I think the need for stories is hardcoded into our DNA. Stories don’t just capture our imaginations—the very best ones help us make sense of the world as well as our place within it. Stories impart meaning, and our desire for order and answers can sometimes cause us to look back and infer cause and effect where none existed, to imbue events with significance and an interdependence that is utter fiction. We don’t simply wish to know things, we wish to know the why of things, and stories can slake this desire.
The allure of stories is universal, whether you are very young or very old, whether you have the soul of a scientist or a poet. But I think that travelers, and especially travel writers, have a special affinity for the power of stories. When Tony & I visit places, it may look like we’re on the prowl for our next best meal or the prettiest beach or the most epic motorcycle (or tuk tuk!) adventure, but really what we’re looking for is our next story. We want to penetrate the layers of the places we visit and excavate the heart of them, find out what makes a city or a country—and, of course, its people—tick.
When it comes time to sit down to write about our experiences for 20YH, the first thing I ask myself is “What is the story here? What do I want others to know about this place that only I can tell?” Sometimes the stories practically write themselves, and other times, it’s much harder; sometimes you know you’re in the midst of a good story while you’re living it, watching the plot unfold around you; but other times, I have to work a little harder to fit the pieces together, and it’s only in retrospect a larger picture is formed.
Still, there are times when I am utterly stumped, when I pore over our photos and my notes and a narrative escapes me and the best I can come up with sounds like a child’s recitation (“First we did this. Then we did this. And then we did this!”). Sometimes the truth is that as much as I would love every place to have an interesting, moving story attached to it, some places just don’t.
Embarrassingly, Rome was one of those places for us. I say “embarrassingly”, because Rome is truly a city full of stories; ostensibly one should not have to look very far or very hard for any of them. It’s a city where history comes alive, where modern and ancient mingle effortlessly, where every photograph looks like a still from a movie. You never know what thousand-year-old structure you might stumble upon when you turn a corner, what building or vista will cause your knees to crumble in awe. It’s a special city, utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and while others have managed to capture slivers of its majesty and miraculousness in writing, I find that words fail me here.
Maybe it’s because I spent three of our five days in Rome battling a cold and the resultant fever-induced haze has largely limited my ability to say anything of any substance, anything above and beyond inane trivialities like “Rome is so pretty” or “Rome is… so Rome.” It is and it is, but you don’t really need me to tell you either of those things, right? Or maybe it’s because we sort of ran ourselves ragged, chasing to and fro in a bid to experience as much of the city as we could (debilitating /disorienting illnesses aside), and as a result, just didn’t make nearly enough time for the quiet contemplation and introspection a slower pace of travel encourages. Who’s to say why I am seemingly incapable of parsing Rome… blaming my besieged immune system seems as good an excuse as any!
We spent five days in Rome because the last time I visited, I only spent three and that definitely wasn’t enough. This time, the time I wasn’t spent sick in bed was spent pounding the pavement in a bid to see as much of the city as we could. We skipped across the surface of the city, like stones across a pond, in an attempt to conquer it… but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it certainly can’t be seen in its entirety in five either. There was no way we could see all of Rome during our visit, but we gave it our best shot.
Some snippets of our time:
Seeking refuge from the burning midday sun in the Pantheon and falling asleep on a cool marble bench, only to be awoken to a choir of voices I assumed was a recording but was really a touring choral group. It was one of those surreal moments, the memory of which still sends shivers up my spine.
Watching bemusedly as tourists purchased overpriced spray paint art from vendors in the Piazza Navona while others quaffed €8 glasses of coke, gawking at the spectacle of police giving chase to knock-off sunglass vendors (who would slink back in, not five minutes later).
Laughing at our own naiveté that, in a city built upon ruins, we should be surprised to find that, just like in Paris, most of the major sights were under construction.
Wondering (just as I did on my last visit) what the big deal with the Spanish Steps is. It’s just… steps. Albeit, ones that are covered with an impressive number of tourists and rose vendors. The view from the top promises to be spectacular but it isn’t, really. For that, you have to keep climbing…
Speaking of which: Hiking up several of the seven hills the city was founded upon, most notably the Pincian Hill that overlooks the Piazza del Popolo and (our personal favorite), the Aventine Hill where there lies an orange grove and the most breathtaking view of the city.
Getting lost on our way to what would be another underwhelming meal (more on this in a later post), but stumbling across an ancient aqueduct and field of wild flowers along the way.
Standing in line for hours to get into the Vatican museum, unavoidably eavesdropping on a schoolgroup of American preteens babbling on about all the things that matter so very much when you’re 12 and which barely register when you’re… significantly older than 12… Then spending hours winding through the seemingly endless collection, cracking occasional Assassin’s Creed jokes and wondering why everyone rushes through the map gallery on the way to the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is nice—great even!—but the map gallery has always, and I suspect will always be, my very favorite part of that museum. Also, it has far less shushing and pushing.
Getting lost in the alleys and picturesque plazas of Trastevere, followed by regretful lamentations that we hadn’t splurged the extra cash to stay in this neighborhood rather than out in the suburbs, a good 40-minute tram ride from… anything.
Discovering the glory of the spritz, a bitter boozey orange concoction, during an afternoon spent catching up with our dear friends Dale & Franca of AngloItalian, Follow Us! (The drinks were good but, in truth, it was really the company that made it so special.)
And, of course: All! The! Ruins!
I wish I could say something meaningful, something poignant, about Rome, but after quite literally weeks of struggling to write something—anything—about it, I’ve made my peace with the fact that our random grab bag of memories of Rome may not make for much of a story. But they are what they are and, more importantly, they are ours. I encourage you to go and visit and collect some of your own; one day, I know we’ll be back to do more of the same.