Jan/Feb 2012 Nonfiction

Another Sojourn in Italy: the View from Rome

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

Not a whole lot later, all five of us were to trek back to sparkling Italia! This time, however, we headed for Rome, a city of glory since ancient times. At the invitation of the US State Department and backed by an Olivetti Fellowship to pick up our tab, we were to live there for most of the academic year. My husband had agreed to tour the boot and bring news of American Literature to countless Italians students studying our language and hungry to learn more of our literary heritage. A splendid circumstance for us, indeed, for it came just at the point when our youngest had turned five and was ready to make the journey.

By now, we ourselves felt sufficiently knowledgeable about Italian life. We were clued into their habits, fancied their style, and even had a smidgeon of their lingua. We could approach the usual chores of settling with far more confidence—even with what might be considered savvy. In the style of Signor Farinelli, our first Italian counselor in that process, we promptly bought all the daily newspapers for their advertisements and soon sought out for ourselves a fine flat, smack in Rome's classy Centro. This was located in a spacious palazzo called the Palazzo Lovatelli, a grand 16th Century structure that had long ago been converted to apartments. It was situated right next to the elegant Piazza di Campitelli and at angles with its primitive chapel, Chiesa de S. Maria di Campitelli. Just by these was the splendid Piazza Mattei, with its Tartaruga (tortoise) Fountains to endlessly fascinate the children. And nearby us was the Corso, Rome's main street for strolling about during the afternoon's passegiata.

There was but one catch! The apartment for rent was on the street level. A strict a no-no, we were soon to discover, even a foolish prospect, to any sophisticated Roman. So when, having already settled there, we boasted of it to resident friends, we were greeted with howls of incredulous laughter. One thing certain, they argued: to live comfortably in the Capitol, you must escape from the noise, the fumes, the odors, by going up as high as possible!

Indeed, back in the late 60s, carts were still often drawn by oxen or donkeys over the cobblestone streets right through the Centro. Coal delivery trucks unloaded regularly at early hours, and automobiles were still permitted free access everywhere. Italian style, with their drivers shouting, their motors humming, their horns blaring. And this is not to speak of the frequent scontros (collisions), with loud quarrels inevitably following at all times, day or night.

Yet that was to be it for the year. We had already moved our family into those seemingly luxurious quarters. The entryway gave little hint of grandeur, but the palace's courtyard with it's tiled floor, its beautiful stairways and elegant garden, was spectacular. Within our own flat, we were happily equipped with two bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms as well. And so high were the ceilings in it, that a balcony had been built above a sprawling living room area, and this balcony was to serve us as the third, our own, bedroom. Apparently, back in the distant and celebrated past, this area of the great palazzo had been the carriage house, a way station for beasts of burden. Probably, the insects that plagued us all that year were a sign of this earlier history.

As for the kitchen, there was very little to recommend it. A dingy closet-like room with primitive sink, two spigots for running the cold and hot water, and a stove, surely designed in the Victorian era. Even so, an irresistible offer had come along with our apartment deal, that of a donna to do all the chores. Graziella was a genial lady who would happily see to the cooking and cleaning for us for a modest fee, as she had always done for the flat's prior tenants.

So we made ourselves comfortable with the ample, if garish furniture we found there, heading for the local Standa (or Woolworth equivalent) for the little things missing. I can even now picture myself reaching to hang clothing on the closet rack in our balcony bedroom, only to find it so high up I needed a stool to reach it. Our predecessor must have been something of a giant, given the height of those bars and their shelving. But, the kicker really came when I learned from our gossipy portiere, Bruno, about this former tenant:

"Ah Signora," he cheerily explained, "no wonder you can't reach anything. The man who last renovated that flat was 'molto alto,' 'veramente un altezza che non lo visto mai' (a man so tall, I had never seen anything like him before)." He then clucked over how he was 'one of our own,' "uno Americano, qui era uno moviestar, e molto famoso! Si chiama Lex Barker," pronounced he, as he amusedly drew out the syllables of the name. Lex Barker? Good heavens, was my immediate thought, wasn't he the actor who had done all those Tarzan flicks just following the first to play that role, Johnnie Weismuller? How deftly had those lads flown though the air 'with the greatest of ease,' during the most of the 40s and 50s.

So despite everything, we found our comforts in these new lodgings. And soon, we were able to get ourselves out into the wondrous City to saunter about, and to discover there—virtually within our gaze—a veritable history of Western civilization! Everywhere about us were displays of earlier ways of life, their notions of architectural grandeur, their distinctive styles of painting. In view were magnificent creations in every form.

We gawked over Rome's most ancient days first, there at the Foro Romano, and next proceeded to work our the way though darkest periods of the Middle Ages found within the City's many monasteries, convents, and sprawling cathedrals. We saw before us, too, the glorious splendors of the Renaissance itself, and those followed by the brilliance of 17th and 18th century geniuses, the likes of Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Rubens.

