Can one see too much of one’s love?
I suppose this is a variation on the aphorism that familiarity breeds contempt. I am testing that premise a bit recently and building up frequent flyer miles in the process.
The object of my affection is Rome. La bella cittá has always been my urban mistress. While home is in the Midwest, and my birthplace is Los Angeles, Rome is my long-distance lover — and has been for 30 years. Three decades ago, I first saw her, and I fell in love almost instantaneously. Joan Lewis, now Vatican correspondent for EWTN but then working for the National Catholic Register, was my matchmaker. I can still remember my first date, a hot August night when Joan introduced me to the city over dinner on a small piazza off of Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
I was smitten. I had hardly left Rome when I was already scheming for ways to see her. I came back a year later, and shortly after that moved in with her for three years. We parted ways, but I have always returned. After three decades, there is no reason for me to superstitiously fling coins in a fountain to guarantee another visit, though I did that for many years. I have been with her long enough to know that there will be no parting us now, however long our separations.
Like many cases of love, mine is a tad irrational. Rome is, after all, a lunatic urban sprawl shoehorned into a city that was built more for chariots and carriages than SUVs and trucks. The center is not just crowded with Italian vehicles but choked with pizza joints and tourists and people hawking umbrellas, beggars and petty thieves and, of course, ordinary Italians going to work. Its suburbs, where most Romans live, are just as crowded but lack the cultural charms of the center.
Sidewalks are shared by pedestrians, dog droppings and the occasional car parked at an obtuse angle. The cobblestone streets are rough and uneven, a bone-jarring surface for mopeds, bicycles and runners. A woman I met who ran the Rome marathon just after Pope Francis’ election complained to me that it was one of the hardest races she had ever run because 10 miles of it were on cobblestones.
Yet I still love Rome, flaws and all.
Earlier this year, I was appointed to a committee charged with making recommendations for improving the various media endeavors of the Vatican. As a result I am — for a short while, anyway — seeing Rome almost monthly.
It is a new experience, being a transatlantic commuter to my innamorata. Can one keep the flame alive when the visits become a job? Can passion coexist with a time clock? Last month, I trudged by the obvious attractions such as St. Peter’s, taking for granted what still stuns every camera-toting pilgrim seeing it for the first time.
And yet there is always something to discover in Rome, and every visit there is something new. The changing of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican entrance just left of St. Peter’s: I almost walked into the middle of it until a guard barked at me to halt. Or Piazza Navona on a rare quiet night with friends. No flower sellers or musicians. Just Bernini’s magnificent statue of the four rivers and the beautiful palazzos that gazed down, as they have done for centuries, upon the moon-drenched square. Or strolling through Piazza del Popolo on a sunny Sunday morning and hearing the wistful, haunting notes of a Peruvian flute, the new world serenading the old.
Best still are the people, quick to complain and quick to wax rhapsodic. The city is both Catholic and pagan, a crazy mix of the sacred and the profane. I can’t say it’s logical I keep coming back to her, but I guess that’s amore.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.