Tuesday, May 31, 2022

A Letter to the Ammosexuals

Your guns will not save you.

You sit impassive on a throne of mangled flesh and shattered bone that grows higher and heavier with each passing day’s massacre of the innocent and you lash out with unhinged fury at those who say to you that this is immoral, that this is unacceptable, that this is a travesty of all that is sacred and holy, that this needs to change, and your guns will not save you.

You cling to your guns above all else, above human decency, above morality, above your obligations as a citizen and your duties as a community member, as if those guns mean anything more than bloodshed, as if they make you a “patriot” or a “good guy,” and your guns will not save you.

You throw your faith in a twisted caricature of a god into the faces of all who work to make this world a better place, not knowing or caring that any god worthy of the name will cast you aside and blot your name from memory unto the seventh generation. You will someday face your god and that god will turn away from you, and your guns will not save you.

You stockpile instruments of slaughter because you are weak, because you are too immature or greedy or inhumane to recoil in horror at the cost of your actions. You are content to ignore that cost as long as it is borne by the children of others because you find that cost an acceptable price for others to pay to satisfy your own desires, and to justify that bloodshed as the necessary price of your free access to your precious toys, and your guns will not save you.

You work unceasingly to make more massacres inevitable, to block any effort to fix the problem as every civilized nation on earth has already done, and your toddler-level understanding of freedom and rights has more hold on the shriveled remnants of your soul than the lives you claim to hold dear, and your guns will not save you.

They will not.

Monday, May 30, 2022

News and Updates

1. I’m trying to figure out how to write a post in response to the latest mass slaughter of the innocent that is so commonplace in the US these days (and you don’t know which one I’m talking about, do you – there are so many after all – which is a big part of the problem right there) without getting all of my social media accounts banned and receiving a visit from humorless men in dark suits, because while a deeply disturbing number of Americans find mass murder acceptable as long as it’s done by white men with AR-15s the powers that be do get upset when those of us who disagree express the righteously incandescent anger that is appropriate when confronted by such immoral and unholy actions, possibly because there’s a fair amount of overlap between those groups. What can I say? Sometimes the sheer unbridled arrogance and soulless evil of the ammosexuals in this country just pisses me the fuck off. I do not apologize for this.

2. Give us a number, though. At what point, ammosexuals, do we draw the line on the wall that says “HERE is where the pile of bodies is high enough that we’ll do what every civilized nation on earth has already done”? Or is your thirst for blood so unquenchable that you’d rather drown in it than restrict access to your precious shiny boom toys?

3. In the meantime, life goes on. At least it does for those fortunate enough not to run into yet another limpdick white male with military-grade weaponry taking out his shortcomings on his betters, which so far describes me. One must take one’s victories where they are, I suppose.

4. My semester has finally ratcheted down to a close, nearly two weeks after the last final. This is what happens when there are leftover projects and classes that never end and paperwork for all of that. I’m spending today doing as little as possible, which isn’t nearly as little as I’d like but so it goes.

5. We went to see a movie last night, a late showing in a town thirty minutes away at highway speeds which is another way you know you’re in America where such things are considered unremarkable. For those of you considering seeing Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, it’s a remarkably entertaining movie if rather an assault on the senses. Definitely worth seeing, though, particularly for those of us who are parents – for all of the multiverse SF martial arts action, it is at heart a domestic drama between generations. Also, there is an extended sequence with rocks that is disproportionately funny in a quiet sort of way. This may have been the first movie I’ve seen in the theater since before the pandemic, and at the same theater as well. Right up until the previews started it looked like we’d have the place to ourselves.

6. I spent most of last week getting the taxes for my mom’s estate figured out. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wants its cut, and while the answers I got weren’t always the ones I was hoping for I am very thankful to my friend Sean for letting me borrow his legal skills and time and steering me in the right direction. There’s only a couple of bits left to complete before the whole thing can be put to bed, and that will be a good feeling.

7. In the past two weeks we have gone from heat to air conditioning to heat to air conditioning and it’s a good thing the climate isn’t shifting because otherwise I’d be worried. What?

8. On that note, I’m reading a new novel by Claire North, one of my favorite authors recently, which is set in a world centuries removed from the multi-faceted ecological catastrophe that looms over us these days. It’s a good book as all of hers are – melancholy, richly textured, with complex characters and interesting situations, though she doesn’t quite know how to end books so we’ll see how that turns out – and I knew I was going to buy it as soon as I saw her name on the cover. But I read the reviews on Amazon anyway and I cannot tell you how much fun it was to read the complaints from the butt-hurt climate change deniers shouting about how she was being unfair to their nonsensical views. What can I say? I can be petty too.

9. My summer is filling up with projects. I have two classes I want to revise (one of which I’m getting paid for), an office I have been meaning to shovel out for three years now, and several long-term archival projects that I should get back to someday soon. This is on top of whatever projects others find for me to do.

