I have learned many things after only two days in Rome.
I have learned, for instance, that I, who think of myself as a forthright women — pushy, even — have nothing on the people here who will grab a stranger’s arm and lead her into a restaurant or insist on turning heat on in her hotel room when it is already 80 degrees.
I have learned that the most average table-quality olive oil here makes the stuff we’re buying back home (even the really, really pricey bottles at boutique gourmet shops) seem thin and tasteless. Here, the olio is viscous and green, with a sweet, nutty flavor — one that reminds you an olive is a fruit, and not a vegetable as our guidebook said.
I have learned yet again (because I’ve visited Europe before and had this exact experience) that the coffee on the continent is vastly superior to everything we have in the States. In fact, these tiny cups of rich, dense, foamy liquid don’t even seem related to oily American espresso and this time, I’m certain I’ve been ruined for Caribou and Starbucks forever.
I have learned to my chagrin that every other civilized person on the planet — including the kid we stopped on the street to ask for directions to the train station and the elderly man who was mopping the floor in the Pantheon this morning — knows several languages, including mine. I am traveling, for that matter, with a husband who knows three and is able to communicate with the majority of those few who haven’t learned English by slipping into Spanish. While my paltry smattering of poorly pronounced French has been useless.
But put all that aside.
My single greatest learning experience to date came this morning, when my husband and I walked from our hotel four miles, across the Tiber River, to the Vatican and beheld a spectacle unlike any I have ever seen. It was Disneyland with Jesus, a vast, commercial enterprise with men hawking knock-off purses and jewelry at the entrance and enormous screens showing video of the current pope. Were I a Catholic, I would be furious, ashamed, moved to convert to Islam. My mother is Catholic and I was positively aggrieved on her behalf. We declined the opportunity to pay €25 euro apiece to tour this “holy” place, tripped over the hordes of beggars who lay crouched in what I think of as a yogic child’s pose, rattling their shorn-off McDonald’s cups for coins. It was sobering to me, the streams of people wearing crosses who appeared to be gleaning something spiritual from the circus of cotton candy vendors, plastic pietas, and St. Francis on a stick.
We walked away quiet, sickened, not in the mood for lunch. Our next destination was the Coliseum, which took us through the Ghetto, Rome’s Jewish section (which was lovely and quiet and completely devoid of hotdog vendors, kosher or otherwise), and the ancient ruins. Finally we came to the Coliseum, a blackened and broken stone structure, and sat in a park across the street.
“So this was the place where they had, what?” I asked John (who, by the way, won the trivia contest on the plane on the way over; so I count on him to know all things).
“Oh, you know, there were gladiators, and lions eating Christians,” he said.
Well, of course, I’d heard this, but I hadn’t really thought of it. And I have to admit, his saying this really brightened my day. Eating Christians! Now I’m not saying all Christians deserve to be eaten. But I really do think that carefully employed, this practice would solve a lot of problems. There are droves of people pimping the Vatican, and hordes of others brainlessly buying it. Most of them are Christians. And I say, by getting the Coliseum in working order again and feeding a few of them to the lions, we might be able to put a stop to a lot of needless evil. Plus, it would thin out the crowds around Rome.
Which would mean — here’s the real beauty part — that I wouldn’t have to stand in line so long for my coffee.