Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy. We’ve just arrived in Rome.
In Rome, we are staying in the Hostel Luciano, a small hotel next to the Big Railway Station in a street where every building has a different hotel business running on every floor. The Luciano is up a flight of stairs that smell faintly of frying breakfasts, and through a wrought iron door into a small foyer, filled with blonde German girls on school trips.
Our bathroom is an Italian cultural blind spot; the shower is a nozzle mounted on the wall over the toilet. The mirror over the sink (two steps away from the same toilet) has a bare bulb mounted on either side, and no matter how carefully we shower, both are rained on every morning. I’m assured that the outside sockets are not “hot”, but Mr Tabubil brushed my hand against the similar bare bulb that dangles from a wire a foot above my pillow, and the filament exploded in a shower of red sparks.
We're taking nothing for granted.
We won’t eat breakfast here. On our first morning, we tiptoed out of our room and peered, yawning, into the little breakfast nook to see just how continental the breakfast would be.
I saw a man break open a bread roll with his hands, then put it aside and leave. I saw our manageress pick up the gnawed roll and place it before a woman at another table.
We decided that one of the little cafés back in the termini was probably a delightful place for a morning brioche.
But we had air-conditiong. And in the heat of a late Roman summer, that is something glorious!
Rome was dreadfully hot – a sapping, sticky heat, almost forty degrees and more than a million percent humidity in the shade. We would go out in the morning and look at churches (because I am an art history junkie like that) and then come back to the hotel and sleep a long roman siesta, and go out again at four when the sapping heat had begun to drop, and walk until late at night, when the city was cool.
There are other ways to keep cool in Rome. We sat for a while one evening in the pleasant (save for the six thousand under-talented artists shilling original oil paintings of flowery piazzas and wobbly church towers) Piazza Navona and I remembered one very special way of keeping cool.
One of my favorite college professors had done his PhD in art history right here in Rome. He is retired now, but still teaches one seminar a year, and every summer brings a group of students and alumni to Rome, and hopes to teach them to appreciate the city the way the way he does. The Piazza Navona is a long, round-edged piazza with a large fountain – the fountain of the sixteenth century world’s greatest rivers. (The Nile for Africa, the Ganges for Asia, the Danube for Europe and the Platte for America.)
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the drains on the Four Rivers fountain would be plugged up on hot summer days. The Piazza would be flooded, and the first families of the city would spend the afternoon splashing in their carriages around and around the Piazza, seeing and being seen in the cool of the water.
A few years ago, Professor Wallace decided to block up the fountain himself, and convinced one of his students to dive in with wads of newspaper. It worked. The effect was charming. The professor and his students stood, beaming, as they watched the water spill over the lip of the fountain and creep out toward the buildings at the edge of the Piazza. Eventually a carabineri (policeman) sauntered toward him and suggested that he unplug the fountain, immediately, please, because the shopkeepers at the edge of the piazza were about to be flooded out.
“But don’t you understand?” Professor Wallace cried, waving his arms. “This is what you Romans used to do every summer! Have you no appreciation for your own cultural heritage?”
When he tells this story, Professor Wallace still becomes emotional, moved to grievous frustration by the arid and stony soil that is the modern Roman soul, by their lack of poetry and sensitivity and any awareness of their own context within the grand sweeping canvas of Italian history.
In the actual event, the policeman was unmoved.
“Unblock the bloody fountain, you foreign idiot, and we’ll leave it there, eh?”
Professor Wallace waxed wrathful, but unplugged the fountain.