To touch the wall is to hear the stone. To hear the stone is to know the land. To know the land is to feel the gods.Dr. Jane Fox, Litany of the Lost (@HooklandGuide)
I’m bouncing in the backseat of the taxi, in a sleepy trance, while the landscape passes by in a blur. And then they strike me: the giant umbrella pines lining the road. They’re majestic, something extracted from an oil painting, vivid and real. A strange sensation runs through me, a recognition. These trees are in my psyche — a ‘memory’ of Rome, even though I’ve never been here before.
I never wanted to go to Rome, for a multitude of reasons. No Italian ancestry or personal connections. No one ever told me any stories about Rome. And I never could learn history from a book. Maybe a condition of my childhood, so far removed from ancient history, growing up on an island in the Canadian Pacific. Victoria wasn’t even a trading fort in 1830. Rome had layers upon layers of civilizations by then.
Other European cities have, over time, carved a desire in my mind. Helsinki, where I might walk in my grandmother’s footsteps, hear her first language spoken. Paris, for the art nouveau I’ve come to adore.
Jim always had his own romantic vision of Paris: to walk the streets where the beat poets roamed. He declared it was time to go, a celebration for our anniversary and your birthday. But once we arrived, his stomach couldn’t handle any cheese or wine. He couldn’t walk more than a few blocks without stopping to rest on a bench. Struggled to stay awake past seven. We never did see the City of Lights, full of lights.
After our time in Paris ended, we rode a train south to spend my birthday in Avignon. Jim bought me clothes from a boutique. He wrote in his leather journal, smoked his pipe, and then we flew home, where he learned he had four weeks to live.
Looking back at our trip photos, all I can see now is his strained smile.
There’s a bittersweet hue painted in the ripples of the Seine, on the rusted lovelocks clipped to its bridges, and the sun-bleached pages at the booksellers. In my mind, I can retrace all our footsteps: up the steep stairs of the Metro, down the narrow alleys in Saint-Germain, along the dusty orange footpaths in Roussillon. Each step, unknowingly walking us to the end.
The next holiday season, despite many kind offers, I can’t bear to burden anyone with my sadness amid their celebrations. I’ve already sold furniture and possessions in order to fund a new life experience. But Helsinki in the winter would be too dark and cold. Instead, I flip pages in the travel brochure; yet no matter how many times I look, there are only two tour options at Christmas.
One is Paris. The other is Rome.
From the top of the Spanish Steps, thousands of people are streaming through the streets below in a last-minute gift shopping frenzy. There seems to be no other way but through the swarm. I descend and merge with the ants, bumping along in the crowd, pulled and squeezed as if merging through a subway gate. Suddenly I’m confronted by history: the Pantheon, the ancient rotunda with granite columns, surrounded by modern life. I have entered a painting.
Headed the opposite direction, back toward my hotel, I stumble upon Piazza del Popolo and a wild party: street buskers beating drums and twirling lighted torches, music thumping, people swirling and laughing, encircled by churches and stone buildings.
I raise my camera to capture the spectacle. But Rome is too large, too grandiose, to fit into my frame. So I point the lens at the illuminated Egyptian obelisk. I can just capture the top, with the crescent moon glowing in a deep blue pool of twilight.
The hotel internet isn’t working. I don’t know what to do with myself in the compact space of my European room. I meditate, write some poetry, reorganize my suitcase. Wash my socks and hang them to dry on the towel warming bar. Smell the scented soap. Pace.
I never expected the lobby restaurant would be closed tonight. My room doesn’t have a kettle, but for five euros the front desk clerk brings me a pot of hot water. I dunk a teabag in it, open a cellophane package of cookies—and that is my unceremonious Christmas Eve dinner.
Loneliness unmoors me. I imagine my family and friends in this moment: listening to nostalgic holiday jazz, sharing a champagne toast. All I did was flee and transfer my grief here, a self-imposed isolation. But as the saying goes, I’ve made my bed—a very stylish one, adorned with six throw pillows and an Italian jacquard bedspread. Now I must lie in with my decision.
On Christmas Day, the Romans stroll in the street, a festive passeggiata.There’s a burly man on one corner, wearing a leather apron and a grin, stirring roasted chestnuts, engulfed in steam from the roasting pan. I’ve never tasted a roasted chestnut. Why not now?
Cradling my warm purchase, I ascend the now-familiar Spanish Steps and gaze across city rooftops. The afternoon light is kind. Church bells ring in a panorama. Somewhere, people are celebrating. Jim would have loved this.Although I’m alone, I feel surrounded by a sense of community, a shared joy and reverence.
I give myself a gift: permission to stay open to new human connections, and to give Rome a chance.
I eat three sweet chestnuts from my paper cone, notice the resonance of clanging metal for one lingering minute, and then I summon all my introverted courage and head down the steps to meet my tour group.
