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Did I dream this, or can there really be television channels that
show only virtual vacations, video tours for couch potatoes? Destination
after destination, but no journey, no blistered feet, no canceled hotel
reservations, no transferring from plane to train to bus to cab to foot,
no missed wake-up calls, no grouchy companions, no bad meals, no
tourista stomach maladies, no short tempers and uncivil behavior, and no
thousands of dollars dribbled away in pursuit of some empty abstraction
called Pleasure?

Really?

This Travel Channel thing could be a
revelation to us all. Think of place after place emerging with the
rapidity of music videos, changing visual locales for the briefest of
attention spans. Eating crayfish in Capodimonte, say, presents the
shaded pools and mossy rocks where the bug-eyed crustaceans lurk until
they are caught, wriggling their spidery legs and insouciant antennae,
and then suddenly the camera’s eye — your stand-in — pans ferny paths
to stuccoed oyster-white peasant cottages with red shutters and thick
thatched roofs en route to a country inn where, next, the camera’s
insatiable gaze climbs, as you would. …

Step after step after step before entering a breathtaking outdoor
“room” made entirely of “walls” of trees and vines, with the happy
hubbub of langoustino-loving diners, a chic crowd remarkable for many
reasons, most notably no one wearing Nikes. Though the Travel Channel
might be a boon to those too poor or too shy to ever leave their living
room, for others it could end up being a case of eating the menu instead
of the meal, couldn’t it?

Where have I been? Obviously, until now, not far away enough. Take my
last vacation, please: After an uneventful flight sipping Merlot and
napping deliciously, I ended up in
Italy with my friend, P.,
despite the inimitable “Sforza Destino’s” dire warnings to the contrary.

“Dolling, don’t go. Italy will wait for you until next year.
Remember, Rome is the Eternal City. It’s such a timeless place,” my
personal psychic implored.

“Sforza, you sound like the Anti-travel Channel, what’s wrong?” I
asked.

“I predict your lovely friend, P., will be an absolute maniac on this
trip,” he says.

“Sforza!” I protested.

“How could she be otherwise? Let me remind you, her slogan is
‘Reality is what you make it.’ OK, if you must go, go. But just
ignore her tantrums. And if you can, make sure she takes her St.
John’s Wort
, ” he
persisted. I make dutiful promises.

My therapist friend, Briggs, however, was more sanguine. “Drink wine
on the plane! And while you’re at it, have a glass of red for me,”
Briggs advised. Once again, I promised.

I feel drawn to Rome. For some, it’s the Pieta. For me, the allure
of Rome is … making a sacred pilgrimage to the site of the Pope’s
Home Page,
then seeing for myself the colony of
300,000 stray cats in the
arched shadows of the
Coliseum. The Cats of
Rome — sounds like a Playboy pictorial, doesn’t it? They grace calendar
after calendar. And who, including me, can say enough about a country
whose pronunciation of its monetary unit, the lira, sounds like
leer?

A feather — feather or not — falls leisurely from the sky
in front of the train station. I know feathers sometimes represent a
personal spiritual sign — an important message from the Creator.
Supposedly, a quill signifies The Word. Maybe it’s true. Suddenly, just
as the feather hits the asphalt, all the cabs in Rome begin veering away
from their potential customers. No one is getting aboard. The reason, we
soon discover, is a taxi strike, which forces me and the now-ballistic
P. to radically change our plans. We jump back on the train and head for
Pompeii.

This is after separately encountering, on different days, two
American military healers — now there’s an oxymoron for you — from a
neighboring naval base, who each give us a series of special uplifting
travel warnings: you will always get lost walking around so follow
serendipity, avoid taking buses, be wary of pickpockets, watch out for
cabdrivers who always try to cheat you, and never trust any directions
you get because they will always be wrong.

For me, however, Italy really represented my encounters with various
levels of the Sacred. So this account is neither intended to be a
travelogue, nor a fever chart of my state of America-deprivation — I
was no female Gustave Von Aschenbach lusting after the symmetrical forms
of unattainable young men as in the Thomas Mann novel, Death in
Venice
.

Rather, our trip was a brief catalog of absolutely overwhelming
reactions to the symbolic elements of the threads of my own journal’s
Narrative: My grave disappointment there would be no audience with the
Pope. Mother Teresa had died, and overcome with grief about the Calcutta
Nun’s demise, Il Papa was in seclusion somewhere on the Riviera.
My intensely disrupting sense of disembodied Spirits residing in the
ruins of Pompeii — lovers, mothers and children, solitary ones
clutching each other into the next world — made into lava statues by
the ancient volcano. My shock and astonished disbelief at the crass
vending of religious souvenirs near the steps of the Vatican. Plastic
statues. Garish beads. Tarnished crucifixes. Holy relics. Miracles of
curb-side marketing.

