Dedicated To My Nephew, Pax

There were too many stories of instability and slaughter in the news this summer and George noticed. He asked me a few weeks ago:  Theo, when is the news going to stop talking about Gaza and return to Syria?  George is nearly 12 but he still sees the world in black and white and in terms of what is clearly right and wrong.

It won’t be long before he knows too much of life and the news becomes inexplicably grey and no longer makes sense again.  Clarity has a short life cycle.

I thought a visit to the altar of peace would be a good way to close this summer of inescapable headlines from across the globe and restless days trying to stay cool in Rome.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis sits along a turn on the Tiber River and features an exquisite memorial to peace commissioned by Octavian Augustus over 2000 years ago. The contemporary building is an unusual sight in this city of ancient monuments:

The Museo dell'Ara Pacis

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis

Augustus commissioned the altar to honor the Goddess Pax when he returned to Rome victorious after years of consolidating his vast empire.  Peace is a pleasure of the victors and Augustus knew well to offer tribute to his luck and to the Goddess who assured it.

Pax was a minor player on the shelf of Roman deities, dusted-off by Augustus and elevated to celebrity in the Fields of Mars near the northern gate of Rome.  Her beautifully carved marble monument didn’t stand alone.  A few hundred feet to the east Augustus erected an obelisk he had looted from Egypt.  He named the stone pillar after himself and crowned it with a gilded ball to enhance its shadow.  Every year on his birthday the maximum length of the obelisk’s shadow reached the Ara Pacis, uniting man and goddess in a powerful coupling of monuments.

And so began the cult of Augustus and the height of the Roman Empire.

The Pax Romana.

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The Pope took an opportunity to promote peace with a star-studded soccer match this week.  He organized The Interfaith Match for Peace to model cooperation and tolerance. The teams had Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist players and at least two adored soccer legends:  Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio.

The message?  Sportsmanship should extend beyond the field.

We took the boys in hopes of seeing Messi but he didn’t play because of an injury. The Pope was a no-show as well though he met the players earlier in the day. He also sent a televised greeting to the stadium.

The event was all too contrived for me.  There are plenty of quiet examples of tolerance and respect beyond corporate sponsored sporting events.  I think of India and its extraordinary diversity and of villages where Hindu and Muslim communities live and work together.  It’s an imperfect example because this diversity doesn’t always “bear witness to feelings of fraternity and friendship” as the Pope and the rest of us would like.  But hundreds-of-millions of Indians practice a daily scrimmage in their own interfaith match for a lasting and very real peace.  In these games, everyone wins.

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Lingering in the Golden Gleam

There’s oodles to share and anxious grandparents waiting to see what we have managed to do with ourselves on this side of the Atlantic this summer.  And so, fewer words and more photos to share our news…

I wanted to start the kids’ summer vacation with them volunteering at a refugee center but local, under-18 liability details interfered with my plans.

But we did spend a day in June cleaning the garden of the monastery at San Gregorio al Celio.  The church dates back to 575 when Pope Gregory the Great built a monastery on the grounds of his family home.  The kids scooped-up rotting oranges from under citrus trees and I went mano-a-mano with monstrous, weedy vines.  It was an easy morning of labor  and a good way to show the kids that outreach doesn’t have to be grandiose.  Small tasks can transform a messy garden into a tidy space and this is reason enough to make the effort.

(You can read more about the garden project here:  http://www.wantedinrome.com/news/2003283/rome-s-ecumenical-garden.html)

 

We traveled to England to visit friends in the Cotswolds:

 

 

And finally – a longed-for visit to Cornwall:

 

 

 

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll…

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You don’t have to like rock music to appreciate a Rolling Stones concert at Circo Massimo. Seventy-one thousand people packed the grounds of the ancient stadium to see the 50th anniversary performance of the iconic band in Rome this week.  I suspect that many were there, like me, to witness the electronic rock spectacle in the sunset glow of the Imperial Palace and the Palatine Hill.  I also wanted to see if the nearly 71-year-old Mick Jagger could still gyrate across a stage for two hours.

He can.

And shake, rattle, and roll he did, much like the chariots that once raced in Circus Maximus two thousand years ago.  The rest of the original band defied age as well with nearly two hours of good-old-fashioned rocking and rolling, though Keith Richards looked more like an air-guitar-playing anachronism than lead guitarist.  (I don’t think he plucked more than three notes.)  Still, this performance of the 14-On-Fire world tour was worth every centesimo of the 90-Euro ticket.

That I got to take my daughter to her first concert in such a memorable venue is priceless.

