I have become increasingly irritated, upset and angry at the stream of media attacks on environmental champion Greta Thunberg. I’m disgusted at the way some journalists have taken delight in mocking her youth, her autism and her family, recycling information into derogatory and twisted propaganda to meet their personal needs.
I first became aware of the green-house gas issue during my degree studies in ecology back in the early seventies. My scientific training has been invaluable in observing weather patterns, which have slowly but inexorably changed over the last forty years. I’m also a keen gardener and have noticed the changing flowering times and what can and cannot now be grown in London. These changes have accelerated in the past decade.
Back in the early seventies, The Club of Rome predicted that fossil fuels would run out early in the next century and that we should, as a species, prepare for limits to economic growth. At that stage, there did not seem to be too much danger from green-house gasses. However, the estimation of fossil fuel reserves was spectacularly wrong and we sent carbon into the atmosphere at an increasing rate well into the 21st century and continue to do so. At the same time, plastics were developing and suddenly took off, creating the problems of which we are now very well aware.
Fossil fuels are much more complicated and expensive to
replace and their energy production is cheap, creating vast profits. The
well-being of children and their future seems to have been subsumed by economic
greed. Climate change and its challenges is inconvenient to the oil barons and
besides, they aren’t going to be around when the sea levels rise and temperate
regions are overwhelmed by refugees from uninhabitable equatorial lands.
Two examples of sensible global action by politicians happened. The removal of lead in petrol (recognised as harmful to public health) and the banning of CFCs, which were proven to directly cause the hole in the ozone layer which protected people from dangerous radiation. Both of these actions happened without too much democratic consultation; they were, after all in the best interests of human beings, especially our children, and of course, the environment. The latter didn’t feature much in their thinking – these actions were relatively cheap and easy to implement.
Human beings remind me of a species of Marine Iguana found in the Galapagos Islands. Iguanas survival depends of their tenacity to maintain as good place in the sun. Once their bodies are warmed up, they can dive into the cold Humbolt Current from Antarctica to feed on green algae. So tenaciously do they cling to their territory that not even and encroaching flow of molten lava will move them. Unable to adapt and flee for their lives, they perish. The lava flow may seem far away but any volcanologist knows that a new channel can suddenly open up bringing it closer.
All around the world people have failed to democratically
elect representatives who believe in climate change or are prepared to do
something about it. Our kind of democracy has failed in this respect. This is
the message to adults from Greta and many other young people. We are supposed
to have wisdom and experience and when we are shown up by youth, we don’t like
it. It makes us feel foolish.
For those who say they are not climate change deniers and then post rude or hateful comments about Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Marie Copeny, Xiye Bastida and many others environmental activists, just think about that for a moment. There’s a conflict here between beliefs and actions.
You might also pause to notice that these young leaders are all females and with diverse racial origins. It looks as if the age of the rich old white men is nearing an end.
Tuesday: The Musee del Arte Modern looks good. It’s
somewhere in the Villa Borghese area – a green swathe that covers a large area
to the North of the city. The map I’ve borrowed from the apartment bears no
resemblance to the maps in the park and I end up on the other side and have to
ask a policeman for directions.
Lions are on guard outside this neoclassical building; ‘The
Time is Out of Joint’ is written on the steps – this seems relevant. As is
usual here, getting into the galleries is a matter of trial and error. There’s
a shortage of entry signs but plenty of ‘Uscuita’ exit signs.
There are Italian impressionists here and it’s all very
well presented. What becomes clearer as I progress, is the clever curation.
Nineteenth Century statues are placed against or looking at the art. ‘Very Bad
Things’ makes use of gallery windows to stunning effect. A whole section is
devoted to works made out of building material – cement, bricks and reinforcing
iron rods. At first, I think it is dull, but suddenly it all comes to life. The
artist has taken two dimensional designs using the trompe d’oel technique (as
seen in the Vatican ceilings) and realised them in three dimensions.
There’s a café to enjoy coffee and cake, but you have to
double back through one of the galleries to reach it.
The Piazza di Popolo with one enormous Egyptian obelisk is
worth a look – every pizza seems to have one or two, and fountains. Popolo is
wide and open with two almost identical churches at one end. Three roads divide
them off offering views of diminishing perspectives. I take the right-hand road
leading to the river and the Augustus Mausoleum. On the way I stop to stare at
the only two (large) rainbow flags I’ve seen, hanging on the gates of an art
The Augustus Mausoleum is huge – it’s closed now for
restoration but was once used for concerts. ‘On May
13th, 1936 the Augusteo, one of the most famous temples of music in Europe,
hosted its final concert: Bernardino Molinari conducted music by Rossini,
Martucci, Paganini-Molinari, Respighi, Wagner and Verdi. Later the
Mausoleum was to have become Mussolini’s tomb, but this did not happen and the
important monument was abandoned.’
Right next door is a modern building of elegant and clean
lines. It houses the Museo Dell’ara Pacis – a fantastic reconstruction of a
marble temple, buried for centuries. On the lower floor is an exhibition –
Claudio – about the life of the emperor Claudius – made famous by the BBC
series I Claudius with Dereck Jacobi. Related to Caligula (his nephew)
and succeed by Nero, Claudius created an age of relative stability between tow
maniacs. It was a time of scandal, plotting, murder and political manoeuvring –
well worth the visit.
Moving on to the Piazza Navena. There’s the excavation of
an ancient athletics track under here where you can have an underground lunch.
I’m happy to sit above ground, watch the fountains and enjoy Bruschetta
Pomodoro followed by thinly sliced beef with orange, cheese and rocket.
Wednesday: I’m fitting in the Museum of Rome in the morning
and I can use my metro card. I’ve gone to all the bother of changing lines,
during rush hour, at Termini to take one stop to Republic, only to find that
after a short walk the Museum is across the road from Termini. I’m early so
there’s time for espresso at the Museum Café which opens early to catch
The Romans went in for carved marble heads of family
members – much like a photograph album – that’s why you get so many of them.
