ONCE, in Jersalem, Aldous Huxley had a guide who spoke English fluently, but with a strange quirk involving the word "usually." For example: "This area...was usually destroyed by the Samaritans in the year 529." Or, "In the year of our Lord 1916, the Turkish government usually massacred approximately 750,000 Armenians."
Huxley saw in this odd usage the truth about human endeavor: "Usually destroyed and then usually rebuilt, in order, of course, to be destroyed again and then rebuilt . . . (ad infinitum)."
Local guides are not always the source of truths--eternal or ordinary. At best, they are quaint-spoken or accidentally funny; at worst they are interchangeable with pre-recorded tapes. They are long on rote and short on insight; their English is often broken, along with their microphones; their routine is old. Mark Twain called them "the people that make life a burthen to the tourist. Their tongues are never still.
"They interrupt every dream, every pleasant train of thought," he complained; ". . . many a man has wished in his heart he could do without his guide." He would say the same today.
And yet how often do we forget the monuments sooner than we forget the guides--those inescapable chatterboxes that come with every economy tour to every major city.
In Kyoto, I walked across the famous "nightingale" floor in the Nijo castle of the Shoguns--and heard the floorboards twitter, the way they have for centuries, to warn of an intruder's approach. But equally memorable are the words of our guide introducing us to Kyoto:
"Good morning. I am sorry today is a very clouded day, but there are many beauties here in Kyoto: livers, mountains, and very excellent architecture, designated as cultural importances."
Similarly, when I think of Rome, it isn't so much the Coliseum I remember as Massimo, the guide, standing in its shadow and saying, "Some directors should read facts before they make their movies. It is a little bit wrong that Christians were killed by Nero in the Coliseum. Nero did not kill Christians in the Coliseum for the simple reason that he died three years before it was completed."
I can see him taking off his Latin American dictator's sunglasses as he concludes his terse lecture, waving them about expansively and saying, "Look around, look around." He could have been in his own garden. "Usa your imagination."
This was Massimo's favorite phrase. It served many purposes: to break up dull moments in the tour; to exhort us dullards to rise above mere facts; to answer the thorny questions.
"What happened here, Massimo?"
"Usa your imagination."
"When was this built?"
"Usa your imagination."
We couldn't take our eyes off Massimo. Not only was he slim, dark, handsome, and stylishly turned out in dove-gray leather that fit like a glove (in fact, I think it was a glove), he was our beacon in the rough sea of Italian traffic. And when one of us, a loser at the game of chicken, suddenly stopped in the middle of the street to defer to a murderous car, he exploded. "Don't stop! Don't stop! You confusa the driver."
In the Sistine Chapel, unawed by the giants of the Renaissance, Massimo rated them briskly: "Michelangelo, he was a pretty good painter; maybe not first-class, but pretty good." In the church of St. Pietro in Vincoli, he led us to Michelangelo's "Moses," and duly went through the usual points of interest: the horns on Moses' head, the stupendous beard. Then came a legend. The story went, he said, that by the time Michelangelo was close to completing his "Moses," he spent hours talking to it.
Massimo allowed us a few minutes of contemplation, then broke the silence. "Artists and geniuses are a little crazy, no?" He tapped his head and grinned.
He had a marvelous knack for reducing the sacred to the profane. Standing before Botticelli's "Youth of Moses" fresco in the Sistine Chapel, he singled out the long-haired daughters of Jethro for comment: "Here . . . Botticelli, you see . . . he could paint women, ah?" He gave the tips of his fingers the old connoisseur's kiss.
Later that day, a young woman in our group revealed that Massimo had asked her out. A chorus of female voices rose in protest:
"He asked you out? He asked me out, too."
"Can you believe it?"
"Imagine if we all said yes."
"Chutzpah. That's the word."
"And I was thinking I might accept. Just for the hell of it. What could happen?"
We were sorry to leave Massimo (no doubt still searching for love among the ruins), but on our next stretch--a day in Assisi--we were blessed with a new guide that could, at first glance, have passed for Massimo's sister.
Marcella was also slim and elegantly dressed. But her smile was sweeter than Massimo's. And her mustache darker. Also, she was more tolerant of myths. ("So this is the crucifix that spoke to St. Francis. I'm not saying it's a miracle, but I'm not saying it's not a miracle . . . you can believe what you want.") Her beatific smile suggested that she herself was no doubter.
In the Upper Church of St. Francesco, home of one of the largest and most fascinating Italian fresco cycles of the Middle Ages, we were allowed only a cursory look. Marcella had greater things in store for us--in the Basilica of St. Chiara. There, in a dark alcove, an ancient nun lurked behind the grillwork that separated the tourists from an assortment of relics (including some of Saint Francis of Assisi's personal effects).
After a whispered exchange with the nun, Marcella announced that the Reverend Mother was ordinarily under the vow of silence, but on this occasion would be willing to say a few words explaining the relics on display.
The old nun summoned us from behind her shroud. "Americans? Come close!" We crowded behind the grill like monkeys straining against a cage, eager to catch every word. Someone exhaled one of those periodic "shushes" that keep down the din in Italian churches.
The nun turned and pointed to a threadbare robe displayed in a boxframe behind her. "Dress of Clara," she said, referring to the saint for whom the basilica was named.
She pointed to a pair of ancient shoes. "Shoes of Francis."
She pointed to a nest of human hair. "Hair of Clara."
Lastly, she pointed to a small chest. "Bones of Francis."
And that was all.
A few minutes later, when we descended into the crypt, I was staggered to see that our laconic guide had beaten us there and was already shuffling holy picture cards and counting lira.
But the real shock lay in the gloom beyond. There, swaddled in a nun's habit, was Clara herself, miraculously mummified, laid out on an embroidered pillow and mattress--in a gilt casket that would surpass a funeral director's wildest dream.
Mark Twain would have liked that setting. In "The Innocents Abroad," he and his friends confound their guide in Genoa by behaving like wooden Indians as he shows them artifact after artifact. The guide rushes around trying to find one curiosity that might excite them. Finally, he comes up with a mummy.
"See, genteelmen! Mummy! Mummy!"
The Americans are impassive.
"Ah . . . what did I understand you to say the gentleman's name was?"
"Name? He got no name! Mummy! 'Gyptian mummy!"
"Yes, yes. Born here? . . . How calm he is--how self-possessed. Is, ah--is he dead?"
Clara unquestionably was.
And though shown to her best advantage--from the gossamer veil over her face to the white socks on her feet--she was clearly the stuff of nightmares.
But not for Marcella, apparently.
Our guide was simply beaming as she turned to us and whispered, "Her body was found uncorrupted."