Sunday, April 9, 2017

Rome flashback #1 "There never is a next time"

(From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     My older son is studying at the Pantheon-Sorbonne in Paris this semester (and if you suspect I enjoy saying that, you're darn right). But he's smart enough to take his spring break in the Eternal City. In honor of that, and supporting the idea of breaks from work, whatever your work happens to be, I thought I would join him in spirit and take a breather from rolling this stone up the hill. Though I'm on vacation, we can still tour Italy along with him, if we puff the dust off a few columns from 1999, when I was in Italy myself, after the cruise with my father that turned into "Don't Give Up the Ship." I imagine that you never read these columns or, if you did, you don't remember. Heck, I sure didn't remember these columns and I both lived and wrote them.  Of course, forgetting them might have been protective, some kind of submerged interior defense mechanism. Whatever the ungraspable truth, the great computer in the sky never forgets.

     THE STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR  — Passage through this famous channel was supposed to be a moment of drama -- Europe off the port bow, Africa off the starboard.
     With the strait, at its narrowest, about seven miles wide, we'd have a good look at both continents, simultaneously, plus a gander at the famous Prudential logo . . . excuse me, I mean, the Rock of Gibraltar.
     It didn't work that way. Fog. A morning mist, plus the fact that the strait is sort of like a two-way street, with ships heading into the Mediterranean hugging the coast of Morocco, and ships heading out into the Atlantic sticking close to Spain. We saw the beach resort towns on the Moroccan coast.
     Which is more than what I saw of Gibraltar. No Rock. No Pillars of Hercules. No nothing. I leaned over the rail and gazed hard at the murky horizon and thought: next time.
     There never is a next time, which is what can make traveling so frantic. You find yourself in a new place, somewhere far away you've never been before and are never going back to, and a sort of madness sets in: You feel compelled to see everything; every sight, every monument.
     Travelers reach a point where they aren't relaxing, aren't having fun, but lunging from one requirement to the next, all so they can claim they went there when they get back home — "We saw the Royal Palace and the Art Museum and the Shimmering Monolith and the Deep Gorge..."
     Big whoop. I am of a different school. I believe in going somewhere and sitting there and not doing much of anything, just like the locals do. I was in Barbados for four days late in May. People off the ship were renting cars and visiting caves, touring rum factories, strolling through cigar-rolling plants. They scuba-dived, sailed, fished and signed up for day cruises.
     I sat on the beach. After I had been to one beach twice, passion for novelty overcame me, and I went to a different beach. Big mistake. Rocks. And an oversweet rum punch without any detectable rum in it. Disaster.
     So we bolted back to the original beach. We sat in the same place. We stared at the same aqua waters. It was very restful. Educational, too—Banks beer, the local brew, is good, cold and enjoyable. I never knew that.
     I cannot take full credit. I am learning at the feet of a master. Alone, I might have broken down and actually done something. But I'm with my father, who has a genius for inactivity. For instance, I was weak and felt compelled to swim in the ocean, even though the ocean is wet and salty and inconvenient.
     My father didn't swim. He was never tempted. He has perfected a scowling quick shake of the head that snuffs out any whiff of initiative. "Are you interested in the rum tour?" I asked. "No way," he said, doing the head shake. "I toured a winery in California." I didn't see the connection, but let it go. He's always saying stuff like that. When I suggested seeing the Vatican, he said, "I already saw it." He saw it in 1952.
     I have not yet resigned myself to spending three days in Rome sitting at an outdoor restaurant, writing postcards. I have a plan, at least to see the Vatican. My plan is to tell my father there's a Vatican Square Borders Bookstore; he loves Borders. We'll wander around, looking for it, noting the sights as we pass.
    After an hour, I'll slap my head and say, "Oh gee, I'm sorry. It's not at the Vatican. It's next to the Colosseum." And away we'll go.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times June 22, 1999


  1. Loved Lost at Sea, which started me on a brief foray into father and son literature, making my own internecine wars seem trivial and dull. Thanks, Neil, for keeping us amused in the throes of tragedy.


  2. My wife and I have perfected the notion of going some distance away to do little or nothing by, for the past 10 years or so, spending a few May time weeks at an 'agrotourismo' in rural Tuscany, where we enjoy torturing the locals with our imperfect grasp of their lovely language and our inclination to obey the speed limits. In the first few years we dashed around the countryside visiting historic towns, touring museums and inspecting churches. Now it's mostly mornings spent at the local market acquiring the fixings for breakfast and lunch, the afternoons with a good book, enjoying the soul-soothing views of a countryside that formed the backgrounds of so many old masters and deciding which of the fine, family owned and operated restaurants in the area to visit for a leisurely dinner. I suppose we could find much of the same closer to home, but our apartment is sans television and our Italian not good enough to follow the news in other ways, a therapeutic form of isolation. And we would miss the warm Italian friends we have made. We like to think they would regard our failure to turn up a bad omen, a sign that the grapes won't ripen properly.


  3. A great opportunity for you son to study and travel abroad.


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