Communion Of Dreams

Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.


Jim Downey





Italy, 2012: Rome Alone.

We left the villa early on Monday morning, since it was a drive of some hours back to Rome and we needed to get there about noon to allow some members of the group to make travel connections.

There had been rain overnight. When we left, this was the view of the sea from the villa:



Taking the inland interstate-style highway, we got to see part of the country we hadn’t before.



And I discovered that the rest stops in Italy are much like rest stops anywhere, complete with baffling toys…


No idea . . .

…and various products to help you stay awake:

Actually, I bought some of the “pocket espresso” things – and they weren’t bad. About an ounce of high-density caffeine with a lot of chocolate, in liquid form like an extra-small juice box.

* * * * * * *

We got to Rome, dropped off several people at the main train station. Most of the rest of us were back in the hotel we had stayed in the first few days of the program. We got checked in, dropped off bags and then made plans for the afternoon.

Most of the remaining group were leaving the next morning, just a few staying on to Wednesday. The bulk of the group made plans for dinner together that evening. But Steve & Amy needed to get a number of things done to wrap up the trip (and plan for the next one), so they were inclined to not join in on another big dinner.

In all honesty, I think they were also tired of being “in charge” and just wanted a little down-time. I know that when I have been in such a role for a week or two, I feel wiped out, and no offense to the people in the group but I am usually ready for a break.

So we spent the afternoon hitting a couple of different sights, mostly giving Steve and Amy time to do something of a post-mortem on the workshop – discussing what worked, what didn’t go so smoothly, how to perhaps change the schedule. I mostly kept my mouth shut, though occasionally I was able to offer some perspective as a tag-along. We had coffee & conversation on the Piazza Navona, then eventually Amy went off to take care of some errands and Steve and I went to see the Carravagio paintings (The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) at the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi. Naturally, I had seen reproductions of these pieces, but seeing them actually in the space they were intended for was breath-taking.

Following this, we wandered back to the hotel room. We both wanted a chance to rest and shower before getting back together with Amy for drinks and dinner that evening.

Dinner that night was worth mentioning: a place which specializes in dishes with porcini mushrooms. We ate heartily, washed the food down with some local artisanal beer. According to Amy & Steve, such beer is a relatively new thing in Rome – but it was quite good, though it was odd to have it served in what was basically a champagne bottle.

* * * * * * *

The next morning we mostly went our separate ways. Steve & Amy needed to check out a couple different museums for the next program. I was tired of “Roman Stuff” and opted to do a bit of exploring on my own.

Starting with a completely delightful exhibit I had noted on previous wanderings: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Big Machines”. I had seen that there was a traveling version of this show which made it to the US, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it for myself. Here are a few images of the fun items in the exhibit:













OK, this *was* shown to be a fake entry – but it’s still fun to see it produced in da Vinci’s style.

This was mostly geared towards kids, but it was still fun to see actual mock-ups of a number of da Vinci’s drawings. And one thing which was completely new to me was the octagonal closet which was completely lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You stepped into this closet, closed the door, and were able to see an infinite regression of images – like being in a room with two facing mirrors. Except that in this case, because of the placement of all 8 mirrors, you were able to see yourself from every angle – and it is a very odd thing to see your own back full size, in real time. What’s most impressive about this is, of course, that during da Vinci’s time it was impossible to make mirrors of sufficient size or quality to demonstrate this effect – he had done it all through basic knowledge of optics, applied as a thought-experiment. Very cool.

* * * * * * *

I got some lunch from a street vendor, then decided to go see this:



Yeah, the Trevi fountain. I’d promised a friend I would toss a coin in for her, and fulfilled that promise.

Two things I want to note about seeing the Trevi fountain: one, it was crazy with crowds. Seriously, just a block away there were few tourists. But in the square with the fountain it was packed. Nuts. Worst crowds I had seen anywhere in Rome.

And two, I had gotten to know my way around Rome well enough that it was pretty easy for me to dead-reckon with minimal reference to a street map. This got me to and from the Trevi fountain with minimal problems. This made me inordinately happy.

* * * * * * *

I made my way back to where the hotel was, stopping by once again to just stand inside the Pantheon. It was the sort of place I could probably visit a hundred times.

Along the way back to the hotel, I noted this interior courtyard:



No idea what that was. But it was cool.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag at the hotel, I popped over to the Campo de’ Fiori – the little market square I mentioned previously. I got a beer and some snacks, sat down to write some notes and just observe what was going on in the square.

