Of the early Roman morning

Sometimes, as a traveler, this sort of thing just happens. You turn a corner and are staring at some astounding monument and it is more than it should be. It is so much, in fact, that you can’t shake the uncanny feeling that you have mistaken the guidebook description for the real thing–that something has gone terribly wrong and you have landed somehow in a postcard of the place you are trying to understand, trying to navigate, instead of being in that place, at a particular moment in time.

It was late, my first night in Rome, and after the best spaghetti vongole I have ever eaten and a bottle of white table wine I went wandering with my friend, who knows Rome and speaks Italian. He led me, in a round about way, to the piazza in front of the Pantheon.

When we rounded the corner off a narrow, cobble-stone side street and I saw it and the inexplicably vacant plaza in front of it, the nearly full moon above it, I thought I might not be able to breathe.

A place like that should be anticlimactic. It should be vacated of all its power and history by the heat of high season and throngs of tourists. Or this is, at least, what I believed it should be, what I was sure it would be. But it wasn’t.

The enormous Roman thing stood there, in the well-moonlit, warm night and was so close to the gift my 18-year-old self imagined European travel to give that I stumbled. I did not believe it. I could not fathom that the stuff of novels I’d been reading since I was an over-emotional, self-obsessed and deeply romantic teenager could possibly reveal itself as real to an increasingly jaded, well-traveled and critical 31-year-old me.

“Oh, Rome!” (I hear myself saying) “I’ll never forget it!” And I cringe. But there are moments, as it turns out, when cynicism just fails–when you can weep at beauty long after you’ve stopped believing in it outside of its social construction, long after you’ve given up the idea that it might save us savage creatures from surely but slowly and violently destroying ourselves. The Roman Empire was no paradise, nor is the odd, frenetic, present-day city that stands in our global memory as its remaining vestigial limb. But for a moment, though it was brief, I understood why someone might believe a place to be holy. Why we (the communal, universal, human ‘we’) would  long to stand in the shadows of our history and believe in greatness.

Now that the moment has passed I worry. I worry because what I think of is the Satyricon. I think of what ’empire’ meant once and what I believe it to mean now. I worry because I know too much and too little of history. And because while my 18-year-old self believed in History (Marxist teleology was my particular bent), my current self does not.

In the end I have decided just to be glad that the vestigial limb of my own emotional, historical and nostalgic former self is capable of flailing in the Roman night, wowed. It wasn’t like a postcard. It was me and my friend, in the very early morning, under a moon so big it seemed impossible. We were astounded, amazed, and happy that something in us was connected to something with such weight–this marble structure that bears history.

The academic in me is ashamed. The traveller, though, whom I think I may have more trust in, nods and is satisfied. Such contradictions are the very reason to wander.



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