Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A fixed point

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the October 1973 Conference.

I ran into some back-and-forth this week about various purported selfishnesses in a religious life. For example, the "selfishness" of having children, from an earnest fellow urging people to hold back for the sake of the planet. He says that children are "negative externalities" (i.e. costs suffered by third parties): 
We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.
Also, of course, there's the "religious people only care about the next world, so they don't bother doing good in this one" myth.

Similarly, as this post discusses, many people allege the "selfishness" of various types of self-reliance or variance from the social norms. For example:
…I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?…They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand [sic] in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.
I read things like this and feel discouraged at the way even well-meaning people can so fundamentally fail to understand the most basic of economic principles! But, without getting into the political thickets here (since one could argue I have rather a vested interest), I was mostly struck by how easy it is to get confused about what "selfishness" really is, when one lacks knowledge about what Christianity really is: a plan to become like God by sharing in His work—by helping save each other. Selfishness does not come from holding on to principles like home and family and God. Selfishness comes from letting go of those things and trying to make sense of the world without them! It's as if someone were trying to draw a perfect circle with a compass, but refused to pin in the center needle as a pivot point. Without the anchor of a center point, the lines of the circle will waver, and the circle will never be complete. God's principles of truth are that fixed point around which all other goodness can extend.

I thought several quotes from the October 1973 General Conference reinforced this clarifying perspective. Why are we given positions of responsibility (in families or in the church)? To satisfy our selfish desires for power? Of course not:
A man needs the responsibility of a wife and family. He needs the responsibility of being an example of righteousness. There is wisdom in this requirement. This kind of gentle persuasion is needed to keep a father “on course” and gently guide him toward perfection. ("The Role of Fathers," Elder A. Theodore Tuttle)
Why do we try to live our religion and share it with our neighbors? To shame them and "other" them? To selfishly seek rewards in eternity? Of course not:
Let me say, my brothers and sisters, that if we want to save individuals, to save the souls of our Father’s children, we must be willing to get involved and to help others get involved in meaningful ways also. 
Some of those who are calling out for help are confused and disturbed by this complex, somewhat contradictory world in which we live, a world that has many crosswinds and crosscurrents, and even some eddies and whirlpools that can entrap and destroy. Let us remember that. Many of these people are yearning for the inner peace and joy that really can come only through love of God and love of fellowmen and from keeping God’s commandments. ("Which Way to Shore," Elder William H. Bennett)
And why do we have children? To selfishly make our lives easier or to seek immortality through our DNA? Of course not:
The Lord…has given us this miraculous power of procreation where we can create children in God’s own image and share with them the tremendous blessings of life itself. Then during our family home evenings we may share with them the great treasures of the gospel of salvation. And through the missionary program we can share the blessings of eternal life with all of our friends and neighbors. God has promised us that if we will effectively be his messengers he will share his fortune with both those who give it and those who receive it. ("A Fortune to Share," Elder Sterling W. Sill)
Everything in the gospel leads us away from selfishness. That is not to say that we as Christians are always unselfish; of course we are. We do things for the wrong reasons. We fail to live up to our ideals. But our imperfections don't change the fact that our religion is one of the few things in this world that attempts to lead us away from selfishness, and succeeds! To the extent we DO learn to live selflessly, we owe that to the teachings of the gospel, and to the extent we DON'T, it's because we've not absorbed what Jesus is trying to teach us.

Love of Christ leads us to give everything: our time, our talents, all that we possess. And to give all that—to whom? Not to Him, or to our Heavenly Parents, who already have everything anyway. But to the furtherance of Their plan, which is to say: to helping our brothers and sisters. To saving God's children. That is the sole aim of the Christian life.

Much socio-political thinking would have us believe that caring deeply for our own—whether that be our own property, our own families, our own children—is anti-social. But that view has it backwards. Caring for our own is necessary practice. We learn skills, principles, habits of love as we tend our personal little gardens. And it is through this work that we learn to extend the very idea of "our own"—and realize that the concept of my family, my neighbor is something more vast and more grand than a human mind can even grasp. Commitment to religion is not sinkhole, but mainstay. It is the needle point of the compass. Christ. Family. Home. The center there must hold, strong enough to anchor us as we stretch and circle ever outward, ever further, in God's work.