(He mom, do you remember that you wouldn’t let me go to the Rolling Stones concert in Philadelphia in 1981?  But you did let me see the Village People in 1978 – my first concert.  A precious factoid… )

 

Also this week, an outdoor performance of a different genre:  Bizet’s Carmen with a stunning backdrop of the Baths of Caracalla.

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And more:

Rose Petals And The Pantheon


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The Pantheon is deeply weighted with marble and Roman cement and two thousand years of pagan and Christian history.  It’s capped by the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and it looms heavy and colossal in an area of the city dense with alleys and old buildings.  The small piazza outside the Pantheon slopes into the portico as though it were tilting under the load of the building.

Among all this weight floated rose petals today.  They fell from the Oculus in the middle of the dome during a special mass to celebrate Pentecost.

The unlikely sight of flowers cascading from the sky to the rotunda below made me cry. This involuntary response wasn’t preceded by a noticeably powerful emotion and so it surprised me.  I didn’t feel the tears until my cheeks were wet.

But I was moved by the moment, as if awed by a brilliant sunset or some other natural wonder.  Nothing less.

Maybe my tears fell in harmony with the petals:  pushed over the edge of my body like the roses thrown from the roof of the Pantheon.

The floating petals reflected the sunlight and some of the red burst into flecks of explosive brightness.  It was all rather magical.

And unbearably beautiful.

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Tuscany:

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A few other bits:

Venice

IMG_0668Venice hooked my kids from the moment they walked out of the train station and landed on the Grand Canal.  It’s a living Busy Town, a Richard Scarry excess of the ordinary with floating traffic, bustling bridges and hundreds of little stories playing out to move the Venetian Gothic city from sunrise to sunset.

I love Venice, too, but the sentiment feels more like a confession than a shared joy. Few of my friends agree that there’s much to love in the floating city any more.  They say the charm is spoiled by hordes of cruise ship tourists, exorbitant prices, and the “Disneyfication” of the alleys around San Marco.

But with little effort it is easy to escape the mosh pit of tourism on the Grand Canal.  If you are game for a labyrinthine detour through dappled alleys and over scenic fairy bridges, then the Venice that has moved imaginations for centuries is still yours.  It is a watery magic carpet ride that offers dreamy deliverance to secret spaces.  The city oozes romance but go without three kids to tap into that.  And yes, bring your wallet.

We stayed in a small apartment tucked away on an alley in Dorsoduro. It had a lovely back garden where I sat in the morning with my coffee and listened to  the birds and church bells and noticed only a distant hum of far off activity.  The kids slept late in the cool, humid air and our lazy mornings defied the throbbing crowds in San Marco.  Our adventures included the lesser-trafficked islands in the lagoon, lazy lunches, and walks through local neighborhoods that bordered the more touristed central district.  We splurged for a gondola ride which was worth the 80 Euros, if not for the romance than for the peace it bought once the boys got into the boat.  And we couldn’t resist an atmospheric 66-Euro cappuccino (2) and hot chocolate (3) at Caffe Florian.  (Yes, Priya, we also visited the old library nearby.)

I bumped into a friend from Delhi who was staying in Venice and teaching a short course at Cà Foscari University.  It was a delightful surprise to look up from lunch and see Ananya’s warm and familiar face.

And of course, I ran early in the morning when even the pigeons were asleep and Piazza San Marco was shockingly empty.

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Our garden and Olivia, who turned 15, are both in full bloom!

 

 

 

 

Home To Rome

I can’t resist sharing this little story:

An Italian daddy at the boys’ bus stop said to an American mommy:

Oh, you look nice today.  You are dressed like an Italian.  Sometimes Americans look like a nightmare.  

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Olivia and I returned to Delhi last week for closure.  She has missed her friends and the familiar comfort of her school.  I have missed my students and the way my work connected me to the local community.  It was nice to return, if just for a week, to the flashes of raw beauty and spiritual grit that abide in India, such as the colors of saris and tents and festive bouquets; the necessary calm that people exude to protect themselves from the chaos that they can’t control.

India is still very much a foreign place to the people I meet in Rome.  Conversations about it don’t get particularly specific, so it was nice to talk with friends in Delhi about topics that still interest me – the national election underway and the frigid US-Indian relationship after the arrest of the Indian diplomat in New York.  And too, the Indian Supreme Court’s recent ruling that legalizes a third gender.  The court also agreed to hear a petition to its ruling that criminalized gay sex a few months ago.  Is the third gender status a hopeful foreshadow?  There was also lots of local gossip about the kids’ old school possibly abusing visa applications and the potential closing of the American club (ACSA) to non-diplomatic members.  (Confirmed as of this writing…)

Olivia disappeared into her posse as soon as we landed and I was afraid that returning to Rome would be emotionally tough for her.  But she surprised me and found her peace.    This trip let us secure our memories and our friendships and put to rest some of the romance that haunted us.  It will never be the same and that is a good thing and a good lesson, particularly for my incredible daughter.

