Being Home

Yesterday, when I needed to find my way to someplace, I clicked open the maps on my phone. Up popped the first auto-listing: “Home: via Capodistria, 9, Roma, Italy.” That was followed by a long list of places I had at one time or another sought directions to: restaurants in Trastevere and the ghetto; Ostia Antica; Villa Adriano in Tivoli; museums; shops. Home.

We left our apartment on via Capodistria in Rome, where we had lived since February 14th, at 6:30 AM on June 25th. We headed for Fiumicino, thence to Copenhagen for a day and a half, and, on June 27th, back to New York. We thought we were ready. (Or at least I thought I was ready–I’m not sure about John.) The weather had turned hot. The tall windows and balcony doors that had allowed cool cross-breezes to skim through our apartment until then were beginning to fail us; I could anticipate what mid-summer might feel like without air-conditioning. We had learned to keep the shutter flaps open through the night, but we had begun to sleep without covers.

Bedroom and balcony

We had eaten our last meal (risotto, salmon with honey and almonds) at Pepe Verde, down the street, the evening before and said goodbye to Stefano and Simone and Ina, who had welcomed us warmly throughout our stay.

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photo(2)We had said our farewells to our friend and neighbor, Giuliano, whose year had been absorbed primarily by sadness as his sister’s health declined. On that last day, John had actually received his permesso di soggiorno, the long-awaited “permission to sojourn” that said he was legally allowed to stay in Italy more than 90 days, and we had visited the last museum on our list, the Villa Farnesina just off the river in Trastevere, where, of course, Melville had visited, and where the paintings he saw and mentioned in his journal still hang in exactly the same spots. We had not made it out to Cinecitta, one of the places we had originally wanted to visit, but almost everything else had been checked off. I had few regrets.

I didn’t feel like a Roman. My Italian had never progressed beyond the most elementary stage, and at some point early on, after struggling to find even basic vocabulary at the macelleria, I had mentally given it up–said to myself, I’m 71, this just ain’t gonna happen, and I’m going to stop worrying about it. But of course I did worry. Every time I couldn’t make myself understood, or couldn’t understand what someone was saying to me. I didn’t feel like a Roman, but I felt like something more than a tourist.  I knew where the pastry shop and the butcher and the market were in my neighborhood.

photo(2) photo(8) I knew where I could get copies made, buy stamps or bus tickets. I could recommend good restaurants in many different neighborhoods, and I knew what buses went where. We had made good friends, friends we felt sure we would keep.

Still, I thought I was ready to leave. Friends from Sweden, a family of five, had been living in our house, taking care of our dog, and enjoying New York in our absence. Many things had gone wrong with our house during their stay. One day, doing the laundry in the basement, they had discovered a leak, which turned out to be antifreeze from the furnace, which necessitated the purchase and installation of a new furnace. When the damage to the basement carpeting was assessed, it turned out that there were more leaks from both internal and external sources, and mold, which necessitated the removal of the carpeting and most of the drywall, the transport of everything in the basement into the garage, and the rebuilding, essentially, of the entire basement. The refrigerator stopped working and needed a new thermostat; the dishwasher stopped working and needed its hose cleaned out; the internet stopped working, which meant the phones needed to be repaired. All this was done in our absence; our gracious Swedish friends endured it all, called all the right people, scanned the bills, and sent them off to us for payment. Thankfully, our insurance covered much of the basement damage.

basement damage1 image (1)

We had hoped that everything would be finished by the time we returned, but such was not to be. When it came time for the carpeting to be relaid, the workmen discovered water still on the floor, and no one was sure where it was coming from, so they all decided it would be best to wait for our return.

We arrived on June 27th, overlapping two days with our friends, so it was almost July before we were alone in our house. I gathered laundry–ours from our travel days, our daughter Liana’s, the sheets off the various beds that had been vacated by the Swedes–and went downstairs to the basement. I pushed the button for cold water and turned the washing machine on. Steaming hot water began pouring into it. I called the repairman, finished one load of whites and put them in the dryer. When the repairman came an hour or two later, he found a simple solution: Whoever had laid the new linoleum floor in the laundry room–part of the massive basement repairs–had reversed the hoses, so hot ran cold and cold ran hot. I was about to be annoyed at having to pay a $75 service charge for this when I realized that the dryer had been running non-stop for several hours. It turned out that it needed a new thermostat, so the service call wasn’t wasted after all.

