(Planet Me)
Friday, August 02, 2013
When In Rome

Getting up at 5am is tough. Really tough. Some people, not me, are built to be deep sleepers, and to them, sleep comes easy. For me, sleep is a battle. A hard won victory over consciousness. I'm often woken by the slightest sound, and if it isn't absolute pitch blackness, I'm often awake. The alarm goes off at 5am. Being July, it is already light. I stumble downstairs, dress, pick up a bag, take paracetamol, and am on the first train out of the house. The 5.29am to Charing Cross. Change at Tonbridge. Change at Redhill. No ticket machines. It is a long 95 minutes. And, by the time I get to Gatwick, they have closed the gates. A £20 Penalty Fare, for not being able to find a ticket machine from Redhill to Gatwick. The staff so utterly charmless, giving people leaving the country the usual, final, graceless insult of a £20 Penalty Fare. Have a punch in the mouth as you leave the country. Thank you, fuck you very much. Britain is a game where the odds are always stacked against the population, and the House Of Lords always wins.

Britain really, absolutely, needs to raise its game in being an experience for a tourist. Leaving Britain by air for the first time in a few years, I experience Britain in a way I frequently don't. I am exploited at every step, in a brutal manner. If I were a tourist, or not a native, I would see Britain as a grim, grey country with no empathy. A 18 mile, 15 minute journey to Folkestone costs an astronomical £7. Or, around ϵ8.5. Rome Termini to Campione, a 15-ish mile, 15 minute journey is around ϵ1.50.

Into Gatwick Airport, we are herded. Shoes off, belt off, watch off, iPod, wallet, camera, watch, keys, off. Walk through a metal scanner made of humourless grimaces and boredom. In the meantime, two idiot tourists try to explain to exhausted staff that they should be allowed to take grapes and fruits on their flight.


We take off at 9.10am. It seems like a relatively civilised time. Instead, it is a brutal clock. I'm not built for being up this early. I'm just not built this way. On landing, we go through customs and am out, in the country, within 30 minutes. Not exactly a record, so much as a pleasant change from waiting an hour after a 12 hour flight, in order to just show someone my passport. When checking into the hotel, we show the staff our passports, as they require.

“Birmingham?” he says. I'm confused, but OK, I will go with this. “In America, the accents are all the same”, he says ; “In England, your accent changes so much.”

He was expecting someone who sounds like Jasper Carrott, though he doesn't know who Jasper Carrott is. Lenny Henry? No, he doesn't know who that is either, I imagine. Who else famous is from Birmingham? Black Sabbath? Duran Duran? No, no thanks. In the end, I draw a map.



I pitifully try to explain the variance in accents, by drawing lines, with numbers – 8 miles, 12 miles – between them, and then pronouncing the town names in the regional accents. Dudhlee, Wolverhampertohn, Wellenhell. Nothing crushes romance quite as much as a 20 year old girl telling you Eye Larv Yow in that accent. Well, its good, I suppose, to be interested in the area.

We're out in the heat. The heat is a blanket of sweat : an invisible oppression of the body and the soul that cannot be seen, only experienced. Like a dictatorship. Some kind of 34 degree Centigrade Stasi. With only the vaguest hint of a map, I take the Captain Kirk approach, and point “thataway” and off we go. Not quite first star to the left and straight on until morning. Not quite. Mark had a map, and between us we manage to stumble around finding a way, though he has done a lot more research than I.

We find the Courts of Justice at Castel De Angelo. Like almost everywhere in Rome, there is a sense that something incredibly ancient is around the corner. And that something is probably very tall, quite ornate and made of marble. We turn a corner, and find the Piazza Navona : a casual looking door leads to an ornate cathedral full of hushed prayer, a ceiling 200 foot high, and a painted dome of such skill and artistry that perhaps it should hang in The Tate. By the time I enter the twentieth of these over the course of a few days, the sense of wonder has dissipated : oh, another impossibly high ceiling and another ornate painting 200 foot in the high, and look! Some gold! It's impressive. Most impressive.


Down another alleyway, and a print shop – moltedo.it – is using the infamous CLEAN ALL THE THINGS! From the ever wonderful Hyperbole And A Half : this time with the logo “Ricamiamo Tutto Su Tutto”. Or (“Embroider All The Things!”).

