Friday, February 21, 2014

Roman Summer (3)

Because everything was new to me I walked almost everywhere.  I dawdled, reading the signs in shop windows.  I smelled the air coming out of open doors and even up from the sewer.  (Having gone to all the trouble to come there, I was not going to miss anything.  If I had had a list of things not to miss, the Great Sewer of Tarquinius Priscus would have been on it.)  By midday it was hot, but I had learned in Rio that heat is a matter of attitude, of how I held my body: no striding about with Teutonic purposefulness, but a languid stroll and in a day or so I would be completely comfortable in a white linen suit and Borsolino Panama, a bella figura.  I considered draping my coat across my shoulders, cape-like, but felt that would be too much and might even be illegal for non-Italians.
As I walked around the City I picked up scraps of printed ephemera to get a feel for the culture and to paste in my journal.  I stopped frequently to sit on park benches or at outdoor tables and write about what I had just seen, even if I knew as I was doing it that it was completely unimportant.  I drew in my sketchbook and skimmed discarded newspapers.  Looking at a map of the City, I am amazed how much I walked.  My trail across Rome looks like one of those plots you get when you put a GPS on a wandering moggy.  But everything was new and interesting to me and I was  --  and still am  --  very easy to amuse.

I settled into simple routine.  I would leave my apartment fairly early and dawdle over a caffè americano and pastry at the restaurant  downstairs and form some idea of what I wanted to do that day, then take a bus to Piazza del Populi and from there begin my wanderings around the old part of the City.  Bus service around the city was cheap and clean and efficient and, save when I was moving in or moving out with luggage, I never used a taxi.  The busses were sometimes crowded and there were pickpockets, but that was just part of the Roman experience.
When I am out on foot during the day I eat little.  Perhaps a small toasted sandwich or only nibble on a Maria.  I ate as much to balance the coffee or whatever I had drunk as from any hunger, and may not eat again until I was back home in the evening.  Eventually I fell into the habit of going to the evening service at St. Peter’s, which was usually being said by a visiting foreign priest basking in his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say Mass at St. Peter’s, and then walk back though the darkening streets of the old City to have supper in an island of light at some outdoor cafe before I took a bus back to my apartment where I went to bed tired and contented.  It was a very good life. 

Before I left home I had told friends that mail could be sent to me in Rome in care of American Express, which even then was an old-fashioned arrangement, but then I was usually trying to time travel.  The American Express office was on the Piazza d’Espagna at the foot of the Spanish Steps, which was a fine place to lounge over coffee while writing in my journal or ostentatiously reading my mail.  Composing letters is part of my writing process: I first write in my journal, then extract from the journal to put together my letters and, eventually, draw on both of these for whatever I will eventually do with what I have written, as I am doing now.  Nowadays I realize that sending letters by post may seem as affected and archaic as sealing my envelopes with wax and dispatching them by runner with a cleft stick.  Nonetheless, the very obsoleteness of the process gave me pleasure. 
As for actually sending mail, I had been warned off the Italian Post Office and early on had crossed the river to Vatican City to use their post office for my out-going letters.  As an independent state the Vatican maintains its own Post, whose mail took about half the time to reach California as did that of the Italian Post, which was widely said to be the second worst in Europe.  Knowledgable travelers assure me that a letter mailed from a rural post office in Bhutan will reach home before a letter entrusted to the Italian mails.  The worst postal service in Europe was in Albania where, until recently, letter-writers were shot.  One still remembers those grainy, black-and-white newsreels of Albanians crossing the Adriatic in their pathetic little boats to mail their letters from Italy.

Some years back, when I first thought about going to Italy, I read a book by Luigi Barzini called The Italians, which supplied me with a satisfying set of potted opinions about Italy and the Italians without the bother of ever actually going there or meeting any of them.  At the time I knew nothing about Barzini and never saw anything else by him, but a few months ago I remembered the book and googled Barzini and found the story.

