A Reminder

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Nothing heavy here, just a reminder of how this site works. Joining is the same as subscribing, so that’s great if you do that. Anyone can comment, but I have to approve your first comment. That is due to the vast number of phishing comments I receive. If you make a legitimate comment and it doesn’t appear for a while, contact me and I’ll either restore it, approve it, or ask you to make it again, depending upon how long since I marked it as Spam. That’s my ultimate punishment: SPAM!

And, don’t say anything about anyone here that you wouldn’t say to that person in their own living room, right to their face. That rule will keep you out of trouble. If you do post something gratuitously offensive, either it will never appear, or it will disappear.

Thus endeth the rules.

Anger and Suffering

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I came across the book Anger by Thich Hahn while reading a list of fifty influential books. I can see why it appeals to a lot of people, but it has, for me, a fatal flaw. Actually, it’s not the book that’s flawed, it’s Buddha. I say Buddha because unlike with some other popular religions, Buddha did at least write the book himself. And Buddha’s first principle is simple: to live is to suffer. That’s the first principle of Buddhism. Okay.

So, the key to being less angry is to suffer less, saith the author. Fair enough. And the key to suffering less is to be mindful. Fair enough. I’m willing to believe that by practicing mindfulness in all things, and taking care not to absorb anger and negativity, one can suffer less, and therefore be angry less often. All fair enough.

But, the thing that gets me is, if To Live is To Suffer, then isn’t trying to lower your suffering trying to live less? And if you’re living less, aren’t you also enjoying less, since suffering has a counterpart in the pure joy of living, which is also an important thing to experience, at least it is for me. So, what Buddha is teaching is a way to live less. That might be okay if there were any actual evidence that we live over and over and over, but I’m afraid that empirically there isn’t a shred of evidence for that idea. Which leaves me, a man less of faith and more of empirical evidence, with only one life to live. With only one life to live, it is extremely important that we be nice to each other, respect each other, and tolerate each other’s foibles, because not to do those things simply creates misery, and Buddha and I agree completely that misery begets misery, because, after all, misery famously loves company.

But, reduce my suffering through mindfulness? Nah, I think I’ll take the suffering, and the unbounded joy. It’s a nice package, and I don’t want to mess with it.

Dale E Basye

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Heck, Where the Bad Kids Go by Dale E Basye

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about somebody besides me. Surely, it gets tedious reading about my travels, political gripes, and opinions on stupid movies, right? Okay, here’s a short review of somebody who never gets boring. At least not in anything of his that I’ve read.

Let me tell you the setup for the book pictured here. Marlo and Milton Fauster, two middle-school kids (Marlo is older) are killed when a giant marshmallow bear explodes at the local mall. They end up in Heck, even though Milton shouldn’t have. Heck is a lot like Middle School, only it may make even less sense. The Principal is one Bea (Elsa) Bubb, there are demons with pitchsporks, and many of the teachers were once famous. When they were alive, that is. Richard Nixon, for example. These books, like all great literature, are subversive. There are  nine circles of Heck (naturally.) In the book Fibble, which is the fourth circle, Bayse reams a new one for marketing, advertising, PR, and other famous societal BS. I mean, you let kids read this stuff and they might even learn how to think!!! The horrors!

You can read a WordPress blog dedicated to the series. Honest, just click right here. Not good enough? Find the official Heck Web Site right here. Mr. Basye (don’t strain yourself trying to pronounce it ’cause it’s simple) tends not to share a heck of a lot about his own life, but that’s okay; if that’s what he wants, I’m not going to out him in any way here. But he writes a heck of a good story. In one case, set in a fictional part of Las Vegas, he has himself watch Mrs. Fitzgerald walk across a lawn as he sees a green light on the end of a dock. The day will come, and soon, when some high school kid who had to read The Great Gatsby will say, “Hey, this guy stole a bunch of stuff from Dale E. Basye!” Just you watch.

To close, I’m going to take a big chance and post a portrait of the author that I stole from Random House. (If they want me to take it down, they have only to ask. But I am doing free publicity here!)

78009_basye_dale_e

 

Italia?

