Returning to the city where he once lived, the writer learns to embrace the changes, not all of them pretty.
A few hours after landing in Rome, I crossed the Tiber River toward Trastevere, the neighborhood where I lived more than 15 years ago. The river still slithered with reflections of orange lamppost light that reminded me of dragon scales. A familiar cacophony of droning scooters, clanging plates and stray laughter hit me as I skirted the dinner crowd angling for a seat at Trattoria Da Enzo. The gravity of past destinations pulled me around familiar corners and brought me to my old apartment building next to Santa Cecilia, the centuries-old church and convent. All was as I had left it. And now I wanted to leave it.
Unlike the tourists shooting postcard pictures in the magic-hour light, I looked up at the windows, dark as dead iPhones, and remembered living here with an anarchist punk-rock guitarist who, upon getting a dog, graduated to a bona fide punkabestia (more or less, “punk with beast”). The dog was not house trained, but after a day of pounding Peronis, neither, really, was my roommate. His fights with his girlfriend wrought havoc on our dishware, and the vagabonds screaming Roman threats outside, demanding the money he owed them, invaded my dreams. Don’t get me wrong: I was by no means Santa Cecilia material, but I knew that I was out of my deprivation depth. The time had come to move on.
This wasn’t so much my La Bohème period as my living through somebody else’s, which, when you get down to it, was really just a lack of real estate imagination. I moved out of Trastevere and eventually went to another neighborhood with my future wife before following a career path out of the country.
Now, some dozen years later, I have followed it back as The New York Times’s bureau chief in a critical time for Italy, as surging populists threaten to eviscerate the European Union from within the Continent’s soft underbelly; a new great migration struggles toward Sicilian shores; and a historic pope toils against a mortal clock and entrenched bureaucracy to change the universal Roman Catholic Church.
Beyond the compelling journalistic questions, and Rome being, well, Rome, the city held an extra personal appeal. Our return allowed my wife to reacquaint herself with the city she grew up in and once terrorized in her tiny Fiat 126, a red one with the passenger door held together with telephone cord. (Public service announcement: She’s back.) It gave our young children a chance to better know nonno and nonna, to nail down their Italian, to learn the art of nonchalantly cutting to the front of the line.
And in a city known for never changing, small variations leapt out as revolutionary. The new ubiquity of perfume boutiques scented the city. White subway tile, white painted brick and a street-food sensibility had become the mark of modernism in eateries like Zia Rosetta. The popularity of “Top Chef” cooking shows had made open kitchens, like the minuscule, packed Retrobottega in the city center, all the rage, and, gasp, new management has brought service that matches the delicious food and wine at Testaccio’s Taverna Volpetti.
My old Roman friends, now with Volvos instead of Vespas, appreciated these developments, but they still reserved their highest praise for the earthy temples of Roman cuisine. Many of the old trattorias had succumbed to the guidebook hordes or the advanced age of their owners or the existential dread of preparing another cacio e pepe. But new places like Piatto Romano in Testaccio had stepped up.
Still, a part of me considered moving back a questionable revisiting of a youthful romance. And while my beard has tinseled, the intervening years haven’t exactly been kind to Rome either. A financial crisis and slow growth has led to thigh-high grass in the parks and meridians, garbage strewed across playgrounds and piazzas, empty Peroni bottles of vagrants (maybe my old roommate!) scattered across the city like amber glass bowling pins.
My colleagues and friends in the United States didn’t want to hear about what Romans call “the degradation.” For them, Rome conjured the Grande Bellezza, the Eternal City, La Dolce Vita and other close-tab clichés. Indeed, many American readers think of Rome as a wine-drenched pleasure dome. When, hoping for news leads, I solicited tips on Twitter, I received a barrage of restaurant recommendations.
I saw Rome differently. A city I knew and loved, it struck me as a masterpiece obscured by smudged glass. The uninitiated ignored the imperfections while the inhabitants assigned blame for the offending fingerprints. (Were they the mayor’s? The mob’s?) Professionally, I needed to identify the smears. But personally, I needed to look past them and fall for Rome all over again.
