48. Seven hills pomp and poverty
We enjoyed the sights of Rome for three fabulous days and nights. The weather, the atmosphere, the ancient city never fails to fascinate visitors from around the world. During the second morning, after a little disagreement where to go, I split from my sons to explore on my own. Jon and Ben decided to find something interesting in the park surrounding Villa Borghese, while I was heading for the Italian Café culture at the nearby Via Veneto.
Six years earlier, on the May 1st public holiday, I had stayed on Via Veneto an entire night. I had pushed a few chairs together in an outdoor café after it had closed, and tried to get as comfortable as possible. I had searched but couldn’t get a room anywhere. In the middle of the night a homeless woman arrived with her bundle of possessions to sleep in the same sheltered café, rearranging a few chairs for herself.
Ever since then, I joke how I spent a night with another woman on Via Veneto in Rome. As far back as 1972 Isobel and I stayed just off the famous boulevard in a small 'pensione'. We were both between jobs while living and working in Germany. While we had the opportunity we visited Italy and Switzerland in an old, five hundred Deutschmark Opel Kadett. We had spent much time searching for accommodation in Rome late at night. By accident we suddenly found ourselves surrounded in a magic array of glittering lights, ritzy cars and people who smelled of money.
Now 30 years later I was walking through the park toward this famous street, reminiscing. Amongst some bushes all alone I spotted a woman sitting in the sun beside a big cement bunker. She looked 70, but probably was only half that age. This secluded area of the park was obviously her home.
An unusual compassion came over me, so I approached her and tried to be friendly. I offered her a few Euros. She refused to take the money and gesticulated that she did not want any conversation. All I found out was that she sleeps at night in the bunker below. It was sheltered from the wind, but would be exposed to rain because there was no roof.
What contrast as, ten minutes later, I strolled amongst the Five-star hotels on the famous promenade, a mere ½ kilometre away! An orange Porsche with Arabic number plates was illegally parked on the pavement outside the lobby of a $ 1000+ a night hotel. A porter in uniform kept a watchful eye on it. The contrast of rich and poor could not have been more drastic. I strolled past up market shops, passing the huge palace which houses the American Embassy. It reminded me of Buckingham Palace, London with just as many security guards on duty.
My mind was still on the black woman sitting alone in the park. “She did not take any money, but why not buy her a loaf of bread?” I thought. I looked for a bakery without success. As I wandered back towards Villa Borghese I was determined to take something back to my woman. What would Isobel think, if she knew I was not thinking about her, but had another woman on my mind? Anyhow, this was not the place to purchase a handbag for Isobel. I could not afford anything leather; indeed, nothing was my price range in this part of town.
A large hotel had a display of cakes in the window of their ground floor café. A voice inside told me: “The old lady probably eats dry bread every day. Why not take her a piece of this nice chocolate cake?” It cost 5 Euros, nearly 10 dollars Australian, an amount which I would never spend on me for a piece of cake. But these were exceptional circumstances.
I was to meet my boys in the park again. On the way I found my way back to the group of bushes to deliver my purchase. The woman had fallen asleep in the hot sun. I quietly placed the paper bag with the cake beside her. The rustling of the paper woke her and made her suddenly jump up. I had startled her. I pointed to the paper bag and quickly slipped away, feeling as if I had stolen something.
I reunited with my two sons and we continued our sight-seeing of the city on seven hills. Why is it every time I visit Rome without Isobel I have an encounter with a homeless woman?
“Yes boys, I had a great hour by myself, thanks, piece of cake.”
Jon, Ben and I made our way across town towards the Vatican. As we got closer the crowds of visitors, mostly foreigners, kept swelling. We found out that the day before, a Spanish Catholic, San Jose Maria had been canonized and the celebrations were continuing until just before we arrived that afternoon. This explained the yellow and red colours everywhere, the colours of the Spanish flag. We joined a slow procession of tourists through St. Peter’s Basilica, overawed at the pomp and glamour to glorify the name of God.
