Last September, as usual, I pondered how to best celebrate my birthday. The gathering of friends was especially nice, but it felt like a milestone year and a more long-term commemoration seemed to be in order. What was I lacking? What would make my Brooklyn existence more complete? As I entered my fourth year of graduate coursework, it was painfully obvious that in the greatest city in the world, my daily routine had become mundane. School, work, money, public transportation. Sigh. I owed myself adventure! I owed the world deep thinking and originality! But I’m not one for skydiving over live volcanoes, and writing the great American novel has never been a goal of mine. But small adventures, a reevaluation of balance and mindfulness, new routines and surprises? Yes. Thirty-two of these little adventures are what I promised myself last autumn. And so this summer I am depending on the Mediterranean sunlight to melt away the shell of anxiety that is coating my psyche. Here goes…
There comes a time in every vacation when you just want to forget the whole thing and drink a beer in the hotel lobby. The question is only a matter of when to allow yourself to do this as opposed to marching forth into the battle against heat, humidity, and the herd of tourists of which you are, sadly, a part.
I managed to hit this point in Rome, of all places. I should confess that Rome has been one of my all-time favorite cities for several years, and I’ve been plotting to find reasons to live there for a while. But by the time I got to the end of the Vatican Museum last week, I had had enough. For a hundred thousand hours, I had been traipsing around the museums and appreciating the uber-modern, industrial displays of Greco-Roman sculpture and the altogether too-accessible Early Renaissance masterpieces. (Yes, I was that lunatic telling tourists to get their hands off the frescoes, for pete’s sake. A couple of them even apologized, thinking I was an undercover guard, I guess.) But by the time I had paid tribute to Raphael’s “School of Athens,” there was little pep left for the Sistine Chapel.
Mom and I walked into the crowded room and gazed upward like all the rest of the sheep. By that point in the heat wave, my response was, “we made it. Whatever.” And at that point I became certain I was endangered because any art historian who “whatever-ed” the Sistine Chapel would surely be struck by lightening. Right?! At that point, a guard began shushing people (quite loudly, I might add) and admonishing those of us who sat on the steps because it was a church. The criticism and reprimands were as bad as the heat and drone of tourists.
At this point, my identity crisis began. Seriously, worst. art historian. ever. I’m halfway through a PhD for pete’s sake–shouldn’t I be immune to the trials of seeing great art? Shouldn’t I have a tolerance for heat and crowds and walking and tourism? And most of all, should I have just not bothered because what kind of terrible person doesn’t enjoy the Sistine Chapel in person?
This continued for several days, until I saw the replica of “David” outside in Florence. I stood underneath it, mentally discussing Michelangel0’s perception of the viewer’s perspective in relation to proportion. I began talking about it with Mom and realized it was best compared with his excellent use of the same concept on (yep) the Sistine ceiling. And I remembered fondly the sybils that are so much more animated in real life. And the faux architectural details that look nice on postcards but are so much more vivid in person. And the difference in color between the room itself and the textbook we used in class.
At last I had my answer. Yes, it is better to suffer through the lines (once in a while) and absorb whatever your weary, jet-lagged, dehydrated body can manage in order to see the masterpieces. Even with the best intentions, sometimes they are so much better in the remembering than in the experiencing. But no matter–either the memory or the vision is better than never seeing them at all.