This is such a wonderful city for walking. Today John had a meeting with colleagues at Roma Tre, one of the universities whose students he will be teaching this spring, and I needed to get something printed and scanned at the Fulbright office, so we set off in different directions. I picked up the bus around the corner to Porta Pia, a gate through the Aurelian wall that was one of Michaelangelo’s last architectural efforts, and walked a block or two to the office to pick up my documents from the ever-helpful Cecilia. When I emerged into the sunlight, I first thought I would just head a few blocks to the nearest Metro station and come on home. I needed to find some mailing envelopes, and I knew there was a place to buy these near Piazza Bologna, our Metro stop, and also a post office.

The Porta Pia gate

The Porta Pia gate

I checked in with John. He reminded me that I had muttered something about the Spanish Steps before leaving him earlier. That had been cover–I didn’t really intend to do anything more than what was needed before returning home. But the day was bright and welcoming, and after all, I was in Rome. My map suggested that the Spanish Steps were well beyond my normal walking capacity, so I figured I would take a bus. But peering down via XX Settembre, I thought I could glimpse the Quirinale palazzo, which was where I needed to get to to turn off for Piazza di Spagnaso I thought, well, maybe I can make it that far.  In just another couple of blocks, the map showed a road curving off to the right toward Piazza Barberini, the next stop on the journey.  Well, I thought, maybe I can make it that far.  And so it went until, before long, there I was at the top (I had somehow expected to emerge at the bottom, but the top was fine with me) of the Spanish Steps.

Spanish Steps

And what would I have missed had I taken the bus? A “Moby” store. (Can we never escape Melville?)

MobyA small theater advertising a stage musical version of Sette Spose per Sette Fratelli–that old Italian favorite, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

And there was the charming via Sistina, with beautiful boutique clothing and shoe stores, not too expensive. If I hadn’t walked, I would have missed all that. Walking let’s you make connections–oh yes, this little street brings you to this piazza, and this piazza is just around the corner from this fountain. As much as I love the Roman buses, this is really a city for walking. The distances are never as long as I think they are going to be. And at the end of the walk, there is always, always your favorite restaurant.  A tiny trattoria near San Silvestri


Home Alone

John’s big Roman project is this:  To retrace the itinerary of Herman Melville, who visited Rome for a month in 1857, arriving on, yes, February 25th, from Naples, by coach. But since we’ve been here, John has had little time to do research, to try to match up present-day Roman sites with 19th century ones, and he had been growing a bit discouraged, wondering, indeed, if he would be able to find his way along Herman’s path. He put that aside yesterday, and we set out early for Porta Portese, Europe’s largest flea market, across the river in Trastevere. There we (or rather John, always more ready than I to talk to strangers) struck up a conversation with a delightful American couple, he an opera singer who has worked in Europe for many years, she a dancer by training and now a costumer, recent arrivals (like us) in Rome and happy to chat. It turned out that Nicholas, the singer, had often performed an art song of a poem by Melville, so he and John were off and running. Eventually we moved on, meandering along the mile or so of clothes, old and new, and picked up some things for our kitchen, and then John, of course, discovered the books…

And more books, Porta Portese More books, Porta Portese photo (7)

…but he was good: He didn’t stay at it beyond my breaking point.

After a caffe, we headed back to Piazza Venezia and, avoiding a costumed Roman centurion looking for a paid photo op, strolled leisurely up via Nazionale, one of the city’s main shopping avenues. Our goal was to find the opera house, where (at the suggestion of our new acquaintance, Nicholas) we asked about tickets for the dress rehearsal for Manon Lescaut later that day but were told no, the prova generale was chiuso–closed to the public by order of the maestro, Ricardo Muti, who brooks no intrusions. Oh well, worth a try. The opera itself has been sold out for months. Italians, like Americans, do cherish their handsome and talented signore Muti.

