05 Sep Arrivederci
25 September 2017, 20:00 Niels and I finish our last meal together for this trip. Taking an alternative route back to the hotel, we manage to get ourselves lost for the last time. We drop into a little caffè-bar for the last time, not only to re-orientate ourselves but also because I urgently need to use the bathroom. The owner serves gelato – my last in Rome. Niels has a beer.
There is a chill about, unfamiliar to me since I’ve arrived in Italy. The streets are almost eerily quiet. According to the owner of the caffè-bar, the tourists disappear within days after the first chills set in.
21:30. We are back in our hotel room. Both of us are very quiet. The walk through Rome and the visit to the Vatican Museums meant that we covered as much distance as an average day on the Way of St Francis. We agree that we’ll have to be up no later than 06:00 and set our alarms accordingly.
“In succession Houses rise and fall…”
I flip through the photos I’ve taken since arriving in Rome. More of Eliot’s lines come to mind:
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
The forums of long gone emperors, and the ruins of temples of gods no longer served, attest to that. Ideas create houses in the mind. How often do we not move through them, only to find them no longer useful? They are tested and found wanting. Thus, they crumble. Our dreams are often shattered. Things happen, and choices are made. We get up, start again, and put something new in their place. Life goes on.
So too it is with a pilgrimage. We can never be the same. Thoughts milling through my head keep me awake but not for too long.
At 06:00, 26 September 2017, both Niels and I sit bolt upright in our beds as if the alarms send high voltage shocks through our bodies. Other than our first greetings we don’t say much. At least there is enough hot water for both of us to have hot showers. We strap our daypacks to the outside of our backpacks so that we can detach them and take them as cabin luggage. When we leave, the streets of Rome are very quiet. Streetlights and dawn change guards. The closer we get to the station, the busier it gets.
At Roma Termini station we find that we can’t book our tickets using the electronic booking machines. A moment’s panic has me thinking that we won’t make it to the airport on time. On inquiry, the situation is soon resolved. We get on the train and settle into our seats. The train moves off. The tracks lead through cuttings with high walls covered in graffiti, through residential inner-city areas, and into more open suburban Rome.
At Fiumicino Airport we have about 30 minutes before I have to check in. We have the worst coffee I tasted on this entire trip.
Our conversation is very limited. For now, we’ve said all there is to say between us. We’ve made up for the twenty years of lost conversation. Yet it feels like there is still so much to talk about.
In a way, we have both mentally made our departures. We pick up our packs and go to the departures area for me to check in. There is a last brotherly hug. A last goodbye. I watch him as he walks off. I turn and go through the turnstile.
Refusal to Return
I’m being torn away from heaven in an irreparable way. All I want now is to see my family. I get them some chocolate from the duty-free shop. I wait. Fewer people than expected board the plane for Dubai.
The flight goes very smoothly. Looking down from my window seat, I can see through the Baroque-like clouds. There are the odd lake and windfarm. I look down on little Italian towns – so like the many we passed through on the pilgrimage.
I am oppressed by feeling a need to weep at leaving it all behind. I switch on the in-flight entertainment. The movie hardly takes my mind off what feels like a very personal loss. The excellent and friendly service by Emirates Airlines at least makes for comfort.
The stopover in Dubai International feels like an eternity. The few fellow South Africans waiting with me lets me feel some kinship. At least there is some comfort in the familiarity, but I don’t want to go back to South Africa. It was so wonderful in Italy to live without the crime, the grime, governmental corruption and incompetence, and continuous if contrived racial tension in the media. It was so wonderful to be in a place where everything works, and drivers don’t want to kill each other on the road.
After a long, crowded night flight, my negativity climaxes as the wheels touch down on the runway at O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg. I am gripped by dull tension as I walk into arrivals. A friendly smile and a stamp from a Black customs official in my passport makes me feel a bit better about being home.
It’s a long wait for my backpack to clear baggage delivery. A few minutes after entering the waiting area, I see Charl walking towards me, smiling broadly. We hug. He congratulates me on completing my pilgrimage.
Then Lydia approaches. I take her in my arms and just hold her. Of all the things that can make it worthwhile to return, this is the best. There is no substitute for the interflow of love and warmth between us.
I am home!