‘There’s an English saying that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”,’ Hera remarked, surveying the ruins of the Forum. ‘But it looks as though they started building, and then gave up,’ she continued, gesturing at the stretch of weathered stones punctuated by a scattering of marble columns. Zeus was concentrating on the large ice cream cone with its mix of strawberry, pistachio and chocolate he had chosen from a gelateria at the foot of the Capitoline Hill.
The Father of the Gods and his wife had arrived in the Eternal City from Gibraltar the previous evening on a surprise visit to their Roman cousins, Jupiter and his consort Juno, which they hoped – or, at least, Hera and their children hoped – would end the millennia-long family feud, whose origin none of the Olympians could remember. The New Year’s resolution to repair the celestial damage had been taken in a warm-hearted moment brought about by an excess of festive spirit and the rum-soaked remnants of several Christmas puddings.
But the general enthusiasm for a family reunion had waned as past slights and rivalries were recalled: Artemis’ clash with Diana over whose arrow had brought down a golden stag; the tangling of tridents as Poseidon and Neptune fought over the ownership of a particular pod and Hebe’s arguments with Bacchus and several other cousins over the relative merits of Retsina and Chianti.
The children’s decision was unanimous. Their parents could repair pantheonic bridges on their own and suffer the postural discomforts of an easyJet flight.
The venture had started badly. An argument with a Gibraltar Airport Customs officer who confiscated a small flagon of Ambrosia which, along with sardine and marmalade sandwiches, Hera had prepared should they feel peckish before reaching Gatwick. (They certainly were not going to pay the exorbitant prices of the in-flight menu.) More contretemps in the departure lounge where Zeus was refused entry to the Calpe Suite and its stock of free booze. And his whispered curses soon after take-off, when the growing discomfort of fitting limbs into seats designed for midgets became unbearable, sent a shudder through the Boeing 707, playing havoc with the cockpit instruments and springing the overhead lockers to cascade carry-on cases onto several passengers, including Zeus.
‘This was all a dreadful mistake, we should never have listened to the idiot that suggested it’, he muttered to Hera, who, with the wifely wisdom of many millennia, suppressed the urge to point out that it had been his idea.
The onward light with Emirates was Halcyon, but they arrived in Rome to find porters were on strike at a rain-soaked Leonardo da Vinci Airport, though this hardly mattered – their luggage had been mis-routed to Berlin. Zeus had grumbled throughout their taxi ride into Rome, ignoring the magnificence of the Colosseum and of Hadrian’s Gate with its retinue of pines, ignoring even the sleekly expensive shops of the Via Veneto.
His plaints had continued, despite the five-star luxury of their room and the exciting promise of a well-stocked mini-bar, when Hera decided they should eat in their room.
Fish and chips was not on the menu, he gloomed, as he changed from the constriction of his traveller’s attire to the comfort of his robes. And he sulked as he chomped Spaghetti a la Romana, followed by Pizza Neapolitana and Tiramisu. The missing luggage contained all the presents for the Jupiter family – the fluffy monkeys (which in no way resembled their neighbours atop the Rock), the illustrated plastic place mats, the miniature red telephone kiosks, and the quaint old British post boxes.
‘We can’t go empty-handed’, said Hera.
But this morning the sun was shining and, reunited with their suitcases and presents bundled into a large Moroccan-style carrier bag, the couple had emerged cheerful from the Borghese Gardens hotel, with its view of St Peters’ dome dominating central Rome. But there was a problem – Rome was far bigger than they had expected (‘Apollo should have warned us’, and ‘You should have seen that yesterday’ Zeus grumbled) – for they had assumed that, like their own old home Mount Olympus – or even the new one on the Rock where they had fled from the tide of refugees which had made Greek life a nightmare – that of the lesser gods would be easily found.
Leaving the hotel they had been approached by a young man in a saffron robe and a Hari-Krishna haircut. Could he help them? It would be his pleasure to do so…
Zeus eyed the young man’s robe with something akin to disgust. Robes, he believed, should be a pristine white, though his own was being laundered – the dribbles and droplets of last night’s food and drink offered an unsightly menu of his meal – and today, at Hera’s insistence, he wore a dark blue two-piece suit acquired in a half-price Debenhams’ winter sale.
They were looking for the family Jupiter, but the only address they had was Rome, Hera explained to the young disciple. Ahh, the Jupiter temple in the Forum was their most likely bet – though they would need a taxi to take them there… And thus, 15 minutes later and 30 euros lighter, a Bengali taxi-diver had dropped them amongst the tourist throng at the bottom of the Capitoline Hill.
Looking across the ruins of the Forum, the celestial couple were suddenly engulfed by a group of chattering Japanese with ‘selfie-sticks’ stretched before them like diviners’ rods.
‘What on earth are they doing?’ Zeus rumbled, moving like a matador to dodge a camera-tipped bandillero, and, as he did so, almost losing an eye to another.
‘They’re taking photos of themselves’, Hera told him.
‘We’ll see about that’, said the Father of the Gods, as he dodged yet a third camera. He slipped his hand into his jacket and fingered the mini thunderbolt which had escaped Gibraltar Customs’ electronic scan – and Hera’s eagle eye – as he pocketed it before leaving the hotel.
He resisted the temptation to hurl it into the camera-clicking horde, and, instead, merely squeezed it, immediately emptying the memory cards of 21 assorted Japanese cameras, and causing the malfunction of turnstiles at entrances to the Forum, the Capitoline Museum, and the Church of San Cristobal.
The turnstiles still were out of order when, 20 minutes later and after wading through rivers of tourists, the Olympian couple reached the museum entrance; but, paying 10 euros each, a uniformed commissionaire let them in through a side door which gave onto a wide hall and atrium flanked with marble statues punctuated by man-sized hands and feet of what must once have been titanic figures. They recognised carvings and a bronze model of Jupiter and Juno as well as Mars wrestling with a lion and Neptune rising from a wave of horses, but of the Roman gods themselves there was not a sign.
Zeus stopped a passing curatrix, and, gesturing to the bronze of Jupiter and his consort, asked where the actual living gods were. She looked at him askance, puzzled, and then replied with a smile:
‘Oh, they left Rome seventeen hundred years ago – banished by the Emperor Constantine. Of course, if you want some heavenly-being more up to date, you can try St. Peter’s square. Go on a Sunday’, she laughed and bustled on her way.