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Paranoia on the Spanish Steps


My first impression of Rome was of an alabaster angel. The sight of the heavenly statue brought a fleeting memory of my Russian Orthodox grandmother who had long ago taught me a child's prayer. I saw her protective gaze in the angel's eyes and her long white hair in the milky stone. I hadn't thought much about my grandmother for years; and then the angel and the snatch of prayer the sight had conjured slipped away as our taxi maneuvered down the oddly named Via Propaganda.

 

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. It was 2 p.m., siesta time in usually frenetic Rome. My husband, Guy and I were soon to see that although it was late October, and still high season, even during peak hours the Eternal City was unnaturally quiet. Tourism had come to a screaming halt due to the aftermath of that terrible day that struck America when our backs were turned. The War Against Terrorism was by then in full force; the anthrax scare was eating up headlines and the foreign affairs departments had issued warnings to travelers: The events of September 11 … and the military action in Afghanistan by coalition countries have raised the possibility of significantly increased dangers … and may result in strong anti-Western sentiments and retaliatory actions.

Italy was on this list and in fact The U.S. State Department had issued a further Public Announcement that 'symbols of American capitalism' in Italy may be targeted. I had heard with interest that the previous leader of Afghanistan lived in Rome. There had been conjecture that he might return to rule when the repressive and hateful Taliban were defeated by the Northern Alliance with the help of the United States and its allies. There was conjecture too, that the exiled ruler would be a good target for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Our driver maneuvered out the narrow alley where our small pension was located and the distinct character of Rome swallowed us. We passed the Greek-style Piazza del Collosseo, the gorgeous Ionic and Corinthian columned relic where gory battles between gladiators, slaves and ferocious wild animals once took place to satisfy the blood lust of the ancient Romans. Rome's architecture is striking and it's amazing how much of it has survived, how accessible it is. It is like waking to a living gallery. We were relieved to be distracted from America's tragedy by history and art.

I knew Rome sprang from myths with the legend of Romulus and Remus. My guidebook points out that ancient Roman historians fabricated the self-glorifying myth, complete with dates, 21 April 753 BC. It is a fable of twin boys, the fruits of a rape by the god of war. The babies were, like Moses, cast adrift on the Tiber and washed up in a marsh below the Palatine Hill. Luck or divine intervention came into play and the boys were rescued by a she-wolf who suckled them. Soon a shepherd found them and raised them as his own. The story goes on like the biblical story of Caine and Abel. Romulus becomes leader of his tribe, murders his twin and then founds Rome. It is propaganda rooted in art and it came alive when we viewed the bronze statue unearthed in 1940 in the Iron Age huts on the Palatine Hill.Trevi Fountain. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.

Merely wandering the narrow alleys and cobbled streets that center around spewing fountains and travertine statues of mind-blowing beauty chased all thoughts of America's War Against Terrorism away. We were on our way to photograph the Trevi Fountain, where Anita Ekberg splashed in the movie La Dolce Vita. Nearing the tiny piazza water music trilled and the air was gluttonous from the takeaway pizzerias that vied for space with souvenir stands. In the fountain naked muscled tritons blew on conchs. Seahorses reared over the fountain's expanse of water and the fountain's floor glittered silver with lira. Roman lore says that travelers who toss a coin into Trevi Fountain will be lured back. On the Pallazo Poli wall a legendary virgin beckons three thirsty Roman soldiers towards a spring that is the source that still feeds the fountain. We want to invoke the lore and already long to return to Rome. I dig in my purse and then in Guy's pockets for coins to throw in the fountain but come up empty handed.

In a few hours we are footsore and our eyes dreamy with the clout of ancient architecture and the modern glamour and sophistication of the famous shops that lead to the piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. I snap a photograph of a bride, her snowy train trailing as she lingered on the elegant staircase that cascades from the church of Trinità dei Monti and trips down to the boat shaped fountain. It is ingeniously sunk below ground level to compensate for the low pressure of the Acqua Vergine that feeds it. The famous piazza was built in 1725 and was the stomping grounds for poets Keats and Shelley. In fact the house at the bottom of the steps is where John Keats succumbed to tuberculosis at age 25. The house is crammed with mementoes: a lock of his hair and a death mask. As I remembered that Keats was buried nearby in the year 1821, Guy interrupts my thoughts. He beckons me away and then points. Together we stare at a small heap of white powder that lies untouched on the famous step's balustrade. Beside it lies an opened and empty package of Marlborough cigarettes. It seemed obvious the package had been used as a container to transport the powdery substance. I recall the text of another Internet government missive. It was taken from a CIA report and titled: "AVOIDING BIOLOGICAL OR CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION … Anthrax spores in quantity can look like white, beige or brown powdery or granular substances, similar to confectioners' sugar ("icing sugar"),standard white table sugar, or brown sugar. When in doubt, treat any unknown substance as dangerous."

