William Viall: Seven days in the texture of Rome
03:40 PM EST on Monday, February 12, 2007

PERHAPS I HAVE a tin ear, but I find the Italian tongue slightly overrated. I’m just a Swamp Yankee philistine, preferring Russian’s earthy fricatives. But Italian hand language is another matter.

Basking in the morning sunlight of the Milan airport shuttle bus, a group of Alitalia pilots put on an impromptu street ballet at chest level. So fluid and graceful — a hand rippling across a sea, another sprinkling seasoning over some exotic dish, or swirling up to the heavens as fine, votive smoke — and those twinkling eyes. Supremely happy fellows, all manicured and shorn to the nines, sporting the most extraordinary sunglasses. The star performer with a magnificent spinnaker nose grew a tight tuft of whiskers strictly between his jaw line and throat.

Such was my introduction to Italy. I’d long had it in my head that a trip to Rome is a universal obligation, and I wanted to get square with the gods. Moreover, I’m one of those fellows for whom Mohammed Atta left more questions than answers in the dust of the World Trade Center, and I’ve been trying to reconstruct an understanding of Western Civilization ever since. Classical Greece confuses me, so I turn to Ancient Rome, about which I read almost a dozen books, of varying quality, for my trip.

Connecting to Rome I took the train to the center, past well tended gardens and through the Aurelian wall built seventeen centuries ago to keep northern barbarians like me away. From the station I wended my way on foot toward the hotel. Immediately hypnotized by the maze of narrow alleys that pass for streets, and the sensation of walking on cobblestones, and by the way the orange, rusty walls drink in the crisp, springtime light, I was enraptured with the micro Eternal City.

Looking over my shoulder to see the Colosseum peering out from behind a wall, I was overtaken by strange, misty emotions. Strange emotions indeed, considering the tens of thousands of men, women and animals who perished there for the mob’s entertainment. And how fitting that Rome’s spectacular monument to man’s brutality to man has been turned into a modern-day spectacle rung with gelato and trinket stands. Local hucksters in classical garb ham with the tourists for a nominal fee, repeatedly wailing, “Oh, Cleopatra, forgive me!” as they clutch the women.

In the amphitheater the flamboyant, condescending British voice on the electronic guide you press to your ear resembles that of the slithery actor with arched brow who played the evil emperor in all the 1960s gladiator movies. But that’s part of Rome’s genius. Leave it to the younger Russians and French to contemplate mankind’s dark nature. Having endured over two and half millennia of often brutal history, the Romans have tired of seeking meaning, and look to indulge the senses, surpassing everyone in the arena of color, texture and shape, and of course, taste.

Packed with a mystifying array of Italian packaged food, Caffé Camerino’s interior surely dates back to the 1950s. Repeatedly I gazed up, expecting to compare stamped, tin ceiling tiles with those of Greenwich Village’s Caffé Reggio, but instead found a curved ceiling of beige Lucite, like a train car, with large coffee bean patterns. At least once a day I ostensibly pilgrimaged to Camerino for the cioccolato, a rich, gooey cocoa liquid, but really it was for Maura’s cheerful performance.

Reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live Greek diner sketch, Maura, in matching burgundy bow tie and vest, works the knobs of the hissing espresso machine for the throng on the other side of the counter, calling out a staccato, verbal stream like some liturgical chant. “Ciao! Macchiato! Ciao! Cappuccino! Cioccolato! Ciao! Ciao!” with leaden eyes that don’t quite seem to focus, Maura’s dim, sultry, ponytailed henchman repeats the liturgy, as he distributes product.

With the six or so words of English and Italian between us, Maura and I struck up a kind of friendship. Several times a day I disproved the whole notion that Italians will be tickled pink with a tossed smattering of their language, but Maura grinned at my feeble attempts, and amid the caffé’s tumult would take the time to draw a daisy in the foam of my cappuccino.

One thing I constantly sought but never found in seven days was a harried, frustrated or annoyed look on a Roman’s face. Himalayan monks should be so centered.

Across the street from Caffé Camerino lies a city-block-sized pit of ancient rubble. Feral cats, proud, plump and immaculate, luxuriate in the sun of the Area Sacra dell’ Argentina. A complex of four temples, the oldest dates back to the 3rd Century B.C. Most of what remains of classical Rome rests some four yards below street level. Covered by earth and then built upon by subsequent generations, vast archaeological treasures remain hidden from view, preserved, perhaps forever, while ruins on the surface crumble, victims to pollution and the tourist’s tread.

Rome is a study in entropy and the Stoic or Buddhist concept of impermanence. We see it as a sign of weakness to be hurriedly covered over or obliterated, but with a more organic view of the universe, Romans see decay as a key element of beauty and art, and celebrate the eternal coming and going of all things.

Hopefully Italy never makes it back to the Axis of Evil, because we might actually succeed in that occupation and renovate the place. Halliburton could have a field day.

Rome humbles and overwhelms the visitor, uncorking a flood of vague emotion and thought. The Forum did this most for me. Each time I stumbled over its ruins, trying to make sense of time’s scope and scale, I couldn’t escape the thought of how important the physical focal point of Roman power was two thousand years ago, and what a mess the concrete and marble is today. The sorry state of Rome’s former seat of power should give pause to any overreaching imperialist of our day.

The Roman gods had a funny way of handing me my hat. At the airport security control on my way home, the most breath-taking woman I encountered during seven Roman days kept vigil. A classic Italian beauty, wonderfully dark, with plump lips like ripe olives, I was thrilled at the sound of the metal detector’s ping. Once cleared of suspicion, putting my boots back on, I was undone at 5 a.m. “I think your security measures are a bit lax,” I stammered to the presiding demi-goddess.

“What? I don’t understand.”

“That was all a bit quick for my taste. These are brutal, dangerous times. I don’t feel right leaving here. Shouldn’t you sequester me in a room somewhere and give me a more thorough examination?”

Having explained away my stale joke, I wanly waved to my vision in uniform as the escalator whisked me away. She generously smiled back and called out, “Bye-bye.”

William A. Viall III is a Providence advertising man.