10. On the other hand, the summer is also filling up with visitors and other pleasant things as well, so we’ll see how things go. At some point I will actually learn how to make a decent cacio e pepe. Hasn’t happened yet. Could, though.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

An Address to the Graduates

I spent Saturday morning giving a commencement address, which is something I’ve never done before and likely will never do again so I figured I would post it here.

One of the high schools that sends students to the remote-access US1/US2 sequence that I’ve been teaching for the last decade asked me if I would be their keynote speaker and I thought that would be a lovely thing to do. And it was. I got to meet a number of former students in person for the first time, as well as my contact person there, and the address seemed to go over well. I hope they liked it.

This is the address as it was written. I’m sure that the presented version varied a bit – they always do, no matter how often you practice or how much detail you write things down in ahead of time.

Bonus points if you can find the uncredited references in here – brief allusions whose original source I would have cited if this had been a formal essay, but which in a graduation speech I figured I could let slide. By my count there are five of them.


There is a certain irony in having a historian as your commencement speaker.

Historians, by our very nature, are backward looking creatures. We look to the past. It’s kind of the job description.

We try to see where things came from, what led up to things, how the world evolved from one sort of thing to another sort of thing. We try to figure out how we got here. We try to recreate the past in ways that the people who lived through it might recognize. We are most comfortable, in other words, with events that have already happened, whose outcomes are already known.

But if there is any day in your life where you want to be looking forward into the future rather than backward into the past, when you should be focused on things whose outcomes are not yet determined, it is your graduation day.

This is not the day to be reliving the old memories, though you’re going to do that anyway, and that’s okay. You have done much and achieved much to get here and you should be proud of that.

The mountain you have to climb is always looming up ahead, but every once in a while you should turn around and give yourself the credit for how far you’ve already come, to remember the ups and downs of the path that led you to here and now. The mountain will still be there, of course. It never goes away, and you still have to climb it. But it’s good to acknowledge what you’ve already accomplished

But take it from a historian – there will be plenty of time for old memories tomorrow. And if you’re on social media in any way at all you already know that you can never escape the old dramas, even if you wanted to.

The internet is forever, folks. You might want to think about that before you put stuff out there

No, today is a day to look to the future, not the past. To look forward toward the rest of your life and where it will take you, to look at things that haven’t happened yet but might, things whose outcomes are not already known, because it’s a big bright colorful world out there no matter what the headlines say.

Oh, the places you will go.

And all of that, of course, gets us back to the question of what I’m doing up here on a day that you should spend looking toward your future. What can a historian tell you about that?

Well, here’s the thing about history, which those of you who have taken history classes – especially if you took one of mine – have already figured out: History is just stories about people.

Yes, we talk about the big sweeping trends and the large ideological movements and the statistics and the cultural changes and the wars and the migrations and all of those things, but in the end those things are nothing but broad collective words we use to describe the stories we tell about the people who lived through them. It’s all just stories about people.

And there are all sorts of stories out there.

As a profession, we historians once told only the stories of the wealthy and the powerful, the big names and the bright stars, the privileged few who ran things and owned things and put their names on the buildings and the coins. And if that were all you saw you might end up believing that the world was made up entirely of old white men in expensive dark suits making decisions for everybody else

But in the last few decades we historians have figured out the simple fact that such people make up only a small minority of this country and an even smaller minority of the world as a whole and that other stories need to be told as well.

We need to tell the stories of the world’s collective majority too.

We need to tell the stories of women, who are after all 52% of this country’s population. We need to tell the stories of LGBTQ people, of non-whites, of the poor, the powerless, and the outcast. We need to tell all the stories if we want to understand the past as it really was and understand the present as it has actually become, and if we want to use those understandings to create the future that we should be creating. We need to tell all of the stories.

Including yours.

Because stories are what make us human, after all. They are, more than anything else, what separate us out from the other species with which we share this fragile planet. We become who we are because of the stories we tell about ourselves, and we pass along that becoming to others the same way, by telling our stories.

Before there were cities or governments or industries there were people sitting by the firelight telling stories, and when all that we know is changed there will still be people sharing stories with those around them. It was the first thing, and it will be the last.

Someday – and you’ll be surprised at how quickly this day will come, as the teachers, administrators, and parents in the audience will tell you if you think to ask them – someday, there will be historians studying you. I have reached the point now in my US2 class where I have a lecture that covers the year when I sat where you sit now, graduating from high school, and that lecture isn't even the last class of the semester! There are still classes after that!

Who thought that was a plan?

But someday historians will want to know about you. They will want to know how you lived. They will want to know the sorts of things that led up to the world you take for granted today. They will want to figure out how it got that way and where it led. They will want to tell your story – what you did, what you wanted, the world you created for yourself and for the people around you. And those stories should be told.

All of them.

So the question here for you today is what do you want your story to be?

You sit here at the beginning of your story but someday you’ll get to the middle of it, and eventually to the end. And what kind of story do you want that to be when it’s over?

You should think about that.

