Charles and Lindsey Shere Homepage


ITALY, October-November 2004
Part two of three     photographs accompanying these dispatches

10: Roman arrival
11: The Curse of the Zivnys
12: Further tribulations of the apartment
13: Street Life
14: Italian comments on the American scene
15: Winter and teeth
16: Cecilia and bagna cauda
17: An Uncomfortable moment
18: Haircut (not mine)

     back to part one     on to part three

10: Roman arrival
Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 4—

I write this at a black moment. It has been both frustrating and somehow liberating to be away from current English-language news for the last two weeks. We hear things after the fact, usually via Italian television, sometimes by more surprising means.

We were sitting in the stupid orange-juice cafe in the Piazza Sta. Maria in Trastevere at about five o’clock when Jim and Lisa walked by. Not surprisingly: although they’re staying up the other side of St. Peter’s, they’ve been down here a few times. While they sat with us as we finished our $7.50 glasses of orange juice and watched the sunset up the Lungaretta their cell phone rang: Lisa’s mother was calling from Los Angeles to announce that Kerry had conceded the election.

This was no surprise to me; I thought months ago that Bush’s re-election was inevitable. The Red Sox bounceback over the Yankees, and their subsequent sweep of the Cardinals, gave some of us a little hope: curses can be reversed; records can be broken. On the other hand, we are not really Red Sox fans, Lindsey and I; we are Cubs fans. Our curse was not broken. We were led to believe the impossible might be granted; we might finally rise through all competition and engage in the final contest, possibly even emerge the victor. It was not to be.

An American presidential campaign looks very different from Europe. The other day La Stampa, the Torino newspaper I like (though Richard, who favors La Repubblica, finds it stodgy), printed an interesting article about the extent to which the American presidential campaign ignores world politics.’s a disquieting and ultimately contradictory isolationism, of this American empire, the only superpower in the world that engages the least with the world. A self-sufficiency that recognizing only the flank of those few ‘true’ allies, first among them Blair and Berlusconi, who for having followed Bush have set themselves against 80 percent of their own public opinion (and some of their own parties). A post-isolationism not actually announced by these two contenders, but is real and substantial.

Not a thought, the other day, on the European constitution. It’s over. But not a word, not even by mistake, in these last appearances, on the grand problems of our time. The United Nations, famine, democracy in China, AIDS in Africa, the moderate Arab states. Non a word on Putin, Chechnya, the Pope, the demographic bombs in Mexico and Brazil, the markets and development in India. Nothing. Only America, America, America, the war in Iraq and Bin Laden.

Filippo Ceccarelli goes on to say that this is only an impression, and that an electoral campaign may not be a representative time to assess such national moods. But I think it very important to examine his point. Bush and Kerry did not speak of such matters because their very statement, let alone consideration, bores and annoys a sizable number of voters — sizable enough to lose an election.

I think there is an underlying general American mentality, however much we may learn to moderate it or even overcome it when addressing specific considerations. It was formed partly by the mentalities — the unthinking ways of thinking — brought with them by the first European settlers, and by their “values.” Expansion, opportunism, optimism, a certain unconcern for consequence — these are fundamental to the American mentality.

This “post-isolationism” comes of the current address to the rest of the world being the same as the address in earlier times to Native Americans, to American resources, to slaves. To this aspect of the American mentality the rest of the world is a resource or a market when wanted, a nuisance otherwise. To think otherwise is to suggest that American values do not necessarily trump all others.

I knew Bush would win, though I had some hope from time to time. I think the media are to blame, for having alerted a big part of the electorate to the question Ceccarelli raises. To me the key moment in the campaign was Kerry’s use of the term “global test.” It was of course a phrase quite misunderstood; but the point is that the meaning of the phrase cannot be explained to anyone refusing to consider external concerns.

Over and over again, here in Rome at also at home in Healdsburg, I’ve been thinking of Gore Vidal’s early novel Julian, about the emperor of that name who hoped to reverse history by returning Hellenic philosophy in all its subtlety to a world his great-uncle Constantine had ceded to the Christians, suppressing all religions but theirs. It was an intensely interesting time: Rome governed the world from the Scottish border to the north to North Africa, from Spain to the west to Byzantium. Julian was, I think, what we would call a liberal, in other words a man who saw things in shades of gray.

He had studied Greek philosophy and was passionately committed to its mentality, its way of considering the world, human nature, language and thought itself. The rise and institutionalism of monotheism had depended on the suppression of Hellenism, and the necessity of maintaining an international balance of terror, through the stationing of legions of Roman soldiers throughout the colonies, required a constant appeasement of a badly educated and numerically growing underclass in order to prevent insurgencies.

It doesn’t hurt Vidal’s story to reveal that it ends in the dangerous sands of Iraq.

* * *

Well: we’re installed in our apartment, just off the bottom of the Piazza San Egidio where we spent last January. We’re at the end of the Vicolo del Cedro, where it turns into the Vicolo delle Cinque. There’s a Vespa mechanic’s shop next door. The streets are busy with the informal cafe society of students and tourists. Strolling accordionists entertain us as we fall asleep, for it is unseasonably warm, and we leave the front door and the bedroom window open at night.

We spent a few hours yesterday at the airport, where we turned in our car and picked up Simon and Francesca, our grandchildren. The apartment is barely big enough: they have fold-out double sofabeds in the salon; we have a double bed in the bedroom. The kitchen is barely there: a passageway between the two rooms, with two gas burners and a sink and a half-refrigerator.

Our telephone works only when it hangs out the window and there is no internet hookup possible. We will to to the local internet point, for high-speed web surfing and to exchange e-mails, every day, probably around ten o’clock in the morning.

Last night we had a small supper at one of our favorite Roman restaurants, da Lucia, only a couple of streets away — characteristic Roman food: spaghetti caccio e peppe, spaghetti with only grated Pecorino and lots of black pepper (but what Pecorino and pepper!) and a bowl of puntarella, that curious Roman stripped chicory dressed with anchovy dressing, reminiscent of Caesar salad.

And now we’re off for the kids’ introduction to Trastevere and perhaps a little of Rome beyond. It’s never too soon to correct subconscious post-isolationist Americanisms — though of course these kids are European on their father’s side, and a quarter European on their mother’s!



11: The Curse of the Zivnys

Barolo del Cardoon (for so my spellchecker, which has unaccountably picked up a smattering of Italian, has retyped Vicolo del Cedro), Nov. 5—

After reading your e-mails regretting the outcome of the election, and spending an afternoon digesting La Republicans coverage of the same, and after a simple lunch of finocchiona and bread and apple, and a quiet time, and a nice pot of tea, it finally arrived, the moment I had feared: The Curse of the Zivnys.

I won’t say too much about this, as I really love the Zivnys who are after all my daughter and her family, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass them. Let’s just say that no event is entirely negative that teaches you a new word. Today’s was “sturalavandani,” from “starer,” to unbung or uncork — I have no idea what the derivation might be; unusually, I didn’t bring the Italian etymological dictionary along — and “lavandino,” washbasin, itself no doubt from “lave,” to wash.

You get a sturalavandani at the neighborhood “ferment,” or hardware store. The sturalavandani is an ingenious tool (“geniale” is the Italian word) made of wood and rubber, the wooden part being a simple cylinder about the diameter of a broomstick and a foot or so long, the rubber part looking much like a common trombone mute, a sort of flat cup made of rubber.

It cost two euros twenty, say $2.75, and is worth every penny. Life returned immediately to quasi-normal.

Then we changed into glad rags and walked up to the nearest foreign country and across it to call on our only Roman friends at the moment, Jim and Lisa. They showed us the pearls of the district they had adopted, the Prat, a district that had never attracted me — it’s a new part of town, from the 19th century, mostly apartment houses and department stores, wide avenues set in a relentless grid pattern, noisy with traffic and set about with ladies walking dogs, people eating gelato, slow men walking along reading newspapers, and the like.

I like this part of town, Jim said, because it is full of Italians; and it was true that we heard only Italian around us. In Trastevere where we live you hear a number of languages all the time. Trastevere is the Berkeley of Rome, and Prati is more or less the Piedmont. (I refer to the neighbor of Oakland, not the region of Italy.)

