Published: December 10th 2009August 4th 1997
August 4, 1997
Gone. While gnawing on my crusty loaf, I looked and looked but could not find her. Like me, I knew she was leaving today. Did I sleep in? Did I wake too early? My pack was ready and lying in the courtyard. Yet, even after I filled up on crumbs, I did not leave. Instead, I mulled around, surveying the guests as they came and went. To no avail. She did not come. Quite unfortunate. Sure, I ran into the three amigo’s….Alex the Scot, Auzzie Adam and Eric the Half-bee. They were always around. Easy to spot. But, I didn’t find her. Drat. Leaving Florence, my pack carried no new trinkets, no new t-shirts, nothing other than a hefty credit card receipt and the memory of a really fantastic day recorded in fresh ink scribbled on some pages in my book.
Akin to my entry, I was again surrounded by fellow travellers as I walked back down the dusty lane. Alex the Scot joined me in our return trek. This walk was different. I looked back on several occasions, hoping to capture the distant glimpse of her familiar face. Nothing. Nothing but the marks left in the dust...my feet dragging a bit more than usual as we walked back down that meandering lane.
After some cursory research, I understand that about 400 years ago my family was cold, wet and huddled in a mud and stone hut on an island just off the coast of western Scotland. My home was called Lios Moir...aka Lismore. Prior to that, I guess-ume they first migrated from a village in Northern Germany or subsisted under some other pile of rocks somewhere in Norway. Being a romantic, I like the Viking story better. Around 1300, the first Carmichael climbed aboard a rowboat and took his seat besides one or all of his clansmen. A brisk biting wind was only dampened by the elk skin cloak worn over his woollen shirt and pants. Sitting down, he looked back one last time at the crowd of women-folk gathered, huddling together along the shoreline. They came to bid farewell to their young warriors. It would be their last goodbye. The adventurous young lad adjusted his iron helmet, tucked his treasured family axe under his spot on the bench and with 50 others, pulled out to sea. The objective; to ransack any and all villages they were lucky enough to encounter.
Their rowboat rounded the northern coast of Scotland drifted past some islands and after a seemingly endless journey, finally struck sand. They probably landed somewhere in one of the islands off the coast of Scotland. The stout, long-haired menace grabbed his axe and went on a rampage. Gold, food, weapons, metal, women...it was amazing what an axe would buy back in those days. Arms filled with his booty, the shivering young Carmichael returned to the boat, looked out on the sea and realized that it was bloody cold out there. A pre-invention light-bulb (probably a small candle or mini-torch) appeared over his head. He thought...”Hmmm....that poor hag who lived with the ex-Angle (whose skull he just bi-sected) was a scared, distraught, warm and now single young vixen.” Methinks young Master Carmichael quickly discovered that his scraggly wench provided him with a hospitable respite from a long journey back to his windswept village far away. My point? In my family history there were probably only a handful of instances whereupon a lone Carmichael ventured so far from home. The first left home hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. Now, his ancestor, a curious, young barbarian from another land, even further away, had crossed another ocean and was looking for the exact same thing....booty and a warm, single wench.
To date my search for female companionship (and to visit historic places, learn about foreign cultures and embark on a personal, spiritual journey) has included Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and now Italy. My quest has included first, second and third world countries. I have seen abject poverty, centres of finance and scenes of untold wealth. New. Old. Flat. Mountainous. I have walked though cities cluttered with buildings. Wandered through crowded, narrow streets. I have also found myself staring at majestic sunsets across towering mountain ranges. City and country. Metropolis to town to the smallest hamlet, I have seen many places. The next stop would be different. There are few comparisons. New York. Cairo. Jerusalem. Athens. These cities are on all world travellers’ “Must See” list…those places and my next stop…Rome.
