In every major city in the Western World, some things are always the same. The same African men are always selling knockoffs of the same designer handbags and sunglasses, and the same Guatemalan musicians are always playing "I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail" on their bamboo windpipes. But some things are only in Rome. Like the sandwich counterman so comfortably calling me "beautiful" every time we speak. You want this panino grilled or cold, bella? Or the couples making out all over the place, like there is some contest for it, twisting into each other on benches, stroking each other's hair and crotches,
And then there are the fountains. Pliny the Elder wrote once: "If anyone will consider the abundance of Rome's public supply of water, for baths, cisterns, ditches, houses, gardens, villas; and take into account the distance over which it travels, the arches reared, the mountains pierced, the valleys spanned--he will admit that there never was anything more marvelous in the whole world."
A few centuries later, I already have a few contenders for my favorite fountain in Rome. One is in the Villa Borghese. In the center of this fountain is a frolicking bronze family. Dad is a faun and Mom is a regular human woman. They have a baby who enjoys eating grapes. Mom and Dad are in a strange position--facing each other, grabbing each other's wrists, both of them leaning back. It's hard to tell whether they are yanking against each other in strife or swinging around merrily, but there's lots of energy there. Either way, Junior sits perched atop their wrists, right between them, unaffected by their merriment or strife, munching on his bunch of grapes. His little cloven hoofs dangle below him as he eats. (He takes after his father.)
It is early September, 2003. The weather is warm and lazy. By this, my fourth day in Rome, my shadow has still not darkened the doorway of a church or a museum, nor have I even looked at a guidebook. But I have been walking endlessly and aimlessly, and I did finally find a tiny little place that a friendly bus driver informed me sells The Best Gelato in Rome. It's called "Il Gelato di San Crispino." I'm not sure, but I think this might translate as "the ice cream of the crispy saint." I tried a combination of the honey and the hazelnut. I came back later that same day for the grapefruit and the melon. Then, after dinner that same night, I walked all the way back over there one last time, just to sample a cup of the cinnamon-ginger.
I've been trying to read through one newspaper article every day, no matter how long it takes. I look up approximately every third word in my dictionary. Today's news was fascinating. Hard to imagine a more dramatic headline than "Obesita! I Bambini Italiani Sono i Piu Grassi d'Europa!" Good God! Obesity! The article, I think, is declaring that Italian babies are the fattest babies in Europe! Reading on, I learn that Italian babies are significantly fatter than German babies and very significantly fatter than French babies. (Mercifully, there was no mention of how they measure up against American babies.) Older Italian children are dangerously obese these days, too, says the article. (The pasta industry defended itself.) These alarming statistics on Italian child fatness were unveiled yesterday by--no need to translate here--" una task force internazionale." It took me almost an hour to decipher this whole article. The entire time, I was eating a pizza and listening to one of Italy's children play the accordion across the street. The kid didn't look very fat to me, but that may have been because he was a gypsy. I'm not sure if I misread the last line of the article, but it seemed there was some talk from the government that the only way to deal with the obesity crisis in Italy was to implement a tax on the overweight . . .? Could this be true? After a few months of eating like this, will they come after me?
It's also important to read the newspaper every day to see how the pope is doing. Here in Rome, the pope's health is recorded daily in the newspaper, very much like weather, or the TV schedule. Today the pope is tired. Yesterday, the pope was less tired than he is today. Tomorrow, we expect that the pope will not be quite so tired as he was today.
It's kind of a fairyland of language for me here. For someone who has always wanted to speak Italian, what could be better than Rome? It's like somebody invented a city just to suit my specifications, where everyone (even the children, even the taxi drivers, even the actors on the commercials!) speaks this magical language. It's like the whole society is conspiring to teach me Italian. They'll even print their newspapers in Italian while I'm here; they don't mind! They have bookstores here that only sell books written in Italian! I found such a bookstore yesterday morning and felt I'd entered an enchanted palace. Everything was in Italian--even Dr. Seuss. I wandered through, touching all the books, hoping that anyone watching me might think I was a native speaker. Oh, how I want Italian to open itself up to me! This feeling reminded me of when I was four years old and couldn't read yet, but was dying to learn. I remember sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office with my mother, holding a Good Housekeeping magazine in front of my face, turning the pages slowly, staring at the text, and hoping the grown-ups in the waiting room would think I was actually reading. I haven't felt so starved for comprehension since then. I found some works by American poets in that bookstore, with the original English version printed on one side of the page and the Italian translation on the other. I bought a volume by Robert Lowell, another by Louise Gluck.
There are spontaneous conversation classes everywhere. Today, I was sitting on a park bench when a tiny old woman in a black dress came over, roosted down beside me and started bossing me around about something. I shook my head, muted and confused. I apologized, saying in very nice Italian, "I'm sorry, but I don't speak Italian," and she looked like she would've smacked me with a wooden spoon, if she'd had one. She insisted: "You do understand!" (Interestingly, she was correct. That sentence, I did understand.) Now she wanted to know where I was from. I told her I was from New York, and asked where she was from. Duh--she was from Rome. Hearing this, I clapped my hands like a baby. Ah, Rome! Beautiful Rome! I love Rome! Pretty Rome! She listened to my primitive rhapsodies with skepticism. Then she got down to it and asked me if I was married. I told her I was divorced. This was the first time I'd said it to anyone, and here I was, saying it in Italian. Of course she demanded, "Perche?" Well . . . "why" is a hard question to answer in any language. I stammered, then finally came up with "L'abbiamo rotto" (We broke it).
She nodded, stood up, walked up the street to her bus stop, got on her bus and did not even turn around to look at me again. Was she mad at me? Strangely, I waited for her on that park bench for twenty minutes, thinking against reason that she might come back and continue our conversation, but she never returned. Her name was Celeste, pronounced with a sharp ch, as in cello.
Later in the day, I found a library. Dear me, how I love a library. Because we are in Rome, this library is a beautiful old thing, and within it there is a courtyard garden which you'd never have guessed existed if you'd only looked at the place from the street. The garden
is a perfect square, dotted with orange trees and, in the center, a fountain. This fountain was going to be a contender for my favorite in Rome, I could tell immediately, though it was unlike any I'd seen so far. It was not carved of imperial marble, for starters. This was a small green, mossy, organic fountain. It was like a shaggy, leaking bush of ferns. (It looked, actually, exactly like the wild foliage growing out of the head of that praying figure which the old medicine man in Indonesia had drawn for me.) The water shot up out of the center of this flowering shrub, then rained back down on the leaves, making a melancholy, lovely sound throughout the whole courtyard.
I found a seat under an orange tree and opened one of the poetry books I'd purchased yesterday. Louise Gluck. I read the first poem in Italian, then in English, and stopped short at this line:
Dal centro della mia vita venne una grande fontana . . .
"From the center of my life, there came a great fountain . . ." I set the book down in my lap, shaking with relief.