January in Rome:
a month in Trastevere
We landed in Rome on January 2, 2004, having decided we need a month in a city every now and then, just to remind ourselves of what it is to be civil and urbane. Where better to attempt such virtues than the Eternal City?
What follows is the e-mails sent home to a group of friends. For photos, click here.
1: Arrival 8: Conversation in Orvieto 15: Cold weather 22: Rain 2. Roman hours 9. City life 16: Speechless 23: Perilli 3. Disorientation 10. We took the bus 17: Guidebooks 24: Bread and breakfast 4. Crowds and colors 11. Roman Martini 18: Money and trees 25: Mozart and starlings 5: Random impressions 12: Jazz in the basement 19: Innocence abroad 26: Finale 6: Alla tavola! 13: Always more 20: Who broke this stuff? 27: Restaurants in Rome 7: Aim Hot 14: How we eat 21: Pickpocket!
Rome, Jan. 3 2004 —
The mood at the airport in San Francisco was a little subdued on New Year's Day. I asked a cop where I could mail some letters, and he was cheerful enough: but when I asked how things were going, he looked a little concerned. So-so, he said. A little tense. And the weather was miserable, gloomy and wet. And there seemed very little traffic.
Next morning we were flying in over the North Sea, blue and calm below us, and the first land we saw was Holland, covered with snow. I'd never seen it so before, or at least I don't recall it if I have. Those my age, who grew up during black and white photography, are immediately thrust back into childhood by snowy vistas; from the air everything is white white white, with black or dark grey lines of railroads and highways, and long shadows, even toward noon, thrown by steeples and lines of bare poplars and elms. The occasional spot of color is always shocking: a John Deere green, or stoplight red, to remind you there is visual excitement as well as fascination.
Then back into the clouds and rain over Belgium and Germany, and only a glimpse through storm-clouds over the Alps, and back into rain for the landing at Rome, and a long wait at the wrong baggage carrousel before finally finding the right one, and the easy train trip to Trastevere and an only slightly less easy taxi trip, patiently explaining the route to the cheerful driver, to our apartment.
We are in the piazza San Egidio. We could be in a village, and I suppose in fact we are: Trastevere is a subset of Rome, a little like the crooked-street area of New York's Greenwich Village, or San Francisco's North Beach. It was dark when we arrived, but the streets were glowing in a soft peach-beige-rose light cast by unseen lamps, the dark cobblestones glistening wet, the air cold but thankfully dry.
We're on the second floor: eighteen steps up to the first, seventeen to the second, all of them stone of course. Our knees will be in good shape by the end of the month, unless we're cripples. The apartment is perfect: the kitchen ample, the sitting room snug and sophisticated; the bed firm but comfortable. The computer works, as you see.
We went out for a few provisions, just in the neighboring street, getting oil and garlic and lettuce and such, and Lindsey whipped up a pasta agliolio, just garlic and oil, and that and a salad was enough, with a bottle of the soft barely spritzy local white wine, to send us to a long winter's nap.
I got up at 8:30 this morning and crept out for a cappuccino and a Herald Tribune for Lindsey and a couple of pastries. The morning is clear and cold and glorious; it's a shame to waste it here typing this. So we're off for our first morning, to the Campidoglio I think, and I'll check in later.
2. Roman hours
Piazza San Egidio, Jan. 4—
A long night and a short one, beginning toward three in the morning when finally we put out the lights, and proceeding by quarter-hours. Along with even prettier hair (though lamentably less curly) and the gimpy knee increasing maturity has brought me heightened jet-lag. There was a time I could cross the continent and the Atlantic with little dislocation; that time is in the past. A week that begins in Barstow and ends in Rome, begins among range-fed Barswetians and ends in a Trastevere trattoria, simply provides too much ponder-provender to accommodate an honest night's sleep.
And then there are the bells. We encountered them on our first trip to Europe, thirty years ago, when we spent a night in a hotel attic conveniently alongside a belfry in Maastricht. Here in Trastevere the bells are somewhat more remote; Santa Maria is a good block away and our walls are thick; but they are easily heard, telling the hours and the quarters. Three deep bells at three o'clock; the same three and a single higher one at quarter past; the three and two higher ones at half past, and so on. Three; four; five; six.
Night thoughts while listening to Mahler. I have not read the book of that title, but I often meditate the thought at night; I think I know what it mean. Of course the Mahler must be the adagietto to the Fifth Symphony, though that is not what I would have chosen, I would alternate between the finale of the Fourth, in the rare cheerful mood, and the opening of the Ninth in my more usual moroseness. This was one of those nights.
Rome is big enough to encourage extremes of mood. Respighi should have written a fourth tone-poem, to introduce his Pines and Fountains and Holidays: a Moods of Rome. (Of course he did, in a way, in his Church Windows, insufficiently performed.) Yesterday the passaggiata, the evening stroll throughout every Italian city, provided a Shakespearian spectacle of young adolescent lovers, strutting actors in the prime of life, aging onlookers, and old men and women helped on by younger attendants. The Roman streets provided, too, what Shakespeare rarely considers: children, laughing, running, gripping parental hands or silly toys, and always taking everything in with that mixture of incredulity and perplexity and inevitability that makes them so reassuring. Life goes on, as Mahler seems at the end unable to remember. He should have listened more to Haydn.
The night is quiet, except for the bells, and it is utterly dark, dark as only an italian bedroom can be, with its thick walls and heavy shutters. I think of these usually as guarding against heat, but it occurs to me they also wall out reality. The night thoughts turn as they always do to mortality — one thinks of Keats consulting his mortality here, in his pink room on the Spanish Steps, and then proving it — and the Italian sick-room, Gianni Schicchi's or Gilda's (I know, it was in Paris, but most successfully described by the same Italian composer); and how these rooms must have held their sleepers safe from malaria, or safer yet for the Black Death.
For God's sake, I can hear dear George say on reading this far — and he would have stayed with it; he was a loyal reader — for God's sake, Charles, cheer up: and I will, and do. This mood is simply an accompaniment to the others, besciamella to the fettucine. But it would be dishonest to hide it, and perhaps it has its utility, sharpening appreciation for the more vivacious aspects of Rome, the flea markets, the crowds, the spritz and sharp tastes that counteract the eternally present eternal.
Venice, a city clearly dying, curiously presents a more lively face than does the Rome of my present mood. Rome, a city clearly alive and powerful, is not so much weighted by its past; it is built on its past, crushes it into not-quite-oblivion by its very weight. But as Venice sinks into mud so Rome presses down into age.
Or so it does, at any rate, while I should be sleeping. It's nearly eight now; time soon to make a pot of coffee for the sleeping Lindsey, my Roman beauty who moves with so much more assurance among these eternities...
San Egidio, January 5—
Our bed here runs east and west, crosswise to convention. (Our convention these days, anyway: at home it is north and south, or nearly so.) Perhaps that is why the house seems backward; or perhaps its simply another result of beginning a week in Barstow, closing it out in Rome.
Barstow backs itself up against a ridge running east and west, like our present bed, and tilting itself a bit resentfully into the desert. It has the entire Mojave Desert to spread out in, but the climate is discouraging, the Mojave River mostly dry.
Romes another matter. It has been both drained and irrigated for twentyfive hundred years; built on a drainage-sewer and watered by aqueducts, like California, but so far with greater success — because it is purely metropolitan, at least now, and needn't concern itself with sustainability; it has the world to sustain it. One wonders if this will last; the world is changing.
Still in bed, still fighting jet-lag, I contemplate the map of Rome in my mind. The Tiber doesn't help. Like the Seine in Paris, the Tiber draws a louche "S" across its city, turning it ninety degrees from what it should be, at least for me: so it's always a surprise to see the sun rising or setting or doing whatever it does in an unexpected direction. I'm a country boy, conditioned by skies open enough to be honest with morning and evening. In the city the light is too generalized; the unemployed have only their appetite to determine time of day, while there's any light at all.
(Getting up for a nocturnal trip to a small room confusingly at the front of the apartment, not the back where the bedroom is, it's somehow fitting that the green blank hour blinks insanely from the oven door, like a videotape player perpetually in need of setting.)
Piazza San Egidio is just north of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the few Romanesque buildings to be found in Rome, a fine brick shed of a church with confusingly Venetian or Byzantine gilded mosaics on its fascia. But the three streets leading out of our piazza seems to me to incline it northeast toward the river, toward the convenient Ponte Sisto footbridge — old and friendly precisely because of its convenience — and the Farnese and Campo de' Fiori beyond.
The river divides the city, in fact. Old Rome thrust up against the Tiber from the east, I don't know why; it must have begun on the island just east of us, and then climbed up the Capitoline hill, the most convenient height for Romulus to build his house on, needing no doubt to be on the lookout for rebellion from within as well as invasion from without. I mentioned the other day that Trastevere, our side of the river, is like Greenwich Village, or North Beach; it is also like the Latin Quarter in Paris, though confusingly on the right bank of the Tiber — not that you can really think of the Tiber as having left and right; political terms are too subtle here for such a generalization.
Though its faucets don't allow it to run quite as free, the bathroom here is like the Tiber: it interrupts the orderly layout of the place. From the staircase hall you step right into the dining-area of the kitchen: bedroom's on the right, at the back of the apartment, with its handy computer desk and bookshelf; bath's on the left, to the left of the little salotto with its couches and television set, at the front of the apartment, and overlooking the piazza.
During the evening passaggiata the piazza is noisy with talk and laughter, and we like that; we've come to a city to be citizens for a month; the enjoyment of public conversation and laughter is a civic obligation. But the apartment has only four windows, one to each room, and they are small windows letting in little light or noise, heightening the sense of dislocation.
Yesterday — Saturday, I mean — we walked up Michelangelo's ramp to the Campidoglio and looked down from the pine-strewn hill across the Forum. The weather was fine and there were plenty of tourists — most of them Italian, and many, I think, Roman, reacquainting themselves with the history and significance of their city. We reconfirmed the existence of cats in the Area Sacra, that otherwise silent and mysterious footprint of temples and latrines from two millennia ago; and we walked through the Campo de' Fiori to pay our respects to Giordano Bruno, a man who was better than his times and therefore persecuted.
It's the first time we've been here in fifteen years, and while the city is immensely cleaner and somewhat more prosperous it remains curiously confused. The Renaissance rebuilt it after a thousand years of neglect and decay; but like so much of Italy it slipped away from the mainstream of history — apart from the Vatican, of course — until quite recently. Italy wasn't a country, after all, until a little over a century ago.
I suppose it was Mussolini who shouldered Rome into a semblance of modernity. (What more modern than fascism, more fascistic than Modernism?) But doing so required yet another Hausmannization, adding better and more open lines of transportation; and this hasn't really been accomplished. I think Rome has a great deal of inertia. Power is aggressive abroad, but stodgy at home.
So Rome remains a jumble of periods, and the amazing thing is that with very few exceptions there is a real sense of ensemble. This rises partly from the generally even color of the buildings by day, the warm lighting by night, and partly from the height limits, which keep out skyscrapers and preserve the low but uneven rooflines of past centuries.
There are exceptions — the Victorian-baroque Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele in particular. Nicknamed The Wedding Cake and The Typewriter (think of an oldfashioned upright manual one), it gleams in lustrous white marble unlike anything around it. I suppose it recalls the Lincoln Monument: and why not? It celebrates the reunification of a great country at about the same time, the late middle 19th century.
We approach it not centrally, from the piazza Venezia, but cornerwise, exploring the little park, again set about with towering but open pines. Seen out the corner of the eye even this monument takes its place, coldly eyeing the distant Vatican like the cooperative enemy it was, rising above the commercial fray of the piazza, yet maintaining an attitude of some modesty, even deference, to the imperial Campidoglio of the Caesars and the Renaissance which, in turn, looks over it.
But then we turn our backs on all this and walk back to Trastevere, a town of people rather than memories or institutions. In the evening, after a nap, its streets are still lit with Christmas ornaments, stars suspended over the pavements, and strings of lights spelling out AUGURI (greetings) — which, seen from behind, becomes the more enigmatic IRUGUA, as if a mythical South American nation were being introduced to the Romans.
Dinner right next door, at La Tana de Noantri — nothing to write home about, so I will: good hot vegetable soup; veal Marsala for Lindsey, penne arrabbiata for me, the tomato sauce thick, hot, and spicy; a side of green beans, a half bottle of Corvo: forty bucks. Cheap, Rome ain't.
And now off to the flea market to shake the moodiness, and onward toward Tuesday's big holiday. Hope you're well and happy!
4. Crowds and colors
S. Egidio, Jan. 5—
Piazza in agonia, that's the etymological derivation of Piazza Navona. Because it was at one time a racetrack where games, in Latin-Greek "agonia," were played, generally with Ben Hur-like chariots and such.
Today, the eve of Epiphany, it was agony simply to walk across the piazza, usually the work of a minute or less, in these circumstances almost impossible. The piazza is set about with market-stalls selling toys, creche equipment, and various forms of inedibles — huge doughnutlike things, cotton candy, hot dogs.
And the crowds. Men women and children, a few dogs, a few strollers (I mean the kind kids ride in, not saunterers, no one is able to saunter in such a scene). Police, undercover agents, pickpockets, tourists, television journalists, pitchmen. And, of course, the Living Statues. This year they run to the Egyptian style; there were two done up like King Tut, and another making a brave attempt at Cleopatra, unless it was Elizabeth Taylor.
(It's a sign of the times that street performers get by with metallic makeup, cheap flashy costumes, and absolute motionlessness. There was a time when they'd have been acrobats, jugglers, dancers. Now there's enough fast motion on the streets in cars, neon signs, and milling crowds; the performers are the more startling for being still.)
In such circumstances, indeed perhaps in all circumstances, it is not normal in Italy to queue up, or alternate turns, or hang back in any way. If you make way for one person, say a little old lady with a plastic bag containing a pound or two of small sharply-pointed objects of some kind, then the next hundred will follow right on her heels. The situation is impossible.
But it is a sight to be seen, and now we have seen it, and checked it off.
We have been here three full days now and our impressions are as overloaded as the Piazza Navona. There is no overriding single impression, unless it is that of variety. There have been really only two constants: our apartment, which is snug and friendly and provides all the comfort we want (except a bathtub, for which there's really no room); and the river Tiber, dividing our quarter from what we generally the Seven Hills. Even the Tiber's not that steady; its quality shifts with the light, from fine and serene to somber and moody.
Yesterday we took a tram tour, after first walking up from our apartment, through the Janiculum park, and across the Vatican (crowded as always). The little streetcar was nearly empty: just us and half a dozen middle-aged Filipino women. It crossed the river and soon reached the Borghese, a fine park housing a number of museums and the city zoo. We crossed it to reach a complacent upper-class residential quarter, and I thought of the streetcar suburbs of Portland, distant suburbs until the automobile came along: the terrain here is rolling, the houses set apart with fine gardens and a number of trees — welcome to us; until now we've seen only the few pines around the Vittorio Emmanuele Typewriter and the lanky sycamores reaching spindly arms way way up to grab at the few remaining crisply dying leaves.
We got off at the Piazza Buenos Aires to explore an amazing quarter, the Coppedé neighborhood, anchored at the piazza by a fine if eccentric church setting the mood for the architectural excess just down the street.
Here there are blocks and blocks of villas built in the 1920s in a style that manages to merge the finest aspects of Art Nouveau with the margins of Cubism and hints of Bauhaus Modernism to come. It sounds stage-set-like, but it isn't: these buildings are well thought through and consistently achieved, and they are set about their narrow, curved, rolling streets with a true sense of ensemble. I suppose the closest American equivalent would be the early Frank Lloyd Wright manner, except that he exaggerates the horizontal, taking up lots of room in the American way, where these buildings are essentially cubical (though their faces much broken and relieved, with both decorative flourishes and functional space-gaining bays and balconies).
We've been conducting a casual comparison of guidebooks: only one, the Cadogan, has much (or anything at all) to say about this quarter. But I would think it an important part of any architectural visit to Rome, because although its period is narrow the quarter is pure and its design is fascinating. We spent a half-hour or so strolling the neighborhood in the twilight, taking photographs, meeting very few people on the streets. Some of the villas are now embassies; two or three seem to be foundation offices; a number are undergoing restoration, perhaps turning into condominiums.
Then back to the streetcar, past the boring Mussolini architecture of the university, a couple of nearby brand-new glass-box buildings (one housing the local Blockbuster videorental); past the Colosseum brooding in the gathering night; past the pathetically majestic pyramid Cestius build for his tomb; past the grass field that is the Circus Maximus.
And then on foot, out of a traffic jam, and across the Tiber again exactly in the heure bleue, the Vatican dome a distant spot of light, the serene silver surface of the river meditating on the bare trees marking it off from the sky hovering in blue velvet.
There were other things — morning in the flea market, beset by gypsies who had to be beat off; conversation with an old lady with a pretty face, pleased that we were pleased with Italy, but mourning its declines in comportment and values; dinner at home, beginning with Lindsey's re-creation of her grandmother's antipasto, a nostalgic blend of tuna, giardiniera, and tomato paste.
And, most of all, the incredible skies and light and colors of the Roman surfaces and edges — stucco, stone, paving; all those things cities are made of, and our usual days lack utterly in the countryside. But this is surely more than enough for one day.
5: Random impressions
S. Egidio, Jan. 7—
Let's see, what have we been doing? Today Rome began to return to normal after its twelve days of Christmas. I suppose: in fact I have no idea what normal is in Rome, never having spent much time here before. The decorations are still hanging over the streets; I haven't been out tonight to see if they're lit. But people are returning to work: I was able to get a haircut this afternoon with no trouble at all. It doesn't take much Italian to be able to say non troppo corte, not too short. Ma anche non troppo lunghe; but not too long, either.
We walked the via Giulia this morning, in a very leisurely manner, looking at everything the DK Guide recommended, and noticing thereby things other visitors apparently missed. We assumed they too were visitors; they stood in corners consulting maps, then looking about as if to get their bearings. But they did not look closely at the arch that spans the narrow street, an arch designed by Michelangelo — the beginning of a project, never pushed further, to span the entire width of the Tiber, on order to connect the Farnese Palace to the Farnesina.
We checked out the frescos and the plaques; the foundation stones and the portals. Like most Roman streets the via Giulia lacks sidewalks, and this part of town hasn't changed much to the casual eye since, say, the Renaissance, if you ignore the traffic, which you'd better not. The buildings are big and blocky and set right against the street and one another, but through their portals you catch glimpses of big interior courtyards and gardens; and you're reminded that the ancient mailboxes had names like Cosmo de' Medici on them.
Except for the churches, of course, and the jails. The New Jail is here, ordered up by a Renaissance pope intent on bringing a measure of humanity to a penal system with a long history of unconcern for human rights. Today the building is no longer a jail, but a government office: according to its plaque, the Office Against Mafiaism.
We stepped up onto the porch of San Giovanni at the end of the Giuilia, and a young Italian boy, sixteen or so, came up to us and asked if we knew of a statue of Giordano Bruno. My first thought was to tell him we were tourists ourselves, that we didn't speak Italian, but immediately I knew how to explain to him that poor Bruno was standing in the middle of the Campo de' Fiori where he had been burned at the stake five hundred years ago, and the boy left in a hurry, whether at my Italian, or the thought of the execution, or in anticipation of some sweet rendezvous, I couldn't say.
We sauntered back along the via Pellegrino which is, oddly, the only street I really remember from the last time we were here, fifteen years ago, when we arrived unexpectedly, and couldn't find a place to stay, and I recalled Therese saying that if you needed a room you should always go to the Campo de' Fiori and ask, you will surely find one there; and we did: I asked in a barbershop if anyone there knew of a room available, and they said Go to the Albergo di Sole, so we did, and found one of the most memorable rooms we've stayed in.
But that was fifteen years ago. We walked this morning past the same barbershop but it was closed. So we bought some potatoes and puntarelli and insalatina in the Capo, just under Bruno's statue, and walked on home for lunch and a cup of tea.
I read a little more in my novel. It's interesting how much more easily you can read Italian in Italy than at home. Of course I understand perhaps half of Moravia's beautifully wrought sentences, but the novel — his first, Gli Indifferenti,— unfolds so easily, so like any number of other narratives of its period (the late 1920s) that the impression is clear, and a few useful words, a very few, stay with me after each reading.
So I was fairly secure when I walked down the via della Scala in pursuit of a haircut. Ah, said the hostess of the salon, I speak English, it is good that I, mmm, repeat it when possible. So we spoke a little of this and a little of the other. I explained that yes I speak a bit of Italian well enough — I always have this explanation ready, the kind Italians are so quick to complement anyone's broken attempt at their language — but that I don't understand it.
How is it possible, she said reasonably enough, that you might speak a language and not understand? Oh yes of course, it is one thing to express...
I explained that my wife understands but does not speak; I speak but do not understand. You should have brought her, she said. Oh no, I replied, she doesn't like to come to parruchieri. She's just like me, the young woman said eagerly, She doesn't like to part with money, oh no, I never do the shops, I hate to buy, it makes me sweet. We looked at one another uncomprehendingly. It makes me sweat, she corrected herself.
Yesterday we walked through the Forum without looking at it. It's best to sneak up on these things, I say. We did pause at the Temple of Portunus, a little square Greek-style temple as close to perfect as these things get; and we admired the Church of St. George, which I must visit one day at the equinox, as it's clear the sun will then shine right through the round window over the front door, bounce off the white marble floor, and illuminate the amazing mosaics in the apse, if that's what it's called.
(But of course perhaps it won't be there again. It was badly damaged by a bomb just ten years ago, and has been painstakingly restored.)
We walked through the Forum and up to the Esquiline to see a huge show of paintings by de Chirico, Carra, and Morandi, with a few others thrown in — a panorama of Metaphysical Modernism. Fascinating the way the familiar Twentieth Century is seen completely differently by other cultures: here in Italy, Willem de Kooning is part of the Metaphysical movement. (I exaggerate: but a fine painting of his was in fact included, as having been influenced by Chirico's sense of futile, neutral, oppressive emptiness.)
We were in the show for over two hours: it was huge. Among the paintings were three or four splendid ones, modern as all get-out, from the national art museum in Tehran. How little we Americans know of the nations of the Middle East! How much more fascinating, even-valued, and alive the world is seen from other than categorical American perspectives!
