The thing about book tours is that they very seldom leave you with time that you can call your own. An evening here, an afternoon there is all one can truly hope for. In December last year, I was in Rome for a book event that was scheduled for two consecutive evenings which left me free all day to to wander and explore, and do as I pleased.
My hotel was located off Via Coronari. The street map referred to it as the antique shop lane in Rome. I grinned thinking of all the possibilities and left my wallet behind in the hotel when I set out to explore the long and narrow street. On either side were old buildings all opening into the cobbled road. The lower levels were all shops while the upper floors were residences. Shops that sold old lithographs and artwork; carpets and porcelain; radios and maps; jewellery and suits of armor; suitcases and furniture.
It still wasn’t unbearably cold. “When it is mild in the winter, something is not right,” a woman had said the night before. “The forces beneath the earth’s surface is shifting. An earthquake is quite possible.”
Rome has a serious history of earthquakes. In AD 477, the city shook for forty days. More recently a huge earthquake was predicted and almost 18% of the city employees called in sick that day. 10th May, 2011 passed and the city was still standing but every now and then earthquakes spring up in the middle of conversation.
On that morning though there was no fear of earthquakes as Roman life stepped out onto the cobbled road of Via Coronari. Elderly people warmly clad walked slowly peering into shop windows. A mother pushed a pram while her little daughter skipped alongside. A very tall man walked a very small dog. A few tourists wearing sturdy shoes meandered clutching maps. A woman stood lighting a cigarette in a doorway while across the road a man cleaned his bicycle. A young priest in a habit with a back pack strode purposefully. This was a Rome I hadn’t seen before.
My previous times in Rome have all been in late spring or early summer. The first time I went to Rome was ten years ago. It was Easter Monday then and Rome was filled with what seemed like all of Italy. It was as if towns and villages all over Italy had emptied out; fires stamped out, doors locked, fish fed, dogs put on their leashes and everyone, man, woman, child, dog ; mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers…… had all trundled and truckled into Rome. Add to it the Japanese, the Americans, the devout pilgrims and nuns/frocked fathers of various orders and I. And everyone seemed to be everywhere flocking to every point that was marked with a red circle on the tourist map. From the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican City, the Forum, the Colosseum, museums and galleries, on the roads, in the cafes, the tourist spared nothing……
That morning though the Romans flocked to the Piazza Navona for entirely different reasons. Grandparents and grandchildren, young mothers with toddlers, teenagers out on a spin had all come to shop at the Christmas market. The stalls were filled with Christmas linked merchandise. A band played and the city square was a child’s dream come true.
I walked through the market touching a tree ornament in one stall, buying a candy cane in another, pausing to gape at the displays of the nativity scene stacked up. “Where have they come from?” I asked a shopkeeper imagining he would name an obscure village in some part of Italy.
“Philippines,” he said and I felt my heart drop. A year ago at Turin at the market there I had seen two heaps of pine nuts. Pine nuts from Pisa and pine nuts from China. The Chinese nuts were cheaper I was told….but somehow the thought of pesto made from Chinese pine nuts wouldn’t taste the same, I thought, and it was the same sense of let down I felt viewing the assembly line Christmas decorations…
And then my heart skipped a beat as I came to the roundabout. This one was everything I had dreamt of as a child. With prancing horses and carriages, angels playing the harp and barley twist poles. The sign said it was an antique roundabout from Germany dating to the 18th century and had been assembled here for the season. The roundabout went round and round with a lone child. My heart ached to be that child … and so on a whim I walked to the ticket counter. This one was for me; for that inner child who never would tire of child pleasures….
Perhaps that set the tone for the rest of my stay. With a child’s eye I gathered in a Rome that was far from the adult world of art and architecture. This was a Rome of child-like pleasures.
One of the greatest delights Italy has to offer is its ice creams. Next door to my hotel was the Gelateria de Teatro. The theatre of ice creams. On a whim I walked down the narrow lane and entered it. It is a world of ice creams like nothing I have seen; the flavours unusual and exciting. Apple and cinnamon, pear and caramel, cheese and cherry, sage and raspberry….the green handled spoons for sorbets and white handled spoons signifying the presence of milk. And the stage manager of the theatre of ice creams was Carlos, a Peruvian who came to Rome ten years ago.
Every travel I undertake is made significant by the people I meet. Random encounters rather than orchestrated meetings. Carlos was one. From just being the young man who dolloped ice creams into cones for me, he graduated into an acquaintance to a friend. Carlos was a fund of stories. And over the next few days ice cream ceased to be just ice cream for me. I was gathering information I will have no earthly need for but am completely fascinated by: real pistachio ice cream is seldom the green that is commercially called pistachio green; the Japanese always ask for Tiramisu flavor….
But perhaps the face that will stay with me is the night desk clerk of my hotel. He talks of being born in a Romanian labour camp; of what is to know that one’s oppressors are not foreigners but one’s own people; of a hard-won doctorate in physics and of giving it all up to flee Romania. I see how at sixty odd years, everyday is still a struggle for him. At 4 am as I wait for my taxi to arrive he tells me a sad secret that would haunt me for as long as I live: That for him stress is not caused by the practical details of everyday. Stress is not knowing what comes tomorrow….
Anita Nair is the author of five works of fiction: Satyr of the Subway & Eleven Other Stories, The Better Man, Ladies Coupé, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting; a collection of essays: Goodnight & God Bless; a collection of poems: Malabar Mind; and has editedWhere the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala. Nair has also written four books for children and two plays Nine Faces of Being and A Twist of Lime. She has also translated Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen into English.