Rome . . .
Luigi and I were neighbors. We had met after I responded to a notice posted in the window of the guard’s shack for our huge apartment complex. The note asked for English speakers to contact “Laura” for English practice.
I needed a translator-interpretor to help me with my papers and an appointment with the Italian State Department. I called the number.
Laura spoke flawless idiomatic English—thanks to her Yankee mom—and said she’d be very interested in helping me; she was studying journalism at Rome’s university, La Sapienza, and was excited about the prospect of helping an American journalist weave through the bureaucratic process.
One problem, though. Her father, Luigi, had to give his approval. We made arrangements for me to visit their apartment, just a few buildings down the hill from mine, that evening.
Luigi scowled, his goatee pushed forward. “I mean no offense, but I don’t know anything about you, other than who you say you are. I see what happens on the news every night,” he waved toward the television set in the adjoining living room. We sat at a large square table in the dining area, which was the center room of the spacious and well-furnished apartment. “I know what can happen to young women today. Just last week there was a shooting not far from here.”
There was no way Luigi was going to allow his attractive nineteen-year-old daughter to go off with a stranger, American or no American.
“No offense taken,” I assured him. “I appreciate your concern and will certainly respect your wishes.” I had to laugh to myself. This is exactly what my father would have said in the same circumstance regarding one of my sisters. Was this cultural or parental?
It was hard for Luigi to buy my story; a middle-aged man living alone, signing a long-term lease on an apartment in the very un-touristy Portuense section of Rome—going off to Italian classes three days a week like a schoolboy. It didn’t add up to him. Luigi considered himself something of an expert on Americans; his ex-wife was from Boston. Luigi was forty-five years old, drove a Fiat, spoke fluent English, and had a broken heart.
“So, what is it you’re hoping to find here?” Luigi asked at that first meeting. “It seems like a great distance to travel just to study Italian.”
“My family,” I replied. “I want to know who they were, where they were born. Why they left.”
“They never talked about such things? You never asked?”
“A long time ago,” I replied. “Now all the people with the real answers are gone.”
“Why do you care? You’re an American. Most Americans are happy with America. Why does it matter where your grandparents were born?”
I smiled at him. “I’m here to learn about you,” I said.
His eyes widened. I studied his features, his slightly hooked nose, his black hair streaked with gray. He even looked like family.
“I’m hoping,” I said, “that learning about you will help me learn about my family. I’m hoping that in modern Italy, I can find the foundations to the old things that made my grandfathers who they were. I’d like your help.”
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Just tell me about yourself.”
It was during this initial encounter that Luigi solved my first problem in acclimating to my new environs; he decided he would accompany me to meet with the Italian officials. He was my guide and self-appointed adviser ever after.
Our dance had begun.
Rome . . .
The very word was synonymous in my mind with city, gathering place, civilization. It represented to me a magnetic pole, a place that must be considered. There are only a few cities that have that universal aura. San Francisco, Paris, New York, London. All world-class, all written about, visited, dreamed of—all with millions of adherents.
Rome, like Paris, had always been more of a fantasy to me than an actual place. It took some time to fully realize where I was.
Rome is more of a noise, more of an atmosphere, a multi-sensual environment. It is both stimulating and fatiguing. But the first thing that hit me was the din, the constant whirring and beeping and spinning of the place. I had read descriptions of the city during the Renaissance that described it as nearly empty, resting. The city that I found took no rest, was crammed full of old and new life, and, like New York, in perpetual motion.
There was an incredible affluence to the place. The people were well dressed, the children all equipped with the latest electronic gadgetry. Men and women walked along the streets speaking emphatically into cellular phones. They climbed into new and expensive German, French, Swedish, and Italian cars in which they seemed to drive everywhere, notwithstanding the price of five dollars per gallon for gasoline. Apartments were priced like New York, the cost of living one of the highest in the Western world. Yet there seemed to be no lack of luxury for the Romans.
Standing in the ruins of the Foro Romano, walking by the Colosseum on a moonlit night, spending an hour or so at the long, empty field that had been the Circus Maximus, the ruins of the Palatine Hill brooding above, my thoughts were lifted far beyond the present. There was something so fundamental about the place.
