Charles and Lindsey Shere Homepage


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

19: Ou sont les neiges
20: Demonstrations: Palestine; Farmers
21: Jump in mouth
22: God and Cod
23: A Day in the Country
24: Politics and pasta
25: Haircut (mine)
26: The Parmesan Lesson
27: Se vuol ballare

     back to part 1 of 3      back to part 2 of 3

19: Ou sont les neiges

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 13—

Ou sont les neiges d’antan, old F. Villon asked five hundred years ago: Where are the snows of yesteryear. It seems incredible that things I enjoyed about Rome in January are no longer here to share with my grandchildren ten months later.

But first: I can report that we made the definitive comparison today between the two coffees said to be the best (or at any rate the most special) in Rome. They are the coffee served at Caffe’ St. Eustachio and that at Tazza d’Oro.

I quote from a fellow enthusiast, perhaps a specialist: Pavel Zivny, who unaccountably beamed this personal memo from his own traveling PDA to mine:

- the cafe's are called 'bars', and not cafes. 1) Sant' Eustachio il Caffe ; (tip -before- you're serve?; the "Gran Caffe" has super-crema - suspect of additives in roasting.)
2)Tazza d'Oro : the big rival, with smaller crema, but with specialties such as "Caffe Corretto" - corrected with Grappa.
Both close to the Pantheon.
Illy (Illycaffe) Caffetteria Nazionale has food as well.
Not recommended: "caffe lungo" - (espresso with water)

Well, no, I guess it isn’t recommended. Nor is Illy, as far as I’m concerned. Years ago, when Illy took over the generalized espresso trade here and everywhere, I decided that if an Italian village had only one cafe — excuse me, Pavel; bar — it might very well offer Illy. If there were two bars, the other one would be the better one. Illy was then, and this is something like fifteen years ago, the Starbucks of Italy (and by the way I have yet to see a Starbucks in this country; I hope I’m not jinxing things by mentioning it).

Anyway today we went out for a long walk, to the Theater of Marcellus and the Ghetto, over to the Campo dei Fiori to have lunch at a fast-food salt-cod restaurant that wasn’t there; back toward the Ghetto to the Largo Librari where it was, but it was closed; back to the Ghetto to Giardino da Roma (which we mistook for da Gighetto, where we’d intended to eat) where we did in fact have lunch (artichokes alla giudia, fried zucchini blossoms, fried salt cod fillets, gnocchi al burro). And after lunch we did the coffee trial.

Sant’Eustachio is on the piazza of that name, and is a legend. There were a number of other tourists there, many clutching guide-books and most armed with maps; but there were also locals, including laborers in their denim overalls, recently emerged from manholes or climbed down off scaffolds — for Rome is nothing if not a town undergoing constant repair and renewal.

As in every bar and gelateria, you first go to the cash register and pay for your order, then take the receipt to the bar and give it to the barista. At any other bar that would be it: the barista would turn his back to you in order to address his espresso machine, load the coffee-filter with ground coffee, twist it into place, push the button (the days of pull the lever seem pretty much over), and then set the half-filled cup down into the saucer he’d already set out with its little spoon.

Not at Sant’Eustachio. Here everything is cloaked in stealth: you’d think you were dealing with suspicious medieval journeymen anxious lest the secret of their great mastery be discovered by rivals and sold cheaper, thus putting them forever at a disadvantage, or perhaps out of business altogether. At Sant’Eustachio you give the receipt to a barista, who sets out the saucers but — and this is telling, I think — no spoons; and then he murmurs something to a second barista, who manages the machine in the most furtive way imaginable.

And the machine, by the way, is not where it belongs, on the back bar with its handles facing the audience, but on a sort of wing of the bar itself, with a plain board hiding it from view, and two more set at each end to guarantee you’ll have no idea what’s going on, and, needless to say, no mirror beyond it.

And then the coffee is put down in front of you, with the spoon not on the saucer but in the coffee itself, and the espresso has an impossibly dense “crema,” that indescribable component floating atop any well-made espresso; impossibly dense and improbably thick. You can’t help yourself: you take a spoonful to taste and discover it’s already sweetened, and then you realize there is no sugar on the bar at all.

Sant’Eustachio is famous for this crema, and equally famous for its being something of a gimmick. It reminds me of nothing so much as the Orange Julius of my childhood, a beverage that shortly after World War II could be found in just about any sizable town. There would be a franchise; it would serve hot dogs maybe, and pie and coffee, but would be attended mostly for its Orange Julius, made of fresh-squeezed oranges blended with a Secret Ingredient that gave it a dense, floury, slightly chemical quality, more pleasant than it sounds.

I think the coffee at Sant’Eustachio is overrated. We went on to Tazza d’Oro, just off the piazza in front of the Pantheon. Here there’s no secret: they blend and roast their own coffee, and that’s what you get. They also sell the beans, and in fact they have a website from which you can order it — though the freight is incredibly high if you’re trying to get it shipped to the United States.

Tazza d’Oro is one of my two favorite coffees, the other being Caffe il Doge, available only in the Veneto, as far as I know — I’ve only seen it in Venice and in Treviso, where the torrefazione is located. In fact I slightly prefer il Doge, for its somewhat smoky pungency. But Tazza d’Oro is rich and deep and expressive, and we all love the logo, portraying, in silhouette, a dusky maiden casting coffee-beans to the beach in some kind of welcoming ceremony to the noble European visitor.

Franny immediately pronounced Tazza d’Oro as today’s winner: it’s a nicer bar; the cups are nicer; and the coffee is better. And I agree. But when I pulled my coffee toward me and glanced down the bar for the sugar — for this is a do-it-yourself sweetener, as it should be — I was amazed to discover that the sugar bowl was gone.

It was at Tazza d’Oro that Lindsey and I were struck, last January, by the marvelous sugar bowls on the bar, elegant plastic housings with a bowl of sugar neatly covered by a lid which opened all by itself when you lifted the gold spoon out of its little sleeve, two of which flanked the bowl.

We so loved this contraption that we spent a day or two looking for one to take to Pavel as a present. It was after buying it, in fact, that we boarded the bus on which I was pickpocketed; that’s why I knew exactly how much money I’d lost, because I’d just taken it out of the bank to buy the sugar bowl, though in fact I was able to charge it, is why I had the money in my wallet, which was pickpocketed, but I got it all back and then some, as you’ll recall if you read these dispatches last January.

Where is the zuccheriere, I asked the barman; he pointed at the little paper envelopes of sugar in a receptacle, oddly inelegant in this temple of coffee. Yes yes, I said, I see the sugar, but where is the zuccheriere. Another customer at the bar, a real Italian, explained to the barista what I was asking, and clearly he himself realized he’d been missing it too.

It’s become illegal, he said to me, after listening to a rapid explanation in Italian from the barman. They both pointed to a notice displayed at the bar, advertising a law of May Something 2004 outlawing sugar bowls on bars, apparently out of concern for public health. Sheesh. You can let people burn diesel oil all over town, dogs can do their business anywhere they like, garbage is allowed to spill at every streetcorner (for there is no pickup, you simply take your household garbage out shopping with you and leave it next to an overflowing public receptacle); but Lord save us if a couple of strangers at a bar might use the same spoon to dip into a general sugarbowl.

I was pretty bitter about this. Simon, I said, let this be a lesson, enjoy what you’re seeing here now, when you come back with your grandchildren you’ll be telling them there was a time when your coffee was served in a cup, exposed to anything that might be floating about in the air, and not sealed in some sort of plastic container that you had to open with your own hands to protect yourself from public malaise.

There are times I’m not certain Simon understands such comments.

Anyhow we went on from there, up the Via Corso, over to the Spanish Steps where the Trinita del Monte, which crowns that extravagant staircase, was wrapped in an improbable advertisement for Telecom Italia, featuring a Mahatma Ghandi cautioning us to give a message of love if we must give a message.

And we slowly walked back, but not without one last coffee, for the price of a stop at a gent’s is a coffee — there are no pissotieres in Rome, this is not Paris; two thousand years ago the emperor Vespasian realized there was money to be made from calls of Nature.

Every bar has an exclusive with its supplier, and this coffee was Danesi. It’s perfectly serviceable: I put it in a category with Lavazza (which is what we have in the apartment for breakfast), and Segafreddo, and two or three others whose names escape me at the moment but which I recognize when I see them. A cut above Illy, in a class with Portland’s Torrefazione, but no Doge, certainly no Tazza d’Oro.



20: Demonstrations: Palestine; farmers

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 14—

First of all, I apologize if you received two copies of dispatch no. 19 (or perhaps even three). I had a new problem of some kind at the Internet Point.

And while I’m writing about technical matters, let me assure you that while there are occasionally glitches with sending things, and apparently with uploading things to my website, there have been no problems receiving — so feel free to write. Though I’d prefer you not send attachments.

Today’s highlight for me was a street demonstration — manifestazione is the local word — that went on for a number of blocks. We’d walked over to the Trevi fountain, then on to the Via Veneto to see the Capuchin ossuary. The boneyard was closed, of course; there was a sign on the locked gate promising that it would be closed from Dec. 23, 2003, “for works.”

In fact the entire Via Veneto was closed, sealed off to vehicular traffic by quite an astounding number of soldiers, I think, who stood shoulder to shoulder, armed and backed up by a good many vehicles parked on the sidewalks and adjacent streets.