Other posts in this series:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rome: In Which I Use the Word "Statuary"

We signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museums with one of those groups that gets in early so you don't have to wait in line, and even though Sam and I generally like to do things on our own, we were SO glad to have a guide in these museums. There is so much to see that no matter how amazing everything is, your eyes start to glaze over after awhile, and our tour guide helped us know what we should focus on—and (maybe more importantly) what to pass by quickly!

We got there quite early in the morning, so Sam and I wandered around the empty St. Peter's square for awhile, waiting for our tour to start. It's so enormous you can't even capture it in a photo! I remember learning about this square (designed by Bernini) when we studied architecture in school. It's amazing to have all these famous things all crowded together: Bernini's piazza, Maderno's facade, Raphael's architectural plans, Michelangelo's dome—not to mention all the amazing things inside the Basilica!
The piazza is surrounded by two beautiful arched colonnades, like two arms reaching out to hug someone—or as Bernini said, to "give an open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith." Not sure if I would count as a "heretic" to Bernini or not, but they are lovely, welcoming arms all the same.

Once we got inside Vatican City, we zipped through several long corridors (pausing only to admire an unwrapped mummy in the Egyptian section—very interesting) so we could enjoy the Sistine Chapel in relative seclusion before it became packed wall-to-wall with people. The Sistine Chapel, of course, is what everyone has heard of and what everyone comes to see, so I was prepared to be disappointed by it. You can't take pictures inside the chapel (interesting backstory here), but just for reference, it looks like this:
Image from Wikipedia
I knew this was the place with the painted ceiling done by Michelangelo, and the picture of God touching Adam's finger, but I didn't know (or had forgotten) that there were so many other panels showing so many other scenes and people! Our guide had gone over it while we were waiting to get into the Vatican, so we knew mostly what we'd be seeing.
Image from Wikipedia
When we walked in, though, it was still overwhelming! So many colors, so much light. We asked our friends that went to Rome earlier this year what their favorite part was, and they said almost apologetically, "We know it's so expected…and we liked lots of things…but there's still just nothing that can top the Sistine Chapel." I understand their hesitancy, because having heard of it and seen the pictures so many times, it's easy to think, "Can it really be THAT amazing? I mean of course it's famous and all, and was innovative for its time…but…." Well, but nothing. You stand there craning your neck backwards and thinking about how physically difficult the painting process must have been, and then that all fades away as you fall into the colors and the forms, and you realize why it set the standard for great art. I'm sure Sam could say better WHY that is. I think the most striking thing for me was the vibrancy of the color. I've never seen paintings with that kind of glowing, luminous color before (and it's because these aren't paintings—they're frescos—which keep their color better). That's what the photos of the art never captured for me; that and the sheer size of it all. And the weight and volume of the forms—like there are real people up there, breathing. (I also love the woman encircled in God's left arm. Some people think it's Eve. I lean toward a different interpretation, where Michelangelo [maybe inadvertently] depicted Heavenly Mother. Fascinating!)
Here's the outside of the Sistine Chapel. Fairly unassuming.
And the alcove you pass through before entering the chapel. Less unassuming. :) I love the night-sky-with-stars effect of the doorway.
After the Sistine Chapel we walked through the long corridors again. (Later in the day these were literally filled WALL TO WALL with people. Like I said…July isn't the best time to visit. One nice thing, though: the Vatican and other churches require people to have their shoulders covered, and also their legs down to the knees. Most women we saw around Rome were dressed waaay more skimpily than that, but in the churches they would just wrap themselves with scarves or tie shawls around their waists like skirts, so they could go inside, and I kept thinking, "They all look so lovely! If only they'd wear their clothes like that all the time!" :)) 