My companions for the week ahead are immediately friendly. Most are from the east coast of the United States, with a good contingent from New Jersey — including one Latin teacher who is thrilled to be in Rome for the first time.
Our tour guide squeezes us through the crowds to orient us to the nightlife of Piazza Navona. Geri and her husband ask me if I will take their photo as they toss a coin backwards over their shoulders into the Trevi Fountain. They encourage me to do the same, gesturing for me to pass across my phone.
A memory flashes through my body: a sunlit Parisienne fountain, a wish, then a dimness.
I close my eyes and throw in a coin — according to custom, assuring my return to Rome someday. This seems a mighty big ask for a place I’ve only just met.
Francesca, our guide, is a petite woman with cascading hair draping over the shoulders of her leather jacket. She welcomes us to her native city but affirms, this is our city, too: “You’ve travelled halfway across the world to see it.”
She promises we’ll discover things about Rome we’ve always known–for instance, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s the Eternal City. All roads lead to Rome. That when the Romans constructed a building, it was meant to last forever.
Francesca gathers us in an intimate circle just outside the Colosseum entrance. She asks, “How does a building feel when you walk into it? The ancient Romans believed all things have a living spirit, a genius. For a place, it’s called the genius loci — the feeling of a place. You can sense it, yes?”
I pull out my notebook, inhale, jot down impressions. Powerful, grand, intimidating. Crumbling stone. Time softening pain.
“The Colosseum is like a person, accumulating stories over time. Transmitting memories through marble and stone—the very stones under our feet now, worn over time by millions of footsteps.”
Francesca’s eyes are waiting for mine. “These are your stones.”
I start to notice how I feel when I walk into Rome’s buildings: the Pantheon, the little church across the street, the organic grocer, my hotel lobby. I take note of the cool air, the quiet or buzz, the sense of welcoming or foreboding, the ghosts.
Day by day, I wander in Rome’s streets, resisting the urge to fix my eyes on a tourist map or my phone’s GPS directions. I want to find my way back to my hotel without the help of technology. Slowly, somehow, I begin to feel that I belong here.
But Rome, like my future, is still too unwieldy to fit into the frame. I narrow my focus and notice people buying vegetables at market stalls, the ground covered in trampled lettuce leaves. Doorway arches carved with stone cherubs. Light and shadows reflecting on the Tiber River. Moments of calm amidst city noise.
The main attractions are overrun with tourists waving selfie-sticks, but in the side streets, I forget about devices and the optimal photo that must be taken. Drinking espresso from a porcelain cup, I forget the urgency of cardboard take-out. And sharing an Italian meal in good company, I forget all sense of time.
Today’s group lunch didn’t finish until late afternoon. There was homemade pasta, free-flowing wine, and bright conversation in a little family restaurant tucked away on a hidden back street in Trastevere. I forgot there were monuments just across the river. I forgot I was a tourist.
Francesca meets us outside the gates of the Borghese Gallery to tour us through one last museum. Her melodic voice leads our small group through the marble halls.
When she stops, I stand obediently and quietly in front of the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, waiting for the history lesson. Francesca says, “Bernini was twenty-four years old when he sculpted the David.” Twenty-four? I am stunned. My twenties were still a slab of uncarved potential.
Then Francesca beckons us to Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina, which depicts Pluto forcibly dragging his hostage, Proserpina, to the underworld. Francesca points out how Pluto’s fingers press into her thigh, making marble look as soft as flesh.
I’m overcome by the illusion, the beauty. The sculpture transfixes me. Once a solid block of stone, Bernini transformed it through creative passion, choices and effort. All communicated through his hands and into rock. The forces that pour into, and shape, every life. The way Jim has shaped me.
Outside the gallery, I rush up to Francesca. “I never really understood or appreciated sculpture before today. But standing right beside it, with your eloquent interpretation…” My eyes flood.
Francesca squeezes my hand. “The Italians say there’s no real knowledge without emotion.”
I am feeling everything.
According to my phone, I’ve walked 125,000 steps in Rome over this Christmas week. Understandably, my feet are reluctant to traverse hard surfaces today. After a brief self-guided tour in Ostia Antica, the archaeological site of Rome’s ancient seaport, I disembark the bus and practically run across the sand to plunge my feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Breathing in the salty air, I fall into a rhythm: the muscle memory of my steps across the beaches of my hometown, combing the tideline for shells and pebbles. I forget I’m in Italy. No longer nine thousand kilometres away from home.
This is your sea.
Through the lens of my heart, as the bus takes us back to Rome, my field of view widens. There’s a big, translucent moon following along in the sky. It’s one soft brushstroke of light, touched over the majestic umbrella pines. I recognize the landscape now: a painting from my life, of both ephemeral and eternal beauty.
An edited version of this story first appeared in The Curator.