I’m talking about the dollar.
The exchange rate was 1.6 as I trod the hot August streets of the Eternal City. Meaning America’s debased and disgraced currency, long the bulwark of the world’s wealth, was approaching half the value of a Euro. Meaning in Rome, where once as a student I couldn’t count all the lire a dollar bought, a three-dollar thimble full of coffee was now five dollars. Two small salads and bottle of agua minerale at a non-descript café was now fifty dollars.
Why speak of money in the same breath as the Sistine Chapel, lovingly restored to Michelangelo’s original pungent colors by Japanese employing no chemicals? Why allude to exchange rates in the same breath as the Coliseum, where gladiators once bled for the fun of nobles and women sat in seats slightly worse than the slaves did? Why complain of cost in the same breath as St. Peter’s basilica, where 60,000 people can behold a cornucopia of such ludicrous opulence, even the stained glass windows aren’t made of glass…they’re made of alabaster?
The brand called Rome is built on ruins. The remains of a greatness 2000 years old, built in the pagan splendor of a ruthless empire. Emperor Octavian: “Kill one man, you’re a murderer. Kill a thousand, you’re a conquerer. Kill everyone, you’re a god.” And in the remains of a greatness five hundred years old, sponsored by the church and crafted by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Boticelli, and the long litany of Italian artists, sculptors and architects you studied in Art History One.
The brand called Rome has not much to do with anything Italy’s done in the last 500 years. Certainly there’s the much-vaunted Italian “love of life.” But my close scientific examination of this phenomenon reveals it consists of not much more than smoking and talking. Of course, this was August. According to my friend Francesco, who owns the Aveda spa at the Spanish Steps, nobody’s in Rome in August except tourists. So maybe the Romans who do more than just smoke and talk were at the seashore, abandoning the city to those who don’t do more than smoke and talk. Maybe it was like visiting Times Square on July Fourth weekend and thinking you know New York.
But it’s about ruins. Certainly, there is the legendary food, a national gastronomic of astronomical proportions. But I witnessed a change. Decades ago, it seemed the streets of Rome were lined with little mama and papa restaurants where for a modest cost you could get a feast to rival even the poshest of American restaurants. A cliché was born: “You can’t get a bad meal in Italy.”
I don’t know where they went, but they seemed gone. (Even the historic Hassler hotel at the top of the Steps, according to my friend and guide extraordinaire Renato Severino, had changed chefs so often, it was now only a dim memory of the days when Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra cavorted in Rome, and Federico Fellini captured La Dolce Vida in breathtaking black and white celluloid.) In place of endless little oases of freshness and flavor, I saw a city laden wall to wall with touristy cafes where the prime offering was pizza.
So Rome is a brand of ruins. Is America, then, a brand in ruins? It’s too ambitious a topic for the final paragraphs of a blog. But as I took the train to glorious Florence, in an Italy virtually devoid of American visitors, I read the Herald Tribune, where world leaders and economists were chiming in, proposing the elimination of the dollar as the basis of the world economy.
In Florence, I climbed above the falling dollar, 463 steps up, all the way to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome. There, I gazed out in all directions, over the terra cotta roofs and green fields of Tuscany into the true face of Italy, till all you could see was mountains, and clouds and painting-blue skies.