We could see other gardens and palaces of the Vatican through one wall of windows, and with the shutters closed against the sun on one side and open to the air on the other, it really wasn't too hot inside at all. The halls were filled with artifacts from the Greek and Roman empires—oil lamps, urns, silver vessels, brass hardware. Things like hinges that were machined so smoothly and perfectly, you would swear they were made ten years ago. No wonder people in the Renaissance marveled, discovering those ancient civilizations, at all the technology and knowledge that had been lost.
The floors and ceilings were works of art in themselves. It was too much, really, to take in.
I loved this Hall of Maps, with ancient charts and maps that were as interesting for what they left out as for what they showed.
You'd like a closer look at that ceiling, wouldn't you?
There was also a place you could look out over the city. So many cool monuments and spires rising up toward the sky! You can see the round dome of the Pantheon there in the center of the photo, and the bronze chariots of the Victor Emmanuel Monument to the right of that.
This staircase ("The most photographed one in the world!" said our guide) is cool—it's a double helix, so there's one side for going up and one for going down. It was built in the 1930's but it's based on one of the same design built in 1505 (!).
One of the most amazing places was the hall with all the Greek and Roman statuary! It's unfathomable to me that some of these were carved several centuries before Christ. The proportions are so beautiful, and the muscles and draperies so delicately handled! Our guide was trying to give us an idea of how literally priceless this statuary (don't mind me; I greatly enjoy that word; it sounds so much more art-history-ish than statues) is. One bust similar to these, for example, recently sold for something like 9 million dollars at auction. A full-body statue would be worth exponentially more. So even a smallish section like the one below
would add up to billions of dollars—if it were for sale at all—which, of course, it isn't. Those popes! They sure took whatever they wanted. And I guess it's good because it was preserved and now we get to see it (if "we" go to the Vatican Museums, that is, ha ha).
Going through the rest of the museums was seriously like taking a walk through the pages of my Art History book. I kept wishing my friend Rachael were there since we studied (and learned through only the most ridiculous and hilarious of mnemonics, and under the influence of whatever delicious food we were cooking up that night for fortification) all this stuff together in college. I didn't even remember that much information about the works, but the names kept coming into my mind like ghosts. Apoxymenos! Doryphoros! The Belvedere Apollo!
Laocoön Group! (This was a particular favorite—of Rachael and me, that is. It's so terribly difficult to say [and I'm still not sure if I've mastered it] that it became a delight. It was also a favorite of Michelangelo's—for different reasons, presumably.)
The Belvedere Torso! Another favorite—mine, because it's funny, and Michelangelo's, who referred to it as his "teacher" and said it was created by a man "wiser than nature." Or, if you'd rather believe the estimable Sir Joshua Reynolds (painter, philosopher, and one of my London professors' heroes):
What artist ever looked at the Torso without feeling a warmth of enthusiasm, as from the highest efforts of poetry?
Well? What artist ever DID look at "the Torso" without such warmth? Hmm? Certainly not Sam. He was giving off warmth of enthusiasm like the dickens!

Oh, I'm making fun a bit, but it really was all amazing. Greek and Roman art was never my favorite era to study, and I confess to skipping over the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in favor of more modern works—but there's something pretty powerful about seeing this sort of thing in person. It makes you think about how people really lived back then, and the things they learned and knew—and it reminds you how fragile and temporary human achievement, even the greatest of it, is.
Another famous fresco—Raphael's School of Athens. Again the clear, bright colors—though not, I thought, as stunning as the ones in the Sistine Chapel. This was a huge work taking up all of one wall. I never imagined that, seeing it in my art history book.
And then, of course, there was the constant splendor of our surroundings. This was one of the papal apartments for an earlier pope—can't remember which. Even discounting the frescos or the sculptures housed in the rooms, the tiles and mosaics make the space so opulent!

After several hours of trying to take everything in, and developing advanced cases of Museum Knee, and having seen so much statuary we felt like we were going to turn into some—

we emerged onto a balcony to see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica looming up over us.
Then it was just down a couple of stairways and through these imposing arches, and we were in the crypt, where the apostle Peter himself is buried. I thought a lot about him while we were there (though, of course, HE is not there any longer!), wondering what he thinks of this place built in his honor. I love Peter. He's one of my favorite people in all the scriptures. 

