Let’s all meet in Rome

(Video caption: A street performer in Rome does her act when the light is red, then collects from drivers and pedestrians.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017: This was one of those days when you can believe that millions of people from all over the world decided to gather in specific cities to bump into each other. Not in the sense of serendipitously meeting one another but as in physically rubbing, brushing, colliding sweaty bodies against sweaty bodies at designated spots around those cities, at the Vatican Museum in Rome, for instance. Who knew there were so many art lovers and/or Catholics in the world that day after day they would wind up and down the street in a line of perspiring humans waiting to to see Laocoon and His Sons (one of my favs), Perseus with the Head of the Gorgon or Apollo Belvedere? And, of course, the Sistine Chapel, the cherry on top at the end of the tour.

The bumping into each other isn’t confined to the line at the Vatican Museum. Any place with a Bernini statue or a mortared brick dating back 2,000 years or so can draw a U.N. General Assembly: American college kids, Japanese busloads, women in hijabs, women in revealing shorts and tops, well-dressed Romans coursing through the crowds to get to work or lunch, Africans selling selfie sticks, group leaders heading up lines of followers snaking through the throngs.

It took me a moment at the Forum to figure out the new tour groups – new to me at least. It used to be that the group leader carried a stick with a flag or hankie on top, or an umbrella, something he or she could hold up high like the company colors for her troops to assemble on. Then in front of some point of interest the leader would rattle off history, facts, myths, dates or figures to the listeners leaning in for something that might make the particular rock, smear of colorful oil or carved stone relevant to them.

On the Forum, I saw a flag-waving leader well ahead of her trailing charges and talking so that none of them had a whisper of a chance of hearing her – but for the receivers hanging from brightly colored lanyards around their necks. Leaders speak into a headpiece; followers hear through the little boxes dangling under their chins.

Trio
Traveling companions in front of the Pantheon

It makes the old ploy of sidling up to a group to hear some free explanation in English a bit trickier. At the Pantheon, my favorite building in Rome, I was happy to find a group of students from the University of Oklahoma doing it the old way. A scholarly-looking woman raising an OU pennant happened to assemble her group so that they surrounded me. Rather than stepping away to yield my spot, I decided I’d sooner stay and learn something. Did some college Joe or Jody really give a rip about the history of concrete? Having spent a summer and fall pouring concrete back in ancient times (1975), I did.

(Video caption: The ceiling of the Pantheon.)

Our group leader explained how the Romans did it back in about 120 A.D., dumping loads of ’crete over wooden forms to make the distinctive square patterns of the building’s roof. These “coffers” are stacked on top of each other in smaller concentric circles to form what can be considered a corbelled roof.

Our scholar added some information on when the Romans came up with their recipe for concrete, a bit about emperor Hadrian and the niches around the inside of the building that were once filled with statues of Roman gods who later gave way to Christian figures.

“I could not have brought you here on a better day,” she told us as rain started falling through the opening in the center of the roof (an oculus) and onto the drain in the marble floor.

Coffee
Granita di caffes all around

Outside, the selfie-stick sellers were hawking umbrellas, and it was good to linger between the 40-foot columns holding up the vestibule roof before we made a dash to La Casa Del Caffe’ Tazza d’Oro across the plaza for a granita di caffe, a delicious concoction of heavy cream, a coffee snow cone and whipped cream – not a calorie in it, of course!

 

Nile
Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. The male figure representing the Nile has his head covered because the head of the Nile was unknown when Bernini made the sculpture

Luigi, who worked the night desk at the Hotel Grifo, advised us to arrive at the Vatican Museum at 1:30, lunchtime, when the crowds thinned out. The plan was to grab a quick lunch and then head for the museum. “Grab a quick lunch” and a good restaurant in Rome are two things that don’t go together. Quick lunch didn’t fit in with the two things Cole wanted most from this trip with grand parents: to visit the Ferrari museum (more on that later) and eat lots of Italian food. We made good on that latter request at our lunch after we walked through the Piazza Navona with its famous Bernini statues and fountains. We ate, we lingered, we watched a young couple eat, snuggle, argue and then eat and snuggle some more (they packed away more food than the three of us did). We had pizza, we had pasta, we had dessert, we watched people running through the rain in the narrow street outside. We didn’t get to the Vatican Museum until well after 1:30, and the lines were long and our patience short.

(Video caption: We did not get into the Vatican Museum but visited St. Peter’s Square.)

We’ll come tomorrow, we told each other, and stopped to get tickets. That’s when we found out about the holiday for Saints Peter and Paul, the founder and protector of Christian Rome. The museum would be closed tomorrow for the feast day.

NonnaWe had a fairly well-scripted itinerary for our two-week visit, and now we were going to see if we could change one piece of it without the whole thing collapsing. But that could be put off until tomorrow in our effort to fulfill Cole’s food requirement, which we did with a scrumptious meal that night at Nonna Betta in the Jewish section of Rome. Highly recommend the restaurant and visiting the area.

 

Grifo

 

Not your Sean Spicer Holocaust Center

Holocaust

(Correction: The Center has 5,000 artifacts. An earlier version had an incorrect number.)

Given that “Holocaust centers” were recently in the news, it seemed fortuitous that we already had plans to visit one.

Sean “I Slept through History Class” Spicer used the term last week to describe those places where Adolf Hitler gathered Jews for slave labor, starvation and death in gas chambers. This just after he said, “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

He tried to explain that away by seeming to say Hitler’s use was limited to “Holocaust centers,” which brought up the bizarre image in my mind of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” iron letters at the entrance of Nazi death camps being reforged to spell out “Welcome to Dachau Center” instead.

The Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle makes it plain that not any part of the Holocaust should be forgotten, that remembering this horror might help prevent a repeat. The center has more than 5,000 artifacts (corrected from earlier version) from this slaughter of innocents by the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. It only has enough room to display a fraction of them, but they are enough to bring home the extent of this evil.

We joined the tail end of a tour being taken by Seattle police officers, part of a diversity course being undertaken by the entire force. The tour leader of that group and then of our small party was Dee Simon, the Baral Family Executive Director.

The center has 30 Holocaust survivors who serve as speakers, telling what they suffered and witnessed, remembering the family members they lost and recounting how fortunate they were to be among the few who escaped.

Dee Simon said the center reaches 40,000 students a year in Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Montana and Idaho, states where the teaching of the Holocaust is not mandated. For 28 years, the center has been sending schools trunks filled with books, curricula and other teaching materials. Schools can keep the trunks for three weeks before returning them to be refilled and sent on. Teacher training is also provided.

While I did not know about the Seattle Holocaust Center before the invitation to visit, my interest in history has led me to enough information about the Holocaust that I hope I would never make the blunder Spicer did last week. But a couple of Simon’s comments made me aware of how little I know about the complicity of corporations and German society in the Holocaust. Simon pointed out artifacts from the death camps with the insignias of BMW and other corporations. Which makes me want to read more about this and makes me uneasy about what we Americans either don’t know or choose not to know about what is being done around the world in our names.

The Holocaust ended with the close of World War II in 1945 and many of the Holocaust survivors are passing away. Some of their speaking roles are being taken over by their children and grand children. Simon is an example of that. Her mother was the only member of her school class to survive the Holocaust.

Thanks to Dee for the excellent tour. And to Carol, who invited us and, I suspect, provided the salads for lunch. We’ll try to even things up at your Voices for Humanity Luncheons in October.