And still, there was water on the basement floor. Our contractor strongly believed that the continuing leak was coming from outside. He recommended a drainage expert, who pointed out not only that most of the land around our house tilted down toward it, but also that several of our downspouts emptied into holes that essentially emptied in turn into the basement. In the course of two days, he brought in huge piles of dirt, regraded the land, and rebuilt and redirected the downspouts.

The men came again to lay the carpet and pointed out that there was still water on the floor.

No one knew what to do. No one knew where the water was coming from. John stood and studied the wet spot. Our daughter Liana was taking one of her lengthy showers. Water began running down the basement wall. Aha, John said. And we called a plumber. As it turned out, the leak was not from the shower but from our downstairs toilet. We had it fixed. Today the carpet was laid (although it turns out the stairs to our basement, as one of the carpet layers pointed out to me, were essentially being held together by the carpeting; they need to be rebuilt before the last bit of carpeting can be installed). We also find that we probably need a new roof.

Much of the time, now that I am home, it seems as though our five months in Rome just never happened. But sometimes I step out of bed and wonder why the wooden floor creaks so loudly; I miss my silent, cool stone terrazzo. View from the bedroom balconyI look out the window and wonder where my magnificent twisty eucalyptus tree is, why there is no orange tree below in the garden, where the parrots have gotten to. I miss my home.

It seems unlikely that we will ever return to via Capodistria to live. We will never have quite the same experience again. But I think I will keep that listing on my maps: “Home: via Capodistria, 9, Roma, Italy.”



I Moduli IV

Were you waiting for the conclusion to this one? Remember that we had applied for our permessi di soggiorno–essentially our permits to stay for more than 90 days in Italy–in February, when we arrived, and then kept an appointment in mid-April to get finger-printed, where we were told that the actual document–a plastic credit card thing–would be sent to our local police station in 40 days. But when we went to the police some 40 days later, no cards. The woman there told us, ever so nicely and apologetically, that it usually takes 60 days.

Today is our last day in Rome. At 6:30 tomorrow morning, Bob’s Limo driver will pick us up, with our four large suitcases, and deliver us to Fiumicino, where we will fly to Copenhagen, spend a day and a half, and then head home. (The Copenhagen stay is the remnant of our initial plan to spend our last two weeks in Scandinavia. This was discarded when we decided some weeks ago that we couldn’t bear to leave Rome any earlier than necessary. But since our return flight was long since booked from Copenhagen, we figured we might as well at least spend a day there. I’m sure we will love it dearly.) Anyway, here we were, on our last day in Rome. Why not, we asked ourselves, give the permesso one more shot? The police station was not that far away, and it had now been over 60 days, and…

We boarded the bus on via Nomentana at 10:30. Now in Rome you must, by law, buy a bus ticket and validate it in a little machine on board the bus the first time you use it. If an inspector finds you without a validated ticket, you will be fined €50 on the spot, or €100 if you don’t have that amount with you and have to pay later at a post office. (Why a post office? Because all official government business in Italy is conducted at the post office. They have some trouble delivering mail efficiently, but they collect taxes, allow you to pay bills, and do a mass of other things quite well.) Since our arrival in February, we have faithfully bought monthly bus passes, validated them on first use, and carried them ever at the ready. We ride the buses virtually every day. Not once, not once, had anyone ever asked us to show out tickets. Our visitors from America were bowled over by what they saw as the inefficiency of the system. Why on earth, they asked, would anyone ever buy a ticket, if no one ever checked them?

Today as we got on our double bus at the back, we noticed a tall young man get on through the middle doors. He began slowly making his way toward the back; we thought nothing of it, since many people move from back to front or vice versa. But as he neared us–the bus was crowded–we noticed his ATAC vest. ATAC is the public transportation administration. And we noticed that he was stopping at every person. Here he was, at last–the bus ticket inspector! We proudly pulled out our June passes (validated properly) and showed them. He nodded and moved on.

When we alighted at the next stop (we weren’t going far), he did, too, along with two colleagues who had been working the front of the bus. It was irresistible: We walked over to where they stood on the sidewalk. We have been here for four months, we explained, and we have never before been asked to show our tickets. They were delighted to chat. Until recently, they told us, there were 120 inspectors; now there are only 40. For all of Rome. The system does not work, they said. But, we asked, do people buy tickets? When you check, do you find many people without tickets? They shrugged. This morning, they said, five. Out of hundreds. So, it turns out, most Romans really do buy tickets. And validate them. Whether from good citizenship or fear of a fine, well, does it really matter?

Anyway, being confronted by a ticket inspector for the very first time on our very last day seemed like a good omen. I was jubilant. I bet, I told John, that our permessi will be there.