Nor could we avoid those pretentious monstrosities of the 19th century, while the monument to Vittorio Emanuele sat there in the nearby hub of Piazza Venezia, Rome's most trafficked square, for it was visible to us daily. We even ventured to take took a look at one of the 20th century's own fascist nightmares, Mussolini's stadium, a bit further out into Rome's center.

Then, before we knew it, the time had come for my husband's traveling lectures to get rolling, and he was soon on his way, leaving us to our devices there in our new quarters in Roma's center. As for the children's schooling, all of that had already been arranged before we had departed California, with their admission to the Lycée Français di Roma, an institution of distinction, and long in operation in the Capitol. There, we hoped to continue with a classical curriculum similar to that of their own at the Los Angeles branch of the Lycée.

We could hardly have guessed yet what complications this would cause for us. I discovered soon enough that their schooling involved two separate campuses for the two older children. The 12-year old need attend their lower division, which was in one area of Rome's Centro, while my daughter, at 14, was to seek out their upper school, far over in distant Parioli, and it, a whole other direction within that sprawling metropolis.

How to manage such a miracle each weekday morning at seven! My attempting to drive at that hour in the congested city was entirely out of the question. And soon enough, I was pretty much at my wit's end over these difficulties. Thus, once more, I turned to our wise, knowledgeable portiere, Bruno, for a solution. And as he had with all else, he turned one up, on the double. He produced a driver to pick the boy up, delivering him, along with several other boys, to his school every day of the week.

As for my daughter, he proposed yet another, more daring solution: public transport. He found a bus line for her which followed the exact route to her Lycée. He assured me that this would take her promptly to her destination and home again, and that she'd be perfectly safe in the process. Indeed, she adapted readily and was to become expert at it, too, quickly acquiring all those marvelous Roman hand gestures to successfully keep the various gawkers and "pinchers" at their distance! It made for her a superb introductory education to the big-city Italian life.

We had taken other preparatory steps for the children just before my husband's departure. We'd gone out and found a television to rent for them. Our notion was that watching and listening would help their Italian kick in again. Indeed, that's just what happened! Despite little recollection of it, within a couple of weeks, they began speaking once more with little hesitation, and they became as fluent and confident as they had been over five years before in Tuscany.

Still more curious in the respect was how they now spoke their re-acquired Italian. It came in with a distinctly Florentine accents, generously sprinkled with idioms straight from the North of Italia. Considering that all the television shows then being produced and acted during that early period of its history were distinctly Roman productions, that every single voice on the tele of the era was strictly Southern in its tones and speech, their little voices presented something of a puzzle. Flowing out were the unmistakable sounds of Tuscany and points nearby! And, so it would remain that whole year long, despite what they heard daily in Rome. Indeed, a most fortunate re-acquisition, since the language of the Northern regions is far more regarded by Italians than the sounds of Roma and points below in the boot.

There was still the youngest to provide company for, and he, without the language altogether. Certainly, he wasn't ready for real schooling. But then, as the fates would have it, one morning, with him at my side, I walked to the little grocery store in the next piazza and struggled at the counter with my own faulty Italian speech to get what I'd come for. There just by me stood a delightful looking young woman who, hearing me, immediately volunteered her assistance. We chatted a bit afterwards, while she noted my little one and offered to buy him a treat. She was of British origin but, having married an Italian—himself a striving young professor at the University in Rome—she lived right nearby.

She turned out to be something of a godsend, to be sure! Not only had she a young son as well, but her boy was just my little one's age. He was, she explained, at this moment attending his asilo (nursery school) in the nearby Avelino District. She would recommend this for ours, too, and moreover, she would show me the way there as well.

She had offered to take us the very next morning, while on her own journey to deliver her son. (This too, it turned out, was to be in yet another direction within the City.) Even so, all was happily solvable, and better still, my five-year old was delighted to go, since he had, the afternoon prior, already made friends with little Andrea (Andrew), who though Italian-born, was a five-year old who had better English even than his own, given his mother's constant London chatter! And, off the two went each morning to play with their companions to their heart's content.

As routines were set in place, so did our Roman life commence. My young ones now well attended, I was left free enough each morning to seek out my own pleasures in the Capitol. And Katherine G., my new friend, was game to accompany me in them, ever eager to display her own knowledge of her adopted city. What an accomplished guide she proved to be: informed, artistic, full of enthusiasm. We'd drop the little ones off for the morning hours at the asilo, and then she would uncover for me the hidden wonders of the sprawling metropolis.

