Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Italian Journal: Rome Return

September 27

1 a.m. We returned from Firenze at 8 p.m.—actually 7:30 (we left at 5:53 on the Euro-Star, which does the trip in less than two hours with no stops). We had to wait for the taxi until 8, getting back to Via Boncompagni 47 by 8:20. Dinner at a packed Pomodorini (Sunday night crowds!), but our friend Jimmy the waiter spoke to the manager and we got a table quickly. Best eggplant parmesan ever.

After staying for a few more days, the Ritz seemed better. It’s very clean, as I’ve said. They change the beds daily and the staff is helpful. The breakfasts were good and satisfying.

I struggle to recapitulate the past several whirlwind days. It was hard to leave a city that was slowly becoming familiar to me again, a city whose charm, whose deep, austere beauty, has never faded. I would have liked the city more to myself, as I had it forty years ago, when I would enter the Duomo whenever I wished, or the Uffizi without standing in line. Still, the experience of the Fra Angelicos in the Museo di San Marco and the grand Masaccio frescos in the Brancacci chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, even with people pressing in on one, is unassailable…or the beauty of the landscape around the Etruscan-Roman ruins at Fiesole, even though what was once a sleepy market town with cows and sheep in the piazza, and fruit and vegetable stalls on market days, now looks more like Bearskin Neck in Rockport—souvenir shops check by jowl with fashion boutiques and a beautifully designed Etruscan-Roman museum built so that it both incorporates and displays some of the ruins.

On the way back from Fiesole we got off the bus and walked over to the Mercato Centrale so I could show Judy the amazing meat, fruit and vegetable stalls on each floor. Nothing appeared to have changed from when I used to shop here, buying fresh fruits and vegetables daily, brought into the city from the surrounding farm communities, often by horse or donkey-driven wagons. The profusion of produce was astounding, just as it was then, putting an American super market to shame.

From there we walked through the street markets around San Lorenzo. They were more crowded than I’d ever experienced them. The vendors seemed mostly to be Africans and Asians and their booths and push-carts were full of cheap leather goods—bags, coats, belts—Indian-made clothing, African artifacts. We were shoved along by and with the crowds of tourists until we found ourselves behind the baptistery in Piazza del Duomo. Naturally, there was still a long line of people waiting to get in, so we never got to enter the Duomo.

Regrets: I had hoped we might be able to get up to Settignano, where the Denzers and I had lived in a rented villa, walking there from Fiesole and then taking the bus back into the city. The view of the Arno valley from those hills between the two towns was always spectacular. But that will be for another time, as well as a walk up the Costa San Giorgio, across the river, or a drive out to Pian dei Giullari, on the ancient outskirts of the city.

11:50 p.m. A visit at 4 p.m. to Prof. Francesco Catalano in Viale Medaglie D’Oro 219 to consult about my hand. Busy office. People waiting with x-rays to be screened or for physical therapy, hands bandaged like mine. A priest who sighed a couple of time before leaving, several well-dressed women. Good looking male physical therapist/cast maker who came out of his side of the office to consult with the receptionist, very efficient. We had to wait about thirty minutes before I could see the doctor with whom I’d made an appointment.

A mild-mannered, white-haired man, dressed in a long white coat. He took one look at the wound and shook his head.

“Ma quest’ `e mal fatto…” “It’s badly done.” He noticed immediately that Dottor Caruso and his team hadn’t performed a technique he called “pull-out” in English. As I understood it, the procedure consists of wrapping the severed tendon with stainless steel wire, which exits above the first joint of the affected finger and is wound around a hook that protrudes from a ring that’s worn on that finger.

Prof. Catalano, who our landlady Alice had recommended to me as “the best hand surgeon in Rome, maybe in Italy,” said the hand had to re re-operated on and offered to do it himself on Thursday. When I told him I was leaving that morning, he suggested that I see my own doctor immediately upon return and be referred to a hand specialist.

The consultation cost me 200,000 lire, more than a hundred dollars, a far cry from Dottor Caruso and the free care I’d received at Pronto Soccorso, so I’ve seen both sides of Italian health care. The public clinic and the private office. I noticed that some of Prof. Catalano’s patients showed what must have been national health cards and didn’t pay, while others, like, me, paid out of their pockets after consulting with Catalano.

