Whoa! Excitement reigns this morning. If today marked mankind’s return to the moon, right about now we’d be starting the countdown. As it is, it’s my return to Italy. By late tonight, I’ll be fidgeting in economy class as we wing our way over the sea. Wish me buon viaggio.
Want to come? I’m traveling alone. I’ve made new friends over there and can’t wait to meet them in person. Ten days in the north, in the company of people I’ll be thrilled to see. But then a train to Rome. Where I know no one. And no one knows me.
I visited Rome for several days, five or six years ago, with my wife and youngest daughter. I promised myself that once I had the time, I’d return–in part just to see the city on my own. Rome can arouse in a person certain resounding echoes of grandeur and mutability that, once loose in the mind, are best given the run of the place. You can write about them later. First, just be.
I had driven to Rome once, for a few days, and flown over it many times, but in memory the train is how I at last arrived. I had the name of a hotel and two or three people; all the rest was unknown. Going by train you seem to become poorer and poorer as you enter the country, shorn of everything language, understanding—you are alone but at the same time a feeling of latent riches begins to form. In this dense and littered landscape there is a new life like a legendary spring to be tasted and to become part of the spirit and flesh. Sacred Italy, yearned for by peoples of the north, colossal, petty, part of all our blood.
Did you hear? To find “a new life like a legendary spring…” I am probably a bit old for that. And a bit too encumbered by all the accumulated trepidations and obligations. But there are few places you can go that will give you a better chance to know life than Rome. So off I go.
Of course, just about anyone who’s ever been anyone in the world of letters has felt the same way. Googling about, you’ll find Roman associations on the part of—among many, many others—Madame de Staël, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Edward de Vere, Bernard Malamud, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, James Joyce (who finished Dubliners there, and began Ulysses), Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain (an innocent abroad at the time), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Goethe, Elizabeth Bowen, Byron, Shelley, and of course, my beloved John Keats.
What do I expect to find in my Italian adventure? With luck, I’ll return the most interesting man in the world. But more likely, something will happen akin to what my father once told me about.
I was eighteen and I’d just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. It blew—as we were wont to say back then—my mind. Somehow I talked my father into seeing it. Dad was not exactly a wild and crazy guy. But he went to see it and he sat through the whole thing—including that roaring 30-minute psychedelic light show through which the lone surviving astronaut from the spaceship Discovery passes on his way to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”
So afterward I said, “What did you think, Dad? What did it all mean?” And he said, “The message is simple, my son: wherever you go, you meet yourself.”
An interesting thing to reflect upon—wise old words your father gave you when he was younger than you are now. But now is when I know he was right. I’m sure that by the time I return from my Italian adventure, I will have met a fellow who goes by my name but with whom I am not yet acquainted.
We’ll run some of my favorite old posts while I’m away. And Ras will be posting new stuff all the time. I’ll see you in a few weeks.
The painting is by Tamara de Lempicka.