Looking back toward Piazza Venezia from via Nazionale

Looking back toward Piazza Venezia from via Nazionale

By the time we got home, it was late in the day. A wonderful hour passed Skyping (what angelic genius invented that?) with Eliza, Emma, son-in-law Russ, and grandson John–everyone with good news to report of one kind or another–and then John dove back into his research. And was successful, finding a cache of photos of this city in the mid-19th century that helped him no end to visualize Melville’s Rome. And this morning, off he went to mimic the first day–Melville’s entry into Rome through San Giovanni; his disembarkation at 10:00 AM from his long coach ride, probably at the main post office near Piazza San Silvestro (where we had spent much of one day late last week, applying for our residence permits); on to his hotel, the still grand Hotel Minerva next to the Pantheon; then on foot to Campidoglio; and finally to the Vatican (Melville still on foot, John waiting for a bus the last I heard in front of the Forum). Quite a walker, our Herman. Not to mention his ability to remain upright after an overnight coach ride, without sleep.

So here I am, home alone. I worry a bit about feeling isolated. Out in public, my grasp of Italian is so weak that the murmurs around me sound like just that: murmurs, like wind through the trees. Only occasionally does a voice emerge, and I try to understand what’s being said, but I rarely succeed. Last Friday I installed an update for my Toshiba from Intel, and suddenly I was unable to load any web pages–not my gmail, not Facebook, not the New York Times. The problem was, it appeared, not uncommon; lots of angry comments on various chat rooms attested to that. We tried every fix that was recommended, for the better part of two days. And I contemplated what it would be like to spend four months out of touch, unable, really, to communicate, without access to friends or family. Only John to talk to. This is not necessarily a hardship. John and I enjoy each other immensely, after all these years. We can talk about almost anything and find it interesting. But still, he has friends here, colleagues to whom he has grown close over the years. Without an international phone or, now, computer, I would be adrift. The more I told myself that it would be fine, the more I knew that it would not.

The final fix worked. My computer is back to normal, and friends are out there for the asking. And now that I feel confident I can find my friends when I need them, I am enjoying my day at home alone. I went out for lunch to our neighborhood bistro, Pepe Verde, and had my favorite: tonnarelli con pescespardo e limone–thick, al dente pasta with little chunks of swordfish, lemon, and pine nuts–and a glass of vino rosso, shopped a bit at the market, and came home to write. I had intended to take my camera out to catch the neighborhood, but I forgot. Maybe tomorrow. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Did someone once say that?

Tourist Time

After a week of buying skillets, applying for our visitor permits, getting our phones set up, and waiting for John’s copy of Moby-Dick–the only essential item for his teaching, which begins next week, and the only item we managed to leave at home–to arrive by FedEx, we finally felt ready to do a tourist day yesterday.  Top of our list: Michaelangelo’s Moses, at the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, a sight we had failed to see last time around, arriving just as the church doors were closing.

Emerging from the Metro at Cavour, we conquered the first challenge: the stairs leading up the Oppian hill to San Pietro.


Then it was just around the corner to the sun-drenched little piazza onto which the basilica faces, where Scots and Chinese tourists lounge, looking out over the view southwest to the colosseum.  The facade of San Pietro is unimposing–large, but rather plain, with wide steps and arched columns–and the interior has a similar feel.  By Italian standards, it seemed to me, somewhat lacking in personality–no decorative floor pavements, a single large fresco on the ceiling.  We looked around a bit before heading up front to the apse, savoring the lesser-known paintings and mosaics above the side altars–for me, medievalist that I am, in particular enjoying the 7th century mosaic of San Sebastian.  

San Sebastian 7th century

San Sebastian 7th century

Finally, we made our way to the Moses–not just the Moses, of course, which is one of Michaelangelo’s last major works, but the full-length sculptures of Leah and Rachel on either side, started by Michaelangelo but completed by his students; the reclining figure of Pope Julius II, for whose mausoleum this work was intended; and the other figures that make up this group.  As in many Roman churches, we had to put a euro into a slot to light up the group.

Michaelangelo's Moses  DSC_1164[1]

I looked.  I appreciated the grandeur, the strength.  But I wasn’t overwhelmed, as I had expected to be.  This work seemed less powerful to me than others I’d seen–the Pieta, of course, but even more, the Slaves at the Louvre, and the Pieta in Milan’s Sforza Castle.  But still, we spent some time with it, feeding euros into the box.

