Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Romans are Serious People

It's been a long while since we've heard from my friend, the intrepid traveler, Paul Berg. Well, here he is folks, in Rome, and in fine form:

 Dear Friends:
 That Foreign Service Officer's cycle of constant death and rebirth. End of tour preparation for death, as you round out your accounts, say good-bye to friends you'll never see again, pack away a short two or three year lifetime of belongings and experiences, mourn your coming departure and attend the advance wakes your colleagues throw for your imminent funeral. Then some time in the womb seeing old friends from past lives as you pass a week, a month, or long years in the U.S. With me so far? And then, the rebirth, with a new life in a new world which you're never really prepared for. Like any newborn (and no matter how well you fared on your Foreign Service Institute language exam), you emerge from the womb squinting and crying, not understanding what people around you are saying -- what the hell are they getting at with all those gestures? -- blinded a bit by the light and the colors and the strange surroundings, confused, everything is new. Even if you're met at the airport by a super competent Political Officer like Alex McKnight, as I was, you're still a confused newborn. And even if it's your second life in the same place, even if, like me, you already served in Rome from 1992-1993, you still struggle to put names to places and you wonder why, at first, nothing looks quite like you remember it.
Comunque, the U.S. is a hell of a noisy womb to spend time in between lives, and between the TV and the Interstate, your iPod and the supermarket, to say nothing of the audio-visual assault of passing through a major American airport (and to get you into a fully compliant mood before you face the cajoling fast food signs, the loudspeakered commands and the obnoxious bore waiting in the seat next to you at Gate F47 yapping orders to his staff into his iPhone in an unavoidable display of his self importance), our U.S. airports mostly insist you take off your shoes and belt and take out your belongings and practically disrobe then walk through a machine that sees through you, all under the disapproving, judgmental glare of an inspector who will further dehumanize you patting your armpits and thighs, inspecting your most sensual zones without sensuality. The first thing you notice on the other side is the quiet. The sense that nothing is happening because the signs don't grab at you, the noises are muffled, there's a reserve in the air. Keep your shoes on. Europe. Italy is in Europe.
You're jet lagged when you arrive at your new home, in a trance with your eyes open; all new Foreign Service homes feel surreal and dreamlike when you first enter. Big rooms that open into small rooms, mysterious doors and dark corners, spectral as a haunted house despite the official furniture and curtains, and then there's always that post-hypnotic suggestion fetish that puts you under when you look at it: the vast chain of keys. In Port Moresby, my staff handed me a choker of keys so heavy and full it would have sunk an Olympic swimmer. My GSO there had painstakingly labeled each key to the DCM's residence, but "upstairs 3rd bdrm left ac closet" still hit me as the kind of verbally opaque dissociative ploy a stage hypnotist would use to put you to sleep. My Villa Allegri key choker has no labels, and gazing at it that morning, or again this morning, I still want to fall into a deep sleep.
But walking through Rome at midday, or any time, is caffeine. Italy is a country of people who are always awake, and Rome is a city of serious people. Walking around in my jet lag stupor, it seemed difficult to imagine that I would ever have as many serious matters on my mind as Romans always seem to have on theirs as they walk by in ones and twos and, sometimes, threes in their understated, perfectly fitting suits looking straight ahead, unsmiling, surrounded by themselves alone, speaking terse phrases into their cell phones or to each other or both at the same time pointedly, rapidly, discreetly; something big is happening and they are in. You are not. Romans have always dealt with power, it's their destiny (and when power moves away from Rome the city is abandoned, like during the Middle Ages); money too maybe, probably, but as an adjunct of power. And in this city where big power is always exerted visually, through imposingly beautiful buildings by impeccably dressed men speaking with gestures and expressive looks, everyone, even insurance agents and shopkeepers and security guards, must look important. More important than you. If you're jet lagged, walking around Parioli at lunchtime will simultaneously keep you awake while you watch these self important people in their perfect dark suits and wonder what important matters they are talking about, and keep you in your jet lag trance because Romans in serious conversation with each other will not acknowledge your presence in any way, especially not through eye contact. They reinforce your sense that you are somehow living suspended in a spirit world, that you are looking out at them from a blank limbo and cannot touch.
