There is nothing I love so much as the jumbling and scrapping of expectations. I thought Rome would live up to all my visions of a city steeped in history and hanging onto its past. But it’s something else. It’s hard to get a grip on the city. It slips away. It reminds me, oddly, of Russia — the only way to really begin to know it is t be invited into someone’s home. It’s a city where you really have to pack up the guidebook and just start walking. It’s all jumbled tgether in streets of old and new, tiny distances separating today’s racing, exhaust-filled thoroughfares from the immense and impressive buildings thousands of years old.
There’s the Colosseum, looking, yes, incredible, but like an aged matriarch of the great-great vintage, sitting serenely in an armchair, watching the antics of her children’s children’s children and knowing that, although she can still stand straight-backed and proud, her time has passed.
And there’s the Pantheon, that incredible feat of engineering, completely whole, still with full use of its faculties after two thousand years, hemmed in by buildings that are babies by comparison. It is set off by a tiny piazza in front, but mostly it tries to blend in, the squat round thing, as if it’s found the secret to eternal life but doesn’t want anyone to know and would just like to be treated like one of the guys, thanks.
Anywhere else these sights would require a walk outside town maybe, at least some effort. Here they’re packed in with the busy life of modern Rome. There’s no time to build up the awe of ancient history, little escape from the screaming rush of traffic-filled streets, the buzz of scooters, the constant clack of espresso cups on china, and the crush of tourists. There’s no space for reverence of the past.
I get the feeling that’s what Rome intends. Life goes on, it seems to say. There were glories of imperial weight before, and the oozing history of the past two thousand years — both the beautiful and the very ugly — but if you stop to ponder it you culd be crushed under the weight of stories long gone. Right now there is business to be done, children to feed, planning to do, friends to meet, politics to shake your head over, coffee to drink. It is good to be reminded of the past, to glance over at the ruins of the Roman Forum, where world-shaking decisions were once made, but it is not our present. It is not our life, not our now.
I thought the sense of history here would be tremendous, but it’s something else. The sense that history moves on is nowhere so vivid as in Rome. Only here can I imagine, someday, busloads of tourists stopping by a broken building overgrown with wildflowers, roses tumbling out of former rooftops, and the guide will say, “Yes, here’s the White House, whose residents once thought they commanded the world. That was a long time ago.”