But Prati boasts an Apple store, meaning computers; and a wonderful delicatessen featuring Slow foods, La Tradizione; and a slow wine store. And another ferramento, this one with a bevy or two of pocket-knives in the window.

I always buy a pocket-knife when I’m in Italy, as I told Jim, partly because you can get really good inexpensive knives here, and partly because I’ve always misplaced the last by the time I get here. And there in the window was just the one I wanted, a faux-Pattada with a plastic handle, for seven euros fifty.

Pattada, a backward accent on the last letter, is a small town in the mountains of Sardinia, where the local trade is knife-smithing. When Lindsey and I were in Sardinia in 1988 we drove there to see it — a remote town in wild country — and Lindsey surprised me with the gift of one of those knives. I will never forget the shop, the small dark young man who had made the knife, his well-matched young wife who had made the felt slipcover for it.

He had made it in the traditional local way, the only concession being the use of imported Swedish steel. Not stainless steel, of course; this makes an inferior blade; instead, a high-tempered carbon steel, forged over a charcoal flame in his home workshop, shaped and sharpened and polished and honed, and fitted with a handle made of wild goat horn.

I treasured that knife as a Sunday knife for a few years, but ultimately it took over as a work knife, replacing one of a succession of lost knives; and of course in its turn it joined its cousins. I think I know exactly where it is, buried in concrete in a fencepost-hole.

In Venice three years ago I bought a replacement, much cheaper because inferior and partially industrial. It was lost as well. Last January in Orvieto I bought another, which met the same fate. I am in the business of redistributing the world’s stock of pocketknives, I’m afraid.

Anyhow we provisioned ourselves at La Tradizione and walked to Jim and Lisa’s fine roomy and well-equipped rental apartment where I baptized my new knife on a piece of Castelmagno, which I truly believe to be my current favorite “blue” cheese (it is in fact white, though tasting of and affected by a mold like that of Stilton), and we had a glass of wine, and then we walked past the Macintosh store and the Castell’ Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s to our dinner at Le Streghe.

And here the second thing of the day went wrong. Le Streghe had been among our favorite Roman restaurants last January, as you can read at The menu was an interesting compilation of authentic traditional dishes; the cooking was quick and balanced and flavorful; the room was somehow both elegant and comfortable; and the service was outstanding — a young man who was immensely helpful, very friendly without being insinuating, quick to respond to the diner’s mood and interests.

This time we ate outside (as it is unseasonably warm) in a four-table setting under a couple of huge umbrellas in a quiet piazza across from the restaurant. Jim and Lisa were flying early in the morning, so we ate as early as we could, at eight o’clock: there was no one at the other tables, inside or out.

We were waited on by a woman in her fifties, I would guess, who had to deal with six people who do not speak Italian and are not necessarily quick to come to a strongly held decision. And the menu was enticing, with tagliarini with white truffles or with artichokes, risotto and spaghetti alla gricia and gnocchi, guinea hen and beefsteak and baccala, and so on.

When I mentioned that I knew their fettucine capalbiese she seemed surprised. It’s a delicious sauce, a sort of bolognese without tomatoes — as if tomatoes did not grow near Capalbio! — and not universally made, apparently, outside that corner of southwest Tuscany, really a country suburb of Rome. Do you know our (emphasis) capalbiese, she asked; yes, I said; I had it here, last January. Is the restaurant changed since then?

Oh no, she assured us; nothing is changed, except that my sons are not here, they’re off at a spa conference center near Pienza. And she took away our orders.

A singing guitarist with a bad cold and a poor gift for mimicky took up his station behind our table. He began fairly modestly, playing a guitar solo and then moving into a couple of vaguely traditional Italian songs. Jim looked annoyed. Is he bugging you, I asked; we’ll see how he does, Jim answered.

A man in his forties appeared with a few dishes and with no idea where they were going — nor even a very firm idea of what they were. We sorted them out and he walked uncertainly back across the street to the restaurant. Another party of six appeared and began shuffling their table-positions. The food was good, ditto the local wine, and our conversation was brilliant. Francesca was poised and beautiful in her dark mandarin jacket; Simon relaxed and confident with his share of the table-talk.

The singing guitarist, hearing our conversation in English, moved from Naples to Liverpool, with an unconvincing performance of Let It Be. Then he crossed the Atlantic with My Bodie Lahs Ovrr Thah Oshhahn, to flirt with Texas blues and the like. He would not go away.

We had skipped appetizers and gone straight to our primi, or first courses: tagliarini with white truffles for the two signore, with artichokes for me, gnocchi for Fran, risotto for Simon, don’t-recall-what for Jim. That went well enough, but the secondi — the main courses — were more of a problem for our waiter. Two of the group hadn’t ordered one at all, other than their contorni, their accompanying side vegetable dishes. The man came with Lisa’s guinea hen and asked where it went. We told him. He then came with a steak: and where does this go? What is it, we asked. He held the plate close to his face the better to scrutinize it.

Meat, he said. Yes, I said, but what kind of meat? Um, meat, he said. Steak? I asked. Um, si, signor, steak, he answered, beefsteak. All of this, of course, in Italian, halting on my side, laconic on his. Simon got his steak; my baccala appeared, bowls of puntarelle were distributed as requested, one by one. Jim’s plate was yet to be found.

The guitarist finally came to our table, rather sheepishly I thought, and we dug down in our pockets, the ones with the smallest loose change, and dropped a few coins into the cloth bag he carried — mercifully one couldn’t readily see how little we gave him, but he seemed disappointed with its heft.

Mio cinghiale, Jim asked, confronting the waiter as he set down the last of the puntarelle. Cinghiale, signor? Yes, Jim returned, rather firmly, my cinghiale, I asked for an order of cinghiale. By now the hostess, who had hovered over this hapless waiter before, actively entered the conversation. Yes, she said, cinghiale, and the waiter carefully walked across the street again to the restaurant, seeming to expect a flock of taxicabs to run him down, though there had been no traffic on the hidden one-way Vicolo del Curato all night.

Well, things were straightened out. The hostess brought apologetic glasses of vin santo and a plate of biscotti. She refused to take two credit cards, though, only changing her mind after we had obviously given in and retired one of them.

I still think Streghe a fine restaurant, but only for a couple, not for more than four. And rarely have I been shown how important the floor staff is — the difference it makes between a wonderful evening and a frustrating one.


12: Further tribulations of the apartment

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 6—

I mentioned that the servizio had been unbunged. (Servizio is the current Italian euphemism for toilet. I first learned the word gabinetto, clearly derived from a word allied to the English cabinet, clearly a cousin to the closet of the English w.c. Gabinetto is out of fashion; when I used it in a restaurant the other day the girl I was inquiring of was incredulous.)

The servizio is unbunged, but problems continue, for this is not the most successful apartment-by-Internet we have negotiated.

It is, by the way, the third we have rented. The first, a three-bedroom (if an entry hall is a bedroom) apartment in Venice, was quite successful, a ground-floor place with a working kitchen and a small garden in a quiet corner of the Cannareggio not too far from S. Maria dei Miracoli.

The second was last January’s apartment just around the corner from our present digs. Well, in fact, I’m mistaken: I did not find it on the Internet; I found it in a small advertisement in the New York Review of Books. Fine bedroom with many books; fine useful kitchen; comfortable sitting room.

This time we resorted again to the Internet. We like Trastevere so much we determined to return. The Prati, as I mentioned yesterday, is both a little too petit-bourgeois and a little too far from things; and the center is far too expensive.

But of course last time we were here was in January, when Rome is at its least populated. November isn’t exactly the height of the tourist season, but there’s a lot more activity than we were used to here. The “streets” of our part of Trastevere — I put the word in quotes because, after all, there are virtually no automobiles on them — are crowded with con men, beggars, crafts tables: you can’t help thinking of Telegraph Avenue.

That’s okay: these people have to make a living, and most of them are gone by sundown. Then the cafe life surges forth: many people strolling in search of bars, cafes, and restaurants, which exist by the scores. They all have tables in the streets, for it is warm. And the diners at those tables are serenaded by accordionists, klezmer bands, Rumanians with clarinets and violins. And late at night after the wine has flowed freely people’s voices rise, naturally.

