Monday, January 27, 2014

Roman Summer (1)

In a bleak midwinter almost twenty years ago I decided that I should spend the coming summer in Rome.  I had an illusion of familiarity with the City based on films and books  --  the betoga-ed ancients, the Borgias with their daggers and their poison cups, the Popes riding herd on their unruly artists and scientists, Mussolini on his balcony, the earthy, impoverished denizens of post-war Italian Realism and the beautiful, distracted creatures in Fellini’s films, all swarming together in the picture I carried in my mind of the Eternal City  --  though I had never actually been there.

So I went to the books.  In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, “The state of affairs in Rome beggars description.  You can find there a buying and selling, a bartering and bargaining, a lying and trickery, robbery and stealing, pomp, procuration, knavery and all sorts of stratagems to bring God into contempt, until it would be impossible for the Antichrist to govern more wickedly”.  Closer to our own time and sensibilities, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he remembered Rome “chiefly as the place where Zelda and I had an appalling squabble.”  Whichever Rome I found would be just fine with me.

I probably ought say at this point that  --  as with other of my posts  --  I am extracting material from the journal I kept during my trip.  But unlike my earlier trips, this one had no well-considered purpose.  I was not going to attend a revolution or see a rain forest or look for a tomb or to visit numinous places or search out universal idioms in pre-contact art.  I was not even going consciously to self-romanticize, though of course I would find that quite impossible to avoid.

When I had been in Oaxaca earlier that year and mentioned to the Condessa that I might go to Rome she said that she would arrange for me to meet a famous film director whose movies I had admired, but as I was anything but a film buff I could not imagine what I would say to him, other than perhaps reveal that I had confused some of his work with that of one of his famous competitors and that it would be a waste of both our times for me to bother him, so I didn’t follow up on her kind offer.  (And I had by this time come to realize that the Condessa, a strong-willed woman, also had a tendency to leave a trail of burning bridges behind her, so I could not be completely confident in what sort of reception her introduction might bring me.)

And so I arrived in the Eternal City without a traveling companion to talk sense to me, with no Roman interlocutor or cicerone to explain what I was seeing, and what I would likely find there would be no more than might be expected of a middle aged lawyer who had read spottily, if enthusiastically, in classics and history and religion, adrift and on his own in what he believes to be the most interesting city in the world, even if he sometimes doesn’t like what he finds there.  The result is not unlike that of a medieval pilgrim visiting a distant holy place, who is both inspired and sometimes appalled by what he encounters in the holy city that he has heard of all his life.

My overnight flight from New York brought me bright, fresh and slightly disoriented into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, but I followed the guidebook directions and took a train to Ostiense, then the underground to Cavour and walked two blocks to my hotel, where I went to sleep for a day and a half.  My room at the hotel was cell-like, and the bathroom so narrow that I had to enter sideways, but it had a pleasant generic view of  Rome and a breeze through an open window.  At one point I heard through the haze of sleep a crowd cheering, and imagined that it was the North Italy Fresco Championship, with two muralisti pittore faced off over a vast expanse of wet plaster, crowds cheering as the Sienese favorite lays out great swaths of color, with muscular gods and lusty goddesses, rugged shepherds and compliant shepherdesses.  Of course, it was probably only a soccer game.
    Eventually I wandered out into the hot Italian afternoon.  A sign across the street from the hotel informed me that this was a zone of armed vigilance.  I had no idea what that meant, but I chose to find it reassuring.

On my walk I saw my first Roman cat, large and orange, asleep on a ledge.  The Roman cats are an ancient race, having come from Egypt, probably following the mice in the earliest grain shipments.  They have had in the City a history parallel to the caesars and popes which I am confident is just as interesting, though perhaps without the art and literature and wars.  They are all, I am sure, Borgias at heart, with a stiletto concealed beneath their fur doublet.  I have read that there are perhaps 300,000 free-range cats at large in the city, living in the ruins and fed by doting “cat ladies”.  It has been argued that the medieval practice of burning cats as familiars of witches may have allowed vermin to multiply and increased the severity of the plague.  If this is true, there would seem a certain justice to it.

    While Rome, like most cities, has a modern urban sprawl, the old city is small and compact, a jumble of buildings close together on short streets going in all directions, warrens of little lanes nested between thoroughfares.  There is no point in describing the city, as people have been doing so for twenty seven hundred years and it would probably be impossible for me to say anything new about it.    Another reason is that it turned out to be surprising easy to be negative, for what has been touted as the glory of Rome can equally be criticized as vulgarity, as the Dallas of Italy.  In other parts of the country they claim that the Roman insignia SPQR stands for Sono Porci Questio Romani --  “what pigs those Romans are”.

