A trip to Italy is not unlike shooting heroin. It’s pretty intense while it lasts, but once over, you are in a world of stomach-twisting and sweat-inducing hurt. This revelation came to me – along with a mild panic attack – after having accidently found myself in the frozen foods section of the local grocer. I had only returned the U.S. a few days prior so the fresh aromas of street markets had not yet completely faded from memory. While trying to find a respectable substitute for true Italian gelato with all those sublime Mediterranean flavors, I wondered into the section of the store filled with products targeting the perpetually tasteless and lazy. There, in front of me, was a broad assortment of frozen garlic-parmesan bread, rosemary olive-oil loaves and basil-asiago dinner rolls. Innovative examples of manufactured foods: two words that should never – ever – go together. I like my car manufactured. My dishwasher manufactured. My bicycle manufactured – ideally by the loving hands of a master welder named Giuseppe in a Northern Italian workshop. Bread, I don’t like manufactured.
What a far cry from the previous week: The smell of freshly ground espresso beans wafting up through the flat’s window at dawn, luring me to the street below. Just next to our building was the café. And next to it the bakery. Then the wine shop. After that the cheese store. And finally the butcher’s, that, through some form of alchemy, turned even the most horrifyingly disgusting parts of a pig into mouth-watering salamis, sopressatas and capicolas. Quite the contrast to the acreage of undoubtedly flavorless, boxed food in which I presently found myself. Even more painful was that many of the products were – in what was clearly a sarcastic gesture by a junior marketing executive –prominently labeled Italian. Perhaps, I thought, this misguided belief that ingesting sodium-filled and fat-laden corporate chemistry experiments is acceptable, much less palatable, may, in some way, explain America’s futile battle against expanding waistlines and other ailments that send the nation’s cardiologists grimacing all the way to the bank – or BMW dealership. The average Italian, by comparison, devours the equivalent to an entire hog per annum, yet even their fifty-year olds look like supermodels.
Apologies. I do not intend this missive to have the sole aim of bashing degenerate, twenty-first century American culture. Wait, who am I kidding? Yes. Yes, I do intend it to be that. So if you consider Thomas Kinkade a legitimate artist, football – the brain-rattling American variety –a legitimate sport, Kanye a legitimate performer and Donald Trump a legitimate politician, stop reading, now.
I was a bit surprised it took nearly a week for the culture shock to punch me square in the jaw. It easily could have occurred on the drive back from the airport as I passed vacant strip malls, antiseptic office parks and subprime-financed subdivisions, some of which were ironically named after quaint Tuscan hamlets in a feeble attempt to muddle the fact that they were one rung up from a trailer park. This was not the scenery I had experienced only the day before on a predawn run through the center of Rome. Pacing myself along cobblestone lanes, traversing hidden piazzas with the morning sun radiating off the ochre facades of centuries-old palaces, onto the banks of the Tiber up to where the grand cupola of St. Peter’s stands sentinel above the river’s western bank, I could only think, every day should begin like this. Well that, and damn, I’m tired. The only sound at that early hour was water cascading from the city’s ubiquitous fountains, some still supplied by ancient aqueducts. At home, any noise echoing through the twilight would likely be gunfire, being that this is ‘Merica and we like our guns, and judging by the headlines, using them with sickening frequency.
Rome is renowned for the seven hills upon which an empire was built. It was only by accident that I climbed every one of them on my morning jaunts, a mistake attributed to my inability to read Italian street signs. The views down toward a sea of terra cotta rooftops and renaissance domes, however, made the Advil-popping ascents worth it, as did scuttling past the ageless Pantheon in shadowy solitude and, later, joining other runners along the Via del Corso striding toward the ornate Piazza del Popolo, all of which were free from the notoriously nihilistic Roman drivers at that hour. Venturing into the sixth mile of one such run, I came to realize why I had never been able to jog more than an hour during my four-year exile in the U.S.: I didn’t want to. Running through nondescript neighborhoods bereft of character and past parking lots more expansive than an ancient hippodrome is not quite as motivating. There is always trail running in the foothills west of town, but I prefer to think that, in aggregate, my life amounts to something more than an afternoon snack for a mountain lion.
The average Italian’s day begins not with a run, but a stop at the neighborhood café for the first of many espressos. The green-emblem, paper-cup variety this is not. Italians, after all, invented espresso, and over the past century they have perfected it. Practically every city block has its own café, providing patrons with just enough counter space to place their cup and pastry while they glance at the morning paper or catch up with neighbors. Any visit to such an establishment puts the tragic concept of Starbucks into perspective, if any were needed. More than once that company’s self-assured yet clearly delusional CEO has stated that his mission was to bring the Italian coffee culture to the U.S. Well, if that was the goal, Howie, you missed the mark by 1.61 kilometers. If the plan all along was to serve up industrialized, warm brown liquid, often mixed with a sugary syrup that no self-respecting citizen of Rome would ever put in his coffee, all within a soulless atmosphere, then you’ve duly earned your billions.
There are two categories of people in Italy: citizens and poor bastards like me who are only there on holiday. At least while the former heads into work, I could commence with my main order of business, which was absorbing the intoxicating splendor that two-plus millennia of history and culture have bequeathed the city.