During the daytime there are other noises. Below us on one side is a motorscooter repair shop: the mechanic there takes delight in attempting to start engines apparently devoid of gasoline or spark. The engines turn, turn, turn, the battery too gradually losing strength. Occasionally, apparently bored with this activity, he runs some sort of electric drill, reminding me of the cruel dentists of my childhood.

On the other side there’s a lamp shop. At least I think that’s what it is: there are a great many lamps inside — hanging ones, floor models, table lamps; but there are also a good many musical instruments: side drums, tambourines, cellos, violins, mandolins. Two men sit inside and talk most of the day, but occasionally, apparently bored with this activity, they run some sort of electric drill, reminding me of the cruel dentists of my childhood.

This morning there was a new activity, an air compressor that had been viciously parked on the corner a few meters from our door. It ran all morning, and its exhaust blew in our front window, wafted hesitatingly through the apartment, and regretfully escaped through the door at the stair-landing. When I could take it no longer I followed its hose a full block down the Via della Scala until in ascended straight up an exterior wall to disappear into a fourth-storey apartment window.

Two saucy fellows in worker’s blue lounged against a doorway on the street level. The compressor, of course, shut down the minute I noticed them. What’s going on, I asked. Need air for the work up there, came the insolent reply. Well it’s blowing its exhaust straight into my apartment, I said. But we’re finished now, they retorted.

I don’t really mind all this very much; it’s why we wanted Trastevere. We live in the country; our life is pretty quiet as a general rule. It’s nice to be reminded that urbanity involves noise and pollution: we have to understand the lives of quiet desperation lived by the mass of our fellow men.

What I do mind is the great determination with which our apartment is deteriorating around us. The servizio didn’t surprise me, but it was only the first of a series of things. When we moved in half the electric sockets were already not working. This didn’t matter too much, for half the lamps were missing their light bulbs anyway, and I didn’t want to buy the landlord new ones. We don’t really need them.

But today another outlet bit the dust. How can this happen? There are two electrical outlets side by side in a single box in the wall. The television set is plugged into one, and it works. The table lamp is plugged into the other, and while it worked yesterday, and the day before that, it declined to work today. Switching it and the television set revealed that the socket itself had stopped working.

This is alarming, for it suggests that a wire has come loose inside. European electricity is twice the strength of American stuff. I can take a shock of 125 volts at home, but I’m not about to experiment with 250 volts here. So I’m just going to let this go.

One of the two sofabeds didn’t work when we arrived. It has a broken leg, Veronica explained, when we asked about it. Why not simply shoot the damn thing then, I thought, but couldn’t figure out how to put that in Italian. After she left I opened it out anyway, and discovered the frame was bent. Standing on part of it and pulling on another I could straighten it out, but that’s about as far as my handyman stuff has gone.

When we arrived the gas stove in the kitchen was inadequate. It took 45 minutes to heat water for tea. I called Veronica, the nice girl who seems to front this place. She said she’d get a man to come over and regulate the burners. He arrived yesterday and fixed things, pretty well. Then he noticed that the bathroom door dragged a little on the floor when you open it.

He tried to lift the door on its hinges, and predictably enough messed up the upper hinge so that the door now has only the one lower hinge. It not only drags, it now flops. It’s easiest, in fact, if you take it off the hinge altogether and simply set it in place.

Well, he said, the burners are working better. He explained the gas control lever, which shuts off all gas supply to the apartment. It’s best to turn it off at night, he said, to prevent the accumulation of any leaking gas while you’re sleeping. I would have thought this simple Italian superstition, allied to the pull-cords universally required in all showers in the event of a broken leg caused by slipping on the soap, but then I remembered the loose wires in the wall. I’ll shut the damn thing off at night, all right.

But we went to market in Campo dei Fiori today, and tonight we had a first course of that beautiful spiral green romanesco broccoli, long-cooked in oil and garlic; and we followed that with delicious hand-made tortellini from the wonderful Sardinian pasta shop on Via del Moro, washed down with cheap local slightly spritzy white wine and followed by some dark chocolate-hazelnut candy for dessert; and you know? Life is Good.



13: Street Life

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 7—

Out, then, after dinner (prosciutto and mushroom pizzas to go from Da Ivo; fagiolini) for a gelato. Now this sounds simple enough; there’s a gelateria every fifty meters at least on every business street in our quarter, and most of the streets, though only perhaps ten feet wide (and devoid of sidewalks because with rare exceptions devoid of automobiles), are business streets.

And what business! Around the corner is the Piazza San Egidio, which seemed so empty and placid all January. Tonight — true, a Saturday night — the joint is jumping. When Simon and I walked over to Da Ivo, say about seven o’clock, you could hardly get through the piazza for the card tables. Handmade jewelry, pashti headscarves, little blocks of wood carved into Christian names and furnished with wheels like toy trains, bootleg CDs, miscellaneous books, Tarot cards.

To get to da Ivo you cross the Piazza Sta. Maria in Trastevere and a smaller piazza and head down S. Francesco da Ripa, which is a fairly important driving street but still lacks sidewalks. Cars park as they can, among the ubiquitous small garbage dumpsters (Rome has no other garbage service) and the small terrasse, reserved sections holding three or four tables outside the restaurants. The traffic is, fortunately, one-way — “senso unico” as the Italian has it — but frequently stalled by double-parked cars, their drivers waiting for a pizza or conversing with a pedestrian friend.

On all streets, even the narrowest, there are of course motor-scooters to contend with. Often the drivers are amazingly skillful, able to balance and pivot at speeds so slow as to be nearly stationary; then, when a clear space opens up miraculously, like Moses’s Red Sea, off they go like gangbusters. Some are incredibly noisy, but most are fairly discreet. You can’t generalize about them or their drivers, who may wear business suits, or stockings and high heels, or sports clothes.

Many of these scooters are business vehicles, with big plastic crates fastened somehow fore and aft, delivering messages, or pizzas, or packages. Some carry commuters, or students, or cruisers. All seem driven by good-natured people, unhurried though determined, aware that in order to gain your way you have as often to cede it. And the same must be said, to tell the truth, about the automobilists: you almost never hear an automobile horn here.

An anecdote: an acquaintance of mine, an American, got a position here a number of years ago. He and his wife established their residency, but she seemed unhappy. It isn’t London, she said sadly; it isn’t Paris, it isn’t New York. Rome seemed foreign and sleepy; she craved cultural excitement.

After six months their car arrived from the United States, and she announced she was going out for a drive. She didn’t come back for hours. Her husband fretted: She’s finally got her car, she’s driven away, she’s driven to Paris or Berlin or London and I’ll never see her again.

finally she returned, flushed with pleasure, exhilarated. I love this town, she said; I finally understand the Romans. It’s like Venice. They all drive in the same direction, as if they were in boats; they flow in a fluid stream, parting and reassembling as the traffic requires, taking every available space but always aware of one another. It’s amazing.

And it’s true, that’s what driving here is like. Lanes subdivide, then fuse back together; small cars make way for larger ones; people pull U-turns or even turn by backing and filling. If you’re determined you get your way, of course; and if you’re timid you’ll have to wait. It’s not exactly dog-eat-dog; there are the occasional unexpected moments of gallantry making the whole thing work.

But it does take a bit of bravery, as does the simple act of crossing a busy street. The traffic will not break for a pedestrian, but if you simply walk out in front of the oncoming traffic it will adjust its velocity, either slowing down or more likely swerving a bit, to accommodate you, and you’ll get to the other side.

Well anyway we went out for our gelato after dinner, and that sounds simple enough. There’s a gelateria on the other side of Sta. Maria in Trastevere that we know has especially good ice cream. It was closed the entire month of January, or at least when it was not closed it was not selling ice cream, for the very good reason that it was too damned cold and no one was buying.

As we approached it, however, Lindsey realized that wasn’t the gelateria at all; the one she wanted was on S. Francesco da Ripa, a block or two away. So like the Epicureans we are we swerved, like cars in a busy stream, to follow our desire and her instincts, and we located the gelateria in question, to discover that it was closed. I don’t know why.

Back, then, to the other place, to find it open but not selling gelato. Okay: we know there’s a bar back toward Sta. Maria in Trastevere where we bought decent ice cream last January. Through the busy streets we go, me carrying the two bottles of water we’d bought through the traffic and the tables on the terrasse to the bar — which had no ice cream.

