Despite being the first film to star Audrey Hepburn, (which she incidentaly won an academy award for) Roman Holiday is without a doubt one of the sadest movies I have ever seen. That last shot of Gregory Peck walking out of the palace before stoping to take one last look back at the place he and the princess so recently occupied and shared their final moment together is perhaps the most profound of the whole film. Sure there is the joy of Audrey hitting that guy on the head with a guitar and the warmth of watching Jack slowly come around from the gambling, heartless opportunist to the good natured man that was always there inside, but overall it is a film that tells the tale of fate taking what it will regardless of what the mortals who are subject to its will would prefer.
Now, one could certainly argue that Jack and, to a lesser extent, Walter would not have been able to grow and become better men without the hand of that cruel fate. On the same tolken, Princess Ann would have never fully realized her sense of duty and truly come of age without that same destiny. More than anything I think the movie is a commentary on the finite nature of the things of this world. Who knows what would have happened if the princess had not returned and instead run off with the reporter and gone on crazy adventures. The obvious romantic ideal of the movie is that they would have gone on to live happily and both decided to stay in Rome in that apartment without a kitchen. There is however no way to dismiss the possibility that their infatuation would have faltered and perhaps only after marriage and children would they have learned that they really didn’t like each other that much. It doesn’t really matter as both ideas, as well as any others that like in the spectrum of what might have been, are pure speculation and to dwell upon them is to miss the genuine moment they shared on that one perfect day in Rome.
I have to admit that while I had no such romantic interlude in that glorious and ancient city, I did experience its beauty, its allure and its charm. I walked the Spanish steps – to be fair I thought much more of the Red Hazard’s bs story about the Russian architect who designed them and his love for his beloved Yagada than the spot where the princess sat for a gelato break – I saw the Vatican and many of the other blue domed bascilicas, the great fountains, the ruins of the city of Ceasars long gone and, in no longer a span that it took Jack and the princess to fall in love with one another, I fell in love with Rome.
I have to admit that up until my arrival in Rome I wasn’t really blown away by Italy. Sardigna was awesome but Sicily and the bottom of the boot didn’t really do much for me. The landscape of Amalfi was stunning but for whatever reason it didn’t really click with me. It’s possible that it was the lonliness of my first Christmas truly spent alone that kept me from really enjoying the place as I should have but I can’t say for sure. I stayed as long as I had originally intended to but I won’t lie I was excited to get out of Italy. I was excited…until I rolled into Rome.
It was pouring rain when the local train from Napoli pulled in. Not a gentle misting like you get in the northwest; no no. It was a thourough drenching and even though my hostel was only a few blocks from the train station I was very much the drowned rat upon my arrival. It was a small room with an attached bathroom outside. I was initially curious as to why there was an outside coridor leading to the toilet and why the windows in that corridor had been left open. It didn’t take long, after closing that window, for me to discover why. I don’t know what sort of plumming issues plague Rome’s China town in general ( nor for that matter did I know beforehand that Rome had a China Town. Of course I should have since I’ve seen Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon), but I can say that this particular block was afflicted by a most heinous of aromas. As I am sure you have no real interest in the detail of that particular scent and I have no real interest in recalling it I shall speak no more of it. Suffice to say that my accomodations were comfortable but not without reason for being as inexpensive as they were.
Given the rain and my exhaustion from travel I spent only a short time expolring the city on that first night. That brief sojourn into the city stumbled me upon the Bascilica of Mary Magedellan and I began to suspect that I was right to come to the great capitol of old. I rested well and the next day I was off to see the Vatican.
It only took a few blocks heading into the old city to begin to realize the grandeur of Rome. My phone didn’t die so much as stop working so I just started walking west-ish. The disfunction of my technology might have served as a hastle (and later is would nearly serve a calamity) but instead it was a delight as I unkowingly stumbled upon the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon before reaching the bridge across the Tivere. Onward past the Castle Sant’Angelo (where Audrey hit that guy with a guitar) and finally to the home of the Pontif. Up to this point I had never really had to wait to see any of the sites but that was soon to end. The line to get into St. Peter’s nearly completed the circle of the grand plaza ( the line for the Sistene chappel proved to be even longer). The obvious swindlers promised a way to skip the line and for only a 44 euro markup! Of course if you were in a group of 4 or more they would give you the “student” rate which was only 40 euros above the normal price. I’m not kidding, it costs 6 euros to get into ST. Peters and these clowns wanted 50 to skip the line. “It is a five hour wait” they told me. I looked around at the line and witnessed it’s movement. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t have paid that amount anyway but the obvious and obscene exaggeration of the line duration filled me with no small measure of contempt for those snakes.