Legend tells us that the founding of Rome was somehow related to a raucous competition for a set of teats. There were two dogs. One was Rome, short form of Romulus and his brother, Remus. Being brothers, one dog pissed the other off, a sarcastic comment here, a wet paw in the ear there and the pair of mutts resorts to a boisterous wrestle session to settle their dispute. They came up with several types of events to resolve their differences. First competition: a race around the block and back. However, back then Rome only had one block, so it was not much of a challenge. Competition #2: Who could sniff the most butts?....however, that was nixed for being a bit too gay. Finally they decided to battle it out...for something that truly prestigious. Teats. The fact that the set belonged to their own mother was a bit sick and demented, however I am no one to criticize other cultures regardless of how strange and demented they were. The battle made great sport and Romulus came out on top (or bottom, if you want to be precise). To celebrate, the cheering spectators decided to recognize the victory by calling their new town after the victor. Respectfully, I think it is a silly way to pick the name of the place where modern Western Civilization should start. I am certain there must have been better and more representative options. Rome was the place where our society was to take root. It should have been named Freedom, Italy or Order, Italy....anything but Rome, aka the name of the dog who won the teat sucking contest, Italy. Civilized people can be so silly.
I digress....Following its founding, Rome grew to become the world’s first metropolis. At about 500 BC, Rome’s population numbered around 1 million people. The city became a major city, a centre of commerce and a key military outpost. The dominance of Rome did fluctuate throughout the ages, however today Rome remains one of the world’s most visited countries. Its’ history ranges from ancient times, through days of the Roman Empire, medieval times, middle ages and up to the modern era. Rome has been and continues to be an important city. Hence, it was a ‘must see’ on my journey of monumental proportions.
Fellow barbarian, Alex the Scot joined me on the train ride into Rome. He was continuing onto Naples and upon arrival in town I bid him adieu. Good lad. And I am not just saying this because he was a fellow clansman. Rather, occasionally I meet people who are just like me. They are laid back, have a penchant for conversations about politics, culture and skirts. We raised many pints during our time in Florence. We also worked as a team on successive nights looking to convince naïve young vixens that we were the guys they were always looking for. Interesting, I discovered that Alex and I had one other trait in common. We were equally useless at taming the lionesses.
With a shake of the hand, I was back on my own. Location: Rome’s Termini Station. It was centrally located and I was certain that I would easily find accommodations. Standing astride the tracks, I reached in my pack and grabbed my bible. As per usual, I made no prior reservations. It was the busiest part of the tourist season and being a confident fool; I expected the rooms to just come to me. My finger, surveying across the pages would instinctively find something cool, young, hip, gino-ish. Within seconds of fingering the pages, I looked up and saw the most stereotypical cool, young Gino-Italian ever seen strutting over towards me. He had long hair. Used the good conditioner…you know…the one with jojoba. It was summer and his freshly pressed dress shirt, three buttons opened at the top flapped, untucked, in the wind. Cool. Gino Hip. He approached me and asked…”You need a place to stay in Rome? Come with me. I have place. Central. Come. My name…Ivano”. He turned and started walking. “Huh?” I said to his back as he was leading me away. “Uhhh…ya. Sure”. I followed.
I followed Ivano throughout the streets for about 20 minutes. Ivano may have been a swinger-type gino, but he definitely needed a corvette. My back and feet were killing after following his zig-zagging through a maze of Roman streets. Finally, we arrived. Up six flights of stairs. We climbed. One, two, three, four, five....this guy needs to invest in an elevator...six. Weary, tired, I walked through the door. While leading me to my bunk I passed one young lady...then another, another....one, two, three more. What a place!!!
Now I know why I followed....it was Gino magic. His long, flowing silky-smooth conditioned locks were the key. They attracted some of travelling Europe’s most beautiful ladies. Of the four dormitories in his establishment, three were strictly assigned for female use only. Meow! “Thank you for allowing me to stay at your hostel, Mr. Ivano”. There were a couple other amenities...namely, a kitchen, no set curfew, no bars on his windows. It was located in the centre of it all. 10 minutes from the Vatican, 10 minutes from the Parthenon, 10 minutes from the Spanish Steps and another 10 minutes from the Trevi Fountain. When he said it was centrally located he wasn’t kidding. “Thank you very much”.
