The Faces of Rome

To me, the heat in Rome is less the sweat pearling up on my forehead and more the chorus of cicadas serenading the summer from the tops of umbrella pines. As I walked with my dog outside our building each morning, the cicadas announced to me I was miles from my foggy home. Their shrill clicks followed us down the residential streets of my mother’s neighborhood, past the place I  lived for the first five years of my life, down to Ponte Milvio, a bridge originally built in 206 BC.

Along the way my dog, a ten pound Bolognese, used her own criteria to explore the Eternal City. She sniffed her way down the miniscule sidewalks, ran with her stubby legs to the shade, and plopped herself down in any number of shops with marble pavements and a touch of breeze. If she found air conditioning, which is more common now then when I was a kid, she refused to leave.

May I take a moment to introduce the little beast? Her full name is Alpina Tahoe (inspired by the snow-capped mountains of the two places – Italy and California – my children call home). She is quintessentially “cute”- a small white ball of fur fairly typical of her breed, though she sports a puppy cut resulting in tighter curls. Here in Italy the owners of her canine admirers claim “she is a sophisticated lady, blonde with a perm. How can they not fall for her?”She has otherwise been called “a wind-up toy, a stuffed animal, a marshmallow, a cloud, a cotton ball, and most commonly a little sheep.” I was recently stopped on the street by a teen, who exclaimed “My God, she looks like an emoji.” That is Alpina. She is often found wagging her tail, begging for human attention, or chasing after a ball. She is by nature quite calm and in tranquil spaces doesn’t require a leash (though my husband would disagree, claiming all dogs require a leash).

So while here for three weeks with my mother, Alpina and I had our routine. We left the apartment early, and walked down to the Tevere – the beautiful river, where legend claims the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned, then found and nursed by a she-wolf. Along our route, Alpina facilitated friendships I would never have made on my own – entering stores for treats, a cool floor, and affection. Relationships were born, and soon she developed regular pit-stops, which increased the length of our outings from an hour to three.

I joked that only a social person could own such a dog, and exploited her kind disposition to begin my own conversations with the people of Rome. These are summaries of what I discovered about what’s happening here:

The electrician

Rome is a mess. I don’t want to walk down the street with my wife anymore, because all she does is complain “the garbage bin is overflowing again” and “look at all the graffiti” and “today there are more people begging for change.” So I say to her, you live here, you watch the news, you know what’s going on. Do I have to listen to this every time we go out? I don’t believe in a dictator, and I would not vote for Trump,  but if there were someone slapping the hands of people who throw trash on the sidewalks, our city would not be a dump. Now we have discovered the mafia here too. Rome has no more rules.

In my opinion, we have to care for our fellow Italians first. The other day I saw an old woman hunched over, asking for a coin. So I gave her five Euros and my wife asked, surprised, “why so much?” I replied, she’s one of us and she might not make it to the end of the day , not because of her age, but because of her circumstances. Meanwhile the government gives waves of immigrants a place to stay and free meals. They even complain about the food and I’m wondering, were they eating gourmet back home?

The government fixes them up in camps or hotels and then what? There they stay. You can see kids bused in after school in nice clothes, looking like everyone else, then they change into rags to play in the dirt. The camps are filthy and hopeless. There is no place to go on from there.

The gypsies have always been here. But they are supposed to be nomads. Nomadic people live in a place for a while, then move on. But there has been no moving on. If you want to stay, you find a place to live, you pay rent, you work and pay taxes. That’s what needs to be done when you stay.

Me: Are you closing your shop in August?

Who can afford to close for vacation in August? I can barely survive staying open all year. Everything changed with the euro, becoming much more expensive. Goods and services doubled in price. Now Germany runs the show and we have no money. The middle class is just hanging on.

Me: What do you think of guns in the US?

In the US you can walk into a store and say “I’d like some bread, a pack of cigarettes and a semi-automatic weapon please.” That is one kind of problem.

Here you shoot someone in self-defense and they sue you. There was the case of an older man who was robbed by a gypsy. When the victim shot the intruder, the intruder sued and was paid for his losses. Is that what you’d call law and order?

