Wandering Alone in One of the Greatest Cities on Earth


Week two. By the time you read this, God willing and the airlines run on time, I will be home, snug in my bed, benumbed and bewildered by jet lag. I'm writing this on Wednesday, and my flight is scheduled for 8 a.m. Saturday. It takes three flights and lots of grimy waiting time, plus passport control in several places and the indignities of the American customs system, to get from Rome to Bismarck. Fortunately, I have 50 or more books on my iPad, plus a dozen "book" books in my carry-on backpack. If that fails, international flights these days provide several hundred movies free to keep passengers passive and in their seats.

It would be impossible to describe all the wonders I have seen and experienced in two weeks in Rome, the world's most inexhaustible city. Yesterday (with students) I got the scavi tour at the Vatican. If those are St. Peter's bones below the altar of St. Peter's Basilica (and the archaeology looks favorable), then I got within a few feet of the burial crypt of the Rock (petros) on which Jesus built his church (Matthew 16:18). No matter what your belief system, or level of skepticism about such things, there is a deep thrill in being in such close proximity to a place of such historical and spiritual significance. Depending on how you count, Francis is the 266th Pope. They all trace their Papal authority and spiritual lineage to the Apostle Peter, who, according to tradition, was crucified upside down in Rome in AD 64 or 67.

The last time I was here I walked with students on the ancient Appian Way (one of Rome's first great roads). We stepped into a church that commemorates the Quo Vadis moment. That's when Peter, fearing for his safety, decided to flee Rome. He was heading south on the Appian Way when, according to tradition, he encountered the risen Christ. Peter, who must have been a little surprised, not to mention embarrassed, to be heading the wrong way, asked, "Domine, quo vadis?" (Lord, where are you going?). Jesus answered, "I am going to Rome to be crucified again." Peter realized that he was failing Jesus again—it was Peter who denied Jesus three times after his arrest in Jerusalem—so he turned around, re-entered Rome, and accepted the inevitability of his martyrdom.

To tell the truth, I found walking on the Appian Way (intact after 2,327 years!) more meaningful than the square of marble that commemorates the Quo Vadis encounter, if only because one is as solid as anything you have ever seen or touched, and the other puts a considerable strain on a mind as prosaic and skeptical as mine. Walking the Appian Way is one of the top ten experiences in my life as a traveller.

I spend a lot of time with the students I teach, and I love to see Rome through their young and impressionable eyes. But a fair portion of my time is my own. Whenever I get the chance, I take the appallingly unreliable bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander around with a guidebook, cameras, binoculars, maps, and notebooks. I make long lists of things I want to see. My rule for myself is that once I am in the city center, I walk everywhere, no matter how distant the site, because the only way to explore a great city is to let "way lead on to way," to get a little lost, to turn down narrow side streets and corridors on a whim, to discover a church, a chapel, a statue, a piazza, an obscure fountain, a tiny park, an acre of ancient Roman ruins in the midst of modern urban office buildings, or a funky little museum that doesn't make it into the guide books. Because I am alone, I can "geek out" in any way that pleases me, more or less for as long as I wish.

This way of exploring a great city has a name. The French call such a person a "flaneur." A flaneur is a stoller, an idler, a sojourner, an unpurposed explorer, an urban wanderer. The term was made prominent in the twentieth century by the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), drawing on the poetry of the French writer Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). I'm happiest in this mode. When I am hungry, I find an obscure little restaurant--with no reference to the "Where to Dine in Rome" patter of the Internet. What I want is a very plain plate of spaghetti (with olive oil and garlic and pepper), a slice or two of the superb Roman bread, a bottle of water (sparkling), and a glass of red wine. Not fine wine, mind you, but invariably house wine. My hero Jefferson advised always to buy house wine in Europe, what he called vin ordinaire or vin du pays, because, as he wrote, "When one calls in the taverns for the vin du pays they give you what is natural and unadulterated and cheap: when vin etrangere is called for, it only gives a pretext for charging an extravagant price for an unwholsome stuff." If "house" was good enough for America's first great wine connoisseur, it is certainly good enough for my undiscerning palate.

My very favorite thing to do in Rome, when I am alone, is to wind up mid-day at the Pantheon. In the short list of the world's greatest buildings (the Parthenon in Athens, St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the Taj Mahal in India, the Chrysler Building in New York, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), the Pantheon (built 126 AD) is right at the top as far as I'm concerned. Jefferson never saw it (he would have swooned, probably, if a man who said "reason is your only oracle" could swoon), but he loved it, and used illustrations of the Pantheon as the model for the centerpiece of his "academical village" in Charlottesville, the Rotunda of his University of Virginia. There is a little outdoor restaurant in the square in front of the Pantheon. The food is not great. I'm sure serious foodies would turn up their noses at my choice. But I find almost perfect happiness sitting there, eating a plate of food so simple that it would not register as a real or full meal in Bismarck, and gazing ("like a lover at his mistress," Jefferson said) at the Pantheon's concrete dome and the 16 massive 60-ton columns that uphold the portico. The only thing that would make it more perfect is the company of a 20-year-old college student I have raised from birth to love such places as this.

All this reminds me of one of Jefferson's most beautiful letters, written from Marseilles in southern France, on his famous wine journey of 1787. The future President of the United States wrote, "A traveller, sais I, retired at night to his chamber in an Inn, all his effects contained in a single trunk, all his cares circumscribed by the walls of his apartment, unknown to all, unheeded, and undisturbed, writes, reads, thinks, sleeps, just in the moments when nature and the movements of his body and mind require. Charmed with the tranquility of his little cell, he finds how few are our real wants, how cheap a thing is happiness, how expensive a one pride."

I cannot read this passage without sighing, and ordering a second glass of the vin du pays.

"Veduta della Basilica, e Piazza di S. Pietro in Vaticano." c. 1751. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.