The flock of seagulls that have taken residence upon one of the roofs just outside my bedroom window, must have made a pact not to let me sleep past 8 am. They tell each other stories in a loud and guttural dialect and, when I fling the shutters open, there they are, having breakfast, perched upon the red tiles. Every single morning.
When I traipse down the stairs to get paper and croissants, the “portiere”, a haughty concierge from Sri Lanka, lectures me on how to sort the trash if I want to avoid getting a 1,300 euro fine and, when suddenly the electricity disappears and I have to find the breakers in the basement, he doesn’t even think of walking down the stairs with me but, rather, pushes me into the darkness with the promise of a light switch somewhere.
Despite the seagulls and the concierge’s antics, I would still rather rent than be confined to a hotel room. In truth, the apartment is beautiful, in a gorgeous and central part of Rome, a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori where a charming farmer’s market takes place every day, albeit a very expensive one. The tiny wild strawberries and the ripe and juicy cherries are too enticing to resist.
It’s interesting the concierge puts so much emphasis on how to sort the recycling when, a couple of blocks down the street, I see a woman amassing garbage on a street corner willy-nilly. That is Rome and Italy for you – I walk around Eataly, the huge steel and glass food emporium filled to the brim with artisanal products and produce and, right outside, on the way to the metro station, the pavements are broken, the smell of urine in the underpass overwhelming and none of the escalators leading to the stations are working. On the other hand, the train arrives on time, it’s pleasantly air-conditioned and efficient. Unfortunately, the only two metro lines that serve the city only cover a portion of this metropolis, leaving the rest to deal with gridlock traffic and buses. Too hot to figure out bus routes and wait for them.
Unlike Venetians, usually very calm and pleasant, Romans can be a hit or miss. The newsagent is grumpy, the coffee shop lady barely says a word when I place my order but the woman running the shoe shop runs herself crazy trying to find the right size of ballet flats Sue is looking for and, coming up empty, she points to a store nearby and asks us to let us know how it goes. Again, this duality seems to be the trademark of a city that has been somewhat functioning for over 2,000 years. Corruption at government level still abounds but the populace goes about their business as best they can.
Now that I am here, I think nothing of stumbling across ruins every which way and I barely glance at the Colosseum surrounded by a multitude of tourists, too busy looking for a taxi to get ourselves and our groceries out of the intense heat. I have a tactic to deal with both heat and jet lag – I pretend they are not there, a mistress of denial, and I just let myself sweat away, pausing now and then to enter air-conditioned stores. Standing in front of the Carrefour’s dairy case for a few minutes is a life saver (where we also discover a very pleasant, all natural fruit drink we feel compelled to buy).
It is easy to see the charm of a city that inspired such movies as Roman Holidays, with the hapless American girl invariably swept up by some good-looking Italian on a Vespa. The cliché endures but the reality is a bit more complicated than that. If you look closely, or just read the hysterical papers, it’s not so hard to spot the recession that is hitting the country and that is bound to get worse. A helpful man who owns one of the many beautiful clothing stores we visit, tells us he will be closing his business soon as he can’t even break even. He thinks he will branch out in the tourist industry and is fatalistic about his choices, in a way this city and this country have mastered since their inception. We will just do what we will have to do. But I am afraid the consequences will be harsher to deal with this time. Despite the 40% and 50% sales all over town, most of the stores are empty. Smaller boutiques and moms and pops stores are destined to disappear.
The city, though, remains eternal. Some of the sights Cleopatra saw upon her triumphal entrance with Caesar’s son in tow are still there for us to see. The same combative spirit of defiance mixed with a wish for a good life also endures. And it seems that, for now, it will have to do.