Mani di Velluto – Italy 12 dicembre 2004

I lost track of the number of times I heard an accordionist play “My Way” while I was in Rome, but it must have been at least a dozen: a couple of times a day for nearly a week, virtually every time I boarded the Metro or the sleek, dark-green light-rail trams that stop just outside Porta del Popolo, the monumental gate designed by Vignola on one face and, on the other, by Bernini a hundred years later, and just down from the ostentatious entrance to Villa Borghese.

The public-transit entertainer seems to be the new wave—new, at least, to me—of Roman panhandling, no casual concept in a city that takes public begging very seriously. Here, panhandlers kneel, their cups held up and their heads bent, eyes on the ground. You see them on the sidewalks or along la Metro’s underground snarl of corridors and stairways. At Porta Portese, the immense public flea market that stretches for something like a kilometer on Sunday mornings along via Portese in the Trastevere, they simply stop in the middle of a literal flood tide of humanity, put down a pillow or sometimes just a scrap of cardboard, and assume the posture. The flood parts, reforming on the other side like white water around an upthrust of rock.

As humiliating as such supplication must surely be, not to speak of the physical discomfort, there’s a smaller, more private humiliation that comes from observing these rituals of submission. It is wretched by any definition to be forced to beg in order to live, and to witness someone’s begging is to be incorporated into a circle of humanity where misery attaches itself to you like a shadow at evening. But when begging is accompanied by a theater—and I use the word in its Artaudian sense—of debasement, of resignation, then the sense of being personally implicated is nearly unbearable.

>When Gandhi went to England in 1931 to meet the King, or so the story goes, he wore only a dhoti and told a contemptuous reporter not to be concerned about his lack of clothing, because the King would be wearing enough for both of them. Gandhi’s gesture, of course, was chosen with political care, but the semiotics of the two situations are not entirely dissimilar: a near-naked Gandhi at Buckingham Palace mocks the affectations of empire; a bent and menial beggar on an ordinary city street, like something straight out of Dickens, mocks the concept of ordinary comfort.

Rome, meanwhile, remains more infamous for its pickpockets than for its beggars, or perhaps it’s simply famous for being infamous. Hand-lettered signs were everywhere in la Metro, pasted onto the walls and the stairway railings, warning of borseggiatori. When I first proposed the trip to the Porta Portese market, the albergatore at the bed and breakfast on Piazza Bologna, where I was staying with my friend, Dani, was appalled and immediately set about to talk me out of it. Dani, who hadn’t been in Rome for seventeen years, nevertheless joined in enthusiastically. “È un invito a nozze,” Dani said, pointing to the large, floppy book bag that I insist on carrying everywhere: “That’s a wedding invitation.”

For his part, the albergatore had a story: One day, as he was leaving the bank, he was approached by gypsies asking for money. He gave them a few Euro, and then they surrounded him to thank him, kissing his hands and patting his arms. He later discovered that they’d gotten into his pants pocket in the process, making off with €300 before he knew what was happening.

Observing that he still hadn’t convinced me to abandon Porta Portese, the signore launched into other stories, which I’d heard before, about thieves on crowded buses who slash your pockets with surgical scalpels in order to extract the contents, or of others, riding Vespas, who zip up alongside you on the sidewalk, cut the straps of your bag or purse, and disappear into traffic with your valuables.

This, too, is a kind of theater: the telling of the cautionary, not to say the Canterbury, tale. True, what Italians think of as “high crime,” even in a huge, chaotic city like Rome, seems relatively tame to an American urban dweller, but still. Passing such stories along has its ritual value, though I have to admit that I remain uncertain what I am supposed to draw from them. Nothing of the kind has ever happened to me in fifteen years of decidedly aleatory travel (knock on wood–or touch iron, as the Italians say), and the only people who’ve ever taken anything out of my bags or out of my pockets that didn’t belong to them have been with the American Border Patrol or the Transportation Security Administration. So what I conclude is: If you’re a gypsy and you take from me, that makes you a rat bastard thief, but if you’ve got a badge and a uniform and you take from me, that makes you one of the good guys.

And people say that the bureaucracy in Italy is hard to understand….


In the end, we went to Porta Portese anyway, me and Dani and my wedding invitation. My one concession was to leave my passport at the bed and breakfast—the albergatore had a story about that too, which involved an American girl who’d had her passport stolen. She had to spend hours in the Questura and it took days to get a replacement and she missed her plane as a consequence. The one interesting part of the story was that, if you get your passport stolen in Rome, the American Embassy supposedly doesn’t make you pay for a new one. I wonder if that’s really true.