We ended up at a chain gelateria, Blue Ice I think it’s called, and dropped our eight euros on four cups, strawberry for Fran, pistachio and chocolate for Simon, chocolate and almond for Lindsey, and my perennial crema and fior di latte, the blandest flavors you can buy and therefor excellent tests for the quality of the ice cream itself.

It wasn’t bad. We ate it on our feet, listening to a pretty good guitarist quietly singing Spanish songs on the terrassa of one of the many Sta. Maria restaurants until we noticed a juggler in front of the church.

He was juggling three torches, quite dramatically, and had drawn a good crowd. After a while he produced three Indian clubs and paced the circle fronting his audience, giving the clubs to three equally distant members of the audience, then pulling them back into the center, hanging little striped vests on their shoulders just like the one he was wearing, and miming instructions to them.

They good-naturedly attempted to follow, trying to toss and catch the clubs, standing foolishly on one foot, grinning on cue. The entire scene, apart from the clothes of most of the crowd, looked like a Breughel painting. It lacked only a sly pickpocket working the crowd, though perhaps he was there after all, though he got nothing from any of us.

We finished our ice cream and slowly walked home, past accordionists, saxophonists, guitarists, violinists — there’s enough music in Trastevere to fill a conservatory, and much of it really quite good. We walked past a few beggars: the horribly misshapen old lady, bent nearly double, with the clawlike outstretched hand; and the pretty young girl who had asked me for a coin or two earlier tonight when I walked by carrying two boxes of pizza, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of grappa, a half dozen eggs and a package of butter; and who, when I simply looked at her and shrugged, indicating the impossibility of getting into my pockets, simply smiled at me in return and wished me a pleasant evening.

And now it is eleven o’clock, and the voices are murmuring away, hundreds of people eating and drinking at their terrassa tables, or simply conversing while walking the warm streets; and there’s the sound of a couple of distant radios, mostly just the beat under some kind of Europop, and an occasional accordion. The sound will continue until after I’ve fallen asleep. Occasionally I wake in the middle of the night; from two o’clock on it’s very quiet, and it will remain still until almost nine. This part of Trastevere is apparently late to bed, late to rise; and that’s okay with me.



14: Italian comments on the American scene

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 7—

I wrote a few days ago about the surprise here in Europe that foreign issues were so unconsidered during the American presidential campaign — the war in Iraq excepted, of course. This drew quite a defensive response from one reader, addressing three points:

• Iraq and Afghanistan are enough for now, to consider other crises during a campaign would be entirely out of place.

• The UN was largely our doing; we’ve demonstrated plenty of humanitarianism.

• Since we’re involved in the Middle East, shouldn’t the rest of the world pick up some of the other crises — Angola, for example?

• The Brits are upset with Blair because they recall the blood they shed in the middle East years ago. The Italians have their own trouble with radical muslim immigration and are too engrossed with their own terroir to be led in difficult causes.

None of these observations quite go to the point, which was that an Italian journalist was surprised that issues on foreign soil don’t interest the American presidential campaign. Why should they? Well, because they are central to a European point of view, because a European is both a citizen of a nation — Italy, Spain, France, Germany, whatever — and also a participant in an international community of (roughly spoken) equals. The European Union exists for a number of reasons: trade, law, agriculture, defense. And it is “run” by a supranational government with input from such smaller nations as The Netherlands and Luxembourg as well as the giants, Germany, France, and Spain.

One of the things we Americans continually forget is the oddity of our governmental organization, neither fish nor fowl. Our government is, after all, a republic comprising fifty states, a rough analogue of the European Union of twenty-three. (I think that’s the number.) But over the years we have drifted toward a very strong national government trumping the governments of the states. We didn’t originally want that to happen: that’s one of the reasons for the Electoral College, and for the equal powers of the House of Representatives vis-a-vis the Senate.

But it’s an uneasy balance, Federalism versus State’s Rights, and the unease has driven politics for a long time. And while so doing it has distracted many Americans from their larger responsibilities as Citizens of the World. (You can see this in so trivial a matter as our constantly referring to ourselves as “Americans,” as if Canadians and Mexicans were not, instead of “United Statespeople,” which is, by the way, precisely what the Italians often call us: Statiunitensi.)

* * *

La Repubblica, the newspaper I’ve been reading here in Rome, has devoted several early pages in each day’s issue to American politics. Yesterday’s paper (Saturday’s), for example, runs to sixty tabloid pages. There front page features “stings” (introductory paragraphs) to the Arafat situation, to Berlusconi’s tax-cut plans, and to an extensive commentary on political correctness (written by none other than Umberto Eco).

Below the fold there are stings to two columnists: Vittorio Zucconi who is writing a profile of Columbia, South Carolina; and Federico Rampini, who offers a similar one on San Francisco. (These columnists are permanent correspondents to La Repubblica from the United States, and you can read them online at <>.)

Pages 2, 3, 4, and 5 continue the Arafat story, reporting on his medical condition and treatment; the mood in Gaza; the obscene position Sharon has taken to Arafat’s eventual burial; the likely political reconfiguration of Jihad, Hamas, and Al Fatah; an interview with Dennis Ross, a former Mideast mediator who says only a quick election can avoid chaos; and a report on the positioning of likely candidates in such an election.

I’d guess those pages are no more than forty percent advertising space. There follows a full-page ad; then a page on the current Iraq news (Annan’s warning, Allawi’s request, the Black Watch crisis in England, and Al Qaeda’s warning that the Americans “will soon be seen consumed ‘in an unbearable inferno’ for having chosen to reelect Bush.” The bottom of the page reports on Allawi’s cold reception by the European Union leaders at Brussels. Twenty percent advertising on this page.

Next come five pages of Italian news, with no advertising, one column of which reports the Italian center-left’s response to the Bush election. Page 13 (perhaps appropriately) is dedicated equally to a story on the U.S. Supreme Court and reports on U.S. journalists being too far from their readers to understand the country’s mood, with a sidebar on Michael Moore’s recent plea that we not despair.

Then come the two full-page (no advertisements) “jumps” from page one, Zucconi’s page describing the mood in South Carolina, Rampini’s describing that of San Francisco. I love the opening of Zucconi’s page:

Let’s go where God’s market explodes into a thousand versions of the same faith, sliced as if in an infinite sushi bar of redemption: pentecostals, presbyterians, adventists, baptists, episcopalians, Christian brothers, Lutherans, methodists, catholics, apostolics, charismatics, independent bible Christians, Jews for Christ, nazarenes, orthodox, universal unitarians and, that no one might be left out, also the “nondenominational.” Two hundred twenty churches officially registered here in the county of Columbia, South Carolina, one church for every 500 of 120,000 inhabitants, more than doctors, dentists, hospital beds, restaurants, topless dancers and maybe even of MacDonalds and Burger Kings. The immense, unknown, ridiculed spirituality of heartland America that has overcome the nation, year after year, in this tide of Christian “revival” that the Right has understood how to break, and has overthrown the Left.

Zucconi is very clear about the reductionist “values” that led South Carolina to vote Bush over Kerry, 58 to 41 per cent. He talks to an excited soldier waiting for his posting to Iraq — the two Carolinas and Georgia produce the majority of soldiers in the US Army — who is anxious to tell this foreign correspondent that he’s ready to “kick ass, yeah.” A sergeant looks on silently. The correspondent asks: why are these kids going to die in Iraq? “For their liberty and that of their children,” he answers; and then, in a lower voice, “for our God.”

“The Bible teaches that there are always wars and rumors of war; that doesn’t concern me,” said pastor Ron Laflam who for 27 years has guided the attendants of the Columbia Baptist Temple, in a street prophetically called Faraway Road, “the street we’ve seen our nation taken in a mistaken direction, sex, lasciviousness, destruction of life, homosexuality above all, the devastation of moral values. We’ve forgotten that this nation was founded on Christian values and because of this it became the beacon of the world.”

And is Bush the man who has again lit the lamp at the top of this beacon?

“That’s what we think, because he’s a Christian like us.”

The journalist asks about Europe.

“Ah, Europe, by now it’s a long way from the Word, it no longer interests us. We want to save our America.”