At the police station, our nice and apologetic woman was on the phone. We waited. Eventually she beckoned us in. We handed her our passports, and she opened her notebook, with a handwritten list of the permessi that had arrived over the last few months. She didn’t see our names. She opened her computer and typed in John’s name and passport number. She scrolled through some pages. Then she smiled. Yours, she said to John, is here. He had to provide an electronic fingerprint on her little fingerprint-reader, then all was well. He signed three forms, and she handed over the card.

Handing over the card.

Handing over the card.

We grinned. We high-fived. The Italian bureaucracy had, if not vindicated itself, at least come through in the end.

Then she looked for mine. We had done everything at exactly the same time. But my card had not yet arrived.


Napoli, the Gates of Hell, and the Best Food in Italy

We traveled to Naples last week to spend a bit of time with our friends Gordon and Renata and to see the city that we had passed through several times but never really stopped to visit. It is a city with a slightly sketchy reputation–you hear the tales of crime and dirt and noise and the Camorra, Napoli’s own private Mafia. You are warned to keep a hand on your money, to avoid alleyways. Whatever. It’s a spectacular place.

The afternoon of our arrival we rode one of Naples’ many funiculari down from our friends’ home on the Vomero hill and went exploring: via Toledo, the elegant Umberto I galleria, the Palazzo Reale facing the grand Piazza del Plebiscito, the Teatro San Carlo. Then we walked toward the center of town, past the university, and down the long, narrow medieval street that appears from above to split old Naples in two–hence the nickname spaccanapoli, or Naples splitter. scappanapoliAlleyways cut off on every side; we peered down them, watching cats scutter into doorways and looking up at laundry hanging above (and Italian flags–it’s World Cup season, after all). Shops were shaded by the heavy loggia columns that ran down part of the street. Eventually we reached our destination: the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, where the remains of a Roman town (streets, shops) have been excavated below the church. Unlike the Vatican scavi tour, you are free to wander around this site yourself.

The posted closing time for the basilica was 17:30–half past five. It was well past that–well after 6, actually, but there were people in the church, and after a few false starts, we found someone to show us to the staircase that led down to the excavation. Repeated questions about when the site would close got no response. We were the only people there. As we descended underground, the air got cooler and damp; the lights were dim.

p002_1_04The ruins before us were not vast, but they were big enough: a main street (long enough that you couldn’t really see the end of it) and side streets, shops (a laundry, a bar) along the way, all marked by brick walls that were many centuries old. Frankly, I got a bit spooked. San Lorenzo scavi 3The back-of-the-head thought that someone might inadvertently lock the door at the top of the stairs was too much for me. Eventually I followed the main path up and out while John, exasperated with me, explored the byways. No one locked him in.


The presepio in San Martino, with card-players, donkeys, and flying angels.

On Day Two, Renata led us to the sites on Vomero–Castel Sant’Elmo, with its unparalleled views out over the city, and the museum of San Martino, built around a cloister complex and surrounded by terraced gardens. castel sant'elmoThe day was hot, and several rooms in the museum were closed, but we felt we understood Naples better for seeing it from Sant’Elmo’s parapets.  The most amazing thing at San Martino: the presepe, or carved and painted nativity scenes, including one with so many figures in it that you had to search hard to find Mary and the babe.

But it was Day Three in Naples that really astonished us. Once again, Melville led the way. Herman had traveled out west from Napoli, through the villages of Pozzuoli (Sofia Loren’s hometown) and Posillipo, now part of the Naples suburban sprawl, to the volcanic crater of Solfatara and the smaller, lovelier one of lago d’Averno. John was determined to do the same. Our host, Gordon, had recently disposed of his car, and this trip needed wheels, so he arranged for a car and driver for the day. We set out in the cool of the morning with Rino, our 28-year old driver, who was, he told us, out of work (like 40% of all the young people in Italy) and on his first assignment with the car service company. (He also told us later that he had lost over 100 lbs in the last three years, was a body-builder, and had been with the same girl friend for 7 years but would not marry until he had a job. Check out the photo. He was adorable.)

Rino Ginny and Gordon

Rino, me, and Gordon.

We wound our way through the western suburbs, once rather run-down but more recently, because of their prime positions by the water, gentrifying, more expensive and fashionable. We made several stops along the way to see Melville-related sights (like the tunnel leading to the amphitheater of Pausylipon), for photo ops of the Bay of Naples, and to see things Gordon especially loved.