Round the corner comes The Pantheon. Another – yep, you guessed it – religious icon, this time with an open dome, and thus, a very distinct puddle that sits in the centre of the floor. The ceiling is domed, indented, and looks as if it were some kind of science fiction set. Everywhere you turn there is a crucified statue, or a pizza bar. Or a Gelato.

The Italians love their food, and their pasta and pizza is divine. You've not known pizza unless you've eaten it in the country that made it. It is amazing. Better than Guinness from their brewery in Dublin. If you know where to eat, you can get an authetic mozzarella for ϵ9. And it is beautiful. Next stop is for me, one of the highlights, and something I have been looking forward to for sometime : The Vatican. Since it is a seperate principality, this makes it my third country in nine hours.


And not only that, The Vatican is a city in its own right. The only country that not only is inside, in its entirity, another country, but also contained inside a capital. It might be even the smallest country there is. Certainly I could have walked across it in 20 minutes. Outside the country, persons in shorts, those eating slices of takeaway pizza, are refused entry. This country has a dress code! The dome of St Peters Basilica dominates the skyline, huge and imposing. Mans achievements then may have been cruel, and one slice of gold could cure much of the poverty of the believers, but then these are also enormous achievements. Look at how old this is, and how much devotion, - or slavery, dependent upon how you look at it – must have been expended to create this testament. In the main courtyard, possibly the most modern art dominates, a huge, 12 foot x 12 foot, golden half-finished globe, (Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sfera Con Sfera – World within a World) brings all the prayer boys to the yard. I think you will find this battlestation is perfectly operational. Further inside stone faces, contorted by the agony of ecstasy. Huge marble cardinals sit astride horses of justice and belief. The sun slowly sets through the windows, casting shadows of no small power to the faces.

All the marble figures have had their penises removed. Every single stone phallus, every porcelain cock, castrated and removed. The Vatican is a cockless country. Not one carved foreskin remains. This is the land of the immaculate conception. Who needs penii anyway?


We pass the modern art – a Francis Bacon, for example. Ahead of us a coffee shop, and here, the national drink of Italy, Peroni. Given that this is the only bar in the Vatican (there is a restaurant, which may serve wine), we may be the only people drinking alcohol in the entire country. The decadence of a dry nation. Up a few steps and then, we are in one of the most holy rooms in the universe. We are drinkers in a dry land.

The Sistine Chapel.

It may not seem like much – after all, it's the size of a Victorian School Hall. The footprint of my garden is bigger. Photography is strictly forbidden. Men in uniforms have harsh words with people who take photographs of the most holy of chapels, the most divine of sacraments. This is the venue. One of the locations that you may dream of spending your whole life reaching. A place you must see before you die. In the sunset of an average Friday, the room has probably 200 people in it. There is no space for reflection here. There is always someone bumping into you. Always someone talking. Every few seconds a man in a uniform, harshly hisses a SHUSH, and the room goes quiet for a moment or two, before resuming a hum of chatter.


Above us, is Michaelanglo's most famous image. One you have seen a million places. Touched by the hand of God, and a man accepting the offering of a deity. Who knows how that feels? This is the room where the Pope gives services, and where Catholicism was birthed.

Um, wow.

The room is packed – but far emptier than it often is. Somedays apparently it is as crowded as a the front row at a Take That concert.


Round the corner, there sits in glass cases, two small machines. The original mechanical constructions used to calculate the rotation of the planets across the heavens. Next to that, two feet away, the one used to calculate the Earth's calendar. Sitting anonymously in a corridor.

The hands that touched these, the brains, the imagination that drove these machines. Amazing. 100 yards further down the corridor, the locked doors to the Vatican library. No doubt in here, Dan Brown's secrets are kept. The history of the secret Jesus, Mary's real identity, and the name of the uttered alien, or something.

As we leave the Vatican, we stand on the roof of the courtyard, overlooking the Basilica of St Peter in the night. A wobble of classical music drifts over. Distant applause. We venture through an open door, and we are observing a classical recital in The Vatican. It is still around 30 degrees. The heat is the draped flag of oppression.


