We stood up and boarded the red train, seats jammed close together but it would be fast and then we would be in Rome. We had spoken about Rome for a time, trying to go in November but then we had been obstructed. We continued to speak about going. Rome as the ultimate capital, the famous layers that Ivan and my mother and everyone spoke about, civilisation upon civilisation in the chaos of that antique city. From Florence, it felt like a first step into the Italian South, the beginning of the fiery half of the peninsula and it promised commotion and warmth. I was pleased as we boarded the train because it had been some time coming, and it was an opportunity in between the duties of home. K had a meeting the next day and we decided to envelope it with two slow nights in a little room in the city.
I had been several times over the last years, but always for too quick a visit, for a concert or a trip to the embassy for our passport. When I went to the concerts we would always just make a quick night out of it, renting a room or a bed in a hostel near Termini. Termini is a vast and ugly station, and the area around it is bleak and unkempt. So when K and I arrived and we took the bus away from the black of the station, it felt good and new. We took the bus until Largo Argentina and walked from there, part of the way along the Tiber and it was beautiful. I compared the river island to Paris but she didn’t like that. Rome holds a special place in her heart and she did not accept comparisons, it held a singular place for her and I understood that. It was a grey afternoon but she was very happy, smiling and walking quickly. She would see a place and fill in the shadows with some story, something from the past. Shifting the forms of ghosts from one place to another. She showed me where she had been thrown off her bicycle, and the streets she would ride down to get to work. This was in a past time before I knew her and she spoke about it fondly.
Our little flat turned out to be not so little, in residential Testaccio along a busy road. It had a big bed and bright colours, colours which I found too happy. But the room was on the far side of an internal courtyard, beautifully lined with plants and away from the noise of cars and the afternoon. I noticed many of these Roman internal courts as we walked the city for those days, always with the portone open so one could look inside, to observe the greenery and escape the city for a moment. I enjoyed this, it added a special semi-private view of Rome’s architecture. We left our bags and stepped out again to have the last few hours of light in the evening, walking again along the Tiber and towards Trastevere.
Trastevere was just across the river from our flat, and we walked through it just as the evening was beginning. Tourists were already sitting down and eating their meals. It was difficult to see in the dark of the evening, but the neighbourhood is full of small and interesting side streets. These winding alleys are rich with trees and things green climbing up its walls, and lovely little pockets of calm. Then along the main street it was busy with restaurants and cafés and that first evening we arrived in the square of the Santa Maria church. It is adorned with wonderful mosaics and inside its ceiling is covered in golden patterns and tapestries. I found it too decorated, preferring some austerity, but the mosaics I found beautiful. It was beautiful to see it with K because she was happy and enormously charmed by the city and her constant memories. It was quite special to be there with her.
We kept walking, now in the dark, and soon we were through the gate and past Trastevere, and I could see the green bulge of one of the hills on the left. Supposedly, this was the 8th hill of Rome, the official seven lying east of the Tiber. I loved the idea of those hills spread across the city, cutting the city with green and park and road and those many millennia before as walked by the sandals of civilized Romans. I always thought of the Romans as civilized and modern, and yet they were probably precisely the same pigs as us. It was wonderful anyway to think of the city from above, spread with those seven impressions of nature, combining the town’s stone with the green of park.
The Trevi Fountain that night was full of people, but K said that it was a mild number. I felt we could hardly move, and we squeezed past compulsive photographers to get close to the fountain water. The fountain was beautiful and colossal, but I was distracted by the groups of students and the high-school children who were ugly in their puberty. They were loud and shouting and it was not very pleasant, so we didn’t stay long. I did take a moment to drop a coin into the water, just to entertain that dim space of superstition that always has a small lamp shining in the dusted back of my mind. Dropping the coin in, like lighting a candle in the church, could not do any damage, certainly. It could only help.
We stayed in the area for dinner and K knew a restaurant from her time there, it was a sort of touristy place but she was friendly with the owner and it promised well. We both had the whole artichokes, as well as gricia pasta. The gricia was good but the carciofi were really incredible, they were these enormous legged monsters shining on the table, bigger than I had ever seen them before, and with a very fresh flavour. They were in season, and they were also in the gricia sauce of the fettuccine. A wonderful vegetable, torturous to prepare and clean and cook, because their skin wilts under the poison of oxygen, but the pleasure of their texture is very real, a taste I will always put to Rome somehow.
The next morning was again not beautiful, it was grey and white, but we stepped out and the smell was fresh and we closed our coats very contentedly. We had to walk back to Trastevere, where K had a meeting at noon. We first stopped for breakfast in a bakery where she had a little piece of strudel. I was served a rock-hard pastry by a jittery coffee-man, a very Roman face and quite ugly, who was very pushy for my order of coffee. I told him and he made it hurriedly, and I almost put my teeth out biting into my dough-rock.