But it was an exhausting visit, and the walk back took us through very crowded streets, especially around the Trevi Fountain, where a memorably beautiful young woman, say twenty-two or -three, pushed her garbage cart and swept up papers and trash, uncomplainingly aware of a few pair of eyes following every move. We took a cup of gelato — crema and fior di latte for me, thank you, I pursue a rigorous research program — and walked home for dinner (leftovers); then stepped out once more, again across the Ponte Palatino to see the Temple of Portunus under the full moon.
And now I step out once again for another look at the full moon, and so I leave you for another day or two. There are only so many full moons; the Chinese say we get only a thousand. It's best not to let any go by unvisited.
6: Alla tavola!
S. Egidio, Jan. 8—
And what do you eat, some of you are wondering. Well we eat at home; at least so far; at least except for one meal. Today for example I got up and made coffee as usual: we're drinking Lavazza Rosso, a medium-good coffee, I like it better than Illy, but not as well as the delicious coffees we had in Venice.
Rome has two cafes famous for their house brand of coffee: the Caffé San Eustacchio, whose espresso has an absurdly thick and creamy "crema," and is famous for it; and Tazza d'oro. We have tried so far only the first, and I immediately dismissed it from mind. It's a trick. The barista works furtively; there's a sort of metallic curtain surrounding the machine; you can't see what he's up to. The espresso arrives, a little cup perhaps a third full of espresso (as should be the case); floating on it a dense layer of froth, exactly the right cinnamon color and smelling of nothing but espresso. But in the mouth it's clear there's something funny going on. Egg white, I said; Lindsey wasn't so sure — but then how much experience does Lindsey have with egg whites? There could even be a bit of gelatin in it, I think: but Lindsey thinks it's primarily sugar. Could be: there are sugars and sugars. The whole thing reminds me of the phony mystique surrounding Orange Julius, when I was a boy; the secret formula and all that, the refusal to let people know what's going on. And the coffee wasn't all that good.
We'll try Tazza d'Oro one of these days. In the meantime I like Lavazza; it's a huge company, I suppose the Folger's of Italy. But it isn't the Starbucks of Italy: that would be Illy.
Anyway breakfast was a glass of pineapple juice, coffee with hot milk (yes, ultra-pasturized, why not, we just heat it in the microwave anyway), and bread. There's a splendid bakery just down the street: the Panificio Arnese. It was featured in the special issue Gourmet Magazine devoted to Rome, last March; but we found it independently. The women behind the counter are as dry and cold as they come, but the bread, the yellow cornmeal cake, the "brutti ma buoni" are absolutely wonderful. We get the half of a ciabatta: the tall thin angry woman snatches a loaf up out of a basket on the floor, rests one end on a worn table, grabs a knife as if she hated it, and guillotines the loaf, carefully handing us the very slightly smaller of the two halves. We take it home and eat it avidly.
Then we walked down to Santa Cecilia to see the fabulous Cavalini frescos. In reproductions frescos always bore me; they look flat flat flat, like candybox covers. But these, seen in the flesh so to speak, looked like high-resolution color photographs taken in the 13th century. The faces on these angels and apostles were perfectly three-dimensional. Except for their nightgowns and the extravagantly colored feathers of their wings they were people I've been seeing on the street. The sense of immediacy was breathtaking.
In the basement we spent an hour or so in Cecilia's 3rd-century apartments, looking at her root cellar, her collection of broken columns, the holes in the ground where she kept her Roman meal, and (guiltily) her steam-closet, where she was imprisoned for three days as a kind of slow execution, but she did not die, she sang through it all; then was put to the axe, again three times, again almost without result — but she was finally martyred, for having converted her husband Valerian; and now there she is in her church somewhere, which is special to all musicians for she is after all the patron saint of music.
And then up the street to the Piazza S. Cosimato where there is an outdoor market every morning. Here we were immediately accosted by a dark young man carrying plastic bags of garlic, which he was selling for two euros the bag, a euro a head of garlic. Too much, I said, and offered one. We settled on one fifty. He tried to speak English to us, but neither of us could understand a word of it; his Italian was clearer — he was from Bangla Desh, and made his living selling garlic, probably black market garlic. No one seemed to mind.
We bought a couple of chicken breasts, and a slice of Fontina, and a couple of handfuls of Romano beans, and then walked the few blocks home for lunch: bread and coppa and the delicious local white wine, well not all that local, I think it comes from Naples, but it's slightly sparkling and goes down like water and costs about two fifty a bottle.
And then a long walk window-shopping, perhaps four miles altogether, which took us up and down the Corso, and over to the Spanish Steps where we spent twentyfive dollars on two cups of tea, I kid you not; and then back by way of the Pantheon, which will always be the single most amazing building I have ever seen, marred only by the arrogance with which one upstart mystical religion has shouldered out all other gods — to whom after all the most powerful civilization of its time had dedicated the building — and turned it over to only one, and that one a transplant from the Middle East desert. But I digress, and I fulminate.
Back, then, through the darkness, though some of the streets do still have their Christmas lights up, to have an aperitif watching Mr. Powell rededicate himself to the mysterious arsenal of Iraq; and then to cook our dinner:
chicken valdostana: flatten, then salt and pepper the chicken breasts; saute them in olive oil; turn them; spread them with thin slices of Fontina and prosciutto
Romano beans: just rinse them and steam them with a drop or two of oil
green salad: puntarelli and insalatina, dressed at the table with oil and vinegar
And that's all you need to know. Our tea had cost twentyfive dollars, but dinner was about seven fifty, wine included. And now for a bit of chocolate and a tiny bit of Prosecco grappa, as smooth as the travertine sheathing that island in the Tiber.
7. Aim Hot
S. Egidio, Jan. 9—
Street observations — the odd little unexpected things that you notice in spite of yourself. They come back every morning, an hour or two before waking up. This morning it was the perfect valley girl English we heard yesterday, over on the via Veneto. My theory is, female adolescent American English sounds the way it does because of orthodontia. Of course I could be wrong about this: we who grew up in poverty know little about orthodontia; only rich families could afford to straighten their kids' teeth.
But the word "way" comes out something like "waaa-ay," as if she set her mouth to pronounce the first syllable of "apple" but said "way" instead. Anatomy determines expression.
And I think much of Italian must be left-handed; that's why the signs are as they are.
, for example: you see this very often, spelled out in big metal letters hanging down the side of a building.
Bilateral symmetry: there are six capital letters which, like Republicans, don't distinguish between going forward and going backward. A-H-I-M-O-T. Aim hot. Then the alphabet goes crazy; the next five letters are all symmetrical, though they aren't good for much.
In the word
Bthat central "A," symmetrical, anchors the thing, and you don't really mind that "B" and "R" aren't quite symmetrical; they're close enough. HOTEL works out pretty well too; by the time you get to the last two letters you know what's happening.
Why left-handed? Because of Leonardo, who famously wrote backward, as one can easily if one's left-handed, and has been taught to write right-handedly. My father used to be able to write with both hands simultaneously, and the amazing thing was that both hands wrote frontward, as if he were playing the piano. (I've often thought the piano would be a good deal easier to play if the left-hand part of the keyboard were arranged backward, so both hands could finger things the same way. But that's another insane divagation.)
We hear a certain amount of English on the street. Here in Trastevere there are lots of students; and then the American Academy is up the hill — we haven't been there yet, and won't get there today either; for the first time it's raining, and this will be a museum day.
Yesterday at Babington's Tea Room there were Germans on the right of us, a nervous thin dark-haired woman and her husband, big and bearlike, wild brown short-cut but unruly hair, studiously repairing his hearing aid with a small screwdriver. (On the left a table of four Italians, chain-smoking.)
(Babington's, by the way, is at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, is why our tea was ten euros a pot, not a cup: Lindsey reprimands me gently for having given you a false idea yesterday.)
We hear a little bit of Hebrew from time to time, and once I overheard some French. But mostly we hear Italian or, as I like to think, Roman; the sound is a little harsher, less lyrical than the Italian I'm used to from Torino, Milan, or Verona. (Not to mention Venice, where there's another kind of problem.)
Only once have I heard a woman, an older woman, speak Italian through her nose, as they tend to do in Piemonte. Perhaps like me she was from out of town. My own Italian is, as George used to say of his French, lamentable, but I doggedly speak it, and the person I speak to rarely resorts himself to English, partly because in many cases he can't. Italians are quick to compliment one's own bumbling attempt to destroy their lovely lyrical language: Parla bene italiano, they say; you speak it well. Privately they wonder, I'm sure, what the hell it is you intend to say.
I'm reading Moravia. It's amazing how much easier it is to read than to speak: you don't have to remember the words, they're right there on the page for you, printed out forwards, too. If you squint a bit and don't look at the individual words; if you read quickly; then you get the impression you know what it's all about. The newspaper's another matter, of course: colloquial and given to jargon and allusions, and full of acronyms. And these latter are spelled out in lower case, not in capitals as they are in English; so that the UNO (United Nations Organization) becomes Onu, for example. You have to be on your toes.
* * *
A note on yesterday's chicken valdostana. It's incomplete without sage, as I realized when we got home yesterday evening. So I rushed out to the little greengrocer on the piazza: Avete poche foglie di salvia, I asked, do you have a few leaves of sage? Of course, the man smiled, and took a bunch out of the refrigerator. No charge. I fried a few leaves in olive oil, the oil I used later to saute the chicken breasts; you can see the result on the webpage noted below. Chicken valdostana is, we think, one of the Hundred Great Dishes.
And now we're back from lunch, our second meal out — at a trattoria, no, an osteria around the corner, Da Augusto, paper tablecovers, casual in the extreme. The cooks in sweatshirts because their kitchen is so cold. Pots balanced on top of other pots on the stove, improvising a steam table. We had baccala, with side dishes of spinach and roast potatoes, and a half liter of very cheap white wine, the whole thing about twentyfive dollars. At the next table two girls and their mother, all Americans, touring Italy, wondering if they can get citizenship since the mother's father was born in Italy.
Before lunch we sat out the rain in the museum across the street, where there's an exhibition fortuitously concerning Alberto Moravia — newspaper and magazine articles, first editions, typescript and manuscript letters, photos; also paintings from his own collection, very uneven but full of heart. The permanent collection contains dioramas portraying 18th-19th-century Rome; very kitschy and fascinating; and prints and watercolors from the same period. Except for people's clothes, which are now the same the world over, and for the fact that nothing is repaired any more, simply thrown out, and except of course for the damn cars and motorbikes, the streets haven't changed that much. The water still courses down the middle of these narrow cobblestoned streets when it rains. People still sit and drink in doorways, and ogle one another, and smile at the (very) occasional drunk, and squirt water into their mouths from the fountains, even though Lindsey does point out not everyone's hands are clean.
8: Conversation in Orvieto
S Egidio, Jan. 12—
We spent the weekend in Orivieto, after all my ranting about not leaving Rome for a moment. The idea was to immerse ourselves in City, after all. But the only way to visit Rosella was to run up to her town; she was only there another few days; the train only takes an hour; so off we went Saturday morning, taking the H bus from the piazza Sonnino a few minutes' walk from our house, then killing a short hour at the train station because, well, one's always a bit anxious when catching a train, one wouldn't want to miss it.
The Rome station always reminds me of the main station in Amsterdam: it has an enormous bus plaza out in front of it. Its architecture is very different, though: instead of ornate postBaroque Edwardian brick and terra cotta, it is very 1950s postwar Modernist, low and wide and white, all about the horizontal — which is appropriate to a rail terminal: trains don't like climbs.
And inside the station, on both street and basement levels, there are enormous shops. You can buy anything you want here as long as it's some sort of luxury: chocolate, alcohol, books, jewelry, all kinds of clothes. Well, not work clothes, unless your work is... Oh, never mind. There's a big Nike store: we stepped in, looked at shoes that ranged up to a couple hundred dollars a pair (for athletic shoes!), and stepped back out.
Orvieto, as you probably know, is set on top of a hill, really a single "plug," I think, left over after the surrounding volcano had been long since eroded away, either by the river draining that wide beautiful valley, or by centuries of farming and quarrying, or perhaps by the wind; who knows. You can drive up; I think there are two roads up; and six or seven thousand Orvietians live up there, looking down on the twenty thousand or so who live at the bottom, or in outlying villages and farms.
But we did not drive up: we took the funicular conveniently sited across the street from the train station. You pay your euro, surrender the ticket, and take a seat on a little wooden bench in one of the three or four private compartments on what is essentially a large elevator cabin sitting at a forty-five degree angle on its rails.
There is no operator. A buzzer sounds and the car moves slowly forward and up, passed halfway up by the other cabin coming down. It reminded me exactly of Angel's Flight, the cable funicular in the Los Angeles of fifty years ago; and of course it reminded me of the old Neopolitan song with its refrain "funiculi funicula": but I wisely refrained from singing it.
There at the top came Rosella, lovely exuberant Rosella, in the gray and graygreen corduroy she wears with such distinction, such flair; and off we marched up the main street, the Corso Cavour, and she pointed out the sights, the quarters into which the town is divided, the way of the People and the way of the Church, the clock tower, the city hall, the Duomo.
We stopped in at an artist's studio tucked into a building across from the Duomo to admired a number of abstract expressionist but figurative-based paintings and prints crowding a sort of exhibition space. A doorway led to the artist's studio, fragrant with the familiar scent of gesso: he was preparing a new canvas.
I was attracted by a prose-poem in longhand on a large sheet of paper with drawings, framed under glass and hanging in the doorway. The artist had by then appeared and was talking busily to Rosella, who introduced us. I asked him if he'd written much poetry, and he was happy to talk about his writing, and pointed to a stack of books on a high shelf, all identical, awaiting sale. He tried to pull one out of the stack but could not reach the top, so I stood on tiptoe and took one down.
He gave it to us: "Un Muro l'eccidio degli uccelli," "A wall, slaughter of birds." Like almost all of his work, the book itself, published in 1980, is a testiment of Livio Valentini's lifelong testimony against violence. We asked him why, and he spoke of his adventures in the Second World War, ending with two years' imprisonment at Buchenwald. He spoke passionately against violence, but as I looked around me at the images in his painting I said "but you must admit that there is also a beauty in violence, a beauty that many find compelling and even a justification." He agreed immediately, Yes, there is a beauty, and we must contemplate it to counter it, to achieve a life full of beaty but devoid of violence.
Valentini is not young; he's fifteen years older than I, eighty-three years old. He shames me, though: he works every day, and I can't say that his work is merely a routine; he clearly re-dedicates himself to the joy and the beauty of it every day. The book, a catalogue of his first sixty years, contains his own description of that terrible war in a ten-page letter written, "without any pretense at making literature," to his mother, in 1951. It's compelling writing, but offset too by the panorama of small black-and-white reproductions of the work he did in the next thirty years — painting, mixed-media work, jewelry, prints.
We were really touched by this short but intense visit. He inscribed the book: A Charlesy per un incontro d'arte e di amicizia , for a meeting of art and friendship, and I like the double meaning, and hope to stay in touch. But we had other things to do, and walked on through the narrow streets and the surprising small hidden piazzas, admiring the odd light on the rough-textured sand-colored walls made of a curiously sandstone-colored local tufa. The railroad station had been socked in by dense fog, but we'd climbed toward the light on that funicular, and minute by minute the air was clearing, and the distant hills were coming into view, green and inviting through the mists.
Lunch was goulash that Rosella had made, and pecorino and pears, delicious, and we talked for hours, and went out shopping for the next day's midday dinner — she hadn't yet bought a Gorgonzola she'd fancied, because she wasn't sure we liked Gorgonzola. (It didn't take long to set her straight on that.)
We went to Dei Fratelli, a very impressive purveyor of "local and national gastronomical specialities of traditional quality and competence," and here we tasted five or six pecorinos and the aforementioned Gorgonzola, and a few hams and prosciuttos too just in case; and we admired the shelves of black truffles and the oils and I bought a bottle of local red wine and we exacted a promise that yes he'd be open the next day in the morning, up until noon, yes even though it was Sunday, and we went back to Rosella's for more talk and a rest.
And then went out to dinner at the Trattoria del orso, where we admired small drawings hanging on the wall, drawn by a friend of the guys who run the restaurant, not an artist but a microbiologist (or something like that, if there is anything like that that isn't that) who does these only for himself and a few friends; and we had a delicious meal, not ordering from a menu because the cook prepares only what he wants to, from whatever is available that day. We had a delicious vegetable soup, Lindsey and I, subtly flavored with fennel seed; and then she had strozzapreti with mushrooms and black truffles and I passed up guinea fowl, a favorite of mine, for three wonderful lamb chops simply grilled and salt-and-peppered and brought to me with a piece of lemon; and afterward a fine cherry crostata which he'd bought at a nearby pasticceria because, he said, he does not bake, he cooks; and he made no apology for this since he was talking, after all, to an important pastry chef.
His kitchen is tiny and he does everything in it, and his dining rooms are not very big though there are after all two of them, and his friend does all the waiting on tables, or did the night we were there. They close three days a week, and two and a half months of the year, and I don't know how long they'll stay with it; I'm sixty years old, said the cook — Gabriele Di Giandomenico — and this is a lot of work. He speaks perfect American English; he lived for years in New Jersey. But he spoke perfect Italian too, and he and Rosella jabbered happily about the Costa smeralda in Sardegna, and life among the rich and beautiful, while Lindsey and I and the waiter talked happily about food.
A long night's solid sleep, then, since we were over four hours at the restaurant; and the next morning a walk around the town, to find that the delicatessen was closed, of course; it had quality but its competence was sadly lacking that morning I thought; and the Duomo was off limits as well because after all services were going on, so we took a coffee in the second-rate cafe, not the first-rate one we'd gone to earlier with Rosella, where she'd bought her cake for today's lunch, the only cafe people go to to be seen in, since after all we'd already been seen there, and we thought we'd see who was to be seen in the other one. And that turned out to be a young couple with back-packs who were just finishing their breakfast and were examining their banknotes as if they weren't sure what continent had issued them.
I was reading Valentini's book when Rosella came back from Mass with two friends who were joining us for lunch — really midday dinner: Gisella, a writer and food person who makes frequent trips to the U.S. (especially Texas and the San Francisco area) to give demonstrations on Italian regional foods, and Adriana, a member of old Roman society (she has an apartment on the Piazza Veneto and was the widow of a painter in the Futurist movement). An interesting lunch: Gisella brought rotelle she had made, circular tortellini-like filled pastas with an intriguing, complex filling; we had a mountain of porchetta, the cold sliced roast pork the Italians do so well; there was the Gorgonzola and a fine pecorino; and then the millefeuille — excuse me; migliafolie.
This was a many-layered pastry (hence the name, of course), filled with pastry cream and all covered with big shavings of white chocolate: it looked elaborate and special and tasted sublime, though it resisted even Lindsey's efforts — she was delegated, of course — at cutting it into portions without breaking it into shreds. And a bottle of white, and a bottle of red, and a half bottle of limoncello, and so on.
Adriana told a funny story: she had seen, in the Piazza Venezia, a man in a big expensive car carefully maneuvering it to get into a small parking space in the crowded lot, when a couple of kids in a Fiat Cinquecento, smaller than a VW beetle, zip into it before his irritated eyes, lock their car, and leave, calling out to him Cosi fanno i giovani, That's how youth does it. He got out of his car, walked over to theirs, and beat dents into it while they looked on astonished. Cosi fann'i ricchi, he said, giving them his calling card, That's how the rich do it.
The conversation: food, mostly, on our side of the table, with Gisella; art and Italianicity, on Adriana and Rosella's side. I had the previous evening asked Rosella what she thought was the chief characteristic of the celebrated Italian quality of daily life, and the first thing that came to her mind was the pace — not necessarily a slower pace, certainly not in such cities as Milan and Rome; but a more capacious pace, a pace that not only allowed but actually encouraged discursiveness. You see this in the long meals, in the evening strolls, in the detailed, loquacious conversations. You see it in the newspaper articles, which one of our guidebooks warned us tended to go into long and detailed investigations of the opinions and history behind events.
I think what it comes down to is that Italy is a land of voce, of voice. When I first began reading Moravia's Gli indifferenti I was struck by his fabulous opening sentences, almost Proustian; I was so struck by them that I read one aloud to Emma, because it sounded, to me, like narrative song. And at the end of the volume containing that first novel (and the next few as well), among the editor's notes, I find the surprising information, well perhaps not so very surprising after all, that he composed this novel over a period of three years or so, while he was shaking a case of bone tuberculosis in various mountain sanitoria; and that he never wrote any of the paragraphs down until he had worked them out speaking them aloud. The entire novel is the written record of a story told aloud.
That I think is the essence of the Italian genius: it is given to expression, to shared expression. An American like Hawthorne goes to Rome and writes an interior novel, really a sort of meditation, on his reaction to this Italian genius for publicity: but it reads like a monologue, however fascinating it is — a monologue or the transcription of notes to himself by a professional witness, a therapist, say, or a judge. Even a Henry James reads like this: you can see the sentences being reworked with a pencil, between the lines. (Though it is true all his later novels were dictated, and this of course has a great deal to do with the rather sudden irruption of his celebrated later style, more convoluted, more discursive.)
Our entire dinner conversation went like this, mostly in Italian though with recourse to English when necessary — entirely too often, of course. And then we had missed our train back, and had to rush to catch the next one. Adriana drove us down to the station; she was driving off to her country house anyway, on a ridge off across the valley. She drove us down the narrow road and its hairpin turns, a proper but scintillating woman in her mid-80s, a woman whose husband had been among the great Modernists of the first decades of the last century; she drove us down to the station in her small practical car a dozen years old or so, and angled into a no-parking spot to let us out.
Cosi fann'i ricchi, she smiled, and we grinned too, and took our train back to Rome and dinner with Richard and Marta who have come down from Verona to spend a few days with us.
9: City life
S. Egidio, Jan. 15
Some of you have written enviously of our opportunity to get to know Rome rather well, but assure yourselves: we're not making the most of the opportunity. We are carefully observing the duties of modern city life, spending leisurely days with friends, talking in the kitchen, strolling the streets, taking lunch and dinner in restaurants or at home, lingering over coffee in the cafes. This is perhaps not the most studious approach to The Eternal City, but it is pleasant.
