Last week – please excuse my absence – I was with my students in Rome. They were awestruck by the Colosseum, similarly open-mouthed at the sheer enormity of St Peter’s, and then suddenly exhausted by the heat.
My punishing schedule was thwarted. Rome sweltered like the inside of a pizza oven, and crisped up fair English skin nicely. I remembered to treat my head and my nose, but unaccountably forgot my arms.
Thursday afternoon, once we had returned from the Appian Way and the Catacombs, was set aside for shopping, a necessary part of all field trips for the commercially-minded generation below me.
That particular Thursday was not the best time to go shopping; Italy were playing in Euro 2012.
If you wanted to see why the Italian economy is in trouble, then here was the evidence. At 5.30pm, in the country’s capital, the only thing in motion was the flicker of TV screens.
I wandered past a barber’s shop not far from the railway station; inside there were four men in chairs, and four hairdressers poised above them with scissors. The men were not moving, and neither were the scissors. All attention was on Italy v Croatia. Doubtless it was exactly the same in Zagreb.
I stopped at a cafe to buy a bottle of grappa to take home, and was standing at the till just as the Italians scored.
“Pirlo!” shouted the cashier to me, and proposed a hug. The chef charged out of the kitchen, and did a circuit of the bar, shouting “Si! Si! Goooooal !” One joyous word is the same in every language.
I might have had that grappa for nothing; the cashier was happy to give me anything. I was happy that he was happy. It was good to be a Roman.
But, as Edward Gibbon pointed out two centuries ago, the Roman Empire fell.
Barbarian hordes poured through the gates, triumphal arches crumbled, grass grew over the Capitoline, the Croatians equalised.
And at that moment the grim realities of life – temporarily laid aside – came back with a vengeance and Roman shoulders slumped with the weight of expectation. The door to the kitchen remained firmly closed.
* Dr Chris Upton is slapping on the Apres Sun at Newman University College in Birmingham