I know, I know. I shouldn’t villefy them. They are simply trying to get by in a world that is unfortunately callous and cold and I should walk a mile in their shoes before I judge etc. etc. I don’t deny that and, to be honest, it doesn’t bother me at first but when they just won’t leave me alone it starts to get really old really quick. Just like in Tangier I was mauraded by jackasses with calls the likes of “my friend, my friend what a beard you have. Take this friendship bracelet.” Mother fuckers even started grabbing me by the arm. Just like in Morocco I wasn’t scared or intimidated (and it’s worth noting that no one in Rome threatened me as they did in Tangier) but I became increasingly annoyed and increasingly spiteful in my rebutals as the day went on. Anyway I’m getting of topic, sorry.
About 57 minutes later I began the climb to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s. The stairs just kept going and going and each new flight was more narrow and crooked that the last. The picture below is level believe it or not.
The view from the base of the dome looking in was truly awe, and to a lesser extent vertigo, inspiring. As was reinforced later in the Vatican Museum/Sistine chapel, I was lost in thoughts of what was required to create something of the majesty and magnitude of these hallowed buildings. Spoils of countless wars, tithes and indulgences funded these monuments and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s fair to say that in much of its history the church wasn’t really walking the talk of morality; at least certainly not at the vatican level. But if it wasn’t for that accrual of such massive and frankly comprehension defying wealth, there would be no such structures and in truth they are among the most amazing feats of architecture in the history of architecture.
You might be saying to yourself “hey Brett, it sounds to me like you’re supporting laissez-faire, corporatism and crony capitalism”. Nope. First of all as I made clear above the cost of constructing these things included an epic disregard for the teachings of the man upon whose teachings the church is based. Secondly, despite the means by which they were constructed, there is actually something lasting and inspiring to show for it. I suspect that all things being equal the good has outweighed the bad on this whole basilica building fund-raising issue. The people who take health care from poor children (CHIP program) and working families to give more money to people (and this is real, you can read it on the library of congress’ website) who own private jets and golf courses are worse than the most corrupt of any of the popes or their minions. At least indulgences offered the promise of something in return. I find it funny that the conservative politicians get their base all hopped up on ideas like “we can’t keep giving people handouts”and then give themselves a giant handout by looting the treasury and increasing the deficit by 1.5 trillion. Sorry I got off topic again. I swear I’m going somewhere with this.
Regardless of what philosophical dilemmas weighed upon me I was truly impressed with the majesty of Rome and rapidly realizing that I was in an important moment in my life. As night fell I crossed the Tivere heading back to the eastern shore. The cobble stone streets led this way and that and my delight at the beauty around me was just as profound as the growing knowledge that I didn’t really know how to find my way back. I knew I had to continue east and if I had either a compass (left in the hostel) or a working phone I would be set. Sadly I was in possession of neither and while heading east might be simple in most cases, on a cloudy night in Rome where the streets don’t really have any real order to them it was a tall order. Those streets certainly don’t follow any sort of recognizable grid and the turns they take are not sharp enough to keep track of. Rather they gently meander this way and that slowly eroding one’s sense of direction. Within only a few blocks of the river I was without bearing and knew it. I wasn’t really concerned so much as perturbed. In a foolish moment of carelessness I had decided to venture out that day in sandals that lack anything remotely resembling ankle support and after who knows how many miles of walking (including the IKEA store styled march through the Vatican Museum) along with a good 3 hours of standing in line I really didn’t want to take any longer of a route than was necessary. I knew that if worse came to worse I could hail a cab and as the rain had stopped I didn’t fear the cold but I had been out for 9 hours at that point and wanted bed. I decided to stop and take measure of my situation. I found a random bench upon some random street corner that even now I couldn’t place if I had to.
I’m probably at my very worst when I’m tired and frustrated. I don’t claim that this is a surprising of unique portion of my disposition but it merits mentioning because I was both tired and frustrated and not particularly thrilled with the current state of affairs. All the happy feelings I had felt about the beautiful city I was in were quickly fading and being replaced by thoughts of being excited about getting the hell out of Italy and the like. It is a dark and shameful place I was inhabiting in those moments but, as luck would have it, when I was deep in that pit and in the midst of some inner emotional tirade about this or that, something amazing happened.
