Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Sixth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

Woody Allen’s 2012 film, “To Rome with Love,” received middling reviews, but as with so many other cinematic excursions coming before and since, it is impossible to fault the director’s choice of inspired locales.

Forget the plot and cast. They’re disposable, because the Eternal City is sumptuously depicted. Food is ubiquitous, and wine pours freely in almost every scene. We all can be forgiven for wanting to pack our bags, chuck the daily grind and go frolic by the steps and fountains.

Rome was an essential destination for me in 1985. Indeed, it was intended quite consciously as a “greatest hits” urban tour, with periodic interludes in smaller cities, though largely without countryside idylls. These happened later. In fact, I came from a countryside, and in many respects, the whole point of the trip was to test the emerging theory that at heart, I belonged in populated areas.

Already I’d visited Athens and Istanbul, now Rome. Mine were revelatory days in the Italian capital, one after the next, with neither cable news nor the far-off Internet to so much as dare suggest a direct connection between my daily experiences in Rome with the larger world outside, although I confess to sneaking an occasional peak at headlines from the newspaper kiosks. I was becoming adept at thumbing through the papers just long enough to get the stories I wanted, before being chased by annoyed proprietors.

There was a long walk along the Appian Way, nimbly dodging screaming sports, motorcycles and picnicking families while examining the formless remains of the tombs of important, and forgotten, Roman patricians, politicians and magnates.

There was laundry fluttering in the breeze from the windows of post-WW II housing blocks, a descent into the catacombs, and roast pork sandwiches from the little closet-sized eatery down the block, which roasted a whole pig out back every single day.

There were odd 2/3 liter bottles of bland beer for roughly 50 cents, a subway ride to Benito Mussolini’s EUR (a 1930s-era planned suburban and business area south of the city). There was bready, delicious pizza brushed with oil and baked with herbs. There were more architectural styles, churches and domes than anyone could remember, and in short, there was a sensory overload unlike anything for which the life and times of Southern Indiana might provide remotely adequate preparation.

I was wary and mostly sober, but enamored. As in Greece, and during the remainder of the journey to come, the bulk of my days in Rome were spent wandering the streets, profoundly dazed, desperately trying to absorb as much as possible on a trip viewed from the outset as surely my only chance to see Europe before returning home and acquiring some form of a productive life – and, of course, not until much later realizing that such an acquisition was purely optional, and lives could be framed in the manner suited to the individual.

Happily, with some effort and forethought, my budget did not preclude a decent quality of life in Rome. Even better, many high points were absolutely free, as when I wandered into a church one Sunday, and a city fairly swooned.

Trust me: It was completely accidental. But before all of that, I had to get there.


While my Eurail Pass covered the cost of getting from Greece to Italy, it was a time-consuming effort. The ferry trip itself took the better part of a day, and was noteworthy for landfall on Corfu and my first glimpse of the mysterious Albanian shoreline opposite the Greek island.

On ship, I was intrigued by a 60-something, intrepid, backpacking American couple from Chicago named Butz, a name I recall solely because it also belonged to an ill-fated secretary of agriculture who resigned in disgrace in 1976 after inopportunely uttering racial humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Butz debarked at Corfu, and when progress continued toward Italy, so did the on-board festivities, because these long, sun-baked hours were being shared with thirsty backpacking Aussies and Germans, all of us cross-legged in the ocean breeze on the ferry’s peanut gallery of a deck.

With little to offer in any advanced cultural sense, I instead taught them how to play the familiar Hoosier drinking game called Drachma Bounce, using a metal camp cup and alternating portions of Retsina and Ouzo either as penalty for winning, or reward for losing.

Late that afternoon, slightly altered, we arrived at the Italian port of Brindisi. Exiting the boat, a dockside café provided the convenient pretext to commence a lifelong love affair with garlic-laden clam sauce over pasta, as accompanied by passable draft beer.

Then, walking to the train station, I passed a doorway guarded by an improbably tall black man, who took stock of my appearance and addressed me in perfect American.

Disorientation must have been evident, although he just laughed heartily and offered the back story: College basketball back in the States (Oklahoma State? Tulsa?), before accepting an offer to join Brindisi’s team in the Italian league. His name is lost to me now, though at the time, I recognized it and subsequently confirmed his story.