Some are designed to fit into marble bodies or plinths and hairstyles can help
to date them. There are also some good examples of bronze statues showing various
techniques for colouration eg lips, nipples and the cuts and bruises of a
boxer. It’s all well laid out and I particularly enjoyed the frescoes and
mosaics saved from houses and lovingly restored. Down in the basement is an
extensive collection of Roman coins, if that is your thing, but there’s also
some beautiful jewellery.
Onwards to the Villa Borghese area for an early lunch of
cheap vegetarian lasagne (dull) at a working café in a side street. Today I
easily find my way to the much anticipated Gallerie Borghese. I have a two-hour
time slot from 1-3pm and it take ten minutes to exchange my voucher for a
ticket, check in my bag in the basement then make my way back outside and up
the front steps to the entrance. No photographs are permitted. It’s busy
physically and visually. The rooms are overly ornate in Rococo/Baroque style.
Panels of different coloured marble vie for attention and everything is
crowded. I start off in the Caravaggio room, but they fight to breath here.
Some, but not all, are good – nothing stood out. Marble statues and endless
renaissance depictions of the Holy Family, the Madonna and Child by unfamiliar
artists lacking in the brilliance of Raphael and Michael Angelo. There’s a
Peter Paul Rubens which shines and a few other gems which get lost in the melange
of colour. A contemporary artist is exhibited in the spaces left by paintings
on loan or being restored. His art is to make holes in a surface. Some of these
are a slash through the fabric or metal surface. At intervals throughout,
printed statements from the artist explain how holes can be art.
Having left, what I thought to be, the best until last, I’m
disappointed. Still it’s been a time of otherwise excellent experiences. I
treat myself to a beer at the other gay bar ‘My Place’ followed by dinner at
I’ve booked an early tour of the Vatican to celebrate my
Birthday and avoid queuing, but it’s raining again as I leave the apartment and
have to return and make use of a very waterproof raincoat with cap attached. I
simply put the cap on my head and the coat hangs around me covering my small
rucksack. The street sellers, who yesterday were touting ice-cold water, have
adapted over-night and now offer umbrellas and plastic ponchos. The level of
sales aggression here is much lower than other parts of the world and because I
am water-proofed, I get to the Metro unmolested. It’s slightly tricky following
the instructions to the tour meeting point, reading the email, on my phone, in
the rain but I arrive in time, to a wide set of steps crowded with damp
tourists. I have to queue (a short one) to check in to be redirected to my guide,
Manuela who is a few metres away holding a pink umbrella. There are only four
of us in this English-speaking group – the other three are all from New York.
We get our audio-gadgets and earphones and I try-out only
one, in my better ear. I end up using both but find them hard work as Manuela’s
microphone picks up and amplifies every sound around her and there’s lots of
it, including other tour guides.
We don’t avoid queuing entirely as we have to ‘enter the Vatican’ -another country and thus have to queue for a bag and body security check. We can go in now and there’s a bit of waiting around while Manuela gets tickets for us to feed into the turn styles. The place is so crowded (as my B&B host said it would be in the morning) that I’m glad that I’m on a tour. It might have taken me some time to work out where to go and what to see. Apparently, there are kilometres of corridors in the Vatican Museum and in three hours, we are concentrating on the best. We’e in luck, the escalator is working, so we don’t have to walk up the huge spiral ramp. It looks quite spectacular from the top. Our first sight of art are two sculptures (copies) by Michael Angelo. Manuela says that he constantly referred to himself as a sculptor, not a painter. We look at a wooden model of the entire Vatican to get an idea where everything is. The present Pope hads eschewed the luxurious bedroom in the Papal Palace and has a suite in the only hotel in the Vatican City – but still guarded by Swiss Guards. The rain has stopped enough to look at the garden with the dome of St Peter’s in the background.
Now we are going down a wide corridor packed with people
looking at exquisite statuary and relief work. Manuela is a great admirer of
all these beautiful young male bodies hewn from white marble. She tells us how the Romans greatly admired
Greek culture, especially the statues. Greek sculptors were employed to make
copies of the best which were sold to wealthy families. Some of course are
damaged from the sacking of Rome at the end of the Empire and buried for
centuries. The Romans, however, were not as keen on total nudity. They covered
genitals with fig leaves and bits of fabric strategically wafted across the
crotch. Here all the ceilings are exquisitely painted in perspective to suggest
architectural mouldings. The Renaissance painters were fantastic at this – you
can find amazing theatrical sets demonstrating the art of perspective. Here the
work is so convincing, even though the ceiling is entirely smooth.
We pass into a gallery of amazing tapestries and Manuela explains how the cartoon was inserted underneath the netting. A similar cartoon technique is used for the ceiling frescoes.
The hall of maps has a stunning ceiling and the maps, depicting various regions of Italy are all frescoes – each on had to be painted in one day and are apparently fairly accurate as maps go. As they are painted as from the North of Italy, they are all upside down. This might have been before the realisation that the world is round and up the other way – a decision made to emphasise the dominance of European culture. The Antipodes print maps with Antarctica at the top.
Now we are in the Raphael part of the museum – it’s under re-construction. Raphael sadly died young and his death was considered a great tragedy. Some of the work here was completed by his school of followers from his original cartoons. Michael Angelo and Raphael worked side by side in the same building. I note details of the fantastic mosaic flooring and Manuela is pleased. She spends time preparing us for the Sistine Chapel – we each have a leaflet with the lay-out of this monumental work and she goes through each section explaining what it’s about.
No guiding or photography is allowed in the chapel and we have fifteen minutes to crane our necks to look upwards at the ceiling. It’s recently been restored and looks vibrant. Every now and then there are shushing sounds from wardens – we are supposed to be silent. A young priest with a microphone shushes us prior to delivering a brief prayer.
Suddenly, we’re looking at work by Cezanne – his paper cut-out designs for stained glass windows – fantastic – but where are they? Now, out in the open air to see the magnificent St Peter’s Square before going into the Basilica. It’s the largest church in the world and took one hundred and fifty years and many Popes to complete. The lengths of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey (the break-away Church of England) are measured on the floor here – tiny by comparison.
Manuela has left us to wander around. There’s been a service here and we can’t go down to the crypt today. It’s possible to go to the top of the dome but by the time we finish gawping and the ceiling, the queue is so long that I decide to call it quits. I’ve seen enough for one session and that the Metro back for a sandwich and afternoon nap.
