My Roman Holiday


For seven days my husband, my daughter and her two children (age 14 and 11), and I crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea. We walked on the red carpet in Cannes, admired the night view of Palma de Mallorca, visited a turtle sanctuary in Ajaccio, tasted freshly made pesto in Genova, marveled at the still leaning tower of Pisa, and learned basic steps of Flamenco in Barcelona (FYI, the most important element of  it is passion!) . Our cruise ended near Rome, where we stayed for several more days.

Rome was hot, humid, and overrun with tourists. Still, I reserved excursions there, too — a tour of the city, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum. The Vatican was our last organized destination and I was looking forward to it.

“Tomorrow we are going to the Vatican,” I said to my family the night before. “Don’t forget to cover your knees and shoulders.”

“OK,” My daughter and my husband said in unison, while my grandchildren looked at me gloomily.

Having done a lot of sightseeing already, all they wanted to do for the rest of their vacation was “nothing,” and going to the Vatican wasn’t that.

“I can’t cover my knees.” My grandson said.  “All I have is shorts.”

The thing about my grandson is that when he doesn’t feel like doing something but doesn’t want to admit that, he comes up with a variety of dubious excuses. Once in London (my daughter’s family lives in England), when I wanted to take him to a public library, he said, looking at me very sincerely:

“In our country, Grandma, they don’t allow children to public libraries.”

That was such an obvious fabrication that I burst into laughter. A librarian myself, I knew that although the case can be made that the Brits like their dogs more than they like their children, they surely build public libraries with children in mind.

“You’ll be OK,” my daughter said to her son. “I have your track pants.”

Here my granddaughter chimed in.

“My ankle hurts,” she said. (She was jumping all over the rented apartment five minutes earlier).

Yet, to her utter disappointment, I reached into my extensive first aid kit and pulled out a muscle relaxer, so a visit to the Vatican became inevitable.

 

“Your tickets don’t include any museums.” Our tour guide said, looking at our reservation, and my grandchildren’s faces lit up, while their mother’s expression soured.

“What does that mean? I said. “Are you saying that we won’t be able to see the Sistine Chapel?!

“That’s right. Unless you buy additional tickets.”

“Sure,” my husband muttered under his breath. “Let’s fleece the tourists.”

Yet we paid extra and — with 30 other sightseers – headed to our destination.

 

At first, the tour guide showed us around the Vatican’s grounds, and then she herded us to the additionally-paid-for museums. Of course, these were not the kind of museums I was used to — with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. These were ostentatious displays of unqualified power and wealth: gold-leaf ceilings, sumptuous decorations, luxurious carriages and pope-mobiles and, of course, famous paintings and sculptures. It was overwhelming and I fully expected my husband to comment on that or to say something inappropriate. Like the time when we were in Florence, walking around Michelangelo’s statue of David, and our tour guide said, “Does anybody see anything unusual about this sculpture?”

“He’s not circumcised,” My husband said immediately.

At that point, I quickly withdrew my hand from his and pretended that I had never seen him before, while our female guide raised her eyebrows and — not waiting for my husband’s other insights — quickly informed the group that one of David’s legs is shorter than the other, and if he were standing  up straight, we would clearly see it.

This is time, thought, a body part comment came out of the mouth of my 14-year-old grandson.

“Why did they tell us to cover our knees and shoulders?” He said looking around. “There are naked pictures all over!”

That was a very good question, but while I tried to come up with an appropriate answer, the dense crowd of visitors picked us up, pushed us through several galleries and flights of stairs, and deposited us into the Vatican’s Jewel – the Sistine Chapel.

With every inch of its surface covered with frescoes, the Chapel did look like a jewel box — or rather a jewel box filled with ants, as the visitors stood there shoulder to shoulder. My pulse quickening with anticipation, I lifted my gaze to the ceiling, fully expecting to be struck by another Michelangelo masterpiece — “The Creation of Adam.” Yet from where we entered, the famous fresco appeared backwards and I couldn’t make much sense of it. I spent some time craning my neck and twisting my body, so I could see both God and Adam the way I was used to from observing numerous reproductions, but the collective noise and heat emanating from the crowd made me feel lightheaded and I switched my attention to the walls.

Unfortunately, the number of people pressing on me from all sides did not allow for much maneuvering. Besides, to my horror, I suddenly realized that not only did I lose sight of our tour guide, but I also lost sight of my daughter and, worse, my grandchildren! The only familiar figure I could spot in the distance was my husband’s.

The loss of my daughter in a strange city was somewhat distressing but clearly, I wasn’t in a position to save every member of my family. Therefore, I stopped looking at the frescoes and began scanning the crowd for the kids. Thank goodness! They were only twenty yards away, so I desperately pushed my way through the overheated bodies, grabbed my granddaughter’s hand with one hand and my grandson’s with the other and pulled them to the exit, toward the pennant carried by our tour guide, which loomed far ahead.