He then describes the numbers of Christian novels about the struggle between Good and Evil to be found in the local Barnes and Noble, always featured at the ends of the aisles; and the few books to be found that treat of homosexuality, in the small section devoted to “Sociology.” Only the black kid who welcomes him at the desk of the Holiday Inn, who wears a small sticker “I Voted” on his shirt, responds to the journalist with a confrontational voice: “I voted for Kerry.” “Ah, these uppity blacks.”

And Zucconi ends with a surprising, chilling, but to me persuasive analysis: the fundamentalist Christians who have voted for Bush have done so out of fear of — not Osama, but Sodom. It is the wrath of God they fear, not the blows of terrorists.


Being a native of Northern California I take some perverse reassurance from the next page, Rampini’s column from San Francisco. The headline: San Francisco’s Apology: “I’m Far from the Heart of America.”

Dianne Feinstein has thrown down the gauntlet: “The gay marriages celebrated in this city in February sounded the alarm in all of traditionalist America, and has raised the most frightening specter of moral dissolution and the attack on the family. It offered an ideal tool to the right, a whip to mobilize their voters. It’s multiplied the energy of the Bush campaign. As it always does, San Francisco has gone too far, too fast.”

It’s odd: here in Rome, since I only hook up to the Internet a few minutes a day, and get my news otherwise from the television (which I can barely understand), la Repubblica (which requires careful study), and the International Herald Tribune (which seems to me a bit superficial), my reading of the San Francisco Chronicle is filtered through this Italian newspaper.

So I learn of a Chronicle service helping readers who want to emigrate — and, by the way, a number of you readers have suggested, whether in jest or seriously, that we keep our eyes out for real estate.

San Francisco, I am proud to read, “simply refuses to assent from its heart; doesn’t accept the monopoly of values attributed by the Right. It’s the city of the militants of human rights, of the American Civil Liberties Union, horrified by the photos from Abu Ghraib, by the reports of Rumsfeld’s generals who go to church to pray for victory because our God is better than the enemy’s.”

He ends by quoting a student, Adrienne Fodor: “With this president we’ll have more environmentally-produced illnesses; less health assistance; more restrictions on individual rights. Out of pure patriotism I shudder when I see my country consigned to a man who does not believe in American values.


Neither of these two pages carries any advertising at all, by the way. And in the rest of the newspaper there are still more comments on the American news: but there are also reports from elsewhere. There are pages on France, on Naples, on sports and television and theater and food. There are the full-page ads for lipsticks and cars. There’s a page on the 50th anniversary of the Guinness Book of Records. There’s a page on the crisis at Fiat, and the four-hour general strike it’s triggered. There’s a page on the European Union’s alarm at the decline of the American dollar. (We’re a bit alarmed, as well.) There are pages of stock quotes, and classified ads, and so on.

Three full pages are devoted to Umberto Eco’s thoughts on Political Correctness, and the responses of a number of people — including Robert Hughes:

“Few things are more absurd, and at the end more counterproductive. We want to make a kind of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and mischance dissove in the waters of euphemism. The invalid will perhaps arise from his wheelchair... The appeal of politallcy correct language is uniquely English; it isn’t found anywhere else in Europe. In France no one has though of rebaptising Pepin the Short as Pepin the vertically challenged; in Spain Velzssques’s dwarfs have not been called The Small People... No substitution of words can reduce the weight of intolerance present in our society or in any other.”

La Repubblica devotes several pages to this question because it is a creeping Americanism. America the Unconsciously Priggish and Hypocritical exports its commercial products, its commercial culture, and the language of its “moral values” to the rest of the world, and the more intelligent corners of the rest of the world — and la Repubblica represents one of them — tries to understand. To respond to such odd overtures, let alone to defend against them, perhaps to withstand their assault on the “values” of one’s own “terroir,” one must try to understand them. This requires a curiousity, an intellectual curiosity, about the rest of the world.

It is precisely the absence of that kind of curiosity that amazes these Europeans, who — unlike us Americans — are used to living in crossroads. There are other amazements, of course. How did these Americans, who after all descend from Europeans like us, develop these curious anti-intellectual, incurious, ultimately self-defeating, utterly self-assured attitudes? Why don’t they see that to participate in global trade, politics, intelligence, one cannot turn one’s back on the rest of the world?

And, finally, How do we deal with Holy Innocents who throw their “beliefs” and “value systems” against the rest of the world and refuse to discuss the problems that arise as a result?

In some ways, many here in Europe and there in the United States are beginning to see, the Fundamentalist Right in the United States is acting not so differently from the Fundamentalist Right in the multinational Moslem world.

Nor so differently from the way that radical Christian Europe behaved when they first met the New World. I’m tempted to end: may God have mercy on us all.



15: Winter and teeth

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 8—

God, what a night. First of all yesterday (Sunday) I lost a filling, one of my favorite fillings, a filling hthat amply had earned and deserved its name, as it filled virtually every space of a particularly useful tooth. That happened after lunch, which was at Albino il Sard, and before dinner, which was at home.

Of course I was out of sorts after the loss, partly owing to the familiar reminder it brought of mortality, partly because I had determined not to share my little loss with any of the family. I bear my sorrows patiently and alone, I tell myself, though Lindsey may not be of the same opinion.

Then too the lunch had not been what I’d hoped. I begin to think that our visit here in Rome last January was exceptional, perhaps because it was our first extended visit here, perhaps because it was in fact January, when Rome is almost bereft of tourists and embraced the more fondly by its permanent residents. In any case Albino, while to the eye exactly what we had remembered, to the palate and even the mind left a little something lacking.

Oh well. The day wore on, in its rather dreary way — it was the first overcast day since we arrived a week ago or so, even raining at moments, though never while we were out — and then back at home we had some delicious fagiolini and bread and finocchiona sausage and apples, and so to bed.

But God, what a night. After counting the number of ways the tip of one’s tongue can explore the interior of one’s tooth and finally falling asleep a contingent of cretins took up station below our bedroom window, which looks out on the street. (If you have the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Rome, by the way, you can see our bedroom window. It’s on page 206, just to the right of the pair of bloomers hanging from the lower clothesline, on the right. The shutters are open, as they are at this very moment. Our street is one of the most often photographed streets in Trastevere, if not in Rome, precisely because of its hanging laundry.)

I have mentioned before that we do not mind such noises; we are in a city deliberately; Italians love to express themselves; blablabla. But 1:45 in the morning of a Monday morning is not the time for heated discussions of the most trivial matters, particularly when most of the boys have silly pouting voices, and most of the girls are practicing that exquisitely annoying nasal singsong that disfigures the upperclass Italian female voice.

Some day perhaps I’ll have listened to these deliveries enough to be able to describe them. You could make a master’s thesis out of the curiously affected ways Italians have of delivering what is otherwise perhaps the most melodious, spontaneous, affecting catalogues of human vocalism. It’s as if they feel compelled to take up this God-given instrument, an instrument combining the immediacy of woodwinds and the expressivity of strings, and to use it to play synthesized versions of Lawrence Welk polkas as played by the Tijuana Brass. I do not like it at all.

But I will go no further in the matter. I have learned in sixty-nine years that I can outwait almost any irritation. In time they disappeared, who knows why or where. They left me to consider my mortality, and sleep came once more.

This morning I phoned a woman I know here to ask if she knew a dentist. She did, and promised to call him. I could not: my telephone was nearly empty of time, and I didn’t have a recharge card. That would require a trip to the tobacconist, and I wasn’t ready to do that, probably because I didn’t really want to commit myself. So off, a little after eight, to do the e-mail, and buy the newspapers, and back to fix the breakfast and marvel yet again at the ability of children — grandchildren in this case — to sleep until nearly ten o’clock when the day was bright though cold and all of Rome lay at their feet.

Also we were waiting for Mister Fixit, who the landlady Veronica had promised would come in the morning to re-hang the bathroom door, and explore the enigmatic electrical outlets, and generally convert this dump, through some kind of bricolage alchemy, into a place worth something near its price, which I will not tell you lest I tempt the gods into some kind of awful vengeance.

He did not appear, of course, so, since she had in the meanwhile called to say he had a key, we simply bailed. It was a glorious morning, what was left of it, cloudless, incredibly clear for the cold wind. Autumn has been skipped this year, the newspapers marvel; it’s cold as January almost; winter has truly set in.

