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Sunday, March 4, 2012

No Place Like Rome

I'm crushed.

Pressing into my right side is a teenaged girl wearing skintight jeans and a tee-shirt reading "Number One Super Wyoming Swimming Club." On my left, a squat matron in an expensive camelhair suit. Both are gabbing away loudly on cellphones and have hair hennaed to the color of a new penny.

Seated in front of me is an older gentleman in a gray fedora and black leather jacket, reading Corrriere Delllo Sport. A few feet away a man plays the accordion loudly to the accompaniment of recorded rhythm section reverberating from a boom box, while his son needles the passengers with a paper cup. A young man in aviators, with fiercely gelled hair and a Chinese jean jacket, always seems suspiciously close to the passengers' wallets.

All of us are sealed into an un-air conditioned subway car whose exterior is so saturated with graffiti that from a distance it resembles a Persian carpet. Peeking over the teenager's shoulder I see crumbling buildings whizzing past the grimy windows, their facades flaking away in a hundred shades of ochre.

I could not be happier.

Rome is not for everyone. When travelers dismiss the Eternal City as dusty, noisy and chaotic I don't jump to correct them. But I love it for precisely those qualities. It's been this way for 2500 years and I hope it will be for another two and a half millennia.

There's no city in Europe whose fabric is more suffused by the passage of time. Construction is foiled by archaeology folded over on itself. The 18th-century palazzo could be demolished, but what of the medieval church floor of sinuous "Cosmati" stonework beneath it? Or the granite Imperial Roman column bases below the church? Better to just shrug and leave it all.

Modern bank inside ruins of Temple of Hadrian

Every time the snarl of a passing motorbike jerks me awake just as I drift off to sleep, my annoyance is softened by the knowledge that ancient Romans were equally plagued by nightly street noise. In an effort to reduce traffic congestion (another problem that has persisted for millennia) vehicles were banned from the imperial city between sunrise and about 4:00PM. As a result, nights were filled with the clanging of hooves and wheels on the cobblestones.

In the first century AD the satirist Juvenal wrote: "The movement of heavy wagons through narrow streets, the oaths of cattle-drovers would break the sleep of a deaf man... we are pressed by a huge mob shoving... now we are smashed by a beam, now biffed by a barrel. Our legs are thick with mud, our feet are crushed by a soldier's hobnail boot... Newly mended shirts are torn again... a wagon carries a long pine; they swing and threaten you."

Rome has always been crowded with visitors. The locals have been looking askance at badly-dressed tourists since Gauls first arrived from the provinces ("Imagine, Octavia, they wear trousers, of all things! A complete fashion disaster!") In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pilgrims thronged to the churches as they do today. And merchants from Africa and Asia did as busy a trade in Augustus' day as in Berlusconi's.

Rome is no doubt dusty. Winds blow across the Mediterranean from the Sahara in summer, coating the statues, churches and Fiats with a fine powder and occasionally, dead locusts. But whenever I sneeze or wipe my brow I remember that every breath of air contains a few molecules of ancient marble from statues and monuments ever so slowly melting like the gelato being sold beneath them.

There's no place in the world I feel as much a small part of an endless historical parade as the Eternal City. As I negotiate the crowds, noise and jumble of culture high and low, I constantly feel the invisible presence of a hundred earlier generations, and I'm comforted by them.

Time to go, my train's pulling up to the Aurelian Walls.

See you at the Forum.

Location:On Linea "B"

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