For some of you, it will be a bold story – a story of action and energy, of accomplishments and fame. It will be a story of how you became a leader and an exemplar among your fellow humans. You will speak of the work you put in, the decisions you made, the things you changed. You will describe the vision you had for that – the clear sense of what you wanted the world to look like when you were done with it and how you were willing work to get to know how things function, to figure out how to make them function better, and to seize the opportunities to do all that when those opportunities arise, because you will not throw away your shot.

Perhaps you will be a political leader. We need those now more than ever, after all, in this age of partisan fury. We need leaders who can make things work, for all Americans if you’re going to stay here in the US, or for all of the people wherever you end up if you go elsewhere, as many of you will. Your story can be that story.

Or you might be a scientific leader, grounded in the reality of the world rather than the petty ideologies that surround us in a dense fog of nonsense. You’ll make things better in concrete ways, solve real problems, find out how reality functions, and continue the grand Enlightenment experiment of trying to find our place in the universe.

Maybe you’ll be a cultural leader – a writer, an artist, a musician, a dancer, a filmmaker, or such, someone who brings beauty and joy to this tired old world with words and sounds and motion and images, someone who can capture a moment and make the world see, really see, as if for the first time, in a way that it can never unsee.

Maybe you’ll be something else. There’s a lot of options.

Graduates, be bold, be daring, and be brave, and tell your story with all of the joy and excitement you can find.

For others of you, though, your story will be a quieter one – a story of relationships and small moments, of kindnesses and communities

Most people, pretty much by definition, are not leaders, after all. That’s just how the math works out. We can’t all lead the parade. Someone has to clap as they go by.

Most people live in a window that is five generations wide. We remember our grandparents and our parents. We are remembered by our children if we choose to have them, and perhaps our grandchildren. And after that we are forgotten. We are not remembered in the history books, but only in the hearts of those who knew us, and when they are gone so too are we.

And for many of us, this is enough. It is a smaller story, a quieter story, but it is a good story, and it is enough.

And while the quiet stories are often unheard and uncelebrated, the simple fact is that these stories are just as important as the stories of the leaders, and perhaps more so.

When Alexis de Toqueville came to the US from France in the 1830s – this is how you know you’re listening to a historian, by the way; I’m contractually obligated to throw in at least one historical reference into this talk – he toured the relatively new country to see what made it work and more than anything else, he said, what made the United States work was the strength of its communities. The passion that Americans had for volunteering in their communities, for taking care of the people around them, for doing the small, quiet things that make societies function.

This is something that we forget today at our peril. We live in a time when those small quiet things are not valued, and our society is having a hard time functioning. Imagine that. We need people who will do those small quiet things, and perhaps you will be one of them.

If this is the story you will tell, then it will be a story of community, family, and the people you love.

Perhaps you will be a parent or an aunt or uncle, passing on your family’s history from one generation to the next, taking care of the new generation as it rises up to replace us, because that’s what new generations always do.

Or perhaps your story will expand outward to those who aren’t related to you at all but who are simply part of your community – a found family rather than a blood family. Because families come in all sorts of varieties and family is family, after all, however it is formed.

It will be a story of your friends, your colleagues, your fandom, of all of the various people who make your stay on this planet worthwhile and how you live your days among them and help make their stay on this planet worthwhile. You will describe the vision you have for that, the clear sense that those who are your world will be looked after and loved and how you will work to make that happen, to make your home a refuge and your community a better place, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves and take care of those who need to be taken care of.

Graduates, be kind, be observant, and be present, and tell your story with all of the thoughtfulness and care you can give.

For some of you, of course, your story will be all of these things, because they’re not mutually exclusive, after all. You can be bold and daring for the big things and still kind and present for the little things. The best leaders always are, and the strongest communities always do.

It’s your story, after all. You should tell it the way you want it to be told, and more importantly you should live it the way you want it to be told.

One other thing about stories that you should be aware of, though, is that very few stories have only one character in them. Your story will be part of many other stories, and while you will have the central starring role in your own story you will only be a supporting player in the stories that other people tell. You should consider how you want to appear in those stories, what role you will play in the stories of others.

A good place to start is just to treat people well.

Be generous with your time and attention, because the time you have with people is often surprisingly finite. This is something that old people like me know firsthand. The people who come into your life won’t be there forever, and you will miss them when they are gone. It is a complicated thing how your stories intertwine and circle back on each other. You probably never thought your high school career would end, that it would last FOREVER, and yet here you are, just waiting for me to finish so you can draw a line under the whole thing and move on. (Soon!)

Perhaps most importantly, though, be open to the idea that you don’t know what other people’s stories are or how you fit into them, and you may never know. This can be a humbling sort of realization – that there are things you will never and can never know, even about the people closest to you. Embrace that humility and let them bring you into their stories as they are able to do so, as you bring them into yours as you are able to do so, and remember that you don’t know what struggles others are facing at the same time they’re facing you, nor do they really know yours. All you can do is be open to learning.

Graduates, be generous, be open, and be humble, and tell your story with empathy for those you meet.