The 1907 Peking-to-Paris auto race was won by the Italian car driven by Prince Scipioni Borghesi  --  How is that for a way to begin a story?   Have I not said that the world was more interesting in those days?  --  and the Prince was accompanied by the journalist Luigi Barzini.
Barzini, 1874-1947, had been sent as a foreign correspondent to Qing Dynasty China where he covered the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and was embedded with the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).  After accompanying Prince Borghesi on the Peking-to-Paris auto race, he was in WWI a correspondent with the Italian Army.  After the War he became an active supporter of Mussolini. He covered the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Russia and served in the Fascist government during WWII; when Italy went over to the Allies, Barzini remained with Mussolini in the Italian Social Republic.  He died destitute in Rome in 1947.  But if one has lived richly, what does it matter if one dies poor?  What need have the deceased for money?
It sounded like an interesting life though it did not actually sound like the fellow who wrote my book, who turned out to be his son, Luigi Barzini, Jr.

Barzini, Jr., 1908-84, was also a journalist, though he had a less colorful career.  No doubt through his father’s Fascist contacts he ghostwrote Mussolini’s Autobiography, though he personally favored the flashier circle around Count Ciano, Mussolini's playboy son-in-law.  He attended Columbia University and worked in New York City, eventually returning to Italy in 1930.  As Asian correspondent for Corriere della Sera he went to China and was on board the Yangtze Patrol gunboat USS Panay on Dec., 11, 1937, when it was shelled and sunk by the Japanese; he was wounded and witnessed the Rape of Nanking.
Back in Italy, he was arrested by the Fascists on charges that he had given information to the enemy and made disparaging remarks about Mussolini and was under forced-residence in a small village until the liberation of Rome.  A strong anti-Communist, he was active in center-right politics after the War.  He lived on a small farm near Rome and died of cancer in 1984.
Were I of a novelistic bent I would explore the relationship betwixt father and son.  Senior seems a man of action  --  to whom an attraction to Mussolini seems utterly appropriate  --  while Junior is less so.  Senior would have had the Panay Incident for breakfast, while being blown out of the water by the Japanese might well have been traumatic for Junior.  Senior was attracted to the dynamic  Il Duce and Junior to the unserious Count Ciano.  Senior remained loyal to Mussolini until the end while one suspects Junior might have been saying "the Fascists? who were they?" One imagines some degree of estrangement during the war, but the father nonetheless using his influence to protect his son.
I am sure there are yet people around who know the particulars, at least those of a certain age.

When I was in the airport in New York on my way to Rome I got into a conversation with a well-educated young Italian lady.  I mentioned Barzini's book and asked if what he had said about the Italians were still accurate.  She said that she was unfamiliar with the book, but if it were true when he wrote it then it would still be true, as nothing had changed in Italy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Roman Summer (2)

My hotel was on a short, narrow street on the Esquiline Hill, perhaps a hundred yards from the grand old church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  On the walls around the hotel I saw some Arabic graffiti, though I saw no Arabs about.  And while I  could not read the Arabic, I could read the Italian graffiti and there seemed to be quite a bit of hard-line communist sentiment:  “Death to the Property Holders,”  and so forth.  Here, at the end of the 20th Century, such blood-thirsty leftism seemed as quaint as a “Viva il Duce.”  There was also a movie theatre, though it was oddly vague about what films it was showing, so I supposed it to be a porno house.  Later in the evening, I met some friendly young women and some fellows who most likely dealt in recreational pharmaceuticals.  There were quite a number of young people about who appeared in need of adult supervision.

   I know that in a hot climate I should get up early, but morning sleep is so sweet.  Which meant I didn’t get downstairs until the dining room was closed, so I wandered out to a sidewalk table for coffee and a roll, watched over by the enniched saints across the street on the outer wall of the venerable Santa Maria Maggiore, where pigeons feed on crumbs and tourists feed on culture. 

Sitting there in the shade I fell into a conversation with an Aussie couple.  They were of the opinion that in Italy the hot drinks weren’t hot enough and the cold drinks weren’t cold enough, and no one has any change, which I was to learn to be pretty much the case.  They also assured me that Roman traffic, though bad, was not the threat to pedestrians we might have been led to believe: that drivers will make a reasonable effort not to hit you, but you must do your part.