Then we wandered off, back down the steep stairs, looking for via San Martino ai Monti, where the second of the two apartments we had considered for our Roman home is located, and finding it–in a charming but narrow, dark, and uphill street, congratulating ourselves that we had opted instead for our sprawling, sunny apartment just a bit out of the city center, surrounded by greenery.  As we climbed the little street, heading now for the massive basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a vista suddenly opened to our left, and there it was, Maria Maggiore, in all its amazing glory.


So up we walked.  And at the top of this little street, in the shadow of the huge basilica, John noticed the facade of another little church, ducked in, and then came out and beckoned me to follow him back in.  This was the chiesa of Santa Prassede. We had never heard of it.  It was mind-blowing.  Originally built in the 5th century, the current structure dates from the 9th century.  Its apse, an astonishing double arch, is covered with mosaics of angels and saints and the Lamb of God and the Christ and heaven knows what else.  A tiny side chapel, also 9th century, is a rare example of Romanesque architecture, its walls entirely covered by Byzantine mosaics (and, for those interested in such things, a relic of the column to which Christ was bound before his crucifixion).

The Santa Prassede apse

The Santa Prassede apse

We spent a long time in Santa Prassede.  It was, for me, near perfection.  Coming out again into the huge open piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore in the fading sunlight, we decided we had enough to think about for one day, headed for the gelateria on the corner, and then made our way home again.  Santa Prassede gets a bare mention in most guidebooks.  But if you are visiting Maria Maggiore, as every visitor to Rome must, do make time to head across the square and see the wonders of Santa Prassede as well.

I Moduli

Today we will talk about forms.  I moduli. When we first got our guidebook for Fulbright scholars in Italy, I read the section about what we would need to do as soon as we arrived. Then I put it aside, and eventually forgot it existed, immersed instead in the chaos of all the things that needed to be done before we left: passports, visas, figuring out who would stay in our house and take care of our aging dog, Molly, how we would pay our bills and prepare our taxes in absentia, seeing doctors. Time enough, said I, to read these instructions again once we arrived.

Once we landed, I began to read. Within 8 days of our arrival, it said–in bold red letters–WITHIN EIGHT DAYS–we would need to apply for the permesso di soggiorno, literally, the permit to visit.  The application could be found at a post office.  But not every post office.  Only some post offices.  Which ones?  No one seemed quite sure.  But first we would need to get a marca da bollo–something like a tax stamp–for €16 to affix to the document, once we had found a post office that would issue one.  The marca could be purchased at any tabacchi.  Why a tobacco shop?  Well, why not?  With the stamp affixed, we would have to put the application itself along with multiple documents (copies of every page of our passports, a copy of the Fulbright grant authorization, a copy of a letter from the Fulbright Commission to the local questura, or police station) into an unsealed envelope (provided with the application–the yellow-striped envelope, which is for non-European visitors, and not the blue-striped one, which is for EU members) and return to the post office–but perhaps not the same post office, it depends–and send it off to the questura by registered mail.

OK.  First step: obtain the application kit. Our resident angel, Cecilia, the program assistant at the Fulbright office, volunteered to try to find one.  But after she had visited two post offices without success, John decided to give it a try.  At the post office at Piazza Bologna, just a few minutes from our apartment, there were multiple windows and a “take-a-number” machine.  But the numbers were grouped by letter (A, C, E, U, L, P) and the lists of the various functions performed under the rubric of each letter did not include permesso di soggiorno.  But wait, there on the wall, behind the number machine, was a hand-lettered sign; for the permesso, try group L.  Group L it was: L255.  He waited.  L245. L246.  Then the lady at the L window pushed her Chuiso sign out.  John leapt forward.  I am just looking for an application for the permesso di soggiorno, he said pathetically.  She gave him one.  No, he said, I need two, one for my wife.  Your wife will have to come in person, she said.  But I am not filling these out now, he said; I just want to take them away.  Reluctantly, she handed over a second application kit and closed her window.

