Saturday, November 21, 2015
Mike Welch Goes to Rome
I wished, when I was younger, and then as I got older, to be able to travel to Europe and do The Grand Tour. It seemed like a lot of kids did it the year after they graduated college. But it is pretty much rich kids, or poor ones much more adventurous than me, who end up doing such things.
The Grand Tour is a tradition wherein, and, as a way to complete your education before you begin a lifetime of work (or at least of exploiting the working class), you spend a year, and Daddy’s money, wandering Europe in the way the idle rich do, learning about how Western Europe came to dominate everything (and pretty much screw it up). It’s the kind of thing you would do if you were a character in a Henry James novel (along with reading a lot of Henry James novels), or if you were one of those loveable young nitwits like, say, Lady Mary on Downton Abbey.
I will be 53 this Sunday, and I never thought I would get the chance to do such a thing. And yet, as I write this, I am sitting in a 16th Century Roman villa outside Rome, in Pomezia, a kind of suburb Mussolini had hastily erected in the years before WW2. Yes, here I am, and I am going to see Rome, and perhaps Prague, Budapest and Vienna, in the next two weeks.
My friend David loves Opera. Nevertheless, I like him quite a bit. He belongs to this group of opera buffs who go around to all manner of these bellowing fests, and the group organized a trip to Rome and Krakow, of all places. I signed on for the ride, and will be going on some tours with these people (who are a little bit out there, I think I can say without fear of being contradicted, but who seem harmless enough) in the mornings, and then escaping in the afternoons to wander Rome and the above-mentioned cities, learning what I guessed I should have learned a long time ago.
If I was doing this when I was 23, I would be hoping to fall in love, a love which would probably break my young heart, teach me about the ways of the world, and which would remain something I could throw in the face of the woman I eventually married whenever she fell short of the ridiculous expectations I had for her after the love itself was long a bittersweet memory. But I guess I won’t be doing that. Especially with a much older woman, like in those coming of age movies, because women much older than me are pretty much already dead.
There are two candidates I have found so far for the role of tragic lover. One, whose name is Anne, is a tenor, a lovely tenor, as delicate as a flower but who apparently has lungs that could blow your windows out. Unfortunately, she is married to an Israeli fellow (aren’t they all in the military, and they know how to kill you with their bare hands in a depressing number of ways?), and from the way she talks about him, they are copacetic. Oh, well.
The other is named Simonetta. She is apparently a real big deal in opera circles, and is very pretty, in a dark Italian way—olive complexion, big eyes that look always ready to fill with tears or light up with the wonder she seems to still feel for the world even though she must be familiar with the darker side of life, if not in practice, then in theory, for all these operas are filled with passion and deceit and double dealing and tragic and poignant circumstance. Her English is not too good, but then again, neither is mine. Stay tuned.
The trip down to JFK from Albany was uneventful, just the way I like it. I sat all the way in the back corner of the plane in a seat that was made for a kindergartner. The woman next to me was German, and she had a kind face, and would occasionally look at me and say things in German that I think were kind, although most things in German to me seem somehow less than kind. Eight hours, and my butt was hurting after four, and asleep after six. Finally, I fell into a fitful doze, dreaming that my lower legs, completely asleep from the awkward position I sat in, had been amputated in some freak accident in Italy, a place where freak accidents are expected to occur.
Things went relatively smoothly when we got there, although it was raining hard in Rome. I thought of A Farewell to Arms, where the hero, Frederic Henry, is always drinking grappa and a cold rain is always falling and the boredom of his life is punctuated by the violent death of battle. And he falls in love with that nurse. Simonetta is not a nurse and I’m not Frederic Henry.
On the way to the Villa, I am astounded by how so many ancient buildings are preserved here, as well as how much the Roman suburbs look to me like West New York, NJ, a Cuban enclave near the George Washington Bridge known for bodegas, graffiti, and old men sitting outside on the sidewalk playing dominoes, and talking about the extremely macho exploits of their youths. Anne talked for the last ten kilometers about how wonderful her husband and kid are. Blech. Simonetta talks in animated Italian on her cell phone, and I don’t think she notices me beyond noting I am an ugly American (I hope only metaphorically so).
We stop at a bank to get some Euros, and I am surprised to find you must enter a bulletproof tube and be fingerprinted before you can enter. Are these Italians masters of the bank robbery? I know they specialize in homegrown political terrorism on both the extreme right and left, and kidnappings and strikes by the continually disaffected workers, but I didn’t know bank robbery was on the menu too. I have been looking at all kinds of Italian women but have not been struck by the thunderbolt yet. And I don’t seem to have particularly struck anyone myself. The Villa is as beautiful as advertised, but seems awfully remote from everything. The only things nearby are goats and cows. Tomorrow is another day. We visit the Vatican.
© 2015 Mike Welch