Enraptured by Rome

His words are the sounds of love. That is what I jotted in my notes about Robert Hughes’ prologue in his book Rome. This is a man smitten. In just these first few pages, he presents a sensory smorgasbord as he describes his first visit to the Eternal City.

The enveloping light

The worn, organic colors of the ancient earth and stone

The very trees were springing, tender green

The vegetables were burgeoning in the markets … their sellers did not want to constrain them2015-08-22 SSI market-gloriouspeppers

Even the potato … took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light

This vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life

He contrasts all of this life with the often-grisly history of Rome. So much talent and intellect, so much ignorance and intolerance, so much living and dying down through the flowing centuries. Hughes says that “in a sense all of Rome is a museum inside out.” I am so curious to see this city that stunned and seduced a young Australian.

“In Rome … I felt surrounded by speaking water.” What a lovely description of fountains. “It seems they are there to be breathed, not just seen.” I am thrilled to see them before I ever do. Ruskin would be pleased.

2016 MU fountain vertical-cropA nearly 2,000-year-old bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his horse sets Hughes way back on his heels. I am set way back in my easy chair, absorbing his description. “This is no rocking horse.” “Marcus Aurelius’ hair stands energetically up, a nimbus of corkscrewing locks.” I can already feel it. I want to see it.

I hope that, as Hughes says, Rome will be my guide backward as well as forward. Even perhaps my muse.



A noble tale?

Say you’re the king of England. Not just any run-of-the-mill potentate but the legendary King Arthur, livin’ the dream in ancient days. One day Roman ambassadors arrive in your court with a message from Emperor Lucius: the taxes are due. Pay up or you won’t be king of anything. Your country has been under the thumb of the Romans for, oh, a few centuries. But now you have a rockin’ round table of “marvelous knights,” both wise and brave, not to mention the loyalty of “dukes and regent kings and earls and barons.” Do you pay the tax bill?

England 2012 Kings College crownandchainNever. King Arthur claims Roman lineage and sends a message to Lucius: I’m coming for you. The good king sets off toward Rome, but not before poor Queen Guenivere swoons in sorrow at his parting. Meanwhile Emperor Lucius heads to France, pillaging and conquering along the way. Arthur kills a terrible, horrible, very bad giant of Genoa. Then Arthur does away with Lucius and rides to Rome, mowing down kings and nobles along the way and sending their corpses to the Pope. Surprise, the Pope crowns him emperor of Rome. The marvelous knights get homesick and miss their wives. (No word on whether Arthur misses Guenivere.) The splendid Arthur declares “enough is as good as a feast” and “there was trussing of harness” and they all return to England.

So goes one book of Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. As a modern woman, I’m glad, very glad, I did not live in Mallory’s time. Many of the women in his story did not fare well. Raped, murdered or abandoned for the sake of honor, they seem to exist simply to illustrate the men’s lives.

To wrap myself in a place

Bare feet caressing summer grass in a neighborhood park. That same park in winter, sloppy with rain and mud. The chance arrival of a bright but cheesy travel brochure. Confronted with these images, skeptics become believers in the desperate days of midwinter. A “lengthy and ruinously expensive journey” is the result, and no one would blame Alain de Botton, the author of The Art of Travel, for going to Barbados.

But for de Botton, there is more to travel than escape.  He says:

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel, but we hear little of why and how we should go …”

Our journey is almost done

De Botton’s essay contemplates travel as a search for “human flourishing” and “a sense of belonging” or kinship. Untethering from the ordinary can, he says, release us from “habits of mind” so we can “encounter our true selves.”

I agree – we can be a mystery to ourselves, with so much hidden inside the routine busyness of our everyday activities, waiting to be released. Traveling well is done with inward intent.

As Lucy Honeychurch discovers in the novel A Room With a View, travel takes us out of our usual context and, if we are open to it, give us the chance to really think differently about our place in the larger world. Then there is the way we see as we tour around.

A bit of Ruskin pops up in Room With a View and here he is again in de Botton’s essay. John Ruskin “deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists” because he believed that a man’s “glory is not at all in going, but in being.” He felt people should move at a pace that allowed them to respond to beauty. He taught drawing because he believed it “could teach us to see – to notice rather than to look.”

England 2012 dahlia closeupMakes me think of a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe – “Nobody ever sees a flower really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t the time, and to see takes time.” And that was written before smart phones!

Ah yes, I want to travel thoughtfully, to wrap myself in a place rather than rushing through on the way to somewhere else.

A life unscripted

Give me a well-written book with a collection of quirky characters and I’m happy. For example, Room With a View introduces a bunch of British tourists interacting with another bunch of English expatriates in Italy during the Victorian era. A humorous examination of colonial thinking gone culturally amuck, it is a rewarding read, after a slow start. I gave it some grace and eventually E.M. Forster’s story paid some dividends.

