Friday, January 2, 2009

Away in the Manger

MK was referring to our tour of the Vatican yesterday as our visit to the Raping, Pillaging, Thieving, Oppressing, Murdering Capitol of the World, but I actually found a newfound appreciation for Catholicism in our tour. They may have managed to steal every art treasure imaginable, but they also managed to preserve a lot of art that otherwise might have been destroyed. Yeah, ok, a few million people had to die here and there in the name of Jesus, but what’s a couple of deaths between friends?

The day started out cold but clear, and we had our breakfast in our hotel, as usual. This place lays out a spread--slices of what they call proscuitto (looks like turkey), which lists its ingredients as pork and salt, slices of cheese, fruit, breads, croissants, butter, cereals, juices, coffee. It’s all buffet style with a young man staffing the room. I mentally call him Igor because he stares at a point on the wall directly behind my head when I speak with him. Since I need to ask him for decaf coffee--believe it or not, I don’t drink caffeine--I speak to Igor a lot. He says, “Prego,” which is not a reference to my uterus, and then my coffee appears. I want to tip him, but no one else tips him, and I see cappucinos and mochas being ordered all around.

There are signs on all the tables that say, “Please keep your voices soft. Lift up the chairs when moving them. The chairs on the floor make an incredible noise.” This would be all well and good, since our room is directly across the hall from the breakfast room, except that Igor and another hotel employee have regular, enthusiastic conversations, and the espresso machine makes its train whistle noises. Fortunately, we have been going to bed at 8 and 9 pm, so we wake up before the dishes do, but I can see how the clank, clank of silverware would be far more intrusive than the sounds of Americans speaking over breakfast. Europeans complain about us being too loud, but Igor and his cohorts seem perfectly happy to compete with us in the noise department.

Yesterday was cold and clear in the morning, but I only saw the clear part. So I dressed la dee duh Californian, with a raincoat, a silk scarf and no long underwear. My foot, with its sore toe, was happy in Keens. We had a tour scheduled for 12:30 at The Vatican--normally we conduct our own tours, but we had been told by our good friend Rick Steves (All Rick, All The Time!) that we could bypass the line by paying for a tour. The subway from our hotel to the Vatican seemed reasonable, although we hugged our money belts, our backpacks and our non-slash able purses close to our bodies. Everyone talks about thieves in Rome, although my guess is that it’s Monkey See, Monkey Do--the Catholic Church steals from the world, the Romans steal from the American tourists. But our purses and our money belts and our backpacks made it onto the Spanish Steps, which was a few stops short of the Vatican. We surveyed the scene and began to see the Dead Animal parade around us. It seemed that every fifth or sixth woman was wearing fur, enough fur to make Jennifer Lopez pull her fox fur fake eyelashes out.

It was cold. I wrapped my little silk scarf around my big cold neck as we started up the Spanish stairs. This scarf is scarlet red and black, and I imagine that I look very European in it. The Europeans don’t seem to imagine it, though. Everyone says “Hello” to me, knowing immediately that I am an American.

Midway, there was a nativity scene, a big elaborate tableau. There was the baby Jesus, and the wise men, and Mary, and Joseph---all under the big Tuscan sky. Ah, it’s good to be in Rome, where our lord and savior was born.

Up the next set of steps, we ran into a man carrying a cat on a leash. “Awww,” I said, and he said, “Awww,” echoing me. He stopped and allowed me to pet the cat. “His name?” I asked. “Pepe.” I called “Pepe” to the cat, who kept his eyes averted. He had no interest in me. Then the man handed Pepe to me. Afraid of a scam of some sort, I still took the big orange cat and petted him, while the man walked to a nearby wall and faced nothing. Did he want money? What was going on? MK and I gave big pets to Pepe and then I walked to the man and gave Pepe back--by this time, he was purring but still refusing to look at either MK or me. The man took Pepe and then said, “Awww, Pepe,” as if he were making fun of me. OK. My money bag, purse and backpack were safe, and that was the important part.

From the Spanish Steps, we made our way to the neighborhood of the Vatican, where we ate lunch at a place our good friend Rick recommended (All Rick Steves, All the Time!). It was ok. Nothing great. Salmon and pasta for me, a pizza that looked as if it were made on a tortilla for MK. And then we met Aubrey, who would take us to our leader.

Aubrey had pink and black hair and wore a nose piercing and black stockings with big red polka dots on them. Needless to say, Aubrey was American. She led us to some stairs near the Vatican and then said brightly, “Well, good news and bad news. Bad news is that our reservation with the Vatican never made it through, so we’ll have to stand in line. The good news is that the line is moving pretty fast today.” Wait. We paid $50 Euro so that we’d skip the line. You’re telling us that we’ll have to stand in it? Yup.

On the pretense of getting gelato--- never one to miss the opportunity, even in the rapidly declining temperature---MK and I conferred. We would give the tour a miss and stand in line ourselves. When we told Aubrey this decision, she offered to give us back our money if the wait was more than ten minutes. OK, we’d try.