Another reason for not writing about the modern city  --  and I might as well introduce the idea now as it will make more sense of what follows  --  is that I really didn’t come here to see Rome as it was today.  I was time-traveling again, looking for the place that I had read about in old books.  The modern Italians with their Vespas and cell phones were just so much overburden, to be ignored as I went looking the fabulous city of my imagination.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Something bad in the north of Quiché

It was late afternoon when I got back to the Capital, to my room at the guest house with the large tortoises roaming the hall.  I noticed that the evening air was filled with the pleasant smell of wood smoke.  In a country where the major energy source was firewood, I might expect this in rural areas, but in the Capital as well, just a few blocks from the National Palace?

There were some other Americans at the guesthouse, but I had not much to do with them, as it had always seemed to me that I had come all this distance to see foreigners, not my fellow countrymen whom I could see any time I wanted back home.  I am sure this was not a nuanced attitude, but it was what I did in those days.  I had picked up, though, from casual remarks that many of them were Peace Corps and that the guesthouse was a common stopping place for them, so I wasn’t surprised one afternoon when I got into a conversation with a fellow on his way back to another posting.
          One thing I remember from our conversation is that I asked him if, when he was out in the bush for some long time, he looked forward to getting back home.  He said that of course he did, but it was troublesome for Peace Corps people because after two years of huts and jungles they would return to the world of lawns and station wagons and see the people that they knew, who would be very nice about asking where they had been and what they had been doing, and then move on to other matters, as though he had just been on an interesting vacation and not gone almost two years on what was very close to a life-changing adventure, so that even when they were back home they sought out other Peace Corps people who would understand what the experience had meant to them. As with all my stories, this may reflect a particular point in time and I have since met others back from the field and it is my impression that things may be different today.

When I first thought to tell about this trip I assumed it would be a period piece, a bit of time travel back to the bye-gone days of jack-booted juntas and guerrillas in the forest and all that sort of thing that is now behind us.  And it should  be remembered that this trip took place in the fall of 1986, and the conditions I encountered then may bear little resemblance to whatever a current visitor might find.  The long communist insurrection was winding down  --  though it was far from over  --  and while it was claimed that the death squads had stood down, violence was still common even around the Capital, with lurid details in the morning papers of the bodies discovered overnight.  This was not drug gang violence as we might have today, but political, at least in the beginning, though by that time it was suspected that the robberies and ransoms were as much for the money as for the cause.

In my baggage at the guesthouse I found a Dollar bill stuck in the pages of one of the books I had brought with me and I realized that now it looked odd to me.  At the beginning of the trip, whenever I heard English being spoken I would move on because I wanted to be where English was not spoken, but now it seemed more pleasant to hear the short, familiar cadences of Anglo-Saxon  --  the little words of house and home  --  and I realized that my trip was winding down and I had had enough of being away from my own little world of house and home.

In the last few days before I returned home I wrote notes and made phone calls to thank some of the people who had been helpful to me and in general did end-of-trip sort of things.  I heard a rumor that something bad had happened in the north of Quiché, where I had been told a group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was operating, and when I stopped by the Colonel’s office to thank him for his assistance he handed me an envelope of photographs and said, “Here are your heroic guerrillas”.  (I fear I may have played the devil’s advocate with him in an earlier meeting.)
He said the photographs had been taken three days earlier.  They showed young soldiers  --  they looked to be teenage boys, Indians  --  who had been captured by the guerrillas.  They had been tortured by burning over large areas of their body before being shot in the head. On the back of one boy had been carved with a knife in large letters, “EGP”  --  the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.


I was going through an old file of clippings and correspondence and notes that I had accumulated in preparation for my trip and I found an item from a news magazine with a black and white photograph of bloated bodies along a jungle path, some murder of nameless innocents in a hot country, some effort to teach someone a lesson who would doubtless prove a slow learner, some bloody instruction which when taught would likely return to plague the teacher.  I once worried a great deal about justice, but I do less so now, as it seems that anyone who is ever punished for such things will seldom have been the person who actually did it and the murderers themselves, if they survive, will likely retire on a pension and the dead themselves become sock puppets in some later political drama staged for the purposes of others.  I have the impression that is what has happened in Guatemala since my visit.

The Cold War is over and when it ended it took the air out of these revolutionary struggles and, urgent as their injustices may yet cry out, the attention of the world has moved on, which has had the effect of bringing a sort of peace.