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When I visited the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican one week ago today, there were crowds of people flowing through the predetermined route in and out of the space. As the floor filled in with hundreds of people milling around with heads turned up to the ceiling, voices joined together and the volume in the room went from ambient to a dull roar. Two uniformed guards were posted on top of a dias roped off at one end of the Chapel, watching the crowd for misbehavior from that elevated position. As the decibel level rose, a very unexpected thing happened. The guards let out a loud and assertive SSSHHHHH over the heads of the crowd. Instantly, like a well trained kindergarten, voices from around the world dropped to a hushed whisper. Instantly! This happened abou four times while I was in the room. Fascinating!

The frescoes were gorgeous, by the way.

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Skin is a large but delicate organ. Still, for every unfortunate attack by the external world, it usually hollers back with admirable alacrity, healing quickly though not always neatly.

Air travel always screws up my skin. The dryness of the air in the plane turns my face into paper, and then after lathering moisturizer on it for 12 hours, I usually have an adolescent-like breakout of middle-aged acne. yikes. This trip to Rome was no different, and today, 3 days after returning home, I’m still healing the vestiges of what looks like hormonal activity but is really just travel side effects.

In addition to facial blemishes, I came home with a bonafide scar: on her first day of school, Grace (my 15 year old daughter) asked me to iron her hair with the clothes iron. Her straightener had crapped out – a victim to electrical current changes in Italy – and the flat iron was her solution. I agreed, with some trepidation and a bad thought of her standing up with half her hair burned off. But it seemed to go pretty well until the moment the inside of my left arm touched the edge of the iron. The burn is up high enough toward my elbow that it doesn’t look like a suicide attempt; still, it’s visible, red and a bit puffy, and today for the first time, scabby. ick. Guess I’ll never be forgetting Grace’s first day of school in Rome. It’s branded onto me, a slash across the arm to remind me that all things move into the next level in due time. And that I should never again use an iron to straighten hair.

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OK, let’s face it: my intention was to keep a sort of travelogue on this site, a diary of experiences that would be fresh and descriptive while I was journeying. And I missed the window of opportunity. I didn’t have the discipline, just didn’t feel like it. I was too busy living the experience to take time to write about it. And now, frankly, I have little motivation to lay it all out post-trip.

I have my mementos so that I’ll remember what I did on this adventure to Rome (ticket stubs, brochures, photos) and I feel sure that the trip will bubble up in all sorts of ways in the course of time. Where they bubble up will be the interesting part, I think, a continuation of the threads that started last week. That’s the interweave that makes meaning. It’s just a little overwhelming to even begin to document the whole thing now, after the fact. A bit boring, in fact.

I did have some details I started to write on the plane home that I’ll share (below), about my first day in Rome, but other than that I’m going to just say that it was a great trip, mission (to see my daughter securely settled in her first week at school) accomplished beautifully – she is thrilled with her new school!; that I loved Rome and will be happy to return; and that I am greatly enriched by the history and beauty I explored there.

I must have been exhausted when I wrote the previous entry titled flesh and good fortune – I can’t even remember what the title was supposed to mean now, and I didn’t write far enough into the piece to make it clear to anyone else either. oh well. Here’s the bit I wrote on the plane:

We were just walking down the street a block and a half from the apartment when we came upon the Pantheon from behind, and I was stunned by both its proximity to home and by the sheer size of the dome. The current building dates from 100 a.d. during the Roman Empire, and was dedicated to all the gods (pan theon) as a secular shrine. In 609 a.d. it became the first temple in Rome to be christianized.

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The plaza outside is filled with tourists milling about, resting on the fountain, and following tour leaders who hold raised flags or umbrellas or signs. A few street vendors, beggars, and guys dressed up as gladiators are also there at all times of the day and night. You can simply stroll into the massive shrine casually – there’s no entrance fee or line.

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Inside, the space is breathtaking. The height and diameter of the space is equal: 43.3m. The dome is the largest masonry vault ever built, and exceeds the dome on St. Peter’s by more than a full meter. The interior is filled with light that comes in the 9m wide opening at the top of the dome. The coffers in the ceiling are thought to have been decorated with gilded bronze rosettes. It is spectacular.