The next morning, the temperature is still as high. We walk the ten or so minutes back to St Peter, this time to visit the open cathedral which is the pilgrimmage for a believer. Those who would travel the world just to stand here. The human capacity for belief and for imagination – that is, to make real an idea, such as constructing a huge dome – is staggering. What this must have looked like being built. Huge columns in an arc surround the Basilica. The temperatures reach the high 90's. The queue is a mild 40 minutes. Take off your belt, your phone, your wallet, your camera, your batteries, any sharp objects. The only thing you don't have to do, which surprises me as The Vatican is technically another country, is show your passport.

We enter the Basilica Of St Peter. In here is the tomb of a man handpicked by Jesus Christ as his successor. In here is the largest dome of its time. In here are the bones of a man who was friends with Jesus. If Jesus were real.


Now somewhere between 500 and 600 years old, depending which part you are in – it took 120 or so years to build, with the last part completed in 1626. It is enormous. I have never been in a building so impressive. And, with now thirty five years between my childhood – and The Medusa Touch – religious buildings and churches no longer carry the fear they once did. I do not anticipate with terror Richard Burton's revenge, or the whole edifice falling down on my unworthy head. At its tallest, it is a quarter of a mile high, and half a mile long.

The Heat is insane. I have never been anywhere warmer, but then again, this is Rome, in the end of July. Only Vegas in June came vaguely near this. We enter the Basilica, which makes St Paul's look like a kids toy. To our immediate right, behind glass, sits The Pieta by Michelangelo. A crowd gathers round it, so much so that even now, at the relatively quiet 9.30am, it is busier than the Mona Lisa. In fact, this whole building is probably the sum of a lifetimes pilgrimmage, a profoundly important experience much akin to Mecca, for believers, the holiest place on the Earth. High vaulted ceilings. Speakers painted grey to match the marble of the ancient walls. The replicated effigies of Popes and Cardinals buried inside boxes inches below them. One of these in a stone coffin is labelled Pope John Paul II. Not only the Pope of my youth, but also, now an actual bloodychuffing saint.


At the centre site what Mark cheerily describes as The Claw. There is the drum riser, the red zone, the 'gold zone' for the uberfans who queue all day, and so on and so forth. The Tomb Of The Apostle Peter, the first Pope, a man handpicked by Jesus, sits a few feet away, and has been a religious site for approximately 1853 years. Technically speaking, this is Bernini's Balachicino, a 98 foot tall pavillion, which is the largest piece of bronze in the world. Feet from here, apparently, are the spear of Longinus, which is said to have pierced his side, and a fragment of The True Cross which is atop the obilisk in the square.

I mean, for a kid who grew up watching Indiana Jones and his ilk, I might as well be looking at the Ark of The Covenant or The Holy Grail. After all, in my head, constantly here, is the music from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”, that eerie theme that precedes the avenging angels, and the I might as well have a battered fedora hat and a bullwhip. A huge gold statue of death – the monument to Alexander VII which is actually, genuinely, awe-inspiiring, is ticked off a list by countless photographers, but myself, I have not seen anything quite so – strange – since the Statue of Death in Chicago. Down an anonymous door, unadvertised and with no guidance, -we see a constant stream of people disappear. I wonder. What is this?


Directly below the 98 foot Pavillion sits the basement. Well, you call it a basement, but really, it is a mass tomb, with the stone sarcophogus of the Popes over the ages. Behind a glass door sits the Tomb of the first Pope, the Apostle Peter. I feel as if I am standing feet from a second-rate Dan Brown conspiracy. The answers must be here, and here must be where The Pope convenes with the Lizards.

Outside in the heat, we wilt. 34 degrees. This heat is not just inhuman, but some kind of punishment. There is some debate of walking so we can see more of Rome, but the short answer is Hell No, lets go and get the metro just to get somewhere cooler and quieter. We take the tube. Being begged at on the Metro is an experience unlike any other. Kids play accordians, the same four bars, endlessly. Endlessly. Yes, it is tragic, that children the same age as my son sit and beg, walk endlessly on a train with a paper cup, lives probably inescapable. But beggars are everywhere. Capitalism is so wonderful. These people just don't want to be rich enough. How could anyone want to live like this? Of course, the rich think that just because they got lucky, that it must be because of their hard work and skill, that luck and random chance had nothing to do with this, and that they got this because they deserved it, whilst a thousand other equally talented people were trampled in the crush. No successful person wants to face the fact that their prosperity is the result of random luck, and that what they experience they won through merit. And therefore, they are guilt free. See, the poor just want to be poor. There but for the grace of God.