Dry Cleaner

I am lucky, I have my family and a steady job. My husband loves me enough, but he likes betting on horses, so we have little money. We never had children, but I have nieces and nephews. My sister’s daughter died of cancer while she was still young, so we raised her kids. I thank God for them. For me, family is what counts the most. That’s what keeps me strong.

Two Men Sitting on Wall

Why is your dog not on a leash? Aren’t you afraid she will run in the street? When my friend was about to be hit by a truck, I jumped out to rescue him. After, he scolded me for saving his life.

Me: Come on, “La vita e’ bella” (life is beautiful)

Life is beautiful for the people sunbathing in the Caribbean. Life is not beautiful for people reduced to begging (he pulls out a laminated picture of the Virgin Mary, perhaps showing me what he’s trying to sell.) Then his friend chimes in – the “professor” has traveled the world, he’s been to many places. I was in New York ten days after the twin tours were destroyed. What a world.

At the Bar

Me: I see the headline in today’s paper reads “The Chinese are buying soccer.”

Barista: The Chinese are buying everything. There are many here in Rome, living in nice neighborhoods. They own shops that sell cheap goods. There is also a large population in Tuscany who have taken over the fabric industry. That used to be one of our strengths, but now… The Chinese have money. Along with the Russians, they are purchasing real estate and businesses. What is left for us?

The immigration started with Phillipinos in Italy. They are a quiet, industrious group who became housecleaners and caregivers. Now people arrive from all over the world – Indians, a lot of folks from Bangladesh, and there are entire sections on the outskirts of Rome that belong to the Muslims. Italians are not used to this. We were never a colonial power. When we tried, we failed. So we are not like France which has always hosted Algerians. Before, we were the ones leaving. Now everyone is flooding in.  In ten years, we will be like the US. A big issue is that many groups don’t integrate, they keep to themselves. And the ones who work send their paychecks back home, so they don’t improve our economy. We were already in a slump, and the money still doesn’t circulate, because much of it goes abroad.

Life is hard for us, worse than before. Italians would vacation the whole month of August. Most of the city would shut down completely. But small businesses need to stay open as much as we can. Because we have to pay bills  no matter what. So even if one person comes to buy coffee, that’s better than nothing. This neighborhood is pretty well-off, but even here people who used to come seven days a week, now show up every other morning. And I mean for a 3 euro breakfast if they order a fresh squeezed juice, nothing more.

Me: You have a new Mayor, Virginia Raggi. I wonder if she’ll make changes.

Barista: She won’t make one bit of difference. She can’t. The change needs to come from the top and cut deep into the system. Until you purge all the mafiosi that have been in power since the 1980s, we will have the same problems. There is too much corruption.  She is fighting an uphill battle, sadly.

The man with the bird and two officers

Man: Buongiorno signora, how are you today? What a beautiful puppy. She is so small, almost like a stuffed animal.

My neighbor has a dog, a very large animal. And if you can believe it, she lets this enormous pet sleep with her. It’s disgusting. If I were her husband, I would not let the dog on my bed. This big, dirty beast. My neighbor is crazy. Sick in the head.

I don’t have a dog, but I once had a bird. This little bird lived in my garden and would sit on my shoulder. Tweet, tweet, she would sing. I built her a home and fed her each day. When she died, I was terribly upset. I built her an altar, a shrine in the garden where she used to sit.

Officer: Really, who is crazier you or your neighbor? Who is the nutty one here?

Man: Yes, you’re right I am screwed up.

The only person at home was my mother. She had beautiful hair, perfect I think. Every morning she look so well groomed. But she passed. I stayed in Italy for her. I had a girlfriend in the US, a real catch. She was the head nurse in her department with a fancy apartment. She asked me to live with her, but I said no to stay with my family. If only I had today’s brain back then. But I was young, in my twenties. I never married and chose to stay with my mother.

The Romanians

Young Man: I work all day in the kitchen. It’s boiling in there. Too hot in the summer months. But I need to make money to send home. That’s why I stay.

