Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Burning Questions: The Roman Edition

The view of Via Amedeo Cencelli from my balcony
Ain't it funny how time, and street names, slip away? You can spend one month living at the same address, repeating it often, and a few weeks later, after you've moved on to another place, you can't even recall where you were living before. Sure "Alte Schönhauser Straße" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but for one month while living in Berlin, I recited it with ease. 

To be fair, though, when people ask where I'm living in Rome, I have to tell them the nearest Metro stop (Arco di Travertino) because after nearly two weeks, I still haven't committed the street name (Via Amedeo Cencelli) to memory. Meanwhile, Narathiwat Road in Bangkok remains etched in my brain -- unless, of course, it's 3am after too many Johnnie Walker and Cokes and B-52s at that nightclub where I spent so many Bangkok nights but whose name I now can't remember either, and I'm trying to tell a taxi driver where to go!

I know Rome wasn't built in a day, but was it constructed with the primary aim of leaving visitors gasping and gawking centuries later? I can't think of any other city where views are piled on top of views quite like in Rome. Take Villa Borghese, Rome's premiere park (which can compete with Central Park in New York City for sheer breadth). It overlooks Piazza del Popolo, where I spent one hour walking around in circles yesterday because it's packed with intricate statues (as are several of the bridges connecting central Rome with Vatican City) -- and I couldn't bear to let it go.

Do those tourists who walk around with their cameras, snapping shots of everything without actually looking at anything, only get to experience the city later on when they're reviewing their photos? I wondered this yesterday while watching people mindlessly talking picture after picture in the Pantheon but barely pausing to stop and study anything they were committing to their cameras' digital memory. There are signs all over the Pantheon requesting silence (it's a religious building, after all), but judging from the sound of idle chatter that was drowning out my private thoughts, they must have missed those, too. 

What is it about Roman sculpture that makes me so borderline obsessed with it? As my friend Shirley pointed out, public statues in the United States (when you can find them) all seem to show historical figures striking 19th-century Presidential poses. Ever observant, Shirley also duly noted the apparent Roman obsession with symmetry: If there's a statue on one corner of a tight intersection -- say, Via XX Settembre and Via Delle Quattro Fontane -- chances are there are three more.

In Rome, every picture, and every statue, tells a story. High drama must have been the stance of the days of the historical and mythological figures represented by the monuments around the city. They're usually depicted pointing, pontificating, turning, cowering, perpetually in motion. Every statue seems to have an accompanying tale, and if they were ever collected in several pictorial volumes, it could very well end up being the other greatest story ever told. 

Why do there now seem to be as many Turkish kebab stands in Rome as there are pizzerias? Not that I'm complaining. The best pasta I've had in Rome was cooked for me in my rental by a Roman hip-hop dancer named Tiziano (penne with tuna sauce, and, at my insistence -- and his initial disgust but eventual delight -- Parmigiano cheese), and the best pizza I've ever had anywhere was still in New York City.

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