Rome, Italy. When I think about Rome, the modern realities fade away and it becomes the mythical city I used to read about in history and story books. It's the home of the Etruscans and Latins and Sabines, the capital of the empire, the center of Renaissance art, the seat of the Catholic Church, and a birthplace of Western civilization. Rome in thought is a place where stories come to life and religion walks around in robes by magnificent cathedrals.
Memories of my first visit to Rome are much the same. The city seemed larger than life then, full of imposing walls, streets made of old stone, and people speaking in a beautiful language I couldn't understand. So different from Midwest America and so much more like the setting of a fairytale, I remembered a place that was big and frightening, but enthralling in its intensity.
This Wednesday, Rome is exciting and frenetic, but nearly twenty years later it feels a bit more like any other European city. That's not to say it's unimpressive, but it is no longer a thing robed in magic. I'm more aware of the foreign tourists, the tacky gift shops full of sparkling objects and plastic souvenirs, the pseudo-Italian eateries with English language menus, the touts with fake designer handbags, and the people speaking in tongues; every other word is German or Dutch or Japanese or Hindi.
The popular circuit from Fontana di Trevi to Piazza di Spagna to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is clogged with tourists and their cameras, taking photos like paparazzi as if the monuments could duck down into private limousines at any moment. Vatican City, the place that was especially important to me as a child, is filled with people interested in the physical structures rather than the apostolic ones. The white line around the Vatican, made famous in films like Scarlet in the Black, is now the line where mega buses unload drowsy groups of "pilgrims."
I suppose there are good things about this new Rome as well. The coffee bars are still authentic and plentiful, and the tartufo and spaghetti pomodoro taste wonderful if you know the right places. The monuments and remnants of ancient Rome are as grand as ever, and one can recall the Rome of the imagination while walking down the yellow-lit back alleys at night. Cities are dirty and loud and the empires and religions of the past were brutal and power-hungry. There's no sense in looking for fairy tales or glorifying the past when you can enjoy the imperfect present. This Wednesday, Rome is a scorching hot reality that I'm very much enjoying.