2015 Craigdarroch dress
Craigdarroch Castle Victorian dress, Victoria, B.C., 2015

Lucy Honeychurch, our cheerful but stifled protagonist, is in Florence, Italy, with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, who is hauling a trunk load of morose self-interest and hypochondria. They are getting to know fellow travelers – such as Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, and the Emersons – and transplanted Brits – such as the supercilious Mr. Eager. All liberally share their wisdom with Lucy, but their flawed thinking is painful and hilarious. “How the driver stares at us, dear simple soul,” cries Miss Lavish of an Italian horse cart driver. Mr. Beebe pontificates that “The Italians are a most unpleasant people…They have no conception of the intellectual life.” At the same time, in a show of stunning insensitivity, Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish both heap disdain on “hot, dusty, unintelligent tourists,” saying the “narrowness and superficiality of the Anglo-Saxon tourist is nothing less than a menace.”

Ahem. Can anyone say pretentious class snobbery?

The lovely part of the book is Lucy’s gradual awakening. She starts off parroting her peers’ cultural posturing and then gradually finds her own perspective and voice, thanks in part to being away from home and able to loosen the suffocating grip of Victorian English expectations for young women. Much of this stirring is thanks to the Emersons, whom she initially assumes are “very odd people.” Yet they acquire more dimension and humanity even as her other companions diminish to cardboard cutouts.

2015 Craigdarroch pitcher cropLucy did not know her mind and heart were asleep until she ventured out into a different world, where her habits and patterns were disrupted. She went to Italy the first time as a tourist. She goes a second time as a traveler. Someone fully alive, no longer in conflict with her inner self.

Will Lucy throw over her dashing fiancé Cecil for a life unscripted? You’ll have to read the book. I hear there is a good movie version from the 1980s with Helena Bonham Carter. It’s on my list.

Learn about Craigdarroch Castle.

Learn about heritage homes in Victoria, B.C.

A soap opera of epic proportions – part 2

As soap operas are wont to unfold, Dido finds out that Aeneas is poised to leave and confronts her husband in a raging, manipulative rebuke. “Oh heartless!” she exclaims, “Liar and cheat!” Who can blame her? Aeneas responds as any good warrior would, with a barefaced denial and a collection of reasons why he has to leave, well salted with his own devious guilt trip.

England 2012 ancient stone window YorkHe starts with compliments about her royalty, how much she means to him, and how her memory will never dim during his lifetime. (Hmmm.) He denies planning to sneak away (even as he was, in fact, sneaking). Then he says he was not really and truly married because the rituals were not fulfilled. (He was just a little bit married.) Aeneas invokes the horror of a paternal haunting (who can argue with a ghost?), his family obligations and his destiny to build a new Troy. He points out that Dido herself is a refugee escaped from her wicked brother, and asks her why she would begrudge him the same privilege. (One word: Cheeky!) His ace card: the god Mercury has ordered him to Italy – his new home, his new love. He blurts out to Dido, “I drank his message in! So please, no more of these appeals that set us both afire. I sail for Italy not of my own free will.”


What could Dido do but fling a curse at him, which her gods will be obligated to fulfill?

England 2012 Hastings pier dusk2-crop
Poor Dido was nothing but a burned-out shell after Aeneas sailed away. (Pier in Hastings, England, 2012)

And then send message after message via her sister pleading with him to stay, just a little bit longer (cue sad love song of your choice). Dido is shattered when Aeneas rebuffs it all. “So broken in mind by suffering, Dido caught her fatal madness and resolved to die.” And she does, in high drama, falling on a sword and expiring in her sister’s arms. The gods set her tortured soul free and off she flies to give Aeneas the stink eye as he sails away.

Dido would have undoubtedly agreed with Friar Lawrence as he chides young Romeo’s fickle heart saying, “Young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” William Shakespeare


A soap opera of epic proportions

I had never read The Aeneid by Virgil. The title alone was enough to scare me off. But my literary and geographical horizons are expanding as I prepare for my study abroad class in September.

England 2012 Minerva side shot York
Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, perched above a street in York, England. 

Words in quotes are from The Aeneid (pronounce Ee-nid).

Book IV of The Aeneid finds the hero of the story, Aeneas (late of Troy) hanging out with Dido, the (soon to be tragic) heroine and queen of Carthage. Aeneas has lost a war but found refuge after sailing into Dido’s harbor and charming her royal socks off. Dido is all aflutter over her “princely soldier” and, at her sister’s urging, plans to marry Aeneas. She has big plans for him – to help her finish building her city and then defend it. She appeals to her gods to make it so. Meanwhile, one of her spurned suitors appeals to his gods for justice. Then the gods try to out-maneuver one another. (Cue the foreboding background music.)

Back in the earthly realm, Aeneas is a happy camper. The queen lavishes him with attention and gifts. He marries her (well sort of) in a cave after a storm and settles in to be her boy toy and build the city walls. But wait, down flies Mercury, that gilded messenger god, to chide Aeneas for becoming a “tame husband” and ignoring his destiny to build a new Troy in “the Italian realm.”