Second step:  A visit to the Fulbright Commission, where our angel Cecilia filled out the 15-page application, printed entirely in Italian, despite the fact that it is intended for use by visitors to Italy.  It turned out only four pages actually needed entries.  Also, she photocopied our entire passports and provided the copies of the needed letter to the questura and Fulbright grant award.  Now, she said, buy a marca da bollo at the tabac around the corner, then go to the main post office in Piazza di San Silvestro to turn in the application.  Make sure to sign and date the application in front of the post office man.


Third step:  Buy the marca da bollo for each application.  See the big T in the street photo?  That’s the tabacchi.  Check.

Fourth step: Post office.  Number machine.  Push the button for group L, as in Piazza Bologna.  Wait.  Our number comes up twenty minutes later, and we go to the window, but no, L is not the appropriate group for the permesso at this post office; we need P.  Pick another number, under group P.  Wait.  Our number comes up 15 minutes later.  We go to the window.  The very nice clerk goes through the documents.  Everything is in order.  We need to pay in cash.  We don’t have enough cash (the permesso requires fees of €103 per person, plus €30 per application to send it by registered mail).  But wait.  Only the registered mail fee needs to be paid in cash.  Whew! Hand over special credit card, acquired only for use in Europe, with a special chip.  Doesn’t work.  Post offices don’t accept chip cards.  OK, try another, regular credit card.  Doesn’t work.  Try our debit card.  Doesn’t work.

At the post office.  Notice the frescoed ceilng.

At the post office. Notice the frescoed ceilng.

Fifth step: Go to Bancomat and withdraw cash for payment.  Of course, John’s card is blocked because we withdrew our rent money the day before, and Citibank, ever vigilant, thinks we are fraudsters, despite elaborate arrangements made with Citibank before our departure to prevent this kind of thing from happening.  Use my card.  Get money.  Go back to window.  (We are permitted to come right back rather than taking another number.)  Sign and date applications.  The sweet clerk once again checks everything, takes our money, seals the envelopes, stamps them with a flourish, and tosses everything into a basket.

Is that the end? Of course not.  We have simply applied for the permesso.  To actually receive the permesso, we need to visit the local questura, turn in four copies of a passport photo for each of us, and be fingerprinted.  For that, we are assigned an appointment date right there at the post office: April 16.  About halfway into our stay in Italy.  Now the challenge will be to put that date and time, along with the address of the questura, somewhere where we will actually remember to go.  Because if we miss this appointment, we will need to start the process all over again.

And now, we need to apply for the codice fiscale.

Politics Past and Present

In 1977, John and I and our infant daughter Emma spent a year in Genoa, in northern Italy, where John had what was referred to as a “junior Fulbright” to teach American literature at the universities of Genoa and Turin.  It was his first academic appointment, so, as our daughter Eliza has remarked, this stay in Rome is really an appropriate bookend to his career.  He will retire from teaching only a year and a half after we return to the States next summer.

We loved Genoa.  For starters, it introduced us to pesto, not yet heard of in the States.  We lived in a small paradise of a suburb spread along the Ligurian coast east of the city. Farther to our east, within easy driving, bus, or boat ride, were Rapallo, Portofino, Cinque Terre.  The village of Nervi, where we lived in a garden apartment, consisted basically of a single street of shops and apartment buildings, running east-west along the coastline, and a huge park full of palms and flowering shrubs and meandering paths.  Our building was between the street and the sea; we walked a few yards, under a small underpass, to reach the passagiatta, a promenade which ran along the sea to the park.  On the other side of the single street, the village crept steeply up the mountainside, just as the city of Genoa does.  We walked up the hillside now and then, once to see a saint’s day celebration in which Nervians carried huge carved statues of the Virgin on their shoulders.

Overall, Genoa was not a city frequented by tourists.  Its reputation as a port–one of Europe’s largest–perhaps frightened people.  But in fact its historical center–the Centro Storico–is among the largest of any Italian city, and more beautiful, at least those almost forty years ago, for being still fully alive and inhabited, with laundry hanging above and small churches with distinctive Ligurian striped marble facades facing tiny, unexpected piazzas.  When we were there, it was easy to get lost on the narrow, winding streets of centro, and then to emerge suddenly onto one of the wide avenues of astonishing palazzi, homes to the wealthy built when Genoa was one of the most powerful cities in Italy and therefore in the world, in the 14th and 15th centuries, homes that are now museums.  Now, many years later, Genoa boasts a world-class aquarium and a gloriously restored opera house (it was still a bombed-out ruin in 1977); its waterfront has been renovated with friendly restaurants and shops.  We urge travelers to visit.