You are at the beginning of your story, and what you write is up to you. Your options are wider than you think and more important than you realize.

You don’t get the final say over your story, though. Sorry. It’s true.

You have no control over how other people will tell your story, and what you need to understand is that this is not a bad thing. It is a liberating thing. You don’t need to tell your story the way other people want, because you couldn’t do that even if you tried.

All you can do is live your life the way you think it ought to be lived, to do right as you are given the ability to see what is right, and to tell your story as well as you can so that those who come after you will know that you were here and – however bold or however quiet your life turned out to be – that you mattered.

Live a good life as you see a good life should be lived. Be brave and just and live the story you want to be told.

Because right now, right here, your story is just beginning and the outcome is not known. You have the chance to tell that story as you want it to be told so think about what you want that story to say.

“We are all just stories in the end,” said Doctor Who. “Just make it a good one, eh?”

Be as bold as you dare, as kind as you can, and as generous your life allows.

And on this day, when it is appropriate to look forward rather than back, when we stand at the beginning rather than the end of a story whose outcome is not yet known, go into your futures and write your stories with all of the blessings that a historian can give you.

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

This Is Why

This is why you do this job.

This is why you fight with the technology that doesn’t want to let you log in, refuses to get students registered, and insists on optimizing all of the things that already work just fine until they are shiny slabs of award-winning uselessness.

This is why you fill out the forms and collect the documentation and work your way through the bureaucracy hoping for an appeal to be granted here or a decision to go your way over there.

This is why you lower your head and persevere through the toxic right-wing politics that are forever seeking to undermine education and turn your campus into a corporate training center or an indoctrination camp.

This is why you answer emails at strange hours and grade essays on weekends.

This is why you keep a box of tissues on your table and an extra mug for tea and a stash of snacks in the drawers of your desk for those who need them to get through the day.

This is why.

It was commencement night down at Home Campus, and the graduates were recognized for their achievements. They sat through a brief but generally happy ceremony and walked across the stage to collect their diploma cases (they’ll get the actual diplomas mailed to them since the semester officially ended today at noon and you can’t print those things up that quickly if you want them to look nice). They wrote their names on little cards to hand to the person announcing them as they came up – because this is an achievement and they should have their names announced – and a lot of them took the chance to thank those who helped them: friends, family, professors, advisors. I even got a couple of shout-outs, which pretty much made my night right there.

They earned those degrees. They put in the work. They overcame the obstacles their lives put in front of them – and the next time some dingbat cable news talking head starts bloviating about coddled college kids I swear I will go ballistic – and they succeeded, often in the face of all sorts of national statistics that said they wouldn’t. Sometimes you have to stand up to the norms and do well anyway. They should be proud. The faculty and staff up there on stage applauding them certainly were.

I’ve been an advisor for six and a half years now – roughly a fifth of the time I’ve been teaching at one level or another. You get to know students better as an advisor, I find. You hear the background stories behind the things that they say (or don’t say) to their professors. You follow them through the ins and outs of their lives across semesters and across years. You want them to succeed.

Not all of them do. But enough.

This was the first in-person graduation ceremony held down at Home Campus since 2019, before the pandemic scrambled everything. The students who marched today mostly started their careers online, pixels on a screen from the depths of lockdown, and today they were able to shake hands on stage with the top administrator and have their friends and family cheer from the stands.

This is why you do this job.

Congratulations, graduates. May the world treat you well.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Random Thoughts About This Year's Eurovision

1. It was always going to end that way. The juries would do their thing but they had to know that nothing they decided was going to matter. Ukraine was going to win on pure sentiment – a combination of support for an embattled nation and a collective “fuck you” to Putin’s Russia and its barbarism. I understood this going in and on that level I supported it (and their song was pretty good, it has to be said), but I did feel bad for the other performers who must have known from the beginning that they were only competing for silver.

2. That said, it was much the same festival of joyful what-the-fuckery that it was last year, for the most part. Moldova’s cheerful combination of the Ramones and polka was perhaps the highlight of that aspect of the show. Norway’s “Give That Wolf a Banana” was a close second but lost points with me for being just a bit too determined to be weird. Moldova just let the weirdness flow.

3. I loved how they got some of last year’s acts to report the jury decisions from their countries – especially how Lithuania convinced the 2021 “What Did I Just Watch” award winner to announce their votes. He did the hand gestures and everything.

4. I am seriously out of touch with the sort of people who watch Eurovision, it seems. Six of my top eight songs ended up in the bottom half of the results, including poor Germany which put up a solid rock song after the aggravated silliness of last year (that I also, nearly alone in the world it seems, enjoyed) and came in dead last. My clear and obvious winner, Belgium, with a great R&B number that apparently few besides me thought highly of, came in 19th, and the fact that Lithuania’s torch song only came in 14th is a travesty of Biblical proportions. My highest ranked favorite, Sweden, came in 4th.