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This is one of the last photos of Grace she allowed me to take. Both she and Robert share an extreme aversion to having their photos taken, which means that most of my photos are not populated by anyone I know, except for me in a couple instances. Out of 230 photos, I think I got them in maybe 5 or so, enough to prove that I really was visiting them!

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I haven’t seen so many nuns in full dress since I was in parochial grade school. It was interesting to see them all over the city, in many cases walking hand in hand, sometimes riding bikes, sometimes running to their destination. There were nuns from all over the world. I had sort of forgotten they still existed, and it brought to mind lots of good memories from my catholic girlhood.

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We walked to the Trevi Fountain, an immense 18th century work that features Neptune on a winged chariot pulled by marine horses (hippocampi) – you’ve seen this fountain a million times in different movies, and it was interesting to see it in person because the square is actually quite small. The aquaduct that feeds this fountain also feeds several others in town, and was built by Agrippa in 19 b.c. to bring water to his baths near the Pantheon. The water comes from a spring 20 km east of the city. Interestingly, the central hall of the Baths of Agrippa was characterized by a huge curved wall, and Robert’s apartment was built nestled in the curve of the ancient remains of that wall. From his terrace, you can clearly see the curved structure embedded in the walls. Cool.

We saw the Spanish Steps, and then came upon a modern building that houses the Ara Pacis, a monumental altar from 13 b.c. that commemorates the era of peace and prosperity won by the emperor Augustus. Every year on his birthday, September 23, they held a huge celebration with animals used for sacrificial rites. Drains at the base of the structure allowed the blood, and the water used to rinse it, to run off. The carvings around the altar are beautiful, and I especially like the way they used drawings to unobtrusively convey the parts of the bas relief that are missing.

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In a strange juxtaposition, another exhibit housed in this building is a celebration of the life work of fashion designer Valentino: beautiful textiles and innovative design. Mmmmmm. His work is fabulous, and the display did it justice. The dresses hang like butterflies in a case, or paintings in a gallery, and every one is different and beautiful.

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Tomorrow I return from my trip to Rome, but I’ve only told about my arrival a week ago. Hmm. Maybe in-between doesn’t need to be told in the tiny detail I had envisioned. I would sorely love (I love that expression) to give it all up before my return, and so, with 8.5 hours to go before departure, here I go, with no photos at all unitl later:

Sunday, after arrival: weary and jetlagged, and determined to stay awake until a decent sleeping hour, we set out on foot (as one usually goes) across Rome. An obelisk atop an elephant by the amazing Bernini (a fitting start), followed by the Pantheon, ancient architectural wonder just a block and a half down the street; street walkers in Gladiator costumes; the famous Trevi fountain; and a really interesting juxtaposition of the current and ancient at the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace). The museum is currently featuring a retro show of fashion designer Valentino’s amazing life’s work -as much sculpture as clothing- and the sacrificial altar dating from 13 b.c. that celebrated the peace brought to the Roman people by Roman emperor Augustus. Every year on September 23, his birthday, a huge ceremony was held to celebrate peace and prosperity.

I love that quote from Gertrude Stein. It’s so Gertrude Steinish.

I’ve had a harder time sitting down to write a post during this week in Rome than I imagined I might have. Things have been happening fast and furiously on so many different levels, and here in the ancient city they seem to twist and intertwine so that trying to verbalize the experience in any meaningful way falls short, flat, and winds up in the “draft” bin with a slim hope for salvation later (next week? next year?).

But as Gertrude suggests, I believe I should simply dig in and start somewhere, anywhere. The beginning might be nice. The internet is a packet-oriented place, so I’ll do these in little packets, short bits, single threads. I’ll think of it as serving up snacks instead of intimidating meals. A sandwich ziplock is so much easier to fill than a gallon freezer bag…And then I can leave the delicate process of intertwining to later, maybe in my dreams.

