Read an Excerpt
Just Another Day in the Piazza:
The Show Must Go On
Not everybody who comes to Rome, either to visit or to stay, as we have, likes it. In fact, if you polled visitors arriving from other countries, asking them where their favorite places are in Italy or where they would want to live if they were ever to embark on just such an enterprise, few would list Rome as their first choice. Most of them would focus variously on some spot in Tuscany, either the cities Florence, Siena, Lucca, Pisa, Cortona or the delightful countryside that surrounds these beautiful places and gives new meaning to the words "bucolic" and "tranquil." In fact, there are so many people of British extraction living in the Florence-Siena vicinity that it has been dubbed "Chiantishire," in honor of the English way of identifying place.
Rome is considered too "Italian" for the tastes of many of the English and North Americans who come to Italy to vacation, recreate, sightsee, or indulge. Rome is too "other," too much like venues the average English-speaking traveler would never think to experience-Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, or other placesin the Middle East, or Sicily, Greece, or Turkey, lands that barely qualify for being called "Europe."
What gives Rome this character, what makes Rome, Rome, is a sense of drama, of the theatrical, the exaggerated; a quality that pervades everyday life and distinguishes the city from most places one would find in the United States, Canada, England, and the other countries in the English-speaking world, as well as northern Europe. People live in these places precisely for the reason that nothingmuch happens, that nothing much should happen, at least not in a way that creates public spectacle. Rome is not like that. Every ounce of its soul is devoted to the art of being seen, to the show, to a way of being that opts for dramatization at the expense of understatement, histrionics that push aside silence. The ethos of Rome partakes of another culture the Levantine, the Latin-rather than the European. The first thing I noticed on the way to my hotel after landing at Cairo, another Mediterranean capital, other than the fact that I was thinking that I probably wouldn't make it there alive, is that every driver, for no apparent reason, is leaning on his horn, creating a maddening cacophony that has only one purpose create a disturbance, to liven up the moment, to add a stupefying sense of dislocation in order to cancel out the reality that nothing much is really happening.
Although drivers do not use their horns much in Rome (in fact, it is considered bad form, a brutta figura; if you do hear a toot-toot, chances are someone is trying to acknowledge his friend on the street), the same principle of commotion applies. The other day, in the Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, in Testaccio, not far from Piazza Testaccio, one of Rome's most characteristic open-air markets, popular among the locals and near to where we live, an incident erupted that illustrates perfectly the sense of making the ordinary encounters of everyday existence a matter of life and death.
The piazza was crowded with people of all ages. The elderly were occupying the many benches, while children made use of the swings, slides, and climbing frames of the play areas as their parents watched and chatted with one another. Several young boys, including Julian and Elliott, our nine- and six-year-old sons, were playing soccer with a soft, light ball not far from a bench where four elderly women were sitting. The ball strayed often in the direction of the anziane, and, in fact, on more than one occasion glanced off their bench, bringing less than loving looks and sporadic admonitions. Finally, exasperated at her inability to carry on conversation as she has done in the same spot for probably the last forty years-without the nuisance of having to dodge a harmless but definitely annoying ball, one of the anziane grabbed it and would not let go, placing the palla in a plastic bag she was holding.
The six boys crowded around the bench, engulfing the four steadfast matrons. Loud words and a million hand gestures began to fly to no avail, as it turned out, because the woman would not budge. This brought into the fray the mother obviously peeved that the conversation in which she was excitedly engaged on her telefonino, her portable cell phone, had been interruptedof one of the offending ragazzi.
She was dressed alla romana, that is, as if she were on her way to an audition for a movie, TV show, play, commercial, or whatever anyone would have for her. She was wearing heavy makeup, accentuating her deep blue eyes a rarity for Romans with dark liner that extended past the sockets, creating a kind of catlike effect.Her long, full head of curly jet-black hair was flying in the breeze, as were her bronzed hands and arms.She wore a glowing orange sweater that crisscrossed in the fron and revealed, here and there, glimpses of her bright white bra, made more obvious by her outsized body guestures which forced her to become distracted now and then from her primary mission by having to pull together the folds of her sweater so as to avoid revealing everything and by the dark skin of her killer tan.