5. At least nobody got skunked like last year. It was rather endearing listening to the UK delegation chanting “We got points! We got points!” when the first results were announced, and the fact that they came in second overall – rather higher than I would have had them, but so be it – was kind of fun. The guy they had singing this year could actually sing, which helps.

6. On the other hand, the only song in the contest that I actively disliked – whatever that was that Serbia contributed – came in 5th, which tells me that the one who is Clearly Not Getting It is me and not the Serbs. Oh well. I wasn’t cool when I was young and cared and I suppose it’s too late to start now.

7. In the US the event was streamed on Peacock, which decided that just letting the biggest musical show on earth, which has been successfully running for over six decades, happen the way it happens like they did last year was not good enough so they “Olympianized” it by putting Johnny Weir (of all people) in a booth in Los Angeles to provide commentary and then skipping nearly everything that happened in Turin other than the songs. On the one hand, Johnny Weir is nearly always interesting in a “train wreck of fabulousness” sort of way and he did as good a job with the situation as could reasonably be expected of anyone. On the other hand, though, his whole role was superfluous. They could have just let the actual show go on without trying to Americanize it like that.

8. I had no idea that the song that Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell made famous last year (“I can be brown, I can be blue, I can be violet skies…”) was an actual song, let alone one made famous by one of the hosts of this year’s Eurovision. See point 4 above.

9. I feel bad for MÃ¥neskin, though. Last year’s winner traditionally gets to perform at this year's Eurovision and they did a pretty good job of it considering the lead singer broke his ankle right before the final. He got through the song and then the clueless host (a different one from the one above – there were three of them) kept talking to him and backslapping him before asking him to sing something else when it was obvious to pretty much everyone else in the world watching that the poor guy was in serious pain and just wanted to get off the stage before he fell over. Get that man a damn chair!

10. Of course, the winner of this year’s Eurovision gets to host next year’s. I wonder how that will work in Kyiv, and how that will play in Moscow. Not enough popcorn in the world.

Monday, May 9, 2022

A Good Day for a Graduation

Somehow I have become the proud parent of a college graduate.

I mean, I know how this happened. I have followed all of the steps eagerly, in fact, from the various college tours that we took back when the world was blissfully unaware of the coming pandemic, to the classes and the shows and the bills and the advising and all of that, each thing following after the other in an orderly fashion. It all seemed so timeless, and yet suddenly that time has come to an end.

Oliver has graduated from Small Liberal Arts College.

Kim, her mother, our niece Marin, and I drove down to the little B&B that Kim had the foresight to reserve long ago, because even though the S in SLAC stands for Small the town is yet smaller and things do fill up. It was a very nice little place and we highly recommend it. We never did manage to see Oliver that night, which is only to be expected as the campus kept him pretty busy and really he can see us for the next year but his friends were soon to scatter to the winds. One must have priorities.

We did go out to lunch on Saturday, though – a lovely place in the next town south where the parm fries are excellent and the outdoor seating plentiful. We sat and ate and talked about all sorts of things, and all was good.

The Baccalaureate Service was that evening, down on the football field. It was a bright sunny day, rather warm for what we’ve had here in the midwest this year, and we sat there in the bright sunshine while the carefully nondenominational service wound its way through it courses. The chaplain chose a painting theme for her talk – how each layer is the foundation of the next, that sort of thing – and afterward all of the graduates who chose to attend got a paintbrush.

The actual graduation was Sunday morning, which was a lovely November day that somehow got transplanted into May – grey, chilly, and with winds gusting up to 40mph. At one point I watched some of the sound equipment get blown several yards across the field. It was supposed to rain – we ended up getting maybe a dozen raindrops – so they gave everyone one of those disposable ponchos and told us that the ceremony would not be postponed and umbrellas would not be allowed, so a lot of people just put them on and every time the wind would gust the whole place sounded like a gift-wrapping festival.

Crinkle crinkle crinkle. Rustle rustle rustle.

The graduates eventually marched in and made their way to their seats.

It was a very nice ceremony, with a few speeches and some chasing of windblown items, and in the end the graduates all were called by name because they worked hard for that moment and should be recognized by name and they walked across the stage to get their diploma – or at least the case for it, since it’s hard to coordinate that in advance. They could pick up their actual diploma at the brunch that followed immediately afterward in the Commons – Oliver’s has a handsome gold sticker to let you know he graduated Magna Cum Laude, which is quite an achievement. I took a lot of pictures and somehow none of the ones of the actual stage-crossing moment really turned out well, but I remember it anyway.

Yay, Ollie!

The brunch was good, and we got a few pictures in as well because how could we not? Are we not the most sartorially elegant sight?

The weekend went quickly and then, suddenly, was over. You can say that about the entire time Oliver was in college. It all goes by so quickly and then everyone is off to the next stage. I suppose that’s the way it always is.

Congratulations, Oliver. I’m proud of you.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 14: We Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Lives, Already in Progress

When we got back to Our Little Town it was sleeting, which seemed unnecessarily harsh after a week in Rome. Oh well. It provided a clear break between vacation and reality, so perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing.