I asked a bystander what was happening, and he started to explain, then sort of ran down, finally apologizing that he didn’t speak very good Italian. Neither do I, I said, still in Italian; what language do you speak? English?

In fact he did, quite well though with an accent: he was from Ukraine. It’s a pro-Palestine manifestation, he explained. And they’ve closed the Via Veneto, because the American Embassy is up there around the curve, and they don’t want any anti-American demonstrations.

So we took up stations at the Fontana delle Api, Bernini’s charming if badly worn homage to the busy insect featured on the coat-of-arms of his sponsor, Mister Barberini. We hung around to see what would happen, and before too long here came the demonstration down the via Barberini. It took half an hour to go past, at a slow walk, quite peacefully though noisily — bullhorns competed with squawky p.a. trucks, most of them broadcasting chants and rants but the last, unaccountably, playing a politicized version of the old Russian song “Katiusha.”

In the wake of that truck a number of the demonstrators seemed to be dancing a kind of cheerful two-step, and in front of them, right behind the truck, a very eccentric fellow was prancing and making faces. He reminded me of a man we watched years ago in the town plaza in La Paz, Baja California del Sud, who mimed and pirouetted round and round the bandstand on which the Acapulco Navy Band was playing opera overtures and pasodobles.

That fellow, apparently the town fool, was indulgently approved by the townspeople seated on the park benches, even though he ultimately wound up leading quite a procession of little kids. Our equally strange friend on the Via Barberini attracted no children and was pretty well ignored by everyone around him. But he wasn’t the only odd fellow in the parade; two or three other demonstrators carried wine-bottles, one of them at least a magnum, and lurched along as best they could.

For the most part, though, the demonstrators were clearly serious about their mission. Most of the banners spoke for Palestinian recognition, and many equated the Palestinian and Iraqi causes. Palestine for the Palestinians, Iraq for the Iraqis, everyone seemed to agree; let these people choose their own destinies; stop occupying their lands. Bush Sharon Terrorist: Intifada alla Vittoria, one of them proclaimed.

There were a great many Palestine flags, huge ones carried flat by large numbers of people. Some had the familiar image of Yasser Arafat hastily stenciled on them, and many in the crowd wore the keffiyeh, either wrapped around the hair in the usual way, or draped over the shoulders in a distinctly more Italian manner. One young woman wore it like a mask, concealing her face below the eyes.

There were plenty of red flags and banners. The Communist Party is alive and well here. But the people carrying those red flags and banners were far from wild-eyed radicals: this looked like a number of Berkeley street demonstrations we’ve seen, with little old ladies in tennis shoes, students, and professionals taking part.

Finally the end of the demonstration came walking down the hill, and rather a respectful distance behind them a rear guard of police or carabinieri — I find the Italian distinctions between local and national police, and army for that matter, too nuanced to comprehend. And behind that rear guard, the street-sweepers — first five or six men walking with those long-handled long-bristled willow brooms that are still used here (though in Paris they have been replaced by plastic equivalents), then three or four mechanized street-sweeping vehicles, and finally one last fellow with a broom, who seemed to have nothing really to do, by now the pavement was utterly clean.

Nor was this the only demonstration today. In the morning we set out for the Piazza S. Cosimato, where we like to shop in the daily market. Today is its last day: it’s being moved down across the Viale Trastevere to another piazza, and S. Cosimato is being turned into a sort of park: cars will not be allowed to station themselves there, and a lawn is supposed to be planted to set off the majestic plane-tree at its center.

On the way we saw a long table set up in the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, culminating in a sort of pavilion where a press table offered a number of pamphlets. The long table was loaded with fruits and vegetables and bottles of oil and wine and jars of honey and jam, for this was an educational demonstration set up by the CIA, not what you think but the Confederazione italiana agricoltori, the Italian Confederation of Farmers, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

The displays of fruits and vegetables were beautiful, of course. What was striking was the labels. Each item had a price tag showing two amounts: the average price a consumer pays in the store for these cabbages, onions, tomatoes, and so on; and the average amount that goes to each farmer responsible for providing this food. The farmer’s take, of course, is not a very big fraction of the final price.

And even more striking was a smaller display of grapes, olives, apples, and boxes of milk and rice, with a hand-lettered sign accompanying them:

. Polish Potatoes
. Chinese Tangerines
. Indian Olive Oil
. German Milk and Cheese
. Chilean Grapes
. Apples from the Czech Republic
. Moroccan Olives
. Indian Rice
And Italian Products are Not Sold!

Well, this is the consequence of globalization and the European Union, of course; but it seems to me it’s not a necessary consequence. Adjustments have to be made so that these other countries can export their products, while Italians will still be allowed to consume their own, meanwhile paying a decent amount to their own farmers.

I spoke for a minute to one of the women managing the press table. I’m from California, I told her, and we have the same problem, we grow wonderful food, but the local farmers have to compete with imports from India and Morocco and Chile. And Italy, too, I might add. I said this with a smile, of course, and she smiled too, a smile of sympathy. There are no easy answers to any of this, but there are answers.

I’ll have more to say about this, I think, in a later dispatch. Just now it’s time for dinner. Lindsey’s made our own spaghetti caccia e pepe, spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper; and with it we’ll have some broccoli — I think I smell it now. I’ll report on it in an hour or so.

* * *

Yes, absolutely delicious. We had to go the the local supermarket for the pepper, which comes in its own little plastic grinder — you’ve probably seen them; it’s by no means the first we’ve bought. I told Lindsey it should go in her suitcase with the bathtub stopper and the tea ball and, if she finds one, the rubber scraper, the things that are always missing in places like this apartment, not to mention motel rooms. Otherwise it pretty much comes from the market.

And by market I don’t mean only the S. Cosimato market. There’s a little shop right in the Piazza S. Egidio, with a few crates of apples, pears, onions, potatoes, and other necessities out in front, set up on the piazza outside the shop itself; and, inside the shop, shelves on the other three sides for wine, water, vinegar, oil, and cans of things we haven’t found it necessary to investigate.

This is where we buy a lot of our stuff — everything we need outside of bread and milk. The bread’s from the local bakery, one of the best in Rome; the milk’s from the local supermarket, or occasionally — as this morning — from a latteria-cafe-gelateria-panneteria on a slightly more distant street, say three blocks away, where they make “brioche,” meaning croissants, raisin buns, and the like — breakfast pastries, to put it simply.

The S. Egidio produce stall, as I call it, not knowing what its name really is, has been there quite a while. There are two very nice guys who seem to run it, and I seem to recognize them, much younger, in the color photograph of the place as it looked forty years ago, in the late 1960s. Above that photo there’s another, black and white this time, taken in the late 1940s. Then the produce was in willow baskets, whereas now it’s in wooden boxes. Otherwise not a lot has changed.

(And that reminds me that this morning, when we came back from the S. Cosimato market, there was a nice flat oval willow basket perched on the garbage can in the piazza, only a little damaged on one end. I picked it up to take home, but Lindsey overruled me, pointing out that our little apartment didn’t have a place to put it. When we walked back through the piazza a few hours later it was gone. Someone’s making good use of it, and that someone isn’t me.)


21: Jump in mouth

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 15—

Off to la Standa, then, this morning, to shop for dinner, Simon and me. And, on the way, to do the Internet thing.

At the risk of seeming to care more about food and eating than any other aspect of human life — nothing really to be ashamed of, and I’ll get back to that later on — let me remind you, as I remind myself almost daily, of the range of grocery shopping here:

• the daily markets at S. Cosimato (our neighborhood market) and Campo dei Fiori (the grand market across the river) and elsewhere, I’m sure, but of less utility to us

• the little produce shop in Piazza S. Egidio, our closest provider, who has very good fruit and vegetables and decent ordinary wine (by which I mean no more than 2.50 a bottle) and a limited supply of canned things and juices and water and so on

• the local mini-supermarket, Crai, in the Vicolo delle Cinque, about the equivalent of a block away, with a meat and cheese counter, more canned goods, okay produce though not as good as in the Piazza, milk, coffee, and a small but adequate range of paper goods and soap and the like

• Standa, the nearest supermarket, sharing the basement of a small department store with a fairly adequate bookstore, were I in need of books, as I am temporarily not. Here is a bigger array of precut meat, a wider range of produce, more brands of milk and coffee, and lots of nonfood items — nonprescription remedies, distilled spirits, paper goods, soaps and polishes and waxes. Oh: and sliced bread, which according to a recent newspaper article something like thirty percent of Italians buy, perhaps to clean their typewriters with. Though typewriters are few and far between these days.

I have excluded from this little survey all the specialty stores: oil and wine, what the French call charcuterie, cheese, butcher-shops, pharmacies, and so on. When we want prosciutto or guanciale we go to one of them; there are many within three or four blocks.

To Standa this morning because it is my turn to cook, and Lindsey suggests a saltimbocca, and that requires chicken breasts, though we really should be using veal cutlets here, and perhaps we will later this week.

Standa is laid out in the traditional European manner for supermarkets, which of course are much smaller than the American supermarkets, which have their equivalents here but only in the suburbs, where they are called hypermarkets. That is: you enter through one-way gates, walk through the produce department, past the dairy case, turn at the meat counter, look the other way at the deli counter, then enter the area of the corridors or aisles, where the cans and bottles and paper items are neatly laid out.

