In A Thousand Bells at Noon, Romagnoli shares with readers his visceral and emotional experiences in Rome: its ancient streets and modern shops; it parks; cafés, and hidden gardens; its grand public squares and sacred spaces. As he relives moments from his childhood, reconnects with old friends, and sees through new eyes a modern city steeped in history, you will fall in love with Romagnoli's Rome a wondrous place like no other on earth.
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Coming to Rome
Ecco i pellegrini
Over Elba the captain informs us that this famous island not only was Napoleon's place of exile, but also marks the beginning of our descent toward (he pauses here for a second: you can almost hear a subliminal blaring of trumpets in his voice) Rome! The engines cut down to a whisper and in the clear autumn air Tuscany slowly rises up to us. Along the coastline the Via Aurelia, one of the old consular roads, is clearly visible: a white ribbon leading like all roads to Rome. We pass over brown Etruscan earth, Tarquinia and Cerveteri; then the port of Civitavecchia and after that about fifty miles from landing the scattering of farms and country houses slowly grows into a congestion of tall buildings and then the whole landscape, from the coast to the faraway Alban hills, is almost an uninterrupted urban assemblage. Below us the Tiber snakes south, like us, and here and there sends blinking reflections of sunshine, semaphoring a welcome. Now the core of the old city appears: unmistakable Saint Peter's dome, the Colosseum, the forums.... Soon the brick-colored central maze turns again into the uniform spread of cement cubes. It is a big city. In a moment the runway is under our wing and the captain puts the big Alitalia craft down with the lightness of a feather. From the back of the cabin comes a roaring applause: one wonders if it is in the Italian way the loud appreciation for a good performance or in gratitude for the end of anuneventful trip. Welcome to Rome.
With a minor hitch: taxis and limos to town are on strike. A hiccup strike, we are informed. There is an hourly timetable for the strikes to start or to stop, but nobody knows exactly its schedule. And nobody seems terribly exercised about it. But then, cheer up: public transportation is supplied by the metropolitana train line that will take passengers to the central Stazione Termini. And indeed the sleek trains whisk you elegantly and effortlessly to the center of town and to another minor hitch: buses and trolley cars are (hiccup) on strike but taxis are (hiccup) working. There is a long line to elbow through to get one, an exercise for the practiced, the young, or the luggage-free.
Fate, in the shape of a neatly attired man, takes me by the hand: he knows I need a ride, he has a car. Right up front he tells me that he is not licensed for the job, a pirate cab. But it will take me there; he sees my apprehension and "It will cost you less," he reassures me, "and will get you there faster." The reason, he says, is that to make up for the strike losses a licensed cab assuming I can get one will take me all over Rome and charge me for it. ... A reasonable argument, rationally presented, but I am still suspicious. He ignores my hesitation and asks, "By the way, where are we going ...?" and before I can answer, takes charge and piles my luggage into the trunk. I am too tired, or too curious, or both, to fight the situation. I just let it happen, and sit, by invitation, in the passenger seat, beside him. I am going near the Basilica of San Paolo, or, as we reckon together, stretching it a little, almost halfway back to the airport. "Isn't life funny?" he comments, seeing more humor in the situation than I do. "Now you should settle on the fare," he tells me, trying to teach me the ropes of a meterless cab, "and I think that forty thousand lire will take you there. What do you think?" I fall for the game, and say twenty; we settle on thirty. "A good buy. If things go right it will take a half hour; a thousand a minute, that's cheap!" He is cheerful about it all, and his jolliness is somewhat contagious. He introduces himself: "My name is Piero." Deeming that first names are enough, I tell him mine and we shake hands on that. He assumes the race-driver position (all Romans are race drivers manqué), slouching back on the seat, arms stretched out to the wheel, and we are under way. He makes his way out of the huge piazza fronting the station, weaving around stalled (hiccup) buses and clusters of people. I realize now that the piazza is crowded end to end with people gathered in groups. And they do not look Italian. To my query, "Povera Roma mia!" Piero answers, "Poor Rome of mine! If you did not know, you would think you were in Manila ... or Addis Ababa." During the last decade or so there has been a great influx of extra-comunitari, immigrants legal and not from outside the European Community area. They congregate here to share news with their compatriots, for mutual assistance, for a picnic, for exchanging goods. In their national garb, Filipinos, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, have staked out their own place on the square. "It's a circus!" is Piero's comment. "Nice people, most of them do the work, the low-paying work, that Romans don't want to do anymore. But there are a lot of shady dealings going on. I think the police allow this circus so they can keep an eye on them, instead of having to chase them all over town!" Piero, the good-natured Macchiavelli. "Pellegrini, ah!" is his comment. Pilgrim, in the Roman dialect, from the peregrinus of Cicero's language, refers to anybody coming from outside Rome. In the past, pilgrims flocked to Rome in processions to ask for grace and benedictions at the various basilicas. They were barefoot and wore penitential cassocks of burlap, they were not too clean and quite worn out from their long travels, and, moreover, brought no wealth to the city; Romans considered them quite a nuisance and looked down on them with some superiority and some derision. The term has remained, in today's strict dialect, to include not only whoever looks different or strange, but also all foreigners. "Povera Roma! Taken over by pellegrini!" Piero comments sadly, then looks at me and "No offense!" he adds. I reassure him that none is taken: I am almost a Roman. But I could very well be a pellegrino; I've been away a long time.
