Say, “Rome,” and people start gushing. The Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps. By a whim of the gods, I was born in Rome.
I have a T-shirt with a drawing of the She-Wolf nursing Romulus and Remus. One of the babies is suckling avidly. The other one – much to the consternation of the She-Wolf – is spitting out milk in spiteful disgust. That’s me. Say, “Rome,” to me, and I think of moody public transport, a cobweb of bureaucracy, clocks that are merely decorative (the following of any kind of order went out with Mussolini), and the endless queuing which takes up one third of every Roman’s lifetime. Also, the fact that everyone accepts this state of inefficiency as though it’s divinely preordained.
If you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, they say your return is assured. I have stood there on the eve of my departure on countless occasions, defiantly refusing to toss in a coin, and yet have had to go back over the years. It’s not fair. Perhaps the trick is to take a coin out of the fountain.
For various reasons, I had to be in Rome again, so I decided to try out a novel technique. If hating Rome bound me to it, then perhaps getting to like it would break the chains. What did I have to lose?
I had forgotten that when Romans tell you that a place is a mere ten-minute walk, you should triple that. My suitcase took a half hour assault course through jagged sampietrini cobblestones (as their name suggests, they date from Saint Peter’s times), and the crevasses in between, along the Lungotevere to the heart of Trastevere. My lodgings, recommended to me by a colleague, were a guest house run by apostolic oblates.
The back pocket of my suitcase was torn off but for a couple of inches of fabric by the time I made it up two flights of shiny marble stairs up to my room. The furnishings, with crucifix on the wall above the bed, suggested an ascetic lifestyle but the room was impeccably clean. I opened the window and was met by tree tops swaying in the breeze. Large white seagulls criss-crossed the sky, emitting plaintive shrieks, while swallows swooped low with their high-pitched cries. Everything about the place radiated peace. A place to heal wounds, appease doubts and disable fears.
In the street, the air is filled with roast pork and rosemary, wood fired pizza dough, the clinking of cutlery, the buzzing of the odd vespa. The street is so narrow that I stand flat against the wall to let a car through. It clunks past me on the cobblestones. Roman drivers are notoriously unruly. They seldom stop but simply swerve around you as you cross the road. I used to find that terrifying. Now, it gives me an odd sense of security. People who do not rely on rules are open to options and have quick reflexes, constantly on alert.
There are faded frescoes under the arched gateway just past Villa Farnesina, which is decorated by Raphael. Shadows of once vivid angels and ascending Madonnas. Further down, the oldest parish church in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its Byzantine mosaics. Under the portico, a beggar woman, clad in black from top to toe, holds out her hand, palm up. Her other hand pushes into a walking stick to support her quaking frame. In a weepy tone, she utters prayers and blessings on your head as you walk past. Later in the week, when there is hardly anyone in the square, I see the woman straighten up, hand the walking stick to a friend, and stride away erect, with an assured step. I smile at her resourcefulness.
My friend Francesca and are looking for somewhere to have dinner. We rule out all the restaurants displaying signs in English or a Tourist Menu. We stand outside a rustic trattoria with wooden tables on the cobbles. Before we even sit down, Francesca tells the waiter, “Look, I am Roman – born and bred – so don’t go giving us any tourist stuff. We want some good food.”
The waiter launches into an earnest assurance of authentic dishes fit even for the locals. He brings out a bottle of red wine and gives a spectacular performance of uncorking the bottle and pouring a tiny amount of wine into our glasses. He then swills the wine around the glasses, as though it were brandy, then pours out the contents into a third glass which he takes away. We try not to stare, pretending we have seen this trick before, but wonder what on earth he is doing. We clink glasses. The wine is tart but drinkable. Our pasta arrives. Francesca’s amatriciana has bits of limp bacon drowning in overly liquid tomato sauce. My cacio e pepe is dry and gritty. Tourist feed, after all.
My new friend Maria Alessandra has read my blog on the English and food, and treats it as an incentive to invite me to dinner at her home. She promises me that her husband, Gianluigi, is nothing short of a cordon bleu. I am handed a glass of golden wine called Donna Sole, from a local vineyard. It is delicately fragrant and mellow and – with a name like Lady Sun – cannot fail to please.