No couchettes were available on the overnight train to Rome, and so “sleep” was napping upright in a seat, sardine-like, amid fellow travelers. Such was my level of fatigue that I actually slept a bit, awakening at dawn just in time to glimpse Montecassino Abbey, as rebuilt on its mountaintop after being completely destroyed in the famous World War II battle of attrition.


Arriving early at Rome’s Termini station, I hit the ground running toward one of the $25-A-Day book’s suggested budget pensions – not low rent retirement stipends, but small family-run hotels, usually located upstairs in urban residential blocks. The first one was booked, but the second had a vacancy. It was four flights up on a Thursday morning, and I settled in for a five-day stay. By Friday, I was a sidewalk café veteran, nursing Nastro Azurro lagers and watching the girls go by.

At some point, a question arose: What’s an underfunded atheist to do on a Sunday morning in Rome, when so many tourist attractions are closed? The lightbulb fired on Saturday morning during my Appian Way stroll. On Sunday, people go to church -- right?

What’s more, being in Rome meant not having to settle for a lowly chapel somewhere in the suburbs, because the Yankee Stadium of organized religion was right there in the middle of the venerable city: St. Peters Basilica. Sunday morning would entail a pilgrimage to the Vatican, and mass at St. Peters.

Quite literally, it was time to don my cleanest dirty shirt.


I tiptoed away from my pension before the rolls, jam, butter and coffee came out to the communal table. It was a pleasant, albeit weirdly quiet walk to Termini, where I stopped for espresso and a pastry and boarded the subway, eventually hopping off a few blocks away from the Vatican.

There were plenty of people moving in ragged columns down the sidewalks, passing the occasional loose-footed vendor of souvenirs, novelties and artifacts. I merely followed the crowd into the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square, feeling overwhelmed to see for the first time the mountainous grandeur of the cathedral and numerous other historic structures ringing the piazza.

Then it hit me: It wasn’t so much the architecture as the throng. There must have been a couple of thousand visitors milling around, and most of them were queuing into a series of crowd control stanchions intended to impose some degree of order on the situation. It looked as though everyone in Rome intended to attend mass at St. Peter’s.

Would an earnest young unbeliever like me even be permitted inside? Would they be able to tell that I was pagan? Would there be a litmus test?

Striking what I imagined as a pious pose, I readily observed that at least the lines were moving steadily forward. It was a huge building, after all, one meant to accommodate Catholics from all over the world, many of whom were about to experience the very highlight of their lives. As a matter of principle, I shuffled headlong into the scrum, because there was no reason why I couldn’t pretend to be one of them.

The attendants were patient and friendly. At regular intervals deep within the labyrinth, someone would greet me in a variety of languages, from Croat to Tagalong, and ask whether I had a ticket. I’d specify English, smile, apologize for my negligence, and be told that it was okay, just go this or that way, and follow the next worker’s directions.

These diversions routed me inexorably toward the right, followed by a big left turn into an immense doorway on the side of St. Peters, and when the dust settled I was told to take a seat in the club-level pews behind the altar. Evidently my disguise had worked, and I relished my role as faux pilgrim for a day.

Meanwhile, it was standing room only inside St. Peter’s, and the atmosphere didn’t seem very sacred at all. The expectant, edgy vibe was not unlike a football stadium just prior to kickoff, with nervous energy and mounting excitement. Having had little experience with religious ecstasy, I surmised that perhaps a dosage of peyote would have helped to properly align my consciousness

I’d brought along the trusty workhorse camera, a fully manual Pentax, but left the flash apparatus back in the room. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the solemn premise of the church service, and so it shocked me when suddenly, hundreds of flashbulbs started popping. Heads tilted and turned, and I saw a nun clambering onto the shoulders of another nun, hugging a stone column and snapping photos with a snazzy automatic. Inexplicably, Sunday mass at St. Peter’s had morphed into a rock and roll show.

Finally, I saw the precise reason for the bedlam.

Advancing slowly down the aisle, no more than 20 feet away from my assigned seat, walked the Pope himself -- John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyła – amid universal clamor and unrestrained adoration, throughout which perhaps the sole prim and proper person in the whole holy joint was me … the Hoosier heretic!

And so it was that I went to mass in Rome with the Pope, and he wasn’t to be found in Guido Sarducci’s renowned pizza pie -- or, for that matter, Woody Allen’s.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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