Simon had asked particularly to see the Colosseum, so I decided to tease him. We went first to the Isola, the curious Tiber island which has been a refuge for the sick for the last 2300 years. We walked down the fifty-three steps from its street to the riverbank and walked slowly around the entire island, which the Romans sheathed in marble (actually it looks like travertine to me, but who’s to cavil) and then left to disintegrate slowly over the centuries. It’s neither big nor small, this island; perhaps two or three city blocks, with a hospital at one end and the Roman navy at the other — you can tell it by the fact that four or five orange life-rings hang disconsolately from its wall, as if anyone would toss one out if Simon should edge to close and fall in.

If he did it would be curtains. The water is swift and, to all appearances, cold. Apart from a few sleek cormorants and a wheelbarrowful or two of empty plastic bottles caught in the undertow below the weir their seems little life here, though now I think about it I believe I’ve seen people fishing in this churning graygreen river. We are told that Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, came downstream on a boat, centuries ago, and that his serpent slithered off his staff and swam to this island, prompting the god to disembark and clear up a local plague. That was some serpent.

We went on to Sta. Maria della Bocca di Verita’, uncharacteristically devoid of tourists, allowing Simon and Franny to pose with their hands in the dreadful stone mouth, thereby proving their truthfulness; and we continued to the Circus Maximus, looking up at the bleak brick ruin of the grand palace of the Caesars, and walking the soft grassy track; and we went up the hill across from Nero’s aqueduct, and into Cardinal Spellman Way and the Parco del’ Celio; and finally down toward the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. A block before, as we crossed the Quattro Coronati, I asked Simon what he should be doing as he crossed a street.

Look both ways before stepping into the street? he asked dutifully, looking to his left — and his face went round and open with surprise and delight: there was the Colosseum down at the end of the street.

But we stopped for a coffee, and to look at the gladiator’s barracks, before charging across the busy piazza and circumambulating the arena itself.

English major that I was, I can’t see the Colosseum without thinking of Daisy Miller. To me it will always stand for malaria and loneliness, both of which have long since been banished. Today’s Colosseum is barricades, tourguides, busses, cheap souvenirs, and people posing for photos. But it is enormous, and old, and it keeps its own counsel. I have never gone in, and never want to. I like to give it its place, in the hope it and the rest of the cosmos will continue to give me mine, though my dental interiors may crumble to dust.

So we turned our backs and walked on through the Forum, just to acquaint the kids with it, we’ll come back another day; and we crossed Mussolini’s audacious Via Imperiali toward Trajan’s Shoppingmall, and climbed a few more steps to a little pizza-counter we know which we shared with a hundred squealing schoolchildren, and then up the Corso and down to the Tiber and home once more.

I bought the recharge card along the way, and dialed the scratch-off number into my phone, and called the dentist. Tonight, he said, at 1930. And so we had tea and cookies, and went out to shop for dinner, and then it was time for me to Go To The Dentist.

I once walked five miles or so through tunnels and over bridges in the French preAlps to have a wisdom tooth pulled. It was an interesting experience. not entirely unpleasant.

Four years ago or so I drove to the romantic and historical Piemonte town of Saluzzo for no other reason than to visit a dental clinic, having broken a tooth on a piece of stale French bread at lunch in a roadside rest stop above Nice.

This time it was a walk of forty minutes, which is over a mile, clear across Rome to a quarter I don’t particularly like, between the Barberini and the Spanish Steps, to open my mouth to another total stranger.

He was reassuring. Non c’e una problema, he said, falling back on the global demurral: No Problem. And in fact it wasn’t: he shoved some glue in, shone a magic lamp on it, left me to sit for ten minutes with an Italian newsmagazine promising all sorts of magic cell phones in the very near future.

He worked calmly and pleasantly and without an assistant. when we were finished he stepped to his counter, in a discreet alcove off the reception room, and prepared the bill: 110 Euros. I gave him my credit card; he gave me a receipt. I hope my insurance company will understand.

I walked back, relieved, inches taller, younger, more handsome, through the electric, stylish Roman night, bling and luxury on every side, through the Tritone Galleria where a formally dressed fellow unaccountably played the Schumann concerto, minus orchestra, at an amplified grand piano to an audience of thirty; across the Piazza Colonna where the police hunkered down in dozens of squad cars, perhaps guarding against another planned spontaneous redistribution of department-store commodities among the working-class; past the Pantheon with its clot of tourists eagerly listening to a chirping tourguide with a yellow umbrella; past the cat-ridden Area Sacra and its streetcars and trafficlights; and home to have a delicious minestrone Lindsey had prepared in my absence, and to marvel at a short string quartet Simon had composed in my absence, and to type up these notes for you.

And I hope you read them in peace and contentment; and may your teeth hold another few years; and may you enjoy a minestrone as good as mine was.



16: Cecilia and bagna cauda

Cold today, quite cold, and threatening sprinkles, though we were rarely moistened. So we stuck close to home, only walking across the Big Street, the Viale Trastevere, to see how the other side lives, and to visit St. Cecilia.

It is one of my favorite spots here. The church itself is a bit of a sleeper, fronting a fairly large piazza with an improbably collection of old attached (of course) houses across from it — a sleeper because the church hides behind a facade. Once through it you’re in the forecourt, whose very attractive fountain is alas undergoing repairs at the moment.

We began with the piece de resistance, since its hours were short: the Cavallini frescos in the choir-loft. You pay two euros fifty apiece to see them, and they’re well worth it — frescos painted roughly a millennium ago, covered over for some inexplicable reason in the 17th century I think it was, and rediscovered only a century ago.

Painted in a Byzantine manner, with those almond-shaped eyes and rather stiff poses, Christ and the twelve Apostles preside over the Universal Judgment. When you look at these amazing paintings you’re about twenty feet above the point from which the painter intended you to see them, because the choir-loft was built in front of them. It’s as if you were standing on a scaffold in one of the other similarly frescoed churches here, not that there are many similar frescos. Below the Christ and Apostles there are a few angels herding the wise and the foolish to their respective eternal destinations, but not much of that can be seen — whether because it was destroyed when the frescos were originally covered over, or whether because they are still covered, I do not at present know.

(There’s so much I do not at present know, and so much less time, from one year to the next, to do much about that. It doesn’t really matter to me: in many ways I prefer my eternal curiosity to any satisfaction of it, not that the questions wouldn’t arise again almost immediately, so short does my attention seem to be growing.)

In spite of the early style of this painting, the faces are quite individuated. If you saw one of these guys on the street you’d recognize him. Peter, on Christ’s left, looks disturbingly like George W. Bush, narrow-set eyes and all, except that he sports a full beard. Our President would do well to grow a beard, I think. It helped Lincoln’s credibility, and it couldn’t hurt George’s.

I particularly like the archangels at the top of the Cavallini composition, and of them I particularly like the feathered wings. Too often angels’ wings seem scaly, perhaps because on the whole scales are easier to paint than feathers. These feathers are stiff, like goose-quills, the better to fly with perhaps; but they also seem soft and upholstering. And their colors are remarkable; the feathers lie in groups like crayons or pastels in a set, with barely perceptible leaps from one color to the next. I suppose all these pigments are mineral pigments, ground stone worked into the fresh plaster; but among the colors their are surprising mulberry greyed violets, and rosy not-quite-reds, colors you just don’t otherwise think of.

We went down into the church itself to see Stefano Maderno’s portrait sculpture of her, done in 1600, five years after her body was discovered. You remember the story: Cecilia was a young Roman woman who lived in the 3rd century. She offended the authorities by refusing to marry her boyfriend until he converted to Christianity. One thing led to another until they were both martyred. Her execution was particularly gruesome: she was locked for three days in her Roman bath — she was one of the upper class, and owned such luxuries — but managed to escape both scalding and suffocation by singing hymns throughout the ordeal.

Whereupon she was put to the axe: but she withstood that as well. Three times the decapitation failed. When her body was discovered, in 1595, it was remarkably fresh, as if she had just died — not of decapitation of but of lost blood from the gash in her throat. Maderno’s portrait is said to be an accurate portrayal, and while it is immaculate and bloodless, as you’d expect after 1300 years of perfect death, it is nevertheless immensely touching. Cecilia was small, beautiful, chastely dressed. She lies in his marble statue under the altar, and it’s hard to resist sympathizing with her.

