Letter to my Archivist

24 Jun

Dear Memory,

I know you are cluttered and stuffed to the brim with all sorts of knick-knacks – puns and conquests and the smell of my Grampa’s French toast – but I would like to file a request.

Please clear out a corner, preferably on a high shelf that won’t need to be disturbed for a while (and where those pesky short-term reminders can’t reach), and open a file entitled:

NIGHT WALK OUT LOUD, JUNE 23-24, HANDLE WITH CARE.

In this file, with utmost precision, I would like you to record every moment of last night between the hours of midnight and 4am. I want pictures, audio, press clippings if you can find them. This ought to be a veritable archive.

I know you are already overworked processing the Colosseum and that you have a backlog of Bernini statues. But trust me, this is a memory that I will want to come back to for the rest of my life. Push it to the front of the line, would ya?

And just because I’m so grateful for your hard work, I’ll start you off with a collection of the best moments of the evening. You take it from there.

Ashley and I were washing dishes and singing. This was not unusual in itself; however, this time it went on for a long time because we were doing dishes from both the group dinner and the wine tasting. I had already started making a mental map of the rest of my evening like I always do when I am stressed out, weighing the different possible combinations of study and sleep and realizing that sleep would yet again come up short. I had a presentation the next morning on Byron and wanted to knock the socks off of my teacher (I had been talking to her since arriving in Rome about my love of poetry) and so I knew that after dinner, I would hunker down with the eighteen open tabs on my web browser to read more and more about this crazy, violent, passionate, supremely talented man.

Until, that is, Nick, Hannah’s friend who was visiting and who did the program last year, walked into the kitchen. “I’m taking a walk tonight,” he announced. “Anyone else in?”

Hannah nearly choked on her laughter: “Seriously? I am going to SLEEP.” But Ashley and I made eye contact once, twice, shook our heads, rolled our eyes at each other knowing the futility of our situation, and answered together, “We’re coming.” Completely cuckoo or not (not to mention academically irresponsible), we would never say no to a night walk in Rome.

We left the apartment at 1am. It was Nick’s last night in Rome, but Ashley and I had class the next morning at eight thirty, and I still had my presentation to plan. Feeling a sudden pang of worry on my way out the door, I grabbed my Byron printout from the table and told them, “I’m still coming. But I’m going to read Byron from wherever we stop.” They shrugged their shoulders and we walked out into the piazza, still packed with 20-somethings laughing and leaning inwards in flirtation. The cobblestones echoed with Italian.

Before leaving Trastevere, Nick grabbed a cappuccino from S. Calisto despite the fact that everyone else at the bar was ordering a harder beverage. “Ciao!” I announced into the night air when we entered, as usual. “Ciao,” the older man at the cashier nodded back to me as he handed Nick his change with one hand and cleared Peroni bottles off the top of the glass case of pastries with the other.

Newly caffeinated, Nick decided on our destination: Piazza del Popolo. In Italian, this means “Piazza of the People”; in the language of night walks, this means “Hold on to your sandals, kiddos, this is going to be one heck of a journey.” But we went anyways, along the Tiber (dark with no sun to filter through its trees), through Piazza Navona (bodies mixed with bodies in the blackness in front of me. I could only see those closest to the fountains clearly), across the broken glass bottles of Campo de’ Fiori, and into alleyways that confused the compass that I always keep at the top of my mind. I don’t know how long it took for us to reach the piazza, just that it was long enough to weave in and out of narratives of Rome, everything from our independent project topics to the story of deceit behind one of Michelangelo’s window trimmings.

When we did find Piazza del Popolo, it was deserted. Beyond deserted. Echoing and dusky and much vaster than I had realized back when I saw it clothed in hundreds of sneakers, it met us with its central fountain with four lions shooting water down through their jaws.

“I’m reading Byron,” I said. Then, pausing, “Is it okay if I read Byron?”

“We’re listening,” Nick said, and leaned into the bottom curve of the fountain. I took the folded paper out of my purse, looked up at the top of the fountain, and began to climb. One narrow step at a time. My sandals were not made to grip marble against water but I pleaded with them to succeed, and within a minute, I was straddling a lion, facing a deserted piazza, holding Byron in an 8.5 x 11″ message on my palm.

“Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,

Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse

To understand, not feel thy lyric flow.

To comprehend, but never love thy verse…”

I trailed off. I had chills. I had two people with closed eyes listening to me read Byron into the marble ruins around me. I was getting wild and romantic, and Lord B. himself would have been proud. On to later stanzas, and,

“Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!

The orphans of the heart must turn to thee…”

Without acknowledgment I stopped mid-poem and passed the paper off to Nick, who also said nothing but clambered up the adjacent lion. And I stood on the center staircase, listening to words written in that place two hundred years ago. Then Ashley, who had initially shied away from our declamations, pulled herself up onto the central platform, and from above us, looking out, she finished the piece.

“Wow.” Nick said after a few moments. “I think that’s one of the coolest things I have ever done here.” “Wow,” I responded, quietly. “Wow.”

Piazza del Popolo at night. The four lions can be seen, barely, surrounding the base of the obelisk.

By the time we left the piazza, Ashley and I had red roses on our laps from a wandering vendor (“No grazie!” we told him. “No pay — you beautiful,” he argued back, and thrust them onto our laps.) We held them awkwardly in one hand as we followed Nick to our next destination, a “surprise,” we were told.

The surprise was at the top of a hill climb and past scattered Roman couples making out. It was first, a fountain, hidden behind stairs and walls, and second, a view through the Borghese gardens, one that looked out over all of Rome in its quiet repose. “We should recite something else,” we thought. And so, because it was the most firm text in his memory, Nick began the Gettysburg Address from this ledge in Rome in Italy in Europe across an ocean from its initial composition. At the end, we moved on. Each moment of the night cleared the paths of more people until, almost spookily, we were alone on most of our sidestreets. We were deep in the city by this point, and far from home.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. "

So far that our next stop was a climb down – down the Spanish steps. Here, we shared from memory the opening few pages of the Canterbury Tales (yes, Ms. Haag, I still do remember those, Old English emphases and all) and snippets of Shakespeare. By the end, we were sharing every poetic line that had ever stuck to the walls of our minds. We shook them free of their cobwebs and loosed them into the night.

The Spanish Steps

The walk back could be described as uneventful, except that we were walking in the footsteps of emperors and popes. We got lost, used churches as landmarks, and finally stumbled up the stairs more than three hours after our departure. Everyone in the apartment was sleeping, and so we put on pajamas, too; brushing my teeth felt strange after all of those mouthfuls of remembered words.

In the morning, we were tired, but not enough. We had already forgotten moments, but not too many. And we will remember, just for this long.

A rose (and a view) (and a city at rest)

( Now go work your neuron magic, mind. I want – no, I need – this file done right.)

Yours,

Jessica

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2 Responses to “Letter to my Archivist”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Work It « Jess On A Whim - July 1, 2010

    […] easy from there: I would get to do a mini-presentation on Byron during the fourth week of class (thus my late night expeditions with Childe Harold), and I would focus on my urban studies […]

  2. #2: Finding Your Map | 13 Ways of Looking - September 9, 2013

    […] we were stuffed full. We even recorded two of our favorite evenings after the fact – “Letter to My Archivist” and “You are 2000 Years Old. I am […]

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