(By the way I suddenly realize typing this that I have not seen any pet food at Standa. Pet food represents maybe twelve percent of American supermarket shelves. Pet food, patent medicines, cosmetics, and wrapping supplies must occupy well over half the space of a typical American supermarket. Add beer and soft drinks and there’s hardly any room left for food.)

If you find it necessary to go back to the produce section, say, you get some pretty funny looks from the other shoppers, until they realize as they quickly do that you are no doubt a foreigner. These Italians don’t seem to go in for recreational shopping: they come in here with a purpose, they accomplish it, and they get out.

My purpose was chicken, prosciutto, a vegetable to cook; and this required a lot of backtracking and hesitation. There was no appealing vegetable: no problem; I’ll get it in the Piazza. I should get the prosciutto at a specialist’s, but this San Daniele looks pretty good, and then I’ll get some olives too, maybe 100 grams — well, that doesn’t look like very much, maybe a few more.

The veal is absurdly thin and expensive so yes, Lindsey, we’ll make do with chicken, but how to tell how many chicken breasts are in this package? Oh, why didn’t I simply buy a chicken yesterday in the market in S. Cosimato, as we did last January — a fine plump young chicken with yellow feet and a saucy expression on its face. Because the fridge in this apartment of ours is stuffed, that’s why.

Then I realize there is another indispensable ingredient in Saltimbocca, and that is sage. Another backtrack to the produce section turns up a styrofoam tray of sage, rosemary, and bay leaves, for 40 cents. But I don’t want rosemary and bay; all I need is sage. I’ll get it elsewhere.

At the checkstand I look moodily at the stuff the woman in front of me is buying and think about the sage. It will be hard to find elsewhere; I know that. But in January I found it in our store in the piazza S. Egidio, and I think I can count on them again. Besides, to backtrack to the produce section now...

And it’s my turn, so I get out the credit card, having also bought another box of blood orange juice because it’s on sale, and driven the total up to close to ten bucks. And we walk home, through the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, into our Piazza S. Egidio—

Where we find our little shop is closed. It’s Sunday. Oh well: we’re walking over past the Campo dei Fiori; there’ll surely be some sage there.

But there isn’t. There’s a special market, it being Sunday; lots of stalls offering produce from small organic farms nearby; a few crafts stalls because the Christmas season is in full sway, there being no Thanksgiving to get through first in this country; a fool with an amazingly long and outlandish instrument into which he puts a little water from one of the fountains and then blows, imitating birdsong; three or four flower stands down at the other end of the huge Campo; but the stall that always offers spices and herbs is not here today.

We go on to S. Ivo, the true purpose of today’s walk, and admire the chaste intelligent courtyard Borrimini made in front of his eccentric spiral-turretted hexagonal church; and we have a coffee at S. Eustachio, Tazza d’Oro being closed on Sunday; and we walk home. It is very cold; the kids believe they have detected snowflakes in the cold moist air.

I brood about the sage leaves all afternoon. If we have studied one lesson in Italy over the last thirty years it is this: If you see it, and you want it, buy it now. They won’t have it over there. They won’t even have it here if you wait too long.

So, knowing that Standa will close at two, I make a dash out the door to get that forty-cent box of rosemary, bay, and sage. I shoulder my way past the tourists and students sauntering down the Via della Paglia and lollygagging in front of S. Maria. I easily manage the broken-field quickstep down S. Francesca della Ripa, leaving the cars and taxis and three-wheelers and motos their room, dodging the dog souvenirs, threading the narrow sidewalk, the tables in front of the cafes and restaurants, the temporary police barricades that have been there since January.

But ahead I see the side door to Standa is already closed, locked, and shuttered. I hasten around the corner to the principle entrance, barred by a pleasant young lady who informs me I can’t enter. Only for one thing, I promise her: Downstairs? she asks; Yes; and I push past and downstairs and through the gates to the produce section. The herbs are not on their shelf. I ask a fellow with a broom. Finito, he says, that desperate word, as bitter and final as “out of print” — in fact it’s the Italian word for out of print, now I think of it.

Up and out. I ask a woman on the street if there’s another supermarket nearby. Yes, over there, she says, across the Viale, which is the scene of an incredible traffic jam caused by the moving of all the stalls from S. Cosimato to their new home. I manage to get across the street, but this supermarket is closed; the girls at the checkstands are counting their money; the doors are locked. Anyway there’s probably no sage there. It’s all been bought, yesterday at the latest, by Roman housewives planning their Sunday saltimbocca.

Home again, emptyhanded. I brood some more until I can stand it no longer. Out at five-thirty to canvass the local restaurants: surely someone here will have a few leaves of sage. By now it is really cold, really cold; and when I stop in at the local wine and oil shop for a bottle of red for dinner, by God we may have no sage to our saltimbocca but we will by God have red wine, I strike up a conversation with a local woman who’s taking the cold edge off with a glass, and I join her. Where can I get a few leaves of sage, I ask her.

Very difficult at this time, she says unpromisingly. The markets are closed. Oh but wait a minute, Standa is open. Yes, I answer, but they have no sage; they’ve sold out. Probably, she says; it’s Sunday. We meditate a moment or two with our glasses; then she brightens. Ask at one of the restaurants, she says; surely one of them will have three or four leaves to spare.

Not the first one, and not the second. But on the way back up the Cinque I step into a restaurant whose front door stands beckoningly open, though there’s no one to be seen inside. I walk straight back to the kitchen, where a few slices of prosciutto on a plate, absent-mindedly left on a counter, are the only sign of recent human occupancy.

Anyone here, I call, and finally a woman shows up — she’d been eating a sandwich in a dark corner of the dining room with a guy; I hadn’t noticed them on my purposeful way in. Have you got a few leaves of sage, I ask, having rehearsed the speech many times in my mind. No, she said. Oh, too bad, I said, I’m making a saltimbocca, and I forgot to buy sage.

She tilts her head to one side and looks at me with frank puzzlement, then says Oh, well, maybe there’s something, and we step into the kitchen, she casts a meaningful look at me and I back out of it again, she steps out of sight, then comes back with two fine bunches of rather dried-out sage leaves and offers them to me.

I bring up a handful of change from a pocket: How much do I owe you, I ask, Nothing, she says; and I thank her and walk triumphantly home, a bottle of “novello,” the new wine of this year’s vintage, a sort of Italian beaujolais, under my left arm, a spray of sage in my right hand.

* * *

Saltimbocca (chicken version):
Flatten the chicken breasts, using the edge of your fist. Put sage leaves on it, more or less according to taste and, of course, the size of the leaves and the chicken breast. Cover the chicken breast with a thin slice of prosciutto. Pepper it a little.

Fry the chicken breast, prosciutto side up, in a little butter and olive oil mixed. When done on one side, turn over, taking care not to let the three layers (chicken, sage, prosciutto) fall apart. A little salt and pepper.

When done on the other side, remove to serving plate. Add a little white wine to the oil and butter remaining in the pan and cook down to make a sauce, which you then pour over the cooked meat.

* * *

With this we had, as a first course, puntarelle with an anchovy and oil dressing Lindsey made, and, as our “contorno” or side vegetable dish, cavolonero, that delicious dark narrow-leaf kale the Italians grow, which Lindsey simply chopped (the stems finely, the leaves not so fine) and steamed in a little water and salt. And a bottle of “novello,” the first (bottled) wine of the current year, in this case a Teroldogo from the Alto Adige, Italy’s take on the Beaujolais phenomenon — but much less headache-inducing.

* * *

Now what I was going to say about it not being anything to be ashamed of, this constant thinking about what you’re going to eat, and where you’re going to get it, and how you’re going to fix it.

I think one of the things wrong with the unthinking majority of the American electorate is just that; they aren’t thinking. It’s not that they aren’t thinking about politics and governance and international relations: they aren’t really thinking about much at all. They’re believing, or having faith, or being entertained, or going about relatively mechanical occupations; but they’re not thinking.

I think one of the reasons for this is that they’ve been taught to be complacent. Things are pretty easy. They don’t, for example, by and large, even think about what they’re going to eat, or where they’re going to get it. Advertising has taken care of the latter, whether in terms of restaurants — franchises for the most part — or of grocery stores — the major supermarket chains.

As to the former, it’s pretty much meat and potatoes in various forms. I know this sounds simplistic, and a little patronizing, but statistically it’s not that far off the mark.

Europeans, like northern Californians and some of the people in the other “blue” states, think a certain amount about what they’re going to eat. It’s an interesting and complex process. It involves inheriting a set of tastes and proclivities and a repertory of dishes; considering new variations and even exotic imports; seeing what’s in the market; choosing from a considerable array of restaurants and markets and outlets.

A person who does this, without really thinking about it, is capable of listening, observing, weighing doubts and beliefs, making choices, and executing processes — and on a daily basis. And, of course, talking about it all, not in theoretical terms as I’m doing here, but in direct and practical terms: this is available, that is good at the moment, we used to do it this way, I’ve heard this other thing can work, and so on and so on.

I call this, for reasons I don’t have time to get into now, a sort of unconscious consciousness. It isn’t quite rocket science or postmodernist criticism, but it’s closer to thinking than simply being imprinted by a few commercials, going out for the same stuff you went out for last week and last month, and disregarding seasons, locales, even personal and family histories.

