Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Viva Italia!" - Listening For Whispers Among the Ruins

"There is a history in all men's lives." (William Shakespeare)

How could a visit to Italy be complete (especially for a "grizzled" history teacher, like me) without touring some ancient ruins?  I have seen my share of castles, cathedrals, and chateaus in my previous trips to Europe, but here was my chance to actually walk among some legendary Roman ruins:  The Colosseum, the Forum, Circus Maximus, and the city of Pompeii, unearthed from the ashes of Vesuvius.

Deborah and I were both excited about the opportunity to walk on and in these ancient places.  We love feeling the presence of history; smelling it, hearing it in the echoes of the dusty places we've seen together (like the centuries old Catholic missions in California).  It's possible to feel a sense of sanctity in places like these - to feel history come alive in the "whispers" heard among the ruins.

On Monday the 4th, our group was taken into ancient Rome and we toured the Colosseum.  It was warm and sunny, even though it was still morning.  It is startling to be sitting in a bus, driving down a modern city street, and then turning a corner and seeing a building or monument that is 2000 years old!  It happened a lot as we neared the Colosseum.  I wanted to get out - to look - to walk around and touch some of what I was seeing, but we only drove by.  Finally, we arrived at the Colosseum - perhaps Rome's most famous historical structure.

I felt at first a certain awe at seeing the massive, and familiar circular stone walls, rising in front of me as I approached.  But surprisingly, the awe faded as I neared.  And as our group walked in and out and around the Colosseum for over an hour, I felt a little detached.  So why was that, oh Mr. History Teacher?

I think it was because it was harder for me to hear the "whispers" of history - to feel the history in this historical place.  Instead, my senses were overwhelmed:  by the fake "Legionnaires" flexing and flirting with the tourists; by the sheer crowds that we had to wade through just to get in, and then fight through as we paced the inside; by the constant chatter in my ear from our guide, Mauro - about the history of the Colosseum - interesting at times, but leaving little time for reflection.

In the end, my visit to the Colosseum became a "been there, done that" experience - don't know if I'd do it again.  Or perhaps the next time, I need to work harder at listening for the "whispers".  I'm sure they were still there.

Our visit to Pompeii the next day was much the same.  We left Rome by bus (delayed by a silly "tax crisis" at the hotel - people (members of our group) made mountains out of an 18 Euro "molehill"!) - rode south for 5 hours - ate lunch - then spent the afternoon walking through the ruins of Pompeii.  Again, I found it hard to enjoy the history of this place I had read about so often.  Our guide, Guido, droned on and on (sometimes never noticing that no one in the group was listening!), and the crowds of tourists "seeing Pompeii" again made the experience something that I felt like I endured, more than I enjoyed.

In the end, I'm glad I visited these places - even if the visits weren't what I had hoped for.  "Veni, vidi, video"...I came, I saw, I took pictures. :-)

But there was one Roman voice from the past, whose whispers did come to me, as I was writing this entry.  It was the poet Horace (65 - 8 BCE).  Here's what I heard:

"Carpe diem!  Rejoice while you're alive; enjoy the day.  Live life to the fullest; make the most of what you have.  It is later than you think." 

So, it is.  Thanks for the reminder.  "Seize the Day!".  I will try to remember that lesson from my trip back into history.  Make the most of my day - don't waste time complaining, or regretting, or looking forward to "the next time".  Remembering to do that would be a "pearl" of real value...

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