Eventually we arrived at Solfatara, one of about 40 volcanic craters that make up the Phlegreaen Fields north and west of Naples. The landscape had grown progressively more stark. We entered the national park of which the crater is a part, paid our admission, and walked on. This is the site that ancient Romans (according to a 1st century B.C. writer) assumed was the home of Vulcan and the entrance to Hades. And it looks it. The fumarole, or steam geysers, cover large areas with blankets of vile-smelling, sulfurous steam; the mud pools bubble ferociously. Wooden fences and the occasional sign warn you away from coming too close to the various bubbles and jets, but overall, you are free to wander among them.

apertura1 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Solfatara geositi_solfatara images solfatara colors

The area was vast, although the edges were clearly defined (it is, after all, an extinct volcanic crater), and off to one side were two small cavelike grottoes: the proverbial gates of hell. Gordon and I posed in front of them, as, I suppose, all tourists are wont to do. It was a bit disconcerting. In earlier times–the 19th century, when Melville visited this terrain–travelers were advised to step inside the grottoes and let the steam (and the smell) permeate their skins; it was, they were assured, healthful. I suppose we visit spas for similar reasons today, but I have to say, the thought of spending even a matter of seconds in one of those openings in the rocks did not appeal.Gates of Hell and Purgatory

From Solfatara, we traveled on to a more pleasant crater, the lago d’Averno. A small, lovely lake with families of ducks paddling on the surface and the ruin of a small Roman villa on the shoreline, this is a restful place, especially after the fires of Solfatara. I was hot and tired and remained behind, sitting on a small stone wall overlooking the lake while John and Gordon explored the ruin; Rino gallantly bought me a bottle of water. Once again, I had come out without a hat.

Lago d'Averno 2 Lago d'Averno 1 John Ginny and Gordon

Gordon had hoped to show us more–some of the sights that he loves best like the 8th century B.C. Greek ruins at Cumae–but by the time we had done the Melville sights, the day was waning. We were hungry. We returned to Napoli. Renata had eggplant parmigiana waiting for us. John says the best meals he has had in Italy were in Renata’s kitchen. I’m just sayin’.



A Day in the Country

It turned hot about 10 days ago. Since our arrival in February, the temperature has hovered between 60′ and 75′, and the sky has been sunny almost all the time, so I don’t think I’m allowed to complain now about the heat. It was the suddenness of the turn that caught me off-guard; one day 75′, the next over 95′. And it stayed well above 90′ until yesterday, when the sky darkened, and the rains began. Today it thundered all morning, and just now water beat against the windows and balcony doors and seeped in beneath them. (Lesson learned: Close not just the windows but the shutters when the rain is hard.) But now the heat is gone, and the skies are blue again. So really, I can’t complain.

In the midst of the heat wave, we drove to Tivoli with our friends Pilar and Carlo, who had volunteered for the expedition. John and I had wanted to go to Tivoli, a town about 30 minutes drive from here, for several months, but getting there–multiple buses, and considerable walking between the two sites we wanted to see–was daunting. When Pilar and Carlo offered to drive, we were thrilled.

Pilar and Carlo

Our friends Pilar and Carlo, with t-shirt on head.

We set off at about 9:30 on a Sunday morning. It was already over 90′ but a breeze blew through the open windows of the car, and we were comfortable.

Tivoli is famous for two things: Villa Adriana, the ruins of a huge complex of buildings constructed by the Emperor Hadrian in the early 2nd century; and Villa d’Este, a magnificent late 16th century palazzo overlooking steeply terraced grounds filled with gardens and dancing fountains. We figured to do one, have some lunch, and do the second. A leisurely day.

We entered Hadrian’s villa at around 10:15. Gentleman Carlo lent me his hat (I had neglected to bring one) and wrapped his t-shirt around his head. We spent some time studying the small model that showed the entire grounds with all the buildings in place, spent a little more time listening to explanations from a pleasant gentleman who seemed eager to share his knowledge. (Carlo and I, skeptics, thought he was looking for employment as a guide and a major tip; Pilar and John thought he was looking to use his English andHadrian 2 just liked the place. The non-skeptics seem to have been right on this one.) Hadrian 1

Villa A 3 Villa A 4The grounds were magnificent–too big, really, to take in, but amazingly intact. The loveliest was the canope–a long reflecting pool lined with columns and statues, where Hadrian sat to read and spend time with the beautiful youth Antinous, whom Hadrian diefied after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile at only 19.

The day grew hotter, and I was feeling the sun. We headed out of the grounds a little before noon and thought we would go ahead to the gardens of Villa d’Este and then have lunch afterward. Pilar and I decided to linger on the terrace of the main villa, overlooking the steep terraced gardens, while the men went down to explore. We could see some of the fountains from our perch, but missed out, as we knew we would, on some of the really great sights–two-story tall dancing jets of water, shrubbery labyrinths, elaborate animal carvings. The climb back up in the heat just seemed too much to undertake.