And what was going on was the take-down of the market stalls and subsequent clean-up:




One thing in particular I want to point out:


That’s one of those little motor-cycle carts as seen in “Roman Holiday”. I was a bit surprised to see that they’re still very much in use in Rome, since that movie is even older than I am. But quite a number of the different merchants had them, and they seem quite practical for such use given the narrow winding streets in the heart of the city.

* * * * * * *
Dinner that evening was again just the three of us: myself, Steve, Amy. We ate at a place not far off the Campo, which is to say not that far from the hotel. This was by design, since we had to be up early to catch a private van to the airport.

Which we did the next morning, leaving about 6:30. My flight was later than the other’s, but it made the most sense for me to just get to the airport a bit early.

Of course, as it turned out, things all ran late at the Rome airport for me, and I could have gone over much later in the day. And the delays meant missed connections and the usual travel-foo. But I got in to St. Louis eventually, and in time to catch the shuttle home.

Yes indeed, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”  I almost don’t believe it, myself.

Jim Downey

Italy, 2012: The most valuable thing in Rome.
July 31, 2012, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Italy, Religion, Society, Travel | Tags: , , , , ,

Saturday: no class. Rather, the whole day was spent visiting sites.

Which meant a nice early breakfast, then pack up for a day’s hiking around.

We headed over to the Roman Forum, entering just east of the Colosseum. Down into the grounds, then left and up a series of walkways to the top of Palatine Hill. Our goal for the first part of the morning was the house of Augustus and the rest of the grounds around it. Easy to see why the emperor wanted to live there – great views, nice breeze, close to the cultural/civic/market center of the city. Some images to share:

Central courtyard of Augustus’ place.

Nice view.

* * * * * * *

From there we descended down into the Forum. It is packed to the gills with history, monuments, and tourists. There’s the site of the House of the Vestal Virgins:

A nice little thing called the Arch of Titus:

Arch of Titus.

Temple and civic building bits galore:

The Arch of Septimius Severus:

Arch of Septimius Severus.

Even the altar of the Temple of Julius Caesar where his body was cremated:

Yeah, people leave flowers still . . .

But the most curious item for me was the Lacus Curtiu.  There are several stories behind this simple little hole in the ground. The one I found most compelling is the most supernatural: that a mysterious hole had opened in the Forum – the heart of Rome – and no conventional efforts were able to fill or close it. Oracles were consulted, and it was told that the city could only be saved, and the hole in the Forum closed, if it sacrificed what it held most dear. While a debate raged over whether this was gold, or artworks, or religious objects, a young nobleman donned his arms and armor, mounted his horse, and lept into the gap. Immediately, the hole closed up, and Rome was saved.

Note the marble panel image.

There was once a hole here.

The young nobleman was Marcus Curtius. I think the meaning and implications of the story are clear, and revealing of the Roman character even so early in their history.

* * * * * * *

We exited the Roman Forum, crossed the street and had a delightful lunch outdoors in a shaded courtyard.

After lunch, we stopped at one of the many simple fountains to be found in the city to fill our water bottles. These are not fountains in the sense of having large beautiful sculptures and places where you can “make a wish”, but rather in the sense of being a drinking fountain. They are simple structures, sometimes free-standing, sometimes built into the side of a building. Out sticks a metal spigot, usually with no shut-off valve. And from that springs a stream of cold, pure water. Constantly. It just pours continuously, the water splashing into a drain below. Anyone and everyone is welcome to stop, drink directly, fill a bottle or a bucket.

In this way modern Rome continues the old Roman tradition of providing safe and palatable water to all.

* * * * * * *

Next we walked a bit down the street to see what we could of the Forum of Caesar. Interesting, and some of the images are pretty striking.

But mostly, to be honest, I just enjoyed people watching. The tourists from all parts of the planet. The small souvenir and snacks/drinks sellers. The Roman legionnaires in their flashy leather lorica (mine was better, though probably also hotter) who posed for pics for a few Euros. The colorful buskers who played instruments, or sang, or did tricks with trained parakeets. Grizzled old guys hawking hot roasted hazelnuts even when it is nearly 100 degrees out, standing over their braziers, scooping nuts into a twist of white paper.

Rome is vibrant, alive, layered with people and cultures just as it is layered with history. Just stay out of the streets if you value your life.