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I wanted to run a half marathon a few months ago but to register as a resident of Rome I had to be a member of a local running club.  I tried to join a club but they rejected me because I didn’t have my Permesso di Soggiorno or permission to live temporarily in Rome. I found another club that let me join without the Permesso but they wanted a medical certificate of general health stamped by a sports doctor.  I found a doctor and when he discovered that I was over 45, he ordered a stress test.

If this were a children’s story it would end – “And after all that, I was so stressed that I needed to run a half marathon but when I tried to register for the race….”

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While Lala and I were in Delhi, the boys went to Puglia, the heel of the boot:

 

 

 

Naples

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It took a visit to Naples to discover that I didn’t know the Mandarin word for penis. When I lived in China, I used “ji-ji” which is what the nanny said with Eddie and George when she changed their diapers.  This is a playful adaptation of the formal anatomic description.

While walking through the ruins of Pompeii,  I fell in step with a Mandarin-speaking tour group and listened to their guide for a few minutes.   My ears settled comfortably on the language and it was nice to relax into the lecture and to understand most of what I was hearing.  (In contrast to my exhausting struggles with Italian…)

The group stopped outside of a building that had once been a brothel.  The Italian guide spoke excellent Mandarin and she described the small rooms and the stone beds inside and she joked about how uncomfortable they must have been.  She talked about erotic frescoes that decorated the walls and described them as a menu of services. Then she pointed to a wooden stick that protruded from the top of the front door.  It was a symbol to mark the building as a brothel but I couldn’t understand the word she used to describe this symbol.  As I was repeating the word aloud to decipher the context, a Chinese woman next to me leaned over and said “penis.”

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Naples gets a bad rap from travellers unaccustomed to urban grit but it’s a lovely city-on-a-sea and it buzzes with purpose from the docks of its vast port to the hills of Vesuvius.  Mom and I went for a quick visit, mainly to see Pompeii and the Museo Archeologico which houses the famous Farnese collection from Rome as well as relics from Pompeii. There’s so much more to see in this ancient Greek colonial city and it deserves another visit.  Naples also sits at the gateway to the Amalfi Coast.  Think picturesque vertical villages like Positano, plunging from a hillside into the Mediterranean Sea…

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I attended Catholic school for seven years.  The nuns had a certain practical nature, a sensibility and strength that helped them run the school without many hiccups.  They weren’t mothering but they weren’t mean.  We were an obedient and orderly family of students and sisters.  Father Cyprian, the headmaster, inflicted the only drama when he used a chair leg to spank naughty boys.

Last week I met Sister Virginia, a catholic nun who has spent much of her career working in Ethiopia and Eritrea.  She reminded me of the nuns at my school.  She walked a fast clip and climbed stairs with an ease that defied her 70+ years.  Her movement was intent, purpose-driven and orderly.  I could tell that Sister Virginia got things done.

Sister Virginia knows my friend Sanny, who was just here visiting from Ankara, Turkey. Sanny lived in Eritrea at one point in her diplomatic adventures and this where she met Sister Virginia, who ran schools and outreach projects in Asmara.  They became friends, like many people who meet Sanny and are drawn into her energy.

Eritrea, a former Italian colony, is run by a repressive government and is largely cut-off from the world.  Sister Virginia was thrown out of the country after many years working there and she returned to the order of Lucia Filippini in Rome.  I joined Sanny for her reunion with Sister Virginia, who lives just around the corner from my apartment.

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We live near John Cabot University which is a small, American college in Rome.  Every day we walk by the main entrance where pools of students hang out on the street and in a corner cafe by our apartment.  The neighborhood streets are narrow and it’s easy to overhear snippets of conversation as you walk.  I tune-out the chatter but the kids don’t and they have become rather good mimics of American college student dialect. George loves to make fun of the drawn-out valley girl/boy emphasis that turns one syllable words into two (“way-ay” or “Fruh-uhm”).  Eddie asked me what “shit-faced” means.  As in:

“Maaan, we got shit-faced last night.”

“Really?  No way-ay.”

But my favorite line so far is one that Olivia brought home:

“Whaddya mean she’s got a boyfriend?  We kissed after the party.”

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