We walked up the Botteghe Oscure yesterday, on our way to another trip up Michelangelo's ramp to the Piazza del Campidoglio, and I remembered a copy of the literary quarterly of that name, found in the middle 1950s at Creed's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a thick square book on rough creamy paper in subtle brown covers, containing stories and poems, perhaps an essay or two as well, I don't remember now, in English, French, and Italian. It was the beginning of my fascination with modern languages, unknown languages concealing unimaginable stories of intelligence and sophisitication.
I just read one of them, Moravia's "Delitto" how to translate that? "in a tennis club," about the murderous joke played by a group of slightly older men, say in their late twenties, rich and spoiled members of a decadent 1920s Roman society. It is, of course, dated; hardly worth reading now except as background to his novels.
Constantly at the back of my mind is the inescapable comparison of our society at the beginning of the 21st century with that of two thousand years ago. Yesterday our president announced, in all seriousness, that we will set up a permanent base on the moon, and then go on to land on Mars. The American flag will begin a journey throughout the solar system.
There was a headline in an Italian paper the other day, predicting this announcement. "Bush promises voters the moon and Mars," it read, with a fine sense of irony. I don't know that you have to be across the ocean from New York and Washington to sense the arrogance of the promise, but perhaps it helps to see, on every side, evidence that a great civilization (if in fact it was civilized), a great power inevitably collapses of its own weight, of the impossibility of sustaining itself when its power and its delights depend on the exploitation and suppression of others.
There's a small ruin near the Theater of Marcellus an old floor or more likely sub-floor, a rough wall say twenty feet long rising about chest-high, and three beautiful symmetrical marble basins set against the wall. Floor and wall were probably once veneered with marble, long since pried off to decorate some other installation. Each great period wears old clothes. There are iron rings set into the wall, perhaps to tie horses to if this was a rich horse stable, perhaps simply towel-rings if, as I think more likely, it is the remains of a restroom.
What's interesting is the basins, any one of which would fetch a good price in an antiquities market, would make a stunning birdbath or holy-water font. They are two thousand years old and priceless works of art. But they are also clearly simply the product of some factory: three identical marble basins, three of what must have been thousands, scattered throughout the cities of the Roman Empire, from Constantinople to London.
Who made them? Were they free men or slaves? What did they eat and drink; what were their habitations? How did they make them? Were they somehow turned as if on a lathe? Were they roughed out by prisoners or apprentices, then shipped to a finishing shop where experienced eyes and hands reduced them to this degree of interchangeability?
What kind of global trade agreements underlay the Roman Empire, I wonder, and, if (as I suspect) a great deal of the labor involved was less than completely willing, how was order and subordination maintained? There are lessons to be learned here, if anyone in Washington is interested.
I have the feeling, though not the language skills to confirm it, that much of today's Europe is aware of the historical evidence that the future, any future, is not on the side of the arrogant, and particularly of the arrogantly demanding. London, Paris, and Rome I have not been to Madrid are among other things pathetic witnesses of the transience of Empire. Empires cannot live in peaceful competition, it seems; but when one finally rises to overwhelming dominance it cannot sustain itself either. Durability lies not in the imposition of power but in submission to the constraints of sustainability, of wanting and using only what can be produced and replaced at home.
The City is what we've come to observe from within, and the question I keep asking is whether The City doesn't represent the nut of the human problem. We need to live communally, apparently; there are so many delights in community. In the last few weeks we've been to concerts and museums and theaters and restaurants, here and at home, whose existence simply requires a prosperous community. And the subtler delights, requiring leisure and education to appreciate, perhaps require that larger class of workers willing to make them possible the dishwashers, the taxi drivers, the janitors; but also technicians in generating plants, engineers supervising water distribution networks, government administrators and the like.
You walk down an old street faced with 16th-century buildings and notice someone in a jumpsuit poking a screwdriver into the nest of wires behind a set of doorbells. The telephones work, the ATMs spit out money, the streets are lit (and beautifully!) because of people like him. Does he care if the concert of recent chamber music is well programmed, or well played, or well attended? It's all very well to concede that the discernment of this music is analogous of the wires behind those doorbells, or the intelligence that wiring represents, but does that finally serve Empire, or even the simple sustainability of a civil society?
The concert was night before last, in the University, by an active group founded twenty years ago by our friend Marcello, and much of the music was really quite fascinating (to the point that it suggested I get back to work myself!). The concert hall was in one of Mussolini's university buildings, with travertine walls detailing the precise clarity of the acoustics, and a fine big mural behind the musicians showing workers and scientists and, yes, militarism all contributing to an ideal fascist society. I was introduced to Petrassi's widow, a fine handsome woman in a fine handsome fur; and to the conductor of an affecting piece, for children's voices, setting aspiring passages from Jonah, Pinocchio, and The Divine Comedy.
Afterwards we all five of us bundled into Marcello's little car and he dropped us off at a trendy pizzeria up near the Borghese, the only place still open in this fashionable part of town near the Piazza del Populo. We had pretty good pizza and then grabbed a cab to cross the river to Trastevere. We dropped Richard and Marta off at their hotel, not far from St. Peter's, and then went on down to our quarter, considerably less aspiring in its architecture, its streets, its shops.
It was well after midnight. The narrow pedestrian streets around our piazza were alive with crowds, young people for the most part, some children even, dogs, students, eating at pizzerias and cafes, walking about talking about things. The vitality is really quite amazing, and, somehow, reassuring. The City I like is a city of continuing present, not aspiring future. It's here in Trastevere, I think, not in the ruins.
10. We took the bus today, oh boy
S. Egidio, Jan. 16—
I wrote sympathetically last time about the common man and his indispensable place in society. Yesterday we took the bus to Tivoli and back. It made the trip from Barstow to Bakersfield — was it really only a little over two weeks ago? — look like a picnic.
We caught the infamous Bus H at the Piazza Belli. The letter "H" is never sounded in Italian, and the bus H should never be seen. And in fact it rarely is seen, especially when you're waiting for it; and when it did arrive it was unspeakably full.
I did finally get a seat. A young man took one look at my grizzled head and offered it to me, out of courtesy or perhaps contempt, I thought at first, but it quickly became clear he simply didn't want to sit there. In front of me was a family right out of that horrible old Italian movie "Brutto, Sporco, et Cattivo" (Ugly, Dirty, and Bad), a disgustingly crude man standing gripping the stanchion, his fatigued and resentful wife, and three wretched kids, all under six, all disfigured by varying degrees of dirt, neglect, impetigo, and bred-in wary meanness.
The man, in his thirties I suppose, amused himself grabbing his wife's nose with his right hand and threatening to put out her right eye with the index finger of his left. She moaned and complained. The kids squirmed and coughed. The man sneezed, never covering his mouth. It was probably a blessing he had no handkerchief to drag out of a pocket; he would have flourished it about and made matters worse.
Finally we pulled up at the end of the line, at the train station, and I got off as quickly as I could, so quickly I left my hat behind. They of course were quick to seize any opportunity: the man called out to me Hai lasciŁ cappelino, Ya left yer cap. I looked back at the crowded bus. Il piccolo luporta, he added, The kid's bringin' it. I took it from the kid and thanked him. The father held out his hand for a tip. I dug out a twenty-cent piece, the only change I had, and carefully gave it to the kid, who immediately put a strong fist around it, then plunged it into a pocket. The father cuffed the kid, shouting at him to thank me.
Then he turned to me and asked for more. You can't even buy an ice-cream with that, he said. The kid looked at me aggressively. I turned on my heel and left the pack of them behind and we all went to the metro station for the next leg of the trip.
The Rome metro is pretty clean and efficient, disregarding its route which is conceived for Rome commuters, not tourists. We got out to the end of the line reasonably soon, and waited only five or ten minutes for the bus that would complete our trip out to Tivoli. And it too was reasonably clean and efficient, for a local bus; it lumbered along the highway past an appalling stretch of discount stores, auto agencies, apartment-house complexes, warehouses, light industry, and all the other blights great cities tuck away on their margins. Venice has its Mestre; Paris its beyond-the-beltway Zones; why should Rome be any different.
At one point the bus travelled a sort of causeway across a stone quarry, an amazing and depressing sight perhaps a half-mile square and at least sixty feet deep. It was white as, well, as marble; its floor was flat as a pancake; the squared-off walls looked as if they'd been constructed of masonry; and where they bounded the quarry you could see how thick the soil above it was, under the scrappy lawns and gardens of benighted suburban houses perched right next this enormous dig.
I have no idea how old this quarry is, but I'd guess some of it goes back quite a way. There's an unbelievable amount of tufa, limestone, marble, travertine, porphyry, and granite in this city, and it's logical that most of it came from as near as possible: even slave labor must have cost something, and this stuff is heavy. It's true that a considerable amount of stone came from North Africa and Egypt, and some fine marble from Greece. But when you see the amount of stone in Rome, and consider that much of even Ancient Rome was built on landfill, or had sliced the tops off hills, you're aware of the incredible amounts that had to be brought in.
The history of Man is among other things the history of material being dug out of the ground only to be piled up elsewhere. I've often though a wonderful film could be made following one stone from its formation millennia ago through its various locations and uses throughout human history. This could be depressing, of course: many statues were burnt, even in Imperial Rome, to make slaked lime for concrete; many buildings were knocked down and the fragments turned into landfill. The Colosseum is built on a city dump which itself had filled in a marsh.
We took the bus and metro on an outing to Tivoli, there to see the ruins of a couple of Roman temples and the garden at the Villa d'Este. There's not much point in going out to Tivoli for only half a day; I wouldn't do it again: the town needs a couple of days: one should spend the night. But we had time to wander up the main street to the far end of town, where the temples were, have lunch, and spend a long hour in the garden afterward.
Lunch was at the Sibilla, named for the prophetess whose temple was just outside the dining room. Lunch wasn't bad, though the green beans had been cooked long ahead of time, perhaps for another occasion. The restaurant would after all be forgiven for resting on its fame; there are plaques — in chiseled marble, of course — noting previous illustrious customers going back two centuries or more; writers, poets, composers, but mostly heads of state — princes and princesses, kings and queens from Japan, Africa, the European nations. (Our presidents were notably absent.)
The garden was marvelous. We were very nearly alone in it, and we walked at our leisure down the back-and-forth side aisles admiring the many fountains; then along the paths of the lowest terrace astonished at the ancient trees; then back up the center in the gathering twilight, taking up conversation with two gardeners who were clearly ready to end their workday — the place closes at twilight — but generous with time and talk, explaining various things, how long the chestnut withes of the retaining walls last (ten years), why the garden is no longer illuminated (broke down in 1985, no money to fix it), and confirming our guesses that yes the garden is laid out to make a special effect on the equinoxes and yes that is St. Peter's there on the horizon.
The sunset was memorable. First the sun stood behind a single large cloud, throwing its shadow up into the sky above to make a luminous goblet in the air; then it descended slowly to touch the horizon, then more quickly. It was dead quiet. The cypresses and pines were black. We didn't say much.
We did on the bus back, though; it was trapped for many minutes in a terrible traffic jam. It would move perhaps three or four feet, then stop for five minutes. People were both angry and resolutely resigned. I asked the guy ahead of me if this were normal, Yes, of course it's normal, it happens every day, there are all these people getting off work, going out shopping, it all happens at the same time, it's tied up for five kilometers, it takes hours to get through it.
The bus was a few feet from a bus stop, and two or three people were waiting to get off. Open, open, a woman shouted up to the driver, but he did not open, open the door. Her telephone rang. What do you mean where am I, I'm on the bus, she said, in Italian of course, and she said a lot more too that I didn't get. The bus moved a foot or so, then stopped again. After quite a while her phone rang again. What do you mean where am I, I'm still on the bus, it's at the stop, no he won't open the door.
Finally enough ease for the bus to slide over to the curb, open the doors, let the people off. And then miraculously the way was clearer, and we inched our way past the woman, running up the sidewalk, telephone to her ear.
We were about seven hours on buses and subways for the four hours spent in Tivoli. We realized how insular we'd been these last two weeks, walking, strolling really, in what is oddly a very quiet Rome, quiet at least in the neighborhoods we've chosen for the most part. Of course it's crowded in the shopping streets, but many of them have been pedestrianized. Rome has very few boulevards, and we try to stay away from them.
We walked today around, but not into, the Palatine, ending at San Clemente over near the Colosseum, and taking our lunch up at the Ostaria Nerone on the advice of one of our guidebooks (which got the telephone number wrong, but was otherwise right). It's Friday, so Lindsey and I had salt cod, and with it a buttery-soft but nicely textured artichoke, and the four of us had a fine Ceretto Dolcetto, and I had a delicious ricotta cake. And then a cab up to the Museum of Contemporary Art, closed of course; and then a long wait for a nonexistent bus to the Piazza di Spagna, and a walk down the Condotti, and an experimental Martini (Italian vermouth is not really dry, even when it's white and says it is, and the man put only a tiny splash of gin into it, and garnished it with a slice of lemon), and then a walk across the river to the Piazza Cavour and a bus back to our apartment to eat in tonight: some coppa on levain bread Richard had borrowed from his hotel breakfast for us, a couple of big salads, and that pleasant cheap white wine that comes unlabelled from the plaza greengrocer.
If you stay off the buses it's a pleasant life.
11. Martinis in Rome
S. Egidio, Jan. 17—
First of all, a clarification: I sent two of these dispatches numbered 6: Alla tavola and Aim hot. Before I noticed that I'd already sent number 7, Conversation in Orvieto. Therefore I skipped number 8 and went straight to 9, City life. I guess I figured anyone would catch the error and renumber one of the sixes as a seven, the seven as an eight. If anyone cares.
As a kid I loved the Book-Of-The-Month Club edition of Gilbert and Sullivan. One of the songs had a line about everything being at sixes and sevens. I guess that's what happened here. Sorry about it.
Anyhow we're up to #11 now, and this is the central day of our stay in Rome. The first week, as I look back at it, was a matter of getting settled. See here a movie process shot: dog turning himself round and round, nose following tail, atavistically beating down the long grasses to make a nest in which to be comfortable. That's basically what we did.
Then a weekend in Orvieto, and then a week with two dear friends who'd come all the way down from Verona to be with us. With them we've walked the streets, poked into a few churches and museums, auditioned a few restaurants, filled a few winebottles with the local air, talked and talked.
Tonight was the celebratory dinner for that, at least as far as I'm concerned; tomorrow we'll have another day, perhaps seeing some more museums if the weather's gloomy, or walking in the Aventine if it's not, in any case cementing further a friendship, recalling visits years ago, marvelling at our different takes on the proper way to investigate a museum, wondering why one person likes Picasso and another Matisse (substitute here Joyce and Lawrence, Schubert and Schumann, veal and beef, puntarelli and spinace), kidding one another about weaknesses or enthusiasms, helping one another on our common paths to... but enough of that.
What I really want to tell you about tonight is Martinis. I like, as some of you know, to have a Martini on Friday and Saturday evening. I think enough about the subject to capitalize it. Yesterday was Friday, the third one of this trip. I'd missed it last week, and the week before we were just arriving, not a chance we'd go out looking for a drink. But yesterday we were in a very fashionable quarter, walking away from the Piazza di Spagna, and we stopped in at one of those storefronts with the promising, if backward, sign
Bon it. It was Martini time.
Lindsey said she'd have a glass of Sherry. Richard and Marta said they'd have, let's see, a coffee, no, Marta changed her mind. I asked for a Martini. We were standing at the bar at the back of the cafe: at the front was a coffee-counter with a few pastries and the like; at the back where we were was a real bar.
I looked up at the bottles on the shelves behind the bar. On the right-hand side were a number of bottles of various wines and vermouths: yes, among the four or five different Martini & Rossi bottles there was a "dry Italian bianco" vermouth. And yes, amont the bottles in the section to the left, where the Johnny Walker and the rums and the grappas were, there was a bottle that might have been gin. But you couldn't be sure, because its back was decorously turned to the room.
Martini, signor, the barman said politely, Martini & Rossi? Mezzo-mezzo? No, I said, also politely, Martini cocktail, con gin, per favore, pointing to the bottle I suspected of having gin in it. He looked at me curiously. Gin, I repeated, e vermut, tre di gin, uno di vermut. He looked at me a little more closely.
And, I said, um, hayrez, Jerez, sherry. Avete Lei di Sherry? By now he was beginning to look a little disconsolate, as if he were wondering why he'd transferred here from some more comfortable job elsewhere. No, he said uncertainly, mi dispiace, I'm sorry.
I reported the bad news to Lindsey, who thought it over. What's that artichoke aperitif called, she asked me, asked Richard, asked Marta. Carciofo, I said, and turned to the barman: Avete Lei di carciofo? He was more reluctant than ever. No, signor, mi dispiace. Okay, I said, resorting to one of the universal languages, per me un Martini, per la signora un bitter. Any bitter.
He reeled out a number of brand names and I seized on one of them, Montenegro. By now Marta was interested in bitters, and she too stipulated one, a Ramazzotti I think. Richard was gone off looking for that room he always hides in at such moments.
Barman got out glasses and got down bottles and began pouring, looking at me out of the side of his unnecessarily round face, as I thought it. Martini, he said to me, a little uncertainly. Si, I said, Martini, con gin, tre parte gin, una parta Martini bianco.
We looked at one another steadily for a few moments, and then he kindly requested me to sit down at the little table where the others already were. I think I'd made him nervous. I know he'd made me nervous. I explained to my friends, Lindsey included, that I wanted to watch him make it, not because I was concerned that he do it properly, but out of pure intellectual curiosity as to what he might be doing.
Why did you order a Martini, Lindsey asked with sweet adversariality, we're here in Italy, why didn't you ask for something Italian. What, I responded with swift wit but certain self-destruction, like a sherry, you mean. I did ask for something Italian. I asked for a Martini as it would be made in Italy. You have to appreciate my sense of experiment, of investigation.
Three usual sorts of drinks arrived soon enough at our marble table, three usual glasses and one anomaly. My Martini was in a big green plastic glass with a logo on it: Yoga.
Inside was the damnedest thing I've tasted. Once when our youngest daughter Giovanna was younger than she is today I told her what the perfect Martini was, and she got it wrong, and made me one that was three parts vermouth to one part gin. This was a little like that, except that there was a certain amount of water in it, and a nice slice of lemon, and the whole thing was in this plastic glass with a couple of modest ice-cubes doing a sort of dead-man's float in the whole apparatus. There was not much to appreciate, visually, on the palate, or in the nose. Everyone thought it a good joke, and we ate the potato chips, and I managed to make the best of whatever you might call the drink, and we walked on.
Tonight we ate at what I think was the best restaurant so far, but I won't describe it; I'll save the restaurants for a sort of supplement, except to note that it's incongruous name was Paris. But that's not tonight's point: Tonight's point is that we waited for Richard and Marta, who were walking down from their hotel a few hundred meters north of here on the same side the Tiber, in the bar-cafe downstairs from our apartment, the Ombre Rosse.
Ombre Rosse means Red Shadows, and the term means red wine, cheap I suppose red wine, the red wine of poet's muses and young romance. But that is not what we had, Lindsey and I. It was Saturday night, and she had a Frascati Superiore — because, she said, she wanted to know what a superior one would taste like, after all the ordinary ones we've been drinking — and I had a Martini.
You're a glutton for punishment, Lindsey said. No, I said, it's a matter of intellectual curiosity; it's investigation. Suppose I write a travel article about Martinis in Rome: I'll want to have done some research, even if I am a journalist of sorts.
We waited for quite a while. The Ombre Rosse was full, as it always is at eight o'clock, or from then until midnight; it's a trendy place, a café serving all kinds of drinks and coffees and also light meals. The bar menu had long lists of wines by the bottle, by the glass, cocktails including my Martini and a few siblings (vodka, with weird juices, etc.); and also a number of tropical drinks; even a number of variations on the Caipirinha, Julio will be glad to know. (But the Caipirinha was the most expensive of all, no doubt because of the labor involved.)
Ultimately Richard and Marta appeared, and then so did our drinks. The Martini came in a beautiful glass of the correct size and shape, its stem flaring elegantly into its angular cup. The olive was green and had its pit and did not put fake anchovy or pimento flavors into the affair. The gin was present but not overwhelming; the vermouth was Italian and subtle and ingratiating; there wasn't a hint of water let alone ice; the drink was cold as justice and fragrant as a baby's cheek.
Afterward I went to the bar and told the fellow what I thought of it, and this Friday, God willing, I'll be back.
12: Jazz in the basement
S. Egidio, Jan. 18
Well, not really jazz in the basement; it was on the ground floor, but in the Ombre Rosse which serves as our own ground floor, or at least the little ten-table dining room does where the jazz was. I read about it in Repubblica today the first paper I've bought in a while; it was a lucky coincidence and after walking Richard and Marta up to their hotel in a gentle rain, to see them off in a 3:30 taxicab to catch their 4 pm train back to Verona, and after walking back home in the mist under the sycamores alongside the Tiber, and after doing the laundry for the first time, and after resting up a bit, I went down to see what the action was.
I like the Ombre Rosse, and not only because it gave me a perfect Martini last night. It reminds me of San Francisco fifty years ago. Inside the front door is the bar, running down the left-hand side, with three or four cafe tables scattered about; off to the right, at the back, is the dining room, with perhaps ten tables.
The walls are a sort of ochre color, quite clean; the place is well lit; there are lots of paintings on the walls that remind me of the Beat paintings of the 1950s, though they're sunnier, more lyrical. The place was full, but there was a seat at the bar, so I took it and asked for a white wine, which came with a couple of canapés and a small bowl of peanuts, and before I'd dented any of that a table emptied in the dining room right in front of the combo, so in I went.
In front of me Elisabetta Antonini perched on a high stool with a microphone in her hand, scatting her way through a Gershwin song, accompanied by guitar and contrabass electric guitar, acoustic bass. She was damned good and as soon as there was a break I stepped outside to telephone Lindsey to come down, then quickly went back in to reclaim my seat.
What a pleasure to hear good jazz, especially vocal jazz, in a small room, sitting right up close to the music! Lindsey arrived in the middle of the first song of the second set, "My Funny Valentine," which Antonini introduced in a quietly spoken short talk referring to Chet Baker; and she quoted some of his version of the classic in her performance. There was a bit of formula to the trio: she would sing the chorus of each song, with standard chord-and-bass backing; then usually break into scat-singing for an extended second chorus.
