Sorry, I Was Distracted by that Colosseum Over There

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Peer Reviewed: Richard Chetwynd, Kasteel Well faculty, Writing, Literature, and Publishing, Emerson College, Greater Boston

Being abandoned has never felt so advantageous.

Rome being a big city with much in it to see, my travel mates decided that they would leave our hostel without me and pursue their own agenda, leaving me to my own devices. Not that this bothered me very much, as aimlessly walking the streets of a city is not without its charms, but I wouldn’t have minded some company.

At this moment, though, I’m glad that I’m not listening to even to my iPod let alone having a conversation. I am on my way to the Vatican City, to see St. Peter’s Basilica in all its opulent glory and the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo fame. At first my route—the straightest line I could make out from Roma Termini Train Station to the Vatican, which is on the complete other side of the city—took me down busy streets thronging with activity. Pedestrians boldly cross streets in front of formidable oncoming traffic and the drivers of motorbikes seem blind to signs and signals.

I’ve now wandered onto a thin thoroughfare that undulates up and down hills, the noise of the cars and busses and tourists blocked startlingly effectively by the plaster-fronted buildings. This hilly street is lined with shops of porcelain and glass, tiny grocery stores and pizzerias, and crossed by dozens of other streets just like it.

Being conditioned by big cities, I look left and right as I cross each intersection, despite the complete lack of moving vehicles in this area. But now, coming at me at full force, is a glimpse of the Colosseum itself, its unmistakable arches and impressive height imposing even with just this slice of a view.

Halting in my tracks, I turn at a right angle to follow this unexpected windfall of an opportunity. I had been resigned to saving the Colosseum for tomorrow, when I went on the walking tour offered by my hostel, intending to do the Vatican today and the rest of Rome tomorrow. But my solitude means that my plans can change in an instant, and I gaze at the monolith of history growing steadily huger as my feet carry me forward. I pass under a footbridge holding photo-snapping tourists, and as I emerge on the other side the noise and traffic resume.

The Colosseum, with its green yard extending only a few meters before it is cut off by a main street and a metro stop, is predictably surrounded by tourists and those who would love to have their money. Passing between all of them, I make my way down the wide steps to cross the street and take my own tourist pictures of the magnificent relic. I can’t get all of the edges of the building into the frame of any of my pictures. Its enormity is such that it’s all I can do to squeeze in a little sky. Putting my camera away, I can just about fool myself into imagining that the growling of the traffic behind me is the roar of crowds watching swordfights, that the stands selling miniatures of Michelangelo’s David and little keychain Colosseums are actually selling fruit and olives, and that everyone I can see is not wearing jeans and tee shirts but togas and sandals.

Under the cloudless blue sky and warm November sun, I can’t help but think that, if all roads lead to Rome, then, in my case, all roads lead to the heart of it.

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Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Le Coeur de Paris

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Peer Reviewed: Richard Chetwynd, Kasteel Well faculty, Writing, Literature, and Publishing, Emerson College, Greater Boston

Paris: famed for romance, embedded in history, and a tourist favorite. The real Paris is just a few streets past the tourist shops with all of their signs in English and shiny rows of miniature Eiffel Towers. Streets of every size and angle shoot off in every direction under beige limestone façades, every window lined with a black wrought iron balcony. The further you get from the main streets, the easier it is to get lost.

The royal palace of Versailles is breathtaking, with its painted ceilings, ornate furniture, and thrilling history. The art is incredible, everything is gilded in gold, and you can walk through rooms that have seen kings and assassins, princes and spies. The gardens are like another palace unto themselves, stretching away for acres and studded with marble gods that eternally smile, frown, or engage in epic battle.

And missing the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, or the fantastic Sacre Cœur church on the top of the hill of Montmartre would be a crime. These three form a triangle of icons across both banks of the Seine River; when standing at one, you can see the other two. Paris’s legislated lack of skyscrapers sees to that.

But when you only visit to see the sites, you run a real risk of missing the sights. Getting lost in Paris is fun, especially because you can always, always find your way back. Métro subway stops are around every bend, some literally in sight of one another, and all of the lines connect in a webbed myriad. One little purple ticket can get you from one side of the city to the other. But before you descend those curiously clean steps to catch a train that runs every two minutes (Parisians get grouchy if they find they have to wait more than four minutes), take a look around the streets.

Try a Saturday. If it’s still morning, don’t expect much to be open except the bakeries, at least one on every street, with the buttery aroma of baguettes and croissants shifting through the mist like a cloud of deliciousness. All of the shops will be open by noon, but it would be a good idea to decide what your budget is before you step into a store. The closer you get to the bustling Gallerie de Lafayette on the right bank, the more attractive your credit card will look. For lunch, the best place to go would be a little hole-in-the-wall café with tables outside and only two waiters. The bigger restaurants are crowded with noise and crammed with tables from eleven o’clock on, but the smaller ones go by the natural flow of pedestrian hunger. If you find one early enough, and order crêpes and a glass of red wine, they’ll let you sit for an hour, just savoring, and savoring.

Keep walking around after lunch—French food may be delectable, but it is also heavy. Open air markets sell everything: Champagne grapes, fresh fish, handbags, hats, and more, while solicitors lie in wait around national monuments to pounce on unsuspecting tourists, declaiming in English of cheap trinkets, roasted chestnuts, and caricatures until you walk out of sight.

Late starts on weekends mean late ends. Everything is thrumming at night on Paris streets. Restaurants do swift business at eleven pm, record stores close their doors past midnight, and the traffic is even crazier than in the daylight hours. A beignet off a street vendor, a club pounding with music, and don’t go to bed before three am.

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Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Butterfly in the Typewriter Press Release

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Assigning Editor: Kate Burke, Da Capo Press, Greater Boston
Published with permission, Da Capo Press 


The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole

and the Remarkable Story A Confederacy of Dunces

 “As the noxious fumes billowed into the car John Kennedy Toole faded from this world unaware that his manuscript tucked away in box would win the Pulitzer Prize twelve years after his suicide.” —Cory MacLauchlin

From a brilliant childhood to an ignominious death by suicide on a back road in Biloxi, Mississippi, the life of John Kennedy Toole has never been told with thoroughness and accuracy—until Butterfly in the Typewriter.  Biographer Cory MacLauchlin derives his insight on the late author of the modern classic A Confederacy of Dunces from scores of new interviews with friends, family, colleagues, and students in order to draw out a portrait of the man who was a study in contrasts: popular yet abrasive, brilliant yet ignored, laughing yet full of darkness.

Never before has the Southern author’s life been explored to such depth. The dark humor of A Confederacy of Dunces falls into perfect context when examined through the lens of Toole’s extraordinary life. The novel that made him famous was only published twelve years after his suicide, despite Toole’s repeated attempts to gain publishers’ attention. The novel went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and has been named by the New York Times among “Modern Novels: the 99 Best.”

Chronicling the saga of Toole’s life from his upbringing in New Orleans, his years in New York City, his frenzy of writing as he taught English in Puerto Rico, his return to his beloved hometown, and finally to his descent into paranoia and depression, Butterfly in the Typewriter is an authority on the author’s dramatic, passionate life.

Cory MacLauchlin is producer of the documentary John Kennedy Toole: The Omega Point and a member of the English faculty at GermannaCommunity College. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife and son.
Creative Commons License
Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License