I came to the US by ship in 1970 when I was five years old, leaving the old Rome behind. This particular Rome was etched in my mind, even as I returned each summer to visit my family. A Rome that evoked my grandmother’s hand as she walked me to the cafe’ each morning, singing “Dammi il braccio , mia piccina,” (“Take my arm, my little one,” from La Boheme). To which I’d reply “Obbedisco signor,” (“I obey, sir”). Our special ritual which ended in a cappuccino for her (I would lap up the froth) and a crustless “tramezzino”sandwich with eggs and spinach for me. This old Rome involved taking the bus downtown with my parents to see Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” after crossing the city’s ancient walls into Piazza del Popolo. Then strolling through the shade of Villa Borghese’s stone pines on our way to Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne,”depicting the moment after the chase when Apollo finally lays hold of Daphne as her body turns into a tree. My father would explain the mastery of the statue’s movement, but my eyes would shift to the delicacy of her hands transforming to leaves. This old Rome always sang to me in her lyrical voice as I heard children play, friends chat, lovers scream. A language filled with emotive words that in my mind could all have been used by the Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi, every last one, no matter how common their meaning.
This was a dependable Rome, an unchanging Rome, one where the ladies wore loden coats and fine leather shoes, immediately recognizable anywhere in the world. One where the labels on all the clothes read “Made in Italy.” One where the opening of McDonald’s near Piazza di Spagna in 1986 brought fashion legend Valentino together with actors, singers and politicians to denounce “the degradation of the historic center.”This was a Rome of the past. A country where for over a century, millions had busied themselves with leaving, while very few thought about coming in. My own father quit a research position at the University, which he felt was stagnant, for American academia. Before him my great-uncle sold his every possession, and with a diamond in his shoe, fled the Fascist threat of the 1920s to settle in Brazil. They both ended up improving their prospects with successful careers.
When throughout my childhood I spoke of returning to live in Italy, my father said no. He insisted I study in the US, supporting me through college and beyond. This was an important part of his American dream. So I stayed in the pre-gentrified New York of the 1980s – the grittier, chaotic Big Apple personified by the neurotic genius Woody Allen and the mythical Mayor Ed Koch. I was mesmerized by how this city held on to it’s past, while pointing straight to the future, pushing the social and cultural limits in new and interesting ways. Think Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. I was energized by the great diversity NYC offered – ethnic, religious, sexual – this place had it all. Differences were graffitied, tattooed, or swept up in a mohawk with pride. I traveled the world at will on the 1,2 and 3 subway lines, a world squeezed tight in 22 square miles, yet we all more-or-less got along. In the 1990s I left, but I carried this love of diversity with me to every subsequent city.
When I went to Rome for the summers, however, I always looked back. I sought the familiar, culturally distinct Italy of my youth. I wanted the place where I had locked arms with my “nonna,” and the place where each time I hopped on a bus, the soothing refrain of my mother-tongue was all I could hear. I wanted the place of loden coats and fine leather shoes which I recognized easily. I did not want to find a dress in a shop with a tag that read “made somewhere else.” And the original 18th century plan of the Spanish Steps before the McDonald’s was just fine by me.
In the last few decades, with globalization, the landscape has changed, and this melancholy I felt for the past surprised me. A soft form of nationalism gripped me. Was this the same person who embraced NY’s multicultural sparkle through the arts and a global circle of friends? Was this the same person who delights in languages and is found dipping injera in spicy goat stew or sushi in soy? Was this the same person who travels through Europe, Africa, and Asia to meet a rainbow of beautiful faces? And was this the same person whose children attend Spanish immersion public schools to become well-rounded adults?
Who was this stranger caught up in me? The me who cheers for open borders and a European Union that symbolizes peace. Who was this stranger caught up in me? The “immigrant” me whose family left their birth country to follow their dreams. And where was this proud citizen-of-the-world that has always been me?
A feeling of nostalgia from recycled memories took over “me.” I came back each summer to find a lost sense of home, a clearly defined Italy. A comfort, a sameness, a purity, were appealing to this other me. I sought a place to slow down, connect with my roots, and recapture the truth of my childhood. I sought a place of innocence where everything I loved about this particular country was accessible to me. A distilled and sentimental Rome of the past brought up the same longings as a black-and-white photo of my mom smiling, when she was young and pretty.
For the past two years, my visits to Italy have changed significantly. My mother (who moved back in 1999) fell ill. So I know her residential neighborhood much more intimately. I have dealt with hospitals, social workers, lawyers and the health care bureaucracy. And when the state spinned its wheels, I found myself on the black market to obtain an official certificate quickly.
Now, each summer, I visit two Romes. The old one is found in the center, or so I like to think. The city’s cultural heritage is being restored through various private donations. The coliseum’s 35 million dollar bath was sponsored by leather-goods maker Tod’s. Thanks to jeweler Bulgari, the Spanish steps fall from the Church of Trinita dei Monti like strands of iridescent pearls. And in honor of the Trevi fountain’s new sparkle, funded by fashion house Fendi, I’m inclined to throw on a strapless black gown and wade through the basin, like Anita Ekberg, because maybe “La Dolce Vita” (the good life) does still exist. The streets are (relatively) clean, paved with tourists, and even if the “Made in Italy” label is found only in the luxury market, at least it can still be found somewhere. In this historic downtown, I continue to dream.
Rome number two is made up of the parts of the city where most people actually live. The garbage cascades from collection bins into the streets. The transportation system is bust. Walls are marred with defiant graffiti. Posters declare “Too many refugees on the shoulders of Rome. Vote Iorio for Mayor.” Though the Mayor elected this June was Virginia Raggi – young, female and from the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement – who campaigned on legality and transparency. There is a tangible slide in the quality of life and many I meet throw the weight of their problems on the shoulders of the immigrants here. This is a Rome I DON’T like to see. Yet the anger on the lips of the residents is the same inescapable rage, from that same sense of betrayal, found in the US. And I can’t help but think that my own small nostalgia is amplified by a whole class of people who look back to a time when they were economically viable and had a political voice. A middle class that has had the rug pulled from under their feet.
As an immigrant whose family improved their lot elsewhere, I prefer to think the outrage towards people like me is misplaced. I like to think the resentment should be aimed at the political and economic institutions or trends that left the middle class stranded. A class that in the 1980s was revered. A class that made up the bedrock of our economic “progress,” progress that in the end did not benefit all equally. To quote Neal Gabler, “In the 1950’s and ’60s, economic growth democratized prosperity. In the 2010s, we have democratized financial insecurity.” (The Atlantic, May 2016) Is this the end of capitalism Paul Mason (author of “PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future”) is writing about? Are there any possible compromises? Where do we go from here?
Since I am one who by nature tries to move beyond anger (as inevitable as it may sometimes be), I decided to walk the streets of my mother’s neighborhood with Alpina, my 10 pound Bolognese, to talk to people on the street.