Later I venture out to the nearby San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michael Angelo’s Moses – part of a tomb made for Pope Julius II but never used by him. It’s tucked away to one side, but worth the walk up the nave for a look at the magnificent carving.
As I’m around the corner from the centre of Gay life in
Rome (two bars) I dine there on Spaghetti carbonara. The Roman version is made
with egg yolk and cheese and lardons – no cream – it’s delicious and simple. I
get chatting to a gay couple (together thirty years) sitting next to me. They
live in Palm Beach Florida and are no fans of Donald Trump. They ask me about
Boris and Brexit as have many Europeans this week. My answer is always that no
one knows what will happen.
Sunday and there’s no rushing to Ostia today. I’ve sketched
out a walking tour, so we’ll see what happens. On the airport train, I met a
pleasant American Couple who live and work in the Emirates; they recommended
Ostia Antica as a day trip. I’ve been passing this place on my way to the swimming
pool every day and I’ve worked out that it’s a site of archaeological
significance. There’s enough of ancient Rome sticking out of the ground here in
the city and I’ve seen the sites at Carthage (Tunisia) and more in Morocco.
The Campidoglio is, like many buildings in Rome, sandwiched
between a church and ruins, with the Vittorione towering nearby. There’s a
magnificent square, designed by Michael Angelo with an equine statue of Marcus
Aurelius who is much loved here. The two parts of the Musei Capitolini flank
the Piazza and the third side is a civic building housing a wedding hall. It’s
early and the crowds are light here. Everyone it seems is heading for the
Getting into the museum is a test. On one side there is
only an exit; on the other, a ticket office and two doors along, the security
entrance which checks all our bag. Here, there is a magnificent collection of
sculpture – not overcrowded like the British Museum. Each piece has space to
breath and be appreciated. Some of the rooms are furnished with frescos painted
on the walls. A modern addition incorporates ruins of an ancient temple and
prides a huge space for another copy of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. – it’s
impressive. Famous works – eg the Dying Gaul – are stunning and Caravaggio’s
cheeky painting of St John the Baptist, is sexy. The model, obviously one of
his pretty boys is smuggled into respectability with a saintly label. I go
below to see the gravestones but miss the connection to the other side of the
square. I exit and briefly consider giving the other side a miss, but there’s
no problem and I’m allowed back in an take the tunnel under the square to the
other side. Just as well as there are more treasures to be seen, including the
famous view of the square from above.
I’ve passed Teatro Marcello several times on a bus; now
it’s time to photograph this very ancient Roman ruin, reclaimed in the middle
ages and converted into the Orsini palace.
The Vittoriano towers white and sharp over the whole area.
It’s a 19thc classical re-invention which seems oddly out of place.
The Victorian age was one of energetic expansion and so-called improvement, not
always achieving the desired result. I reference numerous English churches
which were vandalised in this way by the Victorians.
I notice from the other side of the road that people – not
tourists are going through a door in the Vittoriano. I like going though open
doors and especially if it’s free. This one leads to a temporary exhibition
about Italian identity – how the nation was formed. It begins with the language
– developing from a Latin base (like other European languages) with a situation
where people spoke a variety of similar languages and dialects. Television is
credited with consolidating the National dialect, though many retain their local
versions alongside. Italy had become a mixture of republics, the Papal Sates
and the vast kingdom of Naples to the South. This exhibition charts all this
through the wars, Garibaldi, Mussolini and the post war referendum offering the
choice of Monarchy or Republic. Some how
the flimsy plywood display units showing the gaps and the back of the display,
make this raw and moving. At this point I have to comment that in spite of all
the reports and predictions of a collapsing economy and infrastructure, everything
seems to run smoothly in Rome. There are beggars here – more dramatic and
dirtier than anywhere else. Some pose as semi religious-characters. They have little impact on the trains and
busses, which run on time at affordable prices. The refugees hide away in the
park that was Nero’s palace trying to keep clean washing themselves and clothes
in the ever-flowing water fountains.
Upstairs in the Vittoriano, the marble staircases seem
empty and pointless and the other areas are closed off. I wander onto the huge
balcony surrounding the building and offering great views of the city. I can
hardly see for the glare of sunshine on the marble, but have difficulty finding
a seat free of pigeon shit.
The next stop is the Pantheon – once a Roman temple – now a
church constructed inside the ruins. There’s a queue but it moves fast. The
place is crowded; buzzing with conversations which surge and die between announcements
calling for silence. A recording is employed to cut through the buzz – the
amplified voice, strangely at odds with its message. I sit down on a pew next
to a woman tourist who has fallen asleep. The husband wakes her with his cap,
brushing her eyeball with the rim as it sweeps past her. She’s not happy about
that but goes back to sleeping. Light from the open circle at the top of the
domed roof shines a shaft of light at one part of the wall. It’s dark and
Outside, as I cross the Piazza, an African notice my green
shoes and before I know it has put a friendship bracelet on my wrist – a gift.
I’ve come across this before in Myanmar. He then offers me a small wooden
carving, but want’s a contribution towards his family. No. I’m not playing that
game and as I march off, he reclaims his free bracelet. I’m after a Coffee
Granita, shavings of iced coffee layered with cream. It’s fantastic, though I
think I could have done without the whipped cream.
As I round the back of the Pantheon, to inspect the ancient
Roman brick-work there’s a Bernini carved Marble elephant with an obelisk on
his back – wonderful.
After a late afternoon nap, I return to Naumachio and try
their mixed grill. Perfect. I’ve been observing a group of women who have
clearly been here for the Games. One of them has a rainbow on her tee shirt and
the same small blue ruck sac as I, from the Gay Games in Paris. As I’m leaving,
I say hello and have a great conversation. They are badminton players from
Ireland. The evening closes with my now routine gelato from my local gelateria.