But enough for now. It’s ten o’clock, and tomorrow we’ve decided to go to the Vatican.



22: God and Cod

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 16—

What I meant yesterday was, it’s by continuing to be alert to the small grain of daily life that the conscious mind is kept working. That’s one of today’s preoccupations. The other is that it’s on the whole better to be connected to the real world than to spend your mental energy on some kind of fantasy, at least if you want to survive, let alone enjoy yourself, without requiring outlandish amounts of money and therefore exploiting a number of other people, usually total strangers.

* * *

It is amazing the sacrifices we will make for our offspring, or in this case for the offspring of our offspring. Today we went to a place we studiously avoided for an entire month last January: the Vatican.

On our first visit to Rome, sixteen years ago, I tried to avoid the Vatican, but the wife of a friend and colleague who lives in Rome — I knew him when he was a visiting professor at Mills College, and conducted my opera — the wife, Jeanne, insisted on our going. She also herded us into the Pantheon, for which I am forever in her debt, and took us to Evangelista for carciofi alla giudea, those wonderful crisp-fried whole artichokes that are somehow flattened while cooking.

But she made us pay for those exquisite pleasures by making us promise to visit the Sistine Chapel, and of course we did. I remember the visit for four things:

• A long wait in a line which ultimately turned out to be for a papal audience, not the Chapel, so we joined another line that went a little quicker

• A long corridor full of sculpture that I deliberately rushed through because it all seemed to be a collection of stolen goods torn out of context and set about any which way

• Signs warning us not to take photographs, speak, sit or lie on the floor, or fall downstairs, all in international-style pictographs with diagonal lines through them

• Michelangelo’s ceiling, then half cleaned and restored, so that the contrast between the old dark and dirty state and the present bright and somehow garish condition was heightened.

Today’s visit added little to this, though it did reinforce my aversion to the entire Vatican apparatus. First of all we walked through a fine mist across the river to wait for the number 23 bus which would take us there. We did this because we thought we’d gain time. In this we were completely deluded. A great number of other buses came and went, three or four or five of each of the other buses that stop at that particular point, but no number 23.

Finally we gave it up and began to walk, whereupon two number 23’s and possibly a third were right on the spot. We got in one and took it up to the Piazza del Risorgimento.

The line for the Vatican Museums was impossibly long, but we joined it, moving slowly in a half hour to the museum doors. There was a very fine rain, the sort that brings out snails in one’s garden, and umbrella-vendors here; it’s impossible to imagine how these people spring to life with their umbrellas at just such a moment. They do a good business, of course, charging five Euros apiece for little folding umbrellas that last just about long enough to get to the museum.

Once inside the museum we joined the herd headed for the Sistine Chapel. It’s a forced itinerary, up to a point, though one can branch off for the lesser attractions — the Egyptian museum, the Raphaels. We trotted past the Roman sculptures, just as I remembered them from last time, and then entered a gallery I hadn’t remembered, the map room.

What a marvelous collection that is! The long gallery boasts huge painted maps on the walls, mural-sized maps perhaps twelve feet high and sixteen wide, over thirty of them, painted in the late 16th century, of the various regions of Italy as they were known at the time. Their detail and their accuracy are astounding: I spent a fair amount of time in front of the map of Pedemontus, as Piemonte was then still known, admiring the depiction of the hills and valleys we’d driven many times, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

But from there we were cattle-chuted into the inevitable squeeze to the Sistine Chapel, quite jammed with tourists, all popping away with their flash camera in spite of those clever pictographs, until rather a loud series of recorded announcements was broadcast into the room in Italian, English, German, French, Dutch, Japanese, and a few other languages cautioning us against speaking, photographing, or lying on the floor.

As if we could have found room even to sit on it. And yet what parts of the floor I could see were really among the most arresting aspects of the room — a fine Cosmatic floor, a mosaic of slices of marble columns set in patterns composed of tiny cubes of stone and glass, all polished by the feet of perhaps thirty thousand visitors a day.

Above, of course, Michelangelo’s paintings attracted every face. Taken one at a time and considered as a painting should be they are undoubtedly masterpieces (though they do grow in stature as he continued his work; you can see that he begins as a sculptor somewhat tentatively dealing with the problems of painting, and ends a magnificent painter with all the knowledge of sculpture to draw on).

But there are too many of them; they compete too much with one another; they are too far away; the overall plan is too confused and overwhelming. And they are on the ceiling. Paintings should be on walls, not ceilings; it’s unnatural to stand with your head bent back looking at these things. I found myself looking at the lookers, not the paintings. It’s amazing how difficult these looker find it to keep their mouths closed as they gape heavenward; perhaps this is an anatomical imperative, like the one that forces pigeons to bob their heads with each step they take.

I found myself thinking back to the map room, and deciding that I preferred graphic illustrations of real territory to those of Heaven and Hell. And that, of course, led me to wonder why Pope Sixtus would have wanted these depictions of childish tales of Creations and Temptations, Floods and Sermons, and that horrible Last Judgment, when he could have had landscapes and still lifes of real places full of real pleasures.

Well: we left the museum at closing time and stopped in an ordinary restaurant for a bite of lunch — Tavolino Lina, if you want to know, choosing it because 1) it wasn’t immediately across the street 2) it was only a block or two away 3) we’d been handbilled by not one but two fellows who assured us that it wasn’t bad, and that Italians ate there as well as tourists. We had pizza and a green salad and a half liter of white, and it was okay.

Then we walked home and had puntarelle with anchovy sauce that Lindsey made.

Then, after a decent interval, we walked back across the Tiber to what is now my favorite place to eat in all of Rome, Dar Filetto Santa Barbara (the name is provisional, because various versions of it appear in various places).

This is on the Largo Librari 88, just south of the Campo de’ Fiori, and is open evenings only (but from 5 p.m. on), Monday through Saturday. We walked out of a bitter cold night and sat at one of maybe twenty tables for four lining the walls of a long rectangular room. The table was covered with white Formica, then, quickly as we sat down, with paper.

The menu is very short, and I didn’t really look at it. Four cod fillets, I said, and a half liter of red. Then Lindsey said Oh, zucchini flowers, and I added them.

The waiters are boys no older than their mid-twenties, rangy and Roman, and they’re pretty efficient. The wine came almost immediately, a decent house Abruzzo wine. A plate of four big battered and deep-fried cod fillets arrived next, with eight good-sized sheets of paper folded into triangles. We wrapped a paper around a fillet and began eating out of hand. The zucchini came not long after.

The batter was very crisp, almost brittle; and the cod and zucchini were moist and tender, full of flavor, and heartwarming against the cold night. I don’t know why we didn’t know about this place last January. I would willingly eat here twice or three times a week, from now until the day, not far off they tell us, that cod is extinct, gone the way of the passenger pigeon, a delicious commodity to tell your grandchildren about with respect and regret for the mortality, general and individual, that confronts us all.

Well, you see where this has led, of course. The popes and their finery, their gold and crystal and enamels, their Roman sculptures and their Egyptian papyruses, occupy themselves with the very real problems of politics and power while impressing their flock with all that apparatus of myth and symbolism and deferred heavenly rewards for present worldly pain and privation.

Meanwhile someone is fishing for cod, and a couple of stalwart women are battering and frying them in the kitchen, and we and a good many others are sitting at plain paper-covered tables eating them with great relish but no sauce, and realizing that really hardly anything could be better.



23: A Day in the Country

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 17—

We came here because we feel we really need an extended stay in a city from time to time; otherwise we’d rusticate entirely. But this morning was so glorious (though cold) that it was clearly time to get out of town.

Where better to spend a morning in the country than seventy-five feet underground, we reasoned; and the kids, being kids, are fascinated with things grisly (being half Czech reinforces this ghoulish preoccupation, I think); so off we went to the Via Appia for a history lesson.

This involved taking the no. 23 bus to the Piramide stop and transferring there to another bus to get past the city gates. The Piramide is a dislocating sight, even in Rome; a perfect pyramid, 72 feet wide and 118 feet high, made of ordinary brick but faced with gleaming white marble.

Except for the obelisks there’s not a lot in Rome in the Egyptian manner, which is a little surprising. Maybe the Christians did away with it all as payback for the nasty treatment Moses got from the Egyptians. Maybe the Goths and the Vandals smashed it all; maybe the alchemists made use of it in the dark ages. Maybe it’s all simply been redistributed, either by archaeologists of one kind or another or by dealers in curiosities. I know there’s a lot at the Vatican, but we didn’t look at it; and I know there’s a lot more in the Egyptian museum in Torino, said to be the biggest collection outside of Egypt (which is hard to believe, given the Louvre and the Metropolitan).

In any case there’s not a lot to be seen out of doors: just the obelisks and, as far as I know, this very odd pyramid, built to satisfy the last will and testament of one Caius Cestius, who died in 12 B.C. He’d worked for a while in Egypt, at the time when obelisks were being crated up and shipped off to Rome to celebrate Caesar’s defeat of Cleopatra; and he wanted to be remembered after his death. He was, by his heirs who had to scratch more money together to pay for the thing; and he is, by all of us who take buses or trams through this part of town, between the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla.