Amongst all the glitter, gold and works of art I could not anywhere find the name ‘Jesus’. Does not all of this fuss revolve around HIM? I kept wondering if the black woman enjoyed her cake?
Arriving at our Hotel that night we found all our luggage had been packed and assembled in the hotel foyer. We were told we should have checked out that morning, someone had booked our room. I was furious. My paranoid thoughts returned as I abused the staff of corruption and links to the Mafia. They didn’t take me seriously. What happened was, my son asked the attendant the night before, if we could stay another night and thought he was given the OK. The reception clerk, however, did not enter the extra night into the computer and promptly booked the room again.
It was not a nice thought that somebody handled every item of our belongings and re-packed them. What really angered me was the hotel staff would not even assist us in finding other accommodation. My feelings of being worked against, that which I had experienced so many times in my life, surfaced. Luckily we were right near the central railway station; hotels were everywhere. We had a few heated arguments, as always, about what to do. Around the corner we found another room of much lower quality, but for Australian standards still expensive.
Amongst the confusion a strange incident puzzled me. Whoever had packed our belongings included one of the hotel’s large towels. It was right on top of Ben’s suitcase. I did not want to appear a thief, so the next morning I especially took a short walk to return it to its owners. My anger toward the staff had settled considerably.
We spent two nights in Florence. The weather had turned a little more overcast; rain started falling. One incident stirred my linking mind into action in a big way. We were eating in a small, but crowded restaurant, when a middle aged American man sat on the same table. He started chatting. This is what I like about travelling Americans; they seldom wear a mask and are always eager to make any encounter a memorable experience. My diary describes it this way:
“His name is Kirk (=church), he is from Oregon (= (lies) are gone), told us his life story in 10 minutes, I heard the 5 years my daughter…since she was 15, been married 35 years, he talked about a Magistrate, it is uncanny. Perhaps I am crazy…?
My rational mind argued that these facts are just co-incidence. What else could it be? Surely, I did not have an illness, where I literally heard certain figures in my head, despite what was really being said. But then, this would also have to be the case visually. No, I don’t think so.
If Italy was full of my figures and facts, what could I expect in Germany? How would I react to it? How will my friends view me, knowing I had been through a serious mental problem?
We were delayed at Rome by three hours. My friend Erich waited patiently at Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Airport. It was a warm, friendly re-union. I had known him since I was about 10 years old. He was my first friend to visit us in Tasmania many years earlier.
I was proud to introduce my two sons to Erich and later to his wife. We stayed for 11 days in the 2nd storey apartment in Erich’s house. My mother lived about 20 minutes away by train. When we first arrived she was in hospital after a fall. Ben and Jon showed excitement seeing her. It was nice to see the softer, caring side of Ben.
Although I had left over 30 years earlier, my friends still wanted to see me and made me feel welcome, even more so bringing two sons. Almost every day one or another of our hosts would take us to visit places such as King Ludwig’s fairytale Castle Neuschwanstein,near Fussen. Another time we visited Lake Constance, where Jon strained his eyes to see the snow-caped mountains of Switzerland on the other side.
Travelling further down stream we stood in awe admiring the huge waterfalls of the Rhein River near Schaffhausen. We spent one fun-filled day in and around the ancient town of Colmar, not far across the Rhein River in France.
Jon leaned over to check the speedometer when my friend Willy cruised on the Autobahn. The roads were well designed. Nobody felt uncomfortable even after the needle passed the 200 km/h mark. That the number plate was 808 and the car a Citroen C 5 would not mean anything to anyone; but it put a smile on my face.
One freezing Friday we took the train to Ulm on the River Danube, at 2850 km Europe’s second longest. Jurgen, a retired electronics engineer and long term friend, climbed with us up the 161 m church steeple, the highest in the world. Legend has it that the designers added a few meters just to beat the twin spires of the Cologne Cathedral. Typical Germans, and they haven’t changed since.
