The Vatican. A place not just of piety, but history, art, and culture. A place where people go just to feel closer to the idea and presence of God himself. Ultimately, a place of peace.
This was not the Vatican I went to. The Vatican I went to felt more like Black Friday at Wal-Mart six years ago when people were dying by stampede. Even though I was in a tour group, there was no safety to be found in numbers. It was a mad dash to see every painting, sculpture, grand hall, courtyard, and chapel. No one was safe from the relentless pushing and shoving coming from the hungry tour goers behind you. The anxiety and aggravation was a palpable energy that could be absorbed and contracted by all who came into contact with it.
And through it all, out tour guide Mido is trying his best to tell every one the great stories of the Vatican’s long and romantic history. But it was nearly impossible to hear, since it was so hard to get close enough to his radio to be able to catch a word he said. This was the first time I had done a tour involving an earpiece. Usually, as you know, I do enjoy my free walking tours which generally don’t come with a lot of pomp and circumstance (you’re lucky if they allow you a break at halftime), but I had seen the earbud crew a few times here and there. Commonly consisting of old people from a cruise ship, I had always thought that the radio method would be supremely efficient. I was wrong; at least when it comes to the Vatican. Boy would’ve needed a bull horn to get a word in at the Vatican. It was frustrating, but I wasn’t nearly as upset as one of my (unfortunately) fellow attendees. It was made very plain from the beginning that she wasn’t happy with the fancy earpiece. At one point, she actually went up and gave him an earful for her inability to hear what he was saying. To add insult to injury, she yelled at him while he was still mic’ed, so we all heard her tear him a new one. But to his credit, he remained perfectly calm and collected, telling her that he would be happy to speak louder or slower so that she might be able to catch up. Of course none of this made any difference to her. She was already too incensed to catch even a glimpse of reality. From that point on, the tour took a bit of an awkward turn as everyone made rolling eyes at one another and shook their heads.
There was a lot of really cool and interesting things inside the Vatican museum. Of course everybody knows about the Sistine Chapel, but it’s not the only masterpiece housed in these great walls. Mido showed us all that the Vatican had to offer, and even told us some pretty interesting stories about the popes of the past. Pope Julius II, the man who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, is actually in his fresco The Last Judgement. According to Mido, Michelangelo was so upset that the Pope only gave him four years to paint the masterpiece that still remains today, that he put the pope in the painting. He’s getting bit by a snake. Mido also told us that Michelangelo’s rival Raphael even made a cameo; or at least the shell of him…
But of course, a blogger is only as good as her tour guide. I choose to believe Mido, but I will understand if you don’t. Then again, the proof is in the painting.
Speaking of the Sistine Chapel, it really is every bit as amazing as you think it will be. Absolutely gorgeous! Of course, staring up at that ceiling really gives you complete admiration for what Michelangelo did centuries ago. Four years of that misery. And, he painted it standing up! Without a doubt, it’s one of the best works of art I saw on my trip. But it’s a little bit more difficult trying to admire its beauty when you have four Roman security guards yelling every thirty seconds “Silencio!”, “No photo”, “Be quiet!”, “No pictures!”, etc. etc. I get it, the Sistine Chapel is a big deal; artistically, historically, culturally, it’s obvious. So why get mad at people for realizing that? Of course, it’s a place of worship and if we weren’t all packed in there like a can of sardines, that argument would fly for me. But we were, so it doesn’t. I understand that flash photos can and will degrade the quality of the work and make restoration much more imminent and intense, but who said anything about flash? People come from all over the world to see the Vatican, and they can’t even brag about it. I don’t really understand the politics of it all, but to me, it just felt a little too commercial. It’s sad to say of such a holy place, but unfortunately for me, I found it to be true.
I was a little bummed out about not being able to take pictures of the chapel ceiling, as any good showboater would be, but Mido helped me out a little on that one. After the tour was over, I felt compelled to tell him thank you. After all he had put up with that day, from the woman who could not be pleased, to the swarms of people at every turn; I had an immense appreciation for the job he does. It cannot be easy. So, I got to talking with him and I asked him why we couldn’t take pictures of the chapel. He didn’t give me one definitive answer, more like ten little ones, but he did agree that it is a shame people can’t share what they’ve seen with their friends and families back home. Luckily, he had pictures of the chapel. And, even better still, he had pictures when no one was in the chapel so you can really see the art, not people’s heads. In exchange for my kind words, he offered to email them to me so that I can now share them with you.
As I talked to Mido a little while, I realized what an experienced tour guide he really was. He had been doing this job for eight years and (when I visited) he hadn’t had a day off in sixty days! I only wish that lady had been in earshot for that. She wasn’t, but a couple other tour-goers were. Mohamed and Hesam, two pilots from Iran, were on vacation in Italy and felt equally bad for our poor friend Mido. After they thanked Mido for his time and service (if it sounds like a war zone, good. It was meant to.), they asked me to walk around the basilica with them. Not wanting to be rude, or walk around St. Pete’s by myself, I happily obliged.
Naturally, we got to talking as we walked around the basilica oohing and ahhing. When they told me they were from Iran, I made a small quip about the current state of affairs between my country and theirs (though I will admit, I know very little on the subject). But then they told me that America and Iran have decided to bury the hatchet and be friends so I felt a little more at ease.
But it did stir up an interesting intrapersonal discussion about my initial reaction to their nationality. I will admit that at first it made me a bit uneasy, but what did I have to feel uneasy about? This situation was not new to me. I had been meeting people from around the world my whole trip. However, who I hadn’t met were Iranians. Even though, like I said, I’m not the best with foreign affairs, hearing them say they were from Iran scared me a little bit. It seems that since 9/11 and the consequential wars to follow, the Middle East has been portrayed to many as a violent and unsafe place. Therefore, the people who hail form there must be equally violent and unsafe. But that’s not true at all, as I came to find out.
And it was then that I realized that even though I hadn’t actively admitted the affect of my surroundings on my judgments, it happened subversively; and in a negative way. So, it was then that I decided I wasn’t going to let the media or popular opinion formulate my opinions for me. I was going to make them myself. It hardly seems fair to me that we feel we can judge an entire nationality without really knowing any of them at all. Yet it does happen. But not anymore, at least for me. From what I learned talking to Mohamed and Hesam, the Iranian people are very nice, polite and smart. When they told me they were pilots, I asked them if they could explain turbulence to me because no matter how many planes I’ve been on, it still scares the bajeebees out of me! Instead of brushing me off, they took the time to explain to me how turbulence is a natural occurrence when flying and that it is nothing to be afraid of. That hardly sounds like terrorism to me. But, if you ask my mom, she will tell you a different story. Hers will be much more embellished.
I understand her fear, but no longer agree with it. This fear doesn’t come from experience, but lack thereof. A whole group of people cannot be responsible for the actions of a few bad apples within, and to assume that the opposite is true and that, for example, every Iranian person wants to harm me or my fellow countrymen and women is ignorance. The same can be said for the Syrian refugees, but that’s a tangent I’m not going to get into at the moment. In summation, this brief exchange was one of the most teachable moments I have had in my life, and I have Mohamed and Hesam to thank for that. I hope that one day our paths will cross again so they can finish their professional explanation of turbulence, because it still turns my knuckles white!