But the next bus, the 118, was a long time coming. People grew restless, and when one finally hove into view with the depressing sign DEPOSITO on its destination-board — for it was out of service and being driven to the bus rest home, wherever it is — I thought for a while it was going to be hijacked, not by the confused and passive tourists clutching their maps and cameras, but by the few Italian women (none of them under sixty) who had been muttering and expostulating and gesturing and flapping their plastic reticules.

The busdriver got on her phone, talked to someone, and assured us that another would appear in ten minutes. She was wrong: it appeared in only three minutes. But after we got on the driver informed us cooly that this bus had decided not to be a no. 118 after all, and we should get back off. We did, and immediately crossed to the next bus landing and boarded another bus. I don’t know how these things are organized. They always make me think of the opening sequence of Mister Hulot’s Holiday, the one where passengers gather on a train platform, hear an incomprehensible metallic announcement from a loudspeaker, rush downstairs, out of sight, and upstairs back into visibility on another platform, only to hear another announcement as the train pulls in to the ... oh, the hell with it, you get the idea.

In the meantime we’d struck up a conversation with a young woman whose English was beautifully spoken: I wondered where she was from. The north island of New Zealand, it turned out, modified by a number of years living in London, where she is a costume builder for ballet and theater. She accompanied us to the catacombs where we joined a group being herded through the bone mines by an informative and meticulous guide.

Here the highlight was the tomb in which St. Cecilia’s body was found. I wrote about her a few days ago; her church is one of our favorite spots in Trastevere, partly for the magnificent Cavallini frescos, partly for the fascinating Roman house in its basement (Cecilia’s own house, from the third century). Because Cecilia was martyred in her own caldarium, or steam bath, I had always assumed, without really thinking about it, that she had been buried here, but of course that was not at all the case. Like all Roman Christians who died before Constantine legalized their cult she was buried in a catacomb, an underground cemetery, outside the Roman walls.

These were dug out of soft volcanic rock, underground galleries and rooms with niches in the walls just big enough to lay the cloth-wrapped bodies. Some of the richest could afford sarcophogi and even family rooms; most were simply shelved. The catacombs were abandoned when Christianity was legalized, in the fifth century I think it was, and by the ninth they were completely forgotten, and not rediscovered until much later.

But Cecilia’s body was found in 1595, I read, or in 1599, the books don’t agree on the point; and when it was found it was in perfect state; I’ve already described the affecting statue made from direct observation of her body when it was found. A copy of this statue is in the catacombs, placed, they say, just where the body was found, so long ago, and it is very dramatic and a little creepy. She was only sixteen, small for her age we would say today, and very pretty; and a teen-aged girl in our group took one look and fainted dead away, and a woman next to here quickly crossed herself, and the parents of the girl caught her and laid her down gently on the floor of the tomb, and reassured the guide that everything would be okay.

Attendants were called, who unaccountably talked among themselves in French, and we moved on to finish our explorations, and then walk down the idyllic avenue of cypresses and pines back to the old Appian Way and on to lunch — tortellini; risotto — in a country restaurant beside a fountain gushing a particularly tasty mineral water.

And then through the afternoon sunlight to a couple more sights: St. Sebastian’s church, where his body is buried; and another Cecilia’s, a big drumshaped brick tower, a perfect cylinder open at the top and conical at the subterranean floor where she was buried. And then, just as we were wondering how to get back to our bus stop, we found a man with a horse and buckboard who offered to take us on a forty-minute ride along the old Appian Way and to finish by dropping us off at the stop.

This was a glorious conclusion to the afternoon. We jolted and bumped over the stretches where the original Roman paving has been revealed — I can’t believe they didn’t smooth it out with a layer of decomposed granite — and then trotted along on the mercifully smoother zampietri and the occasional stretch of asphalt, through the pastoral suburb known as Paradiso, where (the coachman told me) we passed the residences of Gina Lollobrigida, and the designers Armani and Versace, and the man who got rich introducing the song Nel blu dipinto di blu.

We passed an American military installation, presumably inactive since the end of the Cold War; we passed quite a large farm producing vegetables and salad and fruits, all of them organic; we passed the Russian Embassy, where an old woman in the ubiquitous dark cardigan and blue print skirt and dark stockings, with a kerchief on her head, was sweeping the driveway at the entrance gate, and where an elderly man wearing corduroy jodhpurs and holding a walking stick was sitting, knees crossed, on a bench, smoking a pipe, and lifted a hand to greet us with a smile as we trotted by.

And then we sped down a final hill, asphalt-paved by now, and were dropped off, and paid our twenty euros and crossed to the bus stop to wait for another no. 118 bus, behind us a beautiful meadow, partly plowed for the next planting, green grass and raw siena loam beneath a pale blue sky, Tivoli in the distance and Frascati, whence comes the cheap but tasty and honest white wine we drink every day.

And dinner at home: tuna, cannelini, raw chopped onion; and good bread from “our” bakery, warmed and toasted in a little butter in the frying pan. We watch the news, in Italian, and learn of resignations and appointments, and decapitations and distress; and we read about all this in the newspapers; and it sounds pretty damn terrible. But Rome and its three millennia continue to put it in perspective, at least for me. Enjoying our harmless pleasures seems almost a responsibility in times like ours. We won’t be here that much longer.



24: Politics and pasta

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 18—

In spite of what you may think it’s not all eat, eat, eat, you know. We continue to pay attention to the larger issues. We read the papers — the International Herald Tribune and La Repubblica — and we listen to what people in the street are talking about.

They don’t have that much in common, the newspapers and the people in the street. That’s partly because I can’t understand the language, except when I overhear some English, which I do pretty darn often, because we go to touristy places, and because our quarter, near Piazza S. Egidio, is home to a number of students.

(I also hear a lot of Spanish, a certain amount of French, a tiny bit of German, a little more of Dutch, a fair amount of something that sounds like Arabic, and now and then a little Tagalog.)

La Repubblica has been running a series about State and Religion. It’s in the news for a number of reasons: first, in chronological order, because of the perceived influence of Religion (of some sort) on the outcome of the American elections; then because of a flap here concerning an Italian nominee to the European Union who felt his personal attitude toward homosexuality, an attitude somehow prompted by religious feelings (I have trouble understanding that, but then I’m from California) would have to be expressed in his governmental role; then more urgently following the nasty mood that’s taking hold in The Netherlands since the murder by a Muslim extremist of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film director who was outspoken (to understate the matter) in his opinion of radical Islam.

Mario Pirani, in today’s Repubbica, points out that Europe is pretty sensitive to the historical problem of religious wars. They are in the European, um, blood. The Thirty Years’ War, for example, which ended in 1648, killed eight million people, not to mention the pestilence that accompanied it, simply because a few papal envoys to Prague threw a few Protestants out the window to their deaths because they wanted to build a few more Protestant churches.

Well, 1648 may seem a long time ago. But religious wars continue. One was settled, or perhaps only set in abeyance, just a few years ago in the former Yugoslavia, and another continues today in Ireland. And, as Pirani notes,
“religious wars are different from ‘traditional’ ones; they are difficult to conclude, they go on without solutions, the combatants are dominated by absolutism, not easily satisfied by mediation or compromise. For the same reasons they are exceptionally cruel, partly because the combatants think themselves fighting for Good against Evil. And finally they don’t recognize any distinction between civilians and the military.”
All this resonates pretty resoundingly with the news from Iraq: an unarmed wounded enemy executed in a Mosque. And the news from Washington: the former National Security Advisor (which amounts, it seems to me, to a parallel Secretary of Defense, as the Secretary of War has been called for the last fifty years) promoted to Secretary of State.

All of this preoccupied me this morning, after I’d bought and scanned the newspapers; but I set it aside as we crossed the Tiber yet again, doing a little shopping and visiting the National Museum of Pasta. I promise you that there is such a thing. And it’s rather an ambitious affair, in its engagingly silly way. For a relatively minor admission charge you get headsets and a CD player to guide you through the many smallish galleries on two floors — Rome is no place for the mobility challenged — and even a microphone so the Head of Family can speak to the others in the group through their headsets.

The museum is pretty cagey about the origins and age of pasta, only noting that the first written record seems to date from the 12th century, well before Marco Polo. (It’s in Arabic, by the way.) There are of course two kinds of pasta in Italy, hard pasta and soft pasta; but this museum quite ignores the latter. Tortellini, ravioli, malfatti, above all gnocchi have no place here. This museum celebrates the irrational but inevitable and certainly useful technological evolution by which semolina flour, which is ground from a grain quite different from the wheat that gives us Americans our cake and bread flour, is mixed with water, kneaded to a fare-thee-well, and pushed through holes in metal plates to extrude the more than three hundred shapes known to Italians — long hard pastas like macaroni and rigatoni and spaghetti; short hard pastas like orecchieti and stelle and farfalle. (And evasively in-between ones like penne, which begin as long pastas but are cut short before they are dried.)

The museum offers prints and photographs, texts and drawings, machines and working models, and all the while it’s explained in delightful detail in Italian on the wall-panels, which are glossed in a maddeningly British accent by the voice in your headphone. (None of us can abide hearing “pasta” rhymed with “faster.”)

