When we stepped out of the metro station in Rome on the afternoon of June 25th, whatever semblance of relaxation we had in Padova was gone. Rome was alive, and we were overwhelmed. After Google Mapping our way to our hotel, we set out to find a late lunch near Piazzo Venezia, where the Altare della Patria imperiously stands, intimidatingly massive in size, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Later, we arranged for a night tour through Dark Rome again to see some of Rome’s most popular areas at dusk. Our wonderfully enthusiastic guide, Sabrina, took us to the Spanish Steps and gave us a detailed history lesson, explaining that the Spanish Steps were actually financed by the French as a way to connect the Piazza di Spagna (“Spanish Plaza”) to the French church located at the top of the steps as a symbol of peace between France and Spain, which the latter occupied the area around the 17th Century. People now climb these famous steps to catch the sun setting over the high-end stores of the plaza. Sabrina also took us to the Trevi Fountain, made popular by the movie scene in La Dolce Vita when actress Anita Ekberg jumped into the fountain and danced around. As we walked around the Roman neighborhoods, Sabrina showed us how obelisks are used to mark the significant churches of Rome, and she told us stories of Bernini’s brilliance as a sculptor and where we can visit some of his most defining works of art throughout the city. After a quick stop outside the Pantheon, Sabrina took us to a small restaurant that had wine and aperitivos waiting for us.
Sitting down with the people on our tour was the best part of the evening. Connecting with people through sharing and listening makes for so many pleasurable and memorable experiences that I generally remember those conversations more than the extensive history lessons shared with us during our tours. I know I’m going to have to go back and research much of what we have learned on this trip because it’s been an overwhelming wealth of knowledge, but the stories I’ll take away from this trip are the conversations I’ve had with the people we’ve met so far. In between sips of wine, I traded favorite spots to eat with two ladies from Houston who were in Italy to see the Pearl Jam shows as well; Jaime talked about her trip to Greece years ago with a gay couple from Milwaukee who were in Rome after a week in Mykonos and Athens; and we all got caught up on the family history of the three daughters from New York who were visiting Rome with their parents and significant others before heading south to Calabria, located on the tip of the boot near Sicily, to visit the hometown where their grandparents lived before immigrating to the United States. Everyone in our tour group had such a fun story to tell about what landed them in Rome, and the three-course aperitivo of bruschetta, pesto pasta, and pizza coupled with red wine turned the sightseeing tour into a festa.
The next day, Jaime and I hit it hard—a tour of the Colosseum, then the Vatican, then the Pearl Jam show. (Travel Tip: Don’t do that. It’s too much for one day.) The day started with the two of us arriving at 8:27 a.m. for our 8:30 tour, only to find out that they sent out our group at 8:20. After a few anxious moments that drenched me in sweat, we were able to work with the young man who was helping organize the groups to finally locate our guide’s location, and by 8:40, we were with our group and on our way into the Colosseum.
This tour, which we also lined through Dark Rome, took us beneath the Colosseum floor where the below-the-scenes magic of the gladiator battles took place as well as access to the fifth level. Walking around the Colosseum and up and down the entire venue gives you an even deeper appreciation for the fact that it was built in less than ten years way back in 79 A.D.
Let that sink in for a minute!
Not only that, but at one time, the venue had a “retractable roof”—a cloth awning that opened and closed using a pulley system similar to that of sails on a sailboat.
Speaking of boats, did you know they used to flood the Colosseum floor and reenact famous naval battles? Did you also know that their aqueduct system was so advanced that they could drain the entire floor in less than a half hour? Seriously?! I mean, I was happy the rare moments we had hot water in our Venice hotel!