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. We move away from the joyous bride whose entourage includes flower-bedecked children. To my surprise no one on the busy steps seems to notice the tiny heap that looks exactly like anthrax. I briefly wonder if we are as mad as King Ludwig of Bavaria who once supped with the other Grand Tourists at the relic Café Greco in the grid of streets nearby. In the 18th century a grand tour of Rome was obligatory for Europeans who aspired to be cultured. Guy and I discuss our fears in low voices. Should we begin a course of our traveler’s supply of the antibiotic Cipro? The drug is used to treat those who have been in contact with the biological weapon now referred to on the line of news that runs like a tickertape below the picture we see on European CNN as 'thrax.' We peer at the offending sight again; and then the wedding party with their bright hopes for the future, sit for a portrait on the step beneath the pile of powder. I imagine a breeze blowing them a deadly kiss. My grandmother's prayer comes back to me, this time unbidden. And I remember my trust in the words when I was small.

five little angels around my bed
one at the foot and one at the head
one to pray
one to sing
and one to watch over me night and day

My mind stops with a jolt on the sweet faces of the wedding party's children. Guy and I grimly search out the tourist police and attempt to explain, then failing to do so lead them to the pile of powder. We don't speak Italian and they know no English. The police are unconcerned. They smile and shake their heads to reassure us, but we retreat shaken, hailing a cab for the safety of our hotel.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. Guy and I are silent. We are still stuck in that horrible moment on the famous steps. Then we round a corner and are taken aback by a fountain: a bare breasted nymph strokes a duck. It is erotic and unforgettable. Water springs from the fountain and clings to the maiden's intimately carved shape like morning dew. We pass the art nouveau nudity of the fountain that graces the Piazza del Republica’s roundabout. Naked nymphs cavort seductively and fearlessly with stone monsters. Guy and I utter the same sentence at the same time: "I've never seen anything so beautiful!" And we realize that in Rome that happy sentence has become our watchword, our state of mind.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. The cabdriver drops us a few paces from our hotel and as we retreat through its doors I look back and ponder the strange street sign, Via Propaganda. I wonder, Was it our imaginations that turned powder to anthrax on the Spanish Steps? But there are two of us and although I'm known for my overactive imagination, Guy is pragmatic. Is it the result of propaganda or more accurately all the hype about terrorism and war? And then I look out on the street again and see the alabaster seraph that graces the ancient street. I remember that Rome is heavenly with fountains, mythical gods, and angels. Statues of angels seem to watch over the Eternal City from their perches on buildings and ceilings, including the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Then the last stanza in my grandmother's prayer surfaces again and I know the answer. Rome is the City of Angels. No longer are we worried about tomorrow, about mortality. I grab Guy's hand and together we return to Trevi Fountain with a pocketful of change.

When You Go:

A hip new guidebook series called Time Out has a Rome edition. The guides are based on the Time Out weekly publications and local guides that are indispensable to both locals and travelers. As well as cultural venues, you'll get the latest picture (and maps) on restaurants, bars and clubs – part of the Rome experience.

Trevi Fountain. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.

Merely wandering the narrow alleys and cobbled streets that center around spewing fountains and travertine statues of mind-blowing beauty chased all thoughts of America's War Against Terrorism away. We were on our way to photograph the Trevi Fountain, where Anita Ekberg splashed in the movie La Dolce Vita. Nearing the tiny piazza water music trilled and the air was gluttonous from the takeaway pizzerias that vied for space with souvenir stands. In the fountain naked muscled tritons blew on conchs. Seahorses reared over the fountain's expanse of water and the fountain's floor glittered silver with lira. Roman lore says that travelers who toss a coin into Trevi Fountain will be lured back. On the Pallazo Poli wall a legendary virgin beckons three thirsty Roman soldiers towards a spring that is the source that still feeds the fountain. We want to invoke the lore and already long to return to Rome. I dig in my purse and then in Guy's pockets for coins to throw in the fountain but come up empty handed.