 

Fontana Quattro Fiume/Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza Navona.
Fontana Quattro Fiume/Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza Navona. Photo by Steve Fey

I put the question mark in the title of this post because I haven’t seen Italy. I’ve seen a few bits of the country, but if I go back, it won’t be to hang out in Rome, because I’ve done that (love the pizza) but rather to see other stuff. The Amalfi coast, Milano, Venizia, and more of the rest of the country. Italy is a beautiful country, based on what I’ve seen so far. And it’s the place where geniuses like Leonardo DaVinci plied their trade. You have to love any place that could generate so much genius. Heck, even the Romans were excellent engineers, as you can tell by noting that some of their constructions are still in daily use. Yes, they have needed repairs over the centuries, but they still fulfil their intended function. The aqueduct that brings water to the Trevi and other fountains, for example. Or the Pantheon, which was a great temple to all of the gods, and has served as a cathedral for the past sixteen hundred years. It’s a few meters down to the original ground level, but that only adds to the charm. The building sits in it’s own sort of pit, as it were. And today the sexiest cars on the planet are designed and produced in Italy. They are in fact impractically attractive, but those who can afford to collect quarter-million dollar automobiles love them. And of course there are those little Fiats that are everywhere around Las Vegas if not he whole country. Sort of an Italian version of the German Smart Car, only it sells better. In America, that is. In Rome we saw a lot more Smart Cars than Fiats, so that’s something to consider when thinking about Europeans, I guess.

Parking in Rome looks easy on the surface. You just find a spot where you won’t get run over by a truck (lorry, my Brit friends) and walk away. In truth, the problem is severe, because Italians are starting to fall in love with Automobiles almost the way Americans did in the mid-twentieth century. Sure, they’re not Buick Electras, but if they were, only two people per block could have a car. Traffic into and out of the city during weekday rush hours is intense, and slow, and enough to make me move to the city or get a job in the ‘burbs. But that’s me. A lot of people prefer to do it another way and commute. In Europe, the well off portions of a city are frequently right smack in the center, and the poorer folk often are confined to suburbs. That seems odd to an American, but it’s happening here, too. “Gentrification” is decried near and far, but the richer folk insist on moving in, forcing the poorer folk further out. So it goes.

Italian Food? Photo by Tami Cowden
Italian Food? Photo by Tami Cowden

Food in Italy was interesting for me. For one thing I bought a coke for Tami at a McDonalds in Termini, which is just Latin for terminals (Italian is the most like Latin of any extant language.) But even more, the Italian food was excellent. Top notch. Absolutely fine. And not one iota better than good Italian food in Las Vegas. Maybe it’s because of all the Italian-Americans who moved here in the fifties and sixties (for infamous reasons in some cases) but the Italian food in Las Vegas is absolutely authentic. And you don’t even have to go to some expensive joint on the strip, because there are neighborhood Italian restaurants just like the ones in Rome. Honestly, there are. That’s a little disappointing, because I was expecting something so wonderful that I’d probably die of gustatory ecstasy right on the spot, but what I got was good Italian food. But our best meal in Italy was, and I kid you not, in a Irish Pub not far from Piazza Venezia, where they serve the best damned Irish stew I’ve ever eaten. See, that was special. All that pasta and ragu, well, it’s damn good, but not special, if you get my drift. If you go to Rome, check out the Irish Pub. It’s called “Scholar’s Lounge,” and it’s at Via del Plebiscito, 101, 00186 Roma, Italia. And, for my money, when you order wine, you should just go with the house red, which tends to be better than name brand stuff. (At Scholar’s of course I drank Guinness.)

Tuscan Countryside
Tuscan Countryside Photo by Tami Cowden

If you’ve ever wondered what Tuscany looks like, this photo should give you a good idea. Plain fact is, it’s gorgeous. It was the Kingdom of Etrusca when the Romans first got organized, or arrived, or whatever, and the first Romans were Etruscan subjects, but that changed, and the Etruscans became Roman citizens. Much later the barbarians moved in and took over, but they didn’t change the place much. Beautiful mountains and lush valleys where grow some of the finest olives and wine grapes known. The capitol of Tuscany is Fiorenze, or Florence in English, a beautiful city I lately posted about. You should go sometime; it’s got some really cool stuff!