And THEN we went up a tiny narrow staircase and emerged under THIS:
The dome of St. Peter's! which, in this photo, is really nothing like as magnificent as it was. The almost dizzying size of that dome, covered as it is with glittering gold leaf, almost gave me a headache as I looked up at it. And that's just the central dome. There are smaller domes over the corner chapels, too, nearly as stunning—though it's this one that's the architectural masterpiece. We learned about it a couple years ago (Building Big! Such a great documentary!). It has iron rings inside the stonework to counteract the hoop tension pushing outward, and pendentives to distribute the weight downwards. You can learn more about the engineering of the dome if you want to (and who wouldn't?), here.
Just for scale—each of those letters in the word "Petrus" is six feet tall. I think it's that scripture from Matthew: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."
Behind one of the altars in the basilica is another famous painting, Raphael's The Transfiguration. Only…to our amazement…it WASN'T the painting. It was a mosaic copy of it! The colors were so perfect, and the pieces so small, we couldn't believe it at first.
Even up close it's hard to tell, but you can see some of the tiling in the shadow of the robe, and in the sky and the grass beneath the tree here.
Bernini's massive canopy above the papal altar. Note that intricately decorated barrel vault above, and then behind it:
This alabaster window with a dove in the middle of it. I love those sun rays bursting out all around.
And then, suddenly, there was the Pietà, which I didn't even know would be here, but which I've always wanted to see. I think I first heard of this work when I read My Name is Asher Lev, before I ever took an art history class, and I had to find a picture somewhere in a book at the library to see what it looked like. It's behind bulletproof glass now because some maniac took a hammer to it in the 70's, but the power and the emotion of it were, to me, undeniable. Michelangelo sculpted Mary as such a young woman, and Sam told me that's because it's supposed to BE the young Mary, holding her baby Jesus, and foreseeing in her mind and heart his eventual, inevitable death. I kept thinking of what Simeon says to Mary: "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also"—and wondering about all the things Mary kept and pondered in her heart—and I thought in some small way my own mother-heart could understand. And in that crowded alcove, surrounded by cameras and sweaty bodies and people talking on their phones, I cried.
There wasn't much more after that, and we felt completely exhausted anyway. We went out into the now-crowded St. Peter's Piazza, walking by the obligatory obelisk on our way, and turned back to gaze at this place one more time. Truly amazing. I'm so, so grateful we got to actually go there!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Grace to Grace

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session from the October 1973 Conference.
In his talk "Think on These Things," Bruce R. McConkie quoted a scripture I hadn't noticed before. It's from Isaiah, setting forth what things will help us attain eternal life, and one of the characteristics listed is "he that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil.”

The meaning is a little obscure. It can't mean we are supposed to ignore evil, can it? Or pretend it doesn't exist? Here's how Elder McConkie interprets it:
That is, we must not center our attention on evil and wickedness. We must cease to find fault and look for good in government and in the world. We must take an affirmative, wholesome approach to all things.
I've thought about that this week, wondering how that counsel still applies. If he were talking about church leaders I could understand. But can he really mean we should "cease to find fault" with the government? And would he still advise that today? 

I don't know. But if I take the whole paragraph together, I can see the wisdom in looking for good anywhere we can find it. In being optimistic and refocusing, and making sure the evil in the world doesn't consume our attention. Not that we deny it or ignore it. But merely that we not place it at the center of our view.

Because, objectively, the goodness of God really is the central truth of the universe, isn't it? Whether we see it or not? And the more accurately we learn to see reality, the more fully we WILL see that truth?

I have been thinking lately of the difficulty of life. So many hard things to go through, even in a life full of blessings and ease. So many heartaches; so much loneliness; so much hard, painful struggle. Internal and external suffering. It's easy to be glib about how universal hardship is, but when you feel that ache in your soul, it's your reality. Often the worst part of suffering is looking ahead and realizing, "I will never feel better."

And yet, that's untrue. Or, it's only true in one sense. Yes, there are some trials that never leave us. Chronic illness, the weight of love and pain for our children, loss, uncertainty, self-doubt. In times of despair, these things stretch out ahead of us like bleak oceans of suffering, apparently endless. But it occurred to me that that view doesn't capture the day-to-day reality. I'm not even talking about eternal perspective here! Because of course in the eternal perspective, there IS an end, and we have faith that God will wipe away all tears. But even in the here and now, even in the very crush of heartache, life is not usually experienced as a bleak unbroken sea of grief. There are stepping stones of respite along the way. There's the ordinance of the sacrament, every week. A phone call or an email that makes you laugh. A meal that tastes unexpectedly delicious. A peaceful drive. A beautiful lightning storm. Those things keep happening, no matter how dark the trial we face! We go to a meeting and feel the spirit and it comforts us. We stop worrying for an hour or two while reading a good book. The endlessness of sorrow is an illusion we create for ourselves, and the uniformity of that illusion is sometimes what causes us more concern than the actual, unfolding, piecemeal reality of life.

I'm not trying to minimize the all-encompassing feeling trials often bring. And certainly, the ache of a death or a loss may never fully leave us—but that doesn't change the fact that happy days come, and joyful moments unfold unexpectedly, and KEEP unfolding, often far more frequently than our own internal vision would have us believe. When Sam and I were having marriage trouble some years ago, I would wake up feeling sick, dreading to face another day. And yet even THEN, goodness would make its way in and surprise me—somewhere interesting to go, a kind word from someone, some tender mercy from the Lord. It was only in some hypothetical (and, if I had only known it, FALSE) future that there was no goodness, no respite, no hope. But in the reality of the present, hope kept finding its way through.

