Europe Journals - Part IV

Europe Journals
Tim Donlan

Part IV


We got into Rome and started a whirlwind sightseeing tour with
Josh’s Mom. The metro is so packed there are security guards
holding back people from getting on the hot smelly cars. The
orange graffitied trains pull up like some nightmare, choking
full of sweaty heads, arms, legs and conversation.

Some smooth-tongued gypsy cafe owner outside Vatican City majorly
ripped us off. 44 Euros for 3 slices of pizza and 3 drinks!
Ludicrous. We were pissed so skipped the Sistine Chapel and went
to St. Peters Basilica. The outside reminded me of Louvre in
Paris, with tall statue topped walls creating a huge plaza. We
had to wade our way through herds of Japanese tourists though.

St. Peters was very exquisite, though it was surprising to see
such grandeur in worship of church leaders. Instead of crosses
and crucifixes, there were marble statues of popes. During the
height of the Vatican, these figures truly were emperors.
Michelangelo’s Pieta seemed small, milky marble with hints of
ivory brown. A black marble statue of St. Peter was also very
interesting – the erosive force of millions of believers, rubbing
the toes, wore the details away. Peter’s feet were a polished
plateau, as though melted. I added my own appropriate polishing

Light filtering in from the upper windows was also quite
breathtaking. What better spiritual metaphor than the distinct
rays of the sun, slicing a silky sash across gold and marble

The number of allusions to skulls was also somewhat disturbing
– a reminder of the brutal, harsh and morbid times. These
skeletons often held an hourglass, sometimes broken: through the
church – victory over death.

Two sets of massive stone doors also depicted the reality of
these times – saints being crucified, hung, tortured, torn and
cut apart. It was grisly art to see at a place usually adorned
with loving and benign imagery. It was also somewhat
disheartening to realize the church would turn around and use
such violence on infidels during the Inquisition and other bloody

Seeing the Coliseum reminded me of a conversation Josh and I
had earlier. What’s worse – to die in a gladiatorial spectacle,
or be a part of some ugly human experiment ala Joseph Mengle? I
said the industrialized horrific science of the Nazis was far
more disturbing. Josh explained that scientific knowledge gained
gives such experiments “validity” – from a utilitarian
standpoint. But gladiators weren’t forced to die – they survived
on their own merit and reaped glory. In such brutal times, such a
death could be envied. Similar to what soldiers do – sacrifice
their life for the nation – gladiators / sports heroes / matadors
sacrificed themselves gloriously for the crowd.

At night, the Rome streets reminded me of rouges sneaking
around, secret societies and guilds, powerful cardinals – a
setting for some Neal Stephenson type adventure.

It was one last night of drinking with Kaplan in his hotel
room, watching Italian television. We got our wine at a super
cool wine shop opened in 1880. Bottles were dusty, from the 60s,
some hundreds of euros. Some were in cool glass bottles, blown
into the shapes of woman’s heels, tobacco pipes, vases. There was
a series featuring labels of dictators from WWII. The owner was
extremely nice, filling plastic coke bottles up with wine for
only a few euros.

I get back to the hostel at 12:30, tipsy and walking through
the dark streets. My room has nine bunk beds, all filled, split
between two sets. A clan of Japanese backpackers is still up in
the first section, lights on, fiddling with laptops, cameras,
cellphones. The other section, with my bed, is dark and full of
sleeping bodies. I sneak in, toss my stuff in the corner, throw
sheets on the top bunk, and then climb up. I take off my pants
and shirt in bed, but I can tell the bunk is hopelessly flimsy. I
move my arm and the whole things sways like a hammock. Turning
over must be a 7.0 quake for the guy below me, and I’m a light
sleeper, always tossing and turning. The mattress is so creased
in the middle – I feel like a taco.The bed continues to shake and rock as I try to get situated, but
the room is full of stale, sticky heat and sweat drips from my
pores. Plus the Asians are still up, making a racket, flooding
our room with light.Past 1:00, the guy below me must have woken up and had enough. He
gets up, bleary eyed, with a buzzed head and a green soccer
shirt, says nothing but looks at me.
“What’s up,” I say. He replies with silence, instead
reaching up and grabbing the bare flesh of my calf. “What
the fuck?” I think. I realize the shitty bunk has battered
him below. I wonder where the hell this dude is from, to grab my
bare leg. Definitely not American.