Then the guitarist took over, often reminding me of George Shearing's guitarist modest, unexciting, but very pleasant indeed and then the bassist, who was capable of really quite impressive extended improvisations, always in tune, always suggesting the beat. (The beat was left to the imagination, of course; this trio has no drums.) Then Antonina would return for a closing chorus, but sometimes this would be quite distorted deliberately, of course or lapse into further scat-singing; and sometimes the group would sidetrack into a long coda, often wandering off into an unrelated key before coming back to order.
She sang standards But Not For Me; Valentine; stuff like that. She's rather small, dark hair, say late twenties, dark sweater, jeans; and she sang with understated facial expression and gesture. Her English sounded pretty good, but she spoke only Italian as far as I could hear, to members of the audience congratulating her afterward, and to her guitarist and bassist when they occasionally consulted between numbers.
We sat for an hour or so nursing our wine a nicely full-bodied one from Sardinia and nodding our heads and occasionally pointing a finger to her complex rhythms; and then we went up to our apartment for a salad and some Pecorino, and then out to the Piazza S. Maria, around the corner, for an ordinary but quite acceptable gelato, the place we'd intended to try being closed this Sunday evening.
It was an uneventful day. We'd had dinner at midday, or nearly so, at home: semolina gnocchi Lindsey had whipped up a couple of days ago, and salad, and pastries, and a bottle of Sangiovese, and coffee a farewell dinner for Richard and Marta, who've entertained us the last week. The laundromat was the other entertainment for the day, figuring out how to trade euros for tokens, watching the clothes tumble, talking to the kid who runs the place whose English is fluent and American-accented because, it turned out, he is an American, though he's been here for five years. The whole area here in Trastevere seems to be bilingual; eavesdropping on the strolling couples in the streets you hear both English and Italian, either often accented by the other, and it doesn't seem to matter which language you start out in.
There's a considerable police presence. There's always a police car parked outside the Ombre Rosse, next to the movie theater, and there're always two cops sitting in it. Around the corner in S Maria tonight there were the usual two, a squad car and a sort of mobile police office; and a couple of other squad cars cruised the piazza while we stood eating our gelati.
Across the river the police presence is even greater. Carabiniere are stationed at the corners of the block taken up by the Synagogue, and often they stand with their fingers on the triggers, which makes me a little nervous I recall too easily the night six or eight squad cars converged on me in San Francisco, and the cops jumped out and threw me against the wall, ordered me to raise my hands and to remain absolutely still, then asked for my identification, confusing me as to what to do, all the while pointing guns at me. It's a scary experience: but I suppose we should be grateful for their protection.
The newspapers are full of stories about the primaries. All of Italy knows more than I do about the intricacies of the Iowa Caucus, and frequent news stories assure us that the Democrats haven't a chance: they're a party without vision, without money, without leadership. It's curious to read about American politics in terms of a Christian Right and a Center Left. I get the feeling that Europe, or certainly Italy, is perplexed at the drift of our country toward monarchy. And of course Italy has its own national crises; Berlusconi has just been robbed of his ex post facto law exonerating him for fraud or whatever it is his citizens object to in his character, and the Parmalat affair rivals our Enron case, and children are demonstrating against reductions in school hours, and last night the Piazza S. Maria was full of milling eco-bicyclists protesting automobile traffic and its attendant pollution.
We have a little more than two weeks left, and two years of sight-seeing to do. Our pace will quicken now that we're on our own. We came for companionship, of course; we have friends here and wanted long conversations and leisurely walks. But we came for Rome, too, and now it's her turn. And it's time to plan tomorrow's action.
13: Always more
S. Egidio, Jan. 19
Rain today, or at least threatening this morning, so we plan a day carefully, to be maximally indoors. "Maximally" is very Roman; everything here is maximal; maximalism has even infected the words these eight fingers press out of the keyboard, as it has affected my poor ankles, swelling valiantly to absorb the constant pounding against stone floors, the incessant little adjustments to be made against the cobblestones.
Anyway down the Paglia to the Via and across the bridge to the Argentina to hear the youth symphony play Petrassi, Ravel, and — unless we escape it — Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. But we are late; no doubt they'll begin the concert with the one thing we want most to hear, the Petrassi. We run into the lobby to find it deserted except for one attendant who directs us to another building to buy tickets — wait — no, that's not right — just a moment — she looks up another attendant: is a ticket needed at this point? Perhaps — the subject's worth a few minutes' discussion — well, no harm in getting one — we duck out into the light rain to the next building and into the ticket counter, where we are informed that yes indeed we're a little late, the concert was yesterday, we've lost another day of our lives.
But we've gained an hour. What to do with it? And not only has it stopped raining, the sun's breaking through: so we walk up the Via Corso, that long straight road laid out two thousand years ago, then revived five hundred years ago for a racetrack. Jew races, hunchback races, cripple races, naked old man races. When I mention that last one Lindsey gives me a funny little look; I can see her seeing me whipped into line with all the other naked old men. The thought is not pleasing.
I duck into a bookstore for a final definitive assault on one of my few projects here: to buy a copy of Picciardi's Dizionario della gastronomia, which some lying lazy clerk guessed the other day must be out of print, since he couldn't find it on the shelf. Here at Feltrice, a definitive bookstore, I consult a clerk whose bespectacled appearance projects quiet competence, even authority: she will know where to find it. She looks at the computer, finds the title quickly: ah no signor, e definitivamente esauro.
Esauro and restauro, the twin terrors of the Italian vocabulary: out of print and in restoration. Every book I want to buy is esauro; every site I want to see is in restauro. We go on, like characters in a Beckett novel; we go on.
We go on to ice cream, to be exact, because we find ourselves in front of Giolitti, famous for its gelato. We could eat lunch here, but it seems a little early, and I'm not in the mood for what looks like a humdrum sandwich in a glorious setting. But the gelati look fabulous, and I have the usual, a scoop each of crema and fior di latte — wait — they have riso! Rice-flavored ice cream is a hobby of mine, so I substitute it for the crema, and the fior here is not di latte, milk, but di panna, cream. But then we decide against it: it's too early: we'll come back later.
We go on as far as the piazza della colonna and then turn south as I want a coffee. This is another project: to sample as many coffees as possible always with the object of confirming my prejudice against Illy and Pavel's preference for Tazza d'Oro. The Pantheon is nearby, and with it Tazza d'Oro. En route we realize we are hungry. In my pocket are lists of many restaurants to try, but none is near enough; we pass a trattoria in whose window a family is eating; a bored little girl looks wistfully through the glass at us; I make a mental note. Rome is full of omens, or at least I find it so; and no omens are more, well, ominous than birds and children. I suppose I should include cats as well: all three species are full of life and enigmatic intelligence; they move unpredictably but are capable of long periods of motionlessness; they are somehow comforting in the concept but often abrupt and unsettling in the moment.
Tazza d'Oro is as perfect as ever, in every way. The coffee itself is dark and deep, redolent on the palate; it speaks of latitudes nearer the equator, of a slower tempo. So many coffees are merely assertive, even nerve-wracking; Tazza d'Oro is more supportive in character, like that rare friend with whom one never argues, whose tastes and interests are always in parallel with one's own. I ask if it can be bought by mail; of course it can, on the Internet: the URL is www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com. I will persevere in my project; there are many more coffees here to try. And we have a fair amount of Lavazza Rosso in the kitchen to finish, so I don't buy any Tazza d'Oro at the moment. But I'll be back.
Time now for lunch — we seem to be doing everything backward today. Back to La Scaletta, then. The little girl is now sleeping and her parents and uncle, if that's the configuration, are lingering over their coffees. Lindsey and I are the only other diners; it's only one o'clock. Big high-ceilinged room, tables covered with green plaid tablepapers, a simple but extensive menu. I'll have a spaghetti carbonara here, Lindsey announces, as a sort of benchmark against which to judge other places. I adopt the same strategy to a saltimbocca, and we order water and wine (white for her, red for me), and there follows a perfectly ordinary, perfectly satisfactory twentyfivedollar lunch a few steps from the greatest building ever conceived.
That would be Hadrian's Pantheon, of course, which we visited the other day. It isn't raining, still, so we don't go in again; one of the luxuries of being here a whole month is walking past the Pantheon without going in. We go instead to the Galleria Pamphilj, whose final long "i" always delights me, and spend too much time gawking at too much art — paintings hung in tiers of three and four; statues and urns; a 17th-century harp; velvets and parquet; gilt tables and satin-brocade chairs. Lindsey listens to an Acoustiguide; I saunter, a little unwillingly, hands in pockets.
There's always more, always more. We finally emerge and it is now definitively raining and we don't have umbrellas. Time to go home. Toward the Argentina a fellow steps up with a number of umbrellas and an irresistible smile. Quanti costa, I ask, Five euro, he replies, instantly knowing my language. I take one, unsheathe it, press the button, unfurl the thing, inspect it, hand it to Lindsey. I give the man his five euro. Where you from, he asks with genuine interest and friendliness, London? No, I say, California. Where are you from? Bangladesh, he says.
I met your cousin last week, I tell him, Selling garlic in Trastevere. Oh yes, he smiled happily, That could be him. What about you? He's genuinely concerned that the one small umbrella will leave me in the rain. I embrace my sweet wet Roman matron to demonstrate that we can share it, and his smile lights up the entire Argentina.
We jump on the streetcar, ride two stops, and jump off. We'll have to backtrack a little to buy groceries, but it's stopped raining seriously. Our stores turn out to be closed, though — it's Monday afternoon — so we go home to watch a little television, read a little more, and eat an inspired meal Lindsey manages to put together:
bread and Pecorino
* The antipasto, as we always call it, is Lindsey's grandmother's recipe: a jar of pickled little vegetables ("giardinera"), a can of tuna, a squeeze of tomato paste from the tube; and preferably a day or two in the refrigerator. It's delicious.
The television is about elections, in Iraq and Iowa, two fourletter words beginning with "I," I can't help noticing. I'm reading Eleanor Clark's essay on Hadrian's Villa, because we plan to go out there again one of these days, and I run across one of her felicitous sentences, in which she's comparing Hadrian's compulsive building with those follies of 19th-century American eccentrics — think Mrs Winchester:
"The main thing is to keep building, for one's very point of rest to be always in motion, a thrusting out of the ailing ego which must have recognition and more and more is forced to make it for itself, in its own empyrean; if it stopped building its own temple it would die."
And Bush's man Frist tells us the State of the Union address will be upbeat and positive, that we are moving forward; and I realize again that our own country is imperial and a folly; the United States today finds its point of rest always in motion; that we are always after more, because to be content and stable and sustainable is somehow monotonous and certainly no way to make money.
We are lucky to be in on this glorious decadent period, though, in a way; we're able as have few been in history to see where we are, poised between the glories of the Renaissance, or the Age of Reason, or Modernism, and the chaos that has already begun to engulf those glories, and is perhaps their inevitable result.
But in the meantime we have several ice creams to try, and I'll try to report on them soon.
14: How we eat
S. Egidio, Jan. 20
Actually there are two things on my mind tonight, I mean two that are pushy enough to shove their way to my fingertips, one is what I've written above, How we eat, the other is the difference between seen-from-above and seen-straight-ahead.
(There's a third one, noticed when I typed that date above: time is growing short, we have only two weeks left, there's a lot to be covered... but the hell with that.)
I spend a lot of time looking at a plastic map of central Rome, inconveniently divided between This Side and The Other Side. Whatever I want is most likely on the other side. Occasionally it's even worse, it's exactly on the divider. This map, one of those Streetwise things, gives a little bit of overlap. But still.
Then there's the problem of finding things in indexes. We have about nineteen hundred guidebooks here. I wish I could recommend one: so far I can't. One of the irritations is the indexes. Say you want to look up a church: is it under "Church," or "Chiesa," or "S." (for San, or Santa)? Is it under the name of the saint for whom the church is named? Most indexes settle on one system or another and maintain it fairly consistently, but I can never remember which book does it which way.
And the street names. Typically a street in Rome is eigher a Via or a Viale or maybe a Vicolo; all three are abbreviated "v." If the street is widening out a bit it might be a Largo, or it might be a Piazza. If it gets elephantiasis it turns into a Piazzale. There is even one Campo, the Campo de' Fiori, or is it dei Fiori?
In any case, after Via or Piazza or whatever you come to the actual name of the street. If you're lucky it's a single word, like Via Aurelia, or Viale Glorioso. But more likely it's either someones' name, like Via Nicola Fabrizii — I'm taking all these at random, from just one side of Streetwise — or perhaps a date, like Via 4 Novembre. Well then of course you have to wonder, will it be indexed by the guy's last name or his first name, which I generally call (because I was so brought up) his Christian name, and that generally works here. Or, if it's a date, will it be indexed by the month, I hope, or by the day; and in that case will the date be spelled out Quattro, or listed numerically 4.
And then there are the streets whose names are preceded by prepositions, like the via della Scala that leads to our Piazza San Egidio.
But all this is beside the point, which is that I spend a lot of time looking at the Map, Seen From Above (and that schematically, it need hardly be pointed out) and trying to translate it, for two reasons at least, into what I learned in a logic course at San Francisco State was a very different thing, the Territory, Seen Straight Ahead. I do this partly because I'm concerned about distances — one wants to get there as efficiently as possible, by now, because Time Is Growing Short. And partly because I'm curious about terrain: there are after all seven famous hills in this city, and a few more that are generously uncounted, and they interfere with all sorts of things.
And partly because with a very few exceptions there are no streets that go in a straight line if they can possibly avoid it, and they can.
All that is Reason One. Reason Two is not practical at all; it's much more important than that: it's emotional. I know that it's unlikely I'll do this again, spend a month here I mean, and I want to have it all as fully in mind as I can. Ideally I would carry a videocamera with me and catch every day's itinerary, as hopelessly chaotic and improvised as it is, so that later I could savor the thing, not that I would of course; life is so full of living there's never much reason or time or inclination to re-live any of it. But I do want later to be able to look at the goddam map and see the goddam straightahead view, if you see what I mean; to see in my mind's eye the facade of this church or that, this piazza or that, so that when I look at the map — or read an address in a Henry James novel, or an issue of Gourmet, or on a travel mailing-list website — I'll be able to recall this magical month.
But all that's beside the real point here, which is that I expect that by now some of you will be curious as to How We Eat.
The man who sold fennel at the market The puntarelli and radicchio salad
Today after breakfast — the usual: coffee from the little stovetop espresso pot, hot milk, toast, juice — we went out shopping. There's a small market three piazzas away, which is about three normal city blocks, maybe four. It's January, so not all the stalls are open; a lot of people close down for a few weeks after Epiphany. But we have maybe four or five vegetable stands, two fish, two meat, one cheese, one pots and pans, one ceramic items, and one miscellaneous household (where we buy toilet paper, for example).
Here we bought stuff for tonight's dinner: a small head of romesco or whatever it's called — that spiral leaf-green thing that's neither broccoli nor cauliflower — a bag of puntarelli, a couple of blood oranges, and some fennel. The latter was an afterthought. Let's look at these last two stands, I said; Oh, Lindsey said, we have to buy some of this fennel, look at the man who's selling it. He was tall, handsome, had been ruddy and blond in the Venetian manner, and had a good many of his teeth. He wore a red-and-white baseball cap. He was the cheerfullest man in the market, I thought, and that was saying something, as there were a good many cheerful people there.
We did not buy any meat, though the pork chops, the veal, and the rib-eye looked good. We had after all bought a couple of delicious chicken breasts there a week or so ago. But it seems likely we'll be eating at a few restaurants in the next two weeks, and that'll be the logical place for meat; it's too much trouble cleaning up after a broil in our apartment.
But I do want to write something here about the meat-counters in the market: they seem absolutely clean and attractive. Of course it's winter; there's no hot sun, no flies, no mosquitos. Even so I think the market would be neat and clean. You do of course see whole animals; there were several whole lambs on one counter, hardly larger than a toy poodle (though much more attractive to me!), heads hooves and all.
The other day someone was fretting about this on a travel website I happened across. I'd forgotten that we simply don't see whole carcasses at butcher-shops any more. Americans eat meat, but take their meat from small Styrofoam trays; it doesn't look like part of an animal, it looks like part of a dinner, like sliced cheese, or packages of something. I think that if you're going to eat meat you should be reminded it's an animal.
And then in the last few days we've seen so many paintings and sculptures of carcasses, human ones, or semidivine; men and women who have been steamed, or boiled in oil, or grilled on an iron (we saw St. Laurence's gridiron just yesterday), or nailed up, or hacked apart. It seems you can't be Christian unless you dwell on these things; and Christians are conventionally carnivores, except on Fridays; it's logical that they be reminded of mortality; transubstantiation depends on it.
Oh well. On the way home we stopped in at the local pastaficio, a tiny place dominated by the refrigerated counter housing strozzapreti, ravioli, raviolini, gnocchi, malfatti, penne, and three or four other things, all made by hand (and a single small electric rolling-out machine) in an adjacent room, glassed over so there could be no secrets.
I was attracted first by a hand-lettered sign on the door: Pace si; no alle guerre. Peace yes; no to wars. Then I was attracted by a jar of honey that could only have come from Sardinia, and I noticed a bottle of Sardinian wine on a shelf. Tutti qui viene di Sardegna, I asked; yes, it's all Sard; Perche, I asked, because we are Sard, the nice lady answered. So we bought some raviolini stuffed with mushrooms.
Further along the short way home we went into the local CRAI mini-super, where we bought a bottle of water and a bottle of milk; and then I stopped into the greengrocer on our own piazza, guilty at not having bought vegetables from him, and got a bottle of the white wine from Campania we drink, light and a little spritzy and very cheap.
And then it was out for the day's touring, which I won't bore you with. Well, a little: we spent the afternoon at S Giovanni Laterano, the mother church of the Christian world, looking at marvelous mosaics, a fragment of a Giotto fresco, a delightful cloister, and an impressive baptistry going back to Roman times. What am I saying? They're ALL Roman times: I mean paleochristian times.
Lunch was at a little dive, the Fly Bar (God knows why so called), a ham sandwich for L., a tortellini in ragout for me with a glass of red wine, and a bottle of water and a coffee; ¤12.50 altogether, and worth all of it and no more.
And then back for more sight-seeing, and home to fix dinner. Lindsey made a favorite of ours, slicing peeled blood oranges thin, intercalating them with thinly sliced raw onion, and dressing them with oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar. Then we had the raviolini with just oil and fresh-ground pepper and a little salt. Then we had salad, the puntarelli and a half a small radicchio tossed with vinaigrette ma façon, as the French would say. And with it a slice of bread, and most of the bottle of white wine.
Puntarelli are, as far as I can see, the base and stem of chicory heads, the leaves all removed leaving only the stems, those then slit vertically into very fine fingers all still attached at the base, and the whole machine put into ice water to make it curl and stay firm. There isn't a trace of bitterness. It's crisp, firm, bright — a little like celery without the celery flavor but with considerable lettuce flavor. Mixed with sliced radicchio (which lends the needed foil of bitterness) it's absolutely wonderful, and the oil and garlic, the salt and vinegar only push the whole thing into high relief, like the fine carvings we saw in the cloister.
Like what I hope will happen, ultimately, to Streetwise Rome.
15: Cold weather
S. Egidio, Jan. 22
The old woman at the tram-stop was in a swivet, and who could blame her. We were waiting for the #3 to Circo Massimo, because that's the closest Metro stop. We'd taken the #8 down to the #3, because we were a little bit lazy, and a little bit more in a hurry. We're spending the day at Hadrian's Villa, and there's no time to lose, and it's already eleven in the morning — it takes time to get started, you have to make coffee, make phone calls, make appointments; and then, we tend not to get started until past eight o'clock; it's so nice to snuggle down for an extra half-hour.
The old woman in the swivet has noticed that three #3 trams have gone by the other way, but none has come back our way. Further, we've all noticed that each of the last six trams to come our way was a #8. What can this mean? The #8 has only three or four stops to go before it comes to the Argentina, the end of the line! We've probably seen the same car go by two or three times, in both directions!
The old woman mutters, then complains, then expostulates. This requires a good deal of arm-waving, and she's right to do it. Each arm goes out away from the shoulder: she is expressive. The man next to her answers with his right hand, which circles expressively clockwise. A younger woman in a fur agrees, thrusting her chin up and to the right, in the direction all the #8s go, and we expect to go finally on our #3, if it ever comes.
It is COLD! We aren't used to this. At home it gets cold at night, colder than it does here, but it always warms up some once the sun's up, even if the sun's not out, if you see what I mean. Here it's just cold, cold. This has its advantages: the air is clear and it's not raining. But it's hard to deal with.
For one thing our apartment is toasty warm all the time. I'm not sure how it's heated or how the heat is regulated. I could find out; it must be in the house notes our capable landlady has provided; but there's been no need to adjust anything, chiefly because in fact we like it toasty warm.
The trams are warm, too, when they finally show up. But the tram stops are all outside, next to the tramtracks, and they are cold. So you're constantly adjusting things: gloves, scarf, jacket zipper. Most of the people around me do this with considerable grace and panache; I do it clumsy and slow.
It was cold out at Hadrian's Villa, which we spent the day visiting. There was ice on the cobbles, particularly of course in shaded areas; and it wasn't always visible. You have to be careful. Like so many places we've visited Hadrian's Villa is full of staircases and steps. There are quite up-to-date concessions to the handicapped, but they're only in the form of blue plaques pointing out wheelchair routes. These of course bypass all the interesting aspects of the Villa, by which I mean everything except a few gravel paths among the olive trees.
Those areas are pleasant too, of course, but you can have them just about anywhere. What you can't have just about anywhere is Hadrian's Villa. Though even that is not technically true: you can have built it anywhere you want — if you're a Roman Emperor. Our guidebooks go into frenzies of speculation as to why he built it where he did, at the foot of the low mountain on which was, and is, the town of Tivoli. Everyone else built high on the mountain, partly to get above the malaria belt, partly for the view.
Not Hadrian. He bought up cheaper property, not down on the plain but on a low shelf above it, and there he built what was apparently something like San Simeon, something like Palm Springs, something like the Metropolitan Museum. We spent a half day poking around. We'd armed ourselves with a guidebook dedicated expressly to the purpose, but even so we were almost immediately disoriented: it must be the cold.
