Rome! I am in Rome!!! I am in a gorgeous city that is warm and friendly and pulsing with the ages. I cannot remember ever being more pleased to be anywhere. Perhaps that is freedom’s colossal high, truth’s freewheeling zenith. Nowhere else to be but here. And it is my good fortune that ‘here’ is Rome.
Getting here took the best part of the day, most of it in slow-mo through security at Gatwick – until the announcement of our flight’s imminent departure compelled us to jump the queue and sprint a mini-marathon to Gate 105.
Puffing and laughing in our seats at the back of the plane, I remind Ben of his furious vow never to fly with me again, after I made him hurry to beat the crowd through immigration on a flight home from New Zealand half his lifetime ago. As it turned out, that was our last flight together, until now. We laugh so hard with the memory our eyes fill with tears. In an act of culinary desperation we stuff our faces with Toblerone for breakfast, taking turns to stare out the window, snow-struck by the white mountains far below.
Rome! Fiumicino Airport might have been forgetful had I not lost 250 Australian dollars to a wheeler-dealer at the exchange counter. The ride in from the airport might have been forgetful had I not insisted on taking the train (robbing Peter to pay Paul for the backgammon board) only to end up having to get a taxi to our room near the Vatican anyway.
The taxi drops us into the traffic on the outside of the vast cobbled plain that stretches to the Vatican steps. From there we lug our packs up the hill on the Vatican’s western flank, to the same apartment where Ben stayed when he walked in from Canterbury six weeks ago.
We dump the bags on our beds, grab the cameras and head straight out for lunch at the little deli on the corner, sitting in a basement at the foot of a small set of narrow wooden stairs, at a table with a red chequered cloth and a mound of white bread. And there the journey begins. We order wine. I order vegetarian antipasto, which comes, eventually, loaded with chunky cured meats. Ben orders spaghetti bolognaise and I can’t believe he’s come all this way for a spag-bol. We practise filming as we wait. We film the elderly waiter as he goes up and down the stairs, bringing food for all the guests but us. We raise our glasses and film a toast for the road ahead. We interview each other for the camera and laugh at our self-consciousness and our Australian-ness, stark against the ease of the Romans. The Romans!
We spend the afternoon walking around the streets, laughing in the heat of the day about the burning in our shoulder blades from the daypacks, knowing that it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse. We return to our room and collapse on the beds, rolling about laughing as we kick off our shoes with tell-tale groans because our feet are hot and tired and the walk hasn’t even begun. And we breathe in the simple pleasure of our small apartment, because come Saturday, September 22, two days from now, when day equals night and the sun turns on its heels for its southbound run, even the simplest of comforts – a clean bed, or any bed; a hearty meal, or any meal – will no longer be ours for the asking. For me, the madness is about to begin. For Ben, the madness is about to begin again. It is a privilege to be sharing this walk with my son. He has a grace and ease about him that is uncommon in our world. The first leg of his journey was a quintessential rollercoaster ride of challenge and fun, filling him with the lightness of being that comes to those who meet life as it presents itself. His is a steady eye and an open heart. This is the gift of the road.
Late in the afternoon, we decide to experiment with night filming at the Fontana di Trevi, the city’s famous Trevi Fountain. We ask around for the bus and board with the workday crowds, oblivious to systemic demands that we buy a ticket first, shrugging with the nonchalance of the stranger who doesn’t know and shouldering the free ride. We roll off the bus into the crowded evening, following our senses with the grace of tumbleweeds into the breezy, fluid night.
As far as I know, the only picture I have ever seen of the Trevi Fountain is in the opening credits of an American sitcom I liked to watch as a kid, ‘ To Rome With Love’. I was captivated by the notion that children could have a dead mother and I’d watch the kids on that show like a tiger in the grass, wired for proof of the impossible. In the opening, the children are sitting on the edge of the fountain. In my memory of the opening, the fountain is big and round and white and dramatic and there’s a busy road running around it. So I’m somewhat surprised to find the Fontana di Trevi is: a) neither big nor round; b) doesn’t have a road in sight; and c) packed with tourists jostling in the dark for viewing space. Of course, that was before I knew that the building behind it, the Palazzo Poli, is, depending on who you ask and what you read, considered part of the fountain.
Here in the company of Neptune rising, sea horses galloping and the berobed virgin who found the source of the gushing water in the first place; in the presence of stone waves, tritons and chariots; among tourists crushed alive with the night and locals fishing coins from the water with long magnetic poles; in the heart of a city that hasn’t missed a beat for three millennia, my world stills and I tilt my head to the night, listening ham-radio curious for the ones who walked this way before. Before me. Before you. Before.
I look to the night sky and come face to face with the colours of antiquity: a gold half moon, crisp and poised on its tip, egged on by an audacious indigo sky. Longing rises within me like sap to the warm sun, and I glimpse the obsessive fervour of the artisans, the crazed desire that commanded them to reproduce the ethereal, to give it form, to make it solid, to arrest God and celebrate their genius – or go mad in the trying. Face to the heavens, I smile at the enormity of the challenge before them: to find that blue on Earth!
Except from My Pilgrim’s Heart, by Stephanie Dale