And that's what I think Elder McConkie means when he says, 
If we are going to work out our salvation, we must rejoice in the Lord. We must ponder his truths in our hearts. We must rivet our attention and interests upon him and his goodness to us.
You know what that Isaiah scripture says next, after describing the person who "shutteth his eyes from seeing evil"? It says "his waters shall be sure." It makes me think, those scary waters will be around us—but we'll have a sure path through them, like Jesus did when he walked on the water. Because, like Peter, we're bravely, if shakily, trying to come to Him.

I don't know if this is really what it means in context, but the phrase "grace to grace" keeps coming to mind. I feel like we can go through our trials like that, from grace to grace to grace. From blessing to blessing to blessing, like stepping stones across deep water, knowing the water is all around, but also knowing there will always be another place to land and rest, safe for a moment before going on.

I tend to look ahead and conjure up a vision of vast troubles, an ocean of everything I'm most worried about right now, plus more. In my low moments I'll think, "this is awful! And this isn't even as bad as it's going to get! It will probably just get worse and worse, not to mention all the bad things that are going to happen that I don't even know about yet! And if I'm feeling so bad NOW, just imagine how bad I'll feel then!" But what a silly thing to do! It is "riveting my attention" on entirely the wrong things. That vision completely leaves out the things that get better, and the things that disappear altogether, and the innumerable moments of happiness and goodness, and the silliness and surprises and laughter, and the personal growth that will make me better able to cope with the things that DO persist. Instead, I should always be looking for the next good thing—and there will always and forever BE a next good thing, because that's the universal truth of a merciful God. Why not step on that more sure path, from grace to grace rather than from fear to fear?

Other posts in this series:

Monday, August 22, 2016

Rome: the Hidden Places

One of my favorite things in Rome (and Orvieto, the other city we visited) was finding little hidden, secluded areas that were tucked away inside buildings or behind doors. There were some similar places I loved in Berlin—courtyards only visible from the inside of buildings which, from the front, appeared forbidding and impenetrable. I guess this love of the hidden places is nothing unique to me: it's the attraction of the secret garden or the little turret window or the turning bookshelf-door in the library of an old house. I'm sure Sam has a Design Principle name for this attraction, for the innate appeal of a path that leads our eye and makes us want to follow it into the forest. And maybe it's nothing unique to Rome either; maybe every city has its hidden gardens and quiet courtyards, places the casual visitor never sees. But maybe because I had so much time in Rome to just wander, off the usual tourist track (though I did the tourist track TOO, and loved it), I felt like I caught more glimpses of these spots, and found myself more intrigued by them, than I have in other cities.
To start with, there were the doors themselves. So many of them, and with such varied appearance. This sort of imposing double door was everywhere, and made it seem like the most ordinary sort of apartment building might hide the most wonderful treasure inside.
Then there were the rooftop gardens. Everywhere we went, we noticed lit gardens and terraces on top of  buildings. Again, this is probably something you'd find in any big city (and so would likely be unremarkable to a New Yorker), but it just made me feel WILD with curiosity! Who lives up there? What kind of parties are they having out on their terraces? What are their lives like and what are they seeing up there, looking out across the rooftops? We did get to see one—we got to go up to someone's top-floor apartment for a cooking class we took—and I loved it, but it just made me want so much to see MORE!
View of other terraces and balconies, from a rooftop terrace. That golden sun on those iron arches!
Our hotel had a little outdoor terrace where you could eat breakfast. I took my book out there and listened to the wind come through the umbrella pines, and wondered who my neighbors were with that pirate flag above. :)