One trouble with most foreign countries is that the people there are pretty insistent about speaking their native language. In Spain they prefer Spanish, in France they like French, in Mexico they go for, uh, Spanish, and the Italians, well, they like to speak Italian. I actually know some Spanish, so Italian isn’t totally incomprehensible. I used Duolingo to bone up on Italian before the trip, which worked to an extent as a few times I was actually able to ask simple questions (and understand simple answers) when somebody didn’t know any English. Of course, I had some trouble because the two languages are, as a clerk said, “cose,” which means “a lot alike.” In Spanish, “I drink” is “bebo.” I’ve known that for years. In Italian, it’s “bevo,” which is actually more or less Latin. So close as to be confusing. Italian is also obviously related to French, as in “fromage,” French for cheese, and “fromaggio,” Italian for cheese, but then in Spanish it’s “Queso.” The Spanish word is actually close to the Latin word, Italian and French not so much. I had to look that up. “Fromaggio” is from a word meaning “formed.” The Romans originally ate soft cheese, now with us as “queso,” which you might recognize from the word casein, which is milk solids. When cheese is hardened, it is “formed,” so they started calling it “formed cheese” and then just “formed,” or “fromaggio.” (Fromage to the French.) Okay, I like words too much. Sorry. In fact, outside of Rome, it is good to know a bit of Italian. In Rome, heck, store names are in English, some signage is in English, and they depend so heavily on tourists that most Romans speak passable English.

In conclusion, yeah, you ought to go. Especially if you’re someone who wonders why we have Spanish on commercial answering machines, you ought to go to Italy and consider how they accommodate you. It’s just good business: speak what your customers speak. And way beyond that, Rome is a fascinating place for a history buff; those streets were laid down 2500 years ago, and they’re still in use! And the food is great (maybe your town isn’t blessed with great Italian food like mine.) The countryside is beautiful, and the people are really nice. And in the words of John Prine, there are “Lots of pretty Italian chicks.” Well, maybe that last feature is just for guys. For gals, the Italian boys are pretty handsome, too!

Firenza (Florence)

Up the Arno from Ponte Veccio. How many renaissance painters used this background?  This photo is by Steve Fey
Up the Arno from Ponte Veccio. How many renaissance painters used this background? This photo is by Steve Fey

Apparently the view from Ponte Veccio (that’s “old bridge” in Italian) was irresistible to renaissance painters. Even though it was my first time in Italy, let alone Florence, the scene was familiar. Click the photo to see it full sized and you may see what I mean. If you ever took an art appreciation class you’ve seen bits of that scene, maybe the entire thing, before. Florence was where the (in)famous Medicis hung their hats. It attracted every artist who ever wanted to be an artist, apparently. And no wonder, because it is a beautiful town. Here’s a view from Piazzele di Michelangelo, which is “Michelangelo’s Plazas” in English.

Florence from Piazzele di Michelangelo   Photo by Steve Fey
Florence from Piazzele di Michelangelo Photo by Steve Fey

I made up a panorama from this place but it came out distorted. Sometimes the software works, sometimes it doesn’t. This single from from it shows the city’s cathedral (you have to have a cathedral in Italy or the other towns laugh at you.) Florence is the capitol of Tuscany, so when we ordered food, the menu was headed “Tuscan Foods,” only in Italian. This was Florence, and by gum there actually was at least a bit of spinach in everything we ate except the ice cream. Here is a picture that Tami took of her lunch:

That's a big helping of spinach. This was, after all, Florence    Photo by Tami Cowden
That’s a big helping of spinach. This was, after all, Florence Photo by Tami Cowden

That chicken dish was excellent, too, but of course the spinach was just something that she had to order. It was, sad to say, merely spinach, but then spinach is both good and good for you, right, Popeye?

 

The Medicis built themselves a palace (a word that derives from “palatine,” the hill where the high and mighty of ancient Rome built their immodest homes.) The palace went through a few different owners, but is now open as a museum. It is called “Palazzo Pitti” and is not far from the Ponte Veccio. It was I think the best museum we saw in Italy, yes, better than the Vatican, but then I’m not Catholic; maybe if one is, the Vatican seems better. I said above that there is a lot of Roman art in Florence, primarily because the Medicis gathered so much of it for themselves. Here, for instance, is an original statue of Caesar Agustus nee Octavian:

Statue of Caesar Augustus  Photo by Steve Fey
Statue of Caesar Augustus Photo by Steve Fey