* * * * * * *

Across the street . . . wait, what street is this that I keep referring to? It’s the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a wide, beautifully straight and tree-lined road perfectly suitable for triumphal parades, built in the finest imperial style by Mussolini in the ‘30’s.

Yeah, it keeps traffic moving. It also obliterated a couple thousand years worth of the city’s history.

* * * * * * *

Anyway, across the street – actually, a lot of it is *under* the street – is Trajan’s Forum, the last of the grand imperial fora.

It’s impressive for a number of reasons. There are the typical “rubble-filled parking lots” (Steve’s phrasing, not mine):

Park your chariot, sir?

Surviving bits of great temples:

A multi-tiered shopping complex which was hacked out of a cliff face:

And, of course, Trajan’s column:

* * * * * * *

Dinner that night was in a little pizzeria not far from hotel, which had a decor straight out of the late 1960s, with music to match. Bit strange. Made moreso by the heavy application of liquid refreshments, which might just get my vote for the most valuable thing in the city.

And the pizza was good.

Jim Downey

Italy, 2012: Atheist with an eye on God.

Friday (July 13th) morning for me was much as Thursday had been: get up, shower, breakfast in the hotel basement.

As I sat there, I contemplated the history of the place. Somewhere in the complex of the Pompei Theatre Julius Caesar was murdered. I looked around.

Maybe over there by the table with the juices…

* * * * * * *

Again I went walking around the area of the hotel. Noted that there was a nearby museum with a show up featuring the “big machines” of Leonardo da Vinci. Picked up a couple dozen postcards at various little stands and shops. None of which had stamps for them.

See, in Italy, contrary to most logic, the only place you can get postal stamps is from the little places called “tobacchi” you can find on occasional street corners. They feature cigarettes, candy, drinks. And usually a lotto machine or two, frequently with some elderly Italian compulsively feeding the thing money.

I tried three of these places, asking about postcard stamps for mailing the things back to the U.S. None of them had stamps. None of them could tell me what it cost to mail a postcard to the U.S., though they mostly agreed on how much it cost to mail one to another country in Europe (about $2.00).

Well, what about going to a real Post Office someplace?

Silly person – that’s where pensioners go to collect their pension and conduct other such business, not buy stamps. More like a credit union. And, of course, I could never find one open.

I gave up, took my postcards back to the Campo. I grabbed a seat at one of the small restaurants, ordered coffee, and sat and wrote the cards while I watched the merchants get the day’s business going. Worse came to worse, I figured I’d bring the cards home and mail them from here.

* * * * * * *

I met the group late morning and we all trundled off to have lunch. Today’s site visits focused on the Campus Martius, or at least what was still left of it. Which turned out to be quite a lot.

We started over by the Roman Forum, which is actually when I took this image:

The Roman Forum.

Then we made our way NW, coming to the Pantheon from the back, pausing so the group could discuss one of their Latin sources.

Reading from the Book of Tuck/Leonard.

When we emerged onto the Piazzo della Rotonda the Pantheon was off to our left side. It wasn’t until I came around to the north face that I recognized the iconic structure.

There’s a lot to say about the Pantheon. There’s a lot more that has been said about the Pantheon. Why, while I was in Italy, an item about it ran in the Wall Street Journal: A Portal to the Heavens.

A 2,000 year old building. Which has been in continuous use for all that time. Which still, to this day, has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever made. The next time you hear of a modern concrete structure which is crumbling, think about that.

The outside, beyond being so recognizable from the front, isn’t that impressive, to be perfectly honest. In fact, the portico is a bit of a mess. As the Wikipedia article says:

The Pantheon’s porch was originally designed for monolithic granite columns with shafts 50 Roman feet tall (weighing about 100 tons) and capitals 10 Roman feet tall in the Corinthian style.[26] The taller porch would have hidden the second pediment visible on the intermediate block. Instead, the builders made many awkward adjustments in order to use shafts 40 Roman feet tall and capitals eight Roman feet tall.[27]

“Awkward adjustments.” Yeah. That’s putting it kindly.

But when you pass through that front porch and enter the rotunda, all that is instantly forgotten. Because even when you are expecting it – even when you’ve already seen it several times (I know, I did) – entry into the rotunda wipes other matters from your mind. It demands your full, undivided attention. It is an architectural space which is the equivalent of a flow state. It simultaneously overwhelms and enhances you, focuses your entire being on the experience of that space.

Beam me up.