On one of the walking tours I went on, our guide looked around furtively and then ducked us through a narrow alley into this secluded courtyard. It was near a busy piazza, but the sound just melted away as we walked in, until we were left standing in near-silence, with only the cicadas chirping. Our guide told us this courtyard has been left just like this since the Middle Ages. People still live here in these old buildings, and you can stand there and feel just like you're in medieval Rome! There was construction going on to close the alleyway so you won't be able to get in at all, except through one of the houses, so I'm so glad I got to see it while I could!
Mostly, though, I was just looking in through gates or between buildings, catching glimpses of cobblestones or fountains behind, and wondering, wondering, wondering how these places came to be, and who got to use them.
Many of the most boring-looking apartment buildings had forbidding iron gates at the front, usually standing open during the day. You could look past and see intricate tilework or beautiful stones paving inner chambers—maybe sunrooms or atria letting in the natural light.
This one was particularly beautiful, in Orvieto. Just an ancient-looking stone facade, an open door, and beyond the door…this. I love the collonnade and the gorgeous medieval arches along that little patch of garden.
Along the entry hall of another building nearby, this beautiful little chapel grotto with the Virgin Mary inside. It looked so peaceful and cool, tucked away out of the noise and the heat. I wonder who made it, and if the residents still go there to pray?
This building looked like it had an interesting interior, too. There's that cool terrace on top, and the round balcony, and a green garden behind the walls.
I suppose in a big, highly populated city like this, you have to make your own green spaces where you can (and if you have the money for it!). I loved this ivy-covered wall with what was clearly an oasis-like yard behind. I so wished to see inside!
Another hidden garden. And those inviting green doors tucked into the walls!
This was the inner courtyard of a museum rather than a private residence, so I ventured further in. Old statues and walls, with the welcome shade from the pines above.
And this was in a huge enclosure with extensive gardens, and lots of old outbuildings like this one. I was so curious about it! Did it used to be a guesthouse? Servants quarters? The gardeners shed? The estate was obviously a grand one, but it looked abandoned. Who used to live there?
Here are the front gates of that same estate, just hinting at the formal gardens beyond. All fallen into disrepair. Such a mysterious place! I loved thinking about it and imagining what it used to be like.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rome: I begin to love it

I felt almost apologetic when I realized this trip to Rome was really going to happen and I had to start mentioning it to people. I already felt like it was too much good fortune for any normal person when I got to go to London and Berlin in April, and now here we were jaunting off across the world again only a few months later! Sam had been asked to teach a class way back at the beginning of the year, but then it looked like it wouldn't go through, and I was pretty sure I couldn't leave the kids again, and—well, maybe the details are boring, but anyway the stars and the babysitters aligned, and suddenly (just as we were getting home from Yellowstone!) we had one week to get ready and go! The preparation (for me) was a jumble of laundry, and sleeplessness, and losing things, and forgetting things and remembering them at the last minute. And Sam was just frantically trying to prepare twenty-one hours' worth of class material. But finally we were on the plane and then we were flying over the Alps!—and realizing we were truly going to Italy. 

There was a bit of uncertainty and grumpiness that first day, I'm sorry to say (speaking in the passive voice so as not to assign blame to anyone in particular)—probably a combination of worry for the kids, and lack of sleep, and abject terror induced by the taxi ride from the airport (which was actually kind of fun, looking back on it—darting forays down crowded, one-way streets; and wholesale ignoring of traffic lights; and squeezing with complete abandon through impossibly tight alleys). We emerged from the taxi feeling dazed and hot and foreign, and after dropping off our suitcases, wandered around in the Borghese Gardens in a dutiful effort to stay awake till nighttime.
Everything was SO dry. The grasses were dead and the trees were brittle, and there were strange insects screeching above big bare patches of earth. It couldn't have been more different from Hyde Park or the Tiergarten if it had been on Mars!

And then there was the garbage…everywhere! Piles of it overflowing from dumpsters and spilling off of street corners, heaped up in ditches and cascading down gutters. It smelled so bad you could actually taste it, and there were little flies rising up in clouds from oozing bags and overturned cans.

But then, on the way from the airport, there had been a glimpse of THIS…:
And (if you could tear your eyes away from the acres of garbage), there were whole streets lined with flowering trees, like THIS:
And we had found a tiny little restaurant, so small you had to crowd inside with dozens of other sweaty people to order, and then take your food outside to balance on a tiny little ledge while you burned your fingers eating it, but the food was THIS:
So it's not like we needed to feel sorry for ourselves or anything. :) But as we collapsed into bed that night, I have to admit I was feeling a bit of, "So THIS is ROME? What am I doing here? Am I even going to LIKE it here?"