 I knew from my reading of the 19th-Century travelers that the only proper way to take up residence in Rome was to rent a moldering palazzo, so I scooped up an armload of newspapers and began checking the moldering palazzo section of the classifieds.  But alas, no one answers their phone and when I search out their office no one is there, but then I am in Italy and realize that they may do business differently here, so I wander off to a sidewalk cafe for a coffee, if it is early in the day, or an aperitif, if it is later.  The world works and it is merely a matter of my figuring how to adapt to it.

Since I was staying practically next door to Santa Maria Maggiore, whose name was familiar though I knew nothing else about it, I thought I ought go inside and take a look around.  This being Rome, I should probably get used to looking at churches, so I sat for a while in the grand old basilica gleaming with beautiful images from ages past, and a great round window above the entrance to the nave done in a distressingly 1950’s idiom, the sort of obnoxious modern art that protestant churches are usually cursed with, though the art in Catholic churches today can be as bad as that of the protestants.  Even the Orthodox seem confused when they depart from their traditional iconography.  This is not a good time for religious art.  Even bad Victorian art looks better than what I have seen of the new stuff.  Modern saints all look like well-meaning liberals.  They have no fire in them.  The blood of the martyrs runs thin in their veins.  I am looking forward to see what the Vatican Museum has; there must be good religious art out there somewhere.

The nice people at the hotel told me that they had booked my room for a group that would be arriving in a few days, which was fine with me, as I wanted to move on and find the moldering palazzo of my imagination and, despite a suit of armor in the TV room, the hotel was not as romantic as I would have liked it.

In the course of wandering about in search of an estate agent, I found, not far from Piazza d’Spagna, the via Margutta, which had once been popular with artists and craftspeople and, though since gentrified, it still looked colorful enough, though I got the impression that it would not be cheap to live there.  Today’s aspiring artists (I don’t think the modern welfare state suffers them to starve anymore) can be found selling their work along the balustrade of the Spanish Steps.   Despite that fact that their work looked quite competent, the artists I saw there appeared not only unprosperous, but  --  worse yet  --  bored.

At length, by answering adds and asking people I found a furnished apartment in a quiet neighborhood off the Corso di Francia just north of the Tiber.  Not the moldering palazzo I might have wanted, but the furnishings could be imagined to have an old-fashioned elegance and, while my balcony had only a view of my neighbors’s balconies, they would prove quiet neighbors and the rental, while sounding life-threatening when expressed in Lire, was reasonable enough when converted to Dollars.

I had found my pied-à-terre for my Roman Summer.

One of the many virtues of the way I travel is that I am not really going anywhere. What can people be thinking about who come to Rome for six days, during which time they feel obligated to see a required selection of churches, tombs and monuments, send postcards to various people and get something blessed by the Pope for an elderly aunt, all the while avoiding pickpockets and intestinal problems?
I have my guide books and know in general what would be interesting to see, and if I wander past one of these places I drop in to look, but I do not feel as if I have an appointment that I will be charged for if I don’t show up.  This means that most of my time out of doors is spent wandering about the city, usually on some minor and ill-defined investigation  --  do the Knights of Malta really maintain their own post office?  --  and so I can be pleasantly amazed at what I actually do find, which needn’t be anyone’s tomb, but can be as interesting as the facade of an old house, with its worn masonry and dark windows set behind antique grillwork.  The streets and houses of the old section have character, more so it would appear than many of the people.  The old houses have dignity, and even on the hottest days present themselves elegantly.  Monuments often have an artificiality about them,  but houses were built for use, while at the same time built to project an image of their proprietors, an image of confidence, hauteur, pride, substance, taste...  Sitting in the shade on a park bench I sketched one of the houses that fronted on the intersection of two narrow streets and discovered that it was a crouching lion.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roman Summer (1)

In a bleak midwinter almost twenty years ago I decided that I should spend the coming summer in Rome.  I had an illusion of familiarity with the City based on films and books  --  the betoga-ed ancients, the Borgias with their daggers and their poison cups, the Popes riding herd on their unruly artists and scientists, Mussolini on his balcony, the earthy, impoverished denizens of post-war Italian Realism and the beautiful, distracted creatures in Fellini’s films, all swarming together in the picture I carried in my mind of the Eternal City  --  though I had never actually been there.