In addition to the term borseggiatori, by the way, pickpockets are also known, much more poetically, as mani di velluto (velvet hands).

But to get back to the beginning: The hands that touched the accordion keys were far, far from velvet. The way it works is this. The musician boards, burdened not only by his accordion but also by a small cart on wheels, about the size of the rollaway bags that people bring onto the airplane because they insist they’ll fit into the overhead storage bin, but which then almost always wind up having to be checked from the jet way, which makes everyone testy. Later, the flight attendants come down the aisles to distribute the baggage-claim checks, providing the occasion for someone (and there is always someone) to demand to know whether his bag will “definitely” be waiting for him when he lands, and for the flight attendant to answer cheerfully, “It’s on the same plane as you are, sir!”

No one ever says, at that point, “Thanks for making us all late taking off because you were determined not to spend fifteen minutes at baggage claim.” No one ever says it, in spite of the fact that the world is full of people who’d rather inconvenience you than risk being inconvenienced, which is no doubt the way The Golden Rule works in hell.

The rolling cart bears a large, boxy speaker and a smaller apparatus on top, which was either a CD or a cassette player (I never got close enough to check), secured by bungee cords. Out of the speaker comes the bass line and the percussion, and the accordionist supplies the melody. Rome is a large and grand place, so it hardly seems possible that every single subway musician had the same karaoke percussion tape (I think that’s what they’re called), but they all had “My Way,” and “My Way” was always the first track. Perhaps it scarcely needs to be said that “My Way,” played on the accordion and accompanied by a sort of bossa nova beat, is a pitiful and denatured thing.

Sometimes there was time for a second number — the tape also contains “Ode to Joy” and “March of the Toreadors” — but sometimes it was just an endless loop of “My Way.” When the musician decided that we’d had enough, he (and they were always men) came around with a paper cup or once, prosaically, with a hat, to collect money. Here, there was no deference, but rather the vaguely combative expectation that you had received a service and now ought to be willing to pay for it.

I don’t know whether this would qualify, under San Francisco’s draconian law, as “aggressive panhandling,” but it’s certainly pushy, in the same way that people who talk too loud on cell phones are pushy, taking up more than their share of the space. Too, it’s rather a mockery of the fine tradition of the street performer, the busker (a word that comes from Italian, as it happens — from the verb buscare, to search for or, in one sense, to procure). But perhaps that’s too fine a point to make. Everyone’s got to live. At night, the cavernous enormity of Stazione Termini becomes a bedroom for scores of people who have no place else to go. No one shoos them out.

portese1I should say that Porta Portese was a hoot, the crowd immense, thrumming, absolutely daunting. It wasn’t until we got to the end that Dani and I discovered the traditional part of the market, the part that’s really a “flea market,” where there are fake Roman antiques and dog-eared books and Nazi memorabilia and old, hand-blown bottles and some awfully nice second-hand furniture, really. The rest has become a sort of outdoor mall, with (mostly) crappy wares from everywhere but Italy.

I scandalized Dani by buying a porchetta, a roast-pork sandwich, from a vendor and eating it as we walked, but I think what really got to him was that, when they asked if I wanted maionese, I said yes.

pppanBut then I’m always running afoul of the rules of food in Italy, which are many, various, and capricious. That’s one (small) downside of knowing Italians: They always tell you when you’re wrong about food. There were disapproving looks when I asked for CocaCola with pizza or for a limoncello before supper (it’s a digestivo, stupid) and discernible gasps one evening in Lecce when I asked the waiter for a cappuccino at the end of supper. One only drinks cappuccino con colazione (that is, at breakfast), I was given to understand, because it’s bad to consume milk at night. I looked around the table: Francesco was having panna cotta, Mimmo had ordered gelato.


“So let me make sure I understand,” I said, “you’re giving me shit for ordering a cappuccino because you shouldn’t drink milk at night, and yet both of you are eating milk products.”

They looked down at the dishes in front of them. “Beh, in effetti, sì….”

Allora va fa’n culo!” I said, and they — generous, kind-hearted, and more capable than I am of embracing paradox — laughed and laughed until my cappuccino came.


Posted on 12 December 2004, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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