Octavian was one of Julius Caesar’s adopted sons; another one helped assassinate his adoptive dad. Brutus, you card you! There must be some statues of Augustus in Rome, but I don’t remember seeing any as nice as this one.  It is arguable that the Medicis saved this statue from being burnt into quicklime to make plaster, and that’s the truth. The Medicis collected a lot of very nice things, and made their large palace (even for a palace, it’s roomy) as nice as they possibly could. Here is a view out a window of their formal gardens:

The Medici's Formal Gardens   Photo by Steve Fey
The Medici’s Formal Gardens Photo by Steve Fey

We left Florence a bit before five in the afternoon. There was a French woman on the train who kept looking at us. (She spoke French into her cell phone at least) but she wasn’t dangerous. We got back to Termini Roma with a couple of hours to kill before the next commuter train back to our hotel, so we found a truly excellent place to have dinner. Which I will tell you all about in my next, and final, post about out trip to Italy.

Later, dude. I mean, arrivederci!

Il Vaticano

In St. Peter's Square, Vatican City   Photo by Steve Fey
In St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City Photo by Steve Fey

This picture was taken on the last day of January, 2015. That is, indeed a Christmas tree, and there’s a scene of the nativity with a lot of characters in it near the obelisk as well. The obelisk was dragged here from Egypt by an early emperor, maybe Claudius, I don’t remember. But I do remember clearly that the Vatican is an excellent place to see a huge collection of ancient Roman sculpture. The paint has all worn off (Romans liked to paint their statues to look realistic) but the statuary remains. And there are a few famous pieces of renaissance art as well, like that “Pieta” I first saw in New York City in 1965, and the ceiling in one of the Vatican’s many chapels. What’s that name again? It was named for a pope named Sistis, or something like that. Anyway, we took a day to visit the Vatican, which is surrounded by Rome, and this is my report on the experience.

The Vatican is free to visit, but there’s a fee for the Vatican Museums, which are actually worth the price of admission. Although maybe not worth this:

The Line to Pass Vatican Security.  Photo by Steve Fey
The Line to Pass Vatican Security. Photo by Steve Fey

We did not stand in that line, which was about two city blocks long. Instead we bought a $12 tour from a vendor just outside that included an audio guide to St. Peters. We already had an afternoon tour booked, but we’d thought we could just sail on in to the basilica, not realizing that even in winter, the lines are horrendous. But we did get into St. Peter’s basilica, which is the largest church in the world, or so they say. I believe it, though, because the place is huge. And, not far inside the door, I once again saw this:

"Pieta" by Michelangelo  Photo by Steve Fey
“Pieta” by Michelangelo Photo by Steve Fey

Not long after I saw this for the first time, at the Vatican pavilion of the New York World’s Fair of 1965, some whack job attacked it with a hammer shouting “You’re not my mother!” Uh, no, she’s made of stone; it’s a sculpture; you aren’t Jesus. This is the incident that our guide that afternoon referred to as happening a “long long time ago.” It was in 1965, which I guess does qualify. Her name was Angela and she did an excellent job, by the way. The piece has been completely restored, and it is impossible to tell where it was damaged. Nice job, whoever did that.

Here’s a big draw inside the basilica. It is the Pope’s private altar. It is away, way in the back, and located above, they say, St. Peter’s grave. It is possible at times at least to visit St. Peter and pay one’s respects, but the entire area was roped off when we were there.

Papal Altar in St. Peter's  Photo by Steve Fey
Papal Altar in St. Peter’s Photo by Steve Fey

If you click on the small image and look at it full sized, you’ll get a better idea of the scale.

Here’s another view of St. Peter’s, taken just outside the basilica. In the background you can see a part of the security line, which ends just around the corner to the left in the photo.

Next to St. Peter's Basilica  Photo by Steve Fey
Next to St. Peter’s Basilica Photo by Steve Fey

I have to say that there are a lot of monuments to death, suffering, and destruction inside St. Peter’s, which got me a tad depressed after a while. After a great lunch just outside the Vatican, we joined a tour of the Vatican Museums (we could have gone back to St. Peter’s too.)

As I said above, there are a lot of Roman pieces in the Vatican Museums. Like, for instance, this bronze god. Notice that somebody fig leafed him at some point.

