Friday, November 23, 2012

Tourist-Wranglers on the Palatine Hill (with bonus Harrumph)

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Rome.

We rather liked the Palatine Hill.  It was quiet there.  At the end of the afternoon we found ourselves on the South-east end of the hill, on a promontory at the top of the ramparts of the built-up terraces of the baths of Septimus Severus palace, with a view over trees to the brown domes of the baths of Caracalla.
It was a big open space, there were nine or ten of us floating about it, but the space and the views were expansive enough that we all contrived to feel alone.  Mr Tabubil and I found a sunny corner and settled into it.
            “This is more like it!” Mr Tabubil sighed.  “No crowds, just history, a cool breeze, a warm sun, and it’s only five o’clock.  The park doesn’t close till six.  We can stay up here for ages.”
And right on cue, someone blew an ear-shattering blast on a whistle, about three feet behind his right ear.
The effect on Mr Tabubil was electric – his limbs flung out spasmodically at right angles and he rose up from the ground – vertically – pop-eyed with outrage.
Behind him was a woman – short and cross and scowling, with an official ID necklace around her neck, and a bright red whistle in her hand.
            “You need to leave now.”  She said, looking back and forth across all ten of us on the promontory as if we constituted her personal work day hell.   “All of you.  Park closed now.  Go away.  Get out!  Right now! go!”
            If she has tossed a ‘please’ in there instead of blowing that infernal whistle, if she had made the smallest concession to social convention and politesse, no matter how false the ‘please’ had rung in our ears, we’d have all gotten up and moved.
            But she didn’t. She blew her whistle again.  Three times.
            And nine – or ten- people found themselves wedging a little deeper into their seats, focusing extra- hard through their camera viewfinders, burying themselves in their guidebooks and turning away, ever so slightly, from her and toward the view –
            Mr Tabubil pulled a paperback out of his backpacked and ostentatiously opened it to the very first page, but he was feeling sore.
The lady huffed and stamped her foot.
            “Now!  You go now!  All of you!”  She blew the whistle again.  “You and you and you!  Good-bye!”
With much ill-grace, and a great many last photographs taken and last guide-book pages read, she had us on our feet, and shouting and blowing her whistle, she herded us off of the promontory - the worlds least-competent sheep dog and a flock of the worlds worst-tempered sheep.
            “It only takes ten minutes to walk down to the gate.”  Mr Tabubil whispered to me.  “Do you think we can double back when she’s gone?”
            But ahead of us, a metal gate had materialized out of the shrubbery, and a man – with a grace-saving smile on his face – stood ready to close it behind us as she chivvied us through.
            On the other side of the gate, the sheep revolted.
            “Doesn’t this spot have an amazing view of the coliseum?”  Someone said, in Spanish.
And nine – or ten – people dropped their bags and hat on the ground, lifted up their cameras, and would Not Be Moved.
            Behind us, with the ghost of a grin, the young man melted away.  The cross woman huffed and fumed and stamped her feet and blew her whistle at us, but we had an entire hour to be out of the park, and we weren’t going anywhere as long as it was her telling us to, and eventually, with one last long ear-shattering blast of that whistle, she went away.
            Once she was gone, so did we – and got ourselves creatively lost twice, and we were still down the hill and out the gate ages and ages before the warning gong.
            “There’s still so much to see.”  I said.  “Next time we visit we’ll have to go and see the catacombs-”
            “Catacombs?” Mr Tabubil stopped dead.  “Rome has catacombs?  You’re telling me that we’ve been dragging through every church in the city of Rome when we could have been looking at catacombs?”
            And he sulked all the way around a whole circumference of the coliseum.
            I’m sure I’m terribly sorry, but when a man tells his wife to go ahead and plan the itinerary without mentioning once his passion for catacombs, she doesn’t necessarily know that subterranean engineering trumps history and aesthetics.  Humph.

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