The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Un discorso d’addio

On the evening before we left Rome, we had a wonderful carpaccio with an inexpensive, but delicious Frascati at Edy off the piazza. The reviews said the food was awesome, but overpriced. Both were true. The service, however, was impeccable and the salmon carpaccio was to die for.

The next morning, Vladimir took us to the airport in a rented car. We chatted in Italian and I learned he was from the Ukraine, had been in Italy eight years, and had driven this particular car for three. He and his wife were expecting a daughter, Guilia, in a few weeks time. Vladi was a careful driver and a very sweet man.

Unfortunately, he dropped us off at the wrong terminal. This meant searching for a check-in station that didn’t exist. It turned out that Alitalia had taken over the services for KLM and Delta and that we needed to go to Terminal 1. Of course, once we got there, finding our counter was not simple, since everything said “Alitalia.” I’m still laughing about it. Another cock-up in Italy.

January 7, 2010   Comments Off on Un discorso d’addio

Una friggitora per touristi

This term is Italian for tourist trap (literally, a fried food shop for tourists). We had lunch at one in Trastevere, where two waiters tried to bully us into ordering wine after we squeezed into a spot with fifty other people sitting at long tables in a place that would normally hold a dozen. Why I choose this place, I’ll never know, and why I put up with their nastiness, which continued in one form or another throughout the meal, is even more of a mystery. I suppose I was hungry and knew I would get killed if I exchanged insults with the natives. The food was great, though. My spaghetti with seafood was the best I’ve ever had, and the panna cotta was delicious. Of course, being bullied (and, sometimes, insulted) is normally reserved for Americans, who the waiters consider stupid dogs because of how many of them they see on a daily basis. The first time this happened I was intimidated. Not any longer. I don’t take it personally. It’s simply prejudice encountering an object of scorn with the means and opportunity to be nasty. Amusingly, we once had a waiter in Rome who refused to write up our bill. He had too many loyal customers waiting for service to spend even a moment helping us. No importunity worked. In the end, I simply paid at the cash register. I still remember him and love his audacity. He knew he’d never see us again and that, as proper Americans, we wouldn’t leave without paying.

January 7, 2010   Comments Off on Una friggitora per touristi

Baths of Caracalla

I’m always surprised at the scale and size of Roman public structures (I almost said “public works”), especially when I stand before them. They’re massive. Truly modern in many respects. The Coliseum and the Pantheon, in particular, are marvels of engineering and construction. If only the Romans had had access to reinforced steel, they would have built skyscrapers and might still be ruling the world. Or, so the Italians imagine.

It took crews of thousands of men about six years to build the Baths of Caracalla. When completed, the facility covered 33 acres and accommodated 1600 bathers. There were series of cold, medium, and hot rooms, an open-air swimming pool, two gymnasiums, and a couple of libraries—one for Greek manuscripts and the other for Latin. Bathing was an important part of Roman life. It was the place where business was transacted, alliances made, and relationships forged, including marriage.

Sadly, only the shell of the structure remains. After the Ostrogoths destroyed the baths (by smashing the water supply), it became a source of marble, bricks, statutes, and tiles for the rest of Rome. In short, a building supply center. It’s odd to walk among the ruins, imagining what it was, and to remember that all civilizations turn to rubble in the end.

January 7, 2010   Comments Off on Baths of Caracalla

Villa Celimontana (Tuesday noon)

Approaching the portal of the Villa Celimontana (which now seems to be the home of the Italian Geographical Society) and not seeing any Accesso Vietato signs, we marched straight through. Inside we discovered a charming park on the Caelian Hill overlooking the Coliseum on one side and the Baths of Caracalla on the other. The grounds were worn and seemed to be a place for weekend events, including Christmas festivities and a yearly jazz festival, but we had it mostly to ourselves and enjoyed the palm-lined walks, odd fountains, and few statues and monuments that had not been carted off to some other place in the city. Did you know that Rome has more Egyptian obelisks than Egypt?

The park groundskeepers strolled or drove around as content as Italian squirrels whose bellies were always full. We smiled and exchanged polite buon gionos and enjoyed the moist air, pebbled paths, and greenery together, they as much as we.

January 7, 2010   Comments Off on Villa Celimontana (Tuesday noon)

Santa Stefano Rotondo (Tuesday morning)

Before seeing the Baths of Caracalla yesterday, we retraced our steps of the day before, wanting very much to look inside Santa Stefano Rotondo.