3793_tivoli_veduta_di_villa_d_este Villa d'Este 2 waterfall Villa d'EsteThe inside of the villa was glorious as well–every inch of wall and ceiling covered with John at Villa d'Estefresco–but we were ready for lunch; it was well after 1. We found a caffe just outside the entrance and feasted on panini and soda in the shade.

I thought we were done, and I was pleased with the day. The sun had grown almost unbearable, but I had survived. But John had earlier mentioned a third site that Melville had apparently visited, one with cascades and grottoes and a small temple hanging off the hillside. The intrepid Carlo was confident he could find it. Off we went in search, and moments later we arrived at Villa Gregoriana.

In Italy, the word villa often connotes a park; we have come to think of a villa as a house, but in the past it referred to a landed house, much like the word “manor” in Britain. Villa meant the house and the grounds around it, and many former villas of the great families of Italy have become public parks. Villa Torlonia, just across the street from our apartment, is a lovely public park that includes the former home of the Torlonia family, for example, now a museum. Villa Gregoriana never included a house at all; rather, it was a park commissioned by Pope Gregory in 1835 to rebuild the bed of the Aniene River, damaged a few years earlier by floods, and important as a water source. The river cascades into a deep gorge through a tunnel carved out of the rock walls of the canyon. Paths follow the gorge down and back up again, meandering through cave-like grottoes with windows carved out for viewing. At the top, on the other side, is the site of the ancient Tivoli acropolis, where the temple that Melville admired still hangs at the edge.

The park had fallen into decay for decades in the 20th century, overgrown, unwalkable, its main function as a dump for rusted cars and old appliances. But in 2000, it was handed over to FAI, the Italian equivalent of Britain’s National Trust, and with grant money from the government and various companies, and thousands of hours of volunteer help, it was cleaned up and re-opened to the public in 2005.

Villa-GregorianaI looked at the gorge. It was a long, long way down. It was very hot. The thought of going down was not too bad; there was shade, and it was, after all, downhill. The thought of coming back up again, not so much. But I was determined not to spoil the day by whining, and off we went. The waterfalls were spectacular. The paths were steep, but FAI had kindly installed rustic benches at frequent intervals.Villa Gregoriana

The climb took about an hour and a half. I enjoyed every minute of it. Only one thing would have made it better: An opportunity to plunge into the cold, clear waters that pooled below the falls. Villa Gergoriana was yet another adventure we would not have undertaken without Melville as our guide.

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It was late afternoon by the time we emerged at the top and explored the small, circular temple of the sibyls. We drove home, air-conditioning on high. We shared a bottle of prosecco at our apartment, where I managed to spill most of a glass on Carlo. He changed into a pair of John’s shorts and by the time we finished our drinks, his slacks, hung on the balcony in the sun, were bone dry.




I Moduli III

You will remember, faithful readers, the saga of the permesso di soggiorno. You will remember that John and I applied for these documents the week after we arrived in Rome on February 14. We followed an application process involving multiple stops at multiple post offices, a tabacchi shop, and the Fulbright Commission offices to get help completing the 25-page (in Italian) form. You will remember that we sent off our applications by registered mail (after paying approximately $250 apiece for the privilege) and were rewarded with an appointment for April 16th at noon at the Questura d’Immigrazione.

You will remember that we kept our appointment, traveling by Metro and bus and on foot to a dusty, desolate area on the far northeastern outskirts of Rome, where we waited, were fingerprinted not once but twice (in two different rooms)–and then were told that the actual permesso di soggiorno (a piece of plastic resembling a credit card) would arrive at our local questura, or police station, in 30 to 40 days. You may remember that when we told all this to our neighbor, he laughed heartilyand said we would never get the cards before we left Italy, which we will now do in ten days.

Somewhat more than forty days later, on June 5–giving the Italian bureaucracy the benefit of the doubt–we headed out to our local questura. This time the trip was brief, just a six-block walk and then a tram ride, 4 or 5 stops down the line. In a pleasant, leafy neighborhood, we found the police station, and we followed signs leading us to a pleasant office on the second floor, where we sat before a pleasant lady. We provided our passports. She was very nice. She typed our names into her computer.

Yes, she said with a nod, here you are. But, she said with a pleasant shake of her head, your cards are still being processed. Generally, she said, it takes 60 days from the time of the fingerprinting. That would be June 16th.

She wasn’t sure why they would have told us 30 to 40 days, when the process almost always takes 60 days.