I wrote last time about my insane desire to be able to translate Seen-From-Above into See-Straight-Ahead. Forget it. Rome exists in four directions, after all, and none of them is easy. I can usually orient myself fairly easily: at noon, my shadow points north. But here at Hadrian's Villa there are so many shadows! The ruins exist in three or sometimes four storeys above ground, and two or three (or God knows how many more) below. All the above-ground ruins cast shadows, and they're cast onto quite rumpled terrain.
There's not a natural hill among the Seven Hills of Rome, nor among the rises, ridges, swales, declivities, hummocks, wallows, or humps of Hadrian's Villa. Everything here, everything for hundreds of miles around, has been leveled, heaped up, hollowed out, filled in, built upon, scooped out, excavated. So much for shadows.
And on top of the three normal dimensions there's that final, exhausting, murderous one: Time. What we walk on has been put on something a thousand years old; and that was put on top of something a thousand years old, and that in turn was put on top of something a thousand years old. Yesterday on the Palatine hill we tried to make sense of some of this. All I wanted to see was Romulus's hut, which was actually identified not too long ago from post-holes the archaeologists found, or said they'd found, on top of the hill, or maybe it was under a few layers of hill that later settlers, farmers, builders, developers, emperors, plunderers, and archaeologists had piled on top of the original holes.
I think they exist. There's a model of the whole thing in the Capitoline Museum, and We Have Seen It. That was itself a triumph, just finding the Museum, which was in fact an imperative, as it was pretty likely there would be facilities there, facilities which are otherwise few and far between.
(I'm told there was a day when Rome, like the Paris I used to know, was supplied with reasonably well-distributed public facilities for at least the stronger sex. Pissotieres, I mean. No longer. There are neither pissotieres nor those dreadful J.C. Decaux machines that have replaced them in Paris. There are only parked cars in narrow streets. But I digress.)
There is no natural vertical dimension to be found here, except that you know that in general the lower you go the further back in time, unless you're taking the Metro. From our piazza, for example, you walk slightly downhill along the Lungaretta toward the river. Fine; you expect a river to be lower than the city on its banks. But when you get to the river you climb up, of course, because Rome walled the river in, maybe a little over a century ago, to keep it from occasionally flooding the city. So then you cross the bridge and look down on the island, the island we have yet to explore though it's only minutes from home. And on the other side you walk downhill to the temples and the cattle-market that were once on the level of the riverbank and a respectable height above its waters.
I'm a simple guy, I grew up in the country, I expect the terrain to be pretty much as it was before White Man got there and began messing it up. Furthermore I have enough intellectual curiosity to mess me up when I'm trying to deal with things like Rome. So all this confuses me utterly.
Yesterday's plan was simple: Explore the Palatine Hill. Today's ditto: Hadrian's Villa. It would take months and a graduate seminar to scratch the, um, surface, not that the surface has been much more than scratched, of either.
So we take solace in the simple pleasures. Tram, metro, and bus got us out to the Villa in a little over an hour. Then we walked fifteen minutes or so through some town or other, I don't know its name, to the Villa; bought our tickets, and walked another five or ten minutes up a gentle hill to the Villa itself. There we found one the facilities, and a Dutch couple from Amsterdam, who told me what I wanted to know about the current Dutch political situation (prime minister eager but untrained, Queen patient but constitutionally forbidden from ruling) while I waited for someone.
A few hours walking about the ruins, accompanied by a very sweet marmalade-colored cat.
A short half-hour in a corner bar waiting for the bus. (Here we continued our scientific research into Bitters, it being too cold for Gelati. Lindsey had a Ramozzotti, warmed by running steam through it from the espresso machine — thanks, Marta, for that lesson. It was bracing, like a very slightly alcoholic tea. I had a simple Averna. Normale? asked the barman, wondering if I wanted it steamed. Si, normale, I answered, perche io son normale, because I'm normal. He agreed and poured it out.)
A conversation with the couple seated ahead of us in the bus when it inexplicably turned 180 degrees away from Rome to climb into a tiny village where no one got on the bus or off. Do you know where you're going? he asked me in good American English. Yes, I said, To hell in a handbasket, thanks to my leader. The couple turned out to be from Monterey; he's a waiter in Big Sur; they only come to Italy in January when they can get a vacation.
A longer conversation with the Bus Police who wanted to make sure I had a ticket for the bus. Failure to prove this: █51, which is getting close to $70. My wife has it, I said, shouting at her to come back. She rummaged through her purse for five minutes looking for it. Six bored cops stood around giving one another very big eyes. Then I remembered that I had them; I showed them to the cops; they agreed they were probably valid; we went on.
Dinner at home: rigatoni with oil and pepper and parmesan, salad, Perotti's Dolcetto. And so it goes.
S. Egidio, Jan. 23
Struck dumb; speechless; at a loss for words. Not my usual state. As Rossini says: freddo ed immobile, come una statua cold and motionless, like a statue. It may have been the influence of all those statues we've been seeing; it might very well have been the cold.
But in fact it was the young man who walked up to us purposefully in the portico of S. Maria Maggiore, where we had spent a pleasant hour or more alternately reading fine print in dim light and then gazing at almost splendid mosaics as long as the euro-in-the-slot meter would allow, and who addressed us directly in lightly accented English: Would you mind signing our petition?
I looked at him a full ten seconds without moving. Why was this guy speaking to me in English? Lindsey then answered, something, it didn't register on me, I was still standing cold and motionless, and the young man was clearly enjoying himself.
Where are you from, he went on, California? Northern California? I finally answered him: why are we speaking English? Well, he said, reasonably, you look like you're from San Francisco. Do you know City Lights Books? Of course, I said, everyone knows City Lights Books. You look like Ferlinghetti, he said, are you Lawrence Ferlinghetti?
I detached myself from Ferlinghetti. No, I said; I'm no poet. He seemed a little disappointed. Do you like San Francisco music, he wondered. What would that be, I asked; Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, he answered, his accent thickening up on those words.
I told him that in fact I had known Phil Lesh in the old days, and his eyes widened; I think he began to think I was lying about not being Ferlinghetti.
We signed the petition, which was against AIDS and for human rights, and put a little money in the box it all seemed quite legitimate and walked out into the cold cold gathering twilight. I was a little annoyed. The Italians, in my experience, don't speak to you in English unless they have heard you speaking English, and then they rarely do; partly because they don't always speak English themselves, partly because they're Italian.
When I really need to know something from someone I usually start out by asking if they speak English. Once in a while they do; they really do. People in the computer business; the young woman in the architectural bookstore; the telephone operator at the opera company. More often they either do not, or else they speak English imperfectly, about the way I speak Italian. In that case we speak English, but soon we're speaking Italian; it just seems easier.
I'm often surprised at the American surprise that other nations are different, have their own languages and agendas. An e-mail list I read has been commenting on the recent French decision to ban Moslem head-scarves from public schools. This is about on a level, it seems to me, with our banning prayer from public schools: it's simply an affirmation of a secular government. The schools are governmental institutions; hence religious observation is excluded from them.
The Italians, I'm told, agreed completely with the French, until someone pointed out that in that case there should be no crucifixes in schoolrooms. No crucifixes; how could that be? Crucifixes are standard issue; they belong in rooms just as do light-switches, or doorknobs. Walls demand crucifixes; no self-respecting hotel bed lacks one, any more than its bathroom lacks that mysterious pull-cord in the shower, or over the bathtub, pulling which is said to bring paramedics panting into the most intimate of moments, because you must have just slipped on a bar of soap and fallen and broken your neck.
The day started out in a couple of local museums, the Farnesina with its amazing frescos and then the Palazzo Corsini with its dark brooding paintings and cold and motionless statues. The Farnesina guards let us in without paying: we're over 65. The very nice lady at the Corsini, who complimented me on my Italian it's a frequent compliment, to which I always respond that I may speak it well but I don't understand it at all regretted that she had to charge us, as we were from the United States, and there is no reciprocal agreement between the two countries, as there is among all the European Community members.
I said I was sorry to be an American too, these days, and she assured me that our foreign policy was not my fault, there are governments and then there are citizens, a distinction that should be made more often.
Out the Corsini windows it was snowing, large feathery flakes that drifted down so slowly that at first I thought they must be ash. They didn't stick, but they looked cold. We walked through this odd weather to a local trattoria for salt cod, it being Friday, and to sit out the snow.
The afternoon work consisted in buying concert and opera tickets. We'll hear a youth orchestra Sunday noon at the Teatro Argentina, where Rossini's Barber of Seville was laughed off the stage at its premiere. (Maybe that's why "Freddo ed immobile" is on my mind.) Then Wednesday we'll hear a Respighi opera, being given its first ever performance, ninety years after its composition. And another orchestra, the chief one in this city, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, is playing Sibelius and Bruckner, and that beckons, if we can get tickets.
Rome, I read today in the guide we finally bought and should have had all along, in spite of its fine print, the TCI (Touring Club Italiano) guide, now has close to two and a half million inhabitants, so it's no surprise there's a music scene. Theater too: there are about seventy legitimate theaters well, maybe some aren't quite so legitimate listed in the weekly where-it's-at directory.
I may have suggested to some of you that we thought a month would give us a chance to get to know this city, at least its surface. Wrong. As I've written, it has no surface; it's all depth and complexity. We're all too aware that the remaining time is dwindling, and though we're cheerful about ruling some things out theater, the Vatican, expensive restaurants there's still a lot we'd like to do.
Well, we'll just put on an extra pair of socks and head out across the Tiber and follow our noses. We may be cold but we're not motionless, and unlike the statues we have our noses, at least for the moment.
S. Egidio, Jan. 24
We came here armed with any number of guidebooks some borrowed, some bought for the trip. And we arrived to find a number more in the apartment we'd rented one, in fact, written by the woman who owns the apartment, a very pleasant New Yorker transplanted lo these many years to this city.
Of course the ideal guidebook has yet to be published. Only Borges could write it, as it would have to be magic, to know exactly what you want to read, to exclude all else. Then after Borges had written it it would have to be perfectly illustrated. Two kinds of photographs: those showing the area as it is, and those showing it as it was. (There are guidebooks like this, and they're very interesting. You see, say, the Colosseum as it looked when it was new; then you lift the clear plastic overlay on which the reconstruction is printed to reveal the present appearance. The change is not always for the better.)
And maps: the map would show not only the area you're interested in, with the street-names clearly legible and street-numbers provided (this is very important, Roman street-numbers are a little bit confusing); but also the two best ways to get from where you are to where you want to be, both on foot and in public transportation. (And the latter would be annotated to advise you as to whether the tram will if fact arrive, and whether track-work will keep it from going to where you want to arrive.)
Ideally all this would be available both as a small book, easily slipped into your pocket, and as a file you can put on your Palm or whatever handheld computer you prefer. And it would glow in the dark, of course, so you could read it at night, or in the church in question, or the restaurant.
And, speaking of restaurants, it would include lists of them arranged by area, by price, and most important of all by whether they are actually open or not; and an indication of the general quality wouldn't hurt either.
What we've been using for the most part are these:
National Geographic guide, because our landlady wrote it, and the prose is good, the selection of sites useful, the photos inspiring.But yesterday I finally found and bought the best guide so far, the Touring Club Italiano (TCI) guide. I'd been lusting after it for quite a while, but 1) I couldn't find it when I wanted it 2) When I could find it I was suddenly aware of the need to economize, and it costs ¤15. But finally yesterday there it was at the big Feltricinella bookstore on the Argentina and I by God bought it.
DK, because the exploded illustrations showing city blocks and walking itineraries seems realistic. (But oh dear it's heavy.)
Access, because it leads you to shops, restaurants, historical sites, and museums with equal nonchalance, reinforcing the idea we already have that all such categories are of equal value.
An old (1980) Blue Guide, because it has detailed information about the historical sites. But of course it is out of date, not so much about the history, that doesn't change that much, but the hours and accessibility and all that have changed in many cases.
Lonely Planet, because it's compact, has useful information about phone numbers and restaurants and such, and provides a fair amount of historical value.
Last night looking it over I discovered that there was a production error. The other side of page 705 was not 706; it was 912 or something; and the next page was 913; then it went back to 708. Thirty-two pages on, same kind of problem; repeating for hundreds of pages. Clearly the signatures had got messed up, and it wasn't a binding problem, it was a problem in how the pages had been photographed, or computerset, or whatever. This as you can imagine irritated me vastly.
This morning I called TCI to advise them of the problem. They didn't seem too happy to hear the news. They requested I pay them a visit. Since the place in question was on today's itinerary I obliged. They looked at my copy, disappeared with it, and then provided me with another, identical in every respect except for the errors.
I thanked the nice man with great humility and sincerity and then asked if many copies had appeared with this same problem. Oh no, he said, very few; very few. But if you buy a TCI Rome I would advise you to check into this.
Well, it isn't really a guidebook; it's a reference book. It is based on the very observation I was elaborating a few dispatches back: Rome is four-dimensional. It begins by advising you to walk from east to west looking at recent history, then from south to north thinking about imperial Rome. This is after 140 pages of introductory Roman history.
There follow hundreds of pages organized by the various quarters or neighborhoods, with Blue Guide-type detail in the descriptions of the great public buildings, and considerable detail concerning history, political movements, and the like. There are really only two problems: the book is in Italian, and it provides no help with restaurant choices. (It doesn't glow in the dark, either, and its type is small; but at least it is fairly compact, given its 1006 pages.)
Today the weather was glorious, though cold, and we took a very long walk, from the Argentina to the Piazza di Spagna, then to the Piazza del Populo, up into the park overlooking that piazza, back down again and across to the Tiber, down the river to the Mazzini bridge, and across to the Botanical Garden. This took about five hours, including the conversation at TCI, stops at a couple of cafes, and long pauses here and there.
It was exactly the kind of day I love. The city was populous, especially around the Spanish Steps, but not pocketpickingly tight, if you see what I mean. All the shops are having sales, so lots of people are out buying things, or at least windowshopping. But the city's not beset by tourists; these people are mostly all Romans. You don't even really have to reserve dinner at trendy restaurants; they're not full.
So the Piazza del Populo, for example, was empty enough that you could really drink in its architecture, both down in the piazza itself and from the belvedere up in the Pincio Gardens to its east. We strolled about the gardens, taking care not to slide on occasional icy patches, and were amused at a Hobbit Fair with tents set up serving mulled wine and "medieval lunch," and young people dressed as gladiators and princesses, and little children pedalling around on rented pedal-cars.
And we struck up a long conversation with a guy selling "watercolors," who explained the topographical layout of the city and its parks, the orientation I mean, and told us what were the best times to visit (May and October), detailing the meteorological advantages, and finally sold us a watercolor after dropping the price to a sixth the original without our having done any bargaining at all.
The walk along the Tiber was marvelous, the tall sycamores leafless but somehow benevolently protective above us, the frequent bridges going this way and that across the river because of its reverse curve in this part of town.
The Botanical Garden is not at its best in January; the roses and iris are only fond memories, but the bamboo forest and the ferns are remarkable, the redwoods and Torrey pines pleasantly familiar, the palms and agaves exotic in this setting but reminiscent of home and the vistas from the heights of the garden, across the river and the rooftops to the snowy mountains all around to the north and east, were really quite memorable.
It is clear we will be back. I don't know why we've put this off so long, but I'm not regretful that we did; we can enjoy it now without pressure; we're old enough to merge our own tempo, our own values even, with the eternal ones here. I still don't like cities, but I like Rome. There's a saying: Roma non basta una vita; for Rome a lifetime is insufficient. I suppose that's true. But for a lifetime Rome is perhaps, in some sense, required; I mean, with Rome a lifetime begins to make some sense. Especially if the pages follow one another in an orderly way.
18: Money and trees
S. Egidio, Jan. 24
The receipts pile up in my top dresser drawer, migrating there every from the desk every Friday morning, when we have to clean the house for the house cleaners. Lindsey says: be sure to give me all those receipts, it's the only way I have of knowing the cash expenditures. I say: You'll have to wait, I have to log them, so I know where we were when, and what we bought.
Why do you want to do that, she says, it's a waste of time. Yes, maybe, I answer, but it's a discipline, it's what I do. It's a poor discipline, she says; yes, I say, but it's the only discipline I have. You'll have to wait.
In fact for years now every Italian cash-register has printed out the time and date, the name and address, and of course the amount, of each transaction. And in Italy it's a crime, probably a Federal or whatever the national government is crime, not to have a receipt for a transaction. If you don't have it you might have stolen it, is one way of looking at this law: but if you don't have it, another reading goes, you might have paid for it under the table, there might be some kind of tax bypassed. The association of governmental supports and paranoia is boundless.
My glass is half full most of the time; it is rarely half empty. I like to try to be as optimistic as possible in this most present of all possible worlds. So we don't really have that much bad luck on these travels. Nevertheless there have been little glitches lately, rain, missed busses, trams that don't show up. And suddenly I realized I haven't been giving money to beggars.
Not only that: I've been feigning not seeing them. This occurred to me quite forcefully yesterday on a bridge, when I averted my eyes from a woman, I guess it was, sitting on the bridge, with her hand out. It's not a common sight; I mean you don't see a beggar every block or so, but there are certain places where they're not out of place: especially the porches of churches and important bridges.
I guess without going into the matter too analytically I would say there are now three orders of beggars here in Rome. There are the gypsy types, like the woman I ignored yesterday on the bridge. These are miserable. They often bend alarmingly if standing, or shake as if palsied. They wheedle and, well, beg. They wear head-scarves and colorful but dirty or faded outer garments; they tend to be shapeless and their faces are invisible. You have no idea how old they are.
I don't know which would be worse, I told Lindsey, to be permanently bent over like that, or to bend over like that deliberately from nine to five in order to make a living. Either way it's lamentable.
(There's a subcategory of this order, the clearly crippled, or burnt, or loathsome. Fortunately we've seen only one or two of these on this trip.)
Then there are the people whose job it is to beg. I mean they make a social contribution of some kind by begging, just as others make social contributions by writing music reviews, or cooking dinners, or building houses. At the top of this group, for me, are the musicians, I mean the ones who don't use electricity, the real musicians. But these vary enormously on the skill axis. Some are really quite good; others are so-so; some really only pretend to be musical.
Now and then on the tram or the subway there'll be a musician, usually playing the stomach Steinway, but sometimes some other instrument. Yesterday on the Metro there was a violinist: this seems really dangerous on a crowded subway car. An upbow could blind an innocent bystander, turning him into a Beggar Type One. But the guy was careful, and it was easy for him to bow carefully, because he was no violinist at all; he repeated the same phrase from "Carmen" over and over, like a demented Steve Reich. Fortunately our stop came and we got off without ever actually having to deal with him.
Another time there was, believe it or not, a cimbalon player. This must be the instrument least suited to the job: it's big; it's clumsy. The cimbalon is a sort of small piano without its keys or case. You hammer on its strings with little spoon-ended sticks, one in each hand. When you're not playing, at least if you're this guy, the cimbalon folds up against your chest; when there's room, you hinge it down and have at it. He wasn't really bad, though the repertoire was, again, limited. I don't know how he collected his pay: with all that apparatus, and both hands busy hammering away at Lady of Spain, it's hard for the tin cup to come into play.
Two or three weeks ago we heard a guy playing passable violin on the Argentina, and his wife banging away on a rattle to accompany him, or maybe she was urging him on, or at least urging him to keep to the straight and narrow. She was playing a sistrum. This is an ancient instrument, a sort of big two-tined fork with jingle-bells strung between the tines. You see it being played by angels in thousand-year-old mosaics, but you don't see it in the usual modern dance-band or symphony orchestra. She played with a will, and he played with a certain amount of grace and fantasy. But they were across the street, and we didn't contribute.
We haven't contributed to very many of these people, and that was beginning to get on my nerves today. Partly I haven't been contributing because of the annoying presence of the Type Three beggars, the ones who look perfectly well-bodied and competent but who would rather live under bridges with dogs, often Labrador retrievers, and play at playing the guitar or something, than do something productive. But who am I to know what their situation is, or how they got there, or how supportive their parents, or families, or Church, or government, is, in their particular case? So even there you have to think: either I give money from time to time, and to hell with whether it's deserved or not, or else I make an excuse to justify myself, and keep my spare change in my pocket.
And then you see the Type One who has a sign: Your pocket change means nothing to you; it means something to eat to me.
So I've begun, a little belatedly, separating the small change in my pocket. The one- and two-euro pieces go in my change purse, to be used for purchases; the others, even the fifty-cent pieces, are loose in my pocket. When I see one of these people I slip a coin into the hand, or the cap, or the basket, or the violin-case. It may be a nickel, it may be a half-dollar. That's up to chance. Maybe they "deserve" it, whatever that means, maybe they don't. That too is up to chance.
By and large people here are honest. I saw a guy running out of a bar and down the street yesterday, calling out to a departed customer: Signor! Signor! Ha lasciato questo! He was waving a coin, so it couldn't have been more than two euros, and he was running down the street to give it back. You couldn't help but think of Abraham Lincoln.
Tonight we went downstairs to the Ombre Rosse, on the ground floor of our building, for an aperitif. Martini time. The Martinis here are just right. It was cold, even under the propane burner on the street, but it was full inside, and besides we wanted to watch the world go by, or the tiny part that ambulates the Piazza San Egidio; and besides the sky was a magnificent deep cerulean blue, and a thin fingernail of a moon hung over the museum across the street.
Lindsey pointed out a guy sitting down at the other end of the terrace. He wore an unnecessarily big beret rakishly draped off one side; he had tortoiseshell glasses; he smoked a pipe; he ostentatiously read a newspaper on a stick, one of the cafe's newspapers; he drank from a demitasse.
He was me, I realized, forty years ago. I saw myself sitting out in front of the Piccolo Espresso, where today's Mediterraneum is, on Telegraph Avenue. Strange to see forty years parade past over a Martini. On the whole, I told Lindsey, I don't regret these forty years; they've been good.