“Hey man, this bed sucks, it shakes way too much.” The
guy still says nothing, pleading with bleary eyes. Eventually
lets go of my leg. God damn him.

What did he expect, getting into an 18-person hostel room? I
can’t sleep myself because of the mattress, the Asians, the heat
and the light. Fuck him if he can’t handle being in a swaying,
jittering bed on top of that.

It turns out the bathroom is hideous as well – filthy from being
used by 18 people. That’s what you get, though, for 18 euros in
the center of Rome. At least it has free Internet.

Now that Josh is gone, I can get some more stuff done, move at my
own pace. I’m doing laundry now, which was starting to reek.

Next mission: find cheap grub. If I wanted, I could run over to
the Vatican to watch the pope address the crowds. I only have 15
minutes though, and I doubt my clothes will be dry. He’s just a
senile guy in white robes, giving a hand signal, bolstered by
beautiful architecture from a glorious past.

9/22/04I went to the Sistine chapel and Vatican museum today. Many of
the prior observations I had about the history of Catholicism
were confirmed and strengthened on this journey to the Vatican.
In Notre Dame I was astounded and proud of the power in view,
here I neared disgust.On the way there I once again saw a beggar woman, draped in black
dirty rags, face hidden, only a small plastic cup and prayer
beads in her hands. She was hugging the wall of the Vatican,
repeatedly bowing and praying, all the while prostate before the
countless masses streaming by on the way to tourist attractions.

Here was a woman whose faith has brought her down into the dirt
like vermin, and yet her mind was turned “heavenly.”
She has no chance to exercise her mind, be industrious, do
physical labor, create artistic or clever new things. She isn’t
earning her alms like the glum faced, slick haired Italian kid,
wearing his favorite soccer superstar’s jersey, pumping away at
an accordion. No, she is humping a wall.

From this standpoint, religion has crippled her as a human being.
I can say nothing of her spiritual life. The memeset of
Christianity plugged into her personality matrix and rendered a
subservient worm.

And from what I saw in the Vatican, such a constituent would make
a fine peon to build an Empire. And that’s exactly what the
Vatican was, with the Pope a pseudo deity, sinless and
infallible, the highest link in the chain of communication with

Like St. Peters, room after room was sanctioned and sponsored by
Popes. It’s like giving money to a University to build something.
Sure you gave back to the institution, but you got your name set
in stone on something permanent.

The permanence attained by the popes in the Vatican is

Many pieces of artwork struck me as being politically motivated,
rather than spiritual. A massive piece by Raphael, depicting
countless priests, bishops, nobles, dignitaries and the Pope,
with a heavenly host singing above. The pope had an innocent
face, staring upwards. But many of the other VIPs revealed
jealousy, boredom or downright maliciousness.

In a hall of tapestries, half depicted the tales of Christ, from
the Christmas story to the crucifixion and resurrection. The
other side showed popes making political moves, besting rivals,
constructing additions to Vatican City and Rome.

The longest hall in the Museum was lined with glorious maps of
Italy. Great Naval battles were illustrated, certainly a
strategic resource for so wide an Empire.

Another interesting Raphael piece was that of a gleaming haloed
cross in an empty hall, the shattered remains of a Roman statue
before it.

Yet another masterpiece by the sai wielding ninja turtle showed
Constantine in battle, slaying a pagan king, and thereby
christening the Holy Roman Empire.

What would humble Jesus think, or even the disciples, if they
realized they would not overthrow Rome, but become a new Roman

In the winding passageways and deep stairwells on the way to the
Sistine chapel, lots of art was displayed, from Renaissance to
contemporary eras and styles.

There were some very beautiful and intricate bronze statues,
including a massive ball / globe that appeared to be made of
interlocking gears. The entire thing revolved like a globe, and a
tour guide even referred to it as a death star. I would have liked
to see the inner gears churn, because I think the intricate
workings of such machinery is beauty on the level of art.

There was another bronze piece titled the Tower of Babel –
about eight feet high. The crusty details and unsymmetrical
chaotic style truly captured the evil and malcontent hinted at in
the story.

