Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures – those times when, far from what’s familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can’t wait to tell when you get home.
An Englishman has brought me to the Piazza di Spagna on a dewy mid-September day in Rome. We’re in love. Well, I’m in love: He’s been dead for almost 200 years.
In 1820, poet John Keats came to Rome hoping that the warm climate might cure his ailing health. He settled in a villa beside the Spanish Steps, but died months later of tuberculosis at age 26. In 1906, his home was turned into a museum commemorating the English Romantic poets.
For me, this was no ordinary museum. Outside of embarrassing scratchings in my high school diary, I’ve never been one for poetry. But an innocence in Keats’s affections transfixed me, and he’d become my 19th-century dream man.
Rome is my first stop in a solo backpacking trip through Italy and France. It’s been a draining summer, and the only remedy to my malaise is a Diane Lane-esque rollick in Europe. I’m having a turbulent affair with carbs, but unlike Diane, not a single dark-haired Lothario has offered to restore a Tuscan villa with me.
Now, climbing the stairs to the museum, I notice something I’ve yet to encounter in Rome: quiet. Complete serenity, actually. Dark mahogany shelves line the walls with dusty volumes crammed into every nook. Memorabilia, letters and paintings about the Romantics are scattered throughout. A few elderly couples and scholars pour over the artifacts, enthralled to feel this close to Keats.
As I lean in and squint to make out the faded cursive of a letter, I see him.
He’s carrying a backpack, too, and looks around my age. Bright, curious eyes span the room, and that same nerdy excitement I feel about Keats lurks somewhere there. I pretend to be engrossed in an unintelligible letter as he walks around, fingering this paper and that, taking it all in. He looks at me just as I slam into an antique writing desk. Typical. Every one turns to look.
Mortified, I retreat to Keats’s room overlooking the Spanish Steps. Perfectly preserved, it’s the crown jewel of the museum. Just the sight of the small bed and open window makes it seem as though the poet will breeze in at any moment. It’s deeply moving, and I sit down in an armchair.
Just then, the backpacker enters, and looks straight at me, now frozen. It’s all Keats’s doing, I think, as I stand and leave. People who pine after Romantic poets are rubbish at present-day relationships. I rush down the stairs, my face burning. There’s a banner in the landing advertising the museum, and I fumble around my bag for my camera.
“I can take your picture?” offers a voice behind me.
I swivel around.
“Honestly, I don’t know much about Keats. But what a fascinating man, don’t you think?”
He’s an engineering student from Vienna, visiting Rome for two weeks. Just as I’m starting my trip, his is winding down – he leaves in two days. We talk and talk and make sure every thought, every question counts.
As we step out into the bustling Piazza, we stand quietly, smiling. The rain is heavy, but in that moment, even the downpour is beautiful.
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