In the white light of that new day you could see clearly enough the unique beauty hidden across the Tiber, in the little openings of alleyways, green vines crawling the old stone of one-floor houses. Trastevere was relaxing and especially uncity-like in the lull of the mid-week noon. When K took off I stepped into a bookshop to get something for my wait, I was tired of the book I had brought along with me. So I bought an ugly copy of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, as I had never read it, and took it to the few tables outside a café on the square where the food market was. It was quiet and not very cold and I sat happily, the coffee tasted very good and I was pleased.
I had first walked past the café in Piazza San Calisto. That was where I had really wanted to stop, remembering that Nigel had spoken to me about it in the past. Just glancing at it I was able to tell that it had great character. Unfortunately, in the moment I passed they had part of the shutter down and said they weren’t serving coffee. Anything else was available, just not the coffee. I thought that very odd. A broken machine, maybe. Coffee was the only thing I would have ordered, so I didn’t stop.
I sat at my table and read about Buck the dog, abandoning his domesticated ways, developed through generations, and regaining his true ancestral being: that of the fierce snow hound, not shy to any necessary means of survival. The so-called laws of fang and frost. I think K came and interrupted me just when Buck dug his fangs into the neck of his enemy dog Spitz, drawing the blood onto the snow and ending that dog’s life swiftly. I was shocked but stood up with a smile and took her hand to leave.
We had a light lunch and wandered back across the river, toward the Campo dei Fiori. We always tried to take the little roads, the lines of cracked pavement, and sometimes we were lucky to find perfectly silent alleys lined with the beautiful structures and old memories of the city. K wanted me to taste the coffee in a special bar, close to where she had worked. You had to ask specifically if you took your espresso without sugar, as I did, otherwise they would automatically sweeten it. It was great to see K’s ecstasy at her cup, her eyes closing slowly and her lips coming together into a sweet kiss of “Yes” and the wonderful flavours of the syrup. She was so often disappointed by coffee at home. The texture of my coffee was fantastic, but without sugar I did not taste any particular strength of flavour. While she was swerving her spoon around her cup I was thinking that it hadn’t been my favourite, but then again her and I disagreed about most things in this world. I followed her to her favourite bookshop and we roamed there for some time. It was a lovely quiet bookshop but I could not find anything I wanted to buy. It was nice just looking around and letting the eyes tour twice, three times the rows of the shelves.
We walked slowly down Via del Corso, until the Piazza del Popolo, to then turn back along the Via del Babuino. K wanted to walk down the wind of the parallel path, but I insisted we stay on the path of the Babuino. Ivan had recommended a café, the old studio of Canova, which was located near the peculiar fountain of the babuino, and I was curious. K didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, but we kept walking. Eventually the baboon emerged as the unfinished statue of Silenus, a character of Roman mythology half man half goat. He is lying down above the water and is ugly. The Romans called him the babuino because of his apparent deformity. We found him amusing and I was happy we had not walked the parallel. We stopped to take some photos. We then had a decaf at the bar of the remarkable restaurant next to the baboon, the old studio of sculptor Canova. As you entered the café an enormous wax horse dominated the doorway, and stood over a sour lady at the till. The barman was very friendly and he said we could probably look around the “museum” if it was quiet. There was no one there, and we took a little walk through the rooms of the restaurant, laid out for a fancy evening meal and adorned with a series of diverse original works by Canova, pieces he practiced with in wax for his official marble sculpture. It was fascinating, and we laughed taking photos of the wax women and men, surrounded by golden-rimmed mirrors and warm, yellow light, shining off the silverware on the tables.
Later we sat for a moment on the Spanish steps and it was very much the right moment, because it was then that the late winter sun was going down and it threw the whole city into a wonderful pink crashing fog. We climbed the steps a little higher and each time more of the dying sky was revealed, and it was so rich and fiery that K kept on saying that you only found these sunsets in Rome. We walked to the top and finally St. Peter was there too, burning in the pink-lit smog hovering over the city and it was a glorious view. The photo does not render well because the camera suffers in the dark, but it was one of those sundowns that really brands a memory, bursting a palette of colours that before had only been dreamed. So we enjoyed that Roman sunset and K said that they were not like that at home, and maybe I agreed, but in any case I found it beautiful and it was lucky to share it with her.