Getting home was a bit of an adventure. There’s a whole lot of new rules and regulations regarding traveling in the pandemic here in the Land of the Free and they change on an hourly basis. Why anyone thought putting the airlines – corporations renowned for their inability to grasp the concept of customer service or even reliable phone lines – in charge of enforcing such things is a mystery for the ages.

One thing we knew we had to do was get a covid test. Fortunately these are pretty easy to come by in Rome. Italy has (or at least had at the time) a Green Pass system whereby all Italians have a QR code that links to their vaccination and testing records so you can get tested at pretty much any pharmacy. There was one just down the street from our apartment, right by one of the bus stops that we frequented. We’d stopped there earlier in the week to get sunscreen for Kim (it was very good sunscreen, it turned out) and we determined that they would do testing on Thursday morning. You have to have it done within 24 hours of departure and since we were leaving on Friday morning that worked out just fine.

So that morning we headed over to the pharmacy.

They’d set up that little pop-up tent in the street, away from the customers inside in case you test positive, and eventually we figured out that we just had to sign up for a slot out there and wait to be called in. Once the test was over we went inside the pharmacy to collect our official EU Test Result Confirmation, which we immediately photographed for backup and then tucked safely away, paid our pile of euros, and went to lunch at the Testaccio Market to celebrate.

The only fly in this ointment was that we were completely unable to check in ahead of time with the airline. We tried several times, both online and by phone, and eventually the second person we spoke to at the airline managed to get through the process without hanging up on us and then sadly told us that it was not possible for us to check in for our flights in advance and we’d have to do that at the airport.


There was also the matter of the Attestation Form.

This is a 7pp form that the US Government has so you can swear that you’re vaccinated against covid. The airline insisted that this was absolutely necessary – they wouldn’t even let us onto the plane without it – and it had to be printed. They would not accept any electronic version of it. Air B&Bs rarely come with printers, it turns out. Eventually we called the US Embassy and they said to forget about it, but – as Kim will tell you – I am not the most relaxed of travelers when it comes to all the prep work one needs to do before actually setting foot on the plane (which is why she handles all this) and in order for me to get any sleep at all that night we asked our Air B&B host to recommend a print shop. Fortunately there was one about a block away, so I emailed both of our completed forms to myself, hiked over, emailed them to the guy behind the counter, and walked out with printed copies for wholly a nominal fee.

They never did ask for the forms – the Embassy was right – but I felt immensely better anyway.

We were up at 4:30am on Friday to get to the airport, since it was an early flight and you have to plan ahead for these sorts of things. Kim had found an Uber driver who would take us to the airport at that unholy hour – the first car we’d been in since we arrived in Italy – and he showed up a few minutes before 5am. Fortunately we were able to get to him, as we’d forgotten that the courtyard for our apartment has locked gates and we’d had to leave the keys in the apartment and lock the door behind us. There was a heart stopping moment when we considered the possibility of being trapped in the courtyard until someone came by to rescue us, but one of the gates was open so WIN.

The airport was fine. They checked us in though to Chicago with no problems, though they did demand our carry-on bags again as they were too heavy for the overhead bins. The advantage to this, we discovered, is that they do this for free. Thus unencumbered, we stopped at a coffee place, and then slowly made our way through security and into the Duty Free Shopping area to scan through the offerings. Eventually we got on the plane and took off, waving goodbye to Italy as it receded into the distance.

The airport in Frankfurt, Germany, is one of the stranger airports I’ve been in, mostly because you don’t really taxi up to the gate when you land and you don’t leave from the gate when you take off. Instead when you get there you pull up somewhere out on the tarmac and then get onto a bus which takes you to the terminal – a ten to fifteen minute ride – and when you leave the process is reversed. This is why the announced boarding times at Frankfurt are so far in advance of the actual departure times – they have to get you through all of the intermediary steps.

We got there just fine and then launched our expedition from A Terminal where we landed to Z Terminal where we were departing from, which was just as long of a trek as you’d imagine given that set up. Fortunately we had plenty of time, which we spent getting registered with our next airline (why can’t flights just be one airline anymore?) and finding some lunch, along with a nice break in some very comfortable chairs. If you’re going to be there for a few hours you might as well enjoy it.

My favorite thing about Frankfurt was that they have racks and racks of free newspapers and magazines for you to read while you wait. This is how I stumbled across what might possibly be my favorite movie review of all time. It was in The Financial Times, which is not generally reckoned a source of entertainment news, and it was for the action film Ambulance, which briefly set sail for glory sometime in mid-March and then promptly sank like a stone. The reviewer was rather ambivalent about the film, it seems.

“Picture a 10-year-old boy of vivid imagination but limited attention span,” the review begins, “often needing reminding to use his indoor voice. (Let’s call him ‘Mike’.) Now hand him the run of Downtown L.A., millions of dollars, many energy drinks and very good insurance. The outcome would surely look like Ambulance, the berserk new action thriller from director Michael Bey. Don’t take that as an insult. Countless great films have been made by overgrown 10-year-olds. While Ambulance isn’t one of them, it is fully committed to your entertainment.”

