Notes from Rome: on a Van Gogh painting in the Vatican Museum, olive oil and a “na na” tune

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We went to the Vatican Museum. With the kids and a stroller. It was hot, we were tired from walking and by the time we arrived to the museum we got completely lost in the mass of the museum visitors and guided tours groups and did not know which way to go to get our entrance tickets and check in our backpack. One of the security guards approached us and insisted on helping. First he showed us where we could leave the backpack, but then seeing that we had children, he smiled and said that he himself has children and he understands how challenging it is to travel with these little people. He told us to wait and came back with a special sticker for the backpack that will allow us to take it inside the museum. Then seeing the stroller, he took us to service elevator and got us to the ticket office floor. By that time he and my husband exchanged some greetings and he told us that he was originally from Bolivia and now living in Italy. My husband needed to leave us, as he had to do some work in the Vatican library and the guard escorted me and the kids to the ticket office and my husband to the exit, so he would not get lost. The Vatican Museum is huge, but this is fine, we expected it. What we did not expect is the multitude of people, lots of stairs (almost between each exhibition room) and pretty much the impossibility to make it through the mass of tourists. Needless to say that the kids could barely see the paintings. The antique collection was better, there were fewer people and some of the marble statues were positioned on the floor level, and my son identified himself with them and got very expressive and talkative. We spent a nice period of time in that gallery. Then, the move towards the Sistine Chapel continued through even thicker mass of visitors. We progressed slowly, when half way through the museum (Sistine Chapel is at the end of the visit) the Bolivian guard saw us and told me to follow him through a side door. We went through some museum exhibitions that were closed to public on that day, thus the rooms were empty and breathable. He told me that this way he would take us directly to the Sistine Chapel avoiding all the stairs. And we followed him. At some point he stopped in one of the rooms and pointed to a bluish Van Gogh painting. He told me that he really liked it and that it was thought that Van Gogh pictured himself through the face of Christ (Christ’s face has Van Gogh’s features). It was a beautiful small painting. All bluish. A breath of fresh air. In the dusty and touristy Rome, it was like a small open window that let you feel the breeze from the blue sea. Fresh. New. It gave you strength and made you smile inside. We stood for a couple of minutes in front of this Van Gogh, in the small empty room of the Vatican Museum. Just Van Gogh and us. And through the open window you could see the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, and hear the noise of the street. Then the guard led us to the Sistine Chapel. He opened the door and there we were, in the middle of the people again with the magnificent Michelangelo art looking at us from the ceilings. The guard told me the shortest way to get out of the Chapel once we are done with the visit and disappeared. I barely had time to thank him.

People are nice in Rome. They are very nice. They help you. They talk to you. They smile. They share their kindness. We have talked to the people at the hotel, at the museums, at the churches, at the cafes. Even the security guard of St. Peter’s Basilica engaged into a conversation with us. It all started with a question if we wanted to attend a mass there, which I had to reject, because the kids were very tired and my two year old would not be able to sit through it without trying the Basilica’s acoustics himself. And we just stood there talking for ten minutes with the guard, about him, life and us.

People at the restaurant we had our dinner today sang a melody with our daughter when they saw her singing. They did not do it expecting something in return. They did it because they enjoyed it too. They enjoyed sharing the moment of happiness with somebody who is next to them. The restaurant had the red gingham square tablecloths; fresh home baked bread and their own production olive oil. The oil was thick, dark green and aromatic. It was good. It was grown and produced on family olive fields in Tuscany and it had the Italian hot sun in it. And a bit of happiness. Both kids could not stop eating the still warm bread dipping it in olive oil. And signing. Yes, they were singing some childish “na na” tune that they had just came up with. And the waiters started singing the melody too. And the sun lit the street beautifully through the narrow cut in the terracotta buildings. It lit the table with the red cloth and some bread on it, the people that passed by, the waiters and us, as a part of it all.

Italy at 8pm is beautiful. It has the happiness that a piece of fresh bread dipped in green olive oil from Tuscany took from the Italian sun. It has the fresh breath of a small Van Gogh painting in an empty room in the Vatican Museum. It has the kindness of Italian people. And not only Italian. It has what all the people have: the ability to sing happily a childish tune with a happy child.

Rome, July 10th, 2012.

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