We walked a lot that afternoon, actually, and we made it all the way back to Trastevere to the San Calisto for an aperitif. K had two spritzes, because she claimed they were small, and had some crisps with them. I had a beer and I never have beer anymore. It was a Moretti and it tasted smooth in my mouth, and I felt like I was sinning and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it in my hand and in my throat. But I tried to enjoy it and the taste in any case was good and fresh and it tasted sort of special. For our dinner we walked back to Testaccio and ate where her and her father had been previously, a typical restaurant in the back street, quiet on the Tuesday night. I had a piece of fish and we had some more carciofi, less good on this night, and some sardines. K had a dish of pasta with mussels, which I was surprised was also served with tomato and pecorino sauce. I thought shellfish and cheese never went together, but in Rome indeed a few times I saw signs for cozze and pecorino, and other variants, and my preconceptions were again knocked and dusted and put back quietly in their place on the shelf.
We slept very well in our large colourful bed, mostly because at night it was dark and it still felt large but there were no longer the bright colours to disturb you. The next morning I stepped out to pick up cornetti, and walked all the way across the neighbourhood to a pasticceria I had found on the map. It was a busy Roman bar and I threw down a coffee quickly before taking the two cornetti back. She would kiss me and taste that I had had my first coffee without her and I would have to live with that crime, but I chose to face this particular punishment, holding the sweet cornetti closely against me as a form of protection. That morning, we were to have our honesty tested in the Bocca della verità.
We stood in the comparatively short line, looping around and under the small arches of the church, to finally watch the Mouth appear before us. I had seen it before but only many years previous. The mouth looked honest and not especially menacing, and I did think that if I allowed it to look into the clear kingdom of my mind it would not have anything to hold against me. I trusted K and I looked at her, and decided that her mind must be clean too. And so we stood in line and let the poor Roman boy at the end of the line take everyone’s camera devices one by one and shoot their quick shot with hand-in-Mouth. I did not like this system, and when he told us it was our turn we decided against having him take our photo. He remained empty handed and we took each of our hands together and walked to the Mouth, and K asked me if I was ready and we put them in together. Nothing happened and there was a little shine of relief. We held our hands in the Mouth for a moment and kissed each other with our mouths for another moment, and I looked back at the Roman boy managing the line and he gave me a thumbs-up. I wasn’t sure why. Initially I thought that he was telling that he approved of my girlfriend, a sort of “well done” for the catch, which I didn’t like very much. But then I thought about how I must have looked, confused with my hand in the Mouth and looking back for some guidance perhaps. And the Roman boy gave me the thumbs-up as if to say “You’re all right, carry on”. When I thought back to it he had that sort of reassurance in his eyes. Maybe I read into it too much. In either case he was a Roman boy with a shite job and I hope I at least gave him a thumb back. Otherwise it may have been impolite.
We stepped into the Circo Massimo and it was vast. A plain in the valley between two of the hills, it was a phenomenal space that felt open and ancient. It had been a chariot racing-ground for the old Romans. Now you could walk through it and there were bits of quiet green, and on the West side you saw the initial crumbs of the Forum on the Palatine Hill. I remembered not long before walking across it with Billy and Nigel, when we were visiting Nigel during his time in the city. He had rented a room in an apartment just off the Circo Massimo and we had strolled through that vast space together. They were great friends and we had joked happily walking through the large valley.
So I thought of this and now with K looked around that same space and its peace. K wanted to take a photograph like she had many years before as a little girl. We took some photos in the green of the middle and we had fun, stripping down to our shirts because now it was warm and there was a nice little spring breeze sweeping through the Circo. We sat for a moment on the grass and took some more photos. She doesn’t like the photo I took of her but I do. She finds her face forced, and I agree it is not perfectly natural or relaxed. But I like her eyes because they look deep at the camera and they are intelligent. In any case, it is not included here unfortunately.
Back towards the vibration of the town, she led me toward the salmoneria, a little salmon shop close to where we had coffee the previous day. They must have had 10 different types of smoked salmon, and we ordered these lovely dark rolls with stracciatella cheese and avocado. We sat eating them quietly on a bench in Piazza Navona. It was funny trying to find a seat, scouting all the benches and waiting for people to stand up. Quickly enough some people freed a bench and we sat down on the stone, and then we were watching the other people in the square. I like Piazza Navona, and it was pretty quiet and we sat in the sun eating. I ate my roll while K was still having her first half, so then I eyed her with an ingenious look of what might have been construed as eager sadness, and she forfeited part of her second half. It is important to note that this was not me being greedy or unfair: she admitted she was not especially enthused by the sandwich and had actually had enough. At least this was her alleged feeling in the face of my eager-sad eyes.