Friday – the alarm has been set and the trains, once again run like clockwork. We’re joined by the water polo guys, playing in the indoor pool. My 100m Backstroke is a couple of seconds slower – possibly caused by arguments with the lane ropes – one of the hazards of swimming backstroke out-doors. In the lunch-break, I help Federico with his backstroke finishes – counting from the flags and touching with one hand on a dolphin kick, or two. He’s got the 50m backstroke with me tomorrow. Meanwhile, my 200m Individual Medley is quite acceptable, but there is a Netherlander in his seventies who is faster than me. I guess I’m used to fast guys in their seventies back in the UK. He’s a strong breast-stroker and gets away with swimming fly and back with a breaststroke kick. At the end of day two, I’ve got four gold medals and the schedule has run so efficiently that there’s time for evening sight-seeing. Back in town, I head for the famous Spanish Steps. They are moderately crowded and tourists sit around the fountain in the Piazza. Whistle-blowing wardens are employed here to make sure no one sits on anything marble – posts or balustrades. They undertake their job assiduously, forcing exhausted tourists back onto their feet. The marble looks pretty worn and pitted by acid rain, so it’s good that they are trying to preserve the place. The other problem is that sitting on the steps would block the place up, making the climb up to the Trinita del Monti impossible. The pay-off to this climb is the panoramic view of Rome – the church itself is unremarkable inside but the external façade crowns the steps to dramatic effect. It’s closing time and the gate-keeper of the church shoos new visitors away as I descend and locks the gates behind me. To my right there’s an alfresco restaurant overlooking the steps and I wonder what their prices are like for this location.
I’m now heading, in a leisurely fashion for the Fontana Di
Trevi (Tivoli fountain), but I’m seduced towards the Fontana di Tritone nearby.
There’s no one here as it’s in the middle of a traffic Island – worth the
diversion. It seems as if Rome has a fountain or three in every Piazza and
there are drinking fountains with running water everywhere. I pass a theatre
showing Mary Poppins the Musical. In Rome, Italy? Astonishing. I pass
via Boccaccio and am reminded of this great medieval Italian story teller who
influenced Chaucer. Rome is full of streets named after the famous, from Marcus
Aurelius to George Washington. As I pass the usual tourist shops, found
world-wide, there’s something different, Pinocchio.
Predictably the Trevi Fountain is crowded, though it is
possible to get photos. A gap opens up on one of the iron barriers – a chanced
to sit and look. I listen to the whistles preventing people from sitting on
marble edges. At 9.00pm, the lights go on and there’s cheering. Two women throw
coins over their shoulders into the fountain. It’s supposed to guarantee a
return visit to Rome. It’s a recent legend created by the Hollywood movie Three
Coins in the Fountain. The coins are collected at the end of each day and
go to a charity.
My GPS directions home take me past the gigantic
Vittoriano, a 19th Century white marble neoclassical gallery. It
towers over everything else. My path is down the Via dei Fori Imperiale, and I
suddenly realise that all of the ancient ruins can be seen from above. The
views are magnificent and there is no need to pay to see the ruins below.
Saturday is the last day of swimming. Federico is once
again trying to organise a relay. As a native of Rome, it’s best for him to do
this. The judge allows us to enter four men in the 4 x 50m Mixed freestyle
relay and we are able to co-opt James H from the water polo team. In the mean-time,
we have the 50m Backstroke and Federico hasn’t warmed up due to organising the
relay. He’s run out of time and I tell him to just do the race. He does and
with a much better time than he entered. We’re waiting for James F to arrive
and just when we think it’s not going to happen, he materialises. The Italian
Mixed team are waiting for us – so are the officials. No one is in a panic and
it all happens. We are faster than the Italians, especially with James H to
finish. There’s talk of doing the 4 x 100 medley in the afternoon, but no one
else can do fly and I certainly can’t manage 100 metres. The other option is
the 4 x 200 freestyle and I don’t think our newbies would manage that either.
I’m off back to the tourist trail and there’s a bus number
118 from beside the Coliseum which will take me to the Appian Way. I get
talking to an American family from LA – she’s done the research and knows what
to see, but it is I who get us off at the right stop. The Apian Way is an ancient cobbled highway –
only just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions plus an
occasional pedestrian. It’s only closed on Sundays, so we have to contend with
traffic. A fork in the road looms and a driveway bisecting the fork, promises
catacombs 1.6 km ahead. The sign says it closes in fifteen minutes but
undaunted I and the family from LA set of at a brisk pace. We make it in time
for the last group tour of the San Calisto Catacombs. Underground, it’s a
delicious fifteen degrees, a relief from surface temperatures in the high
twenties – our Monk-guide dons a jacket as we descend. There are over twenty
miles of burial corridors in this complex at several levels. Spartacus, the
gladiator and his rebels were all crucified along the Apian Way but it was
during the early days of Christianity that the catacombs came about. Romans
were cremated but the Christians looked forward to the resurrection and the
restoration of the earthly body; they may have got that idea from the
Egyptians. Christians were much persecuted in the Empire until Constantine
converted and made Christianity the official religion. They came underground to
pay their respects to their dead, to light an oil lamp. The lamp niches are
still clearly visible. While they were down here, they held secret communion
services. One early Bishop of Rome was caught and beheaded as were Saints Paul
and Peter. At this site, many of the Popes were buried and when the barbarians
invaded, looting and looking for treasure (The Christians weren’t buried with
their possessions), all the important bodies were moved out to the Vatican and
the others went down a level where they stayed forgotten and undiscovered for
two thousand years. Many of the graves cut into the walls are short (the Romans
were short people) and even smaller graves belong to children and babies. The
very high proportion of children’s graves can be explained by the practice that
early Christians had of saving the bodies of heathen children (innocents) in
the hope of their salvation. That phrase ‘In the sure and certain hope of the
resurrection’ comes to mind.
Back above ground in the heat, I’m determined to walk on
past the St Sebastian catacombs and re-join the Apian Way and see viaducts.
Alas, there’s a torrential downpour which goes on for thirty minutes. I take
shelter under roadside foliage, but the water finds its way through the leaves.