So I went to the books.  In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, “The state of affairs in Rome beggars description.  You can find there a buying and selling, a bartering and bargaining, a lying and trickery, robbery and stealing, pomp, procuration, knavery and all sorts of stratagems to bring God into contempt, until it would be impossible for the Antichrist to govern more wickedly”.  Closer to our own time and sensibilities, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he remembered Rome “chiefly as the place where Zelda and I had an appalling squabble.”  Whichever Rome I found would be just fine with me.

I probably ought say at this point that  --  as with other of my posts  --  I am extracting material from the journal I kept during my trip.  But unlike my earlier trips, this one had no well-considered purpose.  I was not going to attend a revolution or see a rain forest or look for a tomb or to visit numinous places or search out universal idioms in pre-contact art.  I was not even going consciously to self-romanticize, though of course I would find that quite impossible to avoid.

When I had been in Oaxaca earlier that year and mentioned to the Condessa that I might go to Rome she said that she would arrange for me to meet a famous film director whose movies I had admired, but as I was anything but a film buff I could not imagine what I would say to him, other than perhaps reveal that I had confused some of his work with that of one of his famous competitors and that it would be a waste of both our times for me to bother him, so I didn’t follow up on her kind offer.  (And I had by this time come to realize that the Condessa, a strong-willed woman, also had a tendency to leave a trail of burning bridges behind her, so I could not be completely confident in what sort of reception her introduction might bring me.)

And so I arrived in the Eternal City without a traveling companion to talk sense to me, with no Roman interlocutor or cicerone to explain what I was seeing, and what I would likely find there would be no more than might be expected of a middle aged lawyer who had read spottily, if enthusiastically, in classics and history and religion, adrift and on his own in what he believes to be the most interesting city in the world, even if he sometimes doesn’t like what he finds there.  The result is not unlike that of a medieval pilgrim visiting a distant holy place, who is both inspired and sometimes appalled by what he encounters in the holy city that he has heard of all his life.

My overnight flight from New York brought me bright, fresh and slightly disoriented into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, but I followed the guidebook directions and took a train to Ostiense, then the underground to Cavour and walked two blocks to my hotel, where I went to sleep for a day and a half.  My room at the hotel was cell-like, and the bathroom so narrow that I had to enter sideways, but it had a pleasant generic view of  Rome and a breeze through an open window.  At one point I heard through the haze of sleep a crowd cheering, and imagined that it was the North Italy Fresco Championship, with two muralisti pittore faced off over a vast expanse of wet plaster, crowds cheering as the Sienese favorite lays out great swaths of color, with muscular gods and lusty goddesses, rugged shepherds and compliant shepherdesses.  Of course, it was probably only a soccer game.
    Eventually I wandered out into the hot Italian afternoon.  A sign across the street from the hotel informed me that this was a zone of armed vigilance.  I had no idea what that meant, but I chose to find it reassuring.

On my walk I saw my first Roman cat, large and orange, asleep on a ledge.  The Roman cats are an ancient race, having come from Egypt, probably following the mice in the earliest grain shipments.  They have had in the City a history parallel to the caesars and popes which I am confident is just as interesting, though perhaps without the art and literature and wars.  They are all, I am sure, Borgias at heart, with a stiletto concealed beneath their fur doublet.  I have read that there are perhaps 300,000 free-range cats at large in the city, living in the ruins and fed by doting “cat ladies”.  It has been argued that the medieval practice of burning cats as familiars of witches may have allowed vermin to multiply and increased the severity of the plague.  If this is true, there would seem a certain justice to it.

    While Rome, like most cities, has a modern urban sprawl, the old city is small and compact, a jumble of buildings close together on short streets going in all directions, warrens of little lanes nested between thoroughfares.  There is no point in describing the city, as people have been doing so for twenty seven hundred years and it would probably be impossible for me to say anything new about it.    Another reason is that it turned out to be surprising easy to be negative, for what has been touted as the glory of Rome can equally be criticized as vulgarity, as the Dallas of Italy.  In other parts of the country they claim that the Roman insignia SPQR stands for Sono Porci Questio Romani --  “what pigs those Romans are”.

