Memo from Rome

by John Linnell

Arrivederci Brooklyn! Ciao Brooklyn chewing gum! “La gomma del ponte” (the gum of the bridge) is sold in every corner newsstand, tobacconist’s, and convenience store in Rome, usually right next to the cash register in case you forget to buy some. Available in at least ten different flavors, including the mysterious “Ice Crash” and “Storming”, Brooklyn gum was first called to our attention a few years back when John F. and I struck up a conversation with a guy serving us coffee in Modena. “Where are you from?” he asked. Hearing our reply he pointed to the gum display and exclaimed jubilantly: “la gomma del ponte!”

Gum turns out to be one of the few easily affordable commodities here. I’m in Rome with my wife, not on tour, and even though we’re here to enjoy ourselves the prices are making us feel stingy. A music store sells locally built Paolo Soprani accordions for 11 million lire, which sounds like a lot but still translates to around 7k in US dollars. Prices at the ubiquitous cafes are torqued up to tourist specifications throughout town. This hasn’t dissuaded me from slarfing down cup after steaming cup of cappuccino until I begin interrupting my own conversation with myself to express my disagreement. When I’m caffeinated to the point where I can no longer sit still I lurch out and look for some daytime excitement.

One popular activity here, and one that has kept us occupied and confused for several days now, is examining the seemingly unending Roman ruins which cover a huge section of town and pop up here and there all across the city. By comparing the busted columns and remains of buildings with maps and artists’ conceptions of ancient Rome, you can gradually get a sense of what the city looked like 2,000 years ago. My impression after considering the matter for some time is that the Imperial City must have looked like the set of Spartacus .

Now it doesn’t look like the set of anything. The complicated history of Italy has insured a look and a vibe that has absolutely no coherence whatsoever. The only stylistic elements on the street that are constant are the motorbikes, cellular phones, and wraparound mirror shades. Bonus points are awarded for spotting someone with all three.

Ancient architectural remains lean against the products of more than a millennium of church building, which in turn abut the peculiar monuments to Italy’s 19th century unification and even the architectural legacy of Fascist Italy. The one that seems to overwhelm the center of the city is undoubtedly Rome’s least loved monument, the gigantic memorial to Vittorio Emannuel II who was the first king to rule over a unified Italy. Everyone hates it. It’s one of the most complicated and obtuse structures in Rome and stands at the intersection of the four most important streets, but even though you can buy an ashtray or a snowy scene depicting the merest Roman fountain or statue, there isn’t a single souvenir of the monument to be had anywhere. It’s not even in the bottom corner of the big plate with the St. Peter’s, the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and twenty other cherished sites. We are staying in a hotel right next to it, and I’m beginning to feel some sympathy for this watershed of bombast. Here it stands amidst some of the most beloved and protected architectural treasures of all time, some of which are down to a few bricks and the shape of a foundation, and all anyone can say about Vittorio’s memorial is that it should be bulldozed.

Find something that people do like, and you can go look at the people who like it, but you will have to struggle to see the thing. The crowds are probably the worst right now. Everything famous enough that we might have heard of it back home is rendered invisible by the crush of admiration it receives. When we got to Rome we found out we had arrived just in time for “Roman October,” which is when the place really gets mobbed. On the other hand, we got the feeling that if we planned another trip for later in the year we would be met by the throngs celebrating “Roman December” or “Roman February” or whatever.

We had booked our trip under the misapprehension that the tourist season would be wrapping up sometime around the time we arrived. This was true further north in the hills of Tuscany and beyond, though that may have been due in part to the earthquake that had just hit Umbria and emptied out hotels across that region. The quake struck as we were on our way to Assisi, but we didn’t hear about it until we were almost there. When we got to nearby Perugia we found out that several people had been killed in Assisi when part of the ancient St. Francis Basilica had collapsed over them. We phoned the hotel we had booked to see if our room was still there. The unanswered ringing on the other end of the line prompted us to change our itinerary.

After returning to Rome and its crowds we finally found a place where we truly escaped the noise and excitement. I’m speaking now of the Musee della Cere, or the Wax Museum. Untrue to form, the amoeba of humanity wasn’t oozing in to see the incredibly fake looking historical figures here. In fact nobody went there. By this I mean that there were literally no customers in the whole museum when I showed up, in spite of the giant “Museo della Cere” banner easily visible from the vast piazza in front of V.E.II’s memorial. The ticket taker greeted me warmly and even accompanied me up the stairs, abandoning his post at the cash register, as if after taking my money his work was finished for the day, or even longer.

Two exhibits stood above the others as the showpieces of the Musee. Up on the top floor, past the rooms of individual geniuses in the arts and sciences, and the luminaries in Italian political history (including Vittorio himself, seated with his pals Garibaldi and Mazzini) was a huge table with something like fifty fierce looking dummies seated all around. At the head of the table was Mussolini. You could tell because he was the bald one with the eyebrows pointed evilly downwards, plus he had a piece of paper with “Mussolini” printed on it pinned to his chest.

The other point of pride was the first exhibit you saw after you paid and came upstairs. It represented an Italian rock band from the seventies called “Pooh.” Dressed in conspicuously Sgt. Pepper-like uniforms and posing on a stage with their instruments, they clearly occupied a place of honor both in the museum and in the hearts of many Italians. The man who had ushered me in seemed interested in the fact of my interest in “Pooh,” and though we spoke no mutual language, he was able to communicate to me that the uniforms and instruments were the actual ones used by the band, and that, happily, the group was still alive and well and playing concerts all the time.

Having marched across the city a dozen times, each night my wife and I ultimately engage in the sober duty of making absolute pigs of ourselves. Just as every object in the Vatican galleries must be individually observed and noted for the record, it would be remiss of us to skip over a single plate of the long colonnade row of dishes which compose the Roman dinner. It is sometimes useful to pause between bites to ensure proper digestion. Useful, maybe, but it’s also a waste of time. Only once during our stay have I overestimated the capacity of my throat for the mind altering delicacy that I tried to force inside. Luckily, Karen had somehow memorized the instructions on the Heimlich poster before we left New York. She expertly administered the maneuver just outside the doorway of the ristorante so as not to offend the other diners. My free breathing restored, we finished our meal with dignity. Now, alas, it is time to leave. We raise our glasses to the memory of this vast, million course meal called Rome. Goodbye gum! Goodbye Vittorio! Goodbye Pooh! Hello Nuova York!