In a few hours we are footsore and our eyes dreamy with the clout of ancient architecture and the modern glamour and sophistication of the famous shops that lead to the piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. I snap a photograph of a bride, her snowy train trailing as she lingered on the elegant staircase that cascades from the church of Trinità dei Monti and trips down to the boat shaped fountain. It is ingeniously sunk below ground level to compensate for the low pressure of the Acqua Vergine that feeds it. The famous piazza was built in 1725 and was the stomping grounds for poets Keats and Shelley. In fact the house at the bottom of the steps is where John Keats succumbed to tuberculosis at age 25. The house is crammed with mementoes: a lock of his hair and a death mask. As I remembered that Keats was buried nearby in the year 1821, Guy interrupts my thoughts. He beckons me away and then points. Together we stare at a small heap of white powder that lies untouched on the famous step's balustrade. Beside it lies an opened and empty package of Marlborough cigarettes. It seemed obvious the package had been used as a container to transport the powdery substance. I recall the text of another Internet government missive. It was taken from a CIA report and titled: "AVOIDING BIOLOGICAL OR CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION … Anthrax spores in quantity can look like white, beige or brown powdery or granular substances, similar to confectioners' sugar ("icing sugar"),standard white table sugar, or brown sugar. When in doubt, treat any unknown substance as dangerous."

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. We move away from the joyous bride whose entourage includes flower-bedecked children. To my surprise no one on the busy steps seems to notice the tiny heap that looks exactly like anthrax. I briefly wonder if we are as mad as King Ludwig of Bavaria who once supped with the other Grand Tourists at the relic Café Greco in the grid of streets nearby. In the 18th century a grand tour of Rome was obligatory for Europeans who aspired to be cultured. Guy and I discuss our fears in low voices. Should we begin a course of our traveler’s supply of the antibiotic Cipro? The drug is used to treat those who have been in contact with the biological weapon now referred to on the line of news that runs like a tickertape below the picture we see on European CNN as 'thrax.' We peer at the offending sight again; and then the wedding party with their bright hopes for the future, sit for a portrait on the step beneath the pile of powder. I imagine a breeze blowing them a deadly kiss. My grandmother's prayer comes back to me, this time unbidden. And I remember my trust in the words when I was small.

five little angels around my bed
one at the foot and one at the head
one to pray
one to sing
and one to watch over me night and day

My mind stops with a jolt on the sweet faces of the wedding party's children. Guy and I grimly search out the tourist police and attempt to explain, then failing to do so lead them to the pile of powder. We don't speak Italian and they know no English. The police are unconcerned. They smile and shake their heads to reassure us, but we retreat shaken, hailing a cab for the safety of our hotel.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. Guy and I are silent. We are still stuck in that horrible moment on the famous steps. Then we round a corner and are taken aback by a fountain: a bare breasted nymph strokes a duck. It is erotic and unforgettable. Water springs from the fountain and clings to the maiden's intimately carved shape like morning dew. We pass the art nouveau nudity of the fountain that graces the Piazza del Republica’s roundabout. Naked nymphs cavort seductively and fearlessly with stone monsters. Guy and I utter the same sentence at the same time: "I've never seen anything so beautiful!" And we realize that in Rome that happy sentence has become our watchword, our state of mind.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks. The cabdriver drops us a few paces from our hotel and as we retreat through its doors I look back and ponder the strange street sign, Via Propaganda. I wonder, Was it our imaginations that turned powder to anthrax on the Spanish Steps? But there are two of us and although I'm known for my overactive imagination, Guy is pragmatic. Is it the result of propaganda or more accurately all the hype about terrorism and war? And then I look out on the street again and see the alabaster seraph that graces the ancient street. I remember that Rome is heavenly with fountains, mythical gods, and angels. Statues of angels seem to watch over the Eternal City from their perches on buildings and ceilings, including the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Then the last stanza in my grandmother's prayer surfaces again and I know the answer. Rome is the City of Angels. No longer are we worried about tomorrow, about mortality. I grab Guy's hand and together we return to Trevi Fountain with a pocketful of change.

When You Go:

A hip new guidebook series called Time Out has a Rome edition. The guides are based on the Time Out weekly publications and local guides that are indispensable to both locals and travelers. As well as cultural venues, you'll get the latest picture (and maps) on restaurants, bars and clubs – part of the Rome experience.