Just like every other middle-class Indian family, we had rules. The most dreaded of them is that I could use the computer for just half an hour per day. It was 2001 and we just discovered an amazing game on our Pentium 2 computer with 64Mb RAM. The game was Age of Empires and this game was our portal into the Dark Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
Only one person can control the computer while playing this game, however, the fun isn’t in actually clicking and moving objects but is in the process of making strategic decisions. I often played it with one of my best friends, Sai. The entire power over a virtual civilization was at the fingertips of two 8-year-old boys. Our decisions influenced the wealth of an empire, military strength, fortification, and defenses. How can you not be romantic about such cult games?
One evening when we were still figuring out the objectives of the game we found out that the first objective is to build a “Wonder”. This required us to gather 1000 wood 1000 gold and 1000 stone. We waited patiently as the music kept us on our toes and watched our villagers go cut trees and bring back the wood to the storage pit, mine gold and stone. This went on for a couple of days because we had just 30 mins each day. When we hit the target, we immediately started the construction of this Wonder. We put all our villagers to work and waited very patiently to see the final building.
The excitement was great but so was the tension that time is running out. However, my parents allowed us an extra half hour, looking at our unbridled excitement. After probably the longest 10 minutes back then, we saw with glee in our eyes the Wonder. It was the Colosseum.
This was the time when I was surrounded by Roman civilization through stories like Asterix and Obelix, stories learnt from the History books at our school library and Age of Empires. Just the demo version which had one campaign had such a great effect on us. We were introduced to Legions, Cavalry, Priests, Triremes and our favourite — Centurians. We got to know who were Carthaginians, Greeks, and Macedonians. The music still gives me goosebumps. We played a lot of Age of Empires, sequels, multiplayer and more campaigns but the first demo version is something that is etched in my mind. The iconic images that were a part of this were the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
On June 8th 2019 I had the opportunity to visit Rome. I squeezed this trip in between the Voice Tech conference in Barcelona and a client meeting in Paris. The closer I got to this trip, the more excited I was that finally, I’d get to see these massive architectural wonders built thousands of years ago.
My bad habit of reaching airports late cost me 50 euros as I didn’t check-in online. Quickly forgotten. It would almost be 11 pm by when I would reach my Airbnb in Rome. The only question in my mind was, should I or should I not visit the Colosseum that late in the night? I decided I’ll think of this once I’m settled in.
Cab drivers are quick in Rome. Very quick. I reached this old building with huge wooden doors that reminded me of old medieval palaces. I rang in and the Airbnb host, Andrea let me in. I walked into a marble-floored entrance and entered a courtyard made of stone. Every bit of this place seemed to have quite a bit of history associated with it. When I looked at the elevator, I was amazed. This was right from Kate and Leopold, resembling one of the oldest models of an elevator, situated right in the middle of the stairway and open on all sides with cramped up space and a small door.
Andrea welcomed me into his house which is quite small compared to Indian 2bhk houses. The rooms didn’t have ceiling fans but there was a pretty tall window that let some cool breeze in. I informed Andrea about the real reason I came to Rome. He obviously knew AoE and understood my fascination with the Colosseum. My welcome gift was a bottle of sparkling water (carbonated soda like water) which I absolutely hated. I would have surely preferred just some water or Coke instead.
He told me that the Colosseum would be closed by now, but I can walk around and maybe get dinner at a nearby restaurant. He advised me to take a bus. However, that bus never came. I checked maps and Colosseum was just a 20–30 mins walk. I couldn’t waste any time, obviously. Abandoning all sane advice given to me that it is better not to walk around strange cities in the middle of the night, I set out on my first walk in Rome.
The roads were cleaner, air lighter and fresher than Barcelona. A lot of streets had cars parked on either side of the road. Hardly any civilization around. My legs didn’t hurt at all. I loved the walk across multiple old buildings that I don’t know of. When I entered the road “via Claudia” I knew I would be able to see it anytime now. Kept walking straight ahead and my eyes lit up when I saw an orange lit Colosseum from a distance of around 800m. The massive structure kept growing in size as I walked towards it in amazement.
The traveller’s urge to show off was just setting in me, so I checked in on Facebook saying “finally”. Amazing how these social media apps have productised this human need to share and spread exciting information about their lives.
I walked along the curved road and saw about 100 or 200 more tourists clicking pictures and just walking with their heads gazed up at this Wonder. I tried to take a few selfies but with my really awful phone back then, I could only manage a few good ones. Some stranger kid helped me take a more decent picture of mine.
I got down the stairs from the road to the basement of the structure and walked along, observing other people there, until I found a nice place to sit. It was a small platform in front of a large playground-like area probably created for assembling tourists. I spent a good half hour enjoying the place and soon enough, I got very hungry.