While we were walking around the Colosseum, I chatted with a Pearl Jam fan named Donny from New Jersey. He was on the Colosseum tour with his family and was planning on hitting the Pearl Jam show later that night. We saw quite a bit of that, actually—Pearl Jam fans looking for an excuse to bring their family to Rome. Donny and I struck up a conversation about our show history, and he said he was hoping for “Release” to open the show. I told him there was a good chance because the Italians love to sing along to Pearl Jam songs, so it would make sense to get 70,000 Romans who hadn’t seen Pearl Jam perform in their hometown in 22 years involved early.
After our tour guide took us up Palatine Hill for a view of the Roman Forum, Jaime and I made our way down Fori Imperiali to the Basilica Santi Comsa e Damiano, where a statue familiar to Pearl Jam fans still stands in front of the church…
“Well fuckers, he still stands…”
In the afternoon, we scheduled another intense tour—this time of the Vatican Museum (meh) and the Sisteen Chapel (impressive but crowded in June)—. After seeing the hand of God breathe life into Adam, Jaime and I saw the setting sun breathe life into St. Peter’s Basilica through its plate-glass(?) windows, bringing to life the ornate interior, decorated with the symbols and saints celebrated by Catholics throughout the world. Dozens of believers visiting the Basilica were compelled to kneel and pray near its holy alter. With two hours to go before the show, Jaime and I made a mad dash up the 512 stairs to the basilica’s dome to capture the Vatican—the world’s smallest country—from 448 feet.
When we got to the bus station, a mob of Pearl Jam fans were there waiting to get on the bus. We debated walking, but the next bus was only a minute away. When it pulled up, we knew we had no chance of getting inside—the bus was practically bursting at the seams, with people plastered up against the windows. That didn’t stop those standing at the stop, though; they pushed and shoved their way in as far as they could. Jaime and I looked for spots where our small frames might fit, but when the doors of the bus wouldn’t even close, we just said, “Fuck it, let’s walk.”
An Englishman named John, a police officer from Manchester, joined us on our two-mile walk down to the stadium. He wasn’t able to go to the London show because he was at Isle of Man TT Races, so he and his wife decided to take a trip to Rome because, you know, Pearl Jam. John and his wife—a photographer—had put on some steps today as well, so he figured another walk wouldn’t hurt him. As we got to talking, we learned that we had been to some of the same shows, which still blows me away considering we live across The Pond from each other—just another example of how Pearl Jam brings people together in a myriad of ways.
When we got to the venue, Jaime and I needed to pick up our 10 Club tickets, so we parted ways with John and wished him luck on getting “Release”—he also wanted Pearl Jam to open the night with that song. As Jaime and I looked around, we ran into a familiar scene—complete and total Italian chaos. The line for 10 Club tickets stretched out into the street, which we had never experienced before. We asked multiple event staffers if we were in the right line, but the language barrier got in the way of getting a clear answer, so we impatiently waited out the line before finally getting our tickets about a half hour before the show started.
While in line to get inside Stadio Olimpico, we ran into a gentleman and his son who had travelled to Rome for Pearl Jam to celebrate the dad’s 50th birthday. When we got to our seats, the couple to the right of us had flown in from Chicago for his 52nd show, and the couple to the left of us were in from Boston. Jaime and I got the feeling that if our fellow stateside Pearl Jam fans were committing themselves to just one show on this European tour leg, it was definitely the Rome show. With most of Italy packing in the rest of the reserved seats and general admission infield, we anticipated a show of epic proportion.
When the piano music announcing the beginning of the show began to play, the crowd erupted. The band then walked on stage and took their positions—Mike and Jeff to my left, Matt to the back, Ed to the front, Stone and Boom to my right—and Mike opened up the show with “Release” (somewhere, I imagine Donny and John the English Policeman were smiling). The fading June daylight still shined down on 70,000 voices as we sang, “Release meeeeeeeeeeeee! Oooooooooooooh!” in unison.
