Our final day in Italy was a whirlwind of unexpected events that quite possibly have changed my attitude toward Rome forever. It started early in the morning as we paraded the kids along Via di San Gregorio to the Colosseum, pausing along the way to admire statues of Caesar and crumbling columns in the Roman Forum. What’s especially striking is the strange intermingling of ruins and modernity: here, Rome’s major roadways spirit 2014 Mercedes and BMWs through ruins that predate Christ. Wow.
At this, David and I marveled, while the kids took selfies.
Inside the Colosseum, David and I gave the kids a quick breakdown of the goings-on of he past, the gladiators, the lions. One girl asked about The Hunger Games and we jumped at the opportunity to make connections. David and I were engaged in a gladiatorial battle of her own, interrupting each other to eagerly gush about allusions in the trilogy and a Japanese graphic novel that may have also inspired Collins.
Their response was to collapse, tired, against a pillar. In the Colosseum.
“Where did the lions come from?”
“Where were the prisoners kept?”
I encouraged them to go to the ground level and check out the information panels that would answer all of their questions and more, but they were dazed and uninterested.
“There’s even weaponry!” I tried desperately.
“Why did we have to come inside?” moaned one girl. “All you do at the Colosseum is take a picture with it in the background.”
In the end, David had to threaten them to get them to explore for 25 minutes.
“If you’re too tired to explore, then you must be too tired to shop,” he told them, at which they sprung up as if a lion had been thrown into their little arena of Sephora and Gucci.
At this point, it’s helpful to know that we had a school photo to take, one that the director could post on the website with a cheery caption about education and teambuilding. We decided that perhaps the Colosseum was not the place for this. We’d snap a shot at the Trevi Fountain later.
Open Top Bus
Based on their reactions to the Colosseum, an architectural wonder that draws more than 5 million people a year, I’m not sure why we thought an open-top bus tour of Rome would be a great idea, but we shelled out cash from the slush fund to buy all of them tickets. This was relaxing and breezy, and I was given a set of headphones this year so I got to learn something, though the commentary seemed to exhaust itself of facts rather quickly and rely on elevator music interludes, unless we crossed the Tiber, which we did more than once, and were treated to repeated stories of the blood and gore that turned its waters red, along with poetic description of the bridges that stud its grassy shores.
At one point, we passed the Vatican obelisk again and learned that it had been rafted over from Heliopolis, a journey that took 2 grueling months. Take a second to wrap your head around that. What do you do on a raft for two months with a monolith like that? What are the psychological effects? Did the rafters reach Italy able to decipher hieroglyphics? Did any of them go mad? Did any of the rafters form a Wilson-Castaway relationship with it? Sailing the seas with a 25 meter obelisk makes Life of Pi seem like a holiday.
An Egyptian obelisk residing in St. Peter’s Square is pretty cool by most accounts, especially when you learn it was a turning post for chariot races by the colorful emperor Nero. Now imagine that you’re Egyptian. Here is something that has existed for thousands of years and originated in your country. All of them know where Heliopolis is. Several of them live there. How cool would it be to see something from your hometown, standing proudly at the very center of St. Peter’s Square, practically the focal point of the Basilica. Feel excitement, feel pride, feel angry – feel something.
Most of them didn’t even glance up from their texts and WhatsApp messages. One girl was scrolling through a Buzzfeed article.
It wasn’t until they glimpsed Via del Corso, Rome’s miniature Champs-Elysees of designer shops, that they became animated. One girl even left her seat to ask if we were stopping there to shop.
Fontina di Trevi
Instead, we got off the bus down the road from the Trevi Fountain. This was something the kids could get excited about, the masterful sculpture that you can hear before you see. We’d stand them in Piazza di Trevi and tell them about throwing a coin over their shoulder and making a wish. We’d point out Poseidon, because who doesn’t love Greek and Roman mythology? I even read a neat anecdote in my Lonely Planet about an unemployed man who spent over three decades pinching coins from the fountain – which accrues nearly 3000 euro-worth a day, according to the same source – and basically got away with it because the only law he was breaking was hanging out in a fountain.
As we approached along Via S Vicenzo, we waited to hear the crescendo of cascading water – but there was nothing. If you’ve been there before, even once, the absence of crashing water is a noticeable and strange kind of silence. We arrived at the mouth of the piazza and realized why.
It had been drained and cordoned off with plastic barriers for renovation. We were shocked. I can’t imagine coming to Rome to see the fountain and finding it drained, the mighty sea horses corralled by Plexiglas.
“We can take our group photo at the Spanish Steps,” Alex suggested.
The kids had an hour for lunch, so I dragged Alex around the corner to San Crispino, many a guidebook’s gelato favorite in Rome. I’d visited back in 2008 and remember thinking that, in comparison to the dozens of other gelato I’d consumed hourly, it was unimpressive. Eight years later – and older with refined taste buds – I thought perhaps I’d give it another try.
Entering, I immediately remembered what I didn’t like about it. Most of Italy’s gelato shops are flamboyant in the bright bubblegum interiors and radioactive-colored ice cream, which can be a bit over the top, but San Crispino is the other end of the spectrum: sterile interior with dozens of gelato choices all concealed by silver lids. Alex and I were permitted just one sample each, though when I mentioned this and my desire to try chestnut, the dour-looking employee begrudgingly handed me a small plastic spoonful.
For 2,70, I ate very flavorless ice cream. I love the cold creaminess of unpasteurized gelato, but San Crispino lacks that definitive texture and tastes more like Turkey Hill ice cream you can purchase by the tubful at Shop Rite and for the same price as a single scoop. I don’t get the fascination with this place.
We led the students along Via del Corso to the Spanish Steps, where we would take our group photo. Unlike the Trevi Fountain, we could hear the Spanish Steps before we saw them. Chanting, shouting, and scores of polizia decked out in riot gear stopped us in our tracks and forced us to herd the kids down an alleyway while David went to investigate.
“I know exactly what this is,” he told us. “AS Roma is playing Fyenoord tonight. They don’t expect trouble, but the kids can’t go near the stairs or in the square.”
In the end, we took our group photo outside Giorgio Armani. Though it didn’t quite capture the historic spirit of Rome, it seemed to fit the spirit of the trip.