So I came to Italy with a lot of expectations about the Pasta and Pizza here. I couldn’t wait to try them out and relish the delicacies. Unfortunately, most popular restaurants just opposite the Colosseum were closed.
I discovered a general store and a small take away style restaurant in one of the alleys. The general store was closed. The restaurant was about to get closed. Seeing the owner, who looked very much Indian, I asked him if I could taste one of his dishes before he closes. He thought for a good two minutes and quickly made some pasta for me. He asked,
“Where are you from”
“Hyderabad, what about you?” I asked
“We are neighbours, that is why I am helping you”
“Are you from Andhra as well?”
“No, I am from Bangladesh”
“Ah I see, when did you come here?”
“To Rome? Oh! A lot of years back. 30 maybe? I just came because they started a scheme where my cousin could recommend and sponsor someone for a visa, I don’t even have my original Bangladesh papers. No worries though — I am now going to be an Italian citizen very soon”
I ate the pasta he made and no disrespect to him, but it was awful. It reminded me of a particular kind of brinjal curry in tomato gravy, but instead of the vegetables, there was penne pasta. He quickly realised I didn’t fancy the dish.
“Sorry.” I told as I gave up almost 75% of the dish, “I will just take a Coke,” I asked as I needed something to wash down the taste.
“Okay no worries um you need not pay for the dish,” he said much to my surprise.
I paid him in full anyway and asked him what’s the best way to go back to Piazza dei Re di Roma, which was the closest landmark to my Airbnb. He told me to wait until one of the trams came that way. He gave me a number which I obviously forgot now. I waited patiently for the tram, as I kept staring at different people who passed me by. Most of them, drunk tourists. The tram took me to a nearby metro station. When I got on the metro, I got a message from a concerned Andrea asking me if I was okay and informing me of some of the ways to get back. He also told me that the bus service was no longer running this late. I thought it was sweet of him to check in on me.
I got down at the piazza dei re di Roma and the place was spooky. Very spooky. Every individual I saw there felt extremely shady. There was a couple who were fighting passionately in Italian. I walked across the Piazza (plaza) and discovered that right under the building that I was staying at, there was an Indian Punjabi restaurant. I knew where I was going to get my food the next day.
I also saw a small space dedicated to vending machines. The most vibrant of them being, a vending machine attached to a wall that only had a large selection of condoms. Cigarettes, mints, and a variety of snacks were stocked up too. Commerce didn’t really stop at midnight. I wondered why something like this wasn’t yet widespread in India.
Andrea gave me a very very long key, that resembled something we saw in movies, usually for old and large treasure chests. I used the key and slowly slipped into my room, happy and tired.
The next morning, my first order of business was to give all my dirty clothes to a nearby laundromat. (Also Bangladeshi), and head over to Colosseum. I helped a local woman with buying a ticket on the Metro. Felt good to be an experienced tourist already. Colosseum in the mornings is entirely different.
Bright sun hitting on the ruins that are brown-black and white at different parts. Clear blue sky and jam packed with tourists. I couldn’t believe how cramped it was. I had no idea where to stand in line to get into the building, there were multiple lines and it was confusing. One such line was so long that there was no way i’d spend my precious time waiting for that long in the sun.
Much to my amazement and surprise, I started hearing a familiar language. In a thick Hindi accent, fat desi looking guys shouting, “paani lo do euro, water 2 euro.” One of them spotted me and asked,
“Mein Punjab se hu” he replied
I thought he was from Punjab, India but he was from Pakistan. “Ticket chahiye?”
“Haa lekin time nahi he” I replied
“Mein dilwa deta hu” he said and hurried away
I waited for approximately 15 minutes, he came back with a tour guide. They said they charge some 30–50 euros and we get to join their educational tour which would be able to skip the line. I looked at a lot more people who already joined their tour. There were Indians (obviously ignoring me as they don’t want to talk to another mere Indian in Rome), some American girls, Europeans, and some East Asian tourists.
They gave us a walkman like speaker with headphones. We waited for another hour before the tour group finally had a quorum. The lobby of the Colosseum was at least a couple of degrees cooler than the outside. As I walked through it, I imagined gladiators, roman civilians and kings, queens who once walked through these paths to witness some of the strangest and cruellest sports ever played by Mankind. The sport of Man killing and hunting Man.
This must have been a place that saw thousands of deaths every week. Hardly a place that can be called “beautiful.” Yet, it was very beautiful indeed. In a very weird sense, I was drawn to this place.
The guide was taking us through a small makeshift museum on the first floor. I handed over my headphones and speaker and exited the group and walked out of that hall towards the arena. I didn’t want a history lesson, I wanted to go and walk around inside.
