Monday, July 06, 2009

Rome IX: Bernini and plumbers

Our last real day in Rome. It really sucks that it was marred with plumbing problems, but that’s the way it was, and we dealt with it. I discovered that my favorite bar—Italians eat breakfast in bars; you order a coffee and a pastry and eat it standing up, or if you’re feeling extravagant, you sit at a table, but pay a bit more—had free wireless. The guy who works at this café is really, really nice, and, I must admit, something of a hottie. He would sometimes give me free drinks and between his limited English and my terrible Italian, we could chat. He told me that Michael Jackson died, which was the first news I’d had out of the States. He assumed I was from Los Angeles, and had never heard of Virginia. I told him we lived near Washington, DC, which I guess is true from a global perspective. I noticed his tee-shirt had “Lynchburg” printed across the front, but my Italian was not equal to pointing out that he was wearing the name of a city in my state, which he’d never heard of. I stayed at the café for ages, drinking two cappuccinos, and then the café guy made me a special farewell drink, a chocolate iced coffee, served in a martini glass.

The day before, I had noticed a barber shop near our Laundromat and got the idea of taking Seamus for a haircut, an idea he enthusiastically approved of. I memorized the Italian for “A haircut please” and off we went. The barber considered Seamus's hair carefully, running his hand through it and watching how it lay and where the cowlicks were. I have always taken Seamus to the Belmont Barber Shop and asked for a “regular” haircut, which is a wham-bam, thank you ma’am affair with rapid and liberal use of electric clippers. Seamus has been loudly and insistently displeased with these haircuts, ever since he has been old enough to care about his looks. In Rome, he looked like he had a haystack on his head, but by the time the Roman barber had finished with him, he looked like he was being sent off to Eton and not Walker Upper Elementary.

Seamus, post-haircut

We spent much of the rest of the day in restaurants—because restaurants have toilets. Our plumbing problems were manifestly not fixed.

We had an Italian phrase book with us that boasts that it covers “every travel related situation.” Indeed, it is quite adequate if you wish to say, “I am studying the Slavic languages,” or “Would you please put the film in the camera for me?” or “I’d like to send an urgent telegram. How much do ten words cost?” If, while in Italy, you need to have a boil lanced, this book will help you. It provides the vocabulary necessary for hooking up with someone special you might meet: “Make love” and dealing with the consequences: “Vaginal discharge.” Regrettably, there was nothing to help us say, “Every time we flush the toilet, water backs up into the kitchen sink.” Which is odd, because I thought Americans were famous for having issues with European toileting facilities. (The book also wouldn't go amiss to include, in its next edition, the Italian for, “My son locked himself in your bathroom.”)
Since the language barrier was a real problem in dealing with the plumbers, Jon drew a clever picture diagnosing what he thought was the problem—a clog in the main drain leading out of the house. I’m sure Jon’s diagnosis is correct, but the plumbers thought otherwise and spent hours pouring chemicals down the drains and at one point extracted something that looked like a grey wig.

We left the house key with Rosella and went out. Why should we spend the last day of our vacation sitting around with plumbers? Jon went to the Scholar’s Lounge, an Irish-owned pub, and I took the kids on a guided walk described in one of my guidebooks. It was a tour of Bernini’s Rome, and we took the metro to the furthest spot on the route and walked our way toward home.

As is often the case with the Roman metro and bus stops, we were let off at a busy traffic circle, with about ten streets leading from it, and no way to tell which street was the one we wanted. In Rome, the names of streets are carved into marble tablets and placed on the walls of buildings at the corners, and it is impossible to read them unless you are standing right underneath. We made a few false starts down wrong streets, but finally got on our way. The first stop was Santa Maria della Vittoria which contains Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1646). Then we walked to the Piazza Barberini and looked at Triton’s fountain, and then up a hill to an intersection with a fountain at each corner. We popped into a tiny church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Carlo of the four fountains) which is exquisite because of its tininess and oval dome. It was built by Bernini’s rival, Borromini.

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Inside San Carlo
Oval dome of San Carlo's
Oval dome of San Carlo
The next stop was one of Bernini’s best churches, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, but alas, alas, we could not get in because our shoulders were uncovered. Of course we know that you are supposed to have your knees and shoulders covered when in a church, but this rule is constantly disregarded. We saw tank tops and shorts in churches everywhere, except St. Peter’s, where they are strict. But on this day, we’d forgotten our sweaters, which did not raise any eyebrows in the first two churches we saw, but at Sant’ Andrea, a man told us, very nicely, that we could not enter. There was nothing to do but leave and hope that we’ll return to Rome some day and see it then.

We walked past the president of Italy’s house and down into a maze of tiny streets that led to the Trevi fountain, and then on to the Pantheon, with a detour to the Piazza della Minerva so we could see Bernini’s elephant obelisk. Behind the obelisk is a square white building, something like the back end of a bus terminal. Imagine our surprise in discovering it is the only gothic church in Rome. I’ve never seen a building with a greater disparity between the interior and exterior. We also passed Santa Maria in Via, a church I really wanted to see because it has a holy well, where a miracle was said to have happened in the 13th century, but they were in the middle of mass, so we didn’t go inside. I couldn’t even get a decent picture of the outside, due to the clutter of newsstands and gelato carts in front of it.

Palazzo Quirinale--I think the president lives here

Alley near the Trevi Fountain

Santa Maria in Via

Bernini's elephant obelisk with Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in background

Inside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Back home, we discovered that the World’s Messiest Plumbers had finished up for the day. There was water everywhere: on the dining room table, the kitchen counter located farthest from the sink, the freaking fireplace mantle for crying out loud. My flight itinerary for the next day was soaked, our flight information an indecipherable blur. A loaf of bread sagged, waterlogged, across the top of the microwave. The rosaries we bought at the Vatican, my Italian language CD, our playing cards, were all soaked. Upstairs, the bathroom floor was decorated with assorted puddles and chunks of plaster. There were muddy footprints everywhere. Realizing that there was probably undetectable residue of God-knows-what on everything in the bathroom, I threw our toothbrushes away.

We decided we deserved a treat, and ate dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the piazza and drank a lot of wine. And helped ourselves to its bathrooms. I dragged Jon to our favorite bar and made him order a beer so that I could use their wifi and check in for our flight and reacquaint myself with our flight information. We tried to get to bed early, but didn’t manage until well after midnight. About 3:00am, I was awakened by the sound of loud vomiting, which at first, I thought was coming from the street because there were still many drunk tourists about. But then I realized the sound was coming from inside the house. It was Mad Scientist, doing his utmost to tax our frail plumbing to the point of total failure. It was just as well. If our last night had been one of perfect bliss, I would have had a hard time leaving. As things were, I felt really, really, ready to be reunited with American plumbing.
Jon, saying goodbye to our landlady, and one of the neighbors

Rosella grabbed Jon's ass as I took this picture. 

Jon with Bruno and Cosimo, our parking lot friends.


  1. What an ordeal!

    Mr. McP's haircut is very nice. Very handsome.

  2. Well, what can we say, your experiences certainly seemed to span the spectrum of extremes (maybe more towards the not-so-great in the plumbing department; perhaps the grey wig was a remnant of ancient times and belongs in a museum) but we really have enjoyed reading and living/reliving Italia. We look forward to seeing you all soon and catching up some more.
    Secular Life Guides

    p.s. OMG! Sweet Cathedral of Santa Maria Marggiore, that was once phat, international haircut! Love it!

  3. I cannot imagine--I'd have been SO grossed out! AT least your boy has a great haircut. Who'd know that plumbing wouldn't get into the translation books?