Friday, June 02, 2006

The journey ends

By our last day in Rome, we had already seen just about all the major sights we wanted to hit. Our one last sightseeing stop was the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which houses Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa. (It was featured in Angels & Demons, so I had to see it.)


The rest of the day was spent relaxing and just enjoying Rome. Dave and I liked this Lamborghini we ran across in a shop window:


We also attempted to go on the "Bus 'n' Boat" tour, which is one of those tourist buses that goes around the city and lets you get on and off anywhere, except your ticket also lets you get on a boat that floats down the Tiber. Unfortunately, it was the most disorganized thing we encountered in all of Italy (which is saying a lot): in particular, the bus schedule and the boat schedule had nothing to do with each other, and were not, for instance, arranged to let you easily transfer from one to the other. We ended up narrowly missing the boat.

Then Dave and I wanted to rent motor scooters and drive around Rome, as we had seen many, many other people doing:


We found a rental place and starting getting set up. When the guy realized that we had no experience with the bikes, though, and weren't even used to reading Italian street signs, he told us that if we tried to go out in Rome on a weekday and learn how to use these things, we would kill ourselves. We decided to take his advice and walked around and shopped a bit instead.

For our farewell dinner, Dave selected a Japanese restaurant (what else?), where we learned the Italian words for things like "sushi" and "teriyaki." Here's the family at dinner:


In all, a relaxing way to end our trip.

The trip home was uneventful. (Air France has some of the best airline food I've ever had.) I'm back in Seattle now, settling back in to normal life. It was good to come home. I felt a surprising sense of relief just to be back in a familiar country, where I know how things work and where I can communicate with people with the utmost clarity.

I feel as if I've been away forever, which is perhaps how one should feel after returning from vacation. I haven't even looked at work email yet and probably won't until Sunday night. At the same time, I'm looking forward to going back to work on Monday and feel that I really can return to the job with a renewed energy.

So overall, the trip was a grand success, especially exciting to me by virtue of being my first major trip outside the US. I'm eager to travel more in the future. Maybe next year to Japan....

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Vatican, or: A whole lot of standing in line

(Originally written offline; continued from previous entry)

Monday morning we went to the Vatican, a walled city-nation that features a day's worth of sightseeing all in one compact area—not unlike Disneyworld.

The first thing one sees upon entering the Vatican is the vast Piazza San Pietro, or St. Peter's Square:





All the standard comments apply (these pictures can't really convey the scale of this thing; the art is everywhere; the tourists are everywhere; etc.)

We first decided to check ou the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, a few other people had the same idea:


That picture shows about 20% of the line; it went around the corner and continued for a few blocks. I went ahead to check out what we were in for and came back several minutes later, after having counted off about 600 paces, and estimated about 2,000 people in line ahead of us. It took over an hour to get through. Not bad, considering, but I'd hate to be there on a busy day.

Once you get jnside, there's still a long wait to get into the Sistine Chapel itself. You're basically waiting in line for another hour or two, except they keep you busy by making you walk through most of the Vatican museums first, so at least you're kept entertained while waiting. There are also little Vatican bookshops along the way. As I said, a lot like Disneyworld.

Most of the art in most of the Vatican museums was unremarkable, but there were a few pieces I liked, especially this one:


This painting (decorating a ceiling) was striking in its undisguised symbolism; the title was something like "The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism":


This sarcophagus, and its twin, stood out because of their immense size and deep purple hue:


And this sculpture was a little freaky just because of the colored eyes:


However, the highlight of the Vatican Museums was the Rafael rooms, with a number of frescoes by the master, including the famous School of Athens:


(The two robed figures in the center are Plato and Aristotle. Rafael captured in gestures the essence of their centuries-old philosophic battle: Plato points up, towards the heavens and his World of Forms; Aristotle holds his palm outstretched, facing down towards this earth.)

The Sistine Chapel, of course, upstaged everything else. Michelangelo's famous fresco is breathtaking in the scope of its composition, the stylized poses of its figures, and the life that the artist infused into each one. Nowhere else have I seen a painting with so many figures that still gives a sense of order and comprehensibility through its composition. I think that Michelangelo achieved this primarily by selecting some of the figures as primary, spacing them out a bit, and painting them larger, bolder, and brigher than the rest; the other figures recede into the background without completely disappearing. I'm thinking now primarily of the figures around the sides of the ceiling, but of course the central scenes (including the famous one of God giving life to Adam) are impressive as well. We stood for a while and soaked in as much as we could, leaving only when our brains were full and our necks stiff.