This was such a massive structure! The view left me breathless. I slowly walked along the aisle trying to envision how the atmosphere here must have been with more than 100,000 Romans watching, cheering on and screaming as they saw Gladiators cut each other with swords and spears.
Almost 45% of the Colosseum has been damaged though, not just the outer walls but also the Arena beneath. There was a considerable amount of restoration in progress.
The rugged stone walls felt very coarse. I ran my hands on the pillars, walls and parapets. Some builders, masons and engineers created this massive Wonder and this kind of creation is their way of communicating with future, spreading their story across several centuries. Nameless creators who followed the command of Vespasian and Titus, Domitian later on. Emperors who wanted a bloody theatre. The Flavian dynasty under Domitian curtailed the powers of the Senate and often used events at Colosseum for flexing his power.
The stones they touched, the pillars they erected and the walls that they sculpted were directly accessible to me. The halls of violence, the stadium that was once full of bloodthirsty and violence craving Roman audiences. I was walking through all of this. That felt surreal and powerful. More I think about it, my desire for creation is refuelled with massive amounts of purpose.
After spending more than 4 hours in and around this magnificent structure. I headed to see other ruins nearby, the Roman gardens, how the Romans built sophisticated drainage and water system. The view from the top was worth the climb.
I decided to head back and walk down the road from Colosseum to Piazza Venezia, the famous piazza introduced to me by Woody Allen in his movie, “To Rome, with Love”. As I headed downstairs from the Roman Forum, I saw another solo traveller trying hard to click a selfie with an orange tree. I offered to help him out by taking a good picture. We started talking and discovered yet another Bangladeshi in Rome. He was here in Italy and Europe on a holiday. Mustain Zahir was a very smart chap and it created a whole different picture in my head about Bangladesh. He worked for the IMF and often travelled to a lot of countries. We spoke of Bangladesh economy and how the textiles manufacturing industry would be dominated by Bangladesh in the next few years. Something else that fascinated me was the level of women participation in the workforce.
He was headed to Piazza Venezia as well. So we made a deal to walk around Rome and be each other’s photographers. As we passed the Colosseum on our way back, we were stopped by a black man asking if we were from India. Zaheer said he was from Bangladesh and I nodded that I was from India.
He immediately jumped with joy, it was mostly fake excitement, very evident. He said he loves cricket and is a big fan of Virat Kohli. I was surprised he knows so much about Indian cricket. He then offered a “gift” to me, which seemed like a black friendship band. I asked him
“How much is it?”
“What? No, my friend, this is free for you”
“Oh..sure,” I said putting my hand forward. Zaheer immediately caught my hand and said “Thank you friend, but we are in a hurry to go somewhere”
Zaheer later told me this is a very common trick in Europe to demand money from naive tourists. They offer something for free but when you accept it, they demand money. If you return the item back to them, they refuse to take anything but more euros.
The stone road from Colosseo to Piazza Venezia was built during Italy’s fascist period. The road is also termed as the road of the emperors. A must visit for any person visiting Rome. The road was filled with monuments, ruins and statues on either side.
We stopped by to see the massive monument, Altare della Patria built to honour Italy’s first king and soldiers of the first world war. The entire monument was built with Marble. This was directly onlooking the Piazza Venezia, a busy street surrounded on the other three sides by really old buildings.
We walked to an overcrowded Trevi Fountain. I bought Gelatin ice cream for both of us. The tradition at the Trevi fountain was if you toss one coin, you will have the good luck to visit Rome again, if you toss two you will come back to Rome and fall in love, if you toss three you will come back, fall in love, and get married too.
Well, I tossed zero coins.
The narrow streets were so vibrant as if there was a festival going on. Dimly lit in some places, and very bright in other locations.
We spoke about Rome, my fascination with History and then one small road led us to a spacious opening, another semi Piazza if we can call that. Standing at the centre of it was a massive monument. Something that I have seen so often on my computer screen but never dreamt that it’d be this huge!
With intimidating stone pillars that stood more than 40 meters tall. We couldn’t go inside as it was closed but just standing under the roof, looking at those intimidating pillars, I was mesmerised.
My heart was brimming with joy, eager to show off this picture to my childhood friends, Sai in particular. He was my constant AoE partner. I took a lot of pictures here, mainly trying to get the right angle that was similar to Rise of Rome home page.
Zaheer and I walked further ahead and reached the river Tiber. Read about it while studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar back in 2009. The night was cold, the moon ever so beautiful. We could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica across the river on the other part of the city.
Zaheer opened up about his studies in South Korea, his recent breakup and his philosophy of enjoying any new place he visits. We settled in a riverside outdoor restaurant that was decorated with white and beige silk curtains and diligently arranged tables.