It took awhile to get there, however. The driver of the 117 bus decided to take a break as soon as we got on board and went off somewhere for a smoke and a coffee. Fifteen minutes later he appeared with two of the other drivers (there were now two other 117 buses stacked behind ours at the edge of the piazza) where they talked, laughed, and gesticulated for another five minutes before deciding to push off again. We were amused, but the other passengers were not, the one’s who had to get to work or some place important. But they were stoic about it, having witnessed such scenes numerous times before.

After arriving at the piazza opposite San Giovanni, we walked along the narrow, cobbled street toward Santa Stefano with cars and buses whizzing past on one side and workers from the two hospitals on the other. A bus’s mirror got close enough to one of them that he shouted a “Vafanculo” after it.

The old church had few tourists inside. There isn’t much to see. Just some washed out frescoes and the structure of the church itself, with its graceful, round interior, barren as bone. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome and was consecrated around 470. The walls are decorated with numerous frescoes, depicting scenes of martyrdom. The frescoes have inscriptions describing the scene and the names of the emperors who ordered them, along with quotations from the Bible. They are quite wonderfully morbid depictions of torture and execution.

After talking the attendant into letting me use the key to the bathroom, we headed toward the park on the other side of the Via della Navicella a few hundred yards away. There we encountered this amusing fountain on the tiny piazza next to the street.

January 7, 2010   Comments Off on Santa Stefano Rotondo (Tuesday morning)


Yesterday was supposed to be the day of mosaics, but we had forgotten it was Rome and that some of the churches are closed for three hours for lunch and that, because it was Monday, many of them are closed for the day. So, it turned into the day of a few very special mosaics like this newly restored one in the Cappella di San Venanzio in the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Laterano. Our next stop, Santo Stephano Rotondo, was closed. San Clemente was also closed, but would open again at 3:00, so we decided to do as the Romans did and had a leisurely meal.

It turned out that San Clemente was very popular with tourists, especially the Italians, and for a good reason. It had been excavated (by Irish monks) down two layers beneath the current church. Like most structures in Rome, it had an interesting history. First, Nero burned everything to the ground. Next, Christians worshiped there in secret. A hundred years later a temple to Mithras was built. In the 4th century, a church was built over the courtyard of the old temple. In 1084 the invading Normans destroyed the church. Finally, in 1108 a new church was built over the old one. Then in 1667, the church and convent were given to the Irish Dominicans, who began digging there in 1861 after one of their ilk discovered remains from the 4th century church. And so it goes. One thing on top of another. As R. says, Rome is one big museum.

January 5, 2010   Comments Off on Mosaics

Il museo vaticano

It’s what touches you that matters, the thing or person that moves you in a special way, often without really knowing why, usually something that is in sync with your mood, situation, or circumstances. As a callow young man, I remember being moved by a pietà I saw in Berlin. I couldn’t leave it. I wanted to stare at it forever. I didn’t care whether I missed the bus or not. One can never predict what it will be. Yesterday it was the Sarcofago degli sposi in the Villa Guilia. During our tour of the Vatican on Saturday, it was Massimo, our guide, for being a perfect blend of American and Italian cultures and for his encyclopedic knowledge of art. It was also the Belvedere Torso, for its perfection, for the fact that it influenced Michelangelo, for his adamant stand against adding anything to complete it, and for Massimo for giving me this knowledge.

Near the end of the tour, we left our group and wandered around St. Peter’s, whose scale always leaves me awed and, for some reason, oddly indifferent. On the steps outside, we encountered a tiny old man who held onto the railing for dear life as he took each step sideways, slowly lowering his foot until it touched the next step, and then ever so gradually shifting his weight until he had his second foot on the step. We instinctively stopped beside him in case he needed help. I noticed he was humming to himself in a calming way. When he reached the bottom of a series of steps, I said, “Bravo,” and he mumbled thanks. I touched his shoulder slightly as a sign of solidarity. He screamed that I was shoving him over, and I apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible. He didn’t need my help. He didn’t need anyone’s help. Only Jesus Christ, the Pope, and the holy Catholic church could keep him safe.

Truth to tell, in my heart of hearts, I admired him. How I wish I had that kind of faith.

January 4, 2010   Comments Off on Il museo vaticano


I’m still thinking about my experiences at the Vatican, which we visited after seeing the Villa Guilia on Saturday. Since I’m still conflicted about them, I’ll wait before describing them.

Yesterday we took the train to Viterbo, a medieval city about 100 kilometers north of Rome. One of my reasons for going was that it was site of my favorite Italian television program back when I was watching RAI via satellite. The name of the series was “Il maresciallo Rocca.” I liked the series because it had Italian subtitles, which meant I could listen to the Italian and read it at the same time. The other reason for seeing the city, equally as good, was that the train station for Viterbo is near our hotel. Killing two birds with one stone. Taking the path of least resistance. In short, a potential “Steve’s adventure.”