A Bronzed God that is Not George Hamilton. (I think it's Hermes.) Photo by Steve Fey
A Bronzed God that is Not George Hamilton. (I think it’s Hermes.) Photo by Steve Fey

In classical times nobody thought anything about being naked, which started to change when Constantine converted the empire to Christianity, because, after all, it was knowing that they were naked that got Adam and Eve into trouble, right? Anyway, at some point people started thinking that some fig leaves were in order, so many of the statues from the classical and renaissance periods have been modestified, as it were. Not all, but a lot. Kind of reminds me of when somebody covered the statues in the US Capitol, and doesn’t make a lick more sense to me, either.

Be that as it may, here is a view out of the Vatican, looking toward (Angela said) Trastevere. Trastevere is a trendy old neighborhood that we never did visit, but this is a nice view of an old section of modern Rome. Those streets have been there for millennia.

Plebian Rome from the Vatican  Photo by Steve Fey
Plebian Rome from the Vatican Photo by Steve Fey

We didn’t get pictures of it, but the Vatican Museums includes a long hallway with a great optical illusion on the ceiling, which looks three dimensional but isn’t. The only way I could tell was that the shadows didn’t match the light source. Those renaissance guys were pretty talented, that’s for sure. None more than Michelangelo, whose famous ceiling we got to see live, but for which no picture emerged worth publishing. It consists of a series of panels with moulding between them, which is not what I expected. But you can certainly tell his superior talent as the works by other artists on the wall are almost invisible in the presence of his frescoes. One thing I had never noticed is that in his most famous panel, the Creation of Man, God and Man are on the same level. You rebel, you, Michelangelo!

I leave you with this view of the obelisk with St. Peter’s basilica behind it. Ciao!

Photo by Tami Cowden
Photo by Tami Cowden

 

Jokes? I Got a Million of ‘Em!

Well, not really a million, but a lot.

That is, if “a lot” means what I’m posting below.

I’m taking a class in stand-up comedy, which is more difficult than you’d imagine. As a part of that class, I have to write jokes (will wonders never cease, huh?) So, what follows is a list of the original (to me — so far as I know I made them up) jokes I’ve come up with so far. Laugh your asses off! I dare you!

 

 

I got a letter in the mail addressed to my neighbor today and stole a $100 check out of it.

He was okay with that because he said he was really enjoying my tax refund.

 

My cousin got a ticket the other day. Used his turn signal.

 

Isn’t it great to finally finish up at the DMV? After three hours stuck there you’re cleared to go out and drive ten miles per hour stuck behind a semi.

 

The way some people carry on, you’d think a cold in the head was the worst thing that could ever happen to them.

But it’s snot.

 

We keep a basset hound that’s so enthusiastic that she’ll jump right up on you. It’s bad manners, but you can’t really blame her, because her mother was a real bitch.

 

They keep changing the food pyramid, and I can never remember everything that’s in it.

Outside of grease, salt, and sugar I mean.

 

There are worse things than getting old.

Trouble is that I’m too old to remember what they are.

 

Went to Fry’s today to pick up one of those knockoff phones made in China, and discovered you can actually eat lunch there.

‘Course, I was hungry again an hour later.

 

There’s a new restaurant in town that serves food exactly like my mother used to make.

The health department is shutting them down tomorrow.

 

You know that feeling you get when all the lights turn green and you just fly across town?

Yeah, me neither.

 

And, here are the ones I wrote just today:

 

 

If comedy doesn’t work out I know I can be a photographer’s model. Everybody loved me at my session the other day.

Well, at least the photographer complimented my posing.

Okay, the guy taking the mug shots thanked me for my cooperation.

 

I like to run. I’ve completed four marathons. Last one was just yesterday morning.

Okay, it was closer to a half marathon.

Actually, it was just to the bathroom, and I barely made it.

 

Don’t you love living in Las Vegas? You get to hang out with all the stars!

Or at least you can run into them at the grocery store.

Okay, it’s easy to steal the souvenir napkins!

 

There are a lot of stories of bravery in Las Vegas. People rescuing people from burning buildings; overcoming personal tragedy; crossing Boulder Highway on foot.

 

I also write funny songs. I’ve got one about to hit the top ten.

It will as soon as I release it.

Right after I finish writing it.

 

In school I was always that kid who got As on everything.

Well, sure, I got a few lower grades.

Like when I flunked algebra, but outside of those . . .

