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“Beauty is the great seducer of men”, Alchemist

“But if Italy were America, we would strip away Saint Peter, Virgin Mary, and all these saints from these columns…”

I reserved a hotel in Rome City Center. After a refreshing shower, I curiously went out for a walk down the ancient streets. Upon reaching the Spanish Steps, I stopped for a few minutes and gazed at the panoramic view of this beautiful city. Then I took the 135 steps down and arrived at the Fountain of the Old Boat at the center of the piazza – Fountana Della Baraccia.

I observed the sculpted boat in the center of the street and the fresh water flowing through it. It truly was unique. There’s nothing else in this world like it. It is based on historic facts. The Tiber River flooded badly in 1598. And after the water withdrew, a boat was found in the square where the fountain still sits today.

I appreciate the symbolism the boat represents. Sometimes there is no explanation for the things that happen. A boat simply appears on a street. And as weird as it may be, there is no option but to deal with the fact that there is a boat in the street.

Fountana Della Baraccia

It reminded of my problems. I left Chicago while my 75-year-old man was still upset with me because I didn’t give my uncle some money to help him. He is slowly dying with ALS at the hospice, and his only form of enjoyment left is playing the lottery.

We all have to deal with the unpredictable nature of our problems. They carry with them the moral components of right and wrong. And then we are faced with a choice. In the example of the boat, instead of trying to remove the problem of a boat in the middle of the street, they transformed it into a beautiful sculpture. So in the case of my uncle, instead of lending him money simply to alleviate his problem, is there something better that I can do for him?

I spent a few days walking through the ageless streets of Rome. I was taking pictures of monuments, churches, the Pantheon, statues, fountains, columns, and saints. Every time I was tired, I sat near a column or a fountain that had a statue of Saint Peter, Virgin Mary, or something. The saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has much truth to it because I never felt that I was alone. I felt near the vicinity and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

I am not a religious person. But sitting under the shadow of saints above columns, I remembered ancient America. The Founding Fathers who conceived America from the wisdom of Cicero and Seneca and build it for the purpose of God under Christian values. It was blessed and became prosperous and the most powerful civilization on Earth.  

But if Italy were America, we would strip away Saint Peter, Virgin Mary, and all these saints from these columns, just like we drove God from public squares and Ten Commandments from courtrooms, or from our media by converting Christmas to Xmas or Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays.

After a few days in Rome, we took a flight to Sicily, and then another 30 minute ride to the old city of Taormina on the east coast of the island of Sicily. It is more than 200 meters above sea level on a hillside of Monte Tauro.

I reserved a room in Atlantis Bay hotel by the bay water. After checking in, we took a bus to the old part of the city. Watching landscapes and ruins from the bus window like the screen of a panorama passing, we were breath-taken. I was craving to touch these magnificent views that I had to make sure I didn’t jump out of the bus right then and there. We arrived at the old city in about 15 minutes.

The adjective “beautiful” does not do justice in describing the jaw-dropping scenery of the landscape. With narrow ancient Roman streets, open door churches, vintage color buildings, mountaintop apartments with magnificent views, restaurants with rooftops overlooking Mount Etna, I felt a strong desire to spend the rest of my life there. I coveted the life of this town. I longed to walk through the hills and valleys. I thirsted to see the blue sea and Mount Etna from a window apartment and remember Seneca and his wisdom. I yearned to drive those streets on the edge of the mountains. The aging buildings accept their status. They are old in the best sense of the word, because with age come riches in history, power, and wisdom.

Why did such a small village in another country seduce me despite the fact that I live in the great city of Chicago? Why did I fall so in love with a place because it has streets on the edge of mountains and vintage color buildings? I know it was ridiculous that I was passionately aroused by such a small and foreign village.

Still the feeling is familiar from our personal lives. We may find ourselves feeling the emotion of love by the way she speaks English with her Italian accent. Or we may get frustrated with her for buying expensive shoes. We fall under the blessing and curse of those trivial concerns. To ignore them is to discount how rich in meaning those small details really are.

Chicago is flat with extremely bad weather and has no ocean or mountains. We cannot enjoy the outdoors like this. A two-hour drive is not nearly as exciting. I value the distinguished characteristics of foreign lands not only because they are new, but because they seem to be in agreement more faithfully with my identity more than what my own city can provide. Italy lent me support to ideas and feelings that are a part of my identity that I couldn’t find in my city.

From my childhood in the midst of Muslims, I insisted that I was a Christian Assyrian. I abjure the Arab-sim in me. And I was avoiding saying I am from Iraq in my earlier years in American. But now, I agree with the nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert. His hatred of France made him fall in love with Egypt. He proposed a new method for ascribing nationality not according to the birthplace or family origin, but according to the place we love – a new national identity.

My native country is the country I love, meaning the country that makes me dream and feel well where I look like the native. I guess that means I am American; I am Greek; and I am Italian as much as I am Assyrian from Iraq.

At the moment of my bittersweet departure, I was at least happy and spiritually satisfied – I left memory there. I am certain I will return to Italy.


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* Special thanks to Alin de Botton who enriched my life through his book “The Art of Travel