On my second night in Rome, before Luigi, before any of the huge learning curve that was about to overtake me, I walked along the swiftly moving Tiber. I watched its rapids swirling over ancient rocks with a beguiling power as the river worked its way to the sea. I wanted to go to the river and touch it, to commune with the millennia, to add my atomic salt to the water. It was, in a sense, a part of me, this aquatic source that helped form Rome and had inevitably touched those mysterious ancestors who passed on to me my peculiar compound of blood and bone and brain.
When I walked Rome’s streets, listened to the music of its traffic and crowds, the rush of its river, the high-pitched shouts of its children; when I breathed the dust of a thousand ancient forms, I felt a presence that did not exist for me elsewhere. I was not concerned with future, I was absorbed with present and past.
One night there was an incredible, full, bright, white moon. I watched the energetic life of my Portuense neighborhood over an espresso at a sidewalk café. I saw mothers and lovers, the city’s ever-roaming stray cats, beggars, children.
I watched as an old man slowly passed by. He wore a faded straw hat and moved with the aid of a cane. His hands were liver-spotted and quaked slightly. In his eyes I saw energy and light.
That night, I could sense the moon on my exposed arms, could feel its strength. I thought about that moon shining on this spot and on the nearby Appian Way. It must have given solace to ancient traders as they moved at night on that same road. It has always been kind to lovers. It now cast a shadow from the ruins of ancient aqueducts onto moonlit fields that have been giving sustenance for aeons.
I truly felt a connection there, felt a part of the mothers and children and old men and even the lovers, though I was alone. Portuense suited me well.
As time went by, I found it equally fascinating to watch others as they reacted to the city. Americans on their first visits, Germans, Poles, Swedes, anyone from the potential Roman gene pool. There were seldom neutral reactions to Rome; feelings toward the city were strong and immediate, and were either very positive or negative, but never in between.
It was not unusual to meet someone at a café who had been in town all of several hours, raving about Rome’s beauty and swearing they would return—even before they had truly begun or completed their current tour. It was as if something had taken over their thoughts, something larger than themselves, and they knew themselves to be a part of it.
I had the same reaction in 1968. I had come to Rome on a brief leave with a couple of other soldiers from Germany. We had only a little time and even less cash. I knew I had to go back to the city one day. I vowed to return for a long vacation and with enough money to dine anywhere I chose.
Others couldn’t leave Rome fast enough. They simply hated the place, found no glory or grandeur, and no humor in the chaos. They complained about the climate, prices, Italians; everything. They, too, I believe might have been reacting to some ancient blood code.
It was said that, during the terrible fighting in the mountains northeast of Venice during the First World War, the Austrians overrunning the dispirited Italian lines shouted the ancient chant of the Barbarians: “Rom, Rom,” as if on an obsessive drive to sack their ancient foe.
I often wondered about this, about all of us who so viscerally and immediately reacted to this place along the Tiber. Did we hear ancient echoes of ourselves? Was their some psychic calling? Could our DNA have a memory of old blood once circulated in this city? They were large questions, much too large for me, but I was happy to include myself among the many who felt the pull.
Language Class . . .
My first months in Rome were spent in language immersion. My classes were held only in Italian, my lessons from the Cultural Center in Houston held up for about the first three days. Then the real test began.
I found myself surrounded by a group of young European kids, mostly German and Swiss, on vacation and whose idea of a good time was to learn another language beyond the two or three they already knew. There were a few diplomat’s spouses in the class, two nuns—one elderly and the other quite young—and a German airline security expert.
Our school was on the Via Vittorio Emanuele, just a short walk from the Tiber and across the river from the Castel Sant’ Angelo.
My classmates gave me constant insights into modern Europe. Almost all of them had traveled to the United States, spoke good English, and were adding Italian simply as a diversion. All complained about Americans’ lack of language skill. Easy to say for people raised in an area when a long bicycle trip could end where another language is spoken. It was an affluent group, except for the two religious sisters.