The WSJ article puts it well:

The Pantheon is the greatest interior in Western architecture, one where space is nearly as palpable as the forms that contain it—what isn’t there is as important as what is. This effect derives in part from the perfection of its proportions. As William L. MacDonald writes in his 1976 book on the building (still the indispensable guide to the subject), the Pantheon is a sphere within a cube. Continue the curvature of the dome downward, and you get an orb whose bottommost surface kisses the floor. Then raise four vertical planes at the cardinal points of the rotunda, capping them with a horizontal one brushing the oculus, and, with the floor, they’ll give you a container cube for the sphere.

* * *

Because of the vertical alignment of these elements, the eye is naturally drawn upward, and as it moves, we notice that the forms become simpler, more elemental. We trace a passage that gradually removes us from the specific, worldly realm below to the most abstract, universal shape of all. The oculus is many things. It is the Pantheon’s basic design module. It is an act of consummate architectural audacity. Most of all, however, it is a portal to the heavens.

The round disc of sunlight it admits draws our thoughts out and away from our immediate surroundings to the motion of the planets, and invites us to think of ourselves not as members of a particular faith, city or country, but as part of the whole cosmos.

I am a modern person, one who has traveled extensively, and seen many incredible structures. That comes with being married to an architect who enjoys travel as much as I do. And still, I found the experience of walking into the Pantheon to be almost spiritual.

Consider the effect it must have had on those who had never seen a room much larger than your average apartment. On people who had little or no understanding of the way a built space could be manipulated to achieve specific effect.

Yeah, it’d be easy to think that the people who built such a thing were like unto Gods.

* * * * * * *

After that, we cut over to the Piazza Montecitorio to see the Solare – the Obelisk of Montecitorio. This was brought from Egypt by the Emperor Augustus.

The Solare.

It’s impressive. No, really.

But still, I was happy to continue on down the alleyway to what is touted to be the best gelato in Rome. So was the rest of the group. Poor Steve almost got run over when he suggested that we leave the Piazza Montecitorio and go a block down the street.

(A note on *real* Italian gelato: I’m glad I finally had a chance to try it. A bit lighter than other forms of ice cream I’ve had around the world, yet still with a smooth quality and rich mouth-feel. I did try it another time or two, but I didn’t feel the compulsion to eat it whenever I could.)

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was the Palazzo Altemps, a 15th century home which is now part of the National Museum of Rome. In addition to seeing a couple of excellent marble artifacts (particularly the Suicide of a Gaul).

Looks like a party.

it was interesting to see some of the support structures put into place to help maintain the building itself.

Architecture retrofit.

* * * * * * *

The last site location of the day was the Ara Pacis now housed in a new (and somewhat controversial) museum built for it.

Ara Pacis.

Damned impressive.

Side panel of the Ara Pacis.

Even more impressive was the fact that the building actually had some climate control. Seriously, this was a huge surprise to me – to discover that any number of museum buildings in Italy have little or no climate control, at least in the summer. It is common to find windows completely open to the outside, no screens, no attempt to control humidity or temperature variations.

With some artifacts, this isn’t *that* big a deal. A nice marble sculpture is pretty damned stable, so long as it isn’t being subject to a freeze-thaw cycle and acid rain. But it was common to see other much more fragile items – books, documents, paintings, textiles – in conditions which made my professional side cringe.

Even more maddening, the rules about when you could or could not use camera flashes were almost totally random. And when they were invoked, it was just as likely to be when a flash wouldn’t be that much of a concern – again, when taking pictures of stone statues – while no one seemed to give a rat’s ass about extremely friable paintings.


* * * * * * *

We hiked back towards the hotel. Somehow, we got waylayed by beers at Mad Jack’s again. But this time we were joined with several other members of the tour group. Gave me a chance to get to know some of the others I hadn’t spent much time with yet. As I vaguely recall, some “Jim Downey” stories were told.

But I might be mistaken about that.

* * * * * * *

Then showers, and a bit of fun before dinner: going to see a street performance by The Miracle Players . This summer they’re performing Cleopatra with their own personal twist on the story.

Definitely fun, and geared so that kids will love the hell out of it. Warning – unlike the locals, they actually start on time. Don’t be late, or you won’t find a seat on the church steps to sit and watch the performance.

Jim Downey

And thanks to my friend ML for sending me the WSJ story about the Pantheon. Good timing.

Italy, 2012: Rome on three showers a day.