In the sun we decided we wanted to stroll the Forum as a last thing before heading back to the station for our train. It was leaving around 6 pm. But it was difficult to understand where exactly we could enter the Forum, and we walked around quite a bit and in the end I took more photos and finished my roll of film. The last photo was taken by a stone-cold Teutonic man who was reluctant but in the end took our photo, and it is us smiling and looking happy, standing with the wonderful ruins behind us. I think I look slightly like my father in that picture, because of my oversized jacket and the way my shirt collar is open.
Ivan had recommended me a coffee at the Tazza d’oro near the Pantheon and K knew the place as well. So walked there after lunch and stood at the bar for an espresso. It was very good, dark and deep in flavour and I thought better than the one we had had the previous day. K obviously disagreed, preferring the cream of the previous coffee, but then again she took it with sugar, so perhaps there was some difference. In any case this was a delicious espresso and better than most of anything I would have at home, in Florence. It was also 90 cents, like all coffees at the bancone in Rome and so also cheaper than home. Like my sister said afterwards, it is amazing to think that in the middle of a capital city, just off the Pantheon, you can get a coffee for 90 cents. It was, but then of course it was perhaps more amazing that we had gotten so used to the extortionate nature of the alternative. It is a great advantage about Italy, and if you are happy to stand, as I still feel I am, then it is still one of the great pleasures that comes relatively cheap.
We walked into the Jewish quarter, with its little streets and kosher shops. It was funny that so often the old Jewish areas of a city are the most charming, thinking of Venice, and of Paris as well. We passed the turtle fountain, as it was called, and were amused. It stood out in one of those beautiful Roman squares that seem to appear out of nowhere, they open up in your path unexpectedly and show you something wonderful. It was maybe what I liked most about the city. Less amusing were the little plaques on the pavement outside the doors of deported Jews. One could spend all day walking around, reading those plaques. They are everywhere, with the names and dates of the Italian Jews failed by the fascists. But we decided not to spend our time in this way. It was not uplifting. Instead K mentioned the scene in La Storia when Iduzza goes to the Jewish ghetto to have her baby delivered. I had not read most of Elsa Morante’s La Storia but I had indeed gotten to that part. We eventually bought some kosher biscuits from a little Jewish pastry shop, apparently famous, although no one was there. I liked the biscuits but K said she missed the milk or the butter, one of the two.
We eventually walked back toward the Forum and found its entrance. The tickets were free as it was the national settimana dei musei. I suppose we were lucky, with no queue and free tickets and then all of a sudden we were walking among those ruins. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we saw several seagulls resting their wings on the stones, letting people get very close for photos. I wondered at the amount of seagulls but K told me that we were essentially on the sea. I didn’t believe her so we looked at the map, and indeed it was few kilometres to Ostia on the seaside. I supposed I should have trusted her more with these things. The Forum was quiet and we walked up toward the Palatine hill. It is such an amazing place, large and rich and so deep with the various layers of artifact. We kept thinking that it would be wonderful to walk through it some summer day, in August, when Rome was emptied of people and tourists and to come here at dawn. Walking through the forum at dawn in August, with nobody around and the light just creeping through the trees on the hills. It was glorious now as well, a labyrinth in which to get completely lost. I asked K how many people she thought had twisted their ankles in the Forum. I was watching my feet very carefully because the stones were uneven and jagged, and I knew that this was the place for an accident. She wasn’t able to answer my question. She seemed to pay less attention to her footing, she is indeed less clumsy and more generally balanced than I. Still, I knew I did not have the strength to carry her far, so I was dividing my eye between all four of our feet and the ruins above.
In the end, I was sorry to go. We had seen everything and I was tired, I had walked more than I had in some time. But then we had seen nothing. In a city of layers we had perhaps sipped the surface, that little bit near the water’s edge that is just drinkable, that does not burn the tongue. But we inevitably spoke about how nice it would be to have a bit more time, to have some weeks or even to live there for a time together. In an apartment in one of those internal courtyards, kissed by the sun in the early spring and to see one of those fiery sunsets every week, so that they could become boring. And to see the periphery, the outer quarters with their characters and their eccentricity. To have the residents’ culture, for the exhibitions and for the temporary things that we could outlive, that we could watch as they came and went. Enough time to allow anger to rise up against the management of the city, the filth, and to feel just a little bit Roman in bitterness and in pride. Just as Nigel would always speak of Rome as “his city”. We had made fun of him because it seemed premature and because it was very much in Nigel’s character. But I understood him. The way in which a city can become yours a little bit, and you become a small, negligible part of its breath and body for a short time.
I thought that it would be nice for Rome to be our city, as we sat on the train and we shuffled back to life and to Florence. I could see from K’s face that she thought something similar, or at least that she was not happy about leaving. But it was something we had done together and it had been beautiful. For me, Rome would always have her face on it, somehow. I did not know what sort of face it had for her, but I liked to think I was a small part of it.