I’m very damp and reluctantly return to a bus stop for the journey back to
town. We aren’t going the way we came, but It’s a circular route and I’m
getting new view of Rome. It’s not until we’ve doubled back and are returning
down the Apian Way that I realise that this bus is not returning to the
Coliseum. Eventually it gets to the end of the run and I transfer and wait for
the return bus, which rattles alarmingly over every cobblestone. I fear it
might disintegrate at any moment as there are bits on the ceiling hanging by
one or two screws. We are still not returning to the Coliseum and the driver
tells me I have to walk from the Campidoglio. Sure enough, the road to the
Coliseum is closed to traffic this evening.
I try my host’s recommended Pizza restaurant to cheer
myself up. It’s around the corner and great. So far, in Rome, Pizza has been
100% OK – nice thin crispy bases. Unfortunately, my Italian is not good and I
manage to say yes to a whole jug of the house red wine, which has to be
finished. I’ve been on a beer ration all week, so it’s a bit of a struggle.
I exit the Metro at Coloseo late in the evening, it’s dark
and I’ve never been here before. The floodlit spectrum before me is instantly
recognisable; it’s the Coliseum, so this must be Rome. Childhood stories of
heroic Gladiators, a Lion who refused to eat a Christian and the movie
Sparticus are all part of the history that was the Roman Empire. My Mum always
said it was the most successful empire ever, lasting more or less over a
thousand years. Much longer than the British Empire, she said. To be fair, she
didn’t know about the Incas 3.5 thousand years or the Aztecs who went for
My Mr B&B accommodation is a short walk from the
Coliseum and my host’s American husband is on hand to greet me to a small but
beautifully appointed ground floor apartment. Todd has plenty of good advice of
what to see and where to eat locally – and there’s a welcoming bottle of
There’s been considerable uncertainty about the LGBT Eurogames here with lack of information and conflicting reports. The website now doesn’t have the information – schedules and heat sheets, so I’m looking for some answers at the accreditation evening tomorrow. Early morning emails from the organisers inform me that accreditation has moved from the Games Village to a café due to anticipated rain, but my first priority is buying breakfast stuff from the Carrefour supermarket a short walk away.
I’ve got time this morning, to explore and spot a likely candidate highlighted by my host on the handy map of Rome. Scala Santa houses the marble steps which Jesus (allegedly) climbed twice on the day of his death in the Jerusalem palace of Pontius Pilate. These were brought to Rome by St Helen and laid from top to bottom by the workmen so that no one walked on them. For several centuries , they were covered with wood to prevent wearing of the marble but now they have been restored so the faithful may once again engage with the same steps as Christ. Today the stairs must be climbed on hands and knees as an act of faith and devotion. As I don’t claim to have either of these, I take the alternative staircase, which looks much the same to me. At the top, the chapels are crudely frescoed and I don’t spend much time looking. I guess this is an experience for the faithful, although a party of Japanese tourists are crawling up the stairs. I wonder?
The Basilica San Giovani in Laterno, just across the road
looks more impressive. The edifice is huge and the building seemingly attached
(this happens a lot in Rome) is something to do with Rome Opera. Not many are
crowding in the door and it’s free with a relaxed security check. Inside, It’s
massive and uncrowded. I later discover that this is the official cathedral of
the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. He has his throne here, it’s the centre of his
diocese. Back at the Coliseum, I explore the Domus Aurea, a hill where part of
Nero’s palace looked down on a lake where the Coliseum now stands. It’s all
under re-construction and only parts of this once extensive and lavish complex
can be glimpsed. Nero was so unpopular that much of what he built was destroyed
and recycled. I consider visiting the Coliseum but there’s a queue. I can see
that the interior is mostly in ruins and being reconstructed. I walk up towards
the Forum, but you need a ticket to go there, instead I walk up an alley-way to
get a view. An African trader of wooden trinkets, I passed earlier, has
gathered his wares and is running up the hill looking behind as he goes. This
is a blind alley leading to a church so I’m surprised to see the young African
being escorted by Police down the hill. One of them is carrying his rucksack –
I didn’t notice them overtake me. It all looks quite relaxed, and for the
African (chatting to his captors) a common occurrence.
My weekly pass is a great deal and I follow other sporty-looking people to the accreditation. I spot two women ahead – on of them is Viv Woodcock – Downey from BLAGS and the Gay Games committee. I interviewed her for Out for Sport – nice to have a familiar person to chat with in the queue. The other woman is her wife, who is competing in the discus. The café might have been chosen for its long and gently sloping incline to the bar where there is a library – yes real books to go with the beer and coffee. The Queue is huge, taking up all of the incline then snaking over the stage – someone briefly plays the grand piano. Word is that none of the people handing out accreditation badges have answers to our questions. There’s to be a meeting of the swimming team leaders at 7pm. As I’m the senior of the three from Out to Swim, I volunteer myself to attend. Thank goodness for our WhatsApp group as I’m able to collect a team mate’s badge – he’s been delayed at Gatwick Airport.
No one knows exactly where this meeting will take place and
we’re all sitting around waiting. Suddenly it materialises with a presentation
of an alternative schedule of events – quite different from the original. Gay
Swim Amsterdam object as they have swimmers arriving on Friday who would miss
out on their events. Apparently, the Netherlands Swimming Body fines swimmers
who don’t turn up for their races. The original schedule is reinstated in a
flash with no resistance. The Warm up is now at eight-thirty, races start at
nine and it is a fifty-metre pool – outside. There are, however, no heat
My host’s recommended restaurant, overflowing at lunchtime is now quieter. They do a great seafood pasta dish and salad, perfect to carb-up for racing tomorrow.
Thursday morning, I wake at seven. Panic – I haven’t set my
alarm and I’ve got thirty minutes to have breakfast, shave and leave the
apartment. This would normally take me a leisurely hour. The trains are all on
time, my weekly ticket will take me all the way to the coast and google maps
assures me that I’ll be there by eight-forty – still enough time to do some
warm-up. Outside the Stella Polari station and I follow a couple of other late
swimmers. It’s not clear where the entrance is and we all go down the wrong
side – some signs, as we had in New York two weeks ago, could have been useful.