Pickpockets at Termini. We change, and get another line. The sun assaults us at the Coliseum, the half-ruins of the huge ampitheatre that once sat 50,000 in bread and circuses, as Christians were murdered for amusement. Let them eat bread. The Coliseum was once the heart of a city ; a few hundred years after it was built this huge capital held just 630,000 people. The heat attacks you. The sun is a constant war. I'm not built for hot countries. Queues to enter snake around. We walk around the circumference, and see the huge cracks from earthquake damage that collapsed it over a thousand years ago. We walk through ruins, of collapsed stone that were once homes and houses and kitchens, where people loved & lived, breathed, birthed, and died.

Down the road, we find the ministry of culture : another ancient building with a high ceiling, huge bronze horses, an armed guard. Another church. These are magnificent buildings, but tempered by the fact there are so many of them. Round every corner, a huge church, a vaulted ceiling, an enormous dome, a 20 foot gold plated Jesus, a solemn prayer, words thrown to God. We pass the Trevi Fountain, which is again magnificent. By now though, I have marble fatigue.


And then, though officially the 'reason' we came here, it is also a handy coathanger on which to place the rest of this : Depeche Mode, at the Olympic Stadium. I have not seen them abroad, only in Birmingham and London over all these years, and so, I experience, for the first time, the phenomenon which is Depeche Mode on the European mainland. It is also the first time in many years since I seen Depeche Mode outdoors. How does it differ?

Here, they comfortably fill a football stadium, with around 50-60,000 people in insane heat. We depart the tram to take us to the end of the line where the stadium sits on the edge of the forest. Every conceivable form of bootleg merchandise is here ; art prints, scarves, dog tags, - 12 seperate t-shirt designs in all colours (many better than the official ones), fake programmes full of old pictures, who knows what else? Here, the constituency is wide : several hundred British people on summer holidays (myself included), people from Germany, America, Brazil, a thousands of Italians, here on a balmy summer Saturday to see Depeche Mode, in old t-shirts, drinking 5 Euro beer from plastic bottles, smoking fags openly in public – the decadence – dancing, singing, everyone filming with an iPhone. The stage is set side on so the VIP seats face directly to the stage. As the band come on at 9.35pm, because they do things differently here – the room fills with whoops, cheers, squeals. No British repression here, at all. This is the moment, the release of four years of waiting since the last time they played here. The crowd is packed from front to back ; and where we are – a comfortable 3/4's of the way back – there are moshpits, crowdsurfing, topless women on mens shoulders, beers being thrown, huge, vocal singalongs to verses, everything. It is just like being down the front, except the band are about a quarter of a mile away. This crowd slays Britain. A plane flies overhead, and I wonder what goes through the mind of a bored passenger looking out of the window.


The set is a relatively standard main set : “Black Celebration”, “Policy Of Truth”, “Walking In My Shoes”, “A Question of Time” and “Pain I Am Used To” are all the running order, which, combined with rare performances of “Somebody” (which is played, on average, once every three years), and “The Child Inside” (for the 3rd time ever), and the rare dropping of “Home” which I have seen at every show since it came out, makes for a night where half the songs are different from the London show I saw two months ago. Here, thirty shows further into the tour, the band have settled effortlessly into being an efficient song-delivery machine, a finely tuned stadium rock-pop act, as hits are tossed off with a casual arrogance, “Personal Jesus”, “Enjoy The Silence”, “Just Can't Get Enough” are all dispatched as if they were killer punches from a Cassius Clay of perverse pop. The band themselves, never the most – effusive of acts in showing their emotions – seem to feed off this, and Gahan is engaged in both the crowd, and the musicians. It ends with the predictable, but enormous triple punch of “Just Can't Get Enough”, a huge “I Feel You”, and the final “Never Let Me Down Again.” : as is tradition, now 25 years after the 101 gig, the stadium is a huge, waving sea, a mass of hands moving from left to right. I myself never engage in this, I just stand, and watch, and have some weird sentimental moment that we are all part of this, right here, right now, it will never happen again, but for once, this happened. This was.

