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Colosseum, Rome


When I visit Rome, I have a sense of being home, of coming home. Why this should be is curious. I do have an Italian passport but no Italian would ever regard me as such. Ever. I accept that, I understand. I am Australian first.

Perhaps I feel a sense of comfort because Rome looks so familiar, even at the first visit. Almost everyone in this world would have some sense of what Rome looks like. It’s large. Rome is so large in many dimensions  – time and space. But also less conventional ideas of dimension like memory and connection. There are so many layers of history in the buildings  and under your feet and they’re not neatly layered one on top of the other but merged together to create one overwhelming present. The Roman practice of rarely knocking anything down but rather, enterprisingly, using the existing structure as a foundation creates so many mesmerising tableaus – the modern day apartments merging with a classical structure like a vine that hugs a trellis.  

At the centre of Rome (for me) is the Colosseum. It’s broken, but it’s solid. I’ve only ever experienced Rome when it’s shimmering hot and the cicadas are deafening. Walking towards it from the train station, the Colosseum emerges from bright heat, curved and grey against an achingly blue sky. You try to shut out the tourists masses (of which you are one) and picture the gladiators and lions, etc., a task made harder by the fact that there are chubby modern day Italians wielding plastic swords and smiling for the cameras. Inside the Colosseum it’s ugly. It’s ugly because it’s all cavities and unfinished walls and yawning arched doorways. But it’s beautiful too. Because it’s standing, because it’s a real thread of connection which we can follow, hand over hand, back into the past. Because the outer walls are delicately layered like wedding cake tiers. Because the colonnades are lofty and grand. Because there are gasps of astonishment and smiles of incredulity. People stand around gazing and shaking their heads (and laughing and taking silly photos). It seems as though once you have seen the Colosseum, you can say you’ve seen Rome.

The British Grand Tourists of the 18th century were equally enamoured of Roman history but their experience was raw. The Roman Forum was referred to as the Campo Vaccino – the cow field –because indeed it was full of cattle and goats and rubble and rubbish. Rome was dirty, dusty and hot, very hot, when compared to London. When I see Rome, I see the togaed Senate, but I also see pale young Englishmen, dressed in wool suits, pulling charcoal and sketchpads from their satchels. They must have walked around the Forum with their superior swagger and sophisticated sensibilities, dutifully appreciating the heck out of every monument but without really seeing them. I see them wrinkling their noses at the unfamiliar, head constantly dipping into a guide book which told them exactly what to see, what to avoid and how to feel about both. I see their shocked and disappointed faces when they look up– ‘oh, there are live Italians and they’re lazy, poor and trying to swindle me of my money!’.

On the contrary, Romans seem enterprising, forthright and self-assured. The Roman character was crystallised in my mind when I watched a scene unfold in Piazza Venezia. A clean cut kid, maybe ten years old, was sweetly playing classical music on a violin, busking for change in prime tourist hunting ground. The carabinieri came by, had a quiet word and gently asked him to move on. I was too far to hear why – perhaps he didn’t have a permit? His reaction was comical and shocking at the same time. He started shouting and waving his hands around, angrily, with vehemence. His indignance – he wasn’t doing anything wrong! His disdain for authority (so young!) his passion (so vibrant!). His cunning and entrepreneurial air! But the carabinieri were firm. Surprisingly patient, but firm; completely accepting of his outrage and indolence but casually threatening too. Move it. Now.

View from the Duomo, St Peters 


I can sympathise to a degree though – with being shocked by the present. I remember climbing the 320 steps to the top of St Peter’s dome, my body bending to accommodate the curvature of the structure. Inside the dome it was light and surreal. The fantastic height already takes your breath but then you shake your head in astonishment as you realise that all the cherubs, saints and angels you first viewed from far below are not merely painted (as if that was easy) but in fact, depicted in complex and detailed mosaic. Outside the dome Vatican City was laid bare for me. The colonnades and streets formed an easily recognisable key shape – the key to the church, Pope and heaven itself. My head was full of Michelangelo and Bramante, of 16th century Popes and political religious power struggles. I stood for a moment of contemplation alongside my friend, eating sweet summer peaches and nectarines, utterly at peace and content.

