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Dear Rudy,

I just heard your request for entries from travel journals. Here's an excerpt I wrote about a visit to Rome:

You can't do Roma without visiting the Vaticano. The sweeping Piazza San Pietro at the head of Via de Conciliazione is the center of the Catholic Church, if not of Roma. The Vaticano, like the church that is centered there, is filled with contradictions.

Visiting this religious center today finds the usual collection of assault weapon-toting Polizi, Cabinierie, and conversing cab drivers amid a sea of souvenir and snack vendors. The modest crowd on this summer morning is backed up along the ancient wall, halfway to the Piazza Pio XII. A young man in a Megadeth t-shirt passes by. "Who would wear a Megadeth t-shirt to visit the Vatican?" I ask my companion. We stumble on, amazed.

An army of young men in nondescript suits weaves through the crowd at the entrance to San Pietro's, enforcing the signs denying entrance to those in shorts, tank tops, and other inappropriate dress. Many are turned back. Others pull sweatshirts, shawls, and sweat pants from knapsacks, clumsily recovering from rejection under the watchful eyes of their censors. Few cathedrals enforce the old rules for appropriate dress these days, but San Pietro is an exception. Still, the kid in the Megadeth t-shirt is waved through while many pious-looking women are rejected. He isn't wearing a tank top.

We swim through the massive entrance hall filled with swirling crowds of tour groups, each led by an ebullient, travel-worn, blond female, guiding her flock into the sanctuary while holding aloft a pink umbrella or other "distinctive" banner. These groups are equal amounts annoying and amusing, and if you are considering joining one, think again. You can easily do better with your own guide book, phrase book, and, if you insist, pink umbrella.

The sanctuary is simply enormous. It's made for humans but nothing is human scale here. Michelangelo's Pieta is to the immediate right. More swirling tour groups. A Japanese tourist passes, jabbering into a cell phone. Decent cell coverage in San Pietro's? I squeeze close enough to look in wonder at tourists squinting at this timelessness through tiny camcorder viewfinders. These folks seem so hooked on television that they must transfer their experience to video before they can experience it. Curious. Another contradiction.




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