Several are memorable even yet, for they weren't on the usual tourist route or visible at first glance. Rome, indeed, provided ample choices in the purpose; Katherine was never at a lack to suggest them, threading her way through the city with alacrity. How enticing, for example, to discover San Pietro in Vincoli, all the way over in the Monti quarter, to get up-close to Michelangelo's Moses; to stand before him in all his white-marbled splendor and examine that defiant figure's posture, that grim expression of displeasure. He seemed ready to smash The Tablets of the Law before our eyes. The great artist, himself—or so went the Roman tale—was so gratified by this particular work, he would demand of his figure that he "speak out to him!"

At those early hours, we two could even brave the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, finding it quiet, as yet uncluttered by the persistent tourist groups sauntering through with their microphoned lecturers. Without interference from such streams of visiting invaders, we could study Michelangelo's ceiling at our leisure in peaceful contemplation.

Other days, Catherine undertook to seek out for me the works of Carravagio scattered about the City: those in Santa Maria del Popolo, or, the Palazzo Barberini, along with many other magnificent masterpieces in remote Roman locations. I have often contemplated how I might have missed these wonders entirely, never suspecting their particularity, had she not been in charge. She sought out so many special favorites of hers, all the while teaching me more than I'd ever imagined I could absorb about these artist's works. She even showed me how they had inspired later greats like Rembrandt and countless others.

Or, on fair days, we'd spend time walking across the river to nearby Trastevere, where we were to see an array of back-packed young foreigners. Indeed, at the time, it seemed populated with street people, restless "hippies," wandering youth of Europe and America, congregating and idling there as if it were Greenwich Village.

Our morning larks occurred several times a week, always via public transport, and all over Rome. After these, we managed to pick up our boys in time at the play school. We then headed for our homes, where I'd await the arrival of the older ones, for the pleasure of our midday meal.

Heavenly mornings, they were! My eyes were still dazzled and my spirits lifted by what I just seen. Then—returning to find all prepared and ready for us—those lovely fresh pasta concoctions which Graziella had cooked up in our absence. These appeared as just her first course, for, in true Roman style, she served us the extensive main meal of the day.

After it, and much in the Italian style as well, came our piccolo reposo (mid-day rest), a relaxed time abed, snoozing and digesting all that food (and wine along with it). Then, later in those afternoons, ever leisurely in pace, we were off on our customary passegiata (stroll). There was little question, however, in which direction the children steered us. They always headed for the Largo di Torre Argentina, a piazza near us where they could visit with what seemed like the entire feline population of the world! Cats and their kitties—of every color, shape and size, the timid as well as the menacing—generation after generation of those who had inhabited these ruins of what had for centuries been the four ancient theaters of the Emperor Pompey.

Here, we encountered mostly Italian visitors, who'd come to gawk as well and then chat over all that ferocious activity. In those post-war years, they came from all parts of their country, finally becoming affluent enough to travel in their historic land, and always, for a short spell to see their Roma Sacra! These provincials all seemed so open and friendly. Indeed, we already had seen how Florentines were chiuso (cool and distant), while Romans, just like New Yorkers, were far too urban to converse with strangers—those nuisances they found parading their streets in every season. But these curious Italians on their traveling excursions were delighted to converse with resident Americans.

Often enough, as we stood there, we found ourselves addressed by one or another of them, either with inquiries about our American clothing, or what part of the U.S. we'd come from. It made for some lively chatter, particularly when they heard that far off California was our home. They'd comment on the daring of my daughter's short-style skirts, as yet unfashionable in Europe, or, admire our youngest child's brilliant black hair, cut at it was in Buster Brown style, still unseen in the provincial south of Italy.

Next, they would follow with their inevitable assumption that our little boy was a girl. And, when we politely corrected this, with a, "Signore, non e una femina, e un mascio," how aghast they seemed! On one day, a gentleman from Sicilia turned with delight to his companions and chuckled, "Vedi, il cappeloni!" which, I suppose, literally means long-haired, but during that time especially implied "hippie" or "intellectual." At five years old? It certainly has made for an amusing tale ever since.

For our next stop, the kiddies headed straight off for their treat of the day: the best ice cream place in Roma. It was to be found right there in the same piazza Argentina, where they then indulged in the Italian home-made variety, in the extravagant-size portions, and in flavors they'd never yet seen in any American ice-cream parlor. Ah, the combinations of apricot-peach, orange-chocolate, avocado-pear, all of them enticing and mysterious. And, once the vendor came to recognize us as cliente (steady customers), there was yet another scoop that came gratis for each of our children.

But as soon as they had devoured these, it was right back home to those important daily chores, to look to whatever was required for homework assignments, to rush to the library, or off to a research project at a museum. Remarkably, there was plenty of time for it all, because Romans extend their work days, allowing afternoon activities to go well into their evenings. Thus they enjoy a far later dinner hour. Ever relaxed and unhurried these folks seemed, so we followed happily along in the old adage: "When in Rome…"

The while, fortunately, my traveling husband was having his own pleasures, along with any number of adventures at the other end of the boot. He would return to us periodically with marvelous tales of the cities to the South where he'd lectured, in towns like Taranto, Bari, Brindisi, and several others in Puglia and the Abruzzi. Down there, etiquette included feasting of their guests. He'd bring back little trinkets for the children, which they delighted in. And, then too, there were those lovely local wines he'd discover and carry back for us.

