Return to Rome

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Paul Theroux laments that the world is aging badly, that the world he knew as a young man has nearly vanished, that the decline and decay of precious things is everywhere apparent.  Theroux should know; he travels more than I do.  Also my own ventures at home and abroad depressingly confirm his impressions.  Except when Rome is my destination.

I have been visiting the Eternal City for only about a decade, a ridiculously short period in the life span even of such ephemeral places as Las Vegas and Los Angeles.  Still, history, and with it change, are greatly accelerated in the contemporary world.  And Rome is the city I never hesitate to return to, expecting to find some monumental building or bridge knocked down and replaced by a modern mediocrity, a neighborhood or park bulldozed and replaced by high-rise apartments and asphalt.  And so, every year or two for the past ten years, I’ve gone gliding down through a pastel Renaissance sky toward an early morning landing at Fiumicino, admiring the blue Tyrrhenean Sea smoothly foaming along the narrow beaches beyond the damp, green fields and dark forests of umbrella pine surrounding the terra-cotta farmhouses and villages as they slip beneath the wings of the plane, holding my Italian grammar open in my lap and anticipating the moment when, presenting my passport to Immigration, I catch the terse official’s eye and ask him, “Come sta, Signore?” with what I hope is the confidence of an Italian citizen arriving home.  The return to a much-loved place is always a triumphal event, and so the ride on the autostrada across the hilly green plain and into the city is triumphal, too, never mind the light chatter with the driver regarding the recent weather in Rome and certain unfamiliar or half-forgotten things spied from the taxi before the entry into the city proper: the long climb up and around the north end of the Janiculum where the morning sun slants in beneath the soaring umbrella pines, the first glimpse of the Dome of St. Peter seeming to float untethered in the moistly yellow light that clings softly about the Seven Hills, the descent to the Vatican and the curving Bernini colonnades, and the Victor Emmanuel II bridge over the Tiber from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Campo dei Fiori.  There is no more tragic thing than to return to a home that no longer looks or feels like home, but Rome always seems to me more like home than when I saw her last.  That, of course, is because I have been around for 61 years, and the city of Rome is 2,700 years old.

Of course, it’s absurd to claim that Rome, which consists of historical layers comparable to so many geological strata, has escaped the ravages of time and mortality.  The Eternal City is at once a monument to time’s hurrying wings and a forced impression of it, preserved in marble, stone, brick, plaster, canvas, wood, and paint.  The lesson of Rome is not that worldly things, including man’s finest work, do not alter, decay, but that the result of historical processes need not be the ruin, tawdriness, vulgarity, and ephemerality of the modern world.  Last year my wife and I put up at the Istituto San Tommaso di Villanova, a charming hotel for pilgrims run by an order of French sisters, in Parioli.  Parioli is an upper-middle-class residential neighborhood roughly north of the Villa Borghese.  Far from being a part of the old city, it was developed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries from what was then farmland: pastures, vineyards, orchards, oliveti.  Parioli, in its day, was, as much as Queens, New York, another raw new suburb, erected on the plowed and salted furrows of violated nature.  But Parioli today looks charmingly historic, reminiscent architecturally of comparable neighborhoods of Paris: long rows of buff-faced buildings fronted by French windows opening on iron balconies, surmounted by ateliers and impressively mansarded.  The Istituto, at Viale Romania 7, is a hundred yards from Piazza Ungheria, and another several hundred down Viale Rossini to the Bioparco, or Zoo di Roma, tucked into the Villa Borghese and bounded by Via Ulisse and Via Aldrovandi.

Foreign travel is always a question of whether to explore somewhere new or revisit some familiar place for the purpose of becoming better acquainted.  An argument in favor of the second choice is the special pleasure of making and maintaining friends abroad.  Most of the friends and acquaintances we have acquired in Rome over the years are priests and Catholic journalists based at the Vatican.  A special one, deceased more than a year ago now, was our dearest Bellamy, an Asiatic lion born at London Zoo and acquired in 2001 by the Zoo di Roma, where he lived out his too-short life (he was only 14 when he died in November 2007 of a highly aggressive malignancy) in the company of his serial mates and their offspring.  I last saw Bellamy ten months before his death, when I visited him and his current lioness, Asha, several times in the course of two weeks.  But I did not learn of his demise until the following May, when I read the sad news on the Bioparco’s website and wrote to the director of the zoo’s Scientific Sector, Massimiliano Di Giovanni, to express my condolences and inquire about the most convenient way to make a donation to the Foundation in memoria di Bellami.  The result was a spate of e-mails between Rome and Laramie, one of which extended Signor Di Giovanni’s generous invitation to present ourselves senza indugio at his office when we next visited the zoo for a personal introduction to Oles and Jad, the new six-year-old Asiatic lion couple who replaced Asha and Bellamy as the zoo’s breeding pair.

