Thursday, January 24, 2013

ON THE AVENUES When in Rome.

ON THE AVENUES: When in Rome.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Woody Allen’s 2012 film, “To Rome With Love,” received middling reviews, but it is impossible to fault the director’s choice of inspired locales. The Eternal City is sumptuously depicted in the movie, and as the wine pours freely in almost every scene, we all can be forgiven for wanting to pack our bags, chuck the daily grind and go frolic.

The Mediterranean has featured only sporadically in my travels, and it may seem a strange emotion for me to be yearning for Rome, but to be truthful, in spite of herculean efforts to wean myself from the European continent, the tug remains so strong that the ultimate destination right now quite frankly is up for negotiation: Bucharest, Bath, Berlin or Bologna; the destination doesn’t matter to me, as long as a plane deposits me somewhat close to it.

It’s been almost a quarter-century since my last visit to Italy, and there were plenty of good times to remember, none more so than the time in 1985 when I wandered into a church in Rome, and a city fairly swooned.

Trust me: It was a complete accident.

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I’d breezed into town after the better part of a day spent riding the ferry from Greece to Italy, pausing momentarily in Brindisi to commence a lifelong love affair with garlic-laden clam sauce before napping upright in a seat, sardine-like, aboard the overnight train to Rome. One persistent memory from the rail journey is waking at dawn just in time to glimpse Montecassino Abbey, as rebuilt after its destruction during the famous World War II battle.

Well, at least I think it was Montecassino Abbey. It might have been Downton Abbey for all I know, given a bone-rattled grogginess borne of two too many days aboard trains and boats, the effect of mediocre Italian draft beers washing down the previous night’s repast, and long, sun-baked hours shared with thirsty backpacking Aussies and Germans, all of us cross-legged in the ocean breeze on the ferry’s open peanut gallery deck, with me teaching them how to play the familiar Hoosier drinking game called Drachma Bounce, using a metal camp cup and alternating portions of Retsina and Ouzo either as penalty for winning or reward for losing.

Arriving early at Rome’s Termini station, I hit the ground running toward one of the $25-A-Day book’s suggested budget pensions – not low rent retirement stipends, but small family-run hotels, usually located upstairs in urban residential blocks. The first one was booked, but the second had a vacancy. It was four flights up on a Thursday morning, and I settled in for a five-day stay. By Friday, I was a sidewalk café veteran, nursing Nastro Azurro lagers and watching the girls go by.

The usual tourist’s high points came and went, but what’s a poor atheist to do on a Sunday morning in Rome, when so many attractions are closed? The answer came to me during a Saturday morning stroll along the legendary Appian Way, when I ducked behind a 2000-year-old mausoleum to take a leak.

People go to church on Sunday, right?

What’s more, being in Rome meant not having to settle for a lowly chapel somewhere in the suburbs, because the Yankee Stadium of organized religion was right there in the middle of the venerable city: St. Peters.

Sunday morning would entail a pilgrimage to the Vatican, and mass at St. Peters. Quite literally, it was time to don my cleanest dirty shirt.

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I tiptoed away from my pension before the rolls, jam, butter and coffee came out to the communal table. It was a pleasant, albeit weirdly quiet walk to Termini, where I stopped for espresso and a pastry and boarded the subway, eventually hopping off a few blocks away from the Vatican.

There were plenty of people moving in ragged columns down the sidewalks, passing the occasional loose-footed vendor of souvenirs, novelties and artifacts. I merely followed the crowd into the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square, feeling overwhelmed to see for the first time the mountainous grandeur of the cathedral and numerous other historic structures ringing the piazza.

Then it hit me: It wasn’t so much the architecture as the throng. There must have been a couple of thousand visitors milling around, and most of them were queuing into a series of crowd control stanchions intended to impose some degree of order on the situation. It looked as though everyone in Rome intended to attend mass at St. Peter’s.

Would an earnest young unbeliever like me even be permitted inside? Would they be able to tell that I was pagan?

Striking what I imagined as a pious pose, I readily observed that at least the lines were steadily moving. It was a huge building, after all, one meant to accommodate Catholics from all over the world, many of whom were about to experience the very highlight of their lives. As a matter of principle, I shuffled headlong into the scrum, because there was no reason why I couldn’t pretend to be one of them.

The attendants were patient and friendly. At regular intervals deep within the labyrinth, someone would greet me in a variety of languages, from Croat to Tagalong, and ask whether I had a ticket. I’d specify English, smile, apologize for my negligence, and be told that it was okay, just go this or that way, and follow the next worker’s directions.

These diversions routed me steadily toward the right, followed by a big left turn into an immense doorway on the side of St. Peters, and when the dust settled I was told to take a seat in the club-level pews behind the altar. Evidently my disguise had worked, and I relished my role as pilgrim for a day.

Meanwhile, it was standing room only inside St. Peter’s, and the atmosphere didn’t seem very sacred at all. The expectant, edgy vibe was not unlike a football stadium just prior to kickoff, with nervous energy and mounting excitement. Having had little experience with religious ecstasy, I worried that perhaps a dosage of peyote would have helped to properly align me.

I’d brought along my trusty workhorse camera, a fully manual Pentax, but left the flash apparatus back in the room. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the solemn premise of the church service, and so it shocked me when suddenly, hundreds of flashbulbs started popping. Heads tilted and turned, and I saw a nun climbing onto the shoulders of another nun, hugging a stone column and snapping photos with a snazzy automatic. Inexplicably, Sunday mass at St. Peter’s had morphed into a rock and roll show.

And then, finally, I saw the reason for the bedlam.

Advancing slowly down the aisle, no more than 20 feet away from my assigned seat, walked the Pope himself -- John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyła – amid universal clamor and unrestrained adoration, throughout which perhaps the sole prim and proper person in the whole holy joint was me … the heretic!

And so it was that I went to mass in Rome with the Pope, and he wasn’t even in Guido Sarducci’s renowned pizza.

Or, for that matter, Woody Allen’s.

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