Dad and Dave took off at that point, leaving Mom and I to visit St. Peter's Basilica on our own. Like many other tourist attractions in Italy, the Basilica is huge:


Also like many of the other attractions, the Romans filled the Basilica with art. Then they put in more art to fill in the spaces between the art. Then they added ornament to fill in the leftover spaces between the interstitial art. And anything in between the ornament is either marble, gold, or bronze.

The main attraction in the Basilica is Michelangelo's Pieta (a depiction of Mary holding the body of the dead Jesus in her arms). Unfortunately, you couldn't get within fifty feet of it, and David's camera had run out of batteries, so (using Mom's) this is the best picture I could get:


There were four large statues adorning the central square of the church that Mom and I liked; here are a couple photos:



After browsing the main hall, Mom and I went up the cupola, or dome. Getting up there requires climbing hundreds of steps, many of them through narrow passageways or on tight spiral staircases:



But when you get up there, you can have a nice birds-eye view of the interior:


As well as some beautiful views of the Square and of Rome beyond:


As we left, we caught a glimpse of some of the Vatican security force, the formidable Swiss Guard, outfitted in their intimidating uniforms:


And as always, I took the time to enjoy the lovely flora and fauna of the area:



In the evening the whole family went out to dinner in the Piazza Navona, the centerpiece of which is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini:




And then after dinner, we strolled around the Piazza della Rotunda, next to the Pantheon. The entryway to the Pantheon, with its massive Corinthian columns, is impressive, but unfortunately it was too dark to get any good pictures.

With only one more day in Rome (and in Italy), and most of our sightseeing finished, we talked about spending the next day just relaxing, away from the (enriching but taxing) history and art. The journey nearing its end, we went back to the hotel and, once again, conked out.

2000 years of history in one location

(Originally written offline; continued from previous entry)

After the Borghese, we let Dad go back to the hotel while Mom, Dave and I visited ancient Rome, starting with the Colosseum.



In size and construction, the Colosseum is strikingly similar to a modern football stadium. It has the same ellipsoidal design, and held a crowd of about 70,000. It even had different sections for different strata of society, and a system of awnings to protect those in the seats from sun and rain. It's amazing how little has changed in almost 2,000 years. About the only thing it's missing is a big ancient parking lot.

Much of the Colosseum was damaged in a number of natural disasters, including an earthquake, or taken away by scavengers; what remains is only a skeleton. The seats don't exist anymore, only the walls that once supported them; and the wooden floor of the arena (covered by sand when the stadium was in use) has of course disappeared, exposing the system of tunnels and chambers beneath.


Even more so than most things in Italy, it's hard to give a sense of the scale of the building, but here are a few more pictures to give you an idea:




We took a guided tour, given by a woman who talked a lot in rapid English with a marked Italian accent. I can't say that I learned much from the tour other than the rough history of the building: constructed in the AD 70s, used for a few hundred years, then abandoned for another millenium. Still, I enjoyed visiting the Colosseum just to see the thing for myself and to marvel in the majesty of its size and age:


(A significant part of this whole trip for me is that it's the first time I've ever seen man-made structures that are more than about 400 years old.)

Afterwards, we took an (unguided) stroll through the remains of the Roman Forum, an "open-air museum" containing the ruins of several ancient buildings.


We were a little too tired at this point to try to grasp much more history, so we just strolled around and gaped at the sights.




It's amazing to look at a little pile of bricks or a few lone columns and to think that what you can see is only a tenth or a twentieth of what once existed, millenia ago.






Of course, I kept up my watch for scenes of natural beauty:



In the evening we all went to a nearby Irish pub for dinner. I wanted to see how the Italians did a burger and fries. Not bad, it turns out. Then we went back to the hotel and, as we did more often than not, conked out. Hey, we needed to rest in order to survive the following day: the Vatican.

Three Berninis, and some other stuff

(Originally written offline on May 31, on the return flight to Washington, DC)

Wheh. We're winging home, and I finally have a chance to sit down and finish writing about the trip.