My only complaint had to do with Ivano's showers. It is nearly unbearably hot in Rome. 31 degrees in the shade. I could bear it because I had yet to despise it. I was in town for only a few hours. During Ivano’s trek, the beat of the sun, my boiling feet, and weight my gear all combined to cause my mind to think of only one thing...dancing beneath streams of ice cold water. I would grab a cot, drop my luggage, shed my luggage and bathe in the refreshing glory of Ivano’s shower. Unfortunately, his facilities hardly qualified as being a shower at all. It looked like a shower. Shower head. Tap. Water did squirt out...in three haphazardly directed streams. Definite candidate for a dip into a bowl of CLR. On the bright side, his shower did not lack water pressure. I guess this is what happens when you try to squeeze 200 streams of water down three unblocked exit holes. I felt like I was being attacked by a Dremel. Seriously, I really shouldn’t complain. There were many days where I trekked miles and miles weighed down with a heavy backpack. Excruciating pain would often throb up and down my spine. In those times, I would dance a jig knowing that a pressurised water canon at the hostel awaited my return. The only drawback was when I tried to rinse the shampoo from my hair, with only three holes open I had to rinse the hairs, three at a time. I could elect to spend the requisite time required to thoroughly rinse the shampoo or walk around Rome looking like a human confetti machine from all the dandruff. I chose a lengthy shower. Refreshed and reinvigorated, I was ready to replicate the sacking of Rome by my ancestor barbarians and take it again.
Scoperta di Dio
Descending upon Rome…unlike my heathen brethren of yesteryear, I was freshly bathed, clean shaven and spoke with words rather than grunts. Their skins are my cotton Nike t-shirt. Their sandals, my leather-upper, rubber-soled hiking boot. Also, unlike those unwashed, simple warriors, I came to Rome with a better understanding of the history of the city, the people and the Catholic faith that ruled and guided Christendom from here for 2 epochs. I had come to Rome, almost as if upon a crusade. However, a crusade based less upon a driving faith and responsibility than in overwhelming sense of curiosity and interest. I needed to experience the place where western civilization was born and bred. The birthplace of modern democracy. The home base for the global force of Christianity dominating peoples from the hinterlands of Germanica, to the quaint villages of Ireland to the oceanside villages of Spain and Portugual. I needed to study this epicenter of Christendom.
Armed with ambition and a deadly sense of interest, I left Ivano’s and set out to explore. First impressions? “Where the hell were all the Romans?” The place was a ghost town. And it was so damn hot that I thought Nero was trying to burn the place down again. (please forgive me from going on and on about the bloody heat, however I, being of the pasty race, whose pale skin was conditioned from centuries of cowering in a stone and mud hut, trying to protect himself from the never-ending cold rains, yearned for something a touch more manageable). Soon I came to realise that I was in Rome... on a Sunday. Being an intensely religious people, most Romans stayed home and rested on Sundays. It is commonplace for Italians to spend this down time with their family. It was at Momma’s house where they gathered with their brothers and sisters to dine. They would congregate around a long table and engorge themselves on a hearty pasta dinner served with a side of pasta and finished off with the most delectable pasta-based dessert. Afterwards they all go retire to the backyard and gather around the family olive tree. The men would debate whose wife made the best pasta while the ladies would huddle in another part of the courtyard and exchange pasta recipes. Nearby, little Maria and her pudgy cousin Tony played tetherball. Ahhhhhh Italians…so easy to stereotype, those greasy, pasta-loving, Mussolini-electing, Mafioso ruling, soccer playing, governmentally corrupt, militarily inept, GinoGT driving meatballs.