We walked back to the hotel. Amy left us to see to some other arrangements. We made tentative plans to meet for dinner later.

Yeah, a lot later. In Rome, you don’t eat dinner until 9 or 10 PM. Seriously. Restaurants don’t even open until about 8:30, and most of them won’t make reservations before 9. In this it reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires. In other ways, too. More on that in a future travelog.

Anyway, we went back to the hotel, dropped off bags. Steve needed to pop out to make dinner reservations for the group at one of the places we had checked out that afternoon. I decided to walk through a short private path from our hotel over to the Campo de’ Fiori – a nice little square about a block away which has a daily market of mostly food items. Here it is:

Market day in the Campo.


Market day in the Campo.

I sat at one of the outdoor tables of one of the half dozen little restaurants around the square, ordered a beer. I just wanted to sit and rest my feet a while, watch the last of the merchants clear up their stuff from the day’s market, try and take everything in. I had only been in the country about 8 hours, but I felt surprisingly comfortable there. “Surprisingly” because with just a couple weeks notice before going I had no time to learn more than a few survival phrases of Italian and very little background information beyond what I already knew.

But even so, I felt much more at home than I expected. Italy is different than any place I’ve been previously, but it is still a fundamentally European culture, one which resonates with other places. Even the language is fairly easy to understand, at least in the written form. Oh, I couldn’t read the newspaper, let alone a book, in Italian, but scanning signs and menus wasn’t difficult. And at least in Rome almost everyone had some English language. It was easy to get along.

Happily, Steve was able to make the reservations quickly, and joined me on the Campo before I finished my first beer. We ordered another round and enjoyed the late afternoon as it turned into early evening.

* * * * * * *

After showers and relaxing in the room, we met Amy to head out to dinner. This would be the pattern for most of the rest of the trip: shower in the morning when you got up. If you were really stomping around in the morning, grab another quick shower before the afternoon adventures. Then back to relax a bit before dinner, getting another shower before heading out.

Why so much? Well, Rome was sweltering. It was mid-July. Temps in the low-mid 90s, humidity somewhere around 80%, and not much in the way of air exchange in the city. All those buildings with narrow streets, dark grey cobblestones, throngs of people and vehicles built and held the heat of the day. It wasn’t until well into the evening before things even started cooling off. I think this is part of the reason why the Italians eat so late – before then, it’s just too damned hot. And remember, AC is fairly uncommon.

Anyway. We hiked over to the river (the Tiber), I think to the SW of our hotel, though I hadn’t gotten my bearings in Rome yet. Crossed over, and in a few more blocks to a little place Steve knew.

Interesting place. We were able to get a corner table inside. It had an almost ‘country kitsch’ decor – light blue & white wallpaper, red checked tablecloths – and they specialized in a particular pasta dish which we all ordered: a kind of ‘mac & cheese’ made using spaghetti noodles and incredible fresh Parmesan cheese. It’s made such that there’s a bowl of crispy Parmesan which is free standing, and the cheese and noodles are contained within it. Paired with a nice wine – heaven.

* * * * * * *

The next morning Steve and Amy were off to meet the class for the first time, using a nearby classroom facility which was part of the University of Washington campus in Rome. I got up, had breakfast, got started with my day.

Breakfast. Not a big deal in Italy, from what I saw both in Rome and then later. The hotel had the same items out every day: various cold cereals, yogurt, a couple types of breakfast pastry, a small selection of cold cheeses and meats. There was also a couple types of juice, usually tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs. Coffee made to order. Perfectly fine, but not nearly as big a deal as all the other meals.

I decided to strike out and explore the nearby area around the hotel. It was daylight, I had a small map from the hotel, and figured that setting out almost randomly would be fun. Just a couple blocks north I found this:

Looking south in the Piazza Navona.

The Piazza Navona one of the larger public spaces in the old part of the city, built (Steve later told me) on the site of a Roman stadium. In the cool morning it was mostly empty, just a few artists starting to set up their informal booths and a couple groups of Japanese tourists.

Piazza Navona.

After the tight spaces of the streets of Rome, I enjoyed just walking around the piazza, looking at the various buildings which lined it, enjoying the massive central fountain and the two smaller ones on each end.

One curious little thing I hadn’t noticed in the Campo the day before: it was common for the artists/merchants to anchor their displays using long thick nails driven into the ground in the space between the cobblestones. A quick and effective anchor, which didn’t damage the surface at all.

