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Revisting Rome

by Rich Holeton

for Marge, Carol, Bobbie, and Bert

As you know, Dad died on May 3, 1962 at the Hotel Pace Elvezia in Rome. My little pilgrimmage to the scene took place in July, 2005, near the end of my three-week trip to Europe with Roni, Rachel (18) and Miranda (almost 15).

A quick review of their 1962 itinerary shows that Mom and Dad were in the first week of a planned 5-plus week trip taking them (after Rome) to Florence, Venice, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and England.

They had been to Paris for four days before arriving in Rome on May 2. The story as I recall is that Dad already wasn't feeling very well in Paris.


A meticulous documentarian (as we've learned), Mom chronicled the events of May 3 nearly minute by minute. She even sketched the airplane in which she flew home on May 4. Her notes, with their matter-of-fact account, offer perhaps the most heartbreaking description of what happened that day:
may3 may3

I'll admit I was pretty anxious about seeing the hotel. I'd managed two previous trips to Rome without tracking down the Pace Elvezia. In November, 1973, I visited Rome for a week with a group of 45 Stanford students on a group field trip from our overseas campus in Tours, France.The closest I came to the Pace Elvezia on this trip was the top of Palatine Hill in the Roman Forum—from which, unbeknownst to me at the time, the rooftop of the hotel is visible.

Along with three fellow student partiers, I'd been up all night drinking and engaging in what we exaggeratedly called our "Roman Orgy." The best way to cap it off, we'd decided at 5 a.m. or so, was to watch the sun rise over Rome from the top of the Palantine Hill.

We managed to clamber over a fence or two with our champagne bottles and hastily-assembled breakfast of cheese and rolls, and indeed enjoyed a lovely picnic with the sunrise until interrupted by two Forum guards. They said that the Forum was closed (which explained, I guess, why we'd had to scale a fence to enter), they asked what the hell were we doing there, and (apparently dissatisfied with our answer) they escorted us—guns drawn—from the premises. I think one of our group spoke Italian, but it didn't seem to help much in the circumstances.

Later that morning the entire Stanford-in-France group was blessed by Pope Paul VI at a real live Papal Audience at the Vatican. Thus these two experiences captured—as I did not fully appreciate at the time—the essence of Rome, that is, the tension between the Pagan and the Christian.

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My second trip to Rome was in 1979 as part of a late-20s, post-counterculture, summer-long "grand tour" with my friend Stan. Most memorable was navigating our tiny right-hand-drive Fiat 600 in the narrow and chaotic streets of Rome. This episode also had a distinctly Pagan flavor, with Stan, as a nonreligious Jew, underwhelmed by the Vatican's excess and the ubiquitousness of what he dubbed "Pope shit" (i.e., Vatican souvenirs).





Vatican Virgin Mary and "Popeshit"



In my 1979 diary, I noted that I was looking for signs of Dad, but I had nothing really concrete to drive that search. I do believe I tossed a coin in the Trevi Fountain, which, according to the legend, ensures you will return.

Years later, Roni, Rachel, Miranda and I talked a number of times about going to Europe. All except me wanted to go to Rome.

I resisted ostensibly because I'd been there before and wasn't that fond of Rome, but honestly, in middle age I'd grown superstitious about it: I wanted to first outlive Dad in number of years before returning to the city of his death at 51.



Holeton women overlooking Florence

Ironically it was Mom's death in 2004 that proved the catalyst, so—armed with her notes and bolstered by her cash, at age 52 with my own Rachel graduating from high school—by summer 2005 I had no more excuses to keep Rome off the itinerary.

A Google search revealed that the Pace Elvezia was a short walk from our own hotel, the Albergo Cesari. The Pace Elvezia is right off the Piazza Venezia, location of the huge white Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, the last king of Italy. The Romans understandably hate the monument, for aesthetic more than political reasons, and refer to it as the "Wedding Cake" or the "Typewriter."

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Across the square from the Palazzo San Marco—from whose balcony Mussolini made his famous speeches—the main street curves around to become Via IV Novembre, location of the Pace Elvezia, only a few blocks from the Forum and the Colisseum. I believe Pace Elvezia translates as "house/dwelling of peace."

I approached anxiously, not sure how it would feel to see the hotel. As you can see, the building is beautiful and elegant—it's a 4-star hotel—and the entrance is friendly with its flapping flags.

My vague plan was to try to find and photograph Room 66 (the topmost middle window in the photo).