The waitress had charged six fifty for our drinks, and I gave her a ten-euro note, wondering what the hell was going on. Sure enough she came back a little later, with a long apology in Roman Italian. I may still be wearing my black fedora, but I don't look like a Californian at the Ombre Rosse, not even like Ferlinghetti. She spoke Italian to me, and apologized that she'd forgotten to ring up Lindsey's Frascati superior, which brought the bill right up to ten euro, six fifty for my excellent Martini, three fifty for Lindsey's wine. I left a euro extra.
Tipping here runs say eight or ten percent, at least that's what I do. The whole thing has changed alarmingly in the last few years. It used to be that service was included, but the Americans have ruined the system here as they have in France. They misunderstood the system and went on tipping anyway, fifteen or twenty percent, ostentatiously. Since things are cheap (well, except for Martinis), why not leave more change on the table? But that of course distorts the whole equation, and the equation must needs inevitably recover its balance.
That's been done here, as often in France, by abolishing the service compris system. You almost never see "servizio incluso" on the bill. I don't know how the service staff is paid; I'll have to try to find that out. In the meantime it's back to tipping, which I hate to do. It seems, somehow, to make beggars of the waiters. Next thing you know they'll be wearing cimbalons.
But what has any of this to do with trees, you reasonably ask. It's just that while sitting in the Ombre Rosse we were admiring our piazza, the Piazza S. Egidio, with the pink-stucco'd museum across the way, where we saw that interesting Moravia show, and the dark flank of S. Maria in Trastevere up to our left, and the handsome grey building down the other way that closes off the bottom end of the piazza.
Lindsey said, suddenly, And there are trees in our plaza. And it's true. There are trees; you can see them right there softening the stucco buildings and the cobblestone pavement. There are not that many trees in Rome. You see pines in odd public corners, like at the corners of Piazza Venezia, and if you look up in the sky you occasionally see them in roof gardens. Of course you see them in the Botanical Garden, wonderful trees; there are a couple of Sequoias, and there's a sycamore said to be getting on toward four hundred years old. You see them in the other big parks — Rome has a number of parks — the Pincio, the Borghese, the Celian, the Palatine.
But you don't see trees on the streets, with very few exceptions. The Viale Trastevere is bordered by trees, which rates a mention in the TCI guide. The river of course is bordered by trees. But we can walk from our house, down the via della Scala, up the Lungara, maybe half a mile, without seeing a tree.
The restaurants and cafes mostly all have "terraces" outside their doors with a few tables and chairs, and if it's not actively raining (or snowing) there'll be people sitting there — we took our drinks at the Ombre Rosse outside tonight, we took that photo from our table, and we were wearing gloves and mufflers even under the heaters. And around such terraces there is often greenery, little shrubby things in big terracotta pots, or pots that look like terra cotta but are in fact plastic, the terra cotta breaks when it freezes, or when someone hits it with a hand-truck delivering a few cases of wine or artichokes, or when a car or a motorbike runs into it rather than hit a pedestrian. But such shrubby things are not trees.
Day by day I recognize that the other axis — I mean the one that counters the axis of Time — is an axis of Rural-Urban. The declivity, as I see it, from pagan times to monotheism is in fact simply the movement from rural life to urban. People need trees, as surely as they need skies and water. I think when street trees are vandalized, as they so often were in our part of Berkeley; when kids or hoodlums deliberately break them, break off branches or even break the saplings at the ground, they do so because they resent not the tree but the paucity of trees. And so we appreciate them the more when we see them, here in our Piazza S. Egidio; and we seek them out when we need to relax, to come back to ourselves, on days like today, after days of overstimulation by the city, by its people, its ages, its hierarchies, its repressive history.
19: Innocence abroad
S. Egidio, Jan. 24
Yes, I know, Mark Twain's book was called "Innocents Abroad." I haven't read it. (The shelves of books remaining to be read are infinitely long.) But I like the idea of innocence abroad; innocence is what we two country bumpkins have, in spades.
Today, for example, we went to a concert. The program was interesting: Schubert's Fifth Symphony, which I like very much, and Shostakovich's First Symphony, which I tolerate more than the fourteen or so that followed. For one thing, he was only seventeen or so when he wrote it; you have to admire its precocity, if nothing else.
But what was most stunning of all was the concert hall. What an incredible pleasure to hear music in a place like the Teatro Argentina! We didn't really know what to expect. We climbed to our seats, two chairs in a little room of our own, three tiers up the seven or eight tiers of similar boxes, all rising perpendicular like shelves in a horseshoe-shaped cabinet. Lindsey hung her purse on the back of her chair and draped her jacket over it; I got out of my hat and my scarf and my jacket and my sweater; and we gaped at the hall, cream and red and gold as the inside of a jewelbox, brilliantly but subtly lit by lamps attached to the fronts of the boxes.
Below us, on the orchestra floor, perhaps four hundred armchairs were arranged in generous rows, staggered so that each person looked between the two ahead toward the stage. We were early but the orchestra section filled pretty well; it was amusing to see that perhaps a third of the audience was reading the sunday paper a photo would have made good publicity for Corriere della Sera.
The tiers of boxes in the Teatro Argentina... ...and the audience below with their newspapers
At 11:30 the orchestra came on stage to enthusiastic applause, rather a small orchestra for the Schubert; then the concertmaster, who stood to take the oboist's "A," repeat it to the string sections one by one, and then take his seat; and then the conductor, Nada Matosevic, a pleasantly pretty woman from Croatia. We knew from the moment the oboe sounded that "A" that these were exceptional acoustics, and the performance bore it out.
Schubert of course is utterly transparent, but you forget how inventive his orchestration often is the unexpected solo appearances in the winds, the odd doublings, the skillful use of French horns. Matosevic urged the orchestra through quite brisk tempi, and the strings weren't always up to them. But what surprised us, what revealed our own naivety at this concert, was how fresh, clear, and immediate everything sounded. I've heard my share of orchestra concerts and then some, but I realized this morning that I'd never really heard an orchestra play (except for the very special sound of an orchestra heard from within, while performing as a part of the ensemble). Instead I've always heard a room with an orchestra playing in it.
The funny thing is that the hall was built as an opera house, not a concert hall; it has a proscenium stage (whose front curtain was never opened); opera is still played there often, and it's used for legitimate theater as well. But it makes a fantastic concert hall, and the many solos in the Shostakovich, for solo violin, viola, or cello, revealed that it would function equally well for chamber music.
And the other funny thing is, and this shows what an innocent I really am, that I've known all along that such halls are possible, we heard a magnificent performance of Die Zauberflöte once in a very similar hall in The Hague. But there's nothing as physical as actually hearing, put the word hearing in italics. The sound goes into your ears. You can do all the thinking about it, you can read about it, you can imagine it: but when it actually goes into your earholes and begins to interfere with your central nervous system, then you suddenly become physically aware.
So we heard the concert, and congratulated one another that we had heard it, and left the theater, waited at the light in the crowd, waited for the cars and the motorscooters, two guys each riding them, buzzing by close enough to touch you; and the light turned green and we crossed to Feltatrice to see if we could buy tickets to tomorrow night's concert. And, truth to tell, one of us wanted the facilities at Feltatrice, a very upscale bookstore with CDs and a box office and public restrooms. And while one of us decided to go to the box office the other of us said Where is my purse?
Well of course the other of us, namely me, I did not know where the purse was; I always assume the person who carries it knows where it is. I left it on the back of my chair, she said, her eyes wide with sudden concern and perhaps even fear. Go back right now, I said, and look for it, I'll go with you, you go to the box we had, I'll go to the office. But I realized it wasn't that simple.
She barged right past the doorman into the now empty theater. He looked at her, looked then at me, turned and looked at her again. I said to him, in the best Italian I could muster: she has left her purse, she is going to find it. I gave the two short whistles she always responded to and she stopped dead in her tracks and turned around like Orpheus (though she should have been Eurydice) and looked at me: Wait, I told her, he will go with her. I explained to him again what the situation was and they both went ahead of me.
I waited at the upstairs bar. I add quickly: I did not have a drink, I just lounged around. They were gone a long time. Finally I decided to go up to the box too, though I hadn't been invited. She was disconsolate: the purse was not there. The doorman said There is no purse, We must go downstairs. A woman in a green uniform was cleaning the halls with a vacuum cleaner. We went downstairs.
There is no office of things lost, he said. We went to the ticket office, where we learned there was no office of things lost. The purse was gone.
So we walked home and Lindsey thought about what was in the purse and she called one of the credit cards, the one that went with the checking account, and explained what had happened, and the card account was cancelled, and so was our checking account. She then tried to telephone our main credit card but our telephone card was now out of funds and the apartment telephone will not make long-distance calls so there was nothing more to do until we had another card.
I called the American Embassy because of course her passport was in the purse and the woman there sounded as if this happened every day and said that because of terrorism this was serious and we should go to the embassy tomorrow, Monday, and report it and make an application for a new passport. But she didn't ask for our names or anything.
Then I went downstairs to ask the police what we should do. There are always police downstairs in a car in the piazza, frequently the engine of their car is idling because the weather has been quite cold, this time it was idling and they were sitting there reading things as usual, I asked what to do and they said we should immediately go to the local police office, a five-minute walk away, and make a report, which in Italian is called fa un denuncio, which has the right denunciatory sound.
So we did that. The police station was colder than day before yesterday's scent, cold as a cigaret butt in the gutter. The cops were bored, arrogant, jumpy. We were buzzed past a steel door with a window in it and gestured to cold plastic chairs in a dim cold concrete corridor. Finally the specialist showed up and graciously invited us into his office, decorated with a large poster showing a man in a tuxedo embracing a woman in bikini underwear. He verified that we could speak Italian, since he spoke no English, and proceeded to interview us about the situation. He then shoved the denuncio form under Lindsey's nose, and she filled it out and signed it.
Then we went to the bakery and bought some pizza and a couple of jam tarts and we went to an internet office and bought telephone cards and went back to the apartment. Well I thought I'll call the credit card and block it but first I'll call the theater and make sure the purse hasn't turned up.
Of course it had turned up. So we ate our pizza and walked over to the theater. We'd been told to go to the stage door. There we found the usual security guard sitting at a little desk reading the newspaper. Draped over the partition next to his desk was another guy, the guy who actually had the purse, come with me he said, gesturing in that curious way Italians have of saying Follow me, they don't hold their hands up, palm to them, fingers up, and beckon rhythmically; instead they hold the palm down, level with the waist, fingers together, and wave rhythmically in a way that suggests, to an American at least, Wait right there. But we remembered this, and followed him.
We were led along dim corridors behind the scenes of the theater. There were a pair of kettledrums on one side, a string bass in its fiberglass case on another. Finally we reached his office. He beckoned us in. There was the purse: it was hers. The man looked triumphant. He never once asked us to describe something within it. He pointed out all the things that were still there, and if you think I'm about to describe them to you, you're crazy. The checkbook; the credit cards; the various identity cards, the passport; all were there. He told us several times at great length exactly how he'd found it, but neither of us ever once could figure out what the hell he was saying. It was apparently on a staircase. Maybe she dropped it; maybe someone stole it and dropped it; maybe a cleaning person had taken it and had found out it was being sought and had dropped it: we'll never know.
The man's face had been beat up over the years and he smelled of red wine but then it was just after lunchtime. He was like many people who work behind the scenes in theaters, maintaining a small and unnecessary but dignified job in a glamorous place. I gave him a small reward. I asked him about the backstage. He took us up onto the now empty stage. We discussed the theater. We left.
I'm not sure how Lindsey felt; I was curiously out of spirits. It was too late to do what we'd planned. We went on to Tazza d'Oro, the best coffeehouse in Rome, both for a badly needed espresso and for coffee for the kitchen. It was closed. We walked on home, planning to stop off for an ice cream. The route took us past the police station, and we stopped in to request a reversal of the denuncio. That wasn't so easy: the officer was concerned that the man who'd found the purse might have used the credit cards in the meantime, or taken a photo of the passport. This seemed extremely unlikely to me, and at risk of being subpoenaed by Mr. Ashcroft I assured him that we waived all rights in the matter and wanted to let bygones be bygones.
We went on to the gelateria on the piazza S. Cosimato which is known throughout all Rome for its chocolate gelato. It was closed.
But tonight we went out to dinner at a local trattoria, Trattoria da Lucia, thank you, Patty, and we had a wonderful dinner. Not the best, but perhaps the second or third best here, and cheap and homey and comfortable, and only a two-minute walk through the frigid night. And the best thing was that they don't take credit cards, so even though we still have one we didn't need it.
I've given considerable thought in the last few hours to the stories I could tell about lost credit cards. The lost wallet in New York: I called and cancelled the cards; then the taxi came back to the hotel and gave me the wallet I'd lost. The stolen wallet in Torino: I reported the loss to the police and cancelled the cards; then someone phoned the hotel to say they'd found the wallet on the street; all the cards were in it. The time the credit card was cancelled because a woman in Greece had multiplied dollars by sixteen thousand to convert to drachmas, instead of dividing, and the bank cancelled the card when we assured them we hadn't spent $320,000 on flowers in Greece lately. And so on.
No harm done. What once was lost is now found, and we continue to leave the small change with the beggars and the musicians.
20: Who broke this stuff?
S. Egidio, Jan. 23
A friend points out that our piazza is "Sant'Egidio," not San Egidio. I know that, of course; male saints whose names begin with a vowel get an apostrophe; it's one of the subtler degrees of Catholic hierarchy. But knowing that I still fall into the mistake, perhaps influenced by the ubiquitous Spanish San this and San that in California. Apologies to all concerned.
The tourist brochure suggested that one of the museums still on the list, the one with the big Antonio Gaudi exhibition, was not closed on Monday, so after a morning round of the market we walked over to begin a carefully planned day. The museum was, of course, closed. Oh well: we walked on to Tazza d'Oro for a coffee, and then down toward the Piazza Venezia, to see what the Time Adventure was all about.
Two young people were standing out on the Via Corso wearing outlandish costumes, a sort of Cosmicomix attempt at typifying Imperial Rome. One, female, held a flyer out to me: No grazie, I said, English, she asked, Che pensa Lei, What do you think, I answered. By now we were all three walking down the alley toward the Time Adventure, where we were ushered (huckstered?) through the front door to a ticket window.
After a short wait there were ten or twelve of us, enough for the show. We were shown into a small room, quite dark. The girl closed the door. The lights came up on a few wall panels stating the theme: all of Rome would be laid before our unbelieving eyes. It may not have been built in a day, but it could be covered in forty minutes. We digested this information, then turned around to face the other wall, on instruction. A series of blue spotlights careened across the wall, picking out plaster busts of Augustus Caesar and Michelangelo, maps of Imperial and Renaissance Rome, and a few other items that made no sense to me.
Caesar came to life and told us that he'd found Rome brick and left it covered with marble. Michelangelo came to life and laughed at Caesar's ruins and boasted of his own achievements. The blue lights wandered about aimlessly.
We were told we would soon embark on a marvelous scientific journey through Time, and that people with back problems, pregnant women, and those dedicated to motion sickness might not want to participate. We trooped into a small auditorium with four groups of ten seats, in two ranks of five, faced a wall with three screens. Behind was a row of fixed seats, presumably for the faint of heart.
Oh-oh, I thought, I've heard of these things. But it was too late. We put on our headphones, dialed "2" for English except the people in front of us, who dialed "5" for Espanol and waited to see what happened next. The panic bar jumped across our laps, as if we were in a carnival ride, and the journey began.
It was pretty hokey. Our seats were in constant motion. We "flew" over a riverbank forest to see the infants Romulus and Remus abandoned to the wolves, who looked a lot like German shepherds. We watched Nero sing, badly, to monotonous lyre accompaniment of his own improvisation, while a series of bonfires were superimposed on the photo of a plaster model of reconstructed Rome. We visited Michelangelo who was having a spat with the Pope about a few pagan intruders onto the Sistine ceiling.
Just as I was getting enough of the motion the show was over and we blinked our way out into the street. I asked Lindsey if she regretted our spending the time and the money; No, she said, it was interesting. What a fine woman I travel with! But I guess I don't regret it either; it's interesting to see these kinds of things now and then, to know what people are being sold. We saw a much better one in Tijuana years ago: the seats didn't move, but the projections were more sophisticated, film shot from the nose of a helicopter flying through the Copper Canyon, over the Yucatan jungle, past pods of whales, above mountain villages and huge Baroque churches.
We stopped in at the nearest bar for a Fernet to settle my stomach. We should have taken the Time Elevator next Monday, not today; we fly home next Tuesday, and any flight will seem more comfortable after sitting though this show.
Then, following our plan, we walked to the place the ArcheoBus leaves from, as the weather was uncertain, and an hour or two on a bus touring the city's major archaeological sites would be a pleasant way of sitting out any rain. We struck up a conversation with two men with the same idea, a guy from Antwerp whose native language was Dutch and his young friend who came from Toronto but whose native language was French from Quebec. The bus was due at two o'clock; twenty minutes later we gave it up to walk down Mussolini's Via Imperiale toward the day's main goal, S. Clemente.
The bus showed up immediately, of course, but we were halfway across toward Trajan's Market. What a place! Half a small mountain well, a pretty good-sized hill had been hauled away so that Apollodorus could prove his architectural skill building a retaining wall to hold back the rest of the hill, a four-storey shopping complex, if that's what it was, and it sure looks like it to me.
These Imperial Romans had invented concrete, and they had a fine time with it. Vaults, arches, arcades, columns there was nothing they couldn't do with it, it seems. The architectural style is repetitive, it's true; and being the postmodernists of their day it's a little too historicist for me; but you can't argue with its ambitions. But why is so much of it in such bad shape?
The whole historic center of Rome is a study in deferred maintenance. When you look down at the Imperial Forum and you do look down, because the Rome of 2000 years ago was about thirty feet lower than today's you see, scattered about the remaining marvelous pavements of marble slabs or mosic designs, nothing but fragments of things. Columns, capitals, bases, staircases, pots and pans, basins and sinks, flowerpots, and all of them broken.
It's like the remaining statuary. The Romans didn't like modern art, they liked copies of Greek things, and they made them by the hundreds. But then, perhaps drunk or bored, they went around breaking the heads off the torsos, and the noses off the heads. Why did they do this? Or was it someone else?
On, finally, to S. Clemente as the TCI guidebook calls it, "one of the most extraordinary and well conserved monumental palimpsests of the city." Richard and Marta had already led us here, a week or two ago, to see the frescos and mosaics, perhaps the finest we've really inspected; but on that occasion we'd lacked time for the basement. S. Clemente is a small basilica as these things go, but it's twenty times as big as our house or yours. And it was built on top of another, whose upkeep had got tiresome by 1100 or so. The Dark Ages didn't lack skill: they simply filled up the old basilica with rubble, of which there's an unending supply in Rome, and built this magnificent thing.
But what they'd filled with rubble was itself built on top of yet another layer, apparently of houses and a small temple or two. This had all succumbed to Nero's fire, a few years A.D., so rubble was trucked in for the foundation for an early Christian basilica.
A few centuries ago the whole thing was given to an Irish Dominican order, I don't know why, and in the 19th century the resident top priest, who was smitten with a sense of history and an amateur's enthusiasm for archaeology, began digging. He found the paleoChristian basilica soon enough, but things went on past that.
We followed a couple of French tour groups around, eavesdropping, but our tempo was slower than theirs. The frescos, columns, and floors are fascinating. Saint Clement's history strikes me as dubious, but it's an enchanting story; it's always interesting to see these stories combining pagan mythology, northern fairytale, and political lesson all in one narrative designed to entertain and amaze and perhaps instruct a little bit not unlike the Time Elevator, come to think of it.
But it was cold and dark and dank down there, even with our flashlight and sweaters and hat and scarves. When we emerged it was almost raining. The Number Three Tram was, amazingly, right there when we wanted it; we rode home in style and comfort; Lindsey roasted a chicken with forty cloves of garlic, and we've had another fine day. Just thought you might like to know.
S. Egidio, Jan. 24
Having just sent one of you a reassuring e-mail concerning the loss of wallets and such I paid the price yesterday, or almost.
We were out near S. Maria Maggiore, not my favorite part of town, but an errand took us there, and we decided to take a bus home, having walked through our feet, ankles, and knees on the cold hard floors of two museums out at EUR. (An account, perhaps, for another day.)
There were four or five of us waiting for the bus, and I wondered when it would come. I almost asked a woman standing not too far from me; she looked alert and helpful; but she was busy with a younger woman, probably her daughter, a girl or woman of twenty or so who seemed to be disabled in some way.
Anyway the bus came in a few minutes. Lindsey got on ahead of me, as usual, and a few bystanders pushed their way on next, as usual, and then I stepped into the doorway. The two women were in the doorway, having just got on, and they were holding onto the grab bars, and I couldn't get past them. I excused myself, but the younger woman, stone-deaf, did not move; finally I pushed through and sat down next to Lindsey.
I patted my pockets as I always do. My wallet was missing. I told Lindsey; we looked on the seat between us; then I went right back to the door the bus having in the meantime lurched onto the Via Cavour and confronted the two women.
Give me back my wallet, I ordered, in bad Italian. The younger woman did not hear. I repeated myself. The older woman looked at me curiously and rattled off a couple of sharply worded sentences in fluent Italian. I repeated myself: One of you has taken my wallet: I want it back. The older woman opened her bag and took a couple of things out, saying Look, I don't have your wallet.
I turned to the younger woman: Give me back my wallet. She continued to feing deafness. By now some other riders had been alerted and were looking on curiously. I put my hand on her shoulder, and she abruptly turned her face to me: I don't have your wallet, she said.
I know you have my wallet, I said; give it to me. She looked toward a raunchy-looking guy on the back seat, a man who might have been her father except that he was shabbily dressed and ill-kempt. He said something to her. She gave me my wallet.
I went back to my seat, where I looked into the wallet. Everything there except the cash. I had just made a cash withdrawal so I knew exactly the amount of cash that had been there. Another trip to the back of the bus to confront the sullen young woman.
Give me back my money, I said. I don't have your money, she said. I know exactly how much I had, I said; give it back.
I must have looked pretty threatening. She gave me a fifty. I took it and said Give me the rest. There is no more, she said. Give it to me NOW, I said, and she handed it over, a wad of banknotes she'd somehow crumpled together.
I went back to my seat and counted the money: twenty euros more than I'd had.
