ROME, Italy — As I write on actual paper with an actual pencil from The Vatican gift shop, I’m basking in a two-week news blackout. No newspapers, TV, Facebook, Internet or “Daily Show.” I’m as blissfully ignorant of American events as a typical American.
I could read up on what I’ve missed, but I’ll just assume the economy is skyrocketing, bridges are getting built, and people are already talking about next year’s hoops teams. The presidential campaigns are probably focusing on human rights, social justice and environmental sustainability, and “The Hunger Games” was probably a box-office bomb. Oh, and Dick Clark is probably planning the rockingest New Year’s Eve ever. Am I right?
Aw, it was just the hoops one, wasn’t it?
It’s good to take an occasional mental-health break from news and pop culture. I usually go camping, where I abstain not only from news but also bathing, etiquette and sobriety. But this time my wife and I splurged on a trip to Italy, where our daughter is studying Italian art and culture. We also stopped in Madrid for tapas on the way. It’s been a great opportunity to practice our extensive language skills, such as “siesta” and “cappuccino,” and ride exotic forms of transportation, such as trains.
Despite our best efforts, some news has penetrated our infotainment shields. We heard about the Navy jet crash in Virginia, the earthquake off Indonesia, and the sexy shenanigans of Secret Service agents in Colombia. But other than Jennifer Lawrence, whose seductive gaze emanates from every magazine and billboard in Europe, I am blissfully ignorant of everything else American, grazie. Instead, I’ve been catching up on the news of centuries gone by. For instance, in Madrid, I learned that Spain’s love of cured meats stems from the clever Spanish Inquisition-era survival technique of eating ham to trick Inquisitors into thinking one wasn’t Jewish or Muslim, which could keep one’s head atop one’s shoulders.
I also learned that King Alfonso X was largely responsible for creating the cultural art of tapas. He mandated that small portions of food be served with drinks, in order to keep the good Iberians from getting too shit-faced. (That was coincidentally the last time a politician had a good idea.)
I like to try the local delicacies when I travel, so I suspended my personal pork ban and tasted the paper-thin jamón. It was salty and buttery with a flavor somewhere between bacon and ham, and it was delicious — until about 15 minutes later, when I wanted to sandpaper my grease-coated tongue. But if you love ham, Spain is the place for you.
At Madrid’s Prado museum, we saw a stunning array of art, including Rubens’ “Birth of the Milky Way” and Pedro Machuca’s “The Virgin and the Souls of Purgatory,” which prove that breast milk is more than just a nourishing treat for infants. If you have not seen them, I beg you to Google both immediately, just in case you have any notion that “South Park” or “Family Guy” invented hilarious and inappropriate boob art.
Our tour of southern Europe’s most sophomoric art continued at the Musei Vaticani, where we got mooned by the Sistine Chapel (another Googling I highly recommend), and Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, where we were mesmerized by David’s balls, which, like the Sistine ceiling, were lovingly crafted by Michelangelo, who was arguably the greatest Ninja Turtle.
Alas, unlike the Vatican Museum and Florence’s dazzling art scene, which give you an opportunity to appreciate the Church’s intellectual gifts to mankind, St. Peter’s Basilica is for me a horror show of opulence and superstition. It’s hard to imagine that anyone serving the poor and downtrodden could enter that room without vomiting his or her panini all over the marble floor.
Despite my Catholic upbringing, which I both cherish and cope with, I’m always caught off guard by the fact that an institution so steeped in love, sacrifice and intellectualism can also say with a straight face that a remnant of Christ’s cross and the bones of someone called Peter are buried beneath the Basilica’s golden (and marble and bejeweled) arches.
Then again, when you consider that the Roman Emperor Commodus reportedly entertained throngs by riding around the Colosseum hacking the heads off terrified ostriches, I suppose St. Peter’s could, in fact, be worse. (Tip: If you go to the Colosseum and chant “Go Christians! Beat Lions!” be prepared to get some dirty looks.)
But wherever you are, I highly recommend a break from the daily culture grind. It’ll do you good.