My warm-up is rushed and the pool is too warm – I’m not slicing
through the water as in NY – still, I have time to use the twenty-fiver metre
pool inside to complete my warm-up. It’s deliciously cool by comparison. When I
signed up for this there was no schedule and so, just entered seven of my usual
events. It turns out that the 400m freestyle, the 200m Backstroke and 800m
freestyle are all scheduled for today. I’m allowed five events over the three
days – the 400 falls by the wayside. Suddenly there’s a heat sheet and I’m
trying to support our two relatively inexperienced swimmers to get to their
races and warm up properly. A marshalling area gathers the swimmers in their
heats and I can see that It’s all completely relaxed and professional. There
are no hints of hysteria or panic – these officials know exactly what they are
doing. There’s even time to announce each swimmer and their country. National
identity, it seems, is important in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany are
here in force – also Portugal, Belgian, Spain and France. Suddenly the 200m
Backstroke looms. It seems like a struggle, with the lack of preparation, but
it turns out to be only a few seconds under time.
There’s now an opportunity to do a 4 x 50m Medley relay –
not officially – just for fun. We have to make up a fourth team member- Nicolas
(French but swimming for Stockholm) helps out. We’re giving James and Federico
some experience. As Federico mainly does backstroke and James is best at Front
Crawl, I end up doing the Breaststroke, but that’s OK as I need the practice.
I’m not sure where we came – possibly last but we swam and our names are
recorded on the official Italian site, but there’s no time entered.
The electricity is off in the pool café, so no espresso,
just a tuna and spinach sandwich on white bread. It’s enough to get me through
the 800m on a reasonable time – faster than Crawley back in January – leaving
me with two gold medals in one day.
It’s the opening ceremony of the games tonight. There’s a
huge contingent of Brits here – hockey, football, rugby and volleyball. OTS
have four Water Polo teams here so we three swimmers are not entirely alone. We
all assemble at a small stadium for a short wait. There’s a rumour that only
ten people from each country should march in. My legs like that idea, but it
turns out not to be true. We gather on the stadium pitch in a semicircle facing
the spectators and watch a graceful aerial artist perform to the accompaniment
of a live opera singer. What else would you expect in Italy? Once we are seated
in the stand, there are the usual interminable speeches. Every politician in
Rome has to have their say and it’s all the same words. Proud, inclusive,
welcoming – which all has to be translated into English – the language the rest
of Europe understands. Yes, we are leaving Europe (I think) but the British
legacy is the language of commerce and we can’t undo that. There follows more
dancing – sexy and together. We all agree, an improvement on the Paris Gay
Saturday is Pink Flamingo day, an IGLA tradition to complete the week of competition. Out to Swim won last year in Paris at the Gay Games so we are not eligible to win again and haven’t entered. I’m the only one here to watch. All the entries seem to involve an initial conflict, needed for all good stories, and some of them are anti LGBT situations. Resolution is achieved with the help of one or multiple super heroes. Part of the show must take place in the pool which is an opportunity for some syncro. None of it is as good as last year and the combination of acoustics and bad sound system renders the commentary unintelligible.
It’s time for a late afternoon rest before the Circle Line Boat Party around Manhattan Island in the evening. On the boat, the bar is ‘open’ which means that drinks are included in the ticket price. Gin & tonic seems to be in order. I do need to stock up on food to manage the gin, but that’s not free. My choice is a burger – my least favourite dish – but at least it comes with salad. There’s a good group of older guys up at the prow of the boat and we discuss various new buildings and their architectural merit. I learn about ‘skinny scrapers’ which are shooting up everywhere between the regular buildings. Each floor is an apartment and the owners drive into the lift go to their floor and park the car. I’m amazed they can stand up.
The party is hotting up as we pass liberty Island. Someone comments to me ‘I wonder what she’s thinking these days.’ We cruise on under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the United Nations, which once seemed huge but is now dwarfed by newer buildings. Out to Swim youngsters seem to be leading the dancing so it’s time to join in. Christophe takes any opportunity to make use of any pole to dance on (he does pole dancing) even if it is horizontal. He’s got competition from a sexy woman called Jade who dances erotically with a blue-tailed fan. She gives me her necklace to mind. At the end of the party I frantically search for her to return the necklace – she’s pleased.
We don’t do the complete circle of Manhattan, doubling back
to our starting place as the light come on in the city. Someone suggests we
move on to Industry Bar, walkable from the pier though everyone except me gets
a cab. There’s a queue but as I’m not with anyone and probably because I’m
older, I get fast tracked. I’ve danced on the boat and had such a good time
that the cramped conditions inside Industry are off-putting. I queue for a
drink, but it’s cash only and I don’t have enough dollars on me, having spent
my cash on food. The music doesn’t inspire dancing, although some are having a
go. It’s time to quit whilst I’m ahead.
Sunday is the big day – marching in New York’s world Pride Parade. I spend the morning cleaning up the apartment and resting in anticipation. We’re to march with Team New York Aquatics – those who have stayed on will make up a huge international group of LGBT swimmers. The plan is to meet at the starting point at 4pm. I walk down town with an idea to watch the early part of the parade which commences at noon. This doesn’t work as everything is blocked off and I end up arriving an hour early along with a very tall hairy guy with a luxuriant beard. He’s from ‘Quack’, Salt Lake City, Utah. He strips down to his speedos which I’d seen around the pool. They are a colourful mass of duck heads. A random woman wants to photograph his speedos, then, realising how that sounds, insists she’s not just interested in his crotch and does a selfie with him.
Swimmers gather and expectations are high. Industrial scaffolding on nearby buildings provides Christophe with the opportunity to show off his pole dancing again and delight everyone around. There’s word of a two-hour delay in setting off so everyone relaxes. Swimmers flood into nearby bars, returning occasionally to check on progress. By 7.30pm we are still not moving. Most of the swimmers have gone back to various bars and our WhatsApp group records our Out to Swim people and their locations. I return from resting in one such bar to find that Christophe has fallen of the scaffolding and broken his arm. A group takes him to a nearby emergency room and I find myself alone in the crowded streets of New York. Nothing seems to be moving and the accident has upset me. Time to go home, finish my bottle of wine, watch the fireworks display which may be part of the Madonna concert, and sleep. I later hear that the last marcher completed the course at half past midnight and the city sweepers had not completed their work by rush-hour. Clearly the size of the march had not been anticipated.