We got off at the next stop, Lindsey and I, and walked a little, across the Piazza Venezia from Trajan's Column to the Piazza S. Marco. There I saw the bus stop and the two women and the man get off. I stopped to see what would happen next. They saw me and separated from one another, blending into a crowd at the bus stop.
Then another bus hove into view, a crowded one, and they all three waited until no one else was getting on, then jammed themselves into the doorway. I walked up quickly to the door and shouted into the bus: Watch your pockets, everyone!
The women looked at me with some irritation, and the other riders looked at me curiously. Watch your purses, I repeated, shouting, Watch those two women! And I pointed at them, and the doors closed, and the bus pulled away.
I suppose I should have gone to the police with the story, but I thought What would they say, your pocket was picked, you got the wallet and the money back, they've disappeared into the crowd. I regret, keenly, that I didn't have the presence of mind to take their photograph: I had my camera in my side pocket, ready to work. God knows what they'd have done if I'd photographed them.
Anyway the moral is: keep a hand on your wallet; know what's in it; be ready to confront people; stay off crowded buses. A taxi is cheaper than the loss of a wallet.
We walked took the tram home, a nice empty tram, and got off two stops beyond ours in order to go to a highly-recommended gelateria to try their ice cream. We'd gone there Saturday, but it was just closing when we got there. Sunday was their day off. They were wide open for business when we got there yesterday, but there was no gelato; I don't know why. Something about not making it this week; perhaps the guy who makes it is on vacation.
Home to brood, then, and catch our breath, and then out to dinner at Al Moro. Good, quite good; but I'll report on all these restaurants later on.
Mind your pockets!
S. Egidio, Jan. 23
And so we lean into the closing days, with only the weekend and Monday left to us. There are two ways to approach this: 1) go crazy about all the undone things, unseen sights, and try to cram in as many as possible; 2) say Oh the hell with it and have a good time. We tend toward the latter.
And then yesterday the weather didn't exactly cooperate. The morning was glorious, but I sat in front of this computer writing an opera review, with further thought here about politics and history; it's fascinating to contemplate the years after the French Revolution, which seem to parallel those after the fall of the USSR, exactly two hundred years later. We spend perhaps too much time here watching CNN (whose treatment of the democratic candidates, especially Dean, borders on the criminally irresponsible; it's easy to see why CNN is thoughtful about the BBC affair), and the intersection of contemporary news with news from two centuries or two millenia ago continues to be meaningful.
But we also get out in the world, and yesterday took a bus up past the Vatican (which we have yet to visit, and almost certainly will not visit) to go quickly to the Piazza del Popolo. The bus was simple enough; we checked with a nice old woman, about five feet tall in a mock-Persian-lamb coat and a cloche hat and clutching both an umbrella and a reticule, and she smiled and said Yes, take this bus, then you can transfer; and then we struck up another conversation a bit later, and a slightly younger woman sitting in front of us joined in, and before long a regular imbroglio had begun between the two of them as to whether a tram or another bus was the correct strategy.
Oh well I said It doesn't matter, when you're on vacation any way you take is the right way. Yes, one of them said, Unless it rains. Oh well, the other one said, It can be very romantic when it rains. Romantic, I said, Imagine that, romantic, at my age. The woman smiled, perhaps at my Italian, and said Romantic, yes, at any age.
But in fact it was pouring when we got out a block from the Piazza del Popolo; it was no fun. We ducked into the Santa Maria to verify the tourguide's descriptions of the paintings, all of which can be illuminated for free with handy push-buttons. It was cold and damp. Why was no saint martyred, I wonder, by being forced to stand in the rain? Such a saint would do well here today. I imagine him tied to a post in the miiddle of a piezza, forced to gaze up into the rain... ah, but perhaps that's the reason: God would not send rain down on the innocent. Infidels provided flames and axes and lions and all that, but only God can provide the rain.
We hope He holds off today, and it looks as if He might. But yesterday was relentless. I stepped into the Borsalino store, hoping to find something on sale, but the obligatory sale shelf for it's my understanding the twice-annual sales in Italy are almost legally required held only a few knit hats for women. There was a hat I wanted, but it was over two hundred dollars. The hat will outlive me, I said to the bored svelte countergirls, who looked like rich languid movie stars; I don't want to leave such a hat to my son. (Well, I wouldn't mind, but I would like it to show some signs of wear first.)
On through the blinding rain, my own black rabbit-fur hat getting soaked of course, and into a cafe for two cappuccinos, one of them laced with grappa. Next to us two Japanese tourists drinking big glasses of beer with their white-bread ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
Then up to one of the best exhibitions yet, at the French Academy: a century of fashion. Here were scores of mannequins, the artificial kind, wearing Fortuny and Givenchy and Balmain and St. Laurent and Dior and Fath and even Quant and Gernreich, set out in rooms one or two to each decade. What an amazing parade this was, especially after seeing the fascinating collections of regional costumes a couple of days ago in the Museum of Folk Arts and Crafts.
Of course to my eyes the 20th century took a decided downward direction, in fashion at least, after the New Look. The highlights of the century are its first two decades and the late '40s and early '50s, with Dior and Balmain and Balenciaga always my favorites. One white wall was used as a screen for apparently haphazard projections of clips and stills, and there were Callas and Jackie and Audrey, as well as a number of anonymous starlets and models, all bright and optimistic in more innocent days when decadent capitalism was more fun and less dependent, or so it seemed, on the poverty and exertion of others.
We had taken a big lunch at a local Sard restaurant again, I'll leave such details to a separate dispatch for the foodies so it seemed logical to skip dinner, taking only a few pieces of fruit and a pot of tea in the evening. I began to think about how to sum up the restaurants, and also the museums, of which we've seen a fair number, though by no means all. I read the paper, La Repubblica today; nothing enchanting there. I took a look at the second volume of the complete Moravia, bought yesterday after searching a number of stores: over 1900 pages, worth any number of rainy evenings back home in Healdsburg. I reviewed the 457 photographs taken here so far this month fewer in the last few days, when even Rome has begun to become an everyday experience.
And so to bed, for the usual kind of dream, in which unexpected friends look in on various events and processes involving recent experience unsuccessful repairs to the pocket computer, dropped onto the tile floor; silly puns at the dinner table; books unread or unfound; trams taken or missed. You'd be surprised how many of you infiltrate these dreams; it's better not to write about it.
And now out into the sunshine for a final Friday (of January Rome, not final final), and a round of Etruscan statuary, and a gelato or two, and cocktails with a new friend, and so to bed.
S. Egidio, Jan. 30
We were nearing the end of dinner at Perilli; it was nearly ten o'clock; the restaurant was beginning to fill up. The three men at the table to our left had finished and gone; I noticed one hadn't quite finished his little glass of grappa; there were a few raisins still in it.
Almost immediately the table was cleared, and three people arrived and were seated there. They were three of the four principle characters in Moravia's first novel "Gli Indifferenti," which I learned last night had been translated into the American, in the mid-1930s, as "The Indifferent Ones." (The phase doesn't ring quite as naturally in English.)
There was the mother, once pretty, now perhaps forty pounds overweight, the makeup a little extreme. She flung her fur over the back of the one chair that would be empty at their table, thought better of it or, having made her gesture, now did the more careful thing; took the fur back up, folded it neatly, and set it on the seat of the chair. While seating herself she gave orders to the waiter, solicitously bending over her to help her to her seat.
There was the daughter, in her early twenties, thin, a bit anxious, intense, taking a seat opposite her mother; and there was the son, taking the chair next to mine, easy, self-assured, a little vacant, a year or two older or younger than his sister, bored.
The waiter appeared almost before they were all seated with a wooden platter on which was a sausage, say eight inches long, and a knife. The mother eyed it avidly, but waited for the waiter to leave; then descended, still chewing a bit of bread, to carve perhaps a quarter off the sausage for herself. She made no attempt to offer any to her children.
Her daughter continued to look at her malignantly. Well: that's perhaps too strong a word. Appraisingly, certainly. Is that me in twenty years, she was thinking; How do I avoid this. She waited as long as she could, not long enough, and then snatched up both sausage and knife and took another quarter for herself.
By now two more plates had arrived, plates of antipasto sausage, cheese, pickled vegetables, something that looked like sushi but certainly could not have been. One was put down in front of the son; the other between the mother and the daughter. The mother tilted white wine from their half-liter carafe into her nearly full glass of water and drank distractedly, looking at the sausage. The daughter continued to eat, her eyes lowered, not looking at her mother. The son ate blandly, grandly, as if he had all the time in the world, as if the two women at his table were total strangers.
* * *
Earlier today we took a punishing walk, for it was a day of bus strikes. We took a tram three stops the wrong direction in order to transfer to the Tram 3, which would have taken us on a nice picturesque ride of half an hour or so to the Villa Giulia. But the Tram 3 never came.
A tall lanky guy in a cap, not that that distinguishes him, most men in this city who are not bare-headed are wearing caps, still he had an air of some distinction about him, muttered something in American English; it was clear the tram 3 would not come, there was some kind of strike. Where are you going, he asked; and when we told him, he said Walk, it's only forty minutes, I walked there yesterday.
So we walked, first stopping off at home, which was directly en route, to exchange my hat for a beret since it was windy. An hour later, plus perhaps twenty minutes for sightseeing and munching a grilled ham and cheese, we were at the Villa Giulia.
Ridotto, I told the ticket-seller, Siamo pensionati. But it didn't work: she asked for documents proving we were over sixty-five, and of course my documents are American, and the U.S. doesn't reciprocate in this arrangement. So we paid full price, and then learned a third of the museum is closed for restoration.
The museum itself is ridotto, I complained, Why can we not be. Oh, the woman smiled, There's plenty here even if some is closed, you'll see.
And we did. The Villa Giulia is the Etruscan museum, but I've decided not to describe the museums yet, any more than I'm evaluating our dinners. So I will only say that collections like this remind me of the Sears Roebuck catalogue. There is room after room filled with vases, jewelry, tools (which look uneasily like weapons), advertisements, interior decor. You can reconstruct an entire civilization from this sort of thing if you like. Much of it is extraordinarily beautiful, and nearly all of it is nearly unbearably affecting. We know so little about these people; at least I do; yet they are in so many ways so like us, and in so many other ways utterly enigmatic.
But it is all too much, and we have an appointment at five o'clock, and there is a bus strike. So we walk home, another hour and then some. We normally walk between four and five kilometers an hour, so this means today's walk is five or six miles, on cobblestones, in the cold; and the last half of the walk, though in the cold, is into a bright and blinding sun. But it isn't raining, and we know where we're going.
A quick change; then a taxi to our appointment, with a new friend in her hotel near the train station. We talk for a while, then cross the street to a meeting of her professional society in the wine cellar of a hotel restaurant. I look at hundreds of bottles of Barolo, the youngest from the 1980s, others going back nearly a century. None, of course, is opened; but we have excellent Frascati, and then a fine light red from Tuscany.
We talk to people we vaguely know, here from a number of countries for this meeting. One, recognizing Lindsey, elaborately kisses her hand in hommage: I always like this; Lindsey's so important yet so modest; it always discombobulates her to get this kind of attention. Another is married to an architect who's building an elaborate house for a man our son Paolo knows near Healdsburg.
Wine and canapés are all very well, but I'm hungry. Several of them suggest Perilli, in a part of town we haven't investigated yet. I stop at the hotel desk and ask them to call and reserve a table.
Where, the man asks; Perilli, I answer, It's good, isn't it? Oh yes, he answers, very good, typical Roman food, the best. What time, he asks. Oh, let's see, I say, elaborately, in bad Italian, Eight thirty, it's early, but I'm very hungry, yes, eight thirty.
Very good, he says, I'll telephone, and the name? Consolini, I tell him. Consolini is the name we've been using lately; it's much easier on the telephone for Italian reservation-takers than Shere. Consolini, I tell him, and he looks at me in a bit of surprise and smiles just a bit. I always say Consolini, I tell him, it's so much easier. Consolini here in Italy.
He repeats all this to the woman next to him behind the counter who of course does all the actual work. She dials quickly. Perilli? Due posti stasera? Otto mezzo. Il nome: Consolini. And it's done, and we walk a half block to the train station and find a miracle the strike is over we take a bus 75 right to the door.
24: Bread and breakfast
S. Egidio, Jan. 30
The Roman breakfast, various guidebooks inform me, consists of a cup of coffee or perhaps a cappuccino and a "cornetto," which at its best is simply a croissant with a light wash of orange-juice glaze.
This happens to be my favorite breakfast too, but even though I have daily access to one of the best croissants in the United States I rarely eat them, because someone else in the house is opposed to them on principles of either health or morality, the two seeming to me to become hopelessly confused in such discussions.
So here too our usual breakfast is toast and coffee, the latter being made in the little stovetop espressomaker. These used to be called "Moka," which I think was the original brand name when the design was first produced in the mid-1930s. We had one for years but threw it out long ago; then a few years ago I found another in a yard sale in Seattle and we use it now when the antique piston-driven machine doesn't work ... but as usual I digress.
This morning we had no bread, and it was Saturday, and our last weekend here, so out at eight o'clock to get a newspaper and a couple of cornetti. Semplice? the countergirl asked, while I was distracted by careful silent analysis of her compelling beauty. Simple? meaning just a croissant, or Speciale, meaning one of the other pastries, say the round one with raisins and pine nuts. Both, I decided, and took the bag to the cashier, who asked Cornetti? Two, I said, are they the same price? Yes, they are.
I've often though it odd that American shopkeepers set so many different prices on things. At Monterey Market, for example, there might be fifteen or twenty different prices for apples, according to color, provenance, state of biosustainability, whether you got it inside or outside, and so on. I always suggest that they simple strike a mean or median or whatever it's called this year and apply that price to all apples. Hell: to all fruits. Why not? What difference would it really make to the consumer? And think how much simpler for the accountants, and the clerks, and the sign-makers. But then mine is an unrealistic sense of money, I'm occasionally reminded.
Two newspapers, too: the International Herald Tribune for the one who really wants to know what's going on, Corriere della Sera for the one who really wants to improve his nodding acquaintance with Italian. I can't tell you what the IHT says, beyond the few items that get read to me while I'm trying to work my way through the Corriere.
I can report on a few items in the Corriere. There's the continuing unravelling of the Parmalat affair, which has as many intricacies as, well, a political crisis in Italy. There's a short report on yesterday's wildcat strike of half the bus drivers. (A half-strike is worse than a full one, because of the increased uncertainty.) There's an interesting commentary on the increasing polarization, American-style, of the Italian electorate, into two opposed camps of roughly equal size. There's commentary on other aspects of American politics, including its tendency to "reality show shop soap" (meaning soap-opera and reality-show), and its apparent intention to make consumerism a world hegemony.
(It's funny; we Americans hated the Russians because they wanted to impose their style of politics on the world; now we are doing exactly the same thing.)
There's the running account of a sensational murder of fifteen years ago, back in the news for some reason that eludes me because I lack interest in reading about it.
There are the substantial cultural pages, with mini-essays what we used to call "Sunday think pieces" when I worked for the newspaper on Etruscan tombs, or Van Dyck, or the Respighi opera we saw a few nights ago, or a new novel, or a new book about Dante or Mussolini or Shakespeare.
Many of these cultural pages are in fact full-page advertisements for the weekly special offered by the newspaper you're reading, for most of them, once a week, offer a book for a small supplemental fee to the cost of the daily newspaper. Most of these are in a series of some kind, since that traps the customer: there are encyclopedias, multi-volume dictionaries, collections of poetry, monographs on The Great Painters. One newspaper is currently offering compact editions of translations of great novels from other languages. I approve this democratization of culture, and in fact Italy, whose illiteracy rate was over thirty percent only fifty years ago, seems to me to be a remarkably book-oriented nation; I noticed this in small towns in Sardinia, even, fifteen years ago.
* * *
Back to breakfast: We're lucky in having quite a good bakery down the street, as I think I've mentioned first-rate pizzas (what I call focaccias, big sheets of pizza bianca, which I'll get to in a bit, covered with marinated and roasted eggplant, or thin-sliced potato, or tomato and anchovy, or leeks, or any of a number of things); lattice-crusted "crostate" or jam-tarts, both individually-sized and large ones; various kinds of cookie including the ubiquitous "brutti ma buoni" or almond macaroons, variously flavored; and, of course, bread: ciabatta, whole-wheat "integrale," and a few others that we haven't found in necessary to investigate.
(Once we also got some "pane giallo," yellow bread, which was a slightly sweetened corn-based bread, almost like a pound cake; but I haven't seen it since; perhaps it was a Christmastime specialty.)
The apartment has all modern conveniences, including a fine toaster with those squeeze-the-handles-to-open-the-basket frames that drop down into the toaster making it impossible, or at least very unlikely, for bread to contact the heating element and burn. There's a microwave for heating milk. There's a full-size refrigerator where we keep the milk, even the superpasteurized milk that doesn't need refrigeration, and the excellent orange juice.
The juice, by the way, comes either "rosso" or "biondo," red or blond. The red is of course from Sicilian blood oranges and they are tasty. The blond juice is in fact somewhat whiter than our normal yellow orange juice, and it too is very good; I haven't looked into its provenance; it might be Israeli or African or Spanish but I hope, sentimentally, that it is Italian.
Calling oranges "red" or "blond" is curious. The Italian language also specifies egg "reds," not yolks; "yolk" is a word related to "yellow," and the Italian egg-yolks are indeed darker, more reddish than the American, I don't know why, perhaps the chickens are fed something to encourage this color which I find attractive. We speak of red wine and white and so do the Italians, though the wine is either dark or clear, rarely red and never, in my experience, white.
The local (Trastevere) folk-poet has a nice sonnet about the perfection of the world as God has made it, that He made only one mistake, wine should be clear and water dark, so crooked tavernkeepers wouldn't be able to add water to wine without your seeing it. And the bar downstairs is called Ombre Rosse, "Red Shadows" (or "shades"), a vernacular poetic term for red wine.
Today the orange juice is blond, not red; I prefer the latter, but as Lindsey points out the blond is also really quite delicious. And this weekend the piazzas in Rome are full of citrus, both red and blond, for there's a promotion going on all over town to raise both money and consciousness for cancer research, a subject I'm enthusiastic about. These surprised us yesterday morning; we had no idea why a tuba and a bushel or two of oranges should have been dumped into the flowerpots in front of a cafe which had until now been closed all month.
We found out later, when we walked past a bunch of schoolkids, say ten or twelve years old, boys and girls with a couple of teachers in attendance, manning (childing?) card tables with cancer-research literature displays. Give them eight euros for cancer research and you get three kilos, that's six and a half pounds, of oranges. We gave them the money, but declined the fruit; there was no way we were going to carry it about for the day.
25: Mozart and starlings
S. Egidio, Feb. 1
We've heard four concerts here now two orchestral concerts, one concert of 20th-century music, and an opera. I wrote so many concert reviews for so many years that I never think about doing it any more; don't take notes; don't think "critically" about the music, so don't worry: this isn't going to be a concert review.
(If you want a real review, you can read my review of Ottorino Respighi's opera "Marie Victoire" on San Francisco Classical Voice, www.sfcv.org)
What's fascinated me, as I've already reported, has been the halls at least in two of these cases, when we found ourselves in halls originally built to serve as theaters. But the other two concerts were in very different kinds of places.
The 20th-century concert in what was designed, I think, as a large lecture hall, in one of the University buildings one of a number of buildings we've seen from the 1930s, when Fascist Art Deco was the rage. The music ranged from quite fascinating to what I've always thought of, privately, as P.D.D., that is, pretty damn dull; but the performances were splendid and the evening was well worth attending.
Last night we went to a concert given by Rome's first orchestra, the Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia, one of the names I used to practice announcing when I worked at the radio station forty years ago. I've always had a fondness for this orchestra; I remember splendid recordings they made on old 78 rpm shellac discs, released by Telefunken, I think it was. And the repertory was perfect; so we made the long bus trip out to a newfangled concert hall that's apparently pretty controversial here.
We went to the concert, and came home, by bus the dread "H" bus to the railroad station, then the "M" to the concert hall. The "H" has a bad habit of pulling up next to another bus at the train station, and on its left, with only a foot or so between them. This means that the entire contents of a perfectly jammed bus pile out from the middle door with only a foot of space. The result is what used to be called, before the discovery of political correctness, a Chinese fire drill. (I advise Hillary not to copy.)
The effect was heightened this time by the presence of fourteen million starlings doing their exercises in solid geometry directly overhead. Advanced math was not the only thing they did, of course; they made an infernal racket, and did some other things as well; Lindsey took a direct hit on her forehead, I on my hat it is an intelligent thing to wear a hat. The most amazing thing of all, to me, was that a number of people were so astonished at the demonstration that they gazed open-mouthed at the sky, like so many peasants in a Breughel painting. The thought of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The concert began at 6:30 p.m., a perfect hour it allows sightseeing and a rest before, dinner after. Fortunately it was dark by the time our bus arrived; we could only make out the shapes of the new Auditorium center. I call it that because the building seems to be a cluster; there was a big bookstore and a very well-equipped bar-cafe, judging by what we saw through enormous plate-glass windows as we followed the crowd of pedestrians to what would surely be the auditorium itself.
Then we were walking across a vast plaza toward the central part of the complex. Above us loomed three enormous domes or turrets whose shape suggested Turks-heads, billowing turbanlike forms; I have no idea what they were.
The concert hall reminded us of San Francisco's, seating about three thousand, with seating at the sides and behind the orchestra itself. The house was pretty well full, and instead of reading the newspapers as they did last Sunday at the Teatro Argentina, or talking on their cell phones as they did at the Opera, they spent the time before the orchestra came on stage noisily talking among themselves; there seemed to be many parties of four or more, relative to the number of couples and singles, perhaps because the auditorium is so far out, and many people arrive by private auto, so why not fill up the car.
We sat above the contrabasses, which we never saw, but we could hear them; the acoustics were good. What we could not hear very well were the vocal soloists in the first piece, who were placed right in front of the conductor, some distance away from us and facing the opposite direction. And that was a pity, for it was a piece I've never heard live, and that I like very much, Luigi Dallapiccola's oratorio "Job."
The vocal soloists were fortunately moved for the rest of the program, the Mozart Requiem. This was a very moving performance, with a fine chorus and soloists and a splendid orchestra. The audience response was enthusiastic.