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out the window en route: mountains poke through the clouds

So, to begin, I arrived on Sunday morning and Robert and Grace greeted me. The flight was fine. Two babies screamed in concert nearly the entire way, but I had my iPod, and besides, that sound doesn’t really bother me when I know I’m not the responsible party. My seat partner was a wonderful 78 year old woman named Grace, coincidentally, who is from Providence RI too. Her story is interesting and lovely. Nine years ago a friend convinced her to sign up for a discounted tour to Italy. She’d never been, and thought it would be nice to see the country of her grandparents. She left the tour with her friend for a day to go to the small village in Sicily where they had lived, and inquired about the family at the local police department. The officer got on the phone, and dialed a number, speaking to a man named Paolo. Grace said “That’s my cousin! Tell him that our grandfather fell out of a cherry tree and broke his neck. He’ll know it’s the right family…” In 5 minutes, a car pulled up and the entire family was there to take them back to the family home. Paolo told her they were heartbroken to lose contact with the American family after the grandfather died. And now she goes to stay for an entire month every year, and they just love each other, all these people in their 70’s. Of course I love reading it from all different angles- a story like this is sure to have its twists and turns. But this is the way she told it to me. After nursing her husband and then her son through cancer, she became a hospice worker, so that was another source of common experience. Quite a vibrant woman, and wonderful to share the ride with.

Grace and Robert and I took a cab back to the apartment, and the ride into the city was wonderful. My immediate impression was that there was more space than I thought there would be – the wide avenues were unexpected. And the trees were very Dr. Seussish. Photos of them later…

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clearly she’s happy to see me!

The apartment is on a tiny side street, cobblestoned like the rest of the city in basalt squares. On the front of the building is a strange sort of altar thing with a beautiful image of the blessed virgin and child, candles, flowers, and it does feel like a blessing upon the place.

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sampietrini, the cobblestones made of basalt, the commonest type of solidified lava. the material came from caves on the appian way, in the city’s southeast outskirts, where lava had arrived from craters in the nearby castelli area about 280,000 years earlier. ancient roads used much larger stones, but these small versions were used in the 16th century to pave st. peter’s square. the name means “small st. peter’s”, and the smaller stones were favored for use throughout the rest of the city.

I made it! After a fairly simple journey here, I arrived at 8:15 on Sunday morning. Robert and Grace were at the airport to meet me, and I had my first glimpse of Rome as a sort of blur from the back seat of the taxi. I expected small, winding, cobblestoned streets, and was surprised at the width of some of the big avenues, with their huge expanse of roadway, tall trees, and sunny atmosphere. The weather is fabulous, hot sun, fairly strong breeze keeping temps down, and clear as a bell. We got to the house, which is fabulous. It was wonderful to see my girl again, and her dad. I’ll let the photos do some talking tonight as I’m so sleepy right now, and later in the week I’ll fill in with specific stories.

Today is cleaning and chaos and closure as I get ready for my departure tomorrow. I’ll arrive on Sunday morning to hug my Grace and her dad who is still my close friend. Her adventure this week will be to start school, mine will be to discover Rome and the surrounding areas. On Friday, Grace and I will hop on the train after school and head to Umbria, to a small town called Orvieto. I have a one night reservation at a nice hotel in the heart of the old city, and we’ll have some mom and daughter time together which will be really nice, I think. I may write more entries during my travels, or I may not. I’m just going to do whatever the heck I feel like doing, so there! Ciao, cari lettori!

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orvieto, 60 miles north of rome

I’m sure it would be nice for my readers if I gave an eloquent chronological reflection of the past week, but somehow time just doesn’t seem to be the organizing factor in these thoughts. So I’ll be jumping around a bit, and just hoping that there’s some sense to all of it.

On Saturday Jack and I drove a loaded car to UConn and carried all his stuff up 6 flights of stairs. Here’s a picture of him and his roommate, a really nice nursing student named Larry:

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The grimace on Jack’s face sort of sums up the morning – though everything went well, and in fact the big guys carried the really heavy stuff, it was hotter than a sauna and Jack hates that. Shirts were off after the first climb up the stairs (their shirts, not mine…), and I said my goodbyes at about noon after the sherpas had reached the summit with all the bags, lamps, stereos, etc.

After leaving my big guy, I drove on down through Connecticut for a rendezvous at a hotdog stand. The highlight of the drive, besides the AC in my car, was going over the Frog Bridge in Willamantic. I felt like I was in The Wind in the Willows, or a Beatrix Potter illustration.