 

Breaking Bad

I didn’t watch Breaking Bad when AMC first showed it. A year or so ago Tami and I watched the first season, which is sort of quirky and darkly funny. She gave it up, but I returned to it early last fall. Yesterday I watched the series finale. This is kudos to the writers, who wrote the best-written television series I’ve ever watched. If you don’t know, Walter White becomes about as despicable as a man can get, but he dies redeemed in the end. The characterization was brilliant, there’s no other word for it. My two favorite episodes are the season four finale (gasp!) and the final episode, which, honestly, made me cry it was so sad for Walt at the end. This not fifteen minutes after I hated him like Joe McCarthy hated reds. Beautiful series, folks. Season one can seem a tad dull, but if you’ve never gone beyond, take my advice and do it today! On Netflix.

And, of course, Saul, the sleazy lawyer, now has his own series. The poor man ends up managing a Cinnabon in Nebraska, if you can believe it, but the series is about his salad days as a lawyer.

ROMA

The Official Seal of Rome
The Official Seal of Rome

Feel free to check that “Official Seal” claim. It’s true. Rome is called by a number of names, notably the “Eternal City,” and all roads once, so they said, led to it. There are plenty of places where a road may take you now that aren’t Rome, but there are still bits and pieces of that old, Imperial, Rome sticking out around the city, including some of the roads to which that saying applied.

And this post is about my impressions of Rome, the city as it was during the last week of January 2015.

First, it’s a perfectly nice modern city. It is fairly crawling with antiquities as well as renaissance art. Some very famous people called Rome home when they were alive. The Borgias, for example, the whole set of Julio-Claudian emperors, for another. And that last group includes the people that two of our months: July and August, are named for. Julius even invented our calendar. So when I say famous, I mean really famous, and influential. Inside of Rome is another country called Vatican City, which is where a great deal of the renaissance art is located. You know that Sistine Chapel Ceiling, by Michelangelo?   That’s where it is. Saw it with me own eyes, I did. Even though Vatican City is in truth a foreign country, there are no border guards or anything to prevent anyone from wandering freely back and forth between Italy and Vatican City, so I’m going to treat that country as if it were just a neighborhood of Rome.

If you visit Rome, take this advice: get a hotel close to Termini. (Italian is like Latin in the way it makes plurals — ‘termini’ means ‘terminals.’) All roads may not lead to Rome, but every bit of public transportation within Rome leads to Termini. Stay near there and you’ll save yourself a whole lot of trouble getting anywhere in the city. That said, Rome has pretty decent public transportation, although the subway only has two lines so far because it takes decades to build a new one. As a guide explained, every time they want to build a station they have to let the archeologists work the site first, and those people use paint brushes. Small paint brushes. The third line has been abuilding for sixteen years, and they think it will be done with the next ten. Busses, both city and tourist, commuter trains, light rail, the two subway lines, and taxis all work well, although taxis cost a lot more than the other alternatives. There are hop on, hop off busses running frequently, which can be handy for a tourist. You can get a “Roma Pass” that gives you two full days of access to all of those things, plus two museums or antiquities of your choice (You can get the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum to count as just one site if you work it right.)

My other posts are about things to do in Rome (and Florence) but this one is just about Rome itself. So, what’s Rome like? Consider this picture, taken in a SuperMercato:

Claims of Authenticity Confirmed   Photo by Steve Fey
Claims of Authenticity Confirmed Photo by Steve Fey

Notice the brand name? Yes, that really is an Italian product, and they eat even more of it in Rome than we do in America. Not as much as they eat Pizza, but still a lot. I posted this picture here because it demonstrates just how much is in fact a big old twenty-first century city. Take three guesses to figure out what “SuperMercato” translates to in English, if you like. It’s a familiar place to you, I’m sure. We spent five days in Rome. The first day we were fresh off the plane, and considered ourselves lucky that our hotel had a clean room available at 9am. It was afternoon before either of us stirred, so in fact the first day we didn’t see a lot of Rome. The second day was spent in the remains of the old Imperial central city, walking on truly lousy Roman pavement and being impressed at just how wasteful the Roman Aristocracy were with space and materials for their use. The common Romans lived in four-story apartment buildings that were, perforce, all walk-ups. Another day we toured the Vatican, which is entirely too huge to consume in one day, and entirely too gloomy for my taste. Those renaissance people were obsessed with death and suffering, apparently. I’m not. And we spent a day seeing other sights, such as Piazza Navona, The Pantheon, Museo di Roma (the City Museum) and a cat sanctuary at Argentina, which is a place in Rome besides being a country in South America. We saw lots of ruined temples, streets, houses, and other things. And we got snowed upon. In Rome. I hope those toga-wearing ancient guys had some leggings under those things. It was cold! We saw quite a bit of the city in our short time there. And you know what? Rome is a modern metropolis, no more and no less. Nothing wrong with it at all: it’s a beautiful modern metropolis. But one modern metropolis feels a lot like another.