* * * * * * *

From the Piazza Navona I continued north until I hit the river, then I walked along its banks for a while, just taking in the vistas of the city around me. Rome needs a bit of distance to appreciate fully, distance which you usually can’t get on the smaller streets of the city center.

After a couple of hours I made my way back to the hotel. Again the heat of the day had soaked into me, and me into my clothes. A shower and a fresh change of clothes was in order before I met the others for the afternoon activities.

* * * * * * *

We met outside the hotel. I had met a couple of the others in passing the afternoon before and that morning at breakfast (the students didn’t need to be over to the classroom quite as early as Steve and Amy did, since they had to set up tables and whatnot in advance of the first meeting). Everyone was surprisingly welcome and accepting of me – a politeness which I wondered whether would hold up in the course of two weeks travel.

It did.

The first thing we did was head over to the district of the former Ghetto for lunch and a bit of history on the place.

The Roman Ghetto.


Roman Ghetto.

All the subsequent meals we took as a group were semi-communal: at restaurants we’d order individually, but share freely back and forth so that people could enjoy a wider variety of dishes. When we ate at the villa down south, the meals were served ‘family style’. As a result, I couldn’t begin to remember all the different things I had a chance to try on the trip, and I didn’t make extensive notes. I did get a copy of the villa’s in-house cookbook, and I’ll share some recipes from it later.

After a quite enjoyable lunch we traipsed off to see Rome’s oldest forum: the Forum Boarium. We stopped along the way to enjoy views of Rome’s first bridges across the Tiber, as well as a bit of history of the Island. Here are images of the Temples of Hercules

Temple of Hercules.

and Portunus.

Temple of Portunus.

* * * * * * *

From there we went north, skirting along the base of the base of the Capitoline hill, pausing to look at excavations currently underway in the Forum Holitorium


then past the Theater of Marcellus:

Theater of Marcellus.


and then up to the Capitoline Hill. Climbing the long, sloping terrace/steps up to the top of the hill, we had a damned impressive view of the city to the west and north.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the Capitoline Museums .

Plaza on Capitoline Hill.


The Capitoline Wolf.

* * * * * * *

We made our collective way back to the hotel, where everyone showered and relaxed a bit before going out to dinner.

At dinner, as at lunch, I made a point of sitting with a new group of people. It was important to me to get to know the other members of the tour, to try and connect with them. Fortunately, this was pretty easy. In spite of my not knowing anything about Latin or teaching, they were all well skilled in working with new people. And the shared adventure we were on was a common denominator for all.

It was well past 10:00 before we left the restaurant. I, for one, was damned glad I didn’t need to attend a workshop starting at 8:30 AM.

Jim Downey

Italy, 2012: An unexpected introduction.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

That may seem to be an odd choice to kick off a series of travelogs about my recent trip to Italy. The focus of the trip, after all, was on Classical Antiquity – specifically, “The Italy of Caesar and Vergil.” So what does a fictional character from 2019 have to do with it?

Well, me, not to put too fine a point on it.

Context is everything. While I had always kinda-sorta wanted to see Italy, it wasn’t a high priority for me. Other trips always took precedent. I figured I’d get around to seeing Italy sometime, or if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, while I knew the general history of that part of Europe, and even more than the average amount about Rome (and the Romans), neither was of particular interest. It didn’t play a part in my fiction. It wasn’t pertinent to my life. So I thought.

I was wrong. Hopefully, these travelogs will convey how.

* * * * * * *

An old and dear friend is an expert on Classical Antiquity. His name’s Steve Tuck. Associate Professor of Classics. Published author. DVD star. He’s one of those guys that gets called up when NPR needs a sound bite/expert on something in his field.

And for years he’s told me about the various classes and tour groups he’s taken to Italy. They always sounded like fun, if somewhat outside my own scope.

Well, just a couple of weeks before he was supposed to take another group over this summer, he dropped me a note. There was an unexpected opening in his tour – was I interested in filling in?

Sure. What the hell. It’d be a chance for me to get a out of my routine. Push the boundaries of my comfort zone a bit. Spend time with a good friend who I don’t see often enough. And maybe even learn something.

The tour was actually designed as a workshop for High School Latin teachers, and would help them be prepared for changes to the A.P. criteria going into effect. Part of most days the group would be in class, going over the scholarly material. And the site visits would all be tied to said material. While the rest of the group was in class, I’d have time to explore on my own, do some writing (note-taking), play tourist. When we went to sites, I’d get the same expert guide instruction as everyone else.

