A Passage to Italy – Part One: Just Don’t Look Down

[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC)
[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter.  As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun.  The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard.  The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.

Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week.  In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder.  The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.

Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor.  It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life.  The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination.  Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way.  It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.

For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life.   In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.

To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities.  Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them.  Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business.  Mama mia!

Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place.  This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.

In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims.  Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic.  It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs.  Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.

My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years.  He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal.  We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal.  He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization.  “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular.  “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”

Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning.  His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face.  ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.

“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”

She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep.  It is no longer your problem.  It is  now his problem.’”