Sure, I feel like a five-year-old kid, bouncing on my seat at the thought of that fascinating view, but I don't think I'll pass for one. Rats.
However, I have decided in my travels that I will leave no stone unturned. In other words, I have made up my mind that I will not let my fear dictate what I will and will not due one this trip. (Security personnel is another matter).
So I march up to the front, strengthened by the determination to prove Adam wrong, and stand on this side of the door, looking though the window. Okay, so I at least got closer. I stand there, transfixed by the glimpse through the portholes, when suddenly I see a face looking back at me. I jump at the unexpected intrusion in my line of vision. I start to turn to go back to my seat, feeling slightly awkward at having 'been caught', when the man opens door number one and waves me forward! I can't believe it! I, Nadia, get to fulfill my dream on this day and sit in the co-pilot seat of a train!! I am beyond ecstatic! I beam at the engineer as we strike up a conversation - well, sort of. The fact that he does not know a lot of English and I know about a handful of words in Italian seemed like no hurdle at all in light of my wide-eyed enthusiasm. As we see the coast to the left and the mountains to the right, he tells me stories of the little villages we whiz past and shows me a couple tricks of the trade of train engineers. Finally I decide to head back, where I meet Adam with the expression of a beaming five-year-old.
...Yeah, yeah - you win this one, Nadia. I didn't realize you were going to stand peeping at the engineer with puppy-dog eyes until he'd let you in. But while you were up there, learning how to push the right buttons, I had an inspired idea for this blog post. I'll call it Portholes or Peepholes - something like that. It'll relate your experience getting in to the front of the train with the nature of travel itself. See, when we visit a new city for five or six days, all we get is a little glimpse, often distorted, often a sort of tunnel-vision of touristy areas or ancient ruins. But once in a while, someone opens up that door where the window is on, and we are allowed to walk through to a place where the view is wide and clear.
In Rome, there is a green-colored door on the top of Aventine Hill, just passed the three churches and the orange-tree park. The door guards the entrance to a compound run by the Knights of Malta (those procurers of Maltese Falcons, etc.). No non-member could ever see the inside, save for one feature in the door - a grand keyhole. Hearing about the place from a book Nadia picked up in one of the Italian terminals, we trekked up the hill to the famed door, where a hand full of locals were already taking their turns peeping at the same sight. Below, you will find a (very smart) meta-theatrical photograph taken of me looking through that keyhole. The view inside was breathtaking: a tunnel of perfectly-trimmed trees, running to the edge of a cliff. Beyond this - as if we were somehow teleported across the city - the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The Vatican becomes a symbol of our experience in Rome. We visited it on two out of the seven days that we stayed in the antique city. But there are distortions and illusions here as well: St. Peter's square is surrounded by two semi-circles composed of pillars four rows deep - but, if you stand in just the right spot (on a little circle marked out on the ground) - the four rows merge together perfectly, appearing only as one. In the Vatican Museum, there is a wonderful collection of Egyptian artifacts, first taken in by the Romans, then by us.
That is why it is so hard to get a true view of things here. New kingdoms keep writing on top of the old. The Palatine Hill reveals ruins stacked upon ruins, back to the time when Rome was only clay and wattle. The Circus Maximus is now a gravel pit, sporting an improvised stage for rock concerts. And the Pantheon, that ancient marvel of pagan Roman construction, has been dressed up proper like all of the other Catholic churches around.
It is the location of one of my most cherished memories of Rome. We visited it on the first day of bad weather on our trip. The rain was coming down so hard I bought an illegal umbrella from a Bangladesh salesman for 2 euro. We debated heading back to our home base, another camping tent on the outskirts of town. But practicality lost out to wonder, and we splashed our way across the cobblestone to the Pantheon. What a sight awaited us beyond those giant pillars! Rain was coming in through the hole in the domed roof. It appeared to be falling so slowly. Each drop contained light from the sky above, and its path could be traced downwards past Apollodorus' dome, past the Byzantine paintings, past Raphael's tomb - art through art through art. And then, to release this colorful history with a splash!
The water settled around the drainholes in the middle of the marble floor. I don't know where it goes from there. I never looked down.