I woke up still feeling apprehensive. Sam was going to be teaching all day and I was on my own, and everything felt SO foreign. I had scheduled a food tasting tour for myself, and I had to use Uber to get myself there (which is WORLDS better than a taxi for a small-town, non-taxi-riding person like me—no "hailing," no giving of directions, no worrying about what to pay or how to pay—but which is still unfamiliar enough to be nerve-racking), and I realized as I sat in the backseat of the car and watched the unfamiliar city rush by that our airport driver hadn't been an aberration, but that there really just aren't…any…traffic rules in Rome. Well, that's not quite true. They did have traffic lights. And one does drive on the right…usually…though that seems to be a quaint custom which only the most conservative driver retains. But lanes are nonexistent, and the drivers honk and gesture and squeeze around each other and stop in the middle of the street, and generally appear completely incensed when other drivers do exactly what they themselves did moments ago.

But. My driver was friendly, and told me about the sites we were passing, and although the traffic was terrible (it's always terrible) and I was late for my tour, I found the right spot, and soon I was walking through a bustling market, past flower stalls, tasting vinegars and olive oils and cheeses, and I felt like I could breathe for the first time that day. Being in the care of a tour guide rather than all on my own was very soothing to the soul!
Then we walked into a store full of MEAT. But I like meat! So that was fine.
We tasted all kinds of salami and salumi (which I learned the difference between—salami is ground up and put into a skin, like sausage, and salumi is just cured meat in general. So salami is a type of salumi. Ha!) and I liked everything. I also liked watching the other people on the tour. There was a very foodie-ish couple from Boston, with two young girls named Endive and Paté (or so I imagined to myself—ha ha), and it made me feel quite at home to see the girls turning up their noses at various meats (even though I think my kids would have liked it!) and dragging along limply and grumpily after their parents, as children do. It also made me SO grateful I wasn't carrying a heavy, heavy baby around Rome.
And when we finished eating meat and walked into this beautiful piazza, all my last doubts and worries disappeared, and I thought: I LOVE it here.
It's all so beautiful. The colors. The travertine. The obelisk (stolen from Egypt, naturally. There was such a craze for Egyptian architecture at one time, there are now more obelisks in Rome than in Egypt itself!) and the gorgeous fountain, designed by Bernini. It took my breath away.
But I think the thing that really cemented my love for the city that second day were these narrow streets, paved with cobblestone and flanked by warm-colored walls. It just felt like Italy should feel. I kept having to push down the secret suspicion that it was all an elaborate set-up for the tourists, but wherever I went, even in quiet, tucked-away neighborhoods where there were no shops and all I heard spoken around me was Italian, it was the same.
You'd peer down every other street and see another piazza with a fountain in it, or a perfect little jewel of a church, like this one. It was enough to make you forget the garbage! 

(And, to be fair, one of the guys at the school Sam was teaching at said there had been trouble with the sanitation workers when the new mayor was elected. They'd been on strike [of course] and the garbage was worse than usual, he said. And they did apparently make more of an effort to clean it up in the more tourist-heavy areas. And I thought, well, maybe it's just that all big cities are like this. And maybe New York is. But when we got home and were walking in downtown Salt Lake, I looked around and thought, "No. This is a comparative haven of cleanliness. It was definitely WAY worse in Rome.")
Another discovery that made everything SO much more pleasant was the water. Oh, the Roman water! The weather was SO hot, and it was almost unbearable that first day. This is definitely NOT the time of year you'd choose to visit Rome, if you had your choice. There are tons of tourists at the museums (even worse than usual as this is a "Year of Jubliee" for the Catholics) and the gardens and parks are parched and dry from the heat. BUT, thanks to the ancient Romans and their still-working (!!) aqueducts, there is water everywhere! Fountains like this one on practically every street corner, constantly flowing with cold, delicious mineral water. Once I learned this was drinkable water it changed everything! You can stop and fill your bottle, or put your hand under the spout to make the water spurt up through a hole so you can drink it, or just put your hands and wrists underneath to splash yourself and cool off. It made walking around so much better! And it was fun to look for the fountains. There are larger, more ornate ones like the one above, and then little ones, like this one:
called "nasoni" because the spouts are shaped like a "big nose." And I just felt so happy to be drinking such good water out of such an ingenious, ancient system of reservoirs and fountains and aqueducts. It was a highlight of the trip, really. :) Some of the mineral water in Rome is even a bit naturally fizzy! So interesting.
I got to "make my own pizza" on that first food-tasting tour (and I put that in quotation marks because they clearly didn't trust the tourists to actually do anything. The dough was already made and rolled into circles, which we were permitted to pat out and then add toppings to, and then they posed each of us holding a pizza peel which the chef then—of all the indignities—took away from us so as to put the pizza into the oven himself! Hmmph!) and it was, honestly, one of the best things I've ever eaten. I have had lots of good pizza—I fancy myself a pretty good pizza maker myself, and I've been to some Italian-style pizzerias around home—but wow. This was truly amazing. My only regret was that Sam wasn't there to eat it with me! But we went back to the same place later, so all was well.
I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the food in Rome. (You know this is a subject of great importance to me.) It was so good. So, so good. But it was also…how do I put this? It wasn't the überfood. It wasn't in a whole class by itself. Our food-tour guide was telling us how when she goes home to Peru, she just "can't eat anything," because Rome has "spoiled her" and now that she's tasted the Roman food she just "can't ever go back." That struck me as hyperbole. Like anywhere, there are great foods, and interesting foods, and less-inspired foods. Some places that we ate felt transcendent, but then, I have had transcendent meals in the U.S., too. Even in Utah. Even in my own home. :) I don't think anyone has a monopoly on good food, and it wouldn't make sense if they did! Even if tastes didn't vary (which they do) and even if there were some objective standard of "delicious" (which there isn't)—there are just different degrees of how much food MATTERS to different people! So it would be both inefficient and nonsensical if every restaurant tried to reach the same end point.