The first five songs of the set list catered to the Italians’ love for singing. If Stadio Olimpico wasn’t already an open-air stadium, it would have been after “Why Go” and “Do the Evolution”! The show had everything from hits like “Jeremy” and “Betterman” to songs like “Untitled/MFC” that add a little excitement to the journeyman fan (like the Boston couple next to us, who were jamming to its chorus!) The show even pleased those fans who chant “Let Stone sing!” at every show! They got their wish fulfilled when they launched into “Mankind”.
Then things really got interesting—Mike and Matt teamed up for an amazing rendition of KISS’s “Black Diamond” that completely blew my mind! Who knew Mike could sing like that!
Throughout the night, Ed made a point to connect with the Italian people through their language. He usually has a pre-written script written in Italian when they play shows in Italy, and he uses this script in between songs to share some of his thoughts. His willingness to connect with people through language (however poorly he may butcher it!) draws the audience in closer to the band as a whole, and those moments give us all a sense of community as opposed to just simply watching a rock and roll show.
One of those moments where the audience came together was during Ed’s cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. He invited everyone to turn on their cell phone flashlights to show a sign of human solidarity for basic human rights and decency. I panned around the stadium to see it lit up with cellular light rays. Then something magical happened—a falling star shot across the back of the stadium behind the stage! There was an audible “Oooooh!” from those who saw it, and the image simply gave new meaning to the lyric “I wish I was the star that went on top” from the song “Wishlist”.
The second encore treated us to yet another cover—Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. In the past, Mike has stuck to the original David Gilmour solos during that song, but this time, he broke the barrier and electrified the audience with a face-melter that brought the house down. From there, the night finished with encore staples “Black”, “Rearviewmirror”, “Alive”, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” to a fully-lit up stadium who were dancing wherever their feet had space. When we looked at Jaime’s watch, the time read 12:30—an epic three hour and fifteen minute, 35-song performance! All of those United States fans who travelled to Rome certainly got their money’s worth!
As Jaime and I fled the scene, we ran into the Toledo couple we met in Milan—Dave and Katy! We picked Dave’s 6’6’’ frame out of the sea of Italians pretty easily as we made our way through the plaza. Dave and I had been in contact since the announcement of the European Tour, so I was looking forward to running into them! We walked and talked our way through the surge of fans leaving the stadium grounds and then parted ways in hopes of catching a bus to our hotels.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen. The first bus we saw roll through the stop was so packed that we decided to hoof it towards the metro stop. When we got there, we learned that the Rome metro shuts down at 11:00 pm. We had already walked two miles to the metro stop, so now we had to reassess our options—we could walk over two more miles in the middle of the night through the streets of Rome with no idea where we had to go or we could hail a taxi.
We’d already put on 33,000 steps that day…2,000 more weren’t going to hurt us!
Apparently, our walking buddy prior to the show, John the English Policeman, was also up for the challenge. He had weaved his way through the crowd and coincidentally showed up behind us just as we mapped out our route. It was great to relive the highlights of the show with him (Yes, he was very happy about hearing “Release”!), and though the Rome streets were quiet, it felt good to have an officer of the law walking with us.
Hearing John’s perspective on his experiences as a police officer, as an Englishman, and as a Pearl Jam fan once again emphasized how fortunate Jaime and I are to travel and meet people from different cities and hear their stories. In Rome, we met so many wonderful people—some traveling with their family to find their roots; some traveling with their family to share in a common experience; some traveling together to share their love for each other; some traveling together to celebrate; and some traveling together to pursue their passions. All of the people we met in Rome reminded me that the reason the news reports stories of mayhem and evil and tragedy is because goodness is so ubiquitous throughout the world that when something out of the ordinary disrupts the general day-to-day moments of life, we are shocked by it.
And understandably so. Sometimes life—it don’t leave you alone.
What we must never do, though, is lose sight of all the goodness that exists in the world. If we can keep sight of that, then just imagine all the people living life in peace…
Today’s title is taken from John Lennon’s “Imagine” off the album Imagine,
released in 1971, but covered by Eddie Vedder from time to time.
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