The only other American was a demanding and quite vocal lady who refused to comply with the basic rule; she insisted on speaking and asking questions in English, knowing most of these kids understood her completely. She was right, of course, but the others refused to respond except in Italian, playing carefully within the rules. She was quite frustrated before long.
One day our instructor asked the nuns about their background—the basic questions in any language; what country were they from?
From what city?
A rural farming area in the northeast.
How big was their family? The younger sister, Sister Gertrude, had nine brothers and sisters, her father was a shepherd. A shepherd. I didn’t know people still had such jobs. No one in my experience had.
Sister Berta had been orphaned. How long had they been nuns? Four years. Thirty years.
Then the instructor asked a one-word question. It took a while for the word to settle in.
“Klan-des-teen-ah?” he asked.
I mulled the meaning. It hit me. Clandestine. They had practiced their faith and their vocations in secret. They were in Rome at the invitation of the Pope, a statement of appreciation for their obviously deeply held faith. It was the 1990s and I was face-to-face with people who had been forced to secretly practice their religion. Unthinkable in America, still a living part of European culture.
Over time the sisters became the class favorites. They were completely open women who giggled more than laughed and who readily recognized their own naüveté. Any sexual references, marital or otherwise, caused them both to blush brilliantly.
One day our assignment was to tell, in Italian of course, a funny story about something that had happened to us since coming to Rome.
Sister Berta related a tale about herself: the only terms she knew in Italian prior to our class had been: grazie (thank you), prego (please), and (I’m sorry) mi displace. But she hadn’t fully understood the term. While mi displace means “I’m sorry,” the very similar mi piace—without the dis—means, “I like it, I’m pleased.”
One day Sister Berta was riding on a crowded bus, a trying experience for anyone in Rome. There are few seats and the buses bounce like basketballs over the ancient streets. Sister Berta, attempting to keep hold of the stainless-steel overhead rail, stood above an elderly man calmly reading his newspaper in the seat below. The bus hit a great bump and, before the Sister knew what was happening, she found herself sitting on the man’s lap. Mortified, and obviously confused, she repeated over and over, “mi piace, mi piace—I like it, I like it.”
I can only imagine what the old gent must have thought.
When the two sisters returned to what is now the Czech Republic they gave each classmate a handmade card with a personal message. An orphan and the daughter of a shepherd gone back to a homeland where they could now openly practice their faith.
I still think of them as heroic.
Walks with Luigi . . .
The turning point in my friendship with Luigi might have been the Saturday morning I was to report for my documents. Luigi had warned me that assigned time meant little in Italy; I’d probably spend most of the day waiting around. He packed his Fiat with magazines and newspapers to fill the time. He insisted on driving into the city. He didn’t like the Volkswagen I had bought on an overseas delivery program. He felt I had snubbed the Italian automakers.
The State Department Office waiting room was packed with foreign applicants waiting to process visa and other requests. Most of the petitioners were Filipino women who were then flocking to Rome to work as domestic help.
I was called almost immediately. My “Permesso di Soggiorno”—my permission to stay in Italy for an extended period of time—was sponsored by NBC News. A letter vouched that I was, indeed, a broadcast journalist and might be called on from time to time to do some freelance work for the network. I wasn’t even required to pay for the stamps on the document. Bolli for accredited journalists were paid for by the state.
“So, you are somebody important who doesn’t need to wait,” sniffed Luigi, after I soared through the procedure. I felt guilty knowing I had been placed ahead of several others. “Why didn’t you tell me you were reporting for American television?”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m here to learn Italian, look up my family, and maybe do a little consulting work.”
“But your papers say American television.”
“I was told a letter of recommendation would help the process,” I explained. “When I mentioned that to a friend at NBC in New York, he volunteered the letter.”
“Humph.” Luigi pulled on his beard. He was still suspicious but I could tell he was thawing. At least, I hoped, now he knew I wasn’t an ax murderer.
We stopped in a bar for coffee. I was to quickly learn that “bar” in Italy means coffee, not the boozy connotation its American counterpart has taken.