A waiter came up to our table and in no time, Zaheer was deep in conversation with him in full Bengali. We got to know the most delicious dishes there. I was semi disappointed there was no Indian food or food that is recognizable to my palate.
Zaheer laughed a bit at my disappointment and explained something very interesting
“There are a lot of ways to enjoy a new city when you’re traveling” he said
I looked at him, curious what he’d say next
“And, one of those ways is to relish the local dishes, remember the taste. We of course remember the views and everything we see. Buildings, people, parks, rivers and monuments. We smell things as it is an involuntary process. Tasting a local dish should also be part of this process to truly absorb a new place in. When you think back to this time, you should remember the taste. It is not about being delicious or not, it is about memory”
That lingered in my mind from then until the end of my international travel six months later.
The spaghetti we ate that day by the river though, half-boiled and very hard to bite. Absolutely zero spices and extremely bland. Food in Europe was truly disappointing.
We took a couple of pictures and a video of me talking random stuff on a bridge, with the moon hovering over my head and the river flowing under my legs. We exchanged numbers and decided to connect in the Vatican the next day.
I woke up late, collected my clothes and tasted yet another disappointing meal, this time at the Indian restaurant downstairs. I walked across multiple streets in search of a bus route and observed these peculiar taps on the side of the roads with drinking water flowing non-stop. I did not understand this concept of just letting the water run into the ground, “What a waste,” I thought to myself. There was no way to turn them off as well.
The bus never came and I had to take a cab to the Vatican. I just went to check out the Sistine Chapel as a way of myself answering Robin Williams question from Good Will Hunting.
I got a ticket into the museum at the last moment thanks to a Pakistani guide. I walked through the museum, looking at a lot of paintings. We weren’t allowed to use our phones inside the Sistine Chapel though. I bumped into Zaheer in one of the halls, he was quite impressed with the artwork. However, I felt the emotion of the artist who made these wasn’t really happy or joyous but rather melancholic. The paintings with really fat babies showed almost all of them rather pensive, serious or disappointed in their lives. I believe that when an artist creates an object, the mood of the artist is reflected in their art.
I couldn’t enjoy a solid one hour of my time inside the Vatican though due to my client calls. Things were getting a bit shaky with me staying away from the office for so long. The more I travelled, the less I really cared about seriously pursuing money through software services.
St Peter’s Basilica was really magnanimous. The marble flooring, the paintings and just the gigantic hall made the place really attractive. I thought about the millions of people who visited this place before me, what might have they asked for from their God, what kind of hopes or fears did they carry? What do I really wish for? What are my fears, apart from appearing too fat in pictures?
The artwork on windows and the engineering marvel of capturing a ray of sunset right at the center of the window were impressive. I walked around and sat quietly on some vacant benches. I didn’t feel the place was any different to a Hindu temple. It had a similar aura, which made me think, does a place feel sacred due to its inherent nature or acquired history of millions of people concentrating their hopes and wishes and sending them out into the universe. Having a common belief that your wishes and hopes can be manifested if you ask the universe for it from a particular location.
Zaheer left early for his flight to Paris. I was flying there the next morning. I spent the rest of the evening wandering around on the streets of Rome, covering all the places I visited the day before. I made it a point to try out various local food. Pizzas and Pasta mostly. Very often I would be walking on a narrow street that leads to a big Plaza (Piazza). The eeriest place however would be the Supreme Court of Italy, The palace of justice, Corte di Suprema di Cassazione.
This gigantic building was facing a park. Everything was dimly lit with yellow-orange lights and I hardly saw anyone around. I strolled until I got tired, sat in the park and tried to think of just that moment and what had transpired over the last one week. That year so far had been quite good. The Palace of justice was really daunting. I walked across the building, crossed the Tiber and headed back home. It was a long walk.
I decided to have one more long walk right from the palace of justice to Colosseum and cover all the Plazas (Piazzas) on my way. The ruins were beautifully lit and the road via dei Imperiali was even more beautiful at night. I resisted the temptation to just hang on to one of the lampposts and do a Ryan Gosling style spin from La La Land. Maybe I would have done it if there was an Emma Stone style girl walking with me.
Soon, the Colosseum was in sight. Can’t get bored of it at all. Few tourists were just hanging out watching the ruins and eating ice cream. Just then a biker sped into a barricade and fell. All of us who were nearby immediately rushed to check on him. Luckily his helmet saved his life. He was unable to get up in the beginning, however after a bottle of water and some time he got up. The Roman police arrived at the scene pretty quickly and were very prompt to give aid and help to the poor chap.
Certainly, human empathy evolved over the last several centuries. Witnessing this act of kindness just a few meters away from one of the cruellest places on Earth in the first century, and on a street built by un-empathetic fascists was beautiful and romantic.