John’s son Alex perches in the twisted trunk of the ancient olive tree and leaps for the branch in front of him.
“Nah, that’s not it,” Alex says. He’s going for the perfect swing, the graceful leap from trunk to branch and then onto the ground for a perfect landing. It’s the only thing he’s been excited to do all afternoon, but John knows this moment will end once he gets a good video on his phone he can show his friends.
It’s a clear, hot day as travelers from all over France, probably all over the world, wander the dry, scrubby landscape. The olive trees are miracles in themselves. There are three, planted in 908 AD in Spain and then uprooted and replanted here, in the south of France over a thousand years later. The move has not diminished their strength. As they stoically bear the weight of his son, John wonders how many thousands of young hands have helped to wear those polished branches smooth over the centuries.
But the olive trees are not what they nor the dozens of visitors have come to see this afternoon. It is the Pont du Gard, a three-storeyed Roman aqueduct built in the middle of the first century to carry water from the natural springs near Uzès to the then growing Roman colony of Nimes thirty-one miles away.
After his acrobatics on the olive tree, Alex is forced to climb to the base of the aqueduct with his father where it crosses the Gardon. They argue. John pleads, then threatens. Finally, Alex grudgingly stomps after his father, keeping far behind, kicking and complaining and adding to John’s embarrassment as the gawking American tourist.
History is not Alex’s thing. Nor travel, unless it is to a loud, modern metropolis. In a few hours, the reluctant pre-teen will be holed up in his grandfather’s spare bedroom raging about the poor French internet connection as he tries to log on to his favorite video games with his friends back in the States.
But right now, the two are in the shade of the enormous stone bridge. John marvels at the minds who designed such a thing. It is two-thousand years old and took fifteen years to build, he read before coming here. Five hundred years later, it was still carrying water to Nimes, though only in a trickle since the end of the Roman Empire had left it fallen into disrepair.
John wants Alex to enjoy this moment as much as he is. Maybe even more. But, unlike John, Alex is very comfortable in the modern world. Now and tomorrow is all that is on his mind. Alex can make friends in an instant and throws himself in as the leader in any group he finds.
At his age, John was far away in other times and other worlds. Rome would have been too ordinary for him then. Too real. The young John sought places of pure imagination. Fantasy, science fiction, role-playing games. Any place populated by men and women of virtue he couldn’t find in the world around him.
Why, then, does John feel sad that Alex cannot wonder at the aqueduct as he does? Is it because he wants a companion for his own loneliness, his own disconnection? Does he want to show his son, as no one could show him, that there is comfort to be found in the thoughts and works of people from a distant time and place?
“Let me take a nice picture for mom,” John begs once Alex catches up to him.
But his son is back in the trees. It is cool and shady and Alex has found another tree branch to test. This time John just takes photos, too embarrassed as European tourists pass with their well-behaved children and his son looming over them in the branches.
Even as he snaps his pictures, John can see a sadness behind Alex’s frustration and angst at having to be here with his family, with his father. John knows it is a sadness he cannot soothe. Like him, Alex cannot bear the quiet and stillness of solitude. He fills the space with the noise of friends and video games just as John did with books, movies, and daydreams when he was a child. And how can John help him, still lost as he is himself in this world?
Between eight hundred and a thousand men worked to build the Pont du Gard, carving and carrying the large blocks of soft, yellow limestone from the nearby quarries. John wonders if they had children. Growing up in the shadow of the rising aqueduct, did the sons of the builders yearn for the streets of Nimes? Or were they dazzled by the lurid promise of Rome and all of its decadent splendor?
John knows that it’s natural for children to outgrow their parents. To seek independence and separation. But he wonders when he began to lose Alex. When Alex was very young, his father was the world to him. The two had never spent a day apart. When, at the age of seven, Alex learned that his father was traveling to Lithuania to visit distant cousins Alex’s grandmother had discovered, Alex told John he could not go. John had anticipated this and told Alex months ahead of time, but his sone still refused.
Eventually, Alex accepted the inevitability of the trip. While there were no tears at the airport, John felt like he was abandoning Alex. As if, without him, he would have no one else to comfort and protect him in the world. That was ridiculous, of course. Alex’s mother doted on her son and helped structure his daily life and plan for the future. By contrast, John felt that it was his job to make Alex feel heard. Understood. Seen. All of the things he lacked from the adults in his life when he was Alex’s age.
The blue strip of the Gardon sparkles beneath the Pont du Gard stretching into gentle curving valleys on either side. A few bathers line the banks, lazily stepping in and out of the cold waters. Two thousand years ago the river would have been a balm to the builders. Perhaps their children climbed the hills while their fathers worked, and then joined them in the river as the men washed the day’s dust from their bodies.
Having exhausted what there was to see and do and unable to put off Alex’s protests any longer, they decide it is time to leave. This moment, imperfect as it is, will soon be gone. John will not see Alex for the rest of the evening except for the hour or so he could be coaxed from his computer by the promise of dinner.
As they drive the winding road back to Uzès, the Pont du Gard grows dim and distant, just as the memory of the day. But in the dry and yellow banks that run along the sparkling river in the shade of that vast and marvelous work, something of them remains, lain down layer upon layer by countless generations, the fleeting joy of a father and son like the distant dream of Rome.