Well, I have just returned from Rome, something I never thought I would say. It was fantastic to say the least, but I did not have nearly enough time to do everything in that old, old city.
I had time for the basics: Vatican City (including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica), the Coliseum, and the Trevi Fountain. All of these are things which everyone, including the native Romans, agrees that you must see. I must be the only one who disagrees. (Perhaps some latent bitterness is expressing itself because at the Trevi Fountain I only had enough coins to guarantee a return trip to Rome and to fall in love. As of now, I am not able to get married. I will have to return to ol’ Trevi and throw one more coin in before the said event can occur. I am not terribly concerned about it; I only hope I haven’t doomed myself to unrequited love or something. But I digress.)
If you have always wanted to see the Coliseum, look at the pictures. That’s exactly what it looks like. You have saved yourself 8 euros, or 20, if you wanted a tour. I was unimpressed, which sounds terrible. But seriously. I wish I could say was better the Sistine Chapel. Walking in, I had forgotten what I would see. It was an awesome sight- that’s an objective fact. But in the Sistine Chapel, photography and talking are forbidden, which makes sense because it is, well, a chapel. There is also no real way to enforce these rules, so there were two shushers stationed at the altar. I think no one has ever had less job satisfaction than those two men. Even with the dull roar of countless different languages intermingling with the clicking of cameras, I could have enjoyed myself in the chapel, since I can block out sounds fairly easily. But we were only allowed to stay in the chapel for about 5 minutes. FIVE minutes to stare at a room crammed with as much artistic genius as the world has ever seen. I might as well have not gone; I didn’t even see the hands almost touching. Two days after I returned from Rome, the chapel was discussed in one of my classes, and I didn’t recognize it. (Atrocious and embarrassing, I know.)
Even in the Basilica, the situation was completely overwhelming, yet I felt underwhelmed. There was more to see than could ever be seen. The masterpieces were too close together to be properly appreciated. Yes, I saw the Pieta and it was incredible from the viewpoint I had from 50 feet away. I could not have gotten any closer without being unchristian, and I didn’t want to brush past that many fanny packs anyway. I was surrounded by tourists snapping pictures for the sake of being able to prove that they were there, and dispassionately walking away. I even saw people taking a picture of a replica of the Pieta in a gift shop. They probably thought it was the real thing.
Sometimes I become concerned that I have become desensitized. I think that maybe I am too old already; I have seen too many pictures which have inundated my mind and polluted my vision, making me incapable of the sensations of awe and wonder. I think that I have become too cynical and I am only going to get worse. The years of my life in which I was most receptive to these experiences are gone. How could it be that I felt more love/fear/joy/awe when I read a book about something beautiful/horrible/awe-inspiring than when I see the actual thing? I think that maybe going through high school full of doubt has ruined me for life…I begin to be jealous of my mother, who never seems to have lost her sense of wonder. At an age she wouldn’t thank me for disclosing, she can still get goosebumps at the smallest thing. I begin to wonder what has happened to me. Am I too German and not enough Irish? Have I become too in control of my emotions? Or is the fact that I am deliberately seeking emotion the reason it keeps evading me?
But then I walk down a Roman street at night and suddenly find myself in square with a fantastic fountain. Something I have never seen before nor ever expected to see. An enormous obelisk (of course) flanked by gods and people and animals. So unexpected, so enormous and beautiful. I knew that Rome was full of art and architecture, but somehow I was not prepared to see this. It just happened to be there, a work which in any other town would have been worshiped, but in Rome is sadly overlooked. Then I encountered a bridge. The railing of the bridge consisted of columns and on top of the columns were statues of angels, maybe 20 feet high. I have never heard of this bridge before and I will probably never hear of it in the future. In retrospect, I know the name, but I won't tell you so you can discover it for yourself. No one I was with cared about it, and I am sure I liked it more for that. Each time I crossed it, I felt the same. It was truly a spiritual experience in a way that cannot be found in the Basilica or the Sistine Chapel.
In Granada, there is a graffiti that says “el arte esta en la calle”- the art is in the street. It is very true, and I love Granada for that. But in Rome, spirituality is in the streets. There is no experience like walking along and suddenly finding yourself under the wings of two dozen angels.
The sacredness and the beauty I expected to feel in Rome were not in the places it was supposed to be. If you want to experience Rome, walk around the streets. In doing so, you will discover Rome by accident. When I go back to Rome, maybe to throw that third coin into the Trevi Fountain (but probably not), that’s what I am going to do. You can feel the oldness thoroughly mixed into the city. It is a tangible force. They will probably never be done discovering ruins, which is why the metro system is terrible; they can’t build a third line because they keep discovering more of them. It is true that everything exciting in that city happened 2,000 years ago. But it was very exciting indeed.
The things I saw in the Vatican and the Coliseum were objectively beautiful, noteworthy, historical, etc. So I was concerned when I did not feel about them the way I was supposed to. But the fact that these characteristics are loved by the entire world means that they must necessarily not be special to me. So I look for things that have a particular impact on me that others don’t notice. That, I believe, is the point of travel. It’s the point of life. That’s why, rather than Michelangelo, I prefer Goya, who makes me forget to breathe, forget that I have a body.
There is something rather magical about Rome (of course). It was my first REAL travel experience, with just me, my backpack, and two friends, and I fell in love with the concept in a real way. It is no longer an idea- I really did meet interesting people from Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, etc. who have nothing else on their agenda but to travel. I ate real pizza. I saw things that my 11- year old self never truly believed I would see. Even my 19-year old self didn’t believe. But now I do. This dream of mine to travel is no longer a child’s fantasy, but a young adult’s reality. I don’t know which is more dangerous. I don’t even know which I prefer. But I am certainly not going to stop.