On our second day in Rome, we had reservations for the Galleria Borghese. The gallery is in a nice park called the Villa Borghese, which has been called the Central Park of Rome, for good reason. The gallery has a number of nice works, and was then featuring an exhibit on Rafael, including his Deposition (a depiction of the dead Jesus being carried away from the cross). I was impressed with the Deposition and other works in the gallery, including the marvelous painting on the ceiling of the main room. The colors in particular were bright and vivid; comparing these works to other paintings of the time, including some of Rafael's work, I gather that they must have been cleaned recently, and I quickly became a supporter of such cleaning.

However, as with the Academy, the majority of the work in the Borghese was overshadowed, for me, by the work of one sculptor: in this case, Bernini. The Borghese houses three famous works by Bernini: Apollo and Daphne, Pluto and Proserpine, and Bernini's David.

The first two are from Greco-Roman mythology. Apollo and Daphne shows the moment when the god Apollo is catching up to the mortal Daphne, just at the moment when, in a salvation of sorts, she is being turned into a tree. Apollo has just put his hand around her waist, but strips of bark are already beginning to encircle her body, and her arms, flung up in the air, are sprouting small branches and leaves. This is an amazing work. Like most of Bernini's great works, it is intensely dramatic. The craftsmanship is also astounding; this work has thin folds of cloth and tiny, delicate leaves—I find it hard to believe that Bernini didn't accidentally knock a few of them off with a slip of his hammer and chisel. The composition is also impressive: the figures are arranged such that from the back, you mostly see the two human figures, but as you walk around it, you see more and more of the bark and branches, so that when you have walked about three quarters of the way around, the figure of Daphne mostly looks like a tree—as if she has completed the transformation before the eyes of the viewer; probably the closest anyone has come to an animation in marble.

Pluto and Proserpine is another god-chases-woman sculpture, although in this one the god has got the woman and is carrying her away. Again, a dramatic and lively sculpture; Proserpine struggles in Pluto's arms and pushes against his head, stretching the skin on his face. In another mark of life and movement striking to see in stone, a few tears run down Proserpine's cheeks. I was amused to notice the details of Cerebus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, who stands by Pluto's feet. Showing delightful attention to detail, Bernini gave them each different facial expressions: one is apprehensive, one is barking in fury, and one has an innocent look of curiosity.

My favorite, however, was Bernini's David, taken of course from Judeo-Christian mythology. While Michelangelo's David is shown in calm, confident thought before he goes off to meet the monster Goliath, Bernini's David is shown in the active moment just before he hurls the rock from his sling. Both the sling and David's face are pulled tight with purpose. The figure leans over to put all his weight into the throw, his muscles tense. The fire and life in the work are amazing; looking at it, I could easily imagine the figure whirling around and sending the rock flying through the air. While Michaelangelo's David is still my favorite for its embodiment of serene confidence, I love Bernini's version for its drama and excitement.

Monday, May 29, 2006

All roads lead to...

Rome has been a blast. We've been here almost three whole days, and this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write about it.

We arrived on the train Saturday morning. The first thing we did after checking in and getting lunch was to take a bus tour of the city. It was one of those double-decker tourist buses, where everyone rides on top to get a good view. This took us to (well, past) almost all the major tourist attractions of Rome, including:

The Piazza Venezia, home of the Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II:


The Colosseum (pictured below) and the Roman Forum (lots more on these later):


The Castel Sant'Angelo, along the Tiber:


And St. Peter's Square and Basilica (tons more on this later):


Having taken in all of Rome in about two hours, we were all a little tired:


So rather than do any of the major attractions, we took a little walk to the Trevi Fountain, of Three Coins in the Fountain fame:


You can't tell from this picture, but the place was swarming with people. Still, we enjoyed visiting, especially Mom and Dad, who know the movie:


We walked back from the Trevi along Via Nazionale, which is a major shopping area, so I decided to stop and buy a pair of shoes. I got a nice, very comfy pair of loafers I'll be able to wear to work for only about 70 Euros. I was able to talk to the saleswoman and the cashier half in Italian. Being able to speak a little of the language is really turning out to be useful. It's true that almost everyone speaks at least some English, but many people speak only a little. For instance, in a hotel, the reception clerks will basically speak English, but the bellhops might only know a little bit. I've had a lot of half-English, half-Italian conversations by now, and the Italian half really helps.

In the evening, Mom and Dad were tired, so Dave and I decided to get dinner by ourselves and then go out dancing. This turned out to be an authentic Italian experience.

