On our way home we spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of Heathrow. In the cattle call breakfast room the next morning I looked around and knew for sure that I was not in Rome. These folks were not Italian and the breakfast certainly was not! Eggs–hadn’t seen them for two months! Coffee–undrinkable. Where was my chocolate cornetti? I missed my baristo at Barnum’s and his delicious cappuccino? The freshly squeezed orange juice. The brilliant Raphael-blue sky. This was not Rome.
Rome is a mystery. One day you hate it and the next day you love it. It is annoying and then delightful. You are repulsed by the crowds, and then, in the process of avoiding the crowds, you stumble on a new street and an unseen treasure appears. This is exactly how our two weeks in Rome went. Sometimes my feelings about Rome changed from hour to hour, but finally, in the end, I succumbed to the beauty of the place and the charm of the people, and yes, the food!
We spent two warm and sunny weeks visiting one splendid, wrecked site after another. We spent whole days strolling through marvelous, decrepid old palaces full of spectacular treasures. We walked endlessly on dirty cobble-stoned streets carpeted with cigarette butts and garbage only to arrive at a restaurant with such delicious food I salivate at the memory.
Then there were the annoying aspects of Rome. Arriving at the post office laden with packages, waiting an hour and a half, finally reaching the head of the line, smiling and trying to please a surly mandarin at the desk and at the end, being told all the forms must be completed in Italian and the charges must be paid in cash–lot’s of cash. We definitely felt we were being held hostage but didn’t really know what our crime was. I think it was wanting to mail three boxes out of the country. Lot’s of extra work for the clerk.
Yes, it’s very annoying when the stores all close from 1-4. Very annoying! Yes, it’s a capitol city and it should adopt the efficiencies of modern business practices such as ours. But Italy hasn’t and probably won’t.
Yes, you should be able to eat dinner at 6 p.m. But you can’t. You can have a sandwich or a pizza anytime, but you can’t have dinner until 7:30 or even later.
Yes, I know children need 8 hours of sleep but Italian children eat dinner with their families and stay up late and somehow get to school the next day. They may nap all afternoon–perhaps they even nap at their schools, I don’t know, but no one seems to go to bed at 7 p.m., that’s when they eat dinner.
At Barnum’s, our favorite coffee bar, we are greeted warmly by the baristo. We sit and savor our cornetti and cappucino. “Bonjour!” It’s our friend, Alain, the antique store owner we like so much. He introduces us to his daughter; calling us his “amichi,” his friends.
Heart warming. You cannot imagine how good it feels to be recognized and warmly greeted after being gone from home for three months. Alain is French. He married a Roman; they are raising two daughters in the center of Roma. He and Ken developed a friendship of shared interests and sensibilities. We hope to see Alain again. A man who speaks English, French and Italian. (His daughter speaks only Italian!) He is a talented man and an interesting person who is eager to share his thoughts and feelings. It is unusual when a native shares his observations and concerns with “tourists.”
I realize that the a secret to enjoying a place is to stay there long enough to know your way around and be comfortable moving about without a map in your hand. The other is to make some friends–even if you never see those friends again. It is important to reach out, warm up, do your best to speak their language, enjoy their way of doing things.
I read a few lines about Romans in one of Rick Steves’ books. He says there is no word for privacy in Italian. He was commenting on the close, overly emeshed lives Italian families lead. Each morning as we walked to Barnum’s we passed a very elegant antique store and each morning a well groomed, very petite, and neatly dressed woman in her 80’s walked slowly down the street, leaning on a cane and the arm of a handsome man in his 40’s. Her thick gray hair was coifed in a perfect bob. It was so perfect it might have been a wig! Her pants suit was well cut for her tiny frame. She and her escort did not speak. They made their way to the store nearly every morning just as we were on our way to Barnum’s. There she was at the end of the day standing in the doorway waiting for her escort to walk her home!
One morning getting a later start, we glanced into the antique shop and saw the man with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He was busy re-merchandising the store. Hot and hard work. I’ve done it many times! The lady was facing him speaking to him. Suddenly he advanced swiftly toward her with his arm out in front of him, finger pointing at her. His face betrayed frustration if not barely controlled anger. We heard him say in a loud voice “Mama!” The rest was lost to us. We walked on. The stories you’ve heard about Italian men and their mothers and their lives together is real. When will her son leave home? Hard to say.
Now I’m home writing and reflecting on our remarkable journey: from Shakespeare to Hadrian; from cave men to the Etruscans; from mosaics to painted villas. We saw the treasure and history of centuries of human endeavor. For me, the single most important aspect of these three months abroad is the realization that seeing new things and learning about them is what I most enjoy. The visual stimulation, especially in Rome, is what thrills me.
Two gasp-inducing places, Basilica San Vitale a 5th C church emblazoned with mosaics and marble in Ravenna, and Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere in Rome built in the 15th C where every wall and ceiling is hand painted are my touchstones. They are so visually spectacular–each in its own way–that I will never forget the moment I stepped over their thresholds and lost myself in wonder. Seeing the work of artists and crafts people who lived hundreds of years ago whose work can stop you in your tracks–bring you to your knees–will always remain with me.