesting things like ancient bridges and world class fountains and the other best-of-Rome stuff.

Not that the cab rides weren’t a hoot, with all of us alternating who got to ride “shotgun” in the front seat. It’s fun getting to flow along in the jostling river that is Roman traffic, instead of dodging it on foot. It’s especially interesting to watch the drama of the scooter riders coping with our Type-A cabdrivers while we all flew along together at top speeds on the curved streets.

I’d started to notice that walking had more potential for fun than the cab rides, and that the best times usually happen when we’re not expecting them.

After enjoying my new favorite ruins, the walk back included an impromptu revisit of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, a three building civic center atop a long stair-ramp in which “The Big Mike” introduced the idea of the colossal column (two story tall) to Renaissance architecture. We also walked through Campo de Fiori, an open-air square favored by locals, with street performers and superb opportunities for people watching. It was there Wesley and I learned how one gets a drink from the always flowing fountain spigots that you see all over Rome. (Cover the spigot outlet with your thumb, thus sending the water arcing out an upper hole.) Wesley blocked the spigot so forcefully that a spurt of water shot out above and sideswiped his sister as she was walking away, causing her to shriek. Of course everybody laughed.

These antics would become the stuff of highly valued family memories, and here we were right in the middle of those moments, deciding how to play them. It was family history in the making, and we were creating the script as we went. It’s the best of times when we’re all getting along and everybody’s personality is adding to the mix. And it’s really very nice to have a beautiful city there to serve as our stage set.

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