Restaurants. The thing about Roman restaurants is that they never close. If you liked eating somewhere here forty years ago, you're in luck; it's probably still open and it probably still serves the very same dishes you liked in 1973. When I first got the handshake on my position, I was concerned about where I could eat big protein in this country of big carbohydrates. So I got on the Internet and looked up one of my old favorites near the Embassy, Girarosto Fiorentino (more or less "Florentine Rotisserie") and discovered it still exists and still serves the same roast meat dishes I liked in 1992. (One day in '92, I invited the young press officer of a new political party here for lunch. He entered mouth agape, looking all around; "you know, my Grandfather used to tell me about this place!" he said, amazed. Probably the first place he ever ate in his life that wasn't chic and trendy, that one.) But hell, every restaurant that's ever opened in all of Parioli or on the Veneto, ever, is still operating. Close to Girarosto Fiorentino is Cesarina, which is ancient, and then there's Girarosto Toscano, also ancient, and close by some other place whose name I forget that trumpets "dal 1937" on its neon sign, meaning it was already an old standby when the partisans strung up Mussolini with piano wire. And for another walk through ancient history, try walking up the Via Veneto home from the U.S. Embassy every night, as I do. Every single restaurant that the young Sophia and Marcello ever had drinks at, got paparazzied at, is still there. Most of them have pictures of the stars eating there on display, including the remarkable black and whites at the Cafe de Paris, with shots of the young Jean Paul Belmondo, dazzlingly tough distant and self aware, so handsome you can imagine young ladies swooning off camera, and a middle aged Agnes Moorehead decades away from her years on ABC meddling in the lives of Darren and Samantha, and a young Stewart Granger...but it's the same thing at every single place. Photos of the stars from the glory days. Roman restaurants. Methuselaic. One of my Italian staff murmured that the old places on the Veneto are kept alive with 'Ndrangheta (Calabrese mafia) money; if so, it's at least a nicely nostalgic form of money laundering. (Sadly, the last New York counterpart of these far-from-extinct dinosaurs, Gino, on Lexington, closed two years ago, zebra wallpaper and all, a tragic death whatever its age. It was always fun to watch 50-ish and 60-ish men and women there still dressed slick like when they were hot studs and chics, talking celebrity tough and flirting over the fifth cocktail just like when Sophia used to drop by after a premiere, plus the best pasta fagioli I've ever eaten.)
Youngsters at the Embassy said they'd never heard of the Hotel Savoy just across the Veneto much less its huge daily pasta buffet lunch, but I checked yesterday and it's still there, pasta buffet and all. Every one of the power broker restaurants around Montecitorio where I'd meet parliamentarians and Senators for lunch is still right where I left them in 1993, including Fortunato, a pistol shot from the Pantheon, a restaurant so snooty in 1992 that the herds of waiters ignored a nobody like me for 25 minutes while I stood invisible until my powerful guest, a rising young Christian Democrat parliamentarian from Emilia Romagna, arrived and immediately became the center of attention. Downtown Rome is yuppier and more full of trendy boutiques than it's ever been, so I thought that perhaps some of the working class Roman restaurants around the Campo di Fiori were gone, but dingy old Filetti di Baccala, endearing for its utter lack of pretense in a city of pretense, is still serving remarkable fried Baccala, ulivi Ortolane, and other Roman worker's junk food, complete with a line of the hungry waiting to dine. More remarkable is that its diners in this now-elegant part of town still look like working class folks. Where do they live? Area rents top Manhattan's. (Of course Carbonara still serves on the Campo itself, another Rome institution; I took my French Embassy counterpart here in 1992; he'd just returned from a tour in the U.S. and, full of Gallic arrogance about French technological superiority, the TGV and all that, looked out over the Campo, the Tiber and the ancient buildings beyond; sneering elegantly, he turned his upturned nose to me and said, "you know, this place Rome reminds me of....Paris....twenty years ago.") I crossed over to Trastevere, the sort of Greenwich Village of Rome, to see what was left from the days when I lived there; if we're talking restaurants, everything is left. They say that the trendy new little chef's restaurants that cool young Roman hipsters go to are either here in Trastevere or in nearby Testaccio; what with all the old restaurants still around, where do they find room for the new ones?
The thing about Roman supermarkets is that they're sort of what American supermarkets would be like if they sold only luxury goods. Short on peanut butter or breakfast cereal, any Roman supermarket stocks a dazzling line of artisan cheeses, choice cuts of meat and fish and game, mounds of salumi that Americans can only afford to buy in tiny portions (forget prosciutto di Parma, the supermarket around the corner sells by my count eight different kinds of artisanal prosciutto), a produce section big on artichokes of every color and texture, ripe figs, aromatic olives, fresh local strawberries, did I mention the smoked fish? The overstocked wine and spirits section? Just the place for a dose of Italians' current economic pessimism. I ask the checkout clerk if they take Visa and he gives me the classic Roman "ain't it obvious?" shrug, hard for most people to do sitting down. I explain that I had lived here twenty years ago but had forgotten. He glanced up and muttered "peggiorato." (In this context, "it's gone downhill since then.") The young lady in line behind me joined in to make sure I understood how bad things have become. She asked how long I'd be here, I replied "three years," she said, "that's enough" (i.e. "enough before you get fed up.") The two of them went on about the failing services, the corrupt politicians, the confiscatory taxes, and the general unlivability of Rome, with still other shoppers joining in as I walked out to the street. Did I mention corruption? Something to think about as I shlepped my bags past the neighborhood Maserati Ferrari dealership on the way home.
Our little Minister Counselor complex Villa Pinciana is located right across from the Villa Borghese, Rome's great park with perhaps the world's greatest sculpture collection in its museum. I couldn't figure out why the smell of hippopotamus poo kept wafting out of the Borghese until I took my first morning run and realized the Villa Borghese park also houses the Rome zoo.
