Going slow or flying fast – instructions for promenades in Rome

In Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy (1807), when the protagonists of the book are heading for Tivoli, lord Nelvil drives the four-horse carriage himself and enjoys the speed of the drive, since ”speed seems to enhance the sense of being alive”. As I stood on bus 628 this morning, and held on to the handrails the best I could as the bus jolted its way through Rome, I thought about that quote and about how accurate it was. I’ve always loved going with great speed through Rome, be it on a bus on the verge of mechanical breakdown or in a taxi, because I love seeing Rome and its monuments, crowds, and houses swirl by as a colourful and heady carousel. I love the speed because it not only conveys a feeling of being alive, but also a sense of not giving a damn. I am on my way, and therefore I’ll leave behind whatever comes my way in order to get to my faraway goal. But the sense of being alive can also very fast turn into a bolt of fear, when the night bus speeding along the dark and empty Lungotevere or a taxi on the motorway towards the airport suddenly goes too fast, and the speed of life is substituted by the fear of actually losing ones life in an instant.

On that bus, I started to think about fast and slow, and what they do to us and our perception of life. When I go to Italy by train, I prefer to think about it as slow travelling, because the whole journey from Gothenburg to Rome takes more than 30 hours. But at the same time, the train I am travelling with, be it a German ICE train or an Italian Freccia, is going by 240 km/h or so, and the feeling one gets is rather of flying across the yellow fields of Toscana and through the dark green hills of Umbria. When in a plane, which in reality moves I don’t know how many times faster than the train, the sense of speed is instead dissolved into the literally thin air 30 000 ft above ground, and the aircraft seems to be hanging in the air in a slow and at times almost peaceful flight. Still, it is the fastest way to travel, but yet, as it were, surrounded by boredom and slowness: queueing to check in, waiting at the gate, waiting for the luggage, waiting for the airport bus.

Or does fast and slow in this case actually refer more to the way we experience things on our way? A day spent flying is often a blank, empty day, when we switch off not only all electronic equipment but also, in a way, our senses. A day on the train, on the other hand, can be full of experiences: watching the landscape change, listening to the languages of the passengers succeeding each other as the train crosses yet another border, changing trains at a station in an unknown city, eating one’s lunch pack as on some adventurous picnic, or having a glass of wine in the dining car. A day on the train is exhausting not because of uniformity and dullness, but because of the stream of impressions that force themselves upon us. To travel slow is to allow oneself the time to experience, be it planned or random; to travel slow is to allow time to exist, even if that also comprises periods of boredom when the train never seems to get to its destination. To travel fast is, in a way, to deny time, to refuse the existence of time, and to get that feeling of immortality as if we were out of reach of the grasp of time and thus of death. To be slow is not necessarily to be slow-witted, but rather thorough and diligent; to be fast is not always to be sharp and quick, but also negligent and ignorant. Fast is an arrow shot in haste that often misses its goal; but being slow risks to be the delayed decision that fails to grasp an opportunity.

But what, I thought, while the Mausoleum of Augustus and via del Corso sailed by outside the bus window, what about walking? Isn’t walking the slowest kind of travelling possible? Be it strolling, promenading, pacing, rushing, marching – walking can never be fast, and however much we try to hurry we fight in vain against the impossibility of speed. Rallentare a passo d’uomo, it says on the traffic sign, slow down to walking pace – and I have often enjoyed the fact the the electrical minibuses of Rome for most of the time do just that, moving not much faster than the pedestrians on both sides of the vehicle, and that speed – or lack of speed – is just perfect for sightseeing. So is walking the perfect pace of experiencing what we pass by, with the in-built function of stopping when something particularly interesting meets our eye?

In his Promenades dans Rome (1829), Stendhal wrote that there are two ways of seeing Rome: one is to observe everything of interest in one quarter, and then pass on to the next; the other is to seek each morning for the beauty for which one feels oneself disposed on that particular day, and, not surprisingly, it is the second method that is recommended by Stendhal. The first approach is of the slow, but thorough kind – the catalogists, the categorists and the collectors would prefer this kind of organized slowness, necessarily including several thoughtful stops. The other way, however, gives instead in to the movement – moving, randomly and after one’s whim, ready to change direction in an instant when an interesting alleyway suddenly opens to the left, or a suggestive column fragment appears to the right: because the slow movement allows us to constantly evaluate what instinct to follow next. And quite as Stendhal, I much prefer the second method to the first in my own promenades dans Rome – slow but dynamic, slow but curious, slow because the pace of my feet is in perfect concordance with the pace of my senses. To float like a butterfly from sight to sight, with nothing else in mind but colour, perspectives, sounds and scents, float until the feet get too heavy and the head too full of novelties. With our feet, we not only cover and survey distances, but also time. By walking, we even create time, form our own itineraries, make our own history, while on a bus we tend to feel that we instead lose time, and never get to our goal quick enough.

To walk in Rome is a theme recurring through the centuries (as investigated for example in this brand new publication), from the ancient Roman on performative tour through the city to the pilgrims striving from indulgence to indulgence, from Bartholomeo Marliano who measured Rome with his own feet and his own eyes in the 16th century, as described in his Urbis Romae Topographia (1544), to any modern tourist guidebook, which all will assure you: walking is by far the preferred way to move around in Rome.

I went off the bus just north of piazza Navona and started walking.

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