But, we said, we are leaving Italy on June 24th. And we really, really want our permesso di soggiorno. She smiled. She really was very nice. And she was very sympathetic. But there was nothing she could do. Sixty days, she said.

Sixty days is the day after tomorrow. We will be in Pisa. We will be back in Rome on June 19th. We need to pack. We need to clean our apartment. We need to see the two or three things that are on our must-see list before we leave. But somehow in those five days remaining, we will make our way back to the questura, hoping against hope that our little pieces of plastic have arrived.

If not, John threatens to fly back to Rome at the end of July to fetch his.

In the meantime, we will cling to the little pieces of plastic that are our codice fiscale–the cards that let us earn money in Italy while we are here. Not that we are earning any money. Getting the codice took only a day, and the office was in Trastevere, where we had an excellent lunch.

It’s all good.

Bus 62

Romans complain insistently about the buses. They are late, they are crowded, they are unreliable. For a New Yorker, the biggest lesson to learn was that Roman buses don’t stop at every other corner; rather, they can take you half a mile past your destination should you inadvertently miss your stop. But because our apartment is northeast of centro and a solid ten-minute walk from Metro stations in either direction, we have basically lived our Roman lives on buses. I take some pride in having mastered the system.

My bible--the laminated map of Rome's bus, tram and Metro lines.

My bible–the laminated map of Rome’s bus, tram and Metro lines.

In many ways, it is a very efficient system. Each stop is clearly marked; the signs provide lists of all the buses that stop there and, miraculously, lists of every stop each bus makes. You can quickly and easily determine whether any given bus will take you where you want to go, and what the two or three stops before yours are, so you can be on the alert. The posture of choice at bus stops is looking up, neck craned, reading the route signs.

RomeBus06 RomeBus16

The buses (and trams–huge, glorious vehicles) pretty much blanket the city. They will get your anywhere you want to go. The online site for ATAC, Rome’s transportation agency, helps you plan routes efficiently, and even Google Maps will tell you which bus you need and where you have to change. Buses can be crowded, especially in morning and evening rush hours, but seats open up regularly, and to me, riding a crowded bus and watching the city go by is always preferable to riding a crowded Metro underground.

RomeBus18 RomeBus09

I will grant that the ticketing system is a bit mystifying. You can buy a 90-minute ticket for €1.50 (good for multiple buses but only one Metro ride), a daily ticket for €6, a weekly ticket for €24, or–for us, of course, the best bargain–a monthly ticket for €35. Once you have your ticket, you must validate it the first time you use it by inserting it into a little yellow box on the bus. (Using the Metro, where you need the ticket every time you ride, also validates it.) Once the ticket is validated, you need never do anything with it again. If you are caught riding the buses without a validated ticket, you are subject to a fine of €50 and, more importantly, humiliation in front of your fellow passengers. But we have been in Rome since February 14th, and we have never–not once–been asked to show our tickets. Presumably we could have ridden for these four months for free. But my sense is, remarkably, that Romans are mainly good citizens and do buy their tickets. I may be wrong.

Our apartment is just off of via Nomentana, the grand boulevard that runs from northeast Rome to the center, the Quirinale Palace, changing its name several times in the process. From our apartment, we have two bus options. We can turn right out of our gate and walk half a block to via Nomentana, or we can turn left out of our gate and walk about two blocks, over the top of a hill and down again, to Corso Trieste, a fashionable neighborhood shopping street. In either case, most buses run to one of two destinations. Some go to the great 1930s railroad station called Termini (not, my husband has just informed me, because it is the terminus or terminal for Rome’s rail system, but because it is located next to the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian–the Terme Dioclezione), and some go to Piazza Venezia, where stands the massive white monument–known as the wedding cake or the typewriter–to Vittorio Emanuele II. Both Termini and Piazza Venezia are capolinea–head of the line–for many of Rome’s buses, and from either place, you can pick up a bus (or from Termini a Metro) to almost anyplace else in the city you want to go.

Piazza Venezia, the capolinea for two of our most frequented buses, the 60 and the 80B.

Piazza Venezia, the capolinea for two of our most frequented buses, the 60 and the 80B.