The church is built above the ground floor of her house. One of the troubling facts about Rome, about all ancient cities, is that the cities of our own time are twelve to twenty feet higher. I have always thought this represented two millennia's worth of fingernail clippings, orange peels, empty packages and the like, but here in Rome it’s clearly also a matter of the upper storeys of old buildings being demolished and used to fill in the ground floors.

Cecilia's house has been carefully and instructively excavated, and there are plenty of helpful panels, complete with drawings and you-are-here maps, to guide you through — if you can deal with Italian. Walking around underneath an enormous stone building is of course a little bit creepy, but interesting. Some of the time we’re apparently on the original Roman streets on which Cecilia’s house had been built; at other times we’re within its floor-plan. One room contains a number of cylindrical pits, apparently used like silos to store grain. By a hundred years or so after her time these had been filled in and floored over, still with that serviceable but decorative mosaic system the Romans favored.

We emerged finally to go back and buy some orange marmalade made from the convent’s own fruit by the convent’s own novitiates, and then went to market, our local market, because we are cutting costs on this trip by eating at home.

Lindsey made a fine minestrone yesterday and added to it today. A little fresh sausage, a quart or two of the famous Roman water, and a few cups of the mixed chopped vegetables available at any market — onion, carrot, a few shell beans, some chopped greens, all ready to toss into the stock for a market-fresh version of instant vegetable soup.

And tonight, special treat, bagna cauda. This seemed a little insensitive after visiting Cecilia, but no matter. Lindsey smashed minced garlic, about five cloves, and half a small bottle of anchovies in oil, into a pan with an inch or two of olive oil in it, and heated it. Into these we dipped raw red and yellow pepper strips, blanched small white onions, steamed potatoes, and leaves of Savoy cabbage (you can buy a quarter cabbage at the market) and pale delicate greenish-white chicory.

With this a bottle of cheap local red. It continues to rain and occasionally thunder, clearing and settling at times in between. It’s an uncertain life, the newspapers continue to remind us. But these simple pleasures at the table, not so very different from what Cecilia must have known in her better days, send us happy to bed, and there’s a lot to be said for that.


17: An uncomfortable moment

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 11—

Two Dispatches today, more than you want to deal with, and there’s a very simple reason. My usual Internet Points are down.

We’re used to the really local one being unreliable. It’s a very pleasant place, only a few hundred feet away, but its hours are, well, to repeat a word — and why not? I am no Flaubert! — unreliable. Today being a little bit rainy, we did the laundry. The laundromat isn’t far from the local Internet Point, so I thought the efficient thing to do would be to combine errands. Ah, efficiency, such a virtue, so far from Italy, so far from me.

In fact it turned rainy as the day wore on, but it began gloriously. There were tremendous thunderclaps in the night: this was the first night I was not awakened by carousers. But the day began with hard bright blues overhead, and we spent the morning in the nearby Botanical Garden, a pleasant oasis of palms and pines, bamboos and ferns and roses (some still in bloom), decaying monumental staircases and fountains, and an unlikely group of twenty or so national policemen in their rainy-day slickers and their best behavior being lectured about the garden and its plants — I can’t imagine why.

And then lunch, and then the laundry. This began badly: Lindsey put a one-Euro coin in the soap dispenser and then pulled open a door on an empty compartment. Goodbye Euro. We scratched together the remaining coins and bought soap and tokens and tossed the clothes and the soap into two washing machines and trooped off to the Internet Point.

It was closed. The handwritten sign on the door, trumping the businesslike printed sign, said clearly that today it would be open from 1400 to 2200, and it was now 2:30 which in Italian is 1430, but no one was there.

So we went on down to the next one, the one we usually go to because the local is in fact usually closed. I walked confidently to the back room with my laptop as I have done for several days, but the manager wagged his forefinger from side to side. Non posse: you can’t. Why not, I asked. No connection, he said. Why not, I asked. Change of provider. When will you be back on? Hard to tell. Hard to tell, I asked, or No one knows, or only the good Lord knows? Oh, the good Lord, the manager said, I don’t know if He knows, but it’s hard to tell. Tomorrow? I asked. Oh certainly not, no, not tomorrow.

So we went back to the laundry to put the clothes into the dryer and went home to have a pot of tea. By the time the water was nearing a boil the half hour had gone by and it was time to rescue our clothes from the dryer before someone else did — this has apparently been known to happen.

Back again then for tea, and I recalled another Internet Point, further away, down near the local Standa Supermarket, where Lindsey wanted to go anyway to shop for dinner. So after tea and another half-hour, since one trip through the dryer wasn’t enough for some of our clothes, we finally got out of the house for the Internet Expedition.

By now of course I was thoroughly impatient and not thinking too clearly. Some of you will recognize this mood. Jacket, hat, scarf, laptop, wallet, telephone, wife, kids; we were finally out the door, we pulled it to behind us and descended the dangerous staircase and headed across the Piazza San Egidio, the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Piazza San Calisto, and down the familiar San Francesco del Ripa.

The Internet Point was not to be found. We noted a promising shop for the pig-cheek we wanted for dinner and continued looking. No Internet Point. Finally we gave up and went to Standa for the things we could not find in our S. Egidio greengrocer’s shop: real orange juice, some dry spaghetti, a can of good tuna. Oh: Standa being a typical Italian supermarket there’s a decent bookstore, and the clerk knew where the Internet Point was. So after buying our guanciale and some pecorino and olives at the pig-cheek shop we went there: but it was full, and would be for hours. And it was full of smoke, too; the first time I’ve noticed that here.

Home, then, to fix dinner; and it was while nearing home that I reflected that I had forgotten to put the keys in my pocket, and we were locked out of the house. I considered, then dismissed the idea of somehow getting past two locked doors without admitting to Lindsey that I’d forgotten the keys. There was no way to do this.

I called Veronica, the young woman who apparently owns our apartment, but her call diverting was on. Maybe she was at work. She works until midnight: that’s a long time away.

Lindsey suggested calling the rental agency we’d dealt with. Fortunately I had their number in the laptop, so I balanced it on my knee, it was now beginning to rain, and found the number. They promised to call right back after calling Veronica.

They did. She was in London. She’d taken our rental money and flown to London to spend it on theater and expensive dinners, I thought bitterly, and left us to stand out in the gathering rain.

Well, Lindsey said, we can ask the police for help. There are always police guarding the Piazza S. Egidio, because it is the home of an important international liberal movement that was threatened with something years ago: once threatened, in Italy, one is apparently guaranteed visible police protection from then on.

The police listened politely and came up with several good suggestions. I might call 155, they said; the firemen would come, and they would break down the doors, both the street door into the apartment house and then the front door into our own apartment. I thought of the likely expense of repairing the damage and dismissed the idea.

Well then, they said, you could see if someone can break in. I looked at Simon, a healthy fifteen-year-old American boy. The police looked at him as well. Maybe a boy from Naples would be a better choice, they said. Then one of the cops suggested the old credit-card trick, and I brightened.

The street door refused to open to my credit card, but this didn’t slow me down. I pressed several of the doorbells, and two people answered at once on the intercom, while another leaned out his window and asked, reasonably enough, Who was there. I am here, I answered, I live in the apartment below you, I’m renting it, my keys are in the apartment and I am not.

Someone buzzed the door lock open and we quickly shouldered our way into the lobby, as you might call it. We went up to our door and got out the credit card.

Again, no luck. I began to reconstruct the design of the lock and the bold; I closed my eyes (after rudely suggesting that the kids give me a little silence) and tried to visualize the length and design of the key. I realized quickly that the bolt was a good way behind the door, further than any credit card of mine would reach.

I detached a strip of metal that hangs purposelessly from the ornate wooden door and tried using it as a jemmy. I tried my shoulder. I returned to the credit card. Nothing worked.

Oh well, I said, I’ll go down to the hardware store and see if they can recommend a locksmith. They did, in incomprehensible Italian, describing the location of his door on the next street, but I could not find it. But just then the telephone rang: a friend of Veronica’s would be at our door in an hour with the key.

I went back to the apartment to break the good news to the others, and we trooped off to the one remaining Internet Point I knew of here in Trastevere, way down by the river. Everything worked fine here, except that a filter on their system prevented my sending e-mail out. I could of course do this using webmail, but all my outgoing mail was already on my machine, and time was now running out, no time to cut and paste it into a website.

