Thursday, May 21, 2009

from Rome: sifting and sorting

Back in Madison, when I was telling Ed about a particularly vivid dream I had had in the wee hours of the predawn, he said – you sure have a lot of challenging dreams!
Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone?
I can’t remember having anything like yours in decades.

Here, in Rome, you would think that after a day packed with treasures (real and ephemeral), my psyche would use the opportunity of a long night to sort through them, arrange them neatly, maybe add a few exhilarating twists, and wake up refreshed.

Not so. When I travel, my dawn hours are spent in dreams that have nothing to do with that beautiful reality. Instead, they’re about the fight between good and evil, and it isn't always the case that goodness triumphs. And so I can't wait to wake up. It's such a relief that I don't have to engage, for example, in warfare.

Morning blogging (when I travel, I blog early; when I am at home, I blog late) makes up for what the world of dreams has failed to offer – a chance to sift and sort and add twists and arrange things neatly before the new day begins.

The new day.

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Looking back on yesterday, I have to say that there’s a lot of wonderful stuff to work through. If the first full day was grounded in ancient Rome, yesterday moved crazily (in an adventure-park sort of way) between modernity, the Renaissance, antiquity, everyday reality, leisurely outdoor dining and very by-the-clock, rigid indoor gawking – in other words, the day’s only unifying theme was Rome.

And it all began with ice cream.

In Italy, most every town has a “best” ice cream place. Guide books have favorites, visitors have favorites, locals probably have favorites as well, but I think it’s us outsiders that really are hell bent on identifying the top of the top.

In Rome, anyone’s top list would have to include (among others, because I know there are others) San Crispino. I mean, these guys do everything supremely well. The creaminess, the essential flavors, the absence of coloring and additives, the use of artisanal methods and organic, seasonal products where possible – all of it, packed in a gelato.


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Melon and honey for me, chocolate and pistachio for my girl. A friend recently said that you can tell a lot about a person by what they order in an eatery. If flavors tell tales, you can spin your own based on ice cream preferences. This day alone will give you ample information on what I always love in a gelato.


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Our walk across town puts us on a street with a lot of small retail outlets. If the economy has slowed here, you can’t see it in shopping habits. Sure, there are the sales (so unusual in Europe, where sales tend to be seasonal rather than erratic), but the stores are not empty. I would guess that in Italy, prosperity has not been a reliable, steady presence, especially in the south (and Rome is the south; we are in a sunny, hot land right now, least you doubt me). So why curb your shopping enthusiasm now, when things are as rocky as they were, say, yesterday, last year, and the decade before.

We stop at a lingerie store. I find Victoria’s Secret back home rather garish and so I look with pleasure at things that are delicate and feminine and not especially over the top, even as, if you look closely, it is all very suggestive. A wee little purchase and we continue.

On Piazza del Popolo, we admire the expanse of it all, the twin churches, the alternative artsy handful on the steps. (Women of ill repute? – I say to my daughter. Well, maybe not. Two carabinieri are standing to the side. That would be sort of odd. I retract, feeling somewhat guilty for my attributions. Let’s just say women in fiery apparel.)


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We cut into the park (the Borghese – by far the largest in central Rome) and immediately get lost. The maps deliberately confuse you. Parks shouldn’t have set itineraries. You should ramble, sit on a bench, enjoy the moment.


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Our destination for early afternoon is the Galleria d'Arte Moderna – a wonderful building with a very eclectic collection of significant pieces from the past century and a half. It’s a huge leap to have done this – to move so blithely from ancient ruins to this museum, but Rome is not a city that thrives only on markers of past glory and so it seems appropriate that we should leap to the future quickly and effortlessly.


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No photos in the museum. I take this first one…


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And then I am silly enough to ask for further permission (there are no signs mentioning cameras) and am immediately told that cameras are forbidden. For added measure, I am given that look of reprimand that cuts to the heart. I hang my head in shame to show proper remorse. (And, like a true Italian, look for opportunities to ignore the rule.)


We pause for a long while at the museum café. We’re very hungry for Roman food (which is very different from being simply hungry; I can’t say that I am at all hungry after my very first bowl of pasta here), so there’s that. But also, it’s just so pleasant to sit outside in a shady spot, with the cool presummer breeze touching my bare shoulders (Rome requires sun dresses and we are happy to do well by her demands) and a glass of acqua minerale, or sometimes wine, and a plate of greens and thinly sliced prosciutto, or tomato and buffalo mozarella before you.


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Oh, and of course, capped by espresso. And ice cream. Strawberry and cream for me.


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We glance at the other patrons. More affluent here than, say, at the Capitoline café (the previous day’s museum rest stop). And so very Italian. Watch his hand caress her arm…


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Our lunch break is long also because one of the rooms of the museum (just one) is closed at regular intervals throughout the day. Why? I don’t know. But if one room is closed before you, then you become determined to get to that room, even if it means waiting a long time for it to reopen.


Eventually, though, we have to hurry out. We have an appointment at the Borghese.

If you leave the Vatican collection off the list (it is, after all, a separate country), I’d have to say the Galleria Borghese is Rome grandest, most beautiful museum. It had been closed for renovations for many years, and now it positively shines with the glory of the Renaissance and the centuries leading up to it.


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It is so gorgeous, that the city has had to institute crowd control. You need to book your visit in advance, and as in special exhibitions in other museums, you are given a two hour slot. And you better show up to collect your ticket early if you want to avoid that Italian rabbuffo.

One notable detail about a visit here is that you must deposit everything at the cloakroom before going inside. And you do this early, so that you’re ready to plunge the minute the doors open. Consequently, you’ll find, in the half hour before the next group is permitted entry, scores of empty handed people milling about, purposeless and unencumbered. It is a strange feeling to stroll like this, especially if you are a woman, and a photographer, and you have gotten used to having your shoulder serve as a donkey for everything you may need in the course of a long day out.


It’s evening by the time we leave.

We walk down the Via Veneto. I remember coming here when I was still a kid. I was told it was glamorous and since I hadn’t a clue as to what that could possibly mean, I took it for granted that I was in the presence of glamour.

Things have changed and I hear that the glamour crowd has moved elsewhere and and so I will never know how glamor made itself at home here, on the Via Veneto. Right now, all I can see is the tremendous green branches of trees towering over the winding boulevard, and I think – wow, that’s pretty leafy up there.

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We freshen up at the hotel and head out on our next eating adventure, at the Osteria Sostegno. All our eateries thus far have required a long walk by way of the Spanish steps. The streets begin to lose their light then…


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…and at the steps, at 8:30, the sun just dips below the horizon line. We watch a dinner party at a rooftop and I wonder if eating this way on a regular basis, in such glorious light and before happy crowds helps the digestion and livens the senses.


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This time we, too, have the presence of mind to reserve an outdoor table and it is indeed magnificent to eat outside. Tucked in a quiet alley, the lights glitter and the wine sparkles and it is, in all ways, a heavenly meal.

Keeping to the habit of ordering that, which is very regional, I eat a big bowl of pasta with shaved white truffle, followed by a plate of sliced beef with artichoke. Roman food is essentially comfort food done at the highest level of professionalism. It is a cuisine that you love because of what it means to accomplish -- the highest level of bliss.


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We are not far from the Trevi and so we detour to take another look at the craziness that congregates here every hour of the day. It is all of Rome (though without the traffic fumes) – the art, the food, the crowds, the dazzle – all here, at the edge of a pool of water loaded with coins.


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Time to head back. We follow a group of older men, walking arm in arm, and we walk that way too, because after a great meal, it’s good to lean just a little as you hike the long road home.


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