While the hulking ruins of the city’s imperial past may garner top billing, the structures that largely dominate modern Rome’s piazzas, lanes and hilltops are ecclesiastical in nature. The city, after all, has been the center of Christiandom for much of the faith’s history, a fact that undoubtedly makes the celebrity preachers of suburban megachurches sick with envy. From gilded Byzantine basilicas to renaissance cathedrals and evocative baroque chapels, Rome’s churches trace an interrupted path from the Empire’s final days, through the tumult of medieval Europe, up to the present, where modernity seems to have little place for such trifling matters as understanding the essence of man, despite the city brimming with monuments aimed at exploring such mysteries.
Those more well-versed in the arts and architecture can point out how the resplendent domes, vivid frescos and haunting mosaics that capture a much earlier time, were meant to create a sensation of both astonishment and humility as one beholds the grandeur of heavenly promise compared to the wicked, vile and sometimes violent darkness that has encapsulated much of man’s earthly experience. One need not have memorized the Lives of Saints or dine on a slice of cod every Friday to get the message. The contrast, so goes this school of thought, will keep potentially wayward souls on the straight and narrow. If that were the intended effect, it works damn well on me. So much so that when walking along wrenching interpretations of the stations of the cross, or silently studying a reliquary illuminated only by shimmering candlelight, I – perhaps channeling my inner Augustine – feel more than a twinge of guilt for being such a reprobate. Penitence? Um, next year…maybe.
Two of the most popular sites within Rome’s center are the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. A visit to either radiates the same level of tranquility and intimacy that one would expect when trying to escape a theater fire. To further illustrate what pinheads most of humanity is, these hordes scurry from one such site to the other – all of which are completely obscured other tourists jostling for selfies – oblivious that some of the city’s greatest treasures are hidden in plain sight within the palaces and museums they feverishly blow past.
Hoping to avoid contracting the myriad airborne pathogens these cretins surely host, I prefer to exist in a parallel tourist universe, frequenting attractions overlooked by the bucket-list crowd. Rome has plenty. One such jewel is the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, not so discreetly located on the Via del Corso. Despite the plum location, the palace’s renaissance courtyard and opulent galleries are as hushed and calm as the streets outside are chaotic. Here is where one comes to commune with the timeless brilliance of Caravaggio, Tiziano and Rafael.
It is a risky proposition to attempt to name the singular highlight of a holiday, but if forced, the main candidate from my recent excursion was finding myself alone in a chamber of the palace, viewing Velazquez’s renowned portrait of Pope Innocent X. The masterpiece is one of seventeenth-century Europe’s artistic triumphs and a significant contribution to western civilization’s cultural heritage. Modern fare such as reality-TV staple Naked and Afraid this was not. We’ve slipped a bit over the past few hundred years.
Sharing the chamber is a bust of the same subject by master sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. While examining the work, one cannot escape the sensation that the work is examining you. And being that this individual was Christ’s vicar on Earth, and possibly held considerable sway on whether my wretched soul would spend eternity in fiery damnation, I felt more than a bit uneasy. But such was the genius of Bernini. With his chisel and hammer, he could transform a slab of rock into an image that seemingly emitted levels emotion and energy far exceeding the capabilities of his flesh-and-blood subjects.
The bust of Innocent X is just one of the countless gifts Bernini bestowed upon Rome. Most visitors –likely unknowingly – have witnessed his achievements when absorbing the interior of St. Peter’s, dipping their hands into one of his famed fountains or stumbling upon an alter in an otherwise nondescript parish church. Should one really want to experience Bernini-overload, a tour of the Galleria Borghese can serve up more artistic intensity than perhaps any other museum within the city. The place may have the highest concentration of mythology-inspired marble figures that consistently elicit the exaltation, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” from awestruck patrons. Don’t believe me? Hop on a plane and prove me wrong.
No one will ever confuse me for an art snob. My preference for having large dead animals nailed to a wall eliminates that possibility. Italian cuisine on the other hand, that’s a different matter. Bathe me in olive oil, I simply worship the stuff. Yes, the country has been on a steady descent since it ruled the known world, and they really screwed up during the Mussolini years, but over the centuries, at least according to my palate, they have perfected dining. And not just what’s on the plate, but where it’s served and with whom it’s shared. Dining remains an event, whether in trattorias, or around a country kitchen table. The pasta is fresh. The wine acidic. The spices vibrant and the sauces rich. All of this is topped off with a steaming espresso to ensure the amity will continue well into the night. Of course, such a commitment to downtime and imbibing may partly be to blame for the country’s low productivity and legendary inefficiency. But it’s not like America is knocking the cover off the ball these days either. And what do we get for our purported economic might? Commutes? Birthdays at Maggiano’s?
Though provincial compared to other European capitals, Rome is still a large, congested city. Fortunately, an Italian experience on a much smaller scale is only a short journey away, into the hills of Umbria and Tuscany. Any residual stress from a life spent behind a desk, in cars and tethered to a computer melts away the deeper one ventures down the brick lanes of these regions’ walled towns. While Rome is Rome – the splendid yet withered seat of a long-gone empire – these villages and the hills that surround them are Italy. One does not venture here for masterpieces or basilicas. The attraction is the intangible. No guide book or history class can educate the visitor on how to appreciate the view from the top of a medieval campanile as a late-autumn storm forms over distant vineyards. As shadows envelope the hills, a cool wind serves as a harbinger of the impending winter. Soon bands of rain march across the valley, ultimately surmounting the town’s fortifications. While the arrival of the storm forces a retreat to the streets below, this being Italy, the remainder of the afternoon, rest assured, can be spent in the warmth of a café, enjoying yet another espresso and planning the next excursion to this captivating land.