The Roman grave of John Keats with his poetry.
As I’ve mentioned before, the best way to prepare for a trip is to read something really good about your destination before embarking…not a travel guide or websites or anything produced by an app. I mean a really good story about a key city or person related to the trip, no matter how tangential.
Take Rome, for instance. After many conversations, our family decided to visit our son’s number one college choice there. To prepare, I continued my search for books about the city and came up with a number of hits. (I’d already read The Borgias, a biography by G.J. Meyer, http://bestbookseverread.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-happened-to-rome.html.) I visited a bookstore near our home and found two more on the list: The Marble Faun (by Nathaniel Hawthorne), and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (by Tennessee Williams). I ended up reading Williams’ book—Hawthorne’s had minuscule print and thick pages. My eyes weren’t up for it.
Roman Spring is a novella about a widow of a certain age losing her looks and her mind in the Eternal City. Karen Stone’s lavish apartment and terrace overlook the Spanish Steps. A few days into our trip, we finally made it to the top of this landmark escalier. (In a roundabout way, because construction hindered foot traffic, and we ended up ascending via a side road by accident). Near the top of the steps, not 10 feet away was an absolute match for the terraced apartment described in the book. I pointed out the balcony to my husband.
“What’d you say? Who lived there?” he asked. “Someone famous?”
“Maybe a character in a book I just read. It’s really, really neat to see it!”
I think he sighed--he’s used to me choosing fiction over reality...and the more imaginatively off-topic a subject is, the more I gravitate toward it. For instance, several months ago my son and I watched the Rob Brydon/Steve Coogan film The Trip to Italy (twice), which made me want to visit the Protestant Cemetery in Rome to see the poet Shelley’s grave, which then made me want to see his friend John Keats’ grave, which led me to re-read my favorite poems by them and then reminisce about all the Romantic poets. (It’s amazing how poetry makes more sense at age 48 than 18). Of course, on our Rome trip we had to go to the Keats-Shelley House beside the Spanish Steps and see where Keats died of consumption at age twenty-five. Now I’m really keen on tuberculosis fiction.
As one would expect, on our trip we also saw the usual obligatory Roman things: the Colosseum, the Forum, Bernini sculpture, some baths and fountains, and more fountains and baths. These were beautiful in their relative antiquity, old, older, and oldest. But, for some reason, what remains most lively in my mind about our Roman spring, is Keats and Karen Stone enduring on opposite sides of the Piazza di Spagna, unseparated by time and reality.