Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Entry #20

June 22nd, 2009 by Wordsman


“Ah, finally!” Jack declared as he walked through the columns into the open, circular area.  “Now we’re in Rome!”

“No,” said Matthew, who was following behind him cautiously, keeping his eyes peeled for potential pickpockets.  “This is St. Peter’s Square.  We’re still in Vatican City.  Remember St. Peter’s Basilica, the one we were just inside a minute ago?  The one that’s right over there?” he added, pointing.

Jack frowned.  “Yeah, but I thought that was Vatican City.”

Matthew might have thrown up his hands in disgust if they weren’t deep in his pockets, tightly clasped around his wallet and other valuables.  “You can’t have a whole city contained entirely in one church.  Vatican City is small, but it’s not that small.”

“Oh,” said Jack.  “Well, I guess this is nice too.  What did you say it was called?  St. Peter’s Square?”  He suddenly snapped his fingers.  “Of course!  St. Peter’s Square!  Now I remember!”

Matthew braced himself.  “Remember what?” he asked hesitantly.

“St. Peter’s Square is where what’s-his-name . . . Mike Redmond landed his plane!  You know, back in World War II.  Boy, he sure showed Mussolini a thing or two!”

“That’s true,” Matthew replied, grimacing.  Then he added under his breath, “If you replace ‘St. Peter’s Square’ with ‘Red Square,’ ‘Mike Redmond’ with ‘Mathias Rust,’ and ‘World War II’ with ‘The Cold War.’”  He could have admonished Jack with these facts, but he was honestly impressed that his friend had managed to correctly match World War II with Mussolini, so he stayed quiet.  Instead he tried to figure out how Jack had made the mistake.  Had “St. Peter’s” caused him to think of “St. Petersburg,” which he had then gotten confused with Moscow?  Or were all famous squares the same in his head?  Matthew wondered if in a few minutes his friend would be telling him the story of the guy who stood up to that tank.

“Just imagine it,” Jack went on, staring at the sky and presumably still thinking about the plane.  “It can’t have been an easy landing.  I mean, this place isn’t very big, and it’s not long and straight like a runway, it’s a circle . . . hey, how come it’s called a square when it’s actually a circle?” he asked, turning back to his portable encyclopedia.

Matthew shrugged, pulling up the sides of his pants.  “It’s a problem of translation, I suppose.  In Italian the name is Piazza San Pietro, so a more geometrically-faithful rendering might be ‘St. Peter’s Plaza.’  We call it St. Peter’s Square for consistency’s sake, because we think that all important gathering places in the middle of big cities should be some kind of square: Times Square, Trafalgar Square . . . Red Square,” he added meaningfully.

“Mistranslation, huh?” said Jack, nodding knowingly.  “Happens all the time.  But to think that it doesn’t even really have anything to do with St. Peter.  ‘The Plaza of Sand and Petroleum’ . . . interesting.”

Matthew stared at him in total incomprehension for a few seconds before he understood the error.  His friend spoke no Italian, and no language other than English, for that matter.  He tended to assume that the definition of any foreign word was the same as the English word that was closest to it, or at least whichever similar-sounding word in his native tongue he was able to think of first.  Matthew considered trying to explain this to Jack, but then he saw the gleam in his friend’s eye.

“But what if it’s not a mistake?” Jack asked, halving his speaking volume but doubling the intensity.  He walked back toward Matthew and threw a conspiratorial arm around his shoulder.  “What if it’s a plot to conceal the fact that there’s oil underneath the ground?  It all makes sense.  That’s where the Church gets all its money, from a secret that they have kept since ancient times: an oil well hidden beneath the so-called ‘St. Peter’s Square’ itself, immediately outside their headquarters of Vatican City!  Or, in Vatican City, I guess.”  Jack did, on occasion, remember the things that his friend attempted to teach him.

“Hey, what’s this thing?” he asked, releasing Matthew and crouching down on the ground, staring at a picture.

“It’s a relief,” Matthew explained, thinking that this new discovery was anything but.  “It’s just for decoration.”

“You mean it looks like it’s just for decoration,” Jack corrected.  “See these lines?  They could be pointing toward a clue!”  He stood and looked around to see where the lines were pointing.  It seemed pretty obvious to Matthew that they were just part of the relief, and also that they were aiming in too many different directions to possibly indicate any one place.

Jack, however, did not see it that way.  “What’s that thing?” he asked, indicating the center of the square, one of the hundreds of spots that the lines could be said to be pointing at.  “It looks like the Washington Monument.  Do you think they stole the idea from us?”

“It’s called an obelisk,” said Matthew, “and they didn’t steal the idea from the United States; they stole it from Egypt.  Probably stole the obelisk, too, for that matter.”

“Egypt, huh?” said Jack, his brain working furiously.  Matthew wished he had kept his mouth shut, for he was sure that his friend was now developing an intercontinental conspiracy theory.  Before he could let Matthew in on the details of the new plot, however, he dashed off to more closely examine its inspiration.

Matthew followed slowly, paying far more attention to the crowds full of possible sneak thieves than to his overexcited friend.  His lack of enthusiasm was mostly relative; he was glad to be in Rome (technically still Vatican City), despite his initial misgivings about the trip, and he agreed with his friend that it was a fascinating place.  But Jack was expecting things that could have come straight from a trashy thriller novel.  Things like that, Matthew knew, just did not happen.

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