We left the National Museum of Pasta hungry, of course, and stepped around the corner to San Crispino, the gelateria on the via Pannetiere, which Lindsey feels is the best in Rome to her knowledge, and I’m not going to argue. It was our second trip here: we have made a second trip to no other gelateria. (At least not on this trip, not so far.) San Crispino has two very distinctive features separating it from all other gelaterie so far consulted: the gelati are covered, of all things; you can’t see them; they’re in stainless-steel ice-cream cans with stainless-steel lids, and you have to make your choices by simply reading the labels.

(At least so I thought the last time we were here: but this time there were a couple of Italian men ahead of us, and they were asking about flavors, and being given sample tastes on little plastic spoons to help them make up their minds.)

The other distinction is that the woman behind the counter, and yes, exceptionally it is a woman, it’s usually men serving up the gelato, I don’t know why that is; the woman behind the counter is black, Nigerian I suspect from the roundness of her face; and she has a glorious voice with which she speaks a beautifully clear Italian — and, last time we were here, sings a fine deep baritone blues.

We walked slowly home for lunch and a desultory afternoon which I spent making webpages — I’ll steer you to them next time; all these dispatches and a good many photos will soon be online — and thinking about the political situation.

By “political” I don’t really mean the immediate situation, pressing as it is. This city, as you’ll have noticed, puts me in a detached frame of mind. Bad as the immediate situation is, it’s just another swing of the pendulum. It’s amazing how easily the enlightened and the sympathetic can co-exist, I mean exist at the same time as, the close-minded and the hateful.

Yesterday I bought a book by Federico Rampini, a columnist for La Repubblica. He’s been living in San Francisco for four years, and contributing a weekly column from there to his paper, and he’s just brought out this collection of columns, “San Francisco-Milano” (Rome, Editori Laterza, 2004). In the first thirty pages he sounds like many newspaper columnists, a bit like Herb Caen for his celebration of the Bay Area, a bit like Myles naGopaleen (who wrote as Flann O’Brien, as well as other noms de plume) for his louche humor and love of language, a bit like my friend Gaye LeBaron (who writes for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and will be embarrassed by this) for his awareness of the intersection of history, local politics, and human instinct.

But his recent columns have brought achingly home the distance between his San Francisco (and my Bay Area) and the rest of the country.

I used the term “unconscious consciousness” the other day, writing about the manner in which many Italians (and many in Northern California) go about their daily lives, dealing with a fine-grained life offering many choices, many of them delightful. The expression is shamelessly stolen from the marvelous R. H. Blyth, who described four kinds of poetical address in his indispensable book “Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics” (Tokyo: Hokkaido: don’t have the date handy.)

He divided poets among those who are objectively objective, objectively subjective, subjectively objective, and — worst of all — subjectively subjective. It makes a lot more sense than it sounds here.

What I meant was that the ordinary person who is alive and alert is often unconsciously conscious: he (and more often she, I think) makes decisions among choices by using a conscious mind which is operating on an almost subliminal level.

Critics and philosophers, of course, operate with conscious consciousness: they think about their thinking. And a good many people operate with unconscious unconsciousness: than is, they make their choices without using their own minds, their own “values.” They have been programmed to choose in certain ways, and they aren’t even aware of the extent of that programming.

(I suppose there’s a small fourth category of people who are consciously unconscious; these would be those who deliberately deaden their own critical faculties in one way or another. It would be academic to consider them any further at this point.)

This all came to mind two or three days ago when Lindsey said, on reading some dreadful development or other in the International Herald Tribune, What can they be thinking? And I said You know, I think they are not thinking, they are not thinking at all.

I think it’s not a difference between red and blue, right and left, uneducated and educated. I’m beginning to think it’s a question of consciousness. It’s being here in Rome has led me to this. If you read Julian Jaynes’s eccentric book “The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bilateral Mind” (sorry: don’t have the publication information with me) — and though the title is absurd and the book itself eccentric I recommend it highly — you’ll find a fascinating description of the beginnings of consciousness, which he dates to about the time of Homer, in about the place of Greece.

When it developed there was a huge disjunction between the Leaders and the Led and the Dubious, and this was partly because the Leaders and Led weren’t really aware of consciousness, and still thought those raging ideas in their minds were the voice of the gods, while the Dubious, the poets and philosophers, were beginning to realize all this was going on in people’s minds.

Well: I’ve gone on long enough now about this, and I’ll undoubtedly go on more about it in the future. If you read these dispatches hoping for descriptions of Rome, or recipes, you’ll just have to skim through. If on the other hand you want more theoretical blarney about politics and philosophy you’ll likely have to wait.

We ended the day at the museum around the corner, in the Piazza S. Egidio, where we saw stills and, more fascinatingly, film footage from Mussolini’s propaganda office, Luce. (“Luce” = “light,” and rhymes with “Duce,” which = Leader.) Here was all that familiar prelude to war, with little children being taught to act as cogs, manufacturers living like kings, the poor being entertained with machines and national pride, and a not-terribly-tall National Leader walking with a swagger. Lordy, lordy.


25: Haircut (mine)

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 19—

The time grows short: we have three days left, including today. A lot has happened since we left, exactly a month ago, and it feels like we’ve been gone much longer than that. We spent the entire month of January here in Trastevere, and it didn’t seem nearly as long, perhaps because we stayed in one place that entire time. On this trip we’ve been in four distinct places, not to mention the traveling between them; and even though they’re all in this one country the result has been to make four sojourns and excursions of one.

You’ve read enough about each of these places — Torino; the Rampis’ in Monferrato; Verona; and Rome — that I needn’t describe their differences here. But thinking about them, in the barber’s chair on the Piazza Pollarola (or is it the Vicolo de’ Bovari? Damn: it’s right on the margin of the map, of course!), in response to the barber’s friendly question as to where I’d been on this trip, I realized that these have all become Favorite Places, where I feel quite at home.

This is partly because I’m beginning to know my way around these places, of course. That is, I know my way around my part of these places. We have our favorite cafés and bars, our favorite markets and restaurants, our favorite lookout points and walks.

But it’s also because an adjustment has taken place between my own internal rhythms and those of the places. Some of this is physical: one knows how to find a toilet, where to drink water, which side of the street or the river is in or out of the sun or the wind, and one’s feet instinctively turn in the right direction when some part of the body south of the hippocampus makes a gentle suggestion.

But it’s also mental, and emotional, and perhaps spiritual. I’ve found that in visiting a new place I generally go through three phases: I start out either quite enchanted or quite irritated; then I swing to the other extreme; then I swing back, though probably not so far. Sometimes it takes years to negotiate this: I loved Paris for years, over a number of visits; then one time we spent a night there and decided the next morning to get out of the city and drive south, it just didn’t interest us any more. A few years later, of course, we came back to our senses: Paris is a great and charming and generous city; I could cheerfully spend half my life there.

The barber wasn’t so sure about Torino and Verona. (He didn’t know Monferrato at all.) I think he’d been there — he’s been around; hell, he even spent three years in Buffalo, New York. Molto freddo, he said; very cold. He’d been there parked with an uncle, and he didn’t say much more about it than that; it didn’t seem to have been among his happiest years.

When I told him I was from California he said Ah, vino; and I responded that that was where I was from, the wine country. Ah, Noppavallee, he said. No, Sonoma county, I responded, my own territorial pride awakening. Noppasonomah, he smiled; and then suggested we begin to travel further south, to Campania and the Basilicata, where it’s warm.

It had been a curious day. We began it at S. Clemente, perhaps the most striking of the archaeologist’s churches in this city full of such — a Twelfth-century church, built atop a Fourth-century church, built atop a much earlier temple of the Mithraic cult, Christianity’s chief rival in its first four hundred years. As if this isn’t enough, each of these places is extremely rich in mosaics, sculpture, and frescos, though the Mithraic temple has only a very few to be seen.

From there to Perilli for lunch — Perilli in Testaccio, a workingclass quarter where the slaughterhouses used to be, and which is still renowned for its workingclass meat dishes, tripe and offal and such: but we had rigatoni alla carbonara, three of us did, and I held out for taglialini with artichokes, with an artichoke solo as an appetizer. What a fine place this is! The room so big and spacious, nicely decorated with murals you can stand to look at; the waiters friendly and attentive without any kind of fawning or nudging; the food beautifully seasoned and perfectly cooked. I was sorry not to have a five-course dinner, but this was midday, and money’s a bit tight — the low dollar is really hurting — so we contented ourselves with two courses and went on our way.

That took us to a curious thing we’ve overlooked until now, Mount Testaccio. This is a hill, 120 feet high, made entirely of empty terra-cotta amphorae and jugs, piled up here for a couple of centuries straddling the birth of Christ. Why was this done? Because this was an important port, or an importing port; oil and wine and grain and rotten fish and who knows what else was shipped here, nearly all of it in terra-cotta jugs and amphorae; and when they were emptied out to be repackaged for the local trade the original shipping containers were tossed on a pile.

I suppose this is something like the mountains of steel shipping containers currently stacking up near container ports. In time, of course, even the ancient Romans realized this stuff could be recycled. You could ship the amphorae and jugs back with some kind of local product in it, though I hate to think what that might have been; or more likely you could pulverize the stuff and use it as a filler in building materials, or even turn it into a slurry to make more terra-cotta jugs and amphorae. So after two hundred years or so they stopped doing this, and soil inevitably developed above the broken crockery, and plants took root, and then trees, and the goats browsed there, and it wasn’t until a couple of hundred years ago, I read in one of the eight or ten guidebooks that seem to have infiltrated this apartment, that archaeologists realized what was there.