Rome is not the only city with a lot of cobblestone streets, but Rome is the one to which, after I walked on those stones for a few days, I want to write a book entitled something like “Asphalt And You: How to Make a Street Smooth” and mail a copy to the city fathers of Rome. Just sayin’.

A hard-to-miss feature of a typical Roman major street is pizzerias. There are usually three or four to a block, and I do not exaggerate. Romans eat pizza like people at Coney Island eat hot dogs, and frequently. Both Napoli and New York claim to have invented Pizza, and I think that they may both be right. In Italy the toppings are much more varied, and I never saw a single bit of pepperoni. I did have a delicious couple of slices with cheese, broccoli, and tomato wedges but no sauce. It was great! And you can get just about anything else you’d like, except, as I said, pepperoni or ground sausage, which are of course typical of New York style pies. My theory is reinforced by the discovery that really good Italian food in Italy is not one bit better, or different at all, from really good Italian food in Las Vegas. Kind of disappointing, really, but nice to know that I don’t have to go 6000 miles to get good tortellini. Pizza, though, is quite different. I like both countries’ pizza, and wouldn’t mind finding a place that makes it Italian style in Vegas. (There must be such a place.)

So, actually, Rome is not my favorite part of Italy. My doctor was right. It’s nice, but the antiquities get kind of old after a while (no pun meant) and I can only stand so much fine art. In fact, I first saw “Pieta” in New York in 1965, before some nut job attacked it with a hammer. The guide at the Vatican Museums said that he had done so “a long, long time ago.” Thanks, sister! But go to Rome for a few days. The Palatine Hill is amazing, and you can get your fill of walking on cobblestones while you’re at it. Then take off for some other part of Italy. Like, say, Florence! More on that in a later post.

Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza Navona Photo by Steve Fey
Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza Navona Photo by Steve Fey

Roma, SPQR, and Firenze

The Colosseum in Rome
The Flavian Amphitheatre. It’s Colossal! Photo by Steve Fey

My doctor went to medical school in Padua. When I told him we were going to Rome he said that Rome was nothing special, but he really liked Florence (Firenze) and Venice (Venizia.) Rome, he said, was just a generic big city. Well, Tami and I spent the last week in Italy, and we visited two out of three of those places. I’ll tell you if I agree with my doctor later.

First, I’d like to explain that I had wanted to visit Rome since I was thirteen, when National Geographic ran a major article about ancient Rome. I was impressed that those people, so long ago, actually had some things that we think of as strictly modern. Clean water and good sewers, for instance. Even today, Rome is one of only a few cities that get water directly from snowmelt in a mountain range. New York is another, and so is Denver. All three have great water. And Romans took frequent baths, which puts them ahead of everybody on the planet until about a century ago. Also a fire department, traffic cops, and most of the accouterments of a modern city. It was the first city laid out on what we would recognize as a fairly standard street plan. My young brain was afire with visions of a great civilization sadly gone away. So, five decades later, plus a couple of years, I visited the former capitol of the greatest empire in the world (at the time, that is.) The Roman Empire began formally with Octavian, who called himself Caesar Augustus, after he won a vicious series of civil wars. Here’s a picture of a statue of the man:

Caesar Augustus
Statue of Augustus Caesar in Il palazzo pitti in Firenze. Photo by Steve Fey.

Like all Roman statues, this one was no doubt painted up to look realistic, but somehow over 2000 years the paint has all faded away.