Being Sunday, I decided to wander over to the Vatican with the hope that I could see the Holy See. Such a venture makes one ponder his faith, the force that guides his moral compass. Remembering my youth, I first learned about religion when I was a wee lad. I am not referring to the time when I was baptized. No, I don’t remember that one. Personally, I don’t think it really happened. It was not the style of my old man. He wasn’t keen on churches...TV ones were okay....yet real ones? No. Rather, I can imagine him christening me in the holy waters of Canal Lake, the chorus of glorious chinking OV stubbies marking my entrance into the faith. However, in the interests of ensuring I did not turn out to be a baseless, bloodthirsty, immoral pagan I was enrolled in the Roman Catholic school system. My father passed the breath test (you needed to be over 0.05%) and I was permitted entry.
Immediately, upon enrolment in St. Benedict’s Catholic Elementary School, my indoctrination began. From the onset, I was bathed in wave upon wave of religious persuasion. Morning, noon, naptime (where they played Christian lullabies), and night...it was relentless. In kindergarten, I recall the exercise where we were directed to finger paint a picture of God. Instead, I drew a picture of a dog walking backwards. They were about to expel me, however my quick-thinking parents pulled out the trusted ‘dyslexia’ card. In grade two, they held a school play at Christmas time. I tried my best to avoid getting chosen for a speaking part....thankfully I ended up getting the part of the donkey. Again, I was almost expelled when I trotted over and began chewing on some hay in the manger just after the wee Almighty was spat out. In grade six, I got 95% in Religion class. The curriculum covered the ‘Religions of the World’. The only question I got wrong was the part asking for the name of the elephant with the octopus arms. I skipped all the sacraments. In mass, every time during communion I fantasized about eating the wafer with a small tab of jelly. It goes on and on...When my buddies were going off to confession, I sat on the pew, by myself, and wondered what I would confess if I had to chance to climb into the closet. What does a ten year old confess about? “Bless me father for I have sinned. I burned some ants with a magnifying glass. I threw a worm at Sara. I then lusted over Sara. I vigorously explored the nether regions of my undercarriage...a lot. “
On occasion, the priest asked some of the young lads to help him with odd chores over at the rectory. I joined once. Once. They were simple chores. Stack the wafers. Bend over and clean the gum from the undersides of the pews. Polish his Holy staff. Nothing too out there. However, when Father offered me a free indulgence in exchange for helping him get a head in the church, I took that as a cue to crusade the fuck outta there. And yet that event did not cause me to totally abandon my interest nor study in Roman Catholicism. My academic education spanned over 14 years with additional intensive university training in almost every religion (not Scientology though....aliens? Like, come on. Be real). And yet, there I was. Standing on the doorstep of the big guy’s Big House as an uncertain agnostic. His move. Only a few steps separated me from the best chance He has ever had in closing the deal on his long-time forsaken son.
Regole della Casa
I was pre-warned. Those seeking to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and ask to be considered for eternal salvation were not allowed to wear shorts. It was hot as hell outside, yet if one sought eternal grace and solace, he needed to wear pants. God supposedly made my spindly, knobby legs. However, Joe Pope made a rule that I was not allowed to showcase His splendid creations in his house? Therefore, I slipped on my Adidas track pants with the big white stripes down the sides and entered.
Before I ornately blather on about the majestic interior, please allow me to first put words to what I encountered when I toured the exterior. It is/was fucking glorious. Glorious. Specactulatorious! I blithely sauntered along the Via Della Concilliazione finding my way to the Holy See. It was a wonderful day. I felt great...so much so that I was singing to myself. I went “bi-da-bo-da-di-da..wa-Wa-What -the....Faaaaaa?” Fantastico!!! Before me stood the epitome of beauty. Wow. To my right and to my left...a marble colonnade four columns deep formed almost a complete circuit from where I stood at the gap near the entrance. The diameter of the circular square reached 150 yards across. Each column was 25 feet tall and was crowned by a sculpture of one or the many, many former Christian popes. It was quite stunning. There I was, mouth agape, starring back at humankind’s attempt to build a house fit for a king, the King of All Kings here on earth and I was standing dumbfounded in His courtyard.