In the meantime people had burrowed into it, finding the unique constituency of this mound made an ideal place for, what else, wine cellars. Wine and cheese, no doubt; and living-quarters too; it would have been cool here.

We set out to walk a circle around the Mount, but we were sidetracked almost immediately by a big area full of campers and caravans and provisional shacks, many with impromptu but rather fascinating constructions around them. I was reminded of the mudflat sculpture you used to see on the east shore of San Francisco Bay back in the 1960s. And then we came to a large building, dating I’d say from the 1920s or so, that had been taken over and turned into a kind of community center.

This was the Villaggio Globale, a sort of squatter community that apparently dates back to that period. We struck up a conversation with a very bright, earnest, pleasant young woman, a Roman, who confirmed that the community shared much with the Diggers of San Francisco and the squatters of Amsterdam. The Global Village seems well organized: the center has a cafe-restaurant, a library, facilities for the community’s children. We learned that there are something under a thousand residents here, old-timers like us (she smiled when I asked that) and youngsters. Someone apparently worked out a deal with the city to take over this former slaughterhouse — for such it is — and set it aside for these free-spirited folk.

I explained that I was asking all these questions about the place because I was born in Berkeley, and she broke into a broad but rather wistful smile, Ah, San Francisco, she said, I hope one day to be able to see it, it must be wonderful, it is everything we hope for here, a place where people of different kinds of energy and belief can live together in peace, can live in the moment, without fear and without oppression.

I was greatly moved by this, and could respond only by thanking her and moving on. We walked home, past the big recent blocks of apartments on our side the Tiber, some of them apparently for low-income families; and I thought again of Federico Rampini’s book “San Francisco-Milano.” It is an unabashed love-song to San Francisco, and it’s pleasant and a little troubling to read his description of a city where everyone is friendly, life is well organized, the sidewalks are clean, etcetera etcetera. I could write about Rome and Torino and Verona this way, and I have in fact been guilty of that from time to time, the traffic moves efficiently, people give way to one another, the coffee is wonderful, at the restaurants you can eat an entire dinner or just a course or two, the dogs are in general well behaved, etcetera etcetera.

But I know about grass being always greener elsewhere, and I know that many of us are by nature Papagenos, we are so happy to find something pleasant that we fail to see the little problems that accompany it. This morning, for example, we took the Number Three tram to the Colosseum in order to visit S. Clemente. While we waited nearly half an hour for the Number Three tram coming our way, five of them went the other way. You can’t help wondering what kind of organization this implies. The end of the line isn’t that far down the tracks. Surely these trams have to come back our way once they’ve got there.

There are inexplicable things in this city, casual slowdowns, orchestrated general strikes, walkouts and sit-ins and parades and such. Any of these could effect a tram schedule. Or maybe there’s simply a junkyard down there at the end of the line, maybe four trams out of five are given some sort of desultory inspection and then simply tossed out, tossed on a mound of no longer useful or interesting trams. There are piles of things all over towns: Dorian capitals, hands and feet from old statues, bricks, paving-stones, broken jugs and amphorae. Why not trams?


26: The Parmesan lesson

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 20—

With only a couple of days to go the dynamic changes greatly. We no longer consult maps as we walk about the city; we stop noticing things; we don’t care any more when something we set out in the morning to do turns out to be unattainable. Today, for example, we walked up to the Piazza del Populo — not an inconsiderable walk, especially on these goddam stones, after three weeks of walking these goddam stones (shin splint in left leg, left knee buckling at odd moments, sore on gouty right big toe, etcetera) — to take in an exhibition of mechanical inventions by Leonardo da Vinci, said to be at the Sala Bramante, or something.

Well, of course, there was neither a Leonardo banner nor a Sala Bramante to be seen. Nor did any of the uncaring specialists in tourist information have any ideas: neither at the newsstand, nor the bored young man playing video games on his telefonino in the Basilica S. Maria del Populo, nor the lady at the cash register in the bar where we went for coffee. No matter: we all know what Leonardo’s inventions looked like, chariots with scythes at the wheels, impractical helicopters, perfectly ordinary winepresses and all that.

Certain things of course are always attended to. We don’t walk past the Pantheon without walking in; we don’t walk past Tazza d’Oro without having a coffee. But the novelty is definitely off.

So it seemed appropriate to have dinner at an entirely new place. I was prepared to be disappointed for at least two reasons: the name of the restaurant is distinctly non-Italian, or so at least it seems to me; and the place was recommended, in a curiously unintentional way, by my son-in-law. He was born a Czech, and the name of the place is Monsu Vladi.

I suspect the Slavic ring to the name was what attracted him to it in the first place, three or four years ago. I’m not sure, as we haven’t discussed it: I only know of his experience here from a memorandum that appeared one day in my PDA, after he and I exchanged a number of items by beaming them back and forth, either to try out our infrared technology or to demonstrate our prowess at these boy toys. (It occurs to me that such indiscriminate sharing of information is analogous to the marks dog leaves on fire-hydrants, announcing their existence to all and sundry.)

In we went, then, at the ungodly early hour of seven-thirty, the first customers of the evening, and were seated by a nice young man with black hair and a dancer’s body, and were asked whether we wanted a bottle of water, and were brought menus.

They revealed that the kitchen here was Neapolitan. After the last three weeks here in Rome, riding atop our experience of a month here in January, the menu looked utterly foreign: it was as if we had suddenly found ourselves in a Chinese restaurant. We had had wonderful potato gnocchi for lunch, bought at the Sardinian pasta shop on the Via del Moro near our apartment, where all the paste are made by hand and sold fresh; and we’d eaten it with the last of our sweet delicious Italian butter, with a good lot of fresh sage chopped into it as it was melting, so we weren’t about to order gnocchi here.

What to eat, then? I settled for spaghetti alla puttanesca, with tomatoes and olives and garlic; Lindsey had a veal scallopini; Franny had spaghetti with clams and cherry tomatoes; Simon had — swordfish, and then his own puttanesca. The boy can eat.

The waiter was very nice, speaking to me almost exclusively in Italian, to the kids in English; approving our requests for wineglasses for them (he had jumped to a conclusion and left them out the first time round), asking Simon if he wanted a big spoon with his spaghetti, then immediately ruling it out, and soon after demonstrating the proper Italian way to eat spaghetti: certainly not by twirling your fork in a spoon (which I suspect has a faintly obscene connotation in Italian).

It was all very good, as Pavel’s note had indicated; but it all seemed irrelevant to me, eating the wrong food in the wrong setting. I know: Rome is the capital of the country. I know: one of our first meals here was in a Sardinian restaurant, and I enjoyed it. I know: Naples really isn’t that far away. But it seemed wrong: perhaps it was underscoring the fact that in only sixty hours we will be flying away from here, not to return for probably a year or more.

Throughout dinner we bantered, talking as grandparents and grandchildren do, about how things were when we were kids, about the curious habits of the generation between us. I have been particularly attentive to the fifteen-year-old, because he’s just at the point where he’s hesitating between consciousness and unconsciousness, in the sense I was writing about the other day.

At one point he even mentioned sometimes fearing to read something, a book, say, because it might change the way he thinks about things — not change his opinions, he was quick to explain, or simply enlarge his information, but actually change the methodology of his thinking. This is just what the ancient Greek philosophers feared when reading and writing came in, twenty-five hundred years ago, and it’s fascinating to see the process developing before your very eyes.

After dinner I asked if I could have a little cheese and a glass of red wine. The waiter looked immediately concerned: We have some Pecorino, he said, and some Parmigiano. Fine, I said, what more could I want. But the red wine is cold, he said; maybe you’d like another white instead. How cold, I asked. He leaned toward me and spoke frankly but discreetly, and in English lest there be a misunderstanding: It’s in the fridge.

Fine, I said, I’ll have another white. White’s what you should have with cheese anyway, Lindsey said. (White wine with cheese is all the rage these days, especially with dry white cheeses like Parmigiano.) But then, after bringing a plate with several nice chunky slices of the cheeses, he brought a glass and a bottle, and tipped some red into my glass: a bottle had been set aside somewhere, and wasn’t cold after all.

I ate a piece of the Pecorino rather inattentively, okay, sheep, dry, pungent, nice red wine, I thought to myself, continuing to listen to the kids and to interject a few comments from time to time; and then I bit down on a piece of Parmigiano.

It was really quite an extraordinary piece of cheese. I stopped what I was doing and simply tasted it for a while, without taking more in, or chewing, or anything; simply aftertasting the mouthful I’d just taken.

You really should taste this cheese, I said to the table in general; it’s an amazingly good piece of Parmesan. The others took advantage of the offer.

All the lessons of the Salone del Gusto came washing back over me, the lessons learned at a number of taste-workshop “laboratories,” many of them in precisely this substance, Parmesan cheese.

You really can taste the full range here, I said: you taste nuts, and cheese, and butter, and milk, and grass — all the successive stages of tastes that have gone in to the making of this cheese. Everyone tasted, silently; you could see the thought and the appreciation, the analysis and the pleasure in the changing expressions of the faces.