That is where the house hunting came in. We needed to find a place near a good school. Options included a public school where Mussolini had sent his children and a private school run by friars in habits who assured me that the mandatory morning Masses weren’t that religious. (What’s the Italian for oy?) We loved the center — the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo — but also wanted to hear more Italian than English and avoid the tourists marching on Rome with their selfie sticks. Rome has some of the planet’s best weather, so we hoped for outside space. It has some of the world’s worst traffic, so we didn’t want to be far from my office. This turned out to be asking a lot.
The economic doldrums and the Roman habit of keeping houses in the family means that there isn’t much turnover. When a woman on a street warned us that a dead body was about to be taken out of a locked apartment, we hustled the children into the car but then memorized the address where firefighters sawed open the sealed shutters to extract the corpse. We monitored the agency websites, asked doormen to keep an eye out and even got word of our search to the mysterious Princess Circuit of noblewomen, many of whom own properties but can’t afford the upkeep.
The search took us to areas I didn’t know or had overlooked. It also meant I spent a lot of time on hold with the taxi dispatch, each time perplexed as to why, in the country of Verdi, Vivaldi, even Jovanotti, the hold music was a ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
A taxi driver who took us to an apartment on Via Piccolomini declared it “the most beautiful street in Rome” for its view of St. Peter’s Basilica. Our children were more interested in watching goats and sheep graze in the nearby pasture. Over by Via Flaminia, my wife wanted to check out the Borghetto Flaminio antiques market, and I imagined our children outgrowing the Explora children’s museum. On Via Merulana, the barista at the venerable La Panella bakery made me a house espresso with zabaione and gave a yolky spoonful to my daughter. Driving by the Colosseum, my son awoke from a nap to see ancient Rome re-enactors dressed as gladiators and senators for the capital’s 2,770th birthday.
But the city’s latest decline meant there were also things I would rather he didn’t see. Walking around the Ghetto, I felt like the witness to a crime when I stumbled upon a sea gull as big as a Labrador stabbing its beak into a pile of garbage bags. Piazza Vittorio, once on the cusp of being the city’s “it” neighborhood, with an ethnic market and elegant apartments built for noblemen, had become an outdoor flop house. At a school I checked out, a teacher pointed at a felled palm tree on the playground and said the city refused to remove it because it was “a federal palm tree.” When I left a work appointment with a cardinal in Trastevere’s San Callisto Palace, I faced the bar across the street, where I saw a new generation wasting away over Peronis while the same regulars chanted “nuda, nuda” at a model posing for a photo shoot.
But just above Trastevere, sat Monteverde Vecchio, a lush area reached by winding streets or broad staircases that still bear the faded red and yellow A.S. Roma colors from when the soccer team won the Italian championship, and Francesco Totti, the 40-year-old captain who just played his last game with the team, was still called “the golden boy.”
The neighborhood is also home to Villa Doria Pamphili, arguably Rome’s most beautiful park. After a day of apartment hunting, I wanted to refuel in Litro, a favorite of the foodie set for its natural wines and inventive menu. But with two children in tow, we opted for Vivi Bistrot. Nestled in the park amid joggers, kite fliers and picnicking families, the outdoor restaurant is an oasis of healthy sandwiches and smoothies.
Monteverde has long been preferred by foreign reporters for its proximity to the Vatican, while celebrities come for the sweeping views and verdant gardens. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes may have had their rehearsal dinner in the Villa Aurelia, but we looked at midcentury apartment buildings with round terraces, hanging gardens and balconies that give the neighborhood the appearance of midgame Jenga towers. But none of them were right.
I cleared my head of the agency listings that clogged my inbox by running around the Circus Maximus, once the site of Roman chariot races, now a green and gravel trench between the Aventine and Palatine Hills. Romulus, the city’s mythical founder, preferred the Palatine. So did Rome’s emperors, barbarians and clerical nobility. More recently, so did my wife, who in her early 20s used to jump the fence with her friends to smoke cigarettes and drink wine among the ruins. For a veteran of drinking-in-the-park-after-dark summonses back in Cunningham Park in Queens, this was the definition of sophistication.