It takes real skill to twist the knife like that.

Our flight to Chicago was absolutely glorious. We had a big, relatively new plane and it was about a third full – the first time I have flown on a plane with any empty seats since the 1990s. Kim and I got an entire 3-seat middle section to ourselves and spread out. All flights should be like this.

Eventually we made it home, unpacked, and collapsed in a heap in our own bed. It’s good to travel, but it’s also good to be home.

A few days later I found a 2-euro coin still in my bag while I was at work. I keep it on my desk now, as a reminder of a lovely time.

I still haven’t seen the movie Roman Holiday, though. Perhaps someday. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 13: We Walk the Streets

I love cities.

Cities have an energy to them that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. They are concentrations of humanity, full of stories and life. There’s a reason why “city” and “civilization” ultimately come from the same root word, after all. They’re messy, exuberant places, often joyous, sometimes dangerous, always fascinating, and one of my favorite things to do on trips is simply to start walking around one of them and see where I end up. We did a lot of walking around Rome, just kind of seeing where the next street would take us. I enjoy seeing how people live their lives and the spaces in which those lives happen.

This mystifies a lot of people I know, but so it goes. You can keep your rural scenery for yourselves (more for you!). I’ll wander around my cities reveling in the noise, the crowds, the sheer electric jolts of the place, and I’ll say I got the better end of the deal.

The first thing you learn about walking the streets of Rome is that if you want to know where you are you need to look at the corners of the buildings because that’s where the street signs are. They’re big engraved slabs of stone, usually set just out of your normal sightlines unless you know to look up. If you’re looking for metal signs on poles you’re just going to be lost most of the time.

Also, the streets are generally cobblestone of some kind rather than asphalt, at least in the older sections of the city. The thing about that arrangement that isn’t obvious until you’re there is that cobblestones are small, discrete things and every time a tire hits one it makes a separate noise and those noises add up very quickly and you find yourself really grateful for the fact that cars in Rome tend to be very small and light because otherwise the din would be unimaginable.

This is especially true in tunnels.

We didn’t mean to walk through this tunnel. We were trying to get from Trevi Fountain to the pinsa Romana restaurant that had been recommended to us and this looked like a good route because on GoogleMaps it looked like we’d be walking through a park, but it turned out that the park was on top of the tunnel and there really wasn’t any convenient way to get up there from the direction we were coming so there was nothing for it but to head into the tunnel. It was a very long tunnel. About halfway through we gave up on trying to have a conversation and just waited until we got to the other side.

Also, the manhole covers make you feel like you’re back in the empire.

One of the first places we walked around was Trastavere, which is the neighborhood just across the river from Testaccio. There’s a modern side – which we explored a bit more thoroughly than we’d anticipated when we first arrived in Rome, since that’s where the train station was and we needed to get to the apartment – and there’s a historic side, which is full of narrow streets and city life. People live there, which is something you often overlook as a tourist but I find it the most interesting part.

We had to get across the Tiber to do this, of course. The Tiber cuts a winding path through Rome and pretty much anywhere you try to go you’ll run into it. It’s not a glamorous river really, but it has its charms and it’s worth a few moments of stillness to consider it on your journeys.

We decided rather than go the most direct route into Trastavere we’d take a bus down to the Ponte Fabricio, which gets you over to the Isola Tiberina, a small island that sites in the middle of a bend in the Tiber. The Ponte Fabricio is the oldest bridge in Rome still in its original state, according to the source I just looked up. It was built in 62 BCE and it seems to be doing a good job of things still. You go, Ponte Fabricio!

You walk up to the mainland end and snake your way through the little gate that’s mostly there to keep the lawless Italian motorcyclists from taking over and then off you go to the Isola. The green cross is how you know that there is a pharmacy there, which was a bit of information that would eventually come in handy for us though not this particular pharmacy. This one we just sailed right by, taking in the sights of the Isola before heading across the bridge on the other side (the Ponte Cestio which was originally built not long after the Ponte Fabricio but has been rebuilt several times since then, most recently in the 1890s) and into Trastavere.

We were there on a golden afternoon when the sunlight warmed the reds and yellows of the buildings and it was just lovely. The streets in that part of Trastavere are narrow, the buildings are tall, and there are people and cars pretty much everywhere.

It’s a real neighborhood as well. People live there. They hang their laundry out over the streets.

They do renovations. They do a lot of renovations, actually. Pretty much everywhere we went in Rome somebody was fixing something or had scaffolding up to fix something else. I suppose in a city that old there will inevitably be a lot of things to maintain.

You see sights like this all over Rome, and we had a grand time exploring the city that way. I have no idea what the other tourists thought of me – let alone the native Romans – as I merrily photographed what were, after all, just ordinary streets to them. Sometimes you just have to do things for you, I suppose.

