Notes from Rome: on bright blue bird, Italian caramel candies, and magic

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We spent about half an hour at the Italian Post Office. We went there to send some post cards and a small parcel. We stood in line for about ten minutes when a middle-aged man entered the post office building and right away started talking to the people around him. He knew almost everybody, the post office clerks saluted him by name, the old lady in the line asked him something and he got engaged into a conversation with her and people around them. Then he saw my son, we obviously were new to him and he asked my son what his name was. As my son was too little to be able to answer I answered for him. I told the man that my son’s name was Miro. And then he asked what zodiac sign was he, and I had no clue to that. Thus he asked me his date of birth, and I told him and he got all the post office discussing what sign is a person who’s born on February 11th. After a heated and very emotional discussion, the verdict was Pisces. The man, who by that time told me that his name was Dimitri, seemed glad with the result. He also told me that his name was Antonio, and his second name was Dimitri, and that he preferred to be called by his second name. By that time half of the people in the post office knew our names and introduced themselves to my children and me. We were a friendly crowd of people, almost all Italians (except us) talking about Russia in 1960s. After hearing my name, people always ask me if I am Russian. And I have told Dmitri that I’m originally from Moscow. Those who have been to Moscow or Ukraine were eagerly telling me their stories. By that time it was my turn with the post office clerk, who was young and shy and very nice, and who was listening to the conversation that was going on, but was too polite to get in it. Five minutes after, while I was being attended Dimitri came to my son with a small bag of candies. He just ran around the corner to the closest store and got Miro a nicely wrapped bag of Italian caramels. We thanked him, said good-bye to the people at the post office and left the building.  Later in the day when we were walking back to the hotel and both of my kids were tired and starting to whine, my daughter asked me for the candy that the man gave us. At first I could not get what was she talking about, and then she remained me about the man from the post office this morning. And I got the half full bag of candy and gave one to her and one to her brother. They proved to be magical. Both kids forgot about their tiredness, smiled and happily continued walking to our hotel.

We have visited seven churches today. We did not plan on it, we actually planned to visit one church and then sit at the cafe and enjoy some coffee and ice cream. The first church we visited, the one that we planned for, was the Basilica of San Clemente. It is a very beautiful 12th century Basilica built on the Roman’s buildings, with mosaics that make you stand with your mouth open and dive into the amazing details of its art. Apart from the main church, the Basilica has three underground floors, full of small rooms, narrow passages, mural paintings, natural wells with spring water and labyrinth staircases, in one word, an amazing assembly of crypts.  Enough to say, that after twenty minutes of looking at art and walking, we got lost. I mean, literally we could not find the way out of the underground world. Everywhere we went seemed to take us to new chapels, rooms, and buildings, all of them on slightly different levels and connected by very narrow passages. Our stroller could not get through them, thus we left it in the main underground chapel and went by foot. First the kids thought that it was fun that we got lost, and then they started panicking. Suddenly there were no people around and we literally ran through this underground labyrinth of poorly lit brick columns, arches, walls and connecting halls. Later on we realized that the Basilica was closing and all the tourists, who did not got as deep into the crypt as we did, got out way before us. After about ten minutes we made it to daylight too. The mosaic of the main altar was shining even brighter after being underground for about an hour. This must have been also the feeling of the monks who lived there. They must have thought that all the colors that exist in the universe are in that mosaic; or at least this is how it felt to us then, especially with the noon sun getting in through the church door. My son pointed to the small blue bird on the bottom of the mosaic. It was a bright blue bird that looked almost real.  “Mom, a bird!” sounded more like “Mom, a world”. And then I realized that this mosaic is ‘a world’ after you have spent some time in a crypt.

Then we made it to the cafe, with six more stops in other churches dating from 6th to 18th centuries. All amazing, some of them with mosaics, paintings, statues. However, San Clemente left some special feeling in us. May be it was a feeling of discovery. Or may be it had the taste of this Italian caramel candy that Dimitri gave us at the post office.

We also entered St. Eustachio church that is right in front of the cafe. We went there because we already got used to see its facade and we liked the deer head with the cross on it. And because a gardener with a hose was watering some plants in front of the church and it looked cool and fresh. The church is small and modest comparing to all others we entered today. All I can say is that it is very white. And I like white. It lets you think, relax and breathe freely. St. Eustachio church has the aura of cold marble stones. Its ceilings are white too; white with gold ornaments across all the cupolas. It is good to be sitting inside of it in July, when it is hot and humid on the street. It is almost as good as to be sitting in the cafe and being part of the cafe crowd, who talk, listen, drink coffee, share this moment with somebody else and then run away to take care of their daily lives. I feel like part of all these people. It does not matter where they are from, what language they speak, or what they will be doing in an hour. What matters is that we are all sitting on the street and seeing the church, the cars, the carabinieri passing by. We see the same shadow of the deer head with the cross on the pink house next to the church. We see the man who is watering the plants, and the suited man walking back and forth eating a slice of pizza. He is dressed in a suit (like most Italian men are) and he is eating pizza and walking and talking to somebody on a cell phone. And he is nervous. And all of us notice him and now he is part of our lives. As much as the church, the coffee and the man watering the plants are. We are part of this everyday magic, of this warmth that people can share by looking, by observing, by hearing, by giving and by merely being in a place and becoming a part of the place. And the happiest of us, like Dimitri, share this magic with others.

People I love are the ones who do not ask a child if he would like a candy, they just offer it to him. They do not ask if they should open the door for you, they open it. They do not ask you if you need help, they are there and they help. They are the people that make life magical for the rest of us. And I am grateful to them.

Rome, July 9th, 2012

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