Rome is a study in contrasts defined by monumental marble, miniature cars, horse carts, cripples, smokers and saints. A city of nearly three million represented by every race which draws about ten million tourists a year. A city where impeccably dressed men on motor scooters whizz past beggars and where gum spots collect on white marble steps.
From all appearances, nearly everyone smokes in Rome. It isn’t unusual to see a beautifully dressed woman in heels toss her cigarette butt down and crush it with her next step. We noticed that while the cobblestones in Lugano were perfectly chinked, the stones in Rome are sometimes chinked in cigarette butts.
And as is befitting of a tourist town, every fourth shop sells ice cream and sandwiches. Only in Italy, they call it gelato.
Bob and I took the metro to Vatican City this morning, squeezing ourselves into a packed subway car at rush hour, wondering if we would fit before we were followed by another half a dozen passengers. No one squirmed mostly because we were packed too tight to move. And no one complained, perhaps because the crowding was not out of the ordinary. It was at once a very public and quite intimate ride.
Six stops later, the crowd thinning each time the doors opened and closed, we arrived intact. Before entering the Vatican piazza I threw my purse onto the x-ray belt and stepped through the scanner. Bob was on the other side recovering his pocket change and phone.
The piazza was magnificent. Beautifully sculpted saints gazed down at hundreds of plastic chairs set in rows upon the cobblestones below the papal balcony. Every type of attire was represented from diapers to long, flowing habits. A paunchy gentleman wore a white tee shirt with the words “The Beatles” in large black print.
Before entering St. Peters Basillica, women were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Scarf vendors hovered nearby to help them comply. We opted to climb the five hundred or so steps to the dome with the others, some wearing collars and others who held terrified youngsters by the hand.
The views out the narrow windows grew more and more magnificent as we ascended and we noticed that steel bars had been bolted in the middle of the openings, to prevent what we weren’t sure. As the walls grew closer and closer together and finally began to curve to the right, my chest grew tight and children began to cry and beg.
We peered through wire mesh at the main altar, my heart swelling with love for my mother who has been here and loves this world passionately. We thought of our brother, Father Joseph who is at this very moment climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We admired the mosaics, buying a little time before stepping onto the spiral staircase to the balcony.
From up there we couldn’t hear the hiss of the street vendors, couldn’t see the dog walkers, baby strollers or prostrated beggars or smell the air, heavy with sweet sugar and cigarette smoke. Instead we listened to church bells while a fresh breeze vaporized the sweat of our effort. We heard the children murmur in wonder at the view, the parents chucking soft praise. The marble monuments looked like toys, the river like a stream. We drank it all in and then turned and began our descent to the streets of Rome.
Before we knew it we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe watching the street traffic pass us by sharing some gelato while Bob enjoyed a cappuccino and a smoke.