It did not begin well. The train from Flaminio to Viterbo is so bad it wouldn’t be put in service in the United States (which is saying something). It makes a Trabant look good. It stops at almost every station and makes the distance in something over 2-1/2 hours. No self-respecting Italian would be caught dead on it. So, naturally, it was perfect for us. Even though it was 40 degrees outside, the car was overheated and we had to open the windows. Of course, in contrast, the train back to Rome had no heat at all. What was even funnier was that in the middle of the journey at night with no heat, having no clue where we were, the driver announced something about transferring. The announcement was impossible to decipher since loud speaker broke up. Oh my god, oh my god, what do we do now?

Viterbo was very cool. It is surrounded by a mostly intact medieval wall. Sort of like Lucca. The only problem was that we went on a Sunday when most things are closed, including the churches after services. The priest himself chased us out of San Francesco, and all the other churches were locked except for the cathedral of San Lorenzo, where you could see the scars from the 1944 bombings. So, naturally, we did the next best thing and wandered around, taking pictures and drinking coffee (and some delicious drink with Amaro and oranges a Roman couple recommended), had wine and pizza, more coffee, visited a few artists’ exhibitions and spaces, and chatted about this and that with anyone who was willing. Mostly, the streets were empty until around 4:30 when suddenly throngs of people came out of the woodwork and strolled along the main shopping thoroughfare, talking, window shopping, answering their cellphones, and orating in that special way Italians have, as if addressing their peers from the steps of the Forum. It was delightful.

There was another Etruscan museum (which seems to have become the theme of our trip). We didn’t go inside, but wandered around the courtyard and admired the sarcophagi and carved figures.

On the train back, I encountered a young couple who helped me make sense of the announcement on the train. “Dobbiamo cambiare i trini?” “Si.” “Dove? Alla promissa?” “Si.” “Questo trano?” “Si.” They were very much in love, chatting in a very charming way or making out while the train from hell made its way to Rome. I said good-bye to them at Flaminio, “Buona fortuna, ragazzi,” which they appreciated. They seemed to know exactly what I meant. One has to work like hell at loving.

January 4, 2010   Comments Off on Viterbo

Via Margutta

After getting back from Viterbo last night on Il treno del diavolo, we had a very good vegetarian meal which included a raw fennel salad and oranges (coated with a wonderful olive oil), a nice Gavi, an artichoke done six ways, and a vegetarian pasta. The waiter was from Trieste, had worked in Dublin, and was a stubborn creature. Since I was in a bit of a mood myself, we jousted, but, that aside, we thoroughly enjoyed the meal. The restaurant was just off the Piazza del Popolo on Via Margutta. A nice expansive interior, but the walls were adorned with very bad original art. The small charcoal piece over our table was called “‘due palle'” con una pistola” and was done by a woman protesting maleness. The host, hostess, and waiters had attitude, attitude, attitude, so I fit right in. The Italian couple at the table behind us were having a feud. She spent most of her time playing with her new iPhone and ignoring him. I read somewhere that Italian women aren’t happy unless their men are so crazy they will kill for them. Chissa. Maybe she was trying to dump him. Anyway, the food was awesome. Best vegetarian restaurant ever.

January 4, 2010   Comments Off on Via Margutta

Villa Giulia

In 1550 Pope Julius III had a grand “country estate” built near the Tiber north of the Vatican so that he could entertain friends and dignitaries. As fate would have have it, he died in 1555 shortly after it was built. Being a pope often meant that you died before your time. The villa remained the property of the Vatican until 1889, when it became a national museum, the Museo Nazionale Etruso, which housed (after several private collections were purchased) the most important aggregation of pre-Roman antiquities in Italy. The collection was a revelation to me, because it was so different from the tiny figures (like something children might play with) we saw in the museum in Fiesole.

The collection consisted mostly of pots that resembled Greek vases with delicately detailed white figures on intense black backgrounds. It seems the Etuscans were more influenced by the Greeks than I imagined. However, there
is more. Something innately Italian. An exquisite Husband and Wife Sarcophagus from the 6th-century BC, which depicted a couple reclining on their sarcophagus (like something from a Paris cemetery) who obviously loved one another to the end of their days. A way of building temples that was more Italian than Greek. An appreciation and love of animals. A strange fascination with the details of daily life.

Unfortunately, I could not shoot photos inside the museum (I made the mistake of asking for permission), but I did take pictures of the grounds, and, in particular, a Etruscan figure killing a cow with his knife. I’m not sure why this appealed to me. I think it was because he had his fingers in the cow’s nose. For some reason, it seemed all too real to me.

January 2, 2010   Comments Off on Villa Giulia