Monday morning sees me in the Brooklyn Diner for breakfast. Despite the name it’s just around the corner from the apartment. It’s a successful chain which is now up market and expensive, for what it is. Udayan and I have a good chat about everything – putting the world to rights, that sort of thing, before he has to attend to his Chinese business students who, he says, are being charged a lot for a not very good deal.
Thursday: I’m repeating my warm-up plan from Tuesday,
catching the last thirty minutes in the competition pool with a section
concentrating on my backstroke turns. The fifty Backstroke went well on Tuesday
but I’ve got three turns to do today. I also repeat my top-up warm-up of HVOs.
I’m fairly happy with the race, though apparently my legs dropped on the last
length. I stay to cheer on the relay teams who are doing incredibly well it is
all so exciting.
After lunch, I return to The Met (a ticket is valid for
three days) to look at the rest of the modern and contemporary art sections,
enjoying Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothco towards the end. The Met closes early,
at five-thirty so it’s perfect timing to walk across Central Park and take the
subway downtown to Chelsea and pick up the High Line. This is a disused raised
subway line now transformed into a garden walk up the West side of Manhattan.
The planting is superb – part forest and part herbaceous. In places you can
still see the rail tracks. People walk and sit on grassy areas. One young man
is practising his aerial gymnastics. At the top is Hudson Yards, a terminus for
Subway trains. Here I discover an amazing structure built to be climbed. New
York’s Staircase (known as The Vessel) entry is by ticket and I’m delighted to
find that it’s free. Wonderful. There’s controlled entry (hence the tickets) as
the structure can only support a limited number of people climbing an any one
time. There’s a small and unusual lift but the queue is too long and it’s
quicker to climb the steps, making my way around the structure looking inwards
and outwards as I go. It’s spectacular.
Friday is a Front Crawl day so no need to practice backstroke turns and I can start a little later. We’ve got to know a family of four children sitting behind us. They are all here cheering on their gay parents from Ohio. Earlier in the week their two mums and two dads did the fifty freestyle, today they have made up a mixed (sexes) relay team. We are in the same heat and in the adjacent lane for the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and they are faster than us. I’m the ‘anchor’ – swimming last but don’t notice that Daddy two is on his second 50m as I dive in. I’m keeping up with him but can’t see him on my second 50m because he’s finished. There’s a lot to be missed whilst under water. I do however, get an unexpected bronze medal in my individual 100m Freestyle.
I hang around to cheer on our teams in subsequent heats. Out to Swim is up against Wet Ones from Sydney and they are nervous about competition from an ex-Olympian in that team. This turns out to be Daniel Kowalski, who swims a beautifully relaxed 100 metres. Later, I attend an event, where he and two other ex-Olympians are talking. Jeff Commings (a black swimmer and now coach) is chairing the discussion/interview which also has Bruce Hays and Betsy Mitchell. At the time of their training, all three panellists were so immersed in training that they didn’t even think about sexuality. Jeff played their key races – very exciting to watch but for Betsy and Daniel, their best work was not at the Olympics but at World Championships. Daniel won three Olympic medals, but because they were not gold, was the most hated swimmer back in Australia. He’s now returned to Masters swimming and loves it. Betsy doesn’t swim any more, having gone into teaching swimming, she got involved with rowing and was on the US national women’s team. She now plays golf but says she will return to swimming later in life. She only swims now to heal when she is sick.
Wolfgang is punctual for the ten am opening of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. We’re here to see the much praised
and must-see exhibition of ‘Camp’, programmed to coincide with World Pride.
In our search for the exhibition, we are seduced into the
Impressionist galleries. Wolfgang is thrilled and has to revise his opinion of
some painters. I’ve seen these before, but had forgotten how many impressionist
paintings have ended up in the US. It’s great to re-visit these old friends.
The word camp, is almost impossible to define and it’s not necessarily
gay. Originating in France it can be roughly be described as standing with one
hand on a hip the other arm limp wristed and striking a pose with attitude.
Christopher Isherwood identifies two versions – High camp (with elegance and
taste) and Low camp – without the taste, shocking, outrageous, vulgar. Susan Sontag
is the only one to break it down intellectually. The exhibition itself is mostly
about fashion beginning with Marie Antoinette’s big frocks. Seventeenth Century
fashion is regarded as the height of camp. Then there’s the cross dressing –
famously the brother of a king of France lived dressed as a woman for the later
part of his life and there are numerous other examples – the Molly Houses where
gay men dressed up in private and more publicly, male couples appeared in
public as women. Oscar Wilde is cited as a camp icon as is Cecil Beaton, Vivienne
Westwood, and tiffany lamps. The last room is a huge gallery of outrageous and
elegant fashion which takes the breath away. Individually each display is
I’ve bought an on-line ticket for the Guggenheim, just
along the avenue from the Met. Wolfgang wants to walk though Central Park, but
I’ve got the wrong direction in my head and we end up having to double back.
I’m hugely impressed by the way New York is embracing World
Pride. Rainbow banners are everywhere, shop displays celebrate and there are
churches flying the rainbow flag alongside the Stars and Stripes.
It’s the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit we’ve come to see –
the Guggenheim has most of his work and although I’ve seen many of them before,
there’s quite a bit of early work which is worth seeing. Mapplethorpe remains
shocking, complicated and beautiful, more old friends. There’s a diptych where
we can take a selfie and be in the mirror half of a Mapplethorpe.
I’m flagging by now and after a coffee, I have to go back
to the apartment for a sleep before dinner with the Guptas. Udayan and Kathy
live in the Battery Park area overlooking the site of the Twin Towers. They
were very much caught up in 9/11 and the aftermath. Udayan and I were pen pals
as schoolboys, whilst his older brother and wife were and are still important family
friends. We walk though the beautifully planted park to an Italian restaurant –
alfresco. The Guptas have their favourite, soft-shelled Crab while I carb up on
a delicious pork and fennel pasta dish. It’s an evening of conversation –
touching on politics and a lot about health issues. We flag towards the end and
arrange for breakfast on Monday.
