It happens to everyone who visits Rome. As unavoidable as diesel fumes, grafitti and long lines outside the Vatican Museum. As cliched as the costumed "gladiators" loitering around the Colosseum. And as predictable as the appearance of bunches of chrome-yellow mimosa blossoms in the Campo de Fiori flower market each spring.
I'm speaking, of course, of the moment the tourist succumbs to the temptation to imagine being magically transported back in time to Ancient Rome.
It's impossible to predict what might trigger the feeling. It might be the first vista of the Forum in slanting yellow afternoon light. It might be the musty air of the catacombs, where every breath contains a molecule or two that once belonged to a living citizen of the Empire. Or it might be a stumble on the Appian Way, when the visitor looks down to see a Nike stuck in a deep rut carved by chariot wheels.
Whatever the source, the reaction is always the same. The traveler loosens the sweaty wallet deathgrip just a tad. The voices of tour guides, family and companions fade. Eyes squint to block out the Fiats and the Banana Republic stores.
Just for a second, the marble columns and crooked cobblestones stand straight and new. The fleece jacket becomes an itchy wool toga. And the hubbub of unintelligible voices all around are speaking Latin, classical Greek and Aramaic instead of German, Japanese and English. Ancient Rome comes fleetingly alive.
Then a Vigili Fuocco firetruck's siren howls by on the way to the scene of a car accident or a long lunch, and the spell is broken. But once it's happened, the visitor will never see the Eternal City in quite the same way again. There's always a lingering sense that behind every mouldering ancient brick and chipped column flute, a living past is lurking, waiting for another oppotunity to emerge.
My parents lived in Rome for 11 years in the 1980s and '90s. I had the fantastic good luck to be able to visit them many times while they were there, and to return with them frequently for visits after they moved back to the United States. I will be traveling to Rome with my mother in March and intend to write about that trip in this blog.