It was hard trying to find a place to swing dance in Rome, even on a Saturday night. We had a guidebook that my Mom had gotten out of the library dated 1998, and the Internet and phone. A Google search like "swing dance rome" was only moderately helpful. I found my way to an Italian version of Citysearch, although of course, it was in Italian. I ended up searching for places with "jazz" in the name, and calling them. It was odd to call a place like "The Jazz Cafe" and have a conversation like this:

Jazz Cafe: Buona sera, Jazz Cafe, prego. (Hello, Jazz Cafe, can I help you?)
Me: Buona sera. Sono americano, in vacanza. Stasera, avete la musica jazz? (Hi, I'm an American on vacation. Do you have jazz tonight?)
Jazz Cafe: No.

We found one or two places that did have jazz that evening; at least one place even had it live, but they didn't have dancing. ("Posso ballare?" "Oh, no.") Finally we found a place called La Palma that was having a live concert and dancing afterward. Great! Concert is at 10:30, dancing afterwards, around midnight. Perfect.

So after dinner we went to the train station, figuring it was the easiest place to get a taxi. As we're waiting in line, some guy approaches me from behind and asks if we need a taxi. I say yes and show him the address (Si, Via Giuseppe Miri, 35). He frowns and shakes his head and says something like "Quale zona?" (what zone?) but I don't know what he's talking about. OK, I figure, it's some illegal cab and there's something funny going on I don't know about. No problem, we'll wait for the official cabs. So we get to the front of the line and go up to the next cab and show him the address. He also frowns and says something like he doesn't know where this is and what zone is it in, and I have no idea. Then some people behind us start shouting to us in Italian about where are you going and what's the address and oh you can't go in that taxi, and I'm confused, mostly because all of this is going on in Italian and I can only follow about a third of it, and then some other taxi drives up and some people shout something like that we should get in that one, and we show that address to the driver and he says sure, "La Palma, right?" and we hop in. Wheh.

So we make it to La Palma, which appears to be a restaurant, bar, and jazz club, and we hear a great concert by Testaccio Art of Jazz, an Italian big band. They basically played American standards; the between-song patter, to us, went like this: "something-something-in-Italian Sammy Nestico something-something Count Basie something-something: 'Shiny Stockings.'" They also played "Fly Me to the Moon," "Don't Get around Much Anymore," "Here's That Rainy Day," and "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me." For several songs they had a vocalist, whom I enjoyed very much. Her English diction was not quite crisp, but for an Italian singing English she was pretty good, and her vocal quality was beautiful. In addition, the band had several good soloists, including a tenor sax with a very melodic line and a lead trumpet with a great sound.

After the concert—which isn't until maybe 12:45, especially since they didn't start until almost 11—we try to dance, but there's basically no one dancing, and the two girls I asked (balliamo!) weren't up for it. So we went out and talked to people instead. We had heard that one of the trombonists was an American expat, so we introduced ourselves to her and chatted for a while. We told her about the fiasco with the taxis, and she said yeah, "that's like in New York when you get in a cab and they say they don't go to Brooklyn." She also told us that there's never any real dancing at La Palma, but that they'll say anything on the phone to get people to come. Oh, well.

While we're standing around staring at the crowd, barely able to talk to anyone, some girl comes up and starts speaking to me in rapid, enthusiastic Italian. I can't figure out what she's saying, but David, who's standing nearby, tells me half-jokingly that she's asking for my number and wants to go out. After a few moments we realize that is what she wants. Whoah, I say, first things first. I got her to introduce herself, and told her my name. Does she speak English? "Leetle, leetle," she says, holding her thumb and forefinger close together. "Parlo italiano un poco," I said ("I speak Italian a little"). So the rest of the conversation is in fractured Itanglish. "So you want my number?" She nods enthusiastically. "Um...." I take out my rented international cell phone. She grabs it, keys in her number, and calls her phone from mine; now we have each other's numbers. She says she will call me tomorrow (domani) and we will go out (uschiamo!) I say OK, whatever, and ask her to dance. Not now, she says, her ragazzo (boyfriend) is here. (!) She runs off. I tell our new American friend what happened, just to make sure I'm not being played or scammed, but she says probably not. "That was a come-on. Welcome to Italy." Indeed. (Incidentally, she never called.)

So we didn't get to dance in the end, but all in all, our first day and night in Rome is a success.