Much of our transport was by rail. In Germany trains are reliable, fast and cheap, if one knows and utilizes the system. My observing mind spotted many signs with my numbers or certain words that stirred my brain. One sign I found fascinating. Poster-sized, it was displayed at many railway stations, advertising a day-trip ticket on all trains for a group of travellers:
“5 Leute – 1 Tag – 21 Euro”. This was the weekend ticket: Either Saturday or Sunday five people could travel the total length of the rail network of the Deutsche Bundesbahn for 21 Euros. My birthday 30.01.50 divided by 3 equals 100050, divided by 5 it pans out at 20010. I can make a statement about our hand, using these figures. 1 hand has 5 fingers, 2 hands have 10. Brain cells obviously never go on holidays; or should I say, they never stay home?
Using one of these tickets we visited Heidelberg, about 1 ½ hours away and walked up to its famous castle. Jon made sure we would also visit the Daimler Benz Museum in Untertuerkheim. Right at the main entrance visitors admire the very first Automobile ever made. Later Ben and Jon insisted we also drive to the Porsche Museum in nearby Zuffenhausen. I’d had enough of 4 wheels by then. My friend Erich invited us to coffee and cake on top of the Stuttgart Television Tower. With a height of 211 m it was the first of its type in the world, built in 1957. How relaxing to enjoy a coffee with a view of Stuttgart’s lights at our feet, while sharing memories with an old friend.
At his house Erich showed Jon a novelty on his computer. He had a program to learn Morse-code and to use it via the P/C. I found out something interesting. On my website in mid 2002 I had uploaded a short article suggesting a method for saving drivers from flat batteries.
Without realizing it I used _____ _____ _ _ _ in Morse code. At Erich’s I discovered what it means. But first, here is the article from my Fun-E-zine:
A light idea
Taking the dog for a walk just on dusk I walked past a neighbour’s house. His car was parked in his driveway with the lights left on. I knew he’ll get a flat battery, so I knocked on his door and alerted him.
The same scenario often happens as we drive past a vehicle whose lights are blaring. I must admit I don’t stop my car often to save the owner from a flat battery.
But why not toooot, toooot, toot, toot, toot!
What I mean is this: As I see someone in this predicament (lights on without a driver in the car) I blow my horn 5 times - two long and three short toots. Anyone hearing this signal then thinks: "Is that for me? Did I turn my lights off?"
It may just save someone from getting a flat battery.
Using Erich’s program I found out that two long and three short toots in Morse-code represent the number seven, the perfect number; just another bit of trivia floating around in my mind.
It was my privilege to give Erich’s daughter Sonia her very first driving lesson. There are special circuits available, where for a small fee we were able practice steering and slow speed driving. Afterwards Sonia and I attended a theory class room session, which are compulsory in Germany. The material taught was presented very professionally. The subject was breakdowns on the Autobahn; what to do and how to use the emergency telephones. I wondered if this was not too far advanced for a learner who had never driven on the road before. Better than no theoretical lectures at all, as is the case in Australia.
The three of us, Ben, Jon and I were booked to catch a flight to Cairo/Egypt on 21/10/02. But on Oct. 12th, seven days after we had left Australia, a huge explosion blew apart a nightclub in Bali, killing over 180 people, almost half of them Australian tourists. Apart from this horrible terrorist attack and the fact that we were not very well prepared to travel in a Muslim country, we decided to cancel the Egypt leg of our trip.
If I’d had my way, I would have simply changed our ticket to another destination, Paris, Budapest or Vienna. Ben and I couldn’t agree. We took a train to Munich and headed for the wonderland of the German Alps instead. It was a good decision.
Autobiography - Dieter Fischer
1. More in number 2. A sound mind 3. Now I'm found 4. Candle and the Wind
5. Realm of Nature 6. All in his Hand 7. The Wonder of it All 8. To Think God loves