The Watcher: Rome continued II

One morning I decided I would try to find the Tombs of the Via Latina. I walked and everyone I asked said oh, just a little further on. Soon the level of the rooftops dropped and small houses began to nudge each other, jostle rooftops, forming a village of dirt streets and open running water with patched clothes hung up to dry and houses not much taller than the people who lived in them. It was far out from the center of Rome with trees and a park and even planted fields in between. But it was all still Rome. It did not appear to be a city. Nor was it countryside. The tombs? I never did find them, and took the tram back into the city.

It was my habit of going on foot to most of the Roman monuments that led to my adventure in the catacombs.  I had set out to see the mosaics in St. Agnese fuori le Mura. It was much further than I thought and I got there just five minutes before noon when all good churches take their noonday siesta. I dashed up the steps and inside. The mosaics were lovely. I had forgotten about the catacombs until a guard came up and asked if I wanted to see them.

“Yes,” he said, “it is after twelve but if another person comes along I will take you both through.” A woman did show up, but for some reason changed her mind. So we went anyway. He with a big candle and I with a small one. We walked along the narrow underground passageways lined with scooped out shelves which once had held bones and bodies. Around corners, through the darkness to a larger central chamber where he said the early Christians had held mass. He showed me a big shelf of lamps left there by Roman Christians — and then made a pass at me. My Italian had not yet reached the point where I could swear, but I did manage to say something to the effect that what the hell was going on. When he insisted on trying to kiss me I almost got angry. But it was “almost” because inside I was laughing so hard it was impossible to be really angry. I told him he was not being a gentleman to which he replied that he was being most “gentile” and was paying me a compliment. There somehow didn’t seem to be any reason why I should be frightened for I was bigger than he was and didn’t think he dared leave me alone in the catacombs for very long. Still, sparring while holding a pocketbook in one hand and a candle in the other was rather inconvenient. I was on the point of giving him a good kick when he returned to his job and quietly led me through the rest of the catacombs, stopping only to say once more that there was more to life than just bread and wine.

It was nothing unusual. One day near the Pantheon I could not seem to shake off the young man or boy who was following me. Sometimes all one had to say was “Va via. Chiamo i carabinieri” but there was something innocent about this attempt at picking me up as he tried to guess my nationality, hitting all but the right one. In the end I burst out laughing and let him accompany me the rest of the way home. His name was Pietro and he prided himself on looking rather like Marlon Brando. He also seemed quite intelligent, according to the standards I had worked out since he seemed able to figure out my round-about explanations. While he liked to slip his limited vocabulary of foreign words into the conversation, when Grshkll turned out to be Grace Kelly, I gave up.

The Pantheon was in walking distance from my eerie at the top of those 116 steps. A great globe, in the building of which various emperors were involved, most important perhaps Hadrian. Like the Coliseum, like the Baths, it approximated open space, yet was a building. There was no way of judging its size or those of its occupants.  No small windows, no little doors – only great halls and arches and places where no door could ever fit and still be moved by human force. The Pantheon. It was a cold November day and I had the Pantheon all to myself. I stepped inside and felt myself pulled upwards toward the center, towards the source of the light that was space. I was challenged to walk to the center, and, fearfully, slowly step by step, I moved, until finally I stood under the opening in the dome, somehow surprised that nothing had happened. It was like standing on a hill and having the whole line of the horizon around me on all sides.  I felt pushed up into the air, my heart afraid to beat, afraid that I would fall back if the light stopped but an instant.

Every day I walked through Rome, through this city where I was somehow anonymous. In Florence they saw me, but not as one of them. Here I was neither Italian nor a foreigner. Occasionally, a woman. But usually I was just another of the people who make up Rome and I felt myself part of the city – no more no less than anyone else.

To be continued . . .

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