On Nomentana, the 60 goes to Piazza Venezia, and the 60L, the 82, and the 90 all go to Termini. On Corso Trieste, the 80 and 80B go to Piazza Venezia; the 38 goes to Termini. On both streets, we have one or two other options as well. The 89, on Corso Trieste, takes us into the Villa Borghese, where we can walk uphill through Rome’s Central Park to the Galleria Borghese or the Rome zoo, or downhill (our preferred direction) to the Pincian hill, from which we can look out over Piazza del Popolo and most of the city of Rome. Also on Corso Trieste, we can pick up the 88, which runs east toward San Lorenzo, where John teaches, or stay on the 80 past Piazza Venezia and south to the Porta San Paolo, Piramide, and the cemetery for non-Catholics, where Keats and Shelley are buried. On via Nomentana, we can hop any bus and ride for two stops to Viale Regina Margherita, and there we can pick up the #3 tram directly to the university, or for a looping grand tour of the city all the way to San Giovanni in Laterano, then to the Colosseum, and finally to Piramide. It’s a great ride; we took most of it yesterday on a visit to the basilicas of San Giovanni and San Clemente.

The Nomentana buses run mostly straight down via Nomentana through Porta Pia, when it becomes via XX Settembre, and then turn east to Piazza Repubblica and thence either directly to Termini or south down via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia. Via Nazionale runs sharply downhill and is heavily trafficked, lined with pricey stores, cafes, and small hotels; looking out the front windshield of the bus you can see Trajan’s column looming at the bottom of the hill, in front of the great white whale of the Vittorio Emanuele monument.

Looking down via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia.

Looking down via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia.

The traffic moves fast. One day John was riding the 60 down via Nazionale when another bus pulled up parallel, both buses heading downhill at high speed, avoiding the flood of Smart cars, the scooters and cycles weaving in and out, the tourists in shorts and tank tops scampering across the multi-laned street whenever there was the slightest break. The driver of the other bus, ear buds in place, was clearly talking on his hands-free phone. But in Italy, talking is never hands-free. This driver was gesturing, fingers clutched together, palms up, in classic Italian conversation, neither hand on the wheel, and gazing skyward, presumably imploring the help of God in unraveling some unknown paradox. Whatever God’s role, everyone survived.

The Trieste buses take a more leisurely route to Piazza Venezia. The 80 and 80B (which we call the Bob, because that’s what the numbers look like as the bus approaches us at the stop) head along via Dalmatia, via Nizza, and a bit of the Corso D’Italia, then around the winding curves of the via Veneto–famously the setting for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita–and past the massive American Embassy to Piazza Barberini, with its gleaming Bernini fountain, into via Tritone. They follow Tritone past the tiny streets leading to the Trevi fountain, into Piazza Colonna and past the Palazzo Chigi, which houses the Italian Parliament, and finally along a bit of the via del Corso, which runs a straight shot from Piazza del Popolo in the northwest to Piazza Venezia in the southeast and is always packed with tourists.

And then there is 62. The 62 is one of a handful of bus lines mentioned in many guidebooks, because its route takes riders very close to many of Rome’s major tourist attractions–through Piazza della Repubblica, within easy walking distance of the Spanish steps, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. Largo_Argentina_temple_C-B-AIt stops by Largo Argentina, one of those sunken ruins in the middle of Rome that tourists tend to walk blithely by, never stopping to read the sign that points to the steps where Julius Caesar was assassinated. And it runs all the way to the Vatican. The capolinea for the 62 is Piazza Bologna, a ten-minute walk from our apartment, and its second stop heading into the city is almost directly across Nomentana from us. Coming back from downtown, we can pick up the 62 anywhere along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, so it’s convenient for returning from some of our favorite haunts, like Campo de’ Fiori or the ghetto.

The 62 is like your first love. It will always be special to you, but it’s guaranteed to break your heart. My husband’s rule for the 62 is that it will come within minutes of when you arrive at the bus stop, or it will never come at all. It is the most erratic of buses. We have waited 45 minutes for it (once early in our stay, before we realized that we had other options if we walked a few blocks, and again later in our stay, when it was the only bus that took us anywhere near where we needed to get to for a dinner date; we ended up taking a taxi). We have sat in it at the capolinea, at Piazza Bologna, for 20 minutes, before the driver decided to return from his smoke and head off, just to avoid the 10-minute, mostly uphill walk home from the Metro. We have joined in little songs of frustration with other would-be 62 riders at bus stops downtown, bemoaning the lives of those who depend on the 62.

Heading to the Hotel de la Minerve for my birthday celebration last week, pulling a suitcase, we braved traffic and crossed Nomentana against the light to get to a 62 that was just pulling into the stop across the street. There was no doubt that the bus driver saw us. He had a red light and couldn’t move much beyond the stop. But he closed the doors and pulled up to the light, refusing to make eye contact with my husband as he pounded on the door and said, in his best Italian, that it was his wife’s birthday, and couldn’t he please let us on, per l’amor di Dio!  We got lots of sympathetic looks from the passengers but none from the driver, and the doors remained closed.

