Day Three: Rome's Fight Club

France has La Tour Eiffel. England has Big Ben. Clearly, then, the Colosseum is Italy's most instantly-recognizable building. So on our first full day in-country, we made a beeline for it.

As you get up close to the place, you immediately see (next to the long line to get in) are a few gladiators. Actually, they're just bozos in gaudy brightly-colored plastic gladiator Halloween costumes. You pay them a couple of Euros and you get to take your picture with them. (You'll notice we don't have any pictures with them.)

As we stood in line, we watched the irritating nature of monument lines unfold. This pattern would repeat many times during our stay in Italy: The boundaries for the line were not well-demarcated, and sometimes the line split up for two or three different windows (admission with audio tour, admission with extra options, etc). With some lines shorter than others, we'd watch random people move up ahead of us, only to see them in our own line later on. It felt like a bit of a free-for-all.

This creates an annoying situation, especially for anyone who wishes to avoid the "I'm getting mine" attitude of angry line-standing. Having patience is a way to be a sucker while person after person cuts ahead of you. Ergo, a certain amount of creative positioning is necessary to keep people from skipping ahead.

The Colosseum itself is very impressive. Most of the floor is gone, revealing the extensive corridors (called hypogeum) underneath, where slaves and animals used to run around backstage, getting into position. Some people paid for audio tours (provided through mobile handsets which look like old cell phones), but even with our primitive "look at the signs" approach, we learned some intriguing facts, like how the place was sometimes flooded with water and used for mock naval battles. Also, the vomitorium was a way for the crowds to spew out of the seating area, not for them to spew chunks into.

We did not get to meet Russel Crowe. He was busy preparing for a gladiator fight.

In addition to the preserved images around the place (see example at right), the Colosseum also had an exhibit of art showcasing Eros through the ages. One particular vase had some very explicit representations of Greek homointimacy.

Next up was the Arco di Constantino (pictured) and the forum — mostly ruins, arches, temples and the like. I began to realize here that I don't have the appreciation for ancient ruins that perhaps I ought to have. Still, it was impressive to see the various legacies of antiquity.

Here we have Diane in front of the original bronze doors leading into The Temple of Romulus. To be honest, after a certain point all of the ruined and semi-ruined buildings started to look alike to me, so my attention wandered a bit to the social habits of the tourists around us.

It's quite common in Rome and elsewhere to see big tour groups led by a knowledgeable guide. The person in front (often wearing a microphone of some sort) holds an umbrella or other icon, and the group members trudge along behind, listening with one ear to the voice of the guide, transmitted via earplug. An unusual hive-style pattern.

For some reason, I felt the need to wear non-shlubby clothes for this trip to the ruins; being hot didn't seem like a big concern, but by mid-day I was sweating buckets. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor; it was a big chunk of ice. I suckled eagerly at it, parched and worn out.

It was here that I had to admit that I'd picked up a wicked cough on the flight over. I kept hoping it was some minor thing that would go away, but as the day wore on, it simply did not abate. Worse, I was wearing my good but not-yet-broken-in shoes and before long I could feel a wicked blister forming at each heel. By the time we finished with Palatine Hill, Diane's stomach was feeling icky, so we caught a taxi back to the hotel. Had a nap and ate dinner at a restaurant around the corner. (There were restaurants everywhere in the area.)

While in Italy, I was trapped by a sinister contradiction: On the one hand, I didn't want to be a lumbering American moron, unable (or unwilling) to adapt in any way to the culture around me. But on the other hand, I felt really relieved when the menu was available in English and the restaurant took credit cards. Worse, our meager attempts to speak Italian were usually met with a rapid-fire Italian rejoinder, to which we could only make confused faces. We imagined the Italian person thinking: "If I'm going to have to respond in English anyway, why not just ask in English?"

After dinner (dessert was strawberries with cooked cream — delish), we went back to the hotel and tried to understand the TV. Rome has a great many home-shopping channels, often with many many numbers and panels filling up the screen. We also watched some of a weid Benny-Hill-esque farce. Read a bit and went to sleep.

Next: Cough Syrup, Keats, and Crime