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Look at that dangling leg! Very cool. Here’s the history:

The “Battle of Frog Pond” was an incident in 1756 around the time of the French and Indian War. The citizens of Windham (Willimantic is located in Windham township) were awakened in the middle of the night by a tremendously frightening racket just outside of town. Assuming the worst, they seized their arms and prepared for the impending Indian attack. When morning arrived, the armed villagers marched in the direction of the noise only to discover that the nearby pond had dried up, and the area was littered with hundreds of dead bullfrogs. The frogs that still lived were heading to the Willimantic River in search of water. Thus, the fearsome sounds that had plagued the citizenry the previous night had not been Indians but rather bullfrogs “fighting” for water. The pond was renamed Frog Pond, the story spread throughout the towns and colonies, and the legend was born. The story is apocryphal, and most likely well embellished by local color. Nevertheless, the town has recently erected a Frog Bridge to commemorate the incident, featuring frogs atop spools of thread. Giant sculptures of frogs atop spools of thread adorn a bridge next to the mill. The thread spools are included in the bridge’s design because Willimantic was, at one time, known as “Thread City.” The American Thread Company had a mill in Willimantic on the banks of the Willimantic River, and was at one time the largest employer in the state as well as one of the largest producers of thread in the world.

The town of Willimantic has now given the four frogs official names. They are now Willy, Manny, Windy and Swifty. The names Willy and Manny combine for Willimantic. Windy is for Windham. Swifty is a reference to Willimantic, which is Algonquin for “the land of the swift running water.

After a hotdog break, John and I went to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, where I forgot to take any photos at all. Great story of life there, great stories about life written there. I enjoyed it thoroughly. One of the best things was the way Twain reflected on the spirit of the house, words that express what I want to feel in my home:

“To us our house was not unsentient matter—it had a heart & a soul & eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, & lived in its grace & in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up & speak out its eloquent welcome—& we could not enter it unmoved.”

I love that…

Now I’ll jump over the ocean to comment on daughter Gracie. She’s been hot, bored, and lonely, but roused herself from lassitude to get to the AC in the local museums. I can only hope their heat breaks by Sunday morning when I arrive at the aeroporto di Fiumicino because I don’t think the appartemento needs another heat source (me) when it’s already 100.

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classic! thanks for the great photo, r.

Not too badly out of sequence after all, not too reflective either. Some days, it’s “nothing but the facts, ma’am” with a web of thinking and feeling to follow. My house is quiet like a well trained dog this week, patiently waiting for the next command. I have that feeling you get when you dive into cool clear water and find yourself relatively weightless. There’s no resistance here, very little friction, with just one body moving through the last 24 hours. It’s peaceful, smooth, clear. Mmmmh.

I think she’s starting to get that sophisticated euro look. What a gal, my daughter Grace. It’s been an up and down week for her as she adjusts to the time, the climate, the language, and the urban environment of Rome, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do – looks like she’s got that down at the ristorante.

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So she’s gone. I drove Grace and Robert to Logan yesterday afternoon for the Alitalia flight. All baggage was within the weight limit (no small feat there!) and getting boarding passes was a pretty simple process, all things considered. I’m not going into much reflection here about the emotional aspect of saying goodbye to them; I guess that’s still sinking in, and hasn’t quite hit the verbal stage yet. But it was happy and sad all at the same time, as you might expect. As my dad says, I felt like I had a little piece of hamburger caught in my throat most of the day.

Robert did a great job of getting everything in order for her move: visas complete, student id, all the required missives for the overseas residency. It took enormous energy and organization to achieve all that with the barriers of foreign language and culture, but it paid off yesterday for sure. His email this morning said,

“Made it here safe and sound. Grace is asleep, very tired. We took a walk around the neighborhood, bought her cell phone as well as 25Euros worth of time, picked up bus passes for the two of us and have just been settling in.”

So it looks like they’re getting everything in order pronto.

I was so proud of Grace at the airport, looking mature and anxious to get going, on to the next thing. When it finally came time to hug goodbye I watched her back, then her head, then just the top of her head move away through the crowd til it was gone. Usually kids sort of slip away into time with friends, then time at college. This felt like a big goodbye, a real landmark. Here are a few photos:

Some pensive reflection while waiting for luggage to clear:
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Same for Robert:
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Some fun and banter in line:
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One last blurry photo of Grace and me:
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