John swore at the moment that he would never again ride the 62. (Just punishment, don’t you think, for that unpleasant driver?) Nevertheless, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it. It gets us closest to our home of any of the buses we ride. It picks us up downtown at all the places we are mostly likely to be (if and when it actually shows up). Like our neighborhood restaurant, Pepe Verde, the 62 has been part of our Roman adventure, and I will remember it forever.

Coda: Once again today we ran for the 62. This time, we started from about a block back as it pulled into the bus stop. John ran; I stumbled after him. The driver was closing the doors; he saw John and opened the back door back up. A young man sitting at the stop waiting for another bus caught my eye and, grinning, applauded, urging me on. The driver waited as I panted up to the door. We boarded. All is forgiven.





The Old and the New

As almost everyone who visits Rome notes, the real fascination of this city is its layers–one civilization piled on top of another.

At the Vatican excavations, as you weave your way underground, you see the Roman tombs at the bottom (1st century AD), the Christian church built by the emperor Constantine over what was rumored to be the site of St. Peter’s grave in the middle (4th century AD), and then the current San Pietro (16th century) on top.

street of tombsWalking through the narrow passageways, peering into the pre-Christian tombs that once sat on top of the ground, you see remnants of that civilization: urns, graffiti, family names carved over entrances. These remnants were preserved because Constantine chose to take the top off a great a hill and bury the tombs beneath its earth to form the foundation for his church; the guide points out the columns and walls of that foundation. And above you, through thick glass tondos, you can look straight up into the nave of Saint Peter’s basilica; you can even see the famous Bernini baldocchino above the altar.


Largo_Argentina_temple_C-B-AIn the middle of the city, with medieval streets on three sides and the busy, modern Corso Vittorio Emanuele II on the fourth, sits Largo Argentina, a block-square excavation with four layers of civilization represented, from the fourth to the first century BC. At one corner are the steps on which Julius Caesar is thought to have been assassinated. At the south end is a sanctuary for homeless cats. Buses and trams race by, and tourists, eager to get to Campo di Fiori to the west or Piazza Venezia to the east, often pass it by as just another Roman ruin.

At the basilica of San Clemente, just down the road from the colosseum, you can tour the Roman temple on which the ninth century church was built.

Everywhere you look, there are walls, columns, bits and pieces–although that seems too trivializing, when the bits and pieces are two stories high and several feet thick.



Perhaps there are other cities like this, where the remnants of centuries are casually accepted, where walking down a main street and having to make your way around a first century Trajan's columncolumn or a third century obelisk is commonplace, but I don’t know them. I’ve visited Istanbul, which wears its many hundreds of years of history proudly but seems to prefer its sense of modernity, and Jerusalem, whose glorious old city is contained within walls and whose politics color our sense of history. I’ve been to Isfahan, but many years ago, when western travelers were still welcome in Iran and the magnificent mosques were available to all; I don’t know what that city would offer now. But I have never seen a city like Rome, where the very old coexists so casually and comfortably with the very new, the Roman remains with electric buses and recycle bins. I will never, I think, really get used to discovering yet another golden 13th century–or 9th century, or 4th century–mosaic as I duck my head into an unknown church.

We are on the downhill side of our visit now, with only a bit over three weeks to go. We are struggling to fit in visits to Naples and Pisa and Lucca, a day at Tivoli, another in the Alban hills. There is so much we haven’t seen. We miss our family–our daughters, their spouses, our grandson–terribly.2014.5.17 Ready for soccer

We miss our friends and our house and our dog. We even miss, occasionally, fast food and cars. (We gave in and ate at a Burger King here the other night–purely, as my husband says, as an experiment, to see what it was like. It was like Burger King.) But when we leave, we will miss Rome with an ache that I can already feel. We will miss showing off “our” city (although we still speak very, very little of the language); we will miss the neighborhood pasticceria and macelleria, where the baker and the butcher greet us with smiles. We will miss the opportunity to use our hard-earned ability to navigate the bus system adeptly. Mostly, we will miss the constant sense of discovery–the excitement of knowing that around every corner there is (or at least could be) something absolutely wonderful.

But even as I write that sentence I realize: This is a way of seeing. In Rome, the layers of civilization, the art, the beauty are visible. But why not assume that around every corner of every city there is (or at least could be) something absolutely wonderful? Perhaps not something centuries old, perhaps not something painted by Caravaggio or designed by Michelangelo. But who knows? There is so much to be discovered still.