Lindsey agreed. It’s so sweet, she said; such a sweet cheese. By now the waiter was nearby, enjoying our enjoyment. Where did you get this cheese, I asked. A quick darker look flitted over his face: he didn’t know. I’ll have to ask, he said. Doesn’t matter, I said; I won’t be able to get any anyway. It’s really an extraordinary cheese, I added. Not a well-aged one, I went on, no more than fourteen or sixteen months —

Exactly, the waiter said. Was he simply agreeing, or did he know? I’ll never know. We finished the cheese and accepted his offer of coffee. It’s not a Roman coffee, he added, it’s Neapolitan. Doesn’t matter, I kidded him, the best coffee isn’t Roman anyhow, it’s from the Veneto. Oh, but there’s Tazza d’Oro.

Matter of taste, the waiter countered. This one’s Neapolitan, and very good. He brought it; it looked promising, and had a quick full taste that soon left surprisingly little aftertaste. I like it, Lindsey said, and Francesca agreed. I wasn’t so sure, and I could see Simon was thinking about the Tazza d’Oro we’d had a few hours earlier.

There’s a hint of chocolate in it, Lindsey said. It’s surprisingly soft, I returned. Girly coffee, I thought to myself. Good, but soft on the palate, and short in the finish.

And so a group of Americans looking forward to home, growing jaded with Rome, were snapped back to attention. And once again, as so many hundreds of times before, I learn that it’s best to suspend prejudice, to approach what’s presented with an open mind, looking for the unsuspected delight rather than the presumed disappointment.


27: Se vuol ballare

Vicolo del Cedro, Nov. 20—

Sunday, and our last day in Rome, at least for the time being. So I will post this when the Internet Point opens, at ten in the morning, and catch up on your e-mail, and maybe reply to a few of you; and then put the computer away for a couple of days.

As you know if you’ve stayed with me through all this verbiage it’s been a fascinating trip, more fascinating than usual for a number of reasons — the absorbing experience at the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre in Torino (it seems like three months ago!); the extraordinary last couple of weeks of the presidential campaign; the ongoing discussion of secular vs. theocratic government in the Italian press; the companionship of two children I haven’t traveled with before; the challenges of daily life in a not perfectly adequate little apartment.

And I’ve thought a fair amount about all this, almost always “aloud,” at the keyboard, as those of you who’ve stayed with these dispatches know. Forty thousand words so far, my computer tells me, almost exactly the same as I churned out in January, from a kitchen table just around the corner. This amounts to logorrhea, some would say. Even when I worked for a daily newspaper I never wrote quite as much, quite as compulsively. My defense can only be that these are, after all, extraordinary times; I’ve never seen anything quite like them, not even the 1960s, and I have only one way of confronting them and responding to them.

Today, walking home from a shopping expedition, I was happy to be greeted warmly by the hat-passer for a group of musicians on the Via dei Giubbonari, a busy shopping street we often negotiate, leading toward the Campo di’ Fiori. He recognized me because I’d struck up a conversation with him a few days ago, when he stuck his paper cup in front of me and rather than ignore it I tossed a little change in, saying Per i musicisti provo sempre da dare un po’, for the musicians I always try to give a little something.

He smiled so warmly that I was sorry it was indeed only a little. I keep the one-Euro and two-Euro and even the fifty-cent pieces in one pants pocket, but all the little coins that accumulate in another one; there’s never more than a dollar’s worth there, and it’s easy to fish some up in a situation like this. This time I doubt there was even fifty cents’ worth: but his smile was still warm and genuine.

I asked him if they were Rumanian, and he said yes, we are. I told him I’d been there twenty years ago; that it wasn’t a happy time, but that I thought the country quite beautiful and the people very friendly.

Si, signor; ma povero; molto povero: Yes, but poor, very poor. And so in fact they were in those days; I’ll never forget the bare markets, with only a few half-rotten apples on one table, even in the midst of summer. And I suppose they’re still poor today, though not as repressed as then. But they are or can be extraordinarily beautiful people, dark, bright-eyed, demonstrative; and more than their share seem to be gifted musicians — or perhaps it’s simply that music is so much more accepted a way of responding, personally, to one’s surroundings. Music isn’t simply something to bounce around to as it comes out of an MP3 player or out of a loudspeaker; it’s something to make one’s self.

Anyway we said ciao to one another and moved on. But we ran into the band again a few days later, and this time I had a little more for them; and tonight he smiled broadly to me and nodded and did not thrust out the paper cup: I was allowed to listen without paying. This has happened before: the accordionist on the Piazza S. Egidio recognized us the other day, and nodded and greeted us while continuing to play, and was not offended at my failure to contribute to the cause (my left pants pocket being empty at the moment).

The musical experiences are not always that happy. Last week we ate at an emergency trattoria out past the Trevi Fountain, because it was mid-afternoon, and we were famished. It was a beautiful day and we sat on the “terrace,” that is, at a table set out on the street. (I should remind you that many of these “streets” are closed to vehicular traffic other than the occasional motorbike.)

After a pleasant appetizer and an introductory glass or two of white wine a wandering violinist hove into view carrying a box. The box proved to be a battery-operated amplifier and speaker. He had a contact microphone on his violin. He was the most wretched excuse for a violinist I’ve heard since 1940, when I played violin in a children’s orchestra at the San Francisco World’s Fair.

(It suddenly occurs to me that I don’t remember there even being an International Exposition in the last forty years. Have they been replaced by the Olympic Games?)

He scratched and scraped away on his miserable instrument, and the result was evilly filtered and amplified by his despicable hardware, and I think every tooth within a hundred meters was set on edge. The woman who’d seated us, and brought our menus, remonstrated with him. Per carita’, signor, for the love of charity, for sweet Jesus’s sake, leave off your playing and go away. But he would not, until finally two or three people (and I was not among them, Lindsey would have left me on the spot) walked menacingly toward him, and he got up and hoisted his box and skulked down the street.

Tonight we ate at Da Gighetto, a place in the Ghetto that Lindsey wanted to try. We got there early, about eight-thirty, but I hadn’t been able to get anyone to answer the phone when I called this afternoon to reserve, and it’s Saturday night, and the four Americans who went in ahead of us were turned away: You don’t have a reservation? Sorry: it’s completely full.

Then it was my turn. Same song. But, I said, I called this afternoon, and the phone rang and rang and I couldn’t get anyone to answer.

The man at the door turned and looked quizzically, I think, or maybe accusingly, at the woman seated at a large desk with two telephones and a fax machine and some other assorted businesslike instruments. He said something. She said something. He turned back to me: wait five minutes, he said, there’s a party that’s just ordered dessert. Five minutes.

So we waited as a number of other parties arrived and were escorted into invisible dining rooms in the Promised Land Beyond, because they’d reserved, and finally we too were ushered into an enormous dining room, a dining room the size of a railroad station. We were shown to the one table of many tables that was not set. We sat and stood about while it was set; and then we ordered, to begin with, four artichokes Jewish style and four fillets of salt cod and a zucchini blossom and a rice ball and a bottle of water and a half-liter of white wine, and It Was Good.

And then, just as the pastas were arriving, a guitarist walked into the room. He and his enormous guitar filled the room. He was incredibly loud. He sang and bellowed, and he strummed and beat his guitar. It was not amplified, praise God with sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, but it was infernally loud all the same; I can’t imagine how it had been constructed. Everyone in the dining room, by now full, and in all the many adjacent dining rooms, began talking much louder than before. You still couldn’t hear yourself think.

No one in our room offered the slightest encouragement, but two men eating alone and bored with one another responded to him in the next room, just beyond Simon. They applauded one number, and then one of them actually sang along with the next. After that there was no discouraging this fellow.

Well, we got through it of course, though the dinner had dimmed considerably. We finally got the check and got out, and walked home across the two-thousand-year-old Bridge of the Four Heads and up the Lungaretta. And there, in the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, at eleven o’clock at night, quite a large piazza full of perambulating pleasure-seekers of all ages (including a great many children, by the way), we came upon an entire theater troupe.

The ringleader was setting out an unnecessary number of props, folding tables and little boxes and hats and buckets and baskets and stools, all covered in black-and-white imitation Holstein skin. One of these props was a ghetto-blaster with an apparently prerecorded mix of background music.

Off to one side another three conspirators stood in Renaissance garb, parti-colored tights and odd scarfs and ribbons and gaily colored berets and the like, lip-synching to the music.

Things proceeded at an amazingly slow pace. There were exaggerated gestures, mimed routines, false starts, tentative approaches to the audience, which continued to grow until maybe two hundred of us stood in the chilly night, gaping like so many bumpkins in a Breughel painting. A girl showed up on a bicycle; the Pierrot fell in love with her, blew up an udderlike rubber glove and deflated it again, produced a slide whistle which he did not play, waltzed over to her and pretended to court her shyly. The other three stood on the sidelines.

Clearly anyone with a semester’s Dramatic Arts in junior high school could have done this much. We finally gave it up and went home. Out the window I hear the Piazza S. Egidio is still full: people are selling CDs and scarves and handmade jewelry and gloves and bad reproductions of Gustav Klimt paintings, though no one to my observation ever buys. All of Rome seems to be either on pause or slowly milling, wondering what’s going to happen next. And that, except for whatever we go out to do with this last day here, is where we’re going to have to leave it.

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