And anyway the hell with it; nothing I have to say is that important. So we walked back home and waited five minutes; the nice young woman came with the key; we got into our apartment; Lindsey cooked up some spaghetti carbonara; and all’s well that ends well. And from now on Lindsey carries the key.



18: Haircut (not mine)

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 12—

The first time we came to Rome was in November 1988, and the first place I stepped into was a barber shop near the Campo dei Fiori. It wasn’t that I needed a haircut, it was that we needed a hotel. We had arrived by car, having driven from France by way of Corsica and Sardinia (taking ferries, I need hardly add), and we had driven straight to the tourist office at the railroad station, where we had found no help in getting cheap lodgings.

But I remembered that Thérèse had told me that you could always find a room near the Campo dei Fiori, so we went there, and I stepped into the barber shop reasoning that the barber would know the locals and could steer me to a good local cheap hotel. He did, and we were very happy with it, and I decided the best way to express my gratitude would be to get a haircut.

I don’t like getting them more than once or twice at the same place closer to home. I don’t know why this is: I suspect it has something to do with making myself vulnerable near my own home — it’s allied, I think, to the primitive instinct we men have not to reveal that we need directional help: it would reveal we are lost and vulnerable. Perhaps a Sunday School lesson about Samson and Delilah, in my horribly vulnerable grammar-school days, left too profound a mark.

But I do like getting haircuts in foreign places. Firenze, Rome, Savigliano, Milano in Italy; La Paz in Mexico; two or three towns whose names I forget in Holland. I regularly get haircuts in Portland, when we’re up there. I’ll get another here in Rome, next week when I need it just a bit more than I do now. But I thought I’d check the place out, so Simon and I stopped off on our way home from the day’s excursion.

Barring the passage of sixteen years — more than Simon has lived — nothing had changed. The same two barbers were there; the same newspaper (Il Messagero, not Repubblica or La Stampa, certainly not Corriere della Sera). And the same fellow sweeping the floor, though he, like me and Simon but not like the barbers, looked sixteen years older.

(Barbers, I think, like women, have ways of never looking older. Not all of them, of course, but many; and not simply through recourse to chemistry, though I suspect that happens too from time to time. I don’t know of any men other than barbers who manage this. Perhaps that’s another reason I try to avoid them, especially local ones; there’s something sinister about this; it’s like a pact with the devil.)

One of the things that had endeared this particular barbershop to me, sixteen years ago, was the floor sweeper. He was clearly not right — I mean, he was developmentally disadvantaged, or whatever is the correct term these days. He clearly would not be able to make a living, but he was able, after a fashion, to sweep the floor.

There was something about the way the barbers related to him, and the customers too, that made it clear immediately even to a stranger to the place that the sweeper was a regular — perhaps related to the owner, or one of the barbers. He was accepted and given a way to pass the time.

We had just a few days before been in Sardinia, on that trip, and had eaten at a rather tony restaurant in the capital city, Cagliari. It was a white-tablecloth-and-fancy-flatware place, and nearly all the diners were quite fashionably dressed (not me, of course). Yet a fellow was walking around from one table to another poking his face into the party and acting rather boorish.

It was clear that he too was pathetically disabled; he must have been attached to the restaurant somehow; he babbled and grinned at all the customers (us too); but he was not only tolerated by the clientele, he was greeted and smiled at and accepted for what he was. This was a great lesson to me, one that’s been lost on me no doubt, still a lesson, a lesson in humility and generosity and acceptance of things as they are.

My barbershop floorsweeper has improved a bit over the years. He’s filled out; he dresses better. He’s going a bit bald, but of course he’s beautifully coifed. And he’s speaking, which he wasn’t sixteen years ago. His speech doesn’t sound natural, partly because his voice is unnaturally squeaky; and he didn’t seem to enter conversations: but he spoke, clarifying requests that were made of him (open the window a little further; clean off the window of its condensation.)

I need a haircut, but Simon needed it more, it seemed to me. This was aggravated by the fact that he’d just bought himself a hat, a nice soft black felt hat, at a hat shop we passed as we’d walked up the Giolitti, I think it was, near the train station. Borsalino linea, the label said; twenty-six euros. That’s no Borsalino, I said to the elderly gentleman who waited on us. No, signor, non c’e un Borsalino; e un Borsalino linea, accent on linea.

I’ve never seen an important trade-name used quite like this. I mean, you’d think a hat would either be a Borsalino, or it wouldn’t; if not, it wouldn’t be allowed to use the name at all — though of course there might be a knock-off: but surely it wouldn’t call itself a Borsalino “linea,” it would simply and boldly steal the name.

So this must be a lesser-label affair, like the cheap (I mean: inexpensive) wines the major labels sell back home. Yet Borsalino wants you to know they make the thing, cheap though it may be. Maybe this is clever marketing; maybe it’s common here in Europe; maybe it’s the wave of the future. There’s a lot about the fashion industry that escapes my comprehension.

Last January when we were here I went to the Borsalino store, up at the Piazza del Populo, to buy a hat. I was thrown back on my heels by the prices: you couldn’t get out of that store with a hat without leaving nearly two hundred dollars behind. This was in my mind when I observed that Simon’s hat couldn’t be a Borsalino.

No, the gentleman said, but it’s a Borsalino linea — does that mean style, or model, or what? A Chinese Borsalino, I said, and the poor man was aghast: Oh no signor, non e cinese, e tutto italiano: this hat isn’t at all Chinese, it’s completely made here in Italy. Whatever its provenance, it looked good on Simon, and better after the haircut.

We’d been in the morning to the National Museum of Musical Instruments, a collection amassed (or nearly all of it) by a single collector, a tenor prominent in his day — he premiered Rodolfo, for example, in La Boheme — but whose day was alas fleeting: his career, for whatever reason, only lasted four years.

But he had money, money and obsessions. He collected corkscrews, cigarette lighters, watches; most of all, he collected musical instruments. He apparently collected many thousand of them, and the best are to be seen in this museum, now run by the State. There are archaeological finds here, musical instruments dating back well before history; whistles and bells and clappers and such. There are lamps and medals and statuettes from the Archaic period, from Etruscan times, and of course from Hellenic Greece, depicting instruments.

There are Roman instruments — bells and trumpets and the like in bronze. And there are fragments in ivory and bone of instruments which, having been made of wood, are otherwise gone forever: tuning pegs and bridges from stringed instruments.

There are lots of folk instruments: hurdy-gurdies, bagpipes, all kinds of mandolins and guitars and whistles and those curious violins called kit-fiddles that are shaped so as to be able to be slipped into a dancing-master’s pocket.

There are wonderful instruments from Renaissance and Baroque times: dulcians and rackets and shawms, lutes and theorbos and viols, organs and bells. And there’s one of the very first pianos, from Cristoforo’s own hand, along with spinets and clavichords and harpsichords. I was a little disappointed that there were no 20th-century instruments; the collection seems to stop in the mid-19th century, with a wondrous array of flutes, one made of solid rock crystal, and an impressive number of harps. You couldn’t help hearing the Mozart concerto.

And in our usual undisciplined and completely random way we followed this cultural immersion with lunch in a completely ordinary place, a fish restaurant as it turned out, near the train station, where a liter of decent local white wine cost four Euros, and we had risotto and pasta with scampi (not our prawns, or big shrimp, but small lobsterlike creatures) and a nicely grilled sole. I don’t even know the name of the place. It had a very high ceiling, coved at the many corners (for there were a number of columns holding it up), and the usual assortment of pictures apparently obtained at random, and a table of bowls of various vegetables greeting us as we walked in, and a nice English girl who waited on the tables, for the European Union has moved a lot of people around the subcontinent, perhaps also at random, like the Euros themselves, whose obverse sides are uniform, but whose reverse sides are stamped by individual European countries.

The rain has stopped, though as Simon and I walked home in the dark across the Ponte Sisto, and stopped as I always do at night to admire the inky blue sky and the black Tiber and the gold lights on the distant St. Peter’s dome we saw lightening in the western sky, far far in the distance, so far there was no thunder to be heard.

You’ll have seen I’ve found another Internet Point. It’s no further than the others were, so I’ll go out in the morning, my morning, your midnight, and post this. I hope it hasn’t been too long and scattered!

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