And then, strangely, I hear cheap dance music. Someone up there, an Italian, was blasting bad Italian pop on a little radio. I was immediately annoyed and outraged – such a modern intrusion on such a spiritual place and moment! But then I laughed. This is Italy today, not two thousand years ago, not six hundred years ago and not even two hundred years ago. I was being one of those an insular and blind Grand Tourists I mocked, and I had no right, no right at all. I had to accept all of Rome. We sometimes think time has stood still. We don’t like to remember that Romans need to embrace and respect their past (I don’t think they can’t avoid it), but somehow they move forward too. We need to move with them.

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Souvenirs

Lovely but useless Murano glass.
It’s not even real Murano glass!
When purchasing souvenirs on holidays, most of us lose our heads. We just want to capture the moment with something tangible – a little bit of sparkly magic we can cling on to when we go back to our routine lives. Even though we know, most of us know, that souvenirs are inevitably rubbish and carry no magical powers whatsoever. Oh no, we tell ourselves, I’m not buying plastic trinkets made with cheap child labour. Oh no, I’m going to buy something real, something authentic. Say, a tiny Murano glass figurine from Venice that costs half your shopping budget. That sits on the shelf. Collecting dust. Made exclusively for the tourist market.
I’ve bought a stack of useless things both for myself and for others, in the spirit of souvenir buying. In Canada I loaded up on bear poo (chocolate coated sultanas), maple leaf key rings and maple syrup soap, butter, candles and tea. In Spain I bought hand painted plates, in Russia I bought lacquered trinket boxes and in every country I’ve visited I’ve collected a pen, key ring, postcard and/or magnet. I bought $20 worth of bead jewellery in Brazil and paid $60 to get them treated at Customs.
I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed when purchasing my cheap Taiwanese import spoons at the counter, but tell me what else I can give my aunts. Let’s face it, they’re convenient and don’t take up any important space in your suitcase. In Hong Kong my niece actually spent seven days and nights searching for damn tea towels for her aunts. They were, incredulously, nowhere to be found. Cheap jewellery, pashminas, imitation handbags and purses aplenty. But tea towels, forget it. She ended up finding one at the airport as we were preparing to head home.
Perhaps my parents take the biscuit in terms of impractical souvenir buying. My Italian parents living in Australia visited their homeland in 1977. As gifts for themselves and other family members, they brought back with them four (that’s four) La San Marco espresso machines from Milan. Orange and chrome. Four. My father estimates a good 6 kilos each. In one suitcase. My parents were clearly well ahead of their time with regards to home espresso machines, but right up there in the ‘crazy’ category as far as souvenir buying is concerned.
I scrounged around for a photo of this coffee machine that used to sit in our kitchen. I failed to locate one, so I casually asked my aunt, one of the espresso machine recipients, if she had one. She had one better – the actual coffee machine, still in plastic. I took this photo last week. Needless to say, my aunt is a bit of a hoarder….
You think this is just a 21st century malady? Not so. On the Grand Tour in the 1700s the English hoards invading Italy packed up extraordinary booty to take home. Keep in mind, those on the Grand Tour were mainly male 20-somethings with money to burn and an aching desire to prove to those at home that they were now learned and cultured young men. They took home plaster busts and portraits of themselves sitting idly by classic Roman scenes. They carried off with them an enormous amount of sculptures, medals, paintings and books. Some of them started museums. Possibly the most disturbing to our modern sensibilities – they chipped off hunks of marble from the Roman Forum relics that they would later convert to a lovely coffee table.
But like us souvenir suckers today, the English regularly fell for fake antiquities. Enterprising Italians quietly rustled up some half decent marble Roman torso, scrounged up some suitable limbs and then tinted them all with tobacco water to age them consistently. ‘Come this way sir. Of course it’s real!’
I had my own Grand Tour / crazy souvenir moment when visiting Hobart in Tasmania. I walked into an antique map shop and stopped dead in my tracks. On the wall were four framed engravings of Rome in the style of Piranesi. They were at least half a meter in length and height. Each. They were straight out of the 1800s and I instantly fell in love with them. I recalled my parents epic journey with four coffee machines and thought, I can’t really buy four framed 19th century engravings can I? No, I decided, that’s too silly. My souvenir from Hobart will be restricted to fudge and chutney from the market. And maybe a hand painted bookmark. But no 19th century engravings.
Six months later, home in Adelaide, I was still thinking of those engravings. They called to me like no other souvenir ever had. (Except for maybe a pair of Prada sandals in a Hong Kong outlet store that I still dream about now and then). So I called the store and, yes, they were still available. A few days later I was hanging them on my office wall. Best souvenir I ever bought. 
One of my beautiful engravings. No regrets about this souvenir.

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