The competition pool is cool, delicious and of even depth. I can tell at the end of twenty-five metres that it’s fast. As I reach forward, it’s easy to catch the water and push it back. Perhaps it’s also the training kicking in – aerobic fitness from threshold sets building up stamina. I glide though my wall at the end of the first two hundred – the warm up is going well. I use the backstroke section to pay attention to turns. Theoretically the flags are at the same position in every pool but that doesn’t always guarantee a perfect turn. There’s something not quite right but I’m sure it will be ok.
It’s an early start, negotiating the subway from Mid-town Manhattan to the pool at Flushing Meadows – all with the aid of my phone. My stop is Mets Point the site of a huge baseball arena, deserted today but I meet up with some of my team walking in the same direction to the pool. They’ve divided the fifty metres in half so the diving end is for warm downs and late warm ups. Everyone comments on the fast pool. There’s a problem with the electronic timing pads so the programme is an hour late starting. I’ve planned to top up my warm up nearer to my event, later in the morning. Ten o five becomes eleven o five and a session of HVO’s sets me up for the 200m backstroke. I’m swimming well, but manage to miss-time most of my turns – too close to the wall at one end and not close enough at the other. My race plan almost disappears as I struggle to get the turns right. It’s initially a disappointing start but I end up with a Silver medal and a PB. I’m thinking it could have been a few seconds faster had I got the turns right.
For lunch, I collect a salad with beef from Chipotle across
the road from my apartment but can’t finish it. I’m meeting up with IGLA
friends to see a documentary Light in the Water later and Marcel from
Gay Swim Amsterdam messages me about meeting for something to eat before. Time
for an afternoon nap to sleep off the salad – perhaps I’ll feel like eating
later. Marcel & I go for a pizza slice – full of carbs for the next day. We
have time, to explore the World Trade Centre area – once Ground Zero. There’s a
huge skeleton-like building, the entrance to the world Trade subway stations. The
footprints of the twin towers are gigantic water features surrounded by Oak trees.
I’m reminded by Kathy Gupta’s excitement when the first trees were delivered
and planted. She and Udayan live across the square and I’ll be visiting them later
in the week. Last time I was here in 2010, this was still a site of devastation
– twisted metal and holes in the ground.
Light in the Water is the story of West Hollywood Aquatics the first LGBT swimming club. A couple of gay swimmers started it to beat homophobia in the swimming world and create a safe space for LGBT people to train and become accepted as gay athletes. The movie traces the origins of the Gay Games and its history. The AIDS epidemic is a large part of the story and how WH2O became a family fighting the hysteria and taking in people rejected by their biological families. There’s a Q&A session after the ninety – minute film. Nine of the interviewees have turned up along with the current co-chair of the Gay Games. These are men of my age group who have turned up to race. Some of them were instrumental in setting up IGLA after the first Gay Olympics to make swimming an annual event. The Olympics sued but allowed other non-gay and trivial Olympics to go ahead. Current difficulties with homophobia are touched on in the Q&A and the message is that we all need to turn up and show the world that gays can be top athletes. One of WH2O’s aims was to compete in regular Masters Swim Meets and beat the straight guys, and they did. WH2O have a strong presence here in the IGLA competition, winning lots of medals.
Tuesday: I need to warm up in the competition pool –
concentrating on backstroke turns. There’s only one turn today in the 50m
Backstroke but it has to be right. There’s quite a wait for the event so I do
another top-up warmup; more HVO’s (High Velocity Overloads) fast off the wall
for ten metres then easy to the end. There are no backstroke flags in the warm
up half of the pool, so caution and counting strokes are required. The race
goes well and Head Coach, Michelle is pleased plus I’ve got third place for a
bronze medal. I have to remember that all the Americans are here this week and
they are fast.
There’s about an hour before our 160+ years mixed 4 x 200
freestyle relay. It’s not my favourite freestyle distance but we’ve been
working on blocks of two hundred metres in training. I break it into 100m then
2 x 50m in my head, aiming to get faster over the 50s. I think our entry time
of 10 minutes was a guess and we come in at 11 minutes, but it’s enough to get
gold and my section of 200m is a personal best.
I met Buck and Wolfgang in Amsterdam earlier in the year. They live and swim in Berlin, though Buck is a New Yorker. He’s sent me links to sign up for the Macey’s Pride Party (they have one every year) – yes, a party in a department store. I join a huge queue snaking around and though the merchandise in the menswear department. Marcel approaches and I suggest he joins me in the queue but he’s not sure he wants to be here, opting for the IGLA happy hour drinks. We’re in line to collect our rainbow wrist tags and two free drinks vouchers.
There’s a cramped ‘main stage’ obstructed by pillars and sales tables. The guests crowd around holding phones up to film winners and runners up from the ‘Rue Paul Drag Race’ – a tv reality show to find the best amateur drag artistes. Nothing much here is pushing my buttons so I go up to the 9th floor after queuing for my first drink. I ask for a Gin and Tonic and get the largest and strongest mix of Ballantynes Gin ever. Until the ice melts, it’s almost impossible to drink. It might just as well be a martini.
Nothing is happening on the 9th floor and I get lost in the strangely deserted Ladies Lingerie department – a scenario for a horror movie suggests itself – nothing like that happens in Macey’s I tell myself – but remember Stepford. On the 9th floor, chairs have been arranged for what looks like a platform for corporate speeches. The plastic drinks glasses are half the size here – time to return to the 2nd floor for my second drink and where I run into Wolfgang. It’s much more fun observing this marketing show with someone else.
We look at some Drag boys being photographed with disabled and elderly women who may of may not be lesbians; there’s a mini live cinema with iconic gay songs and a long queue. A couple of hunks are playing games -getting guests to throw soft bags into a rainbow hole and a sparkling woman on stilts just passes by.
Time to meet up with Buck and walk ten blocks downtown to a
Thai Restaurant. The signs that New York is welcoming pride are everywhere.
This is not Trump land and like London, New York is another country. Many of these
guys quietly reveal that they are not fans of Donald – there’s no hysteria,
just a reserve which I find refreshing. Our party of older men seems to grow –
there’s good food, conversation and laughter.