Before we exited the chapel, I glanced at the ceiling for the last time. From this direction both God and Adam looked right, and feeling relieved that I finally solved the puzzle of the creation and my grandchildren were safely in my hands, I left the building.

 

On our last evening in Rome my husband and I went to the Trevi Fountain. The night was starless, and by the time we reached the famous fountain, set against a baroque palazzo and brightly lit from all sides, it looked like a turquoise oasis in the dark desert of the night. People crowded all around it — talking, taking selfies, or just enjoying the view. So many people, in fact, that we couldn’t get close to the sparkling water — even less to toss a coin without landing it on someone’s head. Instead, we kissed. And it was a nice moment.

When we turned to leave, I noticed a young couple with two little girls just behind us. The man looked Middle-Eastern and the woman wore a headscarf. They, too, were trying to take a selfie, but the girls, who were too young to recognize the uniqueness of the moment, kept twisting and turning, making it difficult for their parents.

Had I met that family somewhere else, I would never have approach them. Had I met that man in any other crowded place, I would have put a distance between us. Yet here, by this fairytale fountain that spoke of romance, hope and goodwill, I looked at the pretty woman and the cute girls, and said:

“Would you like me to take a photo of you?”

They did.

I took several pictures, handed them their phone, and we left.

 

“Too bad we couldn’t toss a coin,” I said to my husband on our way back.

“Do you want to return to Rome?” He said.

“Sure …” I started. But then I stopped.

The one way I would enjoy that — I realized — would be returning here all together, hopefully when my grandchildren are older and can appreciate it better. As for me, my happiness does not depend on this city or this fountain. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any patch of earth. For me, a Jewish Russian immigrant to America who lost her roots a long time ago, whose parents passed away, and whose daughter no longer lives in the same country, happiness is defined by being needed, being able to help and also being able to create memories that will live after I’m gone.

It also depends on relationships – between me and my family, among my friends, and, ultimately, among all of us humans — no matter where we came from or where we’ll go next. Or, to put it simply, on everybody following the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

ALL THAT MATTERS


It was the fifth day of our grandparents-connect-with-their-grandchildren vacation. The day started as usual – the grandchildren needed “five more minutes” to finish their electronic games; their mother, my daughter, needed more sleep; and I needed to get all of them out of the apartment to continue our exploration of Lisbon.

The reason that we found ourselves in Lisbon was simple. It was the final destination of my husband’s and my “Classic Portugal” tour, and it was also the place where my daughter, who settled in England 15 years ago, could bring her children — ages 10 and 13 — in a mere two hours, so the kids could bond with their US grandparents.

Pena Palace, Cintra, Portugal

This was the first time we assembled in a country foreign to all of us. Our previous vacations mostly took place in English sea towns where, no matter the month, the quaintness of the place was inevitably dampened by rain and darkened by gray skies. Portugal was chosen for its weather and also its food – the latter based on my husband’s recollection of his 1965 American-on-the cusp-of-being-drafted-in-the army-and-possibly-sent-to-Vietnam tour of Europe.

In general, I found his recollections correct. Portuguese food, with its abundance of fish, sangria and good bread was great! However, in 1965, my husband’s traveling companion was a guidebook “Europe on $5 a Day,” but in 2018, $5 couldn’t even buy gelato for my grandchildren.

Well, it wasn’t the money that bothered me. It was my firm belief that we needed to get our money’s worth. Therefore, I packed our days with various tours and activities, and lingering in the rented apartment wasn’t one of them.

The grandchildren, on the other hand, happily spent time playing their electronic games or talking to each other (you would think that siblings living in the same London flat wouldn’t have much to talk about!). And they had tremendous fun riding around the apartment on a coffee table, which was too low for food or drink but featured four large wheels.

Still, I persevered. I endured the pleas and arguments of the children. I reasoned with my daughter who, exhausted from the hustle and bustle of London, wanted to sleep till … I never actually found out till when, because, by the time a small volcano threatened to erupt in my chest, she usually got up.

In any case, we had already taken two walking tours of the city — both very successful, especially from the point of view of gelato sellers. We had visited the Castle of St. George, from which Portuguese Kings ruled the country for four centuries — also very successfully, particularly when the kids discovered several peacocks who, true to the manners of the former castle occupants, cried loudly and fanned themselves with their luxurious tails. And we had ridden a Hippo Bus, an amphibian vehicle that first rode around the city center and then splashed into the Tagus River.

That tour was fun, although somewhat noisy. First of all, as we splashed into water, everybody (me included) screamed bloody murder. Only my grandchildren sat quietly, demonstrating the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” and looking at me with pity.