But unfortunately the Palatine, the source of enough raw beauty and history and buried mystery to restore the rosy tint of Rome to any jaundiced eye, has nothing for rent. So we focused more on the Aventine Hill, the preferred perch of Romulus’s less fortunate and slain twin, Remus. The hill is home to the intoxicating Orange Garden, where the children asked to eat the oranges puddled around the trees. (No.) Atop the hill, we found a quiet paradise where fragrant and violet Judus tree petals fluttered down and grouted between the cobbled stones.
In my earlier Roman residency, I rarely stepped foot on the Aventine. I often walked its perimeter, visiting the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, walking by the Eastern Europeans who set up barber shops on the stone benches on my way to send letters at the modernist Fascist-era post office. The restaurants then had an old-school vibe. Now, the new Romeo Chef & Baker looks like a flagship for the era of food fanaticism: Snowflake sculptures hang from the ceiling; a guy shaves prosciutto at a gorgeous in-house deli; Mason jars, wine crates and tomato cans decorate the area around a sleek bar. Testaccio had become fashionable.
But for me, Aventine held more appeal. There seemed something quiet and irreproachable about this neighborhood above it all. Its exclusivity wasn’t an act. We had a hard time getting anywhere near it. We crossed the Viale Aventino, reinvigorated with new Brazilian sushi restaurants, organic gelaterias, beer bars and modern cafes like Casa Manfredi, and tried our luck in San Saba, another neighborhood on a smaller hill with more life, restaurants and children playing in the streets.
But hardly anything suitable became available. Frustrated, we considered the once unimaginable: my wife’s parents’ Pinciano neighborhood, which I had once considered stuffy and dull. Now I found its 19th-century Liberty-style buildings elegant, the promise of strolling with my children in Villa Borghese park civilized, and its expensive haberdashers, including the excellently named Gentleman, deeply satisfying. (Little known fact: Many Italian men aspire to dress like imaginary British gentlemen, so when British men think they are dressing like Italians, they are often copying an Italian idea of themselves.) My old Roman friends quipped that I had become bourgeois in my old age. But I was happy getting my morning cappuccino and ordering two espresso cups of frothy milk for Elena and Luca at Natalizi’s crowded counter with the elderly tie-and-sweater-vest set.
And despite all of the mocking from the Trasteverini, the neighborhood had undergone rejuvenation. While the city center seemed covered in Peroni bottles, the Macro contemporary art museum had arisen from a converted Peroni factory. A vibrant restaurant scene had popped up around it. At Pro Loco, everything, from the pecorino to the guanciale on the once unthinkable amatriciana pizza, came from the often overlooked region of Lazio. The much feted and now expanded Marzapane remains one of the hardest reservations in town. One morning, I stopped into Faro, or lighthouse, a new coffee shop in the subway-tile style where the baristas explained the origin of the coffee and its flavor notes.
My wife and children went back to the United States to finish the school year, and I looked for apartments between reporting assignments. In Turin and Milan and Tuscany, where talking down about Roman incivility is a tradition going back at least to the Etruscans, the disgust with the capital’s reduced state was expected. But I heard similar complaints in Sicily, and even in Naples, hardly the Copenhagen of the Mediterranean, where the mayor delighted in suggesting to me ways Rome could resolve their refuse issues.
These conversations, and the general despair of Romans about the state of their city, got me down. I kept thinking of my old apartment in Trastevere, and that feeling I had when I first came back. It seemed the degradation contained there had spread through the city, and as I walked around, I began to wonder if Rome’s answer to its garbage emergency wasn’t to conceal the trash under unkempt fields of tall grass.
But then, I remembered something else. Walking with my wife and children through Villa Pamphili, as I complained about the Serengeti state of the lawns, my 4-year-old son paused from kicking his Roma soccer ball through the high grass to note a stalk that stood taller than him.
“It’s up to here!” he said, pointing above his head, his eyes full of contagious wonder. It was new to him, and he liked what he saw. I looked around at the stately villa, the murmuring fountains and, yes, even at the overgrown grass. Rome had its issues. The degradation was real. But the thing about a great beauty is that no matter its age or condition, it could still turn and give you that look and send the heart aflutter.
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