It's a Sunday afternoon in France. I went to the market this morning: bought my shimmeringly fresh yellow pepper; listened to the produce vendor warmly greet a friend in Arabic before offering me a bunch of parsley; accepted a cadeau from the cheese vendor who remembered me from last week and was happy that I had enjoyed the 24-month-aged Comte; and bought my hot fresh bread from the bakery around the corner. I arrived in France Friday night, after a sojourn in Rome. Walking past a cafe in Nice the next day, where the late-morning coffee-drinkers were still lingering, I caught myself thinking, "It's nice to be home."
But it's even nicer to travel; which, let us not forget, is what I'm doing every minute this year. I spent the first day in Rome in a complete buzz. I asked everyone patient enough how to say this or that in Italian, ate my meals one savory bite at a time, and flooded my eyes with artwork. Visiting a new country is a drug, and I can tell from the minute I set foot somewhere new that I won't ever have enough. When I wasn't stuffing my mind with Italian words or Italian art, I was scheming (ok, fantasizing) a year in Italy, complete with language courses and art history classes. It was a totally realistic dream until I got to the part where I'd start wearing fashionable Italian clothes...
I was not prepared for Rome. Even if I had pored over pictures guidebooks, you're never really prepared for Rome.
Rome is unreal. It's huge, larger-than-life. Every city has endless nuances and nooks for the patient explorer. Rome has everything -- the enormity, and the subtlety.
Every time you turn a corner, there is another church. The architecture is diverse, but each one rises above the street magnificently, wearing its columns, sculptures and stone filigree with the grace of a French lady at the opera. If a year in France had numbed you to immense stone facades, you have only to walk in to be awed anew. Inside, the ceiling is closer to the heavens that the roof had been outside. If you peeked in the door and then immediately closed your eyes, the colors, however muted by time and solemnity, would dance behind your eyes. If you looked again, your gaze would ascend along the marble pillars, past the larger-than-life sculptures of saints and popes, past paintings of every story in the Book, past Mary after Mary, and rest on the vaulted ceilings covered with paintings framed in golden lace. Finally, if you walked through the door and stood with your head tilted back and your hands hanging at your sides, you could stare for hours and hours without seeing everything.
And after your eyes were saturated, after the choir had finished singing their mass, after the nun had passionately pressed a Mary medallion into your hand, and you'd emerge on the street again, you'd blink in the crass light and and you'd start walking, towards, knowingly or not, the next monument to beauty.