So, it was 24 Latin teachers, me and two other non-teachers (one the spouse of a teacher, one the mother of one), my friend and his Co-Director for the trip, a woman who is herself a Latin teacher but who also has extensive knowledge of the area/material and conducted the classroom sessions. 29 of us. Good number. Prime number.

* * * * * * *

Getting to Rome was pretty much routine international travel. Which is to say mildly annoying and took too long. I can’t wait until the TSA allows the use of transporter technology. (You did know that we actually have transporter technology, right? Yeah. They’re just trying to figure out how they can still get to hassle us about the size of our water bottles before they let us use it.)

I arrived in Rome early on July 11th. Going through Passport Control and Customs amounted to little more than blithely showing my passport to the bored agent who glanced at it an waived me on. Seriously, I stepped past the checkpoint and looked around for the Customs station. There was none. Or rather, there was off to the side, but the guys there were too busy talking and literally didn’t even look up at me when I paused to consider if I needed to take my luggage to them. Hell, everyone else was just walking past me and into the main concourse, so I figured I should as well.

It was about 9:00 AM. It was hot & humid in the airport. The first two ATMs I passed weren’t working. People seemed to be less harried than you usually find. Certainly, the uniformed staff were. But whenever I stopped and asked a question, they were happy to help, and pointed me on my way.

This, I found, pretty much summed up Italy.

Except Naples. I’ll get to that later.

* * * * * * *

The express train from the airport to the main station in Rome proper took about a half hour. It cost $14 (actually, 11 Euros, but I’m just going to use $ equivalents since I have a $ key on my keyboard and it will avoid confusion). The seats were comfortable, half the train was empty, and again there was no Air Conditioning.

Air Conditioning isn’t a big thing in Italy. This was something of a theme for the whole trip.

The train station was big. Hectic. Every variety of human, and most of our various languages being spoken. But the signage out to the bus stands was pretty clear, so I made my way through the crowds and went outside.

No buses. Taxis. But no buses.

There were supposed to be buses. I went back inside, looked at the signage. Yup. There were supposed to be buses. There was construction beyond the taxis, but no buses.

The only train station employees were all in windows with long lines of people waiting to talk to them. I decided that I could solve this problem on my own.

I went out the side of the station. Still no buses. But there across the street I saw an ATM (called a bancomat in Italy) in the side of a building. I walked over to it. It wasn’t working. There was another one further down, which was.

I decided that I’d just keep going, do a circle around the train station. The construction in the front of the building was still there. But on the other side of it, well-hidden from the station entrance, I found buses. Yay!

* * * * * * *

My friend Steve responded to my text message letting him know I was in town. Said he’d meet me at the bus stop. He did.

It was a fairly short walk over to our hotel, right in the heart of downtown. Steve showed me our room – in the “annex.” Up about 47 flights of steps. All lovely marble, mind. But still.

But still, it was charming. About halfway up we came out on a little outdoor landing where more permanent residents had their little rooftop gardens.

hotel landing

Rooftop gardens are very big in Rome.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag, getting a little cleaned up from having been traveling the better part of a day, we went out. We met Steve’s co-director, Amy Leonard, and had a little lunch before stomping off across the city. Steve and Amy still had to do some checking on things before starting the tour stuff the next day.

You might think that most of this stuff could be done in advance. That information about museum opening times and whatnot would all be available online. And it is available online. You just can’t trust it.

This was one of the key things I learned about Italy: the randomness of how things work. You can take nothing for granted. Places which are supposed to be open certain hours seldom actually are. Shows/galleries which are supposed to be in place frequently aren’t. Things which are supposed to be available “just ran out.” Things that are supposed to work, don’t. You get more-or-less used to this pretty quickly, and learn to be relaxed about it, staying flexible about anything and everything.

So Steve and Amy had to do a lot of checking stuff to see what was actually there, what would actually work. And I tagged along for the walk.

* * * * * * *

Yeah, walk. The things we needed to see were all within walking distance. Well, walking distance if you’re used to walking a lot. I thought I was. I walk about 1.5 miles every morning. Briskly. Up and down hills. So when Steve and Amy said that things were within walking distance, I just grinned and said “sure.”

I’m an idiot.