"Boston," I tell him.
"Small world! I have a nephew, my wife's side, in Boston! He is a capoccione, an egghead. Studies at meat."
I figure that he means M.I.T. He swerves around a one-way sign stuck on a temporary post, turns on Via Cavour, circles Piazza Vittorio ... he is really taking the shortcut!
"Now you see Calcutta!" Piero indicates with his chin all the Asian goods and food stores in the area. Piazza Vittorio is one of the large squares in Rome. A sizable rectangle, six by four city blocks, it has a central park and gardens, flanked by the porticos of palazzi that go back, like the square itself, to the beginning of the Roman middle class, somewhere about the 1800s, when the new bourgeoisie attempted to ape the aristocracy. Almost since its inception Piazza Vittorio has been, during the morning hours, the site of one of the largest open markets, a Roman's favorite. All the freshest fruit and produce from the orchards and gardens surrounding the city could be found here, along with quality meat, fish still wet from the sea, and household goods handmade by artisans. Now it has deteriorated, it is Piero's feeling, into a hodgepodge of foreign goods. The air carries the aroma of exotic Indian spices, Asian dried meats, and foods that, only a short time ago, Romans did not even know existed. Piero makes a show of smelling the air, and not with approval. I know he is a Roman: when it comes to foreign things, especially foods, Romans are superchauvinists.
"Calcutta! La Cina!" Piero gestures, explaining, with a mixed sense of geography, that the area is full of Chinese warehouses and shops, that the whole place has been taken over by a large community of Chinese. "Calcutta," he insists, "they even have their own mayor!" He thinks for a moment, then continues: "Or perhaps their boss. They are very rich, they stick together in gangs, like the Mafia. You'd think our own wasn't already enough!"
Piero guns the cab as if to leave the area as fast as he can, but we hit a bottleneck at Porta San Giovanni. There are cars lined up as far as the eye can see, enough honking and yelling to split the ears. Piero throws his hands in the air and shrugs. I am surprised at his calm resignation. He tells me that by now he has learned to take it easy and, all told, driving is still better than being a ragioniere, an accountant. That is what he was; then he took early retirement and, to do something, he started ferrying people around. "You meet more people than in an office," he says, "and you see a lot of Rome, too." The traffic starts moving again. The stoppage had been provoked by three buses disgorging a load of nuns at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. "Pellegrini! More pellegrini!" Piero chuckles amiably. Then, "You won't believe it," he says, "the other day I drove two Buddhist monks around. Nice guys, I can still smell the incense."
I ask him if he was surprised to see saffron-clad bonzes in Rome.
"Surprised? Nothing surprises us anymore. We have seen them all. Everybody comes and goes. We have seen Turks, and English, and Spanish, and Americans ... princes and kings, soldiers and generals, on horses and on elephants, some were friends, some were not. We have even seen a Polish pope. So, what else is new?"
I ask him if he is ever curious to see all these people a casa loro, in their own habitat, if he ever travels.
"No," he says, "why should I go? I figure that if all the world comes to Rome it must be special, must have something better than where they come from. I am here already!"
Nice philosophy, I tell him.
"Look," he tells me, "I see all the people around me running around, trying to go up, going places, trying to make money and more money. In Rome everybody is a millionaire today. Look around: there are more Mercedes here than in Berlin! I am sixty-five, and I am happy where I am and what I am. I like my life, I wouldn't change a thing. I really like it!" He pauses, and then adds: "Actually, there is one thing that bugs me, but really bugs me." He looks at me, waiting for my expression to say, "What is it?"
"I have it so good, why will I have to die?" he says. I have no answer for him, but then we have arrived. By my watch it has taken twenty-seven minutes, traffic jam included. I want to leave him a tip, but he refuses.
"It was a pleasure. And if you need to go around, give me a call. I will show you Rome, like to a pellegrino!" I tell him that after this short trip with him, I'm already back to being a Roman, feeling at home. He hands me a card: it says simply PIERO, with his home telephone number and the number of his telefonino, his cellular phone, underneath. Then he waves: "Ciao, romano!"
And a romano I am going to be again for at least six months. I have secured a sublet apartment in Vicolo del Cedro, in Trastevere. I will return with Gwen, my wife. Actually, she is my second wife. Margaret, my first, and I had met Gwen at a mutual friend's house in Cambridge and, as I remember it, the two ladies got involved in an exchange about their experiences of living in Rome for an extended period, bringing up children there. Four on our side; one, raised single-handedly, on hers. When Margaret passed away, as fate wanted, Gwen and I got together to share companionship and a common background. It was neither compassion or filling a void. Certain losses and certain voids cannot be soothed or filled. It was just a second beginning, free and unencumbered, for both of us.
Rome, beware, here we come again!
Excerpted from A Thousand Bells at Noon by G. Franco Romagnoli. Copyright © 2002 by G. Franco Romagnoli. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.