The clouds, which had brought the drenching rain and the later drizzle; those obscuring, light flattening clouds; finally parted and for a few minutes a glorious beacon appeared. There, hanging in the sky was a waxing gibbous moon. So near to sunset, a waxing gibbous would need to be in the southwestern sky and the knowledge of that simple fact broke the destructive enchantment I had been under. Just as Balthazar and his two companions had a star, I had a bearing ladies and gentlemen!!!!! Suddenly I knew where east was and all was right with the world. Granted I wasn’t bound for a messiah, but in my own small way I was headed for a salvation of sorts. Before I knew it I was back at the Pantheon and soon there after the Trevi Fountain and but a short while later: the Basilica of Mary Magdellan. By the grace of God or whomever I was shown, literally and in the usual figurative sense, the light and found my way home. From that moment until I boarded the train to Milan those two hours ago, I treasured every moment in Rome.
Being in that city filled me with emotions powerful and deep. Much like Claire Daines spoke of in My So Called Life it was something so beautiful it hurt. It didn’t hurt because it reminded me of past pains or some somber reminder of mortality or anything like that. It hurt because it was so intense and profound I lack the means to fully channel that feeling. Some things defy words (despite my blundering attempts to do so anyway ) and some things defy my soul’s ability to process. To be in Rome, and do as the Romans do ( I finally found a people that truly share my affinity for J-walking), is to face the full vibrancy of that feeling I have encountered in the most important times of my life. I have felt it during evenings at sea and mornings in the Apron on a powder day. It has enveloped me while stumbling upon a herd of caribou far up the Toklat river basin and I have been filled with it in the company of family and dear friends and lovers. I know not what to call it or how to even describe it.
Of course the finite duration didn’t make me feel much better. Like the passing of a sunset my time was too short and the knowledge of that brevity tore at the heart. I wonder if I was able to stay there would the love for that city fade and my relationship with it sour. The speculation of what could have been if Princess Ann had decided to abandon her family and duty haunts me now as I watched Roman Holiday my last night in the city. Despite the amazing funk in the bathroom the hostel had the best wifi I have encountered in Italy and the stream was smooth and uninterrupted. A boon in the movie going experience and a bust in that their inevitable parting was not to be delayed by the buffering merry go-round.
The things of this world cannot last. The Buddhists know it, the Taoists know it and heck even Kansas knows it. Nothing lasts forever. My time in Rome could not last forever. I suspect that any length of time there would have been too short. Just as the incredible splendor of the eclipse was matched only by severity of its immediate demise the joyous feeling of being in Rome was matched only by the grief of having to leave it. Perhaps my feelings would not have been so strong without the sadness of impending departure. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm nah. Rome is amazing and I hope that someday in a Hemingwayish fashion I can take an apartment there and live off cappuccinos and carbonarra. I hope I can find the magic of those four, fleeting, cold and rainy days sometime again. I hope to again look out from the heights of the forum of Augustus, to sit beside the Tivere and to stumble upon some beautiful fountain I didn’t know existed. I hope to return to the city that helped me see the light…I hope. Sorry, I know that last bit is from the Shawshank Redemption but I couldn’t resist 🙂
Regardless I go forth refreshed (though in real need of a shower, my apologies to my night train companions) and remedialy restored. I go forth now realizing that while Roman Holiday does tell the tale of two lovers torn apart by fate, it also is a celebration of the moments that make up life. It doesn’t make it any less sad of course but it does make it beautiful and I can live with that.
A train to Milan, then a night train to Paris, then a bus to Calais and finally a boat across the channel all lie in front of me. My 36th year lies ahead as well. I never made much of birthdays in my past and this year wasn’t any different although I heard from way more people this year than last year which was quite nice in point of fact. This will be the final post of 2017 and marks the end of the Mediterranean portion of my trip. I shall really miss the olive trees. They are truly wonderous beings. Their leaves have a hint of silver in them and always make me think of Tolkien’s elves. I can’t help but also feel that this is a turning point in the vision quest what-have-you portion of the trip; as if some threshold has been passed from which there is no going back and even if there were a way back I wouldn’t want it for that place (not being particularly geographic here) is behind me and to turn back would be to kill the momentum…or something like that. Anyway thanks for reading and until 2018 Ciao!
I know today’s song doesn’t have anything to do with Rome or New Years and I know that it is winter not autumn that is closing in but since I took the night train it seemed fitting. Also apologies for the sloppiness of this post. I should fix it since I’m stuck in Calais for a bonus 3 hours…nah.