So in those late leisure hours, after the children were asleep, we would then try these out together. Very often with surprising results! For example, a wine of Manduria, much touted back in Italy's "heel," had left us so intoxicated after a glass or two on one night that we found ourselves virtually glued to our seats and staggering when we tried get up to bed.

Among the many pleasures of that Centro location of ours was my discovery that just next to our own Piazza Campitelli was the old Roman Ghetto. Once a walled-in area, locked securely each night to prevent Jews access to the City, it remained virtually as it had been built, despite its real estate values having escalated dramatically with the years. That place was often sardonically referred to as the "Serraglio degli Ebrei," (the Enclosure of the Jews). And despite the fact that the Jewish community of Rome had existed since well before Christian times and had numbered a great many people through the generations, the closure was so ordered by Pope Paul IV in the 16th Century.

Along with the closure had come more prohibitions. For example, no property ownership for Hebrai; no practice of medicine permitted on Christians; even the infliction, on the Sabbath and holidays, of compulsory Christian services for the Ghetto population. And worst of all was that this area, just next to the Tiber River, was at the time the least desirable of all Roman locations, because of its likelihood for flooding over, day or night.

Of course the Ghetto situation had improved over the centuries. And those days I often found myself strolling around in one or another of its narrow streets, searching for signs of a culture that once was, taking note of a Star of David carved into an aging wall or an old mezuzah left on the doorway of an ancient structure. I enjoyed chatting with vendors about such old times, seeking out tales from them.

Many I encountered there were still of Hebraic heritage, and I listened to their recitations. Often, they spoke of the difficult days they themselves remembered, especially those during the rise of Mussolini and in the years preceding WWII. How intensely they would speak of those sufferings. Many were forced to hide their identity or to abandon the Capitol and flee to new surroundings in the campagna.

I was particularly struck by how little resemblance these Romans bore to those Jews I was accustomed to encountering in my native land. Sephardim, they were, and remained mostly a mystery people to someone bred in New York City. Often, they had black hair, were almost Latin in appearance, and certainly demonstrated none of the song-and-dance, gemutlichkeit that Askenazim were so touted for on the lower East Side of New York. And among them, Yiddish was a tongue totally unknown. So despite their identical faith, they seemed strangers with another history.

I was soon to see evidences of these differences when the High Holidays arrived. Secular though I am, I had gone to the ancient Synagogue just around the corner to say my yearly and customary prayer for my family dead, and I found little in it familiar. Those disparities occurred throughout the year. I can well recall our reactions at Passover time when we bought some totally inedible, alien-looking flat-bread that they nonetheless called matzohs.

Much of the rest of their Jewish food was unrecognizable as well. When had we tasted, among the Ashkenazim dominating the Jews in New York City, the likes of goose prociutto, carciofi a la Judea, or dishes like eggplant steeped and baked in olive oil?

Yet, by now our Italianate children were at totally at ease, even happy with their situations. They chattered in three languages, prospering from the company of the many internationals at their schools. And soon enough, a brilliant spring greeted us, with all the particularity of Rome's benevolent clime. Along with this came people everywhere relaxing in the sun, in the piazza, sitting by the fountains and sipping their capucinos at the tables outside the cafes. Ever a sight to behold and an admirable and irresistible style of life, in daytime or night.

So the year went by quickly—sweetly for us. And only later were we to chuckle over the discovery of our younger son's adjustment to his foreign life. He had found his amusements among his British contingent at his asilo, and speaking happily in his native tongue all along, though hardly aware of it. It was only when we were on our way home that we came to realize as he boasted of his new facility in "Italian," that he had mostly picked up their tones, their accents, their talk. All that while, he considered this the language he need learn. Daily, after a sprightly, "ta-ta," he was off "to have a veddy fine time of it." When he was about to step into the shower, he'd broaden those a's, drawing them out, to delight in the luxury of his shahr. It had us howling!

Even so, Rome is a city whose weather turns hot and humid by early June, unlivable altogether. A former swamp it was after all, as Henry James had so eloquently illustrated for us in the plight of his Daisy Miller, so that we, like all the rest of our Roman friends, could barely await the close of the school year to pick up and clear out. Just in time for us especially, since we had recently learned of one of our son's little asilo friends, who had come down with chicken pox.

We raced away as quickly as we were able, across the mountains to the Marché by the Adriatic Sea. There my husband would teach for the summer. And there, too, would we find divine Urbino, a miraculous Renaissance city that was perfection still—a tale for another time.


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