Aeneas does what any warrior would do. He pulls aside his leaders and tells them to “Get the fleet ready for sea, but quietly…” while he looks “for the right occasion, the easiest time to speak, the way to do it.” Denial on steroids: Aeneas believes he can sneakily pack up an entire fleet of ships without anyone noticing.

Is Aeneas really going to dump the queen? Stay tuned for part 2!

I’ll tell you a secret … about cement

I wonder what Roman engineers would say if they could see their buildings, roads, aqueducts, wharves and breakwaters still standing today. Maybe something like, “Dang, I knew that concrete was good!” But in Latin, of course.

England 2012 York Wall-Micklegate
Micklegate – part of the York Wall in York, England (2012)

About 2,000 years ago, Romans invented concrete using powdered lime, water, aggregate stone and volcanic ash. Across Europe, their structures remain as a testament to its hardness and durability. In this modern age, we often assume that the ancients have nothing to teach us. Not true of Roman concrete. Turns out it is better than Portland cement, the standard for the past two centuries. In 2013, an international team of researchers discovered the secret sauce to Roman mortar. A certain mixture, a certain kind of chemical reaction and a certain kind of tamping into wooden forms, produces a set harder than stone.

Not only that, the process may be more sustainable than modern-day methods. Who knew that making tons of Portland cement produces 7 percent of annual carbon monoxide emissions in the world? Not me. Read more on History.com.

I’ll be pondering the wisdom and inventiveness of the ancients this September as I trek around Rome admiring many glorious edifices clad in the arches, curves and domes much beloved by that civilization. My study abroad group will also visit Roman baths in an English city aptly named … Bath. It’s fun to begin the adventure learning about the insides of the outsides!

England 2012 York Wall-crop
Part of the medieval wall of York, England, built on top of a Roman wall (2012)

Wings in the wind

It’s happening again! I’m unfolding my adventure wings for an overseas trip. In September, my study abroad group flies away to the world cultural capital of London for a week and then our flock migrates to The Eternal City of Rome. Our intrepid group will trek around these global centers and take in sites of literary and artistic significance. This is a double class with a robust schedule of posts, so for those who already follow this blog, be prepared to learn a few things along with me!

England 2012 Rider close upFun factoids about London:

  • Founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago as Londonium
  • The world’s most-visited city as measured by international arrivals
  • Estimated population of 8.6 million; metro area totals 13.8 million
  • More than 300 languages are spoken within greater London
  • The London Underground (subway) is the oldest underground railway system in the world

Retrace the steps of an earlier visit to London and other parts of England by clicking on September 2012 in the right sidebar for a series of blog posts. They come complete with photos and humor. Hint: read from the bottom to the top.

Fun facts about Rome:

  • One of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe – a history spanning two and Stairs with ornamental grassesa half thousand years
  • The 14th most visited city in the world, 3rd most visited in the EU
  • Estimated population of 2.9 million; metro area totals 4.3 million
  • Hosts Vatican City, the only existing example of a country within a city
  • Birthplace of Baroque style and Neoclassicism (I know just enough about this to be dangerous)


A nest sent from heaven

wreath with pretend nestWhenever we visit my sister-in-heart, I look forward to seeing which cheery seasonal wreaths are decorating her entrance, one on each of the double doors. They remind me of her and how she swings open the portal to her home with a big smile.

Her smile had been put to the test, though. In 2015 she’d lost her husband of nearly four decades to cancer while she was recovering from major health issues. At his memorial service, Linda was pale and tired and I thought then about more hard things ahead for her. There would be many, but probably the toughest would be walking into their home. Widowed a few years before I met her brother, I discovered that a person’s presence fills far more space than the physical form.

Together with her kids, other family, and her friends she traveled the valley of grief. Faith was a shelter for her soul. A year after Greg’s death, she decided to sell their home – the place they had built together, where their three kids grew from teenagers to adults, where Greg nurtured the park-like grounds – the place she called Foggy Ridge. Another kind of grieving began.

On a day we arrived to help with preparations for the move, the doors were dressed with pinwheels of floral color, each sporting a cute pretend bird’s nest. While we were sorting things to keep or toss, Linda said, “Hey, did you see the extra nest in my wreath?” She went to the front door she keeps locked shut and to our amazement she showed us a real nest directly above the decorative one, blending into the design. I touched it gently and it was still wet – a circle of mud, grass and twigs. It had appeared, complete, the previous morning.

A day or two later, Linda posted a picture on Facebook. One luminous blue egg. Then another. And finally three perfect robin’s eggs perched in that avian orb. “Linda!” I posted, “You have eggs!” My heart skipped in delight. A blessing of encouragement from heaven, everyone agreed.

One egg

Three eggsTwo eggs

A few more days and another picture on Facebook: The chicks had hatched and sprouted feathers. It seems the timing of this miracle of new life was also perfect. The day she moved, she says the chicks were “all sitting in a tree with mom and dad singing a robin song.” Linda and her chicks fledged at the same time.


Learn more about robins.