Emma learned to walk and talk in Nervi.  Her first linguistic interaction with someone other than us was when she responded “Emma” to a smiling woman on a train who asked her, “Come ti chiami?”  Blond and blue-eyed and chubby, Emma caused quite a stir as we walked along the passegiata to the park, beside the sea.

That year, 1977-78, was the year of the Red Brigades.  We were told they were headquartered in Genoa.  A former prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped in March of 1978 by the Brigades; his body was found in May in the trunk of a car parked very near the building in Rome in which John’s Fulbright orientation had taken place the previous September.  Since we left in the early summer of 1978, Italy has had 22 prime ministers.  Granted, several–Andreotti, Fanfani, and of course Berlusconi–served more than once.  But still, it’s a daunting record.

The day we arrived in Rome last week–February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day–the 23rd prime minister (and the third in succession not selected from parliament, and thus not directly elected by the people) was appointed: Matteo Renzi, the 39-year old mayor of Florence.  Young, handsome, Renzi seems a fresh presence.  The story about him in yesterday’s New York Times noted the following:

“Mr. Renzi immediately laid out an ambitious agenda, pledging to draft an urgent overhaul of Italy’s electoral law by the end of February and to pass measures to combat Italy’s 12.7 percent unemployment rate by March. He said that by April he would submit proposed changes to Italy’s sclerotic public administration laws and its byzantine corporate regulations, which are widely blamed for restraining the country’s economic progress. He promised proposals to revise Italy’s tax system by May.”

Really?  Wow, say I.  I will be watching.  If Mr. Renzi manages any of this–let alone all–I think we should invite him to take charge of our Congress in his spare time.

Managing the Shutters

Every day it becomes clearer that the key to Italian apartment living is learning to manage the shutters.  There are two layers for each window–the windows themselves, which open inward and can be held open with small hooks at about eye level; and the shutters, which open outward.  The shutters can be pushed all the way back and hooked open, or the smaller panels within them can be pushed up to let in some light and hooked at various levels.  At night, of course, everything must be closed up and locked tight, especially the two floor to ceiling windows that open onto little balconies (one in our bedroom, one in the kitchen).  These have heavy metal shutters that actually lock with a key.  I am becoming a master at all of it.

Our apartment is classic–heavy wooden double doors that must be opened with a huge, long, heavy key; a long corridor with terrazzo floor; 14-foot ceilings; and windows everywhere. Our building, four floors (we are on the third), is set within its own garden, and every window opens onto greenery–a huge, winding cypress tree from one window, an orange tree from another.  The birds are constant (as are, somewhat less charmingly, some yappy dogs).  Out one window is the sound of a small fountain–haven’t yet discovered where that sound comes from.

Our first full day here–Saturday–we felt full of energy and maybe pushed a bit too hard; we began learning the bus system; shopped; got ourselves into the center city (in just 15 minutes); walked from Piazza Colonna to Piazza Navona; and waited for the #62 bus home for 20 minutes or so.  (In addition to managing shutters, managing buses seems to be the second key to Roman living.)  We find that John and I have slightly different talents at language: He speaks well enough to be more or less understood; I listen and understand more.  I think this is because he is always thinking about what to say next, while I am focusing entirely on the words being spoken at me.  Together we make a fairly good team.

John at the Trevi Fountain

Sunday we went exploring in our neighborhood–took a long walk to Piazza Bologna, our nearest Metro stop, and through the Villa Torlonia, a huge public park right across the street.  And of course Monday I woke up so sore I could barely walk.  Nevertheless, we braved the buses again to get our phones set up and pay a quick visit to the Trevi Fountain.  And now, Tuesday, we are taking a day of rest.