Secondly, our tour guide said,

“Let’s show everybody around how much fun we’re having! When I say, “Hey, Paul!” I want you to shout, “Hoo-rah!” And she raised her clutched fist the way one does celebrating a major sports victory.

That surely was overboard. Back in the USSR, which I left at the age of 39, we raised our fists only to demand the end of “rotten capitalism.” So, when my husband began bellowing and raising his fist, I felt embarrassed. Besides, to whom was she referring? Did I miss some explanations? I turned to my husband,

“Who is Paul?”

He looked at me blankly,

“I don’t know.”

You just cheered him! I wanted to say. But, I didn’t. Being married for 21 years does it to you. You learn that your spouse can be deaf to your needs. And even more so as his hearing goes. Yet since everybody kept greeting the mysterious Paul every few minutes, I said again,

“Who’s Paul?”

Another blank look and my husband turned his attention to the monument to Vasco Da Gama we were floating by. That was really ridiculous! But, I didn’t want to make a scene in public, so I let it go.

Later, when we were eating pizza (the kids’ choice), I repeated my question — this time addressing it to my daughter. She didn’t know either.

What a dim family I have, I thought, and slowly began describing the situation to all of them.

“Grandma, she never said, “Hey, Paul.” My grandson said. She said, “Hippo, Hippo!”

“Yes, she did! I heard it!” I insisted.

Several minutes of silence went by, and then my husband said,

“I think I know what your heard. In her Portuguese accent it sounded like

“Hee-po, Hee-po!” Sort of like “Hey, Paul,” I guess. And my daughter doubled over in stitches.

Street art in Lisbon, Portugal

That was embarrassing. Of course, English being my second language, I occasionally, mishear things. Once in London, while watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, I got puzzled by our tour guide’s description of the guards’ hats, which, according to him, were made of “beah skins.” Since I knew no animal by that name and had no idea of its whereabouts, I asked my husband if the “beahs” lived in England or were brought from abroad – only to endure five minutes of blankness and then to learn that the guide had said, “bears,” and that the Brits habitually drop the “r” sound.

Still, “Hey, Paul!” surely took the cake. Today, I needed to rehabilitate myself. I just had to get everybody out to visit the Oceanarium, where I already reserved tickets for both their permanent collection and their temporary one: “Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano.”

By the time we finished with the permanent collection, my grandchildren wanted nothing but ice cream and my daughter and my husband wanted a “quiet place with no activities.” As grand as the Oceanarium was, the sheer number of tourists, local students, and the parents with strollers was overwhelming.

Bones Chapel, Evora, Portugal

With my tired legs trembling and my voice breaking from shouting over the noise of the crowds, I made a weak attempt,

“Let’s see the temporary exhibit, too. I already paid for it.”

To my surprise, they agreed, and we walked to a different floor, crossed another threshold, and, suddenly, the noise ceased and time slowed.

The large room with a raised platform in the middle was dark, with its only lights coming from the glass walls on three sides of the room. Behind the walls appeared the ocean floor, where underwater plants swayed their willowy limbs, and small fish swam unhurriedly, seemingly in rhythm with the soft contemplative music. There were no interpretive signs, no crowds, and the dark silhouettes of visitors moved around quietly. Some took selfies and left, and some stayed there for a long time, watching.

Bewildered, I stopped and inhaled the air, as one would beside the sea or after a thunderstorm. Then I sat down and gave myself fully to the fluidly changing images, the haunting sounds of music, and the unpretentious artistry and harmony of the place. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that so did my husband and my daughter.

What do you do when faced with perfection? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you cry that nothing lasts forever? Do you analyze your life trying to find the missing element that could make it beautiful?

I don’t know the right answer, as I don’t know how long I sat there, relishing the moment and also longing for something I could not describe in words. Periodically, I glanced at the kids, making sure that they didn’t wander out or start a fight. They did not. Yet after they walked around once and took several pictures, their attention wavered, and they began crawling on the raised platform and quietly chatting.

“Look how beautiful!” I tried. But the grandchildren just nodded and went back to their game.

After we left, I kept contemplating the kids’ lack of interest. Were they not susceptible to beauty or was it too early for them? True, they had not yet accumulated regrets, disappointments, and unfulfilled promises. They had no need to heal their broken hearts. And yet, I felt disappointed. Not with the waste of money but with the wasted opportunity. The kids saw true magic, but they didn’t recognize it.

At night, when I kissed my grandson good-night, he said, with his eyes closed, “It was pretty, Grandma,” and I stopped, surprised. I was wrong after all. Nothing was wasted. The seed took, and no matter how long it might remain dormant, some day it will sprout. Maybe not soon enough for me to witness it, but it will. And that’s all that matters.

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

River Tagus at night, Lisbon

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