Little radio receivers and earphones were distributed and we took off for the end of the line. Aubrey waited with us, but Michael, our tour guide appeared. Micheal is a sprite like man, from Chicago originally, with bright blue eyes and a kind of elfin smile. He began the tour with some history, first of the Vatican wall, and then of the surrounding land and the Vatican’s history. It was fascinating, and made the long line SEEM like it would last only ten minutes, even though it started to rain as we stood in it. The line snakes and snakes around the Vatican’s walls, which as Michael informed us, is a country of its own.

As the temperature dropped and my feet began to hurt, I thought about Jesus. What would he do? Would he tolerate a line like this? Give me your tired, your poor, your $10 Euro? Or would he part the Red Sea of the Vatican Wall and let all of us in for free, even the unbelievers like me? Michael was talking about Peter refusing to be crucified right side up, because he didn’t deserve to die in the same way that Jesus did. Boy, these Christians really know how to do martyrdom. But the line did begin to move after I thought about what Jesus would do, so maybe my little Jew contemplation got through to someone. Either that, or God thought I was a European because of my lovely red and black silk scarf.

Once inside the Vatican, we decided to go with the tour. Michael seemed to have a lot of knowledge--imagine that, a guide with knowledge. He went to UCLA for graduate school in Italian studies, so perhaps he knew more than MK and me regarding Italian art, maybe even more than our good friend Rick.

I won’t go into all the details, but when they tell you that the Vatican museum is seven miles of art, they mean seventeen. Michael rushed us through some galleries, and then paused for longer lectures in front of Important Art. If we’d done this on our own, we would still be staring at some obscure 14th century painting, and would have missed the Pieta. Thank God for Michael.

Our middle aged bodies, though, weren’t happy with us. Our backpacks, purses, and money belts didn’t balance well on our rotund little American bodies. My legs were shaking by the end, and my toe, which had already had enough insult to warrant amputation, pounded in my normally comfortable Keens. My nose, my ass and my thighs were cold. The Vatican doesn’t spend a lot of money on central heat, probably reserving all the warmth for the Pope’s private apartments. When Michael graciously said goodbye to us in St. Peter’s, we took one last circuit of the joint. Yup, the dead popes were still there in their glass tombs, with their masks on. I’d like to know why the Catholics like to dig up their dead and put them on display for the masses, or the mass. How reverent is it to parade one’s saints’ bones around the church, like last year’s beauty queen? I did like the little red slippers they all wore, though. I wonder if they were Keens. They sure looked comfy to me.

The Vatican figured out a way to uproot the floors of Roman villas from the first century and install them into their own little palace known as the Catholic Church. One floor even had the Star of David embedded in the mosaic. I took a picture of my feet with that star.

The Sistine Chapel was gorgeous, but even in a pouring rain in January, there were too many people there. No one parted before my red scarf and I had to shove my way through crowds of Italian people there to gawk, so that I could find a place of my own from which to gawk. People told me before I left that I’d at least get to see Italy when it’s uncrowded, so between the Trevi fountain and the Vatican, I’m wondering what it must be like to see Italy in the summer. MK would have to pack some smelling salts, just to keep me from becoming a Jew version of a dead pope,

One highlight of St. Peter’s--a working church, I might add--they were saying mass in Latin while we were there--was the nativity scene. Once again set in rural Italy, the baby Jesus in St. Peter’s had a big gold halo and a pristine Mary holding him. That woman never looks as if she passed a fifty pound bowling ball in the night, but Jesus always looks more like a toddler than a newborn in these things. But the best part was the way the sky changed from day to night, complete with flashing stars. There was even a water wheel--not sure of its purpose, but it churned water over and over into a pond. I felt as if I was at the State Fair, looking at the winning exhibit from Modoc County.

Lsst night, we stumbled through the pouring rain to the subway, finding it more by luck than by map, and then tripped our way up Via Saint Swollen Feet to a restaurant that Rick recommended. Rick apparently has different taste than us-- it was ok, and came to $53 Euros. Seemed kind of pricey for ok. We have yet to have great pasta, in fact. Seems a shame. But we were too tired to care-- we hauled our physically exhausted bodies back to our hotel, and I laid down. It was 8:00PM. “You going to sleep?“ MK asked me. “No, just resting my body, “ I said, and the next thing I knew, it was midnight and I was waking up again. I had no problem turning over and going to sleep for another five hours.

I keep remembering that I don’t like crowds, right about the time I get to some crowded tourist spot. I’ve been thinking, though, about my career choices. It would be good to be a pope, I think--you’d get to see the Sistine Chapel and all that artwork when everyone else had left for the night. You could build your own private nativity scene. Plus you’d get to wear some nifty red slippers all the time. Those would match my scarf.


jax said...

"No one parted before my red scarf and I had to shove my way through crowds of Italian people"

lol! sounds exhausting! even to a Catholic!

shakey said...

I love your writing style! You literally made me LOL in parts. So Rick Steeve's isn't all he's supposed to be, eh? He probably thought, ah screw it. I'm tired. We'll stop in this place, say it's great. The people at home will eat it up!

Bad Fish said...

What a wonderful read. Love it.