I say all that as a prelude to, and an apology of sorts for, talking about just how great the food was. :) We had a few meals that were just okay. But when I look at the pictures of this pizza, I almost want to cry with how much I want to eat it again—and with knowing that no matter how much I want to, I CAN'T! Ha. With our pizza we drank lots of Fanta, and maybe it was the heat or maybe it was my imagination, but it just tasted so COLD and so good—nothing at all like it does when I've had it here. It was pale and yellowish (not orange) and not-very-sweet, and so refreshing. 
And then there was the cheese. On the food-tasting tour I tasted something called "burrata," which is basically a fresh mozzarella with cream injected inside. It is AMAZING, and that's something I really DON'T know if you can equal outside Italy. I've even made my own mozzarella and my own ricotta (which were both great), and I did try some sort of artisan burrata at Harmon's (made in California, I think) and it was good—but none of those cheeses seemed to attain the level of excellence of the best ones I tried in Italy. Maybe it's something about the milk or the enzymes or the types of cows? Or maybe it really is just the halo of rosy memory coloring it.
This was a flatbread with burrata and sundried tomatoes on it, which our friends Jeff and Kit recommended to us, and eating it was one of those transcendent experiences I mentioned. SO good.
These were tarts or cakes or pies?—sort of all three at once—we had at some restaurant at midnight when we were starving, and again, they were so unlike anything we normally eat that they felt like a revelation. It's not that Americans can't make good dessert, but we just…don't? Or not often enough, it seems. These were almond-y and pistachio-y and custard-y and had that sort of bland sweetness that European pastries so often have. That doesn't sound like a good thing, but it IS. And so different. I just like it.
This was a plate of prosciutto and melon. An unexpected combination, but so good! We also had prosciutto with figs (I don't think I'd ever had fresh figs before!) and we loved it too.
And of course, the gelato. This is another thing that I suppose Americans are capable of making—I've had great gelato here—but I think Italy just distinguishes itself by the sheer quantity of quality gelato, if that makes sense. It's everywhere! On every corner! And with the barest attempt to find something amazing (checking Yelp, for example, and avoiding the MOST touristy areas), you CAN. We didn't have a single cone that wasn't just delicious and wonderful. So many interesting flavors, too! Maybe it's not our American gelato-making abilities that should be disparaged, but our gelato-eating abilities, because I can't help thinking that if more people cared about good gelato, production would rise to meet demand. It's the poverty of our dessert standards coming out again. Maybe there are just too many people who are dieting and would pass it up with an "Oh, I shouldn't." Hmmph!

Anyway, I feel compelled to document the gelato flavors Sam and I tried during our eight days in Rome:
  • Salted caramel
  • Pistaccio
  • Panna cotta with caramel
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Strawberry
  • Strawberry yogurt
  • Coconut
  • Passion fruit
  • Lemon
  • Mint
  • Hazelnut
  • Chocolate hazelnut
  • Kiwi
  • Green apple
  • Peach
  • Yogurt
  • Cinnamon
  • Basil
  • Fig
I really don't know if I can choose a favorite, but if pressed, I might say the strawberry yogurt, the basil, the fig, and the panna cotta with caramel.

And for even more excitement: stay tuned for my next post, in which I peer into courtyards and notice lots of doors!