Returning home, I must have had jet lag — I can’t decide whether to
sleep or walk the streets. Rome was a revelation to me. The men! The
women! The eyes! The hair! The skin! The food! The beauty! The flowering
balconies! The dogs! The cats! The countryside! The olive trees! The
hotel bills! How nearly everyone looks so good with — or despite –
all those pasta courses mystifies me. Maybe it’s that in Italy, they
only eat two meals a day, Lunch and Dinner. Maybe it’s that they call
each meal by the same name, Pranzo, which must cut your calories
in half right there! Maybe it’s that they wash everything down with
vino. Surrounded by such elemental physical perfection,
everywhere I turn, all the male marble statues reminded me of my latest
crush — Zeus with pecs, washboard stomach, Olympian demeanor. The
pinnacle of body/mind/spirit. No wonder I had fig leaves on the brain.

Nor was I the only one left breathless by such travels. It has been
reported that on Henry James’ first day in Rome back in 1869, he
rhapsodized, “At last, for the first time, I live!” Right away, I mailed
friends postcards saying, “My Italian studies are progressing –’Take
off your clothes!/Get dressed!’ Yesterday, a taxi strike in Rome.
Glimpses of Italian soccer, the Pieta, lava from Pompeii, postage stamps
blessed by the Pope, a bizarre pairing of airplane movies ‘Smilla’s
Sense of Snow’ and ‘Liar Liar,’ shooting photos from sidewalk cafes;
mixing pesto and Merlot for the rhyme; men with eyes like handcuffs; a
surrealistic German TV version of the Dating Game’; Mother Teresa and
Princess Di dispatched to Heaven together; a possible Royal
assassination plot; an epidemic of American military planes crashing
into each other on training missions; the tarantella not tarantula;
salade Caprese in Capri but not Capri pants,” on the back of a
“Return to Sorrento” photo complete with properly syrupy lyrics.

The graffiti reminded me of my home city, Philadelphia, until I
realized that graffito was an Italian word dating back to ancient
Roman times, meaning an inscription or design scrawled on a wall or
scratched in stone. Written not on a wall but my second postcard was a
pastiche of soccer and Henry James, gracing a sculptural representation
of the Madonna as a Keane Doll with outstretched hands, surprisingly
prominent breasts, and big eyes: “Soccer To Me: The Italian soccer
championships begin at the end of summer,” I scrawled, “Some people
believe soccer represents a new festival for Italians — what with
games, symbols, rituals both serious and carnivalesque yet at times
dangerously violent — giving players local and national identity as
well as international acclaim. The playwright Ionesco predicts both
theater and soccer will have a great future, being ‘useless
necessities.’ All this in a foreign language without benefit of
American ballast.”

Ironically enough, welcoming me home, the nearby art school dorm’s
red brick wall was graffitied in chalk by someone with a sense of
immortality and a sure instinct for theatrical conceptualism:
“Andy Warhol. Joseph Beuys. Leon Golub. Jenny Holzer. Ursula Meyer.
Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New. Copyright 199- E. J.
Peterson.”
Watch out, I shivered premonitorily; that had all
the audacity of a budding Enemy of the State. Good thing Giuliani’s not
our mayor, wasn’t it?

Ten days after we left Italy, two earthquakes shook the central part
of the country, collapsing the famous Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi,
and destroying priceless frescoes by the first artist of the
Renaissance, Giotto. At least 10 people were killed — including two
friars assessing the damage from the first tremor. I didn’t know
anything about this until a buddy told me. Naturally I was distraught.
What Italy did NOT need is another Pompeii. One was already too much.
Beauty has its price, my dear, I can hear a philosophical Sforza
Destino saying in my mind. Maybe I’ve seen one too many disaster movies.
Everything contains the seeds of its own destruction, I can hear
an old boyfriend, Plugs McGee — the Live-Fast, Die-Young,
Leave-a-Good-looking-Corpse one who did die young in a car crash –
saying. For a moment, my friend, P., imagined us being rescued from the
Assisi rubble by some local hero carrying both of us to safety, holding
us aloft, his arms upraised in a victory salute.

For me, Pompeii was like the neutron bomb of history. Pompeii and
circumstances
. Visiting the so-called Villa of Mystery there, seeing
the peeling friezes of an advanced civilization obliterated by a blast
of lava, I note how the buildings were left standing but people were
vaporized. Or turned into lava-coated crispy-critters and displayed in
museums, cruel artifacts of a catastrophe. What gripped me most about
Pompeii was the poignancy of interrupted lives — almost more than I
could bear. All around me, I could still sense the spirits of the dead,
sadly dislocated, while maimed wild dogs roamed. Standing in the ruined
city, its streets still coated with volcanic ash, I realized what lasts,
what remains, was rock and marble, columns and crumbling brick, not
pique and peccadilloes. I vowed to let the people I love know that,
somehow, after I returned home.

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