Welcome To My World – Angel – Walking In My Shoes – Precious – Black Celebration – Policy Of Truth – Should Be Higher – Barrel Of A Gun – The Child Inside – Shake The Disease – Heaven – Soothe My Soul – Pain I'm Used To – A Question Of Time - Secret To The End – Enjoy The Silence – Personal Jesus – Goodbye – Somebody – Halo – JCGE – I Feel You – Never Let Me Down Again


The heat finally cools. The bootleg sellers have erected their own stalls inside the stadium grounds. 15 Euros a shirt. I, on the other hand, am soaked to the skin with sweat and heat, and thus, change. It was worth it. An experience.

As we exit, we take a midnight trip to The Old Bridge, which is apparently the cheapest, and best ice cream in Rome. I get a 2 Euro scoop which is approximately the size of a house, and absolutely beautiful. Like pizza and pasta,nowhere else in the world have I experienced a taste quite like this. A queue snakes down the street 60 deep at 1am.

The next morning, breakfast. And after that, it is soon 11am. We walk to the Vatican, which is just 10 minutes from our hotel. Papal Mass starts at 12.00 noon : we are in St Peter's Square, near a fragment of the True Cross, surrounded by happy giggling nuns eating ice cream. Some days, he brings 80,000 people. Today, in this heat, it seems like 50,000 people. He starts at noon, and is finished by 12.15, and well, he certainly seems like a cool Pope, who has a sense of humour and a wry smile.


On the other hand, whilst I have no belief, how often do you see The Pope? The man for whom 3 million people assembled on a beach in Rio just to hear his words. The single most deified individual at the head of the largest church there is. Rock Star Jesus, or something.

At St Peters Basilica yesterday, there was a small box for Papal Mass requests. By the whoops, cheers, and yelps in the crowd, it seems he picked a couple out for special Papal blessing. Touched by the hand of God, indeed. The Pope jokes, waves, laughs, is sincere and silly, gaining laughs in a language I do not understand, and in baking heat. A river of sweat falls down my head.

Fifteen minutes later, and he's done. The crowd disperses, swarming past beggars and the afflicted. Fifteen minutes after that, we are in McDonalds.

Well, when in Rome... I order the Picolli Pacaeri, which I am not sure exactly what it is, and a Chocolate Milkshake, which is actually made of chocolate, and milk, and syrup. I know this is normal, ordinary , boring to Italy. But this is new to me, and the world has few new experiences we casually encounter, so I should. You only live once, which is why we are both fearless, and fearful. Tell me what is it that makes me a feel alive only when he nearly dies?


Time is running out. We are due to be on a flight four hours from now. I have been in Italy 48 hours. We head to the Metro again, this time Foutini and cross the Square. The heat is insane. Even worse than before. As we cross the square, there is a crowd of maybe 100 people, many in freshly pressed virgin band t-shirts, clutching Depeche Mode records and pens, where the band have been staying the past two nights. By chance, happenstance, accident. I forget this kind of thing happens every time a band hits town. I remember passing the hotel that Lady Gaga was in one night, and the crowd of Monsters waiting for her : human beings need to get a narrative instead of standing around outside hotels. Admittedly, I occasionally turned up at gigs twenty years ago to watch soundchecks, but not since, cripes, 1993 or so.

A hundred yards or so down the road, we find the allegedly legendary Spanish steps. Here, insert history. But to be honest, another church? The clock is ticking. So much to see, so little time, and we will miss the Ossary.. but time is against us. We ascend at the 24 platform Termini to find our train to Campione. To travel 17 minutes and roughly 15 miles costs ϵ1.50. In Britain, a similar length and time journey to Folkestone would cost £7. Or around ϵ8.50.


The 14.21 from Platform 19 is here : a reasonable length train full of tourists. At Campione we disembark, and find a ϵ1.00 bus that takes us precisely to the airport. The town is asleep, with the usual mainland combination of concrete boxes in dull light brown and several floors. Houses have become box-prisons for the population to pretend to exercise meaningless choices within.

At the airport, a military wing houses a bright Grumman HU 16 and a Sikorsky SH3 Sea King that once carried the Italian Prime Minister. Inside the mediocre airport, I change from shorts to trousers. I return to find a hailstorm, the airport drowned in five inches of water in five minutes, planes taking off where you cannot see anything but a moving mass of water in a storm. Lightning flies. A plane dimly emerges from a huge moving ball of water at hundreds of miles an hour. It was too fast to photograph. We are in the air. On our way back. And I am now 40.


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