The zoo community, as I have learned from working as a guide at Denver Zoo, is a fraternal one.  Even so, Massimiliano Di Giovanni outdid himself as a generous and gracious host.  A tall, lean, bearded fifth-generation Roman, in whom motion and speech are fused as pure energy, he speaks excellent English, allowing me to concentrate on matters pertaining to Panthera leo persica rather than my limited Italian.  Though he was busy with meetings that afternoon, Massimiliano set work aside to hasten us out the back door of the administration building onto zoo grounds, past the lemurs and the Asian elephants, and over to the spacious yard where the lions are housed.

This is a spacious habitat exhibit, modeled perhaps on the Forest of Gir in northeastern India where the last 350-odd Asian lions still extant in the wild live and including semitropical shade cover in which the lions can almost lose themselves at one end, a waterfall at the other, and at the rear a series of rock ledges rising to a cliff where I had last seen Bellamy vanish like a shaggy ghost through a camouflaged guillotine door in search of his dinner.  After his death, there were the expectable comments in the press and on the web about the “povero prigioniero,” soon to be succeeded by other poveri prigionieri in his place.  In fact, anyone who knows anything about the perilous life of lions in the wild, and the adaptability of lions to human company and human surroundings, is likely to entertain different views concerning the morality of keeping lions captive in luxurious conditions.  I was mourning the absence of old friends gone (Asha was transferred following her mate’s death to Cheshire Zoo in England) when a beautiful young lioness emerged unexpectedly from cover and posed for us on the open grass, as if inviting admiration.  Oles, despite the cool November weather, was lying up in the shade of the semitropical forest with his great head resting on his paws.  Asian lions are smaller than their African cousins, shorter coupled with a double fold of skin along their bellies, and the male’s ears stand up ahead of his mane.  Unlike many Africans, they tend to that gentleness, even sweetness, of expression I had so loved in Bellamy.  Massimiliano unlocked the gate and took us round back to the indoor stalls where he introduced us to one of the keepers, a pretty young woman who also spoke good English and kindly showed us a photo Cheshire had sent of Asha and her latest litter.  While we were talking, an elderly tiger in retirement came over to her for what zoo people call a safe rub through the wire.  Afterward, Massimiliano bought us coffees at an outdoor pavilion, and Maureen and I crossed the Villa Borghese on foot and walked on through the Porta Pinciana to Harry’s Bar at the head of Via Veneto where we ordered Bellinis, a cocktail invented in Venice by Ernest Hemingway and concocted of champagne and peach juice.  I did not find the Bellini to be among his greatest artistic creations.

Dining out in a foreign city that is also a familiar one is another great pleasure of international travel.  There are restaurants scattered all over Rome, most of them inexpensive neighborhood places, where we are recognized instantly by the staff, who address me in Italian and seem unaffectedly pleased to see us again.  Usually they assume, from my blue eyes, cherubic 18th-century visage, and tweed suits, that we are an English couple, though Maureen is one-quarter Italian and could easily pass for full if only she would learn to speak the language.  Among our favorites is the maître d’ at Ristorante da Olimpio, off Via del Tritone, who treats us to drinks and desserts and relaxes by our table after the lunch crowd has mostly cleared out.  On this trip, we were shocked, though, to discover that Il Ristorante The Meeting on Viale Rossini, which was frequented by British diplomats and businessmen as well as by my brother-in-law Roger McCaffrey, had been replaced by Taverna Rossini, an excellent fish restaurant under the same ownership.  The maître d’ was said to be the same man we had known, but if so, he was not on premises the evening we dined there.  He had always been very kind to us on previous visits.

For the first time in Italy, I felt comfortable and secure with the Italian language.  In order to prevent my mind from defaulting in a pinch to my first-learned foreign tongue, I had made it a point not to pick up a French book or magazine for months ahead of our visit.  As luck would have it, two sisters from Paris were given a table near ours in the dining salon at the Istituto Tommaso.  They spoke good English, but for courtesy’s sake we shifted back and forth between English and French.  I was deeply humiliated.  The simplest French words would not come to mind—only their Italian counterparts!  I floundered about for several mornings at breakfast before I finally found something like firm ground beneath my feet, but even so I was hardly satisfied with my performance.  It was the Frenchwomen’s first trip to Rome.  They had no Italian.  The waiter was a nice young man from Sri Lanka, whose Italian was simple but clear.  Next time we visit Paris, my wife and I plan to look up these women.  I have already forgotten their names.  But Maureen wrote them into her address book.

On our last day in Rome Massimiliano took us to lunch—primo and secondo with wine—at the zoo’s little restaurant.  While we were eating, the curator stopped by our table for a chat.  Yitzhak Yadid was previously director of the Jerusalem Zoo and speaks flawless English.  It was a lovely fall day, and the Villa Borghese was leafless, expansive, and mellow as an English park.  None of us could have guessed that, a month later, the Tiber would be threatening to flood the city and the keepers at the Bioparco would be feeding the monkeys chocolate bars and cookies to maintain their energy levels in the unprecedented cold.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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