Well, no, not for saying that I’d be able/willing to walk that much. For making a last-minute decision to wear some decent but lightweight Nike walking shoes on the trip, rather than the heftier hiking boots I usually walk in.

See, downtown Rome is paved with cobblestones. Oh, not all of it – there are some main roads which are concrete and whatnot. But the vast majority of places where you walk is cobblestones. My feet were aching and bruised before we were halfway done.

* * * * * * *

Well, what did I see?


Roman Forum

And a lot more like it.

* * * * * * *

When they were mostly done checking to make sure that their plans would work, we paused. All along the way Steve (mostly – occasionally Amy would chime in) would point out this or that notable structure. He didn’t go into detail with me, as all of this stuff was on the agenda for a complete explanation with the entire group, and there was no need to thrash over it all now.

But we paused on the east edge of the archeological site of the Forum. There was a raised platform about ten meters square.

“That’s where the original Colossus was” said Steve. I think he added something about it having been replaced by Nero with a statue of himself, which was subsequently torn down.

In the background was the Colosseum.

I looked around. Between all the walking, the jet-lag, and the quick intro into Rome, I was stunned. I looked back at Steve. At Amy. “I don’t know if you guys can still appreciate this, since you’re used to it, but this . . . this is . . . incredible. Just the scale of it. I mean, I have seen all of these things in images and documentaries all my life. But in person . . . they’re just overwhelming. You don’t really get a sense of how big, how grand, these things are.”

* * * * * * *

On the way back from the reconnoiter we stopped at Mad Jack’s Irish Pub for a beer.

I was still stunned. Still reeling from the size of the structures. From the scale of everything. From the deep history of the place.

I was used to seeing castles in northern Europe. Stuff six or seven hundred years old.

Where I had breakfast for the next three days was in the basement of the hotel. Or, more accurately, in part of the entry way to the Pompei Theatre, which was over 2,000 years old.

Sorta puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Jim Downey


Back from Z’ha’dum.*

I mentioned the other day that my trip to Italy had kicked loose some writing blocks I had been struggling with, and that it had given me ideas for additional stories and novels. It did. It also made me think hard about some decisions I needed to make. Not just about writing. Also about how I spend my life.

Simply put, I have several things I still want to accomplish before I die. Things which I won’t accomplish if I keep putting them off, putting time and energy into things which really don’t matter. Like arguments. Like writing fluff which other people could write, just in order to earn a little money. My time — my life — is more valuable than that.

I think that it was the experience of seeing so many incredible accomplishments from Classical Antiquity still around some 2,000 years later which made an impact on me.

Now, I have no illusions that anything I do will last that long. Nor am I going to give up ‘living in the moment’ and trying to enjoy my life and those I share it with. But I am going to reshuffle my priorities in some very concrete ways.

One of these will be much less time dinking-around in social media. Oh, I will still participate to some extent, still maintain connections with my friends and fans. But I am going to be less self-indulgent in that regard.

Another change in priority will mean writing fewer reviews and articles. That means a loss of income which has made a difference in recent years, and I have to find a way to replace that. After all, I still have to live. The result of this will be a Kickstarter campaign which will be formulated and announced in coming weeks — plenty of people have said that they are looking forward to seeing what my next novel is, and this is one way for them to help make that a reality sooner rather than later, a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is.

(And speaking of Kickstarter campaigns, some friends of mine just launched one to expand their artistic repertoire which I highly recommend — you can find it here: Ancient Metalsmithing Made Modern, or Perfecting Pressblech )

I recently turned 54. And I have accomplished a number of things of which I am justly proud. I have friends and family I love. I have a wonderful wife. I have written books and articles which have brought joy, knowledge, and solace to others. I have helped to preserve history in the form of books & documents. I have created art, sold art, made my little corner of the world a slightly better place. I’ve even helped expand the pool of ballistics knowledge a bit. Frankly, I’ve lived longer and accomplished more than I ever really expected to.

But I have more yet to do. Time to get on with it.

Jim Downey

*Yes, a Babylon 5 reference. In this case specifically to the episode “Conflicts of Interest” in which Sheridan makes the following statement:

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, Zack. There are several hundred unpleasant things I’ve been avoiding doing since I got back from Z’ha’dum. Now with Delenn gone I don’t have any excuses. I have to start taking care of them.”

Appropriately enough, one of the places I got to visit while in Italy was Lake Avernus — which the Romans considered the entrance to Hades. Yeah, I’ve been to Hell and back. It’s given me a new perspective.