As soon as we returned to the apartment (another long taxi ride from a part of Rome that was both new and very upscale), I called my primary care physician Dr. I.'s office in Gloucester to make an appointment for Friday and was immediately given one for 1:30 p.m. [Dr. I. referred me to a specialist in Salem, who pronounced Dr. Caruso's work "first rate," recommending only that I have six weeks of physical therapy, Dr. Caruso's "ginnastica." My hand has never bothered me since.]

In any event, the bandages are off and I no longer have to keep the arm in a sling. I have a splint on the middle finger, which is secured by some gauze tape. My hand moves more freely now with only a restraint on the affected finger.

“Liberato!” Catalano’s receptionist smiled at me as I paid her. “Your hand is free now.”

Catalano’s criticism of the surgery on my hand may have been a product of class. He said the emergency doctors did the job they were required to do, but… To me, Caruso seemed very knowledgeable; and the young resident must have learned something in medical school about the latest techniques. After all, most the accident cases in the city go to the Policlinico, especially those people injured on Vespas and motorcycles, so the doctors must know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, much of my time in Rome has been spent dealing with the hand or worrying about it. I wouldn’t even have consulted Catalano unless Alice, who may have been concerned about liability, had pressed me to.

Once we got back to the apartment, we sat down and wrote postcards. Tonight we walked to Via Margutta to the vegetarian restaurant, our third visit. Wonderful risotto, grilled vegetables, fresh pear salad…superb Frascati, , dolci. We strolled back through Piazza di Spagna jammed with people—tourists, Romans, the ubiquitous German girls. It’s as though there were a factory in Germany that massed produced them, all looking alike, dressed alike, gesturing, talking the same way. Maybe we Americans appear that way to them.

It’s late and Ray wants to get up early to go to the market at Campo dei Fiori. Tomorrow is really the last day we can do anything. I still want to buy an umbrella at La Rinascente. We’ve also got to pack. Giancarlo is coming to pick us up at 10 a.m. on Thursday to drive us back to the airport and the visit will be over. I’m beginning to feel like any old tourist, trucking around with a dazed look on my face. There appears to be no place to go in Rome to get away from them except in this apartment. Why leave it?

September 28

1 p.m. We never got to Campo dei Fiori. It started to rain torrentially last night and has been doing so ever since. Occasionally the sun appears and then the sky darkens and rain returns. If it clears some Judy and I will try to walk to the Keats-Shelley memorial house in Piazza di Spagna and then to La Rinascente on Via del Corso to do some shopping. I’d love to find one of those dark paisley umbrellas I see people carrying everywhere. Otherwise, we’ll pack and write postcards.

I miss Firenze. I still picture myself walking daily along Via dei Neri or in Borgo dei Greci heading toward Santa Croce or, in the opposite direction, to Piazza Signoria. In fact, I’m depressed today as our return home nears. I could be the weather that’s depressing me; it could be that my internal clock is now set on fall or winter when my Seasonal Affective Disorder begins to manifest itself.

2:25 p.m. A quiet day in the apartment. Ray went out sightseeing in spite of the weather. He plans to stop in Trastevere at the English book shop, where he can buy mysteries that are unobtainable in the US. Soon Judy and I will leave for Piazza di Spagna.

11:45 p.m. Judy and I visited the Keats-Shelley Memorial house and library. It is one of those exquisitely quiet places in the midst of chaos. You look from its tranquil rooms out onto the Piazza with its teeming spaces and yet you remain in the serenity of a 19th century Roman apartment, in which Keats spent his last months and the works of his friends Byron, Shelley and Leigh Hunt are preserved.