After my cab driver and I agreed that the weather was perfect on Saturday morning, sunny and cool, the talk turned straight to every Roman's favorite subject, how the country has deteriorated, the taxes, the failing services, the corruption, the venal politicians. I'd wager that Italians despise their government even more than Americans do theirs.
(him) "...there's not even one that I trust, they're all corrupt..."
(me) "But Andreotti is dead."
(him) "But Berlusconi is alive. Hey, who was Prime Minister when you worked here before?"
(me) "Uh, think it was Giuliano Amato."
(him) "Behh, Amato!! Sorcio male detto!!"
(me) "What's sorcio? "
(him) "It's Roman dialect for a mouse. Amato. A God-damned mouse!!"
We got to the Piazza Navona where I got out before I could get a good vulgar denunciation of every Prime Minister since Andreotti out of him. Poor Amato, a mild-mannered, bespectacled economist who today is the head of the Constitutional Court and who does in fact look a little mousy now that you mention it. He was a sincere and, apparently, uncorrupt Prime Minister, but now whenever I run into Amato, I'll be looking at his ears.
I've discovered that practically every characterization I'd made of Italy, Italians and Rome back in 1992 is not only true, but even truer than I'd thought. And I've been able to discover still more since I returned. The Italians are, in my long-time judgment, the world's most individually brilliant people. Faced with anything that requires willpower, resolute dedication, an unshakeable ego and brains, an Italian will conquer. Like scientific discovery, technological innovation, economic theory, audacious design, art, organized crime, high finance, sports stars... It also means that the Italians do badly on anything that requires teamwork, especially if it requires submitting your ego to someone else's, as is necessary in, for example, winning military battles. And along with the rock-hard egos goes quite a bit of vanity. And, incidentally, the Italians are among the world's best-looking people. But what I realized talking around this weekend is that Italians are not vain about their remarkable good looks, as other peoples would be. (E.g., the Iranians, whose remarkable good looks have fed an individual and national vanity that always leads them to acts of mass hubris and eventually, every generation or so, pulls them down.) Good looks are so common that Italians take them for granted. Italians are not vain about their looks but about their smarts (not intelligence per se but cleverness, quick thinking...smarts.) What was amazing was that every time I floated this theory to an Italian over the weekend, he (or she) not only agreed with me, he trumped me! "Yes, Italians are extremely vain," said one, "but we Romans are the vainest!" (Can you imagine the confusion and misunderstanding, leave aside hurt feelings, if you told an Indonesian, or a Midwesterner, or a German, that his people are vain?)
Long-time friends may remember a piece I did in 2003 after my vacation drive through Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy. I explained that the Italians are practically manic, each one afflicted with at least a mild case of ADD, and totally unsympathetic to self-pity or oversensitivity. I myself am also that way two-thirds of the time, but also have a deeply oversensitive side; I wrote then that during the two-thirds of my life when I'm feeling on top of the world, Italy is just my kind of country and my own ego is perfectly at home with theirs, but that during the one third of the time when I'm feeling introspective or self-pitying, I'm scared to get out of bed. Age has coarsened me, made my ego even tougher and dried up a lot of my old insecurities. Just say it and to hell with what other people think. An unusually perceptive birthday horoscope personality profile noted that, "When you are expressing yourself verbally, this is the time when you will be most relaxed emotionally." Ring a bell? Yeah. I think I'm going to fit in close to perfect this time. Self-pitying days have declined to about 5% now that I'm sixty, and time spent "expressing yourself verbally" is off the charts when you live among Romans.
The Italians are not adventurous travelers. Leave it to the French to travel to the weirdest places they can imagine, the most exotic climes; or leave it to the Australians. Even the risk-dreading Americans are more adventurous than Italians, slightly. (Some time take a look at the dismally low percentage of Americans who have ever held a passport.) The Italians prefer to visit places that, to them, are Italy, like southern France, Argentina, and former colony Libya. The Italians have always viewed New York and San Francisco as Italian cities; when I program International Visitor nominees from other countries, I try to get them to Los Angeles for the West Coast leg of the trip, but not Italians. They've always been frightened by Los Angeles, a physically non-urban city in which few Italian Americans live. Send Italians to San Francisco, their kind of town. So my conversation with the owner of a yuppie boutique wine and spirits shop near the Piazza Colonna took an interesting turn. He was trying to guess what country I was from by my accent; I volunteered being American and then playfully suggested that I was a savage man from a savage country. He set me straight. "No, certain parts of America are not savage. New York City is not savage. San Francisco is not savage. Los Angeles is not savage. about halfway not savage." (I relayed this to another Italian friend who was puzzled he left Boston off the non-savage list.) I'm running this possible new status of LA through conversations with other Italians to see if they can confirm that the sunny city is now safe for Italians or whether my spirit shop yuppie is a Hollywood-struck outlier. Could be the latter, but he delivered his judgment with such breezy hipster matter-of-factness.
In a mood to gamble? Throw in your guess on how long it will take them to get my new place Internet connectivity. One week? Two weeks? A month? Double or nothing. (Post script. Wrote this piece just after I'd arrived on December 2. Connectivity arrived December 27.)