Some of the abstract art was especially stunning, because of the
use of stark colors and strong themes. Renaissance art is often
painted with a dark palette. When pastels are used it looks odd
and unrealistic – such as the sky in the Sistine chapel. One
chilling painting used reds, greens and purples in a Pablo
Picasso style to show the crucifixion. The cross itself was
composed of many rectangular blocks, giving it a blending look.
Because of the methods of the abstract painting style, it became
difficult to determine where one entity began and another ended
The disassembly of reality created a new poignant interpretation
of the crucifixion event.

Another revealing painting used blues and blacks to show a cross,
but not of wood. This cross was mechanized like a war machine,
with metal gears and spokes, engine pistons and rifle barrels. It
would have been especially powerful in the 1960s, showing how the
implements of destruction had shifted, but the central meaning

The actual Sistine Chapel, I guess, was underwhelming. A few
thousand tired gawkers chattering away on cell phones and
snapping pictures, negated much of the awe factor. I tried to
imagine being Pope Sistus upon completion, slowly rising up the
stairs, robes flowing, to meet an exhausted Michelangelo, paint
in his beard. I tried to imagine the silence, the height and
enormity of the project, the grandeur and the sacrifice of a
genius artist. The Last Judgment – a supernatural battle between
the forces of heaven and hell for the souls of mankind – seemed
exactly the kind of challenge the church empire would want to

I’m sure the Pope felt smug in his robes, picking out an
especially lucky saint basking on some cloud with harp strumming
angels to represent himself. The uncleansed masses would need his
guidance, yes, and some even would be dragged down to the depths
by demons and snake clad Lucifer.

Europeans espouse traditions because their heritage is so
glaringly large, it’s impossible to ignore. In colonial states,
like America and Australia, history is only a handful of
centuries long, not millennia. The dominant architecture and
infrastructure in America was made this century.

In Rome, the exquisite antique stores selling gold and ivory
oriental imports are nestled in dark windy passages. The same
place they’ve been for hundreds of years. The plazas commissioned
in wheneverthefuck B.C. are still booming with business, bustling
with gelatarias, restaurants, art and food stands, and tourist
trinkets. Even new ventures like McDonalds have marble facades
and Corinthian columns.

Rome is a city that is “done” in a sense very different
from Atlanta, or even New York. America is always under
construction; Europe is under renovation. They don’t start from
scratch; they adapt and incorporate.

I think this “enduring” factor gives the inhabitants a
healthy dose of humility. On the streaming highways of America,
pounding the concrete in my car with my music, I have no sense of
my own insignificance. I am King of my own universe, in a world
of strip malls, Cineplex’s and billboards.

In Rome, I take one look at an eroded statue or archway, and I
realize almost everyone who made this place is now dead and gone.

So what do you do, in this place of grand traditions? Be
contented to do the same as has been done before you. Take up
father’s business. Cheer for the same football teams. Happy and
complacent with a small place in the world, because grandeur has
been done, and you’ll never match it.

The thing about Rome is that every possible square inch has
been grabbed up by a building. It’s difficult to find parks.
Eventually, I stumbled upon one and made myself some dinner. It’s
been tough to stay cheap, especially without a kitchen. I have a
bag full of rice, ramen and soup that are useless to me. One more
day in Rome, a day in Venice and I am through with Italy. I’ll be
heading north, to Austria and Germany next.I need to write a short story while over here. My reading
material is dwindling and I’ve got 12 days left. Yowzers.Anyway, its dark in the park and the moon is shining. Time to
drink. So many cigarettes with Josh has given me an asthmatic
cough. Fuck that and fuck cigarettes.

9/23/04My last day in Rome. I ignored the sights and turned within. I
bought Heart of Darkness, a shitty pen and a notebook. I sat
around the hotel, read a few dozen pages, and churned out a half
decent story. The hard thing about this city is there are two
places to sit down comfortable and eat, read or write in a mile
radius of my hotel. Hell, I had to walk 15 minutes to the park
yesterday.I’m still in recovery physically from the time spent with Josh. I
damaged my respiratory, digestive and dermatological systems.
Only now am I feeling better about it. Bad food, cigarettes and
salt water.

Anyway, tomorrow I go to Venice, then Innsbruck.

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