Because I couldn't know what kind of official reception I would get, I decided to ignore the front desk and head immediately for the elevator. As I crossed the lobby rooms, I was surprised at how light and warm the building felt, in contrast to my longstanding mental image of dark and gloom.

The elevator offered six floors and, reverting to American logic, I pressed "6" for Room 66, forgetting that there is no such correspondence between floors and room numbers in European hotels. By trial and error, I found Room 66 on Floor 4 (the 5th floor in the U.S.), just steps from the elevator.











If I had thought I'd happen upon the room just when the maids were cleaning it—or perhaps even better, when the guests were relaxing with the door open, mixing martinis and inviting me in!—well, neither was the case. The door was closed.

I went down a few floors to Room 21, where Mom had moved after Dad died. Door closed. Time to talk to the front desk.

"Hi, um, my parents stayed here in 1962." I showed the young man Mom's menu from May 3, not telling him it was my dad's last meal. Disarmed, he beamed with excitement at seeing this bit of hotel history and immediately asked to make copies for himself and his colleagues. He introduced himself as "Jack."

"The bad news is, well, my dad died here... they were in Room 66. I was wondering if I might be able to visit Room 66 and take some pictures."

Naturally, the room was occupied, so that wouldn't be possible. How about Room 21? Also occupied.

Jack studied the guest list (quaintly, still on paper instead of computer screen).

"Well... the guests in 66 are departing tomorrow." Could I come back tomorrow, about this same time?


The next afternoon, Roni, Rachel, Miranda and I took a group tour of the Palantine Hill and Forum, which ended about 3:00 pm.

Following that, the ladies had their own little adventure returning to our hotel—their taxi crashed into a Mercedes, the drivers argued and stranded them in the middle of a busy intersection, etc., but they finally made it back with no injuries.

My rendezvous with ally Jack at the Pace Elvezia had equally ambiguous results. I walked about 20 minutes down the Palantine across the Forum and the remaining blocks to the hotel.

As soon as I showed up at the desk, Jack told me he was so sorry, but the new guests had already checked in, before his shift started.

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landing(Top) Looking across the Forum toward the Pace Elvezia; (Bottom) 4th floor landing at the hotel



Breakfast/dining room (top) and
lobby area (bottom) of Pace Elvezia

"I'm so very sorry, I am sympathize to you..." or something like that, he said in his heavily-accented English, looking glum. I almost wanted to cry for his disappointment.

I too was disappointed, as much for the failure of Jack's and my collaboration as for the inability to see the room, about which I was ambivalent from the beginning.

I stubbornly explored all the options: Could we maybe knock on the door and talk to the guests? (No.) Were they Americans, maybe I could talk to them? (No, they were maybe Belgian, he thought.)

Later, as I told the story to Rachel and Miranda, Miranda pointed out that it wouldn't have been a good idea to go to the room and tell the guests why I wanted to see it, since they probably wouldn't want to know that someone had died in their room! As obvious as this seems now, I didn't actually think of it at the time.

Jack, struggling to compensate, offered me guest access to the Pace Elvezia's rooftop garden and its panoramic view of Rome.

Alone on the roof, I cried as I thought that maybe Dad and Mom had been there and seen this view from this spot. Mostly I felt the emotional release of the completion of my mission, a sort of final goodbye and footstep-following.

Just then, a woman and young boy appeared on the rooftop. They were from Edinburgh, and I told them how much Roni and I had loved Edinburgh when we visited in the 1980s.

Hey, I thought, their heavy Scottish accent might just have been mistaken by Jack the Italian desk clerk for Belgian.

"Um, excuse me but you don't happen to be staying in Room 66, do you?"

That would be the perfect ending, indeed!

No, they were on the floor below. "And why do you ask—were you hearing a lot of Scottish from that room?"

"No, no, it's just that my parents stayed there a long time ago..." I left quickly, before I had to explain that I wasn't even a guest in the hotel.



Mom asked all the Italians who helped her on May 3, 1962 to sign the back side of her preserved Pace Elvezia menu; I asked "Jack" the hotel clerk to add his signature in 2005.


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P.S. As a family we had a terrific visit to Rome, my best time there by far. Our trip also included Barcelona, the Spanish Costa Brava, Carcassonne and southern France, and Florence. All were great, but the consensus favorite city on this trip was Rome—the people, the village-like walking streets, the food, the history and sites, and oh yes girls, the shopping too. For other pictures from Rome, go to my flickr page. I will try to get pictures from the rest of our trip uploaded there soon.