Rome and New York
This is a long overdue post, and I have been meaning to pen down (though the expression has become a bit of an anachronism) some of my thoughts about both places.
When I first entered Rome, after about a 20 minute drive on a rather rainy April Sunday morning, I was quite overwhelmed. The entry to the city is through between the ramparts of a wall built (I later read) sometime in the 3rd Century AD, apparently under the reign of the emperor Aurelian. So it didn't take long to get to grips with the fact that the city was going to be a paradise for a sucker for history.
Fortunately for me, my rooms in the city were located at a short distance away from the old Roman Forum. The city is a complete treasure trove of evidences of times gone by, of a city which was in its heyday the HQ of a superpower.
The imperial forum is littered with ruins with names like 'The Temple of Saturn' and 'Palatine Hill' - names which for many us conjure up scenes of 1950's Hollywood movies made in Technicolor, with actors like Richard Burton or Robert Taylor making their entry in purple dresses and metal miniskirts. But here it was - the reality - which was much grittier, where the foundations of important buildings in close proximity bore witness to the ongoing competition between succeeding rulers.
The market built during Hardian's time is still magnificently preserved, and it's a chilling feeling to know that the same roads in the market were used by common Roman plebians two millenia ago.
The highlight of old Rome was of course the Colloseum. It's one of those monuments to human achievement which have to be seen to be experienced. It's remarkable how well preserved the structure is, considering that it's estimated date of inauguration was sometime in 80 AD.
My visit was just long enough to include a trip to the Vatican, which was like walking into a treasure chest. Masterpieces from folks like Michelangelo, Boticelli and Rafael glare down at you from all corners, and it's crazy to think about the amount of talent which was housed in the region during the Renaissance years.
In some respects, a visit to Rome is like an earlier visit I made to the city of Angkor Thom. Both these places once housed ruling powers far in advance of their times, which made them undisputed superpowers. Just reading about the aqueducts of Rome, which was used to transport water to the city from tens of kilometers away is enough to make one dizzy. The perfection of the architecture of the Pantheon (built more than a thousand years before the Taj Mahal) leaves one open mouthed in wonder.
I came across some CGI recreations of what Rome would have looked like during the time of Julius Caesar, but something tells me all of it was very lame. I don't think we can begin to imagine the sophistication and grandeur of the city as it existed then. Someone interestingly described the erstwhile Roman Forum to be something like a cross between the powerhouse feel of today's Washington and the seediness of Times Square in the 1980's.
Besides the historical aspect of the city, Rome is a delightful place to be in. Lovely weather, warm people and the general laid back feel of Goa. Everything about the place is a bit lyrical, starting from the language, to the names to people and places, to the Tiber flowing between narrow roads playing host to thousands of manic drivers.
For me, the city will be a reminder to the impermanence of power. I wonder what the Ceasars would think of the idea of Bangladeshi trinket sellers wandering around selling replicas of the Colloseum and Pantheon, or the numerous Asian tourists wandering around what used to be their temples. Most of all, I wonder what they would make of the Colloseum, which for a long time was where thousands were entertained by watching 'heretical' Christians being impaled, burned and eaten by animals - and is now under the ownership of the Catholic Church !!
My trip to New York, was in many ways like a trip what a common trader in the 2nd Century AD would have made to Rome. I was, in effect, trading in knowledge, and New York is - by far - the most powerful city the world today !
The trip from JFK airport into the city, is quite uneventful, as most of the ride is through the residential areas of the borough of Queens. Mid and Lower Manhattan can, in many ways be likened to the old Roman Forum. Both are littered with temples of their time. Rome had its temples to Juno, Vesta and Saturn, which served both religious and powerful political purposes - and New York has its own temples to Chrysler, JP Morgan, AT&T and Rockefeller.
The City (as I have heard most locals refer to it) is definitely infused with an overdose of 'life'. There are people everywhere - and not in the sense of being everywhere like in Bombay. Here, the people visible are often always moving with purpose. I am acutely aware that I did not get a chance to move around other areas of the City like Harlem and parts of Brooklyn - else I would have more comparisons of New York City to Rome - especially the areas of ancient Rome near the Aventine Hill. Two things are certain - I have never been in a city where I have heard so many languages being spoken on the streets, and I have never been on a train system which is as interesting. Just like in Bombay, one has to take a few rides on the New York subway on a working day to feel the pulse of the city. There's no easier way to see the different residents to this amazing place - from the iPad carrying I-banker to the weathered African American lady with her bag of groceries headed uptown - than to take a ride on one of the 24 hour lines of the subway.
The amount of hard work and determination which has gone into building this megapolis is experienced nowhere better than by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge - a marvel of engineering and innovation. Pretty much what New York is all about.
When we remind ourselves that even today the highest building in Bangalore is the 24 floor Public Utility building, and that New Yorkers had finished constructing the Empire State building in 1931, it speaks volumes about the grit, innovation and hard work of the people on that tiny island.
If there's just one thing one were to say about New York which leaves a mark (other than the skyscrapers) - it has to be the food. It's the best variety and I daresay the best priced food in the western world today.
While I was flying out of the city and looked back at it for a last time - the thought that (predictably) crossed my mind was what would happen to this place in about a thousand years from now. Would we have tourists from Africa, China and India walking through the rubble of what used to be 5th Avenue, and walk over to see the insides of the Waldorf Astoria ... a place which played host to the 'kings' of the times ?