I liked the modern streets as well, but maybe that’s just me too.

One of the things I noticed was the prevalence of Pride Flags. You see them all over the city, hanging from various buildings. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had been going on for a month and many of the flags were emblazoned with the word Pace (“Peace”) on them, which just might be what that flag means in Italy but to me it’s a Pride Flag and it made me happy to see them.

There are a few other things that you notice when you wander aimlessly through the streets of Rome in addition to just how stunningly unstylish you are as a non-Italian, which eventually you learn to tune out as just the constant background hum of walking around in Italy that it is.

For one thing, there are of course the cars. The cars are everywhere, even in places where you think that they cannot possibly squeeze into but there they are anyway because Italian drivers are not deterred by lesser things such as the laws of physics. Do not under any circumstances attempt to drive in Rome unless you have been trained or born to it, because in addition to the sheer controlled chaos of the whole process there is also the fact that random areas are zoned for only very specific vehicles bearing very specific stickers and the fine for violating that restriction is a hundred euros every time. Even so, the cars everywhere.

Not surprisingly, because you can’t spend every waking moment driving even if it sometimes feels that way for Americans, people have to put those cars somewhere when they’re not using them. Rome is an old and crowded city, and when you combine those two facts what you end up with is the realization that pretty much every piazza is a parking lot.

Italy is the only place I have ever been where people are more random about parking their cars than Philadelphia, which is impressive in its own right and even more so when you factor in the sheer volume of the cars and the narrowness of the streets. Of course the cars would colonize every little widening where they could park. They don’t need much room, after all.

That one is, admittedly, rather small even for a Roman vehicle. The average car in Rome is about the size of a dinner table – you often see them parked perpendicular to the flow of traffic rather than parallel with it simply because they can do that without jutting into the road and causing a hazard. Some, as noted above, are smaller. I saw very few standard American-sized vehicles, and most of them were delivery vans. It’s a small place. You need cars to fit.

Cars also need gas, and the gas stations in Rome just fascinated me. In the US a gas station is a big wide-open flat space roughly the size of an airport terminal, with pumps, parking, and often an entire convenience store attached to it. Here in Wisconsin we have two major gas station chains, one of which is known for its pizza and the other of which is known for its chicken strips and I am not making that up. This sort of thing is not true in Rome, where gas stations are often just little strips by the side of the road. The first one of those I saw was on the way to our apartment the day we arrived and I thought, “That can’t be right,” but then they just kept being like that and eventually the reality of the situation breaks through your denial and you think, “Huh.” Not much more than that, I have to admit, but at least that.

Sometimes if you’re lucky walking around you will come across a busker. This guy was sawing away at any number of classic American pop tunes and he was actually pretty good.

There are also water fountains all over the city. They look like this:

These things are always running – I don’t believe there is any way to turn them off even if you wanted to do so – but Andi the Tour Guide assured us that the water would be running anyway regardless of whether it had been captured by one of these fountains so at least this way it wouldn’t be entirely wasted. There’s a trick to using them, though. You have to put your thumb over the end of the little curved pipe that sticks out, and when you do that the water will shoot out of the hole at the bend in the pipe and you can drink it, or you can step back in a startled sort of way and get everyone in a three-step radius soaking wet. It’s a choice you get to make. You do want to drink it, though. It’s good water.

You also find a lot of graffiti in Rome – this seems to be more common in European cities than in American cities, which have gone to some lengths in recent years to discourage it. I remember being somewhat surprised by how much graffiti I saw in Paris, and Rome was much the same. Some of it is pretty clever.

And some of it is just, well, there.

The final thing I noticed while I was walking around were the trees. It’s a city full of trees, though from what I could tell they fell mainly into two different varieties.

First, there are the sycamore trees.

These things are everywhere. They line the streets and boulevards. They edge the river. They are the standard tree of Rome as far as I could tell, planted by the millions and without which no self-respecting Roman street could expect to be taken seriously, and this is odd because they’re a sloppy tree in many ways. We had one in our front yard when I was growing up and we were forever cleaning up after the constant rain of bark, leaves, gumball-sized seeds, and the occasional limb. My dad waged a low-level war against that tree for years trying to get it to look presentable and not clutter up the property. They’re pretty trees, granted, but not low maintenance which makes them an odd choice to dominate a city.

There are a lot of them in Philadelphia, a city that welcomed vast numbers of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it occurred to me while we were walking around in Rome that those two facts might not be coincidental. I wonder if the sycamores were brought over to Philadelphia by those immigrants, or maybe it went the other way around as people went back and forth across the Atlantic – many immigrants went back, after all. The only person I know who would have appreciated all the sycamores – who would have found them deeply funny in a way – would have been my dad and he’s not around to tell these stories to anymore. Sometimes that hits you more than other times.

There were also the truffula trees.

That’s not what they’re called, of course. I think the proper name is “umbrella pine,” which is only slightly less ridiculous and given a choice I prefer to call them truffula trees because it amuses me to do so and that has to count for something.