As designed, the colonnade is made to appear as to reach out and coddle believers in the outstretched arms of Mother Mary. Standing resolute, I stared at the center of the circular square. An erect 25.5 meter tall Egyptian Obelisk provided a focal point. At the other end of the courtyard were the steps which lead up to St. Peter’s Basilica. My eyes were transfixed on the obelisk when, suddenly, Mother Mary reached out and instead of coddling me, grabbed me and shoved me into the gaping mouth of the cathedral.
Entrare nella casa di Dio
St. Peters Basilica is far and away the greatest cathedral in the world. It is great in its size, in its' stature, its' importance and in its' historical prominence. I am most humbled by the long list of people buried within and the significant impact they've had on our history and civilisation. Their collective influence on politics, warfare and societal order is mind-boggling. Just on superficial means, the place blows me away. Architecturally, it has been in constant development for almost two thousand years and the time, effort and money put into its' evolution is shown in the beauty and perfection exhibited within. The beauty is displayed not only in the artwork hanging from the walls, ceilings and carved into the floors but it is also shown in the craft put into the pillars, doors and domes. While one is truly humbled by the size of the building, it still manages to deliver a calm, serene atmosphere which provides both believers and non-believers true solace.
Immediately upon entry, dumbfounded and awestruck I haltingly shuffled foot by foot, every single thing my eyes bore witness to was a true embodiment of perfection. Sculptures, canvases, architecture, furniture, lighting...everything. My body contorted in each and every imaginable way, as it did not want to miss any sight. I soaked up every morsel. My eyes literally had to be torn away from the subjects. Now, this is quite an occurrence for a secular soul like me. I have walked through many, (some say too many) cathedrals during this adventure. This time it was different. The collective faith of millions, upon millions of believers was proven to me today. St. Peters embodies that collective faith. It is a concrete example of the overpowering and overwhelming faith that Christians have held worldwide for two millennia. And, it is through their faith that they have built this majestic place. In constructing St. Peter’s, Christians wanted to build a home fit for a king, their King, the King of Kings. While I cannot truthfully submit to their beliefs and systems I remain in awe of their accomplishments and for that, respect them wholeheartedly. They have truly succeeded and I would easily toss on a pair of trousers if that was that was required to be invited in.
Aside from the grandiose nature of the basilica, I was most moved by one specific item. The building is graced with architectural genius. It is beatified with paintings hanging on every wall, each a masterpiece in its own right. However, nothing captured my attention as much as one chunk of rock. ‘David’ by Michelangelo proved to me that an artist could sculpturally recreate the representation of 'man' to perfection. However, what David lacked ‘La Pieta’ fulfilled. In this piece, Michelangelo demonstrated that he could also capture human emotion. As if locked in a trance, I stood there staring at it. It affected me more than one could ever imagine. As a historian, I know that there once was a man named Christ and his mother was called Mary. These are true facts that cannot be disputed. The Romans wrote of how they executed a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Somehow Michelangelo accurately and fully captured the emotion felt by Jesus’ mother after her son’s body was taken down from the cross. One can believe in the resurrection story or not. It matters not. To see La Pieta is to see and experience loss, sorrow and peace. One cannot fully appreciate this work of genius by seeing a photograph in an art book. One must travel to the Vatican and stand before the marble statue to truly understand what I am talking about.
Some of the other interesting areas of the church included the remains of the guy who originally built the sucker. St. Peter was the first Pope. He was Jesus’ right hand man, apostle numero uno and his bones are housed in a gold-encrusted oesophagus. Jesus was known to once utter the phrase “Upon this rock you will build my church”. Visitors to St. Peter’s will see that rock. From a perch, viewers look down to a glass case showing the very spot mentioned in the bible where they built the first Catholic Church.
I submit that I cannot fully explain the experience once gets when he visits St. Peters. There is not enough space to continue on and it may get a tad monotonous. However, regardless of the faith of the reader this place is definitely worth a visit. Some are Christians while others are Buddhists, Muslims, commie atheistic bastards or whacked-out Hare Kristnas. Which imaginary person one thinks of before the clock stops is irrelevant, for a trip to St. Peters instead, shows just how much humans can achieve if they put their minds, souls and hearts into it.