Otherwise it was a slow, quiet day, a day of catch-up. The weather continues fine, cold but clear; we walk about the city, often knowing our way now, stopping in for the right coffee (Tazza d'Oro), looking for gelaterie (often closed because of the cold weather), giving quarters to perhaps every fifth person who asks for money, wishing we hadn't left our pocket computer on the Metro, checking off one sight after another on the to-do list either because we've in fact seen it, or (more often) because we've decided we'll be back one day, no point in trying to do it all.
We'd had a good meal at midday I'll write about it later; sorry to keep teasing so many of you and a light supper back at home. The days leave us quite exhausted and we fall asleep easily, to awaken completely refreshed a phenomenon I associate also with our long walk across Holland: so we must be doing something right.
Healdsburg, Feb. 5—
And, a week later, what are the final impressions? and What does one do with a final day, a single bright clear cold day, in Rome, after spending close to five weeks there?
The days were getting longer and the stay was getting short. Monday morning we found the sun beaming down into the Via Cinque, turning the top storey of the corner BAR, as its called, rather generically I think, a particularly intense chocolate-orange against the flawless light-blue sky. If there was a groundhog handy I dont know what he was thinking: he wouldnt have seen his shadow on the pavement of the Piazza, the sun rides too low in the south except toward noon.
(The Italian news programs made much of Groundhog Day, broadcasting a long segment from Puxatawney, Pennsylvania if thats the right name showing outlandish mountain men in flannel shirts and long grey beards holding an obviously drugged marmot, as the Italian commentators insisted on calling the poor thing. Its the sort of thing gives Americans a picturesque aspect to European eyes, rather as we look at Austrian girls in dirndls, or for that matter Italians stuffing themselves with spaghetti. Which, come to think of it, is how Italian television shows Italians, much to the general disgust: the Italian press sniffs at the spaghetti-and-mandolins image projected by RAI, the state radio-television network.)
After breakfast we did what wed learned to do so well: we simply walked about the streets, stopping in at a couple of Very Favorite Places, having a last cup of Tazzo dOro coffee, looking for the one or two last souvenirs, recovering from the last (and perhaps not too judiciously ordered) lunch, taking the last regretful photographs.
We accomplished one long-postponed tourist assignment: We took the Archeobus tour out the Appian Way. I of course would have preferred seeing this from the seat of a motorbike, but I didnt want to see it alone. As it turned out we had the bus to ourselves, sharing it with a disengaged but good-humored driver and a tourguide, a young woman who perched next to the driver and chanted an all-but-incomprehensible narration into a handheld microphone. Fortunately she delivered this laconic singsong only intermittently, and we simply sat back and looked out the windows, taking a photo now and then, and admired the effects of a long gloaming on the landscape.
Everyone has seen photos of the Appian Way, just as everyones seen photos of the Grand Canyon. Like the latter, the Appian Way turns out to be unphotographable; the images youve seen prepare you for it, but the effect of its continuing on beyond you as you drive walk would be better; riding a donkey would be perfect joins the rhythmic punctuation of pines and cypress, the channeled regularity of the walls and occasional statues and tombs, and the seemingly endless linearity of the road itself, often still paved with the original black volcanic tufa, to make an effect that was heightened, of course, by the light and color of twilight.
That was four days ago, but I still see the peach-ochre of the stucco, the greys of gravel and stone, most of all the heavy dark greens of the trees, whose casually perfected geometry the flattened spheres of the pines, the cypress exclamation points seems the ultimate mediation of human esthetic sensibility with innate natural beauty. All this lit, magically sorry about the cliche by a twilight that seemed to hold its breath, to hesitate, touching and retouching the unfolding scene with golden yellow, peach, apricot, rose, and lilac.
We drove past tombs and mausoleums: this is the perfect place to spend eternity, nestled between city and country, past and future, day and night. We drove out a few miles to the ruins of an aqueduct running a line miles long in gold-beige limestone arches against the intense green of what seemed a wheat-field just sprouting from this old but still fertile soil.
And then we were back at the Piazza Venezia, and we walked home, one last time across our Ponte Sisto, curiously empty of its usual desultory street musicians and handout artists and purveyors of phony Verace, and we took final photographs of the sky, moving now from almost a robins-egg blue toward indigo with lavender and dark-rose clouds, glowing above the dark and featureless silhouettes of our Trastevere, quiet but animated by its yellow-gold streetlights.
We had a salad and some fruit and packed our bags and turned in early, for the cab was coming at five oclock next morning to take us to the airport. And it turned up right on the dot, just as we were opening the front door and wrestling our luggage out onto the piazza, and it took only twenty minutes to drive up the Garibaldi, across the Janiculum, and out the via Aurelia, I think it was, to the airport. From the top of the Janiculum I took a last look at Rome, sleeping under a nearly full moon, and there was some regret, but it was time to go home.
* * *
Thirty hours later I awoke in my own bed, again at night, and stepped outside. We do not live in a city; the light came from the moon, now full; the air was as cold as Romes but somehow softer, and heavily scented with an aroma I have always loved, having grown up on a farm with my share of milk-cows and poultry. On our ridge stood our three Italian pines: its time to prune them. Below them stood our cypresses, and at their feet Lindseys garden, neglected for a month, awaiting her attention, her care.
Daily life here in Sonoma county need be no less humane than in Italy. Our breakfast is the same here and in Rome: Lavazza Rosso coffee (thanks to Traversos in Santa Rosa, but you can get it elsewhere), organic milk, substantial bread. The climate, the light, the fields and their fruit are much the same. But thats in the country, with the frequent and obligatory trips into town.
Its the city, I think, that must be different; our cities are less conducive to walking, with their straight and measured grids and their careful separation of pedestrians and cars safer, but directive, mandatory. (Ill occasionally jaywalk,or even (much less frequently) walk in the street itself: I aways feel Im doing something wrong, deliberately living a 19th-century life in a 21st-century context. And then theres the orientation of our marketing, so generally directed to masses rather than individuals I think thats a pervasive aspect of contemporary American civic life thats subtle and insidious, pervading far more than just the fast-food business with Big Mac values and motivations. I realize of course that this is spreading throughout Europe, but you dont notice it that much in the Rome weve been spending our days in, nor, now I think of it, in Healdsburg either, except and this is telling on the outskirts.
Its funny: my main goal, in spending a month in Rome, was to live a month as a city-dweller. To live without a car, to be continually in the company of other people (not perceived so much as strangers, though of course they were, but as fellow citizens), to be contained within walls and facades, to move constantly on pavements, to be away from any but ornamental and occasional trees, to share the day with men and women, dogs and cats, sparrows and starlings, urban creatures all, and never see a rabbit or a bluejay, to hear churchbells constantly punctuate the hours, and never an owl or a bobcat in the night.
Yet though all that was true of Rome it did not feel like a metropolis. It wasnt like spending a week or two in New York or Chicago. It felt, curiously, right, in a sort of atavistic way; as if it were a city that had been gradually adjusting itself to its occupants over the course of three thousand years, patiently watching the building and collapse of thatched huts, brick apartment buildings, stone temples, concrete theaters; the coming and going of men (and, now, women) on foot, on donkeys, horseback, on scooters and streetcars; arriving on foot, by boat, in carriages and trains and automobiles and airplanes; always attuned not to the momentary mode but to the underlying purpose or motive which has been constant for centuries, for good most often, I think, though for evil more visibly in the waves of oppression, persecution, and abrupt violence.
In thirty days we neglected a lot: the Vatican most amazingly; the Baths of Caracalla; many museums; many restaurants. (A report on the restaurants we did encounter is still forthcoming.) But it was never our purpose to do Rome, to tour its collections or study its history. We can always do that. What we did, it turns out, is in an intense and fatiguing way to go on hold for a month, pause between our own lives and those of the millenia to get some perspective, to resort to yet another cliche. And the result has been incredibly enriching; we will be reflecting on it, and on its meaning to everyday life, for a long time to come.
27: Restaurants in Rome
Healdsburg, Feb. 12—
We ate out twenty-six times while in Rome, at twenty-five places, ranging from a quick slice of pizza or a panino (and these can be very good) to a white-tablecloth restaurant with all the amenities. Breakfast was invariably at home our usual café au lait, orange juice, and toast with jam. Fourteen restaurant meals were taken at midday; eleven at night.
The rest of the time we ate at home after all, this was why wed rented an apartment with a kitchen. At home we sometimes cooked: Lindsey made some fine semolina gnocchi, and chicken with forty cloves of garlic, and minestrone; I made a chicken valdostana. Or we just had a slice of pizza from the local bakery, or cold cuts, or salad and fruit and cheese.
We ate outside of Rome, too, at restaurants in Orvieto and Tivoli, and most memorably at a friends house in Orvieto.
Our first impression was that Rome is not an exciting restaurant town, and that impression wasnt really changed much. The local cuisine seems to be pretty plain, allowing for occasional specialties you dont find elsewhere, like the famous puntarelle, chicory stems stripped of their leaves, split, curled in ice water, and served with a rich anchovy sauce a dish that might be straight out of Apicius, who would have had them with the notorius frumentum.
There were other reminders of the basically peasant orientation underlying Roman cuisine. I had a wonderful entree of scraps of roast lamb in a sweet-sour gravy, for example. We had salt cod on two or three Fridays. Our favorite take-out pizza was topped with thin slices of potato.
Rome is famous for its pasta dishes, and we had plenty of them. The pasta is indeed good; perhaps its the famous Roman water which may also be responsible for the particularly good coffee you get routinely in Rome, even apart from the coffee at Tazza dOro, which is truly memorable.
But in general the eating-out was simply solid and quite good, not trendy or sparkling or experimental. For once we did not rely on the Slow Food guide to restaurants; Id checked our most recent copy (2002) before our departure, and none seemed attractive (though now that I look them over again Im sorry I hadnt taken a photocopy of those pages: we simply didnt have the time to do it). We relied on the advice of Sari Gilbert, our landlady, and Gisella Isidori, a food professional we met in Orvieto; and we took note of comments in the various guidebooks we were using (see dispatch 17, Guidebooks, from Jan. 24).
So these notes should be given even less respect than most restaurant recommendations, which are always subjective and undependable except that I will mark with ++ the restaurants to which I would certainly return given half a chance. I give for each restaurant first the name, address, and telephone number; then the day and month it is NOT open (if I know it); then my comments; finally the date we were there.
+Al Moro, vicolo delle Bollette 13; 06/6783495; sun, aug. Everyone recommends this place, a favorite of Fellinis. It is in fact very good. We shared an artichoke alla giudea; Lindsey liked her spaghetti al moro (his version of carbonara, with a little hot pepper added to the usual dish), broccoli, and a couple of grilled sausages; and for dessert a macedonia of apples and plums. I had but it was the day Id misplaced my pocket computer, on which I take notes, so I cannot reconstruct my dinner. Sorry. (Jan. 27)
++Albino il Sardo, Via della Luce, n. 44-45. (Trastevere); 06/5800846. Sari recommended this, and we ate fabulously the ten days we spent in Sardinia in 1989, so we wouldnt miss this. We had antipasto, maloreddus (that special Sardinian pasta), and porchetto. But what wonderful pork that was! Suckling pig, it remembered its mother and her milk, and the chop of cinghiale on the side, being wild, remembered forest and freedom, and things older and deeper than that. The cracklings were particularly savory and made me think of my father who loved such things, and we had a nice bottle of ordinary Sard Monica red. (Jan. 29)
++Trattoria da Armando al Pantheon, Gargiooli Claudio & C, Salita de Crescenzi, 31; 06/68803034. Friends of ours were meeting a friend of theirs, so we took a table as well, and had a fabulous bruschetta; then a rough peasant-looking but unctuous zuppa di farrò (L. had spaghetti alla gricia, which is carbonara without the egg); veal saltimbocca; and a deep nutty torta; the wines were a fine house Frascati bianco, and a rich, deep Tenuto Rapitalà nero d'avila. (Jan. 13, midday.)
Augusto, Piazza de Renzi 15 (Trastevere); closed Sunday and Saturday dinner. All the guidebooks mention this joint as being casual and authentic and a local favorite and it was okay, in fact, but nothing to write home about (though here I am doing just that). It was so cold the cooks were wearing jackets and sweaters in their tiny kitchen. The menu is very small: we had the daily special, baccalà since it was Friday, and a nice conversation with three American girls at the next table. No credit cards; drink the house wine. (Jan. 9, midday.)
++La Campana, v. Campana 18, /6867820. One of the Gourmet Magazine recommendations, this turned out to be a strictly local trattoria, what in Paris youd call a restaurant du quartier. Very ordinary, and absolutely delicious. Lindsey ate marvelous borlatti beans with onion and celery slivers and fine olive oil, then taglarini ai tartuffi, and what did I have?
Hosteria Costanza, piazza del paradiso 63/65. Four of us ate here, partly because Sari recommended it, partly because we thought we remembered it from our last trip, fifteen years ago. (Were still arguing about this: Lindseys journal says we were here; Im convinced it was the nearby da Pancrazio; well settle this next visit.) Here I had spaghetti caccio e pepe, a fine dish to test a restaurant with, simply pasta, pecorino, and black pepper, with olive oil of course; and Costanza did well by me. I went on with roast kid, also very good; L. had pasta with squid and bottarga, then suckling pig. Good, but not the best. (Jan. 12)
++Ditirambo, piazza cancelleria 74; 06/6871626. Recommended to us by Gisella, this turned out to be very good indeed: I had absolutely splendid slices of both salami and prosciutto made from goose, then my spaghetti caccio e pepe and, after, that curious lamb scraps in vinegar sweet-sour gravy, much better than the description sounds; L. had a well-seasoned arista ; then we split a very generous cheese plate: gorgonzola, fontina, tomo, robiola, and piave, served with mostarda and chestnut honey and perfect pears. (Jan. 21)
+Fly Bar, v. Merulana 133, (Laterano): dont have phone number, schedule: This was a very simple place, what you could call Roman fast food except that its all done to order and traditionally. Lindsey had a salami panino; I just had spaghetti with tomato sauce, a glass of wine, and great coffee, in the company of very simple people. You can eat a meal here for maybe eight or ten dollars; while you dont often find great or exciting meals in Rome you sure can do well by eating plain.
Gusto, Piazza Augusto Imperatore 9; 06/3226273; www. gusto.it. Much recommended by Access, this is a glitzy, Los Angeles-like place, with its punning name, its fashionable kitchenware shop next door, and an enormous dining room with an industrial look. It was also the only place open a little before midnight, at least in its neighborhood we should have gone straight home; Trastevere was still buzzing when we did. Oh well: we had a simple pizza and a glass of house red, and it was fine. (January 13)
++da Lucia, vicolo del Mattonato 28 (Trastevere); 06/5803601. Another trattoria for the locals that seems not to have changed in forty years. An old man sat at one of the tables, drying plates; the waiter took loaves of bread out of a tilt-forward bin, holding them against the bin to slice them. Pasta, of course; a little squid, some peas, the house red. (Jan. 25)
+Mario, via del Moro (Trastevere). Dont know the address or the phone number, and no one recommended it but the guy who walked in ahead of us, talking to his friend: That other place is more upscale, you know, but this place is comfortable and the price is right. And it was raining, and we were hungry, so we followed them in. It was crowded in the main room; we sat in a side room, under a number of framed drawings artists had left long ago on the table-papers, and thankfully next to a portable stove, because it had been snowing. We had antipasto italiano, spaghetti amitriciana, stracciatella, and baccalà, and it was perfectly ordinary, and perfectly acceptable.
Miraggio, via Lungara (Trastevere). No phone or address here either. This mirage is in fact one of a chain of restaurants, and I dont recommend it it was perhaps the only real disappointment we encountered. So-so pasta (strozzapreti Trasteveriana), tough gnocchi alla Romana. (Jan. 11)
+Ristorante Nerone de Santis, via Terme di Tito 96. Recommended by the Access guidebook (which gave an incorrect telephone number) as one of the few near the Colosseum that has maintained its quality in spite of heavy tourist traffic. The locations fine, a short walk up the Terme di Tito hill, on the corner, a comfortably tight dining room; and the trattoria menu is what you find everywhere. We had baccalà in bianco (salt cod fillets sautéed in oil, with parsley and lemon, no tomato), good carciofi alla giudia, rather overcooked spinach. (Jan. 16, midday)
++Ristorante da Paris, piazza S. Calisto 7/a, 06/5815378; closed Monday, Sunday dinner, and August: This was really very good the menu leaning toward the classical Jewish Roman Trattoria but with a personal stamp: theres tradition in the kitchen, but theres someone with intelligence and sensitivity whos adding his own personality to history. (The name is the owners given name; the food has nothing to do with France.) The dining room is more comfortable and quieter than many; you feel youre in a white-tablecloth restaurant here rather than a simple trattoria. Delicious bresaola, fried zucchini flower, spaghetti caccio e pepe, vitello picatella with just a wedge of lemon; a fine bowl of stracciatella with a few drops of Balsamic vinegar; good tiramisu, but Lindsey thought her zuppa inglese heavily flavored with too much Alkermes. (Jan. 17, dinner)
++Perilli Testaccio, via Marmorata 39 (Testaccio); 06/5742415; closed Wed,, Aug,: We stood around listening to three or four Roman foodies discuss where we should go for dinner after a wine-and-canapé party for food professionals. This was the consensus, and I remembered afterward that Access had raved about it: This place is an Italian national treasure. It ties with Campana as my favorite Roman trattoria good thing theyre in opposite parts of town! Lindsey tested it with her benchmark request, spaghetti carbonara; I had the lamb stew, actually chunks of lamb braised, then served with a sweet-sour brown gravy a hearty peasant dish, very local to Rome, perfect on a cold cold night. (Jan. 30, dinner)
+al Pompiere, via di Santa Maria de Calderari 38 (Ghetto); 06/6868377; closed Sun., Aug: This is an old favorite of our friends Richard and Marta, in the most comfortable, elegant dining room of our visit the first floor of the16th-century Palazzo Cenci-Bolognetti. Here we had a fine artichoke alla giudia, as youd expect; but Lindseys pasta featured canned porcini. (Jan. 14, midday)
+la Scaletta, v della Maddalena 46 (Pantheon). This was the most ordinary of trattorie; we chose it because we had no other recommendations in the area, we were hungry, we wanted something simple, and when we walked past we noticed a charming bored little girl peering out the window from beneath one of the tables. When we finally stopped in, quite late for lunch, we found pretty green plaid tablepapers, a personable waiter, and the same little girl, now sleeping while her parents and grandparents finished an interminable meal. Lindsey had bucatini carbonara which she liked, I may caccio e pepe. (Jan. 19, midday)
++Ristorante Le Streghe, Vicolo del Curato 13; 06/6878182; 06/6861381; closed Sun. This was our favorite Rome restaurant, the only one we went to twice wed have gone a third time willingly. The dining room is small but theres room enough at the tables, and anyway it turned out to be the kind of place where pleasant conversations develop among strangers (and with the friendly waiters, too). The first night we opened with goat cheese with hazelnuts; then we had tagliarini capalbiese, under a peasant-style bolognese sauce without tomatoes; guinea-hen fillets Streghe style (raisns, black olives); artichoke millefoglia, really a sort of elegantly handled lasagna; and we finished with excellent semifreddo and panna cotto. (Jan. 24, dinner)
On our last day in Rome we returned. I abstained from rich foods and meat, thinking of the next days flight home, and ordered a simple plate of lardo (uncooked but lightly cured pork belly-fat) drizzled with honey and Balsamic vinegar; then a marvelous cheese plate with several pecorinos of various ages (up to three years!), tomo, piave, and Gorgonzola, and an arugula-pecorino-pear salad for my obligatory vegetable. Lindsey had a plate of prosciutto and, curious, the tagiarini capalbiese Id had the prevous visit. We had a bottle of Arneis, and the waiter pointed out that I really should have Piemontese cheese with it, so he brought a fat slice of Castelmagno, a magnificent white blue cheese rarely found outside Piemonte. And then there were beignets; and a glass of vino passito; and a coffee bavarian, and conversations with other tables a great scene; a wonderful waiter. (Feb. 2, midday)
la Tana di Noantri, via Paglia 1 (Trastevere); 06/5806404; closed Tue.: This was recommended by our landlady, and is in fact on the ground floor of the building on whose second floor we lived for the month. It was the first restaurant we went to, and though we didnt go back we liked it well enough: vegetable soup was rich and earthy, my penne allarabbiata perfectly cooked (as was all the pasta we had in Rome), Lindseys scaloppini Marsala straightforward; the side-dish of green beans not too overcooked; a bottle of Corvo a good way to warm up a very cold evening. (Jan. 3, dinner)
Out of town:
In Orvieto our friend Rosella took us to Trattoria dellOrso, via della Misericordi 18-20; 0763341642; closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and weeks at a time throughout the year. This is a Slow Food restaurant, deservedly so, with sixty covers at most in a comfortable, relaxed room distinguished by some really marvelous little paintings. The chef, who looked amazingly like the Virgil Thomson of the 1960s, speaks fluent New Jersey English, because hed lived there for years; but his Italian and his kitchen are just as fluent and just as authentic. Strozzapreti with tartuffi & funghi for Lindsey, lamb chops perfectly seasoned and grilled for me, and a fine home-style crostata or jam-tart for dessert, with a lot of very pleasant conversation, in both the dining room and the tiny one-man kitchen. (Jan. 10, dinner)
In Tivoli we settled on Ristorante Sibilla, via Sibilla 50; 0774335281. This was recommended by a fellow on the street whom we stopped for directions to the temples we were in town to see: curiously, its not mentioned in any of my guide-books except that, left-handedly, the Lonely Planet book suggests asking its proprietors to let you into their garden for close look at the temples which are in fact in the back yard. But why not have lunch there while youre at it? The rooms are marvelous, and a dozen or more plaques on the walls will assure you that youre in good company: kings and queens, composers and poets have been there before you. I had decent gnocchi, dressed with shredded raddichio and zucchini and a very pleasant gorgonzola sauce; the only disappointment was a watery side-dish of fagiolini which had apparently been waiting for us too long. (Jan. 15, midday)
With thanks to Rosella, Marta, and Richard for their continuing hospitality and friendship
Charles Shere, February 2004
rev.: February 2004 top copyright © 2004, Charles Shere