From Italy III – 12 Dicembre 2003

Last night in Italy, last night on earth.

From the Hotel Scothouse, which is located in a chaotic, friendly, not especially attractive but quite international area near Roma Termini (you hear practically every language except Italian: I bought a Coke from a street vendor wearing a kaffiyeh; the Norwegian tourists in the hotel said hello to me in English when we squeezed past one another in the elevator the size of a phone booth; and the area around the station was crowded with Japanese students), I decided to go out for a walk the minute I’d deposited the bags in my small, but serviceable fifth-floor room.

I wasn’t sure what I was going out to find — I’ve been in Rome before, but I always get lost, and I couldn’t remember where the train station was in reference to anything else. For one night, it didn’t seem worth buying a map and, besides, almost more than sights I just wanted to walk. Rome is magnificent at night. It’s pretty magnificent by day, but Rome’s true flower blossoms after sunset.

An Italian friend had told me that I had to eat bucatini if I was in Rome and, of course, there was gnocci on the menu of every restaurant I passed (except, of course, for the Chinese and Indian ones). But I wasn’t actually very hungry, not that you need to be hungry to eat in Italy, having enjoyed a filling “workman’s” lunch in Milan — linguine and spezzatino at the six-table Petit House Caffè on via Porpora near Sandro and Mauro’s laboratorio in the Loreto district.

The food at Petit House is simple, good, and quite cheap (an amazing thing in itself for Milan), but additionally it’s that there are two waiters there who take your breath away. I imagine they’re the sons of the padrone, who sits out front at a tiny round table near the cassa, slowly and implacably smoking one cigarette after another. Gaunt and imposing, he’s as grand and eroded as a mountain, quite literally an eminence gris, and the three times I ate there, he barely seemed to move other than to light another cigarette. And yet, occasionally, he looks up, he says a word, he even smiles, and the boys leap into action. Italian fathers, man.

Beyond that, I was exhausted by the long, crowded ride on the Eurostar from Milano to Roma, during which I spent a few minutes focusing a fierce hatred like a laser beam on each and every person who possessed a cell phone (which is to say: on everyone). It was like living inside a pinball machine, all bells and whistles and words in strange voices in a language you can’t understand. I especially hated the flouncy young blonde woman — to me, the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Milan — with severe piles of attitude hair; a black, low-slung unitard that probably cost € 200 but managed to make her look cheap; and an enormous wool scarf that would have suited me much better. In the course of the train ride, she received with evident disdain, as though they were nothing more than the court she was due, nine phone calls.

The woman who sat across from me received only a modest three — all apparently from the same person who was meeting her in Rome — in which she said: (1) “Oh, yes, we’ve just left Milano Centrale and we should arrive in Rome about 8:30”; (2) “Yes, we’re somewhere between Bologna and Firenze and we’re due to arrive in Rome about 8:30”; and (3) “Yes, we’re a few minutes away from the station in Rome. What time is it now?”

It was 8:30.

The train ride only took four and a half hours, but it seemed much, much longer.

But here’s the important part: From the hotel in Rome I walked down via Cavour, having no idea where I was headed. It was, by that point, approaching ten o’clock, and the streets, while hardly deserted, might even be called peaceful. Two nights before, when I walked with Maurizio in Milano through the multitudes of holiday shoppers in the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II off the Piazza Duomo, the moon had been full, but now it was waning gibbous. Still, that slight damage to its top right edge made the moon seem that much more like a stolid eye, heavy-lidded and silver through the high clouds. The night was warm — well, not warm. It was mild, but after the gelid rain of Pavia and Milano, Rome was a tropical paradise. I had gone out wearing only one shirt, and practically didn’t need my coat.

And so I was walking, imagining I probably wouldn’t see much, wishing I’d planned to spend more time in Rome, and then, in that way Italy has of setting miracles at the dark end of a back alley, the Foro Romano suddenly hove into view. There it was: Lit up at night by well placed floodlights, and given texture and romance by the light of the moon. And I thought: This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. A few paces behind me, the Roman traffic whizzed by, but it took no energy to make it disappear. What you’re struck by is how useless it is to say anything, and so you’re glad, in a way, to be alone; and yet there’s the sense, too, that you want to grab someone, anyone, even a total stranger, by the elbow and say: Look.

Drunk and a bit stunned by the vertigo of the Foro, I decided to walk some more — you couldn’t just go back to the hotel after that — and I was drawn finally to a small, curved viale where I thought I heard water falling. And so, at the end of the viale, I was just as unexpectedly birthed onto Piazza San Silvestro and the magnificence of the Fontana di Trevi.

Bernini’s capolavoro is glorious at night, masculine and overwhelming, and yet somehow seductive and delicate in its particulars. It’s a place, I was reminded, that makes lovers and even old married couples want to hold hands and kiss — something about the gush and roar of all that virgin water — almost as much as they want to have their pictures taken there, a useless act that can’t help but fail to capture what it is that people really want to remember about the place.

In Rome, you have the sensation of riding on the back of a lion, sensing the beat of its heart and feeling the heaving of its ribs beneath you. You think: I’m walking on the body of the earth. That’s what people want to remember.

I bought a gelato at Rome’s most expensive gelateria (a two-scoop cone costs €5,20; on the other hand, it must be said, the gelato is sublime), tucked in there at the side of the piazza, just where it was the first time I saw in it 1990. From there, I walked in what I thought (correctly, as it turned out) was the general direction of the station and happened upon Piazza della Repubblica, which I instantly recognized. There’s a Feltrinelli bookstore just around the corner which is a shrine for anyone who loves books; of course, it wasn’t open at that hour. I sat outside at a caffè table on the marble promenade and watched the moon and drank my last limoncello in Italy. It was a very good limoncello, actually — the kind that expands hotly your mouth until it threatens to become painful and then gently disappears.

Sometimes, this gratitude comes upon you, and you can hardly be still for wanting it to go on.

And then I was tired, and it was time to go home.

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Posted on 12 December 2003, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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