Before leaving I decided that I should at least climb to the top and see what all the fuss was about. My haul up to the top of the cupola rewarded me with a fantastic panoramic view of Rome. I went snap-happy. I will now, however, have many nice pictures of God’s house to put on my personal altar when I get home.
La Battaglia per la mia anima
My visit was finished, however I had yet to make The Decision. Would I submit to his glorious charm or reject his obvious, blatant advances? Let’s look at the Pro’s. Eternal salvation. Fluffy white clouds. Hot scantily clad angels. 72 virgins. (sorry...wrong imaginary guy). Wine. Instant friends. A feeling of immortality. Air conditioning. Cons. Touchy, feely priests. Have to wake up early on Sundays. Always under the threat of eternal damnation if you happen to stray. No air conditioning. He put on a pretty good show. However, was my short time in St. Peter’s enough to turn me? I know what the risks are. I am pretty much s.o.l. if I am wrong. I needed time. I needed to take some time and contemplate my decision. This was no occasion for hastiness. So, I left St Pete’s and headed over to The Spanish Steps. It was there I knew I could meditate upon what I have experience, contemplate my options, evaluate the pros and cons of submission and ultimately decide.
Il tizio che ha costruito il muro
My ‘contemplation walkabout’ passed me by the Castel Sant-Angelo aka the Mausoleum of Hadrian. For the unlearned, Hadrian was the Emperor of Rome in the early 100’s. He ruled from 117 AD to 138AD. Hadrian was best known for going to Britain and having to build a wall across the island to separate civilization from the barbarian hordes living in Caledonia. Caledonia , aka Scotland, housed my brethren clansmen. Hadrian would be happy to know that many parts of his wall still stand today. It may also interest him that the lands north of the wall are still inhabited by uncouth, uncivilized, warlike barbarians. If you travel to Rome you will notice Hadrian’s final resting place by looking for an oversized, grey puck-like structure on a small hill with little or no apparent use.
Luogo di contemplazione
I continued onto the Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti. In English, we call them the Spanish Steps. In Spain they call them, some steps in the middle of Rome. A well known tourist attraction, the Spanish Steps appears almost as a glacier of marble stairs spilling onto the road. At the top of the stairs is a cathedral looking down upon the streetscape below. It was upon these steps where I planned to seriously contemplate converting by weighing the pros and cons of becoming a Roman Catholic. As it was a Sunday, there were not too many tourists mulling about on the steps. I could contemplate in peace.
I claim a slab of marble somewhere in the middle, unsheaved my pen and started to fill out some postcards. Biggest decision in my life vs penning witty passages on a postcard of the Pope. I did have my priorities. I followed that with some scribbling in my bible. Every now and then, my eyes would stray and survey the odd young female who wandered past. My eyes strayed at the tall statuesque ones, the petite sprites, the beautiful young starlets, the more mature ‘yummy mommy’ types, slim ones, bountiful ones, ladies with short hair, long hair, black skin, white skin, red, beige, was pidgin toed, had a peg leg, glass eye....I watched them all. It was a very productive day and I must admit....it turned out to be both quite enjoyable and tiring all at the same time. I was so tired that I needed to replenish my energy; hence I walked over to a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner.
Wiping the pasta sauce from my chin, I set my napkin on my plate, finished the last sip of my wine and continued onto the final stop of the day. I was just too busy to give the big guy a decision and only had a short amount of time until it was dusk. So, I finished my day with a visit to the Trevi Fountain. In the early days of Rome, clean drinking water was found by tapping into and diverting water from the aqueducts residing beneath the city. It was at the end of an aqueduct where Romans built the marvellous Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. (I think this means that in a desperate search of luck, success and wisdom visitors throw money over their shoulders into the water. Those who need the most luck leave the fountain Br-oke....thank you...try the veal). Watching the locals, I too stood with my back to the huge statue of Zeus and tossed a shiny Canadian loonie into the depths. My wish? I can say that it did not have anything to do with the lady with the glass eye, but then I would be lying.