Woman: I come from a very poor family with five children. My mother did nothing, nothing for us. We were hungry. We didn’t have shoes. I could not go on that way. My friend here (pointing to a middle-aged man) is smart, but he drinks too much. He is always holding a bottle. You should not be so drunk! Last night he had enough sense to sleep there in the Church. They take care of us when we come, they give us food and a bed.

Me: Would you ever go back to Romania?

Woman: No, if you can believe it, life is better here.

The owner of a hair salon

Me: Is there an answer to the world’s problems? Where do we go from here?

What is the answer? We don’t have one right now. The problems are too new, too particular. We are living in a very specific time when a young man takes a truck and drives into a crowded street with innocent people celebrating Bastille day, killing 84 people. We are living in a time of Paris, Brussels and Istanbul. We can’t trust anymore. We must always keep our eyes open and question if the man sitting next to us is our friend or our enemy. We can no longer walk out the door and leave the key on the ring. That is no longer our world. Our world is one of suspicion and factions.

I am very concerned with what’s happening in Turkey right now, after the attempted coup. There is no other solution but to arrest soldiers, police, professors and judges. They either go back to a military dictatorship or they settle for Erdogan who has a relationship with the West. Looking at Turkey is like looking at the Soviet Union in the 1920s – we are now seeing purges like Stalin. Stalin shipped his enemies off to Siberia, what will Erdogan do with his? Will he listen to Europe or the US? He doesn’t care, except about his own power. The temptation of remaining in the European Union will mean nothing to him. And how many Turks will now want to come to the West? More refugees right on our border.

I see us moving back towards the cold war. The Russia and the US going back to the way things once were. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, tiny bits of countries have sought independence, with so much bloodshed. Do you remember Yugoslavia, what happened there? Some places have been more successful with democracy than others. In some countries, there is no democratic tradition and no leadership. Combine that with angry ethnic groups. Everyone wants a piece of the pie at somebody else’s expense.

The world has always been divided into haves and have-nots. That is human nature, that will never change. For there to be an answer, the haves would have to give some of their wealth to the have-nots. Will that ever happen? For the rich to stay rich, they must exploit the poor, and I’m not only talking about individuals, but about entire countries, even hemispheres. You think I’m a leftie? I have never voted for the left in my life. I just call a spade a spade. The world still revolves around money, that’s the driving force. We are who we are.

When I was young, I voted, I held on to hope. I believed we could move forward, improve. Now I am no longer sure. Don’t get me wrong, voting is very important and I believe in democracy, but will my little ballot make any difference ? I don’t think so. I might as well stay in bed one extra hour to snooze.

I believe the answer is for all of us to keep doing our best. We are in unique times. To be fair, Italy has been very lucky. We have not had a war in 70 years. Our economy was good for a pretty long stretch. We are not going back to those times for the moment. Now my problems are your problems and yours are mine. The issues are global, they affect us all, even if not equally. All I can do is keep going – open my shop doors each morning, work hard, make changes, adapt, take fewer vacations, keep on.

In general I am an optimist. That’s how I get out of bed. You can see that in my face. I don’t want to seem overly negative.  It’s for the young generation to decide what comes next.

The florist

The situation here for small business owners is not very good. We can no longer afford to close. We stay open to get whatever commissions we can. Summers used to be my busiest time, but now that the climate  has changed, many weddings have moved to winter or fall. At least then people know to plan for indoors, and if by chance there is sun, the weather is cool. I am doing ok. I have ups and downs. My huband operates a restaurant at a big sports complex  here. We get by. The most important thing we must do is save for our daughters, put away money for them. The public schools no longer serve the needs of the people. We pulled them out to go private, to give them a better education. In the public schools children are no longer learning as students did in the past. The quality has gone down, the standards are lower. Everyone is promoted. Some of the teachers are stuck in their ways. Our daughters need their own  saftey net. So many young people leave Italy In search of a job. You wouldn’t believe how many, everyone who can get out. It’s no longer about being able to buy a house or own property. Wealth is about having a fund for your children to find a better life somewhere else.  Italy is on the decline. We depend on tourism to keep us alive. But we have no industry. The only thing we have going for us is the cultural heritage of the past.


Travel to My Two Romes

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.