Gianluigi serves up a seafood themed feast. He starts with marinated shrimp. “It’s raw, ” he says.
My heart sinks and I plan how I can leave the contents of my plate untouched without causing offence. “But it’s totally safe to eat because the marinating process neutralises any potential health risks of raw fish,” he continues.
I lift a small amount on my fork. The taste of fish is imperceptible. Instead, it is a blend of honey and herbs. I eat everything on my plate.
Follows a pasta dish with white fish and capers from Pantelleria. Maria Alessandra urges me to feel at home, and not feel I have to eat anything I do not like. “Nobody will be offended,” she says. The fresh capers give the mild fish a subtle twist, and the pasta – hand made – is full of the rich flavour of natural grain. I polish off my plate.
To finish, sliced kiwi fruit sprinkled with orange infused olive oil. I lack the vocabulary of a food critic; I just know the combination works.
My attention is drawn to a dozen or so bottles of extra virgin olive oil on the kitchen shelf, all award winning presses. A range to suit different occasions, like fine wines. Food not just to fill a physiological need, but as an art form, a caress to the senses.
Strolling past Piazza Colonna and the Parliament, I stop at my favourite ice-cream parlour, Giolitti. There are over twenty flavours to choose from, and I opt for my favourite, Marrons Glacés, with caramelised figs. I am offered a swirl of whipped cream on top. “No, thank you, I don’t like whipped cream.”
The waiter in white jacket and black bow tie frowns. “But our whipped cream is famous!”
“Yes, I know, and it’s truly unique, but I just don’t like whipped cream in general.”
He hands me my wafer cone and looks away. I might as well have said I do not like Bernini’s fountains or Michelangelo’s statues. Outside Giolitti, I take a moment to go through the first necessary action of the Roman ice-cream eater. I twist the cone quickly against my tongue to smooth the ice-cream into a dome shaped mound. Only now can I resume my stroll with decorum, having averted the risk of the ice-cream dripping.
I look into my favourite shop, Papyrus, where I have loved browsing since I was a teenager. It is an Aladdin’s cave of paper goods, but not just any paper. It is handmade Florentine paper, hand painted with marble patterns and peacock tail designs. The Florentines learnt the technique from the Turks, centuries ago. Once the paint is dry, the colour does not run, even if in contact with water. I pull out the wooden drawers. Each is piled up high with layers of thick, crisp sheets of paper with peacock tail swirls and marble patterns, in sienna, turquoise, cobalt, amber, terracotta, crimson and gold. The colours have bled onto the edges of the underside. From time to time, I treat myself to a sheet of carta pavone I then use to bind notebooks. I look at the price labels on the drawers. Not this time.
I decide to go to San Luigi de’ Francesi, the French church. King François 1st’s emblematic salamander is carved into the stone facade. The church is a meeting point for French expatriates, who gather there. I remember them from my days as a pupil of the French Lycée. Exchanging gossip about their compatriots, complaining about les Italiens, struggling with the language in spite of years of residence. St Louis des Français is famous for its Caravaggios. Standing behind a guided group of tourists, I crane my neck to look at The Vocation of St Matthew. Christ, accompanied by St Peter, is calling St Matthew to follow him. The latter points a finger at his own chest, incredulous. Do you really mean me? His other hand is reluctant to let go of the gold coins on the table. An adolescent boy in a doublet rests his arm on St Matthew’s shoulder, and watches the scene with teenage remoteness. His face is innocent in spite of his all-knowing pose. He is curious in spite of himself.
On my last day in Rome, I decide to take a trip down memory lane, and pay a visit to my old school. The Lycée Chateaubriand secondary school is divided between two buildings along Via di Villa Patrizi. The younger pupils are in what looks like a pink miniature castle, complete with turrets and gothic windows. The older ones have classes in a three-storey brown building with green blinds. The only school in the world occupying a former convent and a former brothel.
The morning of my flight back to London, I visit Villa Farnesina, the former house of a banker and, subsequently, of a cardinal. The Church paid for a lot of good art. I buy two prints of Raphael’s frescoes. I realise I have never seen Villa Farnesina before. I realise that, in spite of so many visits to Rome, there are so many places I have not yet seen. Places off the tourist beaten track, hiding jewels of Baroque art.
I really must go and explore these hidden places.