All the same, when I walked around Rome for six or seven hours, as I did last Friday, I couldn’t help getting overwhelmed with something approximating the giddiness of first love. With my old friend Mario, a Dutch guy who speaks perfect Italian and lives here now with his Russian wife (who looks like an Italian Madonna), we traipsed from square to church to fountain to charming square, stopping now and then for a cappuccino or some tourist-grade pasta. It was great. But Rome has its underside too, just like everywhere else.
We started out at the Pantheon and from there quickly made our way to what is no doubt my favorite place in all of Rome – a little square called Piazza de la Minerva. A diminutive obelisk planted on the back of a stone elephant stands, like a candle on a child’s birthday cake, at the center point of the square. The square itself is framed by a handful of deceptively modest structures, including one simple stone building whose walls glow pale Robin’s-egg blue, a lovely contrast with the ivory-white walls of the nearby church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The church’s interior, with its frescoes by Filippino Lippi and its vaulted, dark blue gothic ceiling decked with stars, is just breathtakingly beautiful.
As we left Piazza de la Minerva in search of this famous chocolate shop just down the road, we suddenly stumbled on a homeless man sleeping on the cobblestones under a huge, grimy-yellow blanket. Mario told me he is a fixture here, and pointed out, on the opposite side of the street, the dirty cobblestones that serve as the poor man’s bathroom. It made me think of our homeless lady who sleeps in front of the Flower Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, where my shopkeeper friends tear their hair out over our inability to do anything, either to help her or to remove her.
In a word, Rome too hasn’t got it all figured out. It has its homeless. It has its graffiti – a whole lot of it, in the best (or worst) traditions of any Brooklyn train yard. And it has its famous strikes. America, arguably, has too few labor strikes. Italy has too many. From one week to the next, my friends here don’t know whether their kids will actually stay in school that day (the teachers go on strike at the drop of a pin, always unannounced).
Far worse than the strikes or the graffiti are the prostitutes who line certain arteries connecting Rome’s central district with the suburbs. One can’t blame the poor girls, of course, most of whom have been lured here from Eastern Europe by traffickers in cahoots with local police and politicians. Their presence, I mean, of the prostitutes, reminds me of the miserable fate of so many post-capitalist East European nations.
Finally, for the record, the chocolate shop near Piazza della Minerva turned out to be way too expensive (fifty euros for half a pound of chocolate?).