We spoke with the young Italian curator, a Keats scholar whose English was impeccable (he complimented me on my Italian). We talked about health care (he asked about my hand) and of national health policies in the US and Italy. He’d spent time in the US. Talking politics, he suggested that I read La Repubblica, which he called “the most literate newspaper in Italy.” Then we spent a quiet hour in the nicely preserved rooms—Keat’s bedroom, a fine library of Romantic literature, and several exhibition rooms, which display manuscripts of letters between Keats and Shelley and their friends and excellent biographical and critical notes on the poets and the period. In an alcove, we found a computer with a huge data base on Romantic literature and criticism, which another young scholar was working on. Just as you experienced at Arrowhead, Melville’s farmhouse in the Berkshires, which we visited last summer (or Emerson’s place in Concord), you had a sense here of the writer’s days, of the atmosphere of the life, the ancient piazza, the palaces around it.

Next we walked through Via Condotti to Via del Corso and the Posta Centrale, where Judy mailed her postcards home. Returning to the Corso, we shopped at La Rinascente, where I bought a blue silk necktie and the exact type of umbrella I was looking for, small, with a wooden handle and dark paisley fabric. While we were in the large, beautifully laid-out department store (I’d walked Judy through the one in Piazza della Repubblica in Firenze) the lights went out just as Judy was about to pay for a bag for Diana. The female clerks, all well dressed and with a fine command of English, didn’t seem troubled. In fact, after only a few minutes the lights all came on, the computerized cash registers buzzed back into action, and we were on our way home via Piazza di Spagna.

Tonight we had dinner in what has now become our neighborhood restaurant, Pomodorino, where Jimmy, our first waiter greeted us effusively. He wanted us to eat inside at his station, but it was so warm outside that we opted for the terrace. Nevertheless, Jimmy came out to chat with us a couple of times during dinner, and after we’d finished and paid our bill, Jimmy and I gave each other a big hug and wished each other well. On the way home down Via Toscano I said to Ray and Judy that these were the kinds of friendships I’d developed years ago. I was beginning to despair that the country had changed so much that one could no longer talk with one’s waiter or barista, thereby getting to know them not only as Italians but as people.

September 29

5:15 p.m. Hot, hazy, humid, the way most of our days in Rome have been. We walked over to the Borghese gardens again this morning to the Etruscan museum so we could all buy gifts in the book shop to take home. It was peaceful and cool in the park. People walked their dogs, lovers kissed, lying on the grass under the trees. We stopped for lunch in the museum’s out door café, walking slowly back with the knowledge that this was our last long walk in Rome, in Italy.

I just went out to buy La Repubblica and L’Espresso for Peter Denzer, but the newsstand was closed. I can’t get the afternoon closings straight because not all businesses close now in the middle of the day. Museums don’t; neither do many shops or boutiques.

A cool breeze and the noise of traffic from the street below. Palm fronds blow, smog hangs over the mountains north and east of the city. Church bells ring in six o’clock. The rush hour begins. At eight we go to dinner at Papa` Baccus.

11:05 p.m. Back from a fine dinner, our last in Rome. They served us a delicious Tuscan sparkling white wine on the house with cold hors d’oeuves of cucumber and olive paste. Judy ordered the Tuscan white bean soup to start; Ray had spaghetti alle vongole and I had ravioli stuffed with potato and cheese. For her entre Judy had a nice fillet of beef a` la Toscana, while Ray and I shared rombo al forno con patate, served at our table, boned by our waiter. Rombo is a sea bass and it was baked in a delicate cream sauce with herbs that simply penetrated the skin to leave a hint of flavor in the white flesh of the fish. We shared a big insalata mista and Judy ordered chocolate crepes, which we all had a bite of (have I noted that salad greens, vegetables and fruit taste so much better and fresher in Rome and Firenze than they do at home?) The restaurant also gives patrons tiny chilled gelato cremes and petits fours after dinner. We wanted our final meal in Rome to be a memorable one and it was. Again during dinner we drank the Usanello red, a dark, tangy, wonderfully dry wine from the vineyards near Sienna that we’d ordered the first night on our waiter’s recommendation. It’s the best wine I’ve tasted during the entire trip.

Judy is doing her final packing; I’m done. She’ll shower and we’ll try to get some sleep for an eight o’clock awakening and a ten o’clock departure. With me on the plane I’m taking Giovani Arpino’s GLI ANNI DEL GIUDIZIO, which I’ve been reading with delight. The influence of Pavese is clear; but the precise, even lyrical, social realism is Arpino’s.

