Holding conference attendees captive in an inaccessible hotel 15 km from city centre is a good way to optimise attendance; Monday and Tuesday I spent the longest consecutive duration at any conference i have ever attended: 07:30 to 17:00 each day. No options for a quick nap in my room, no access to the hotel pool, it’s inviting sparkling blue water under the warm sunshine. It consumed my stamina. Heading straight to Tuesday’s private Vatican tour from the conference, without a break, a shower, a change of clothes or any food left me hangry, with a headache and grumbling stomach. Today I slept in, and we checked out; we needed to get to Naples, then Sorrento as Thursday we have booked a driver and private tour in Herculaneum, Vesuvius and Pompeii tomorrow as a day trip before flying home on the weekend. We’ve packed as much as we could into this week and it’s paid off. This morning we saw the Pope! (From about 500 m away, behind a massive crowd and heavily guarded by all sorts of fancy dress policeman and guards.)
I live Tweeted some of the talks at the conference; the presenters that managed to consider giving take-home messages or that could summarise their research findings into a single sentence. Most presenters raced through their 5 minute or 20 minute presentations and there was a wide range of quality: the famous named authors who present at every conference and head up national or international group work gave presentations that were slick, and sold their data. Like good salespeople they glossed over or omitted negative findings or information that would make you question the generalisability of their findings to your own patient population. Then there were the presenters that showed data that didn’t quite make sense, made no sense, or completely missed the point. Although English was the conference language the variation in heavy accents made for some awkward question times, when neither presenter or question-asker could quite understand each other and answered something different to what was asked. If only people had bothered to skim read the abstracts before the presentations, half the questions asked would have been answered.
I wasn’t too interested in sight-seeing after we’d traipsed to the Colosseum Sunday evening on arrival in Rome; it was crawling with tourists and reminiscent of Niagara Falls and the Mona Lisa: something so famous that your expectations are unrealistic and, with absolutely no physical or mental personal space (I am so sick of unsolicited marketing on the street when I’m trying to walk quietly along and savour the sights and smells and sounds) I quickly realised that Rome was not going to be a city that I enjoyed. It is too crowded. It’s like Times Square in New York, but in Italian with fewer Disney characters. Similarly the Spanish Steps was an incline of occasional white stone underneath heaving mobs of tourists. Walking through Rome you are either recoiling from being bumped into a possible pick-pocket, or getting bumped into by another tourist who is bumbling along like a hydrogen atom in Brownian motion. Is it wrong to wish all human have magnetic implants at birth and roads magnetised so that you can only walk in aligned directions, on one side of the path?
I restructured my expectations from a Parisian experience of gasping in awe at famous buildings, occasionally twirling around like Maria in, The Sound of Music, to focus on enjoying the conference and socialising. Another Perth radiologist, Narelle, was also at the conference, and her hotel was 1.9 km South of ours, next to the Piazza Navona. On Monday, after a shower and face-planting on the bed, burying my face in the pillow, trying to overcome the intense car-sickness I experienced on our hotel car rollercoaster drive back to the city (the bumpy roads and break-neck start-stop driving, sometimes stopping at the other side of a red light intersection zebra crossing) we met Narelle at the Pantheon, just after it closed. We walked past the fountains in the Piazza Navona to find food, first antipasto platters at a place ranked #3 in Rome on TripAdvisor. I’ve found with TripAdvisor the ranking only means favoured among travellers who happened to review the place on their way through; it is probably a nonchalant small place and not actually the finest dining but benefiting from having cornered a virtual market. The platters were good though. We found somewhere else for mains, I had spotted the scruffy and very attractive (to me, not Dan) waiter, so spent the meal day dreaming, as charmed every table. We walked home via the Trevi Fountain, hoping that 11 pm it would be quiet but it wasn’t.
The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel were an experience worth doing once in your life. Especially as I’d studied some of Michelangelo’s works in High School and it’s the cover of the History of Art book I was presented with at the end of the Special Art course I had spent 5 years doing. The Chapel ceiling is three times higher than I had expected and much, larger. No wonder it took 4 years to paint! As the conference organisers had arranged a private tour we were permitted to take photos, just no flash, in the Sistine Chapel and I gaped as I realised I was recognising several components of the composition. Full of tourists the buildings are stuffy and hot. You’d think hundreds of years ago they could have envisaged a sacred place would become a tourist attraction and build space for air conditioning and other luxuries not yet invented, like electricity and WiFi. 33 000 tourists a day are going through their doors this month.
Before leaving Rome this morning we caught the train to St Peters Square, next to the Vatican, as Dan wanted to take photos. As soon as you leave the underground train station and step foot on the street you are verbally pounced on by unsolicited private tour marketers. “Hello!” “Good morning!” “The church is closed!” “The Vatican is THAT way!” Daniel, for some reason, felt socially obliged to reply when spoken to, and kept stopping, to explain that we didn’t want to see the Vatican, did not care a church was closed, and were only headed to the square. I ignored everybody. I just wanted to enjoy walking on the street, in the sun, looking at buildings without having to engage my brain that was still processing information on yesterday’s talk about whether it’s better to offer a diagnostic test with maximum sensitivity for abnormally invasive placenta, or whether false positives are also important and balancing specificity worth consideration. Other tourists, fed up, would yell back, “We’ve ALREADY SEEN the Vatican!” Daniel felt bad for the pedlars; they were asking politely. I argued that bombarding tourists trying to walk along the road was impolite and we continued to walk in a moderately tense line between amicable and animosity. We’ve been on holiday for almost two weeks and surprisingly have only had one, maybe two episodes of completely not talking. I don’t filter my emotions and vent immediately, but Daniel will quietly fume for days before communicating his displeasure about something I’ve long since forgot, so usually apologise about because it’s more important to be happy than right.
So today we saw the Pope. From about 500 m away, behind a massive crowd and heavily guarded by all sorts of fancy dress policeman and guards. I felt nothing, unlike the very happy flag-waving people in front of us. I’m not Catholic. Apparently the Pope is. I still recall the confusion the first time somebody asked me, out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation when I’d asked a question and they replied, obfuscating, “Is the Pope Catholic!?” How the hell would I know? I’m not Catholic! What does the Pope have to do with what we were talking about? Is it relevant if he is Catholic or not? Why are you asking me? I think we’ve seen a play about a Pope, with Suchet. It was a good play.
I’m glad we came to Rome. I’ll have to finish reading relevant abstracts on the flights home, and wait for webcasts of presentations I couldn’t make (everything I really wanted to see was on at the same time).