Another reason for not writing about the modern city  --  and I might as well introduce the idea now as it will make more sense of what follows  --  is that I really didn’t come here to see Rome as it was today.  I was time-traveling again, looking for the place that I had read about in old books.  The modern Italians with their Vespas and cell phones were just so much overburden, to be ignored as I went looking the fabulous city of my imagination.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Something bad in the north of Quiché

It was late afternoon when I got back to the Capital, to my room at the guest house with the large tortoises roaming the hall.  I noticed that the evening air was filled with the pleasant smell of wood smoke.  In a country where the major energy source was firewood, I might expect this in rural areas, but in the Capital as well, just a few blocks from the National Palace?

There were some other Americans at the guesthouse, but I had not much to do with them, as it had always seemed to me that I had come all this distance to see foreigners, not my fellow countrymen whom I could see any time I wanted back home.  I am sure this was not a nuanced attitude, but it was what I did in those days.  I had picked up, though, from casual remarks that many of them were Peace Corps and that the guesthouse was a common stopping place for them, so I wasn’t surprised one afternoon when I got into a conversation with a fellow on his way back to another posting.
          One thing I remember from our conversation is that I asked him if, when he was out in the bush for some long time, he looked forward to getting back home.  He said that of course he did, but it was troublesome for Peace Corps people because after two years of huts and jungles they would return to the world of lawns and station wagons and see the people that they knew, who would be very nice about asking where they had been and what they had been doing, and then move on to other matters, as though he had just been on an interesting vacation and not gone almost two years on what was very close to a life-changing adventure, so that even when they were back home they sought out other Peace Corps people who would understand what the experience had meant to them. As with all my stories, this may reflect a particular point in time and I have since met others back from the field and it is my impression that things may be different today.

When I first thought to tell about this trip I assumed it would be a period piece, a bit of time travel back to the bye-gone days of jack-booted juntas and guerrillas in the forest and all that sort of thing that is now behind us.  And it should  be remembered that this trip took place in the fall of 1986, and the conditions I encountered then may bear little resemblance to whatever a current visitor might find.  The long communist insurrection was winding down  --  though it was far from over  --  and while it was claimed that the death squads had stood down, violence was still common even around the Capital, with lurid details in the morning papers of the bodies discovered overnight.  This was not drug gang violence as we might have today, but political, at least in the beginning, though by that time it was suspected that the robberies and ransoms were as much for the money as for the cause.

In my baggage at the guesthouse I found a Dollar bill stuck in the pages of one of the books I had brought with me and I realized that now it looked odd to me.  At the beginning of the trip, whenever I heard English being spoken I would move on because I wanted to be where English was not spoken, but now it seemed more pleasant to hear the short, familiar cadences of Anglo-Saxon  --  the little words of house and home  --  and I realized that my trip was winding down and I had had enough of being away from my own little world of house and home.

In the last few days before I returned home I wrote notes and made phone calls to thank some of the people who had been helpful to me and in general did end-of-trip sort of things.  I heard a rumor that something bad had happened in the north of Quiché, where I had been told a group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was operating, and when I stopped by the Colonel’s office to thank him for his assistance he handed me an envelope of photographs and said, “Here are your heroic guerrillas”.  (I fear I may have played the devil’s advocate with him in an earlier meeting.)
He said the photographs had been taken three days earlier.  They showed young soldiers  --  they looked to be teenage boys, Indians  --  who had been captured by the guerrillas.  They had been tortured by burning over large areas of their body before being shot in the head. On the back of one boy had been carved with a knife in large letters, “EGP”  --  the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.


I was going through an old file of clippings and correspondence and notes that I had accumulated in preparation for my trip and I found an item from a news magazine with a black and white photograph of bloated bodies along a jungle path, some murder of nameless innocents in a hot country, some effort to teach someone a lesson who would doubtless prove a slow learner, some bloody instruction which when taught would likely return to plague the teacher.  I once worried a great deal about justice, but I do less so now, as it seems that anyone who is ever punished for such things will seldom have been the person who actually did it and the murderers themselves, if they survive, will likely retire on a pension and the dead themselves become sock puppets in some later political drama staged for the purposes of others.  I have the impression that is what has happened in Guatemala since my visit.

The Cold War is over and when it ended it took the air out of these revolutionary struggles and, urgent as their injustices may yet cry out, the attention of the world has moved on, which has had the effect of bringing a sort of peace.