While talking with the concierge to let her know when we’ll be leaving in the morning so she can come and clean the apartment, she asked me how my hand was doing. “Non c’e` male,” I replied. “Not bad.”

“Sara` un bel ricordo di Roma,” she smiled. “A nice souvenir of Rome.”

September 30

2 p.m. Out over the Atlantic. Judy sleeps; Ray, who is seated several aisles down from us, reads one of the mystery novels he bought in Rome. I flip the pages of La Repubblica, having watched “Tea with Mussolini” in Italian.

All too soon the trip is over. Once I began to feel at home in Italy, once I could speak Italian again with some fluency and ease, it was time to leave. I must come back. I must live in Italy again, in Tuscany. I’m glad we spent time in Rome and that it was hot and the sun warmed us to the bone. I’m glad we mingled with the crowds and sat in the cafés, entered the dark sanctuaries of churches, many of whose names I can no longer recall. But it is Firenze I want to return to, Firenze where I want to live again, or nearby the city, so I can come to know it as I did so many years ago, know it with that old certainty I once had of the location of everything. And when I walked the streets at night, sometimes until dawn, the city unfolded for me and I was able to peel back the years, the ages, knowing when each palace was built and who built it, being able to imagine the inhabitants, the way they spoke and dressed. Indeed, hearing their voices in the voices of the night people in the bars and tavole calde I frequented, like the pizzeria in San Lorenzo I couldn’t find this time, when at midnight, before a film, I’d enter, sit at the counter and order a veal cutlet Milanese style, and the counter man, a native Florentine in white short sleeved shirt with his gray hair slicked back, would shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Una Milano!” or if it was crostine alla Bolgonese, a sandwich of mozarella between two thick slices of bread dipped in beaten egg and lightly fried until the cheese melted, he’d shout, “Una Bologna!” And when he got to know me he’d call me professore and we’d talk while I sipped a glass of vino nero and watched the most amazing pizzas with paper thin crust being pulled out of the brick oven behind him. Then I’d go to my film, often one by Antonioni I’d be seeing for the third or fourth time, or I’d begin my night-long walk down to the Arno and across to San Freddiano, doubling back to Piazza Goldoni and from there to Piazza Stazione, where I’d stop in the big railroad bar for an espresso or cappucino or, if I’d just been paid, a snifter of brandy, which I’d nurse for an hour while watching the passengers debark from the Brenner Express or board for points north, dreaming of where I’d go, of solitary trips to Venice or Austria, like a character out of Tolstoy or Thomas Mann. After that I’d walk back to my room in Piazza San Marco or Via dei Servi. I’d put the radio on softly—there was an all night jazz program that came to us from an army radio station in Germany—and I’d write in my journal or work on a novel, or simply read before the first light came and I’d finally go to sleep.

I see myself now in one of the Italian suits I had made in Florence by Renato Lecci or bought off the rack at Panfin, the gray pin stripped one or the dark blue I loved so much, in highly polished soft leather shoes with pointed toes, an umbrella if it was raining or about to rain, my loden Green topcoat if it was winter, a white linen suit in summer, my hair cut Italian style after I’d decided to keep it neat and short once I shaved my early beard off and stopped looking like a student or an American. Often people would stop me on the street to ask directions, which I gave them easily; and sometimes they would be American and I would speak their own language and they’d be surprised, believing that I was an Italian.

It can’t be that way anymore, or it wouldn’t. I’m old now and my memory for words, my ability to pick up and quickly retain idiomatic phrases, is gone. I’ll return, but it won’t be the way it was the first time, or this time, which was more like getting my feet wet again, getting acclimated, convincing myself I could come back after so many years, and that yes, it was still Italy, still Firenze, though different, as I’m different, but still the person I was those many years ago. I’ll come back and live for a time, no matter what. And when it’s over, when I’ve eaten the food and finished the wine, as Peter Denzer says, I’ll toss the dregs into the Arno and say good-bye to the beloved land.

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