Friday 18 January 2013

I came, I saw, I found a doctor.

It has been almost a year since I found my doctor here in Rome and since this is an important fact of life - finding a doctor and dealing with medical issues - I thought it was worth a blog post.

Ginevra's office is in a fabulous location: Piazza Santa Maria della Pace, one of the sweetest little squares in central Rome. Very near the Piazza Navona, but don't blame the square for that! Often, after an appointment, I treat myself to a coffee in one of my favourite cafes, in the Bramante Cloister of the church of SM della Pace.

I was referred to my doctor by the nearby pharmacy last winter when I caught a terrible bronchial infection. Ginevra saw me right away and helped a lot. And by a remarkable coincidence, only a few months ago I discovered that one of my dearest friends in Rome, who has connected me with great people (and work) at the news agency ANSA, has been a patient of Ginevra for 20 years!

I mostly see Ginevra for refills on prescriptions. And it is always an interesting experience.

I'm not sure her medical office style is common in Italy and it's quite different from my general practioner in Canada! First, she doesn't appear to take appointments and has no secretary. She keeps daily office hours that are posted outside the building, so patients just show up.

The waiting room is about the size of a large bathroom; only 10 chairs, so it's very cozy. You must greet everyone politely and ask "Chi รจ l'ultima?" or, "who is last?" so you know who you'll follow. (My friend Anne-Marie told me once that an old wag replied to her question: "Who is last? You are!" Not helpful!)

Then, you wait. This is when it can be challenging because very often, a discussion group breaks out and everyone is expected to join in. This means you. Often, it's about fairly easy subjects, weather, viruses, where did you buy your shoes? But it can be stressful practicing Italian in a crowd where the whole room is watching and listening!

On the plus side, Ginevra brings a very personal touch - she seems to have known many of her patients for years, so there are often a lot of "caras" thrown about; and hugs and kisses as patients come and go. 

Anyway, now that I have my tessera sanitaria - my Italian health card - I receive the very complicated-looking prescriptions on a large pink form that looks like the computer printouts of the 1970s. But I don't care; with these, I pay very very little for my prescriptions. An asthma drug that was easily $200 Cdn is 3 euros here. Thank you public health care! And, just to be clear, Italian taxes are withdrawn from each of my paycheques, so I'm living completely cleanly - fiscally speaking!

The farmacia can be a challenge. For reasons that aren't clear to me, it can be very difficult to find my brand of asthma inhaler. Everyone knows its name and everyone seems to be continually out of stock. I often have to hit 5 or 6 different pharmacies to find one that has my Pulmaxan in stock - and next time I need some and return to the same place, they're out and the cycle begins again. This is how I fill my days, waiting in lines and hunting for medication!

Once, for a thrill, I tried the Vatican pharmacy. It's hidden inside the walls of Vatican city but I was allowed in with my pink prescription. I came to regret that. 

What a scene! First, I had to sign in at the Vatican gatehouse, which meant a queue to fill out a form and leave a piece of photo ID to get an entry pass. Once inside the pharmacy there must have been 100 people milling around! There were about 6 pharmacist serving Vatican staff, but only 1 pharmacist for non-staff, like me. And apparently everyone else. I drew the number 72 while they were serving number 6. 

I lost heart and left.

Friday 11 January 2013

The secret cult of Mithras

I recently had the chance to tour one of ancient Rome's best-kept secrets: the city's largest temple to the cult of Mithraism.

Located beneath the Baths of Caracalla, where each summer thousands gather for some of Italy's most popular outdoor opera performances, the temple to the god Mithras was only recently opened to the public.

What makes this discovery especially interesting for amateur historians and professionals alike is its large size and the fact it includes an ancient pit where a very secret ritual blood-bath of the most faithful worshippers occurred.

"This provides another piece in the puzzle of understanding," the mysterious cult of Mithras, says my friend and tour guide Laura, who teaches Latin and Greek in Rome.

Although the Italian capital is dotted with smaller temples that each tell a piece of the Mithras story and how the cult operated, this latest example is the largest and contributes a great deal more to understanding, Laura says.

She says that in Rome, it is only in this monument where we find this 'fossa sanguinis', or blood pit, used to initiate members of the cult, which was highly popular among Rome's elite and later, among soldiers. 

Initiates aiming to eventually rise through the seven levels of the cult would be lowered into the square pit, measuring about two-and-a half metres deep, and showered with the blood of a bull sacrificed for the ritual.

"It's so evocative to go down into these places because there, you can imagine the faithful performing their rituals," says Laura.

Other Mithraic temples, including a popular example beneath the church of San Clemente near Rome's Colosseum, provide different clues such as frescoes that tell the story of Mithras being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god of the Sun. 

Mithraism likely came to Rome in the first century AD and survived publicly until the end of the 4th century, when it was outlawed by the Christian emperor Theodosius. 

But little is reliably known about the cult because it was so secretive. Most information comes from early Christian sources who had their own axe to grind about the Mithras cult and therefore, controversy and disagreement surrounds almost everything that is said about it.

The highly secretive nature of Mithraism also explains why its temples were usually located underground. Later, when it was outlawed, Christian churches co-opted many of the old religion's practices - and places of worship - to ease the transition for the public, says Caci.

"It is not an accident that churches are usually built right over a Mithraeum."

Besides the blood pit, this temple at Caracalla includes long stone benches where the faithful would sit, and the remains of a fresco of Mithras himself, usually pictured as a young man in a red cap.

This Mithraeum was discovered 100 years ago amidst a network of tunnels running beneath the Baths of Caracalla, which was constructed between AD 212 and 216 and are thought by many scholars to be Rome's most elaborate.