 

Since Rome is in Italy (always was, come to think of it) maybe I should say something about the language. You always hear that Italians talk fast. Not true. They talk sort of slowly in Rome, at least compared to most of the United States. It sounds fast, but it isn’t. Here’s why. Take the name of that city, Florence. Two syllables easy, right? Sure. The local name for the place is Firenze. Looks easy, but it’s three syllables (I’m going to try to put it in phonetically): Fee-Renn-Zay, but don’t linger on that final “y”. Three syllables for two. Or take the word for “I,” which is “io.” In Latin that was ego, so you can sort of see how they dropped the “g” over the centuries. Who needs it, right? In Spanish, which is a whole lot like Italian, the word is “yo,” which is pronounced just like when Rocky yelled at Adrian in the movie. “Yo!” One syllable. Italian uses two. And to make things worse, Italian words almost all end in a vowel, so you can’t hear when one word ends and another begins until you learn a bit of the language. In Italian, you can fairly drawl every word and sound frenetic!

Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza Navona.
Fontana Quattro Fiume (Four Rivers Fountain) on Piazza Navona. Photo by Steve Fey

This is the Four Rivers Fountain on Piazza (Plaza) Navona. Somebody put fig leaves on most of the figures, but not on Neptune himself. Rome is fairly crawling with beautiful plazas, many with fountains. Most fountains, like fountains everywhere, are plumbed with electric pumps to circulate the water. Some, like the Trevi (which was undergoing repairs when we visited, drat it) are gravity fed by an aqueduct. Not a new aqueduct, either. The Appian Aqueduct was broken by invaders who realized that without water Rome was a sitting duck for plundering. It worked. During the renaissance that aqueduct was repaired and the water directed at the Trevi fountain, among other things. The best other thing is the many free water fountains found around the city. Free water; try to get that in most cities. It is excellent water, fresh, cold and straight from the Apennines.  Get one bottle of water, refill it for days. A lot of residents do just that. (The tap water is perfectly okay for any purpose as well, but it’s been treated and doesn’t taste as good as the stuff straight from the mountains.The ancient Romans, republicans and imperial alike, used a shield with this inscribed on it: SPQR, which stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. That translates into English as The Senate and People of Rome. Because, of course, the people elected the senators, who ran the city. After the empire started, they kept on pretending that such was still the case, and in fact I believe that in some cases the Senate was still an effective force. Which brings me to this stolen picture of a Roman cab:

A Roman Cab
A Roman Cab. Note the SPQR on the shield.

See that SPQR shield? No kidding, modern Rome uses the old Republican slogan. There is a Senate in Rome, of course, but it covers all of Italy. Of course, one could point out that it once covered most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, I suppose. For grins, here’s a picture of the shield. It’s actually a picture of keychain, but it looks the same:

SPQR
2500 years later and still in use!

So all this appeals to what’s left of my thirteen year old self, of course. But, here is what we saw on our first full day of sightseeing in this ancient city. We took the Metro to the Coliseum, where I took the picture at the top of this post. We got a guided tour of the Colleseum and Palatine Hill. Palatine is the name of the hill where there were once shepherds living in huts, and later the emperors built their homes. It is where the word “palace” comes from. The first palace was built by the Flavian emperors, who also you might have guessed built the Coliseum. Here’s a bit of wall that yet remains:

Palatine Hill Detail
A bit of a once-great palace built by Domitian and his heirs. Photo by Steve Fey

There are many other remains on the Palatine Hill, including those serving as the foundation for the Palatine Museum, which includes exhibits on the history of Rome from neolithic times on. Somehow I doubt the Romans’ story about Romulus and Remus and the wolf. But somebody founded the city about 2761 years ago (to use their calendar) and it might well have been someone named Romulus, right? Speaking of calendars, we do use the Roman one, as revised by Dennis the Small who changed the year 1, and Pope Gregory, who added leap years. The basic design is by somebody named Gaius Caesar, whoever he was. I think he was from the Julian clan.

Now, here’s the thing about the classic Romans. They are gone. Bad administration, failing crops, and changing political tides doomed their empire. The ruins show how great the place must have been, but considering that two million people crowded into a space about the size of a good sized small American town, it must have been pretty horrid to experience (for a modern person.) Mostly, I now feel sorry for the poor people of Rome. They were so close, but they didn’t realize what they had, or how to keep it. Today, they serve as a lesson of how greatness can disappear, and of course as a huge impediment to building the Roman Metro. But I’ll forgive that last bit; they had no idea.

Here is a gallery of pictures of the antiquities I photographed in Rome. All photos in the gallery are by myself.

 

Now that you’ve seen that, I’ll confess that this is only the first of several posts about Rome and Florence. So check back for more!