Monday, 11 April 2011
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Part I.
The Eternal City. How was it, you ask? Hectic, raked with yellow sunlight, car-exhaust-choked, cat-crowded, crumbling; silty green Tiber flowing stickily by under budding Judas trees, me caught by tidal pulls of intense emotion in contradictory directions. Having been hard at work I was desperate for a break: I'd finished two papers in addition to teaching duties and working on my second book, and had just broached the inkwell on a third paper. Loath to be parted from my grinding monomania and feeling (as always) guilty at my appalling academic fraudulence, I was therefore even more surly and evil than usual when I tucked some clothes and the Time Out guide into a bag, doused myself in Caldey Island Lavender, and nipped off to meet Dan.
Dan is adventurous, efficient, and serenely unruffled, which I appreciate as a chronically nervous traveller, given to tedious repetition compulsion (Why don't we go here again? It was nice last night), regressing when abroad to a childish state of mute handholding. We had rented a two-bedroom flat for three nights, quite far out of the centro storico in Ostiense, perhaps an hour's brisk walk from the Colosseum. After a perfectly straightforward flight, we arrived and were let in by a woman whom we realised rapidly was not the manager, Magda, but (o ye unforgiving gods!) an instantly recognisable, common-or-garden Mad Old Woman. My heart sank.
This venerable, seventy-something matron (bring before your minds, gentle readers, a chestnut bob with grey roots, vast dark-rimmed glasses, and a blocky, gold-buttoned housedress) turned out to live in the flat herself, which was enormous and decorated in a typically gloomy Roman bourgeois way. Dark wood cabinets contained silverware and cut crystal glass; a melancholy, tubercular woman in a taffeta gown peered out from a dim, chiaroscuro portrait above the sofa. Slatted wooden shutters could be wound down over the windows to reduce the apartment to sepulchral gloom.
Dan---who is an extraordinary linguist---communicated with her in a macaronic pidgin of English and Italian (how to say 'Ho there, good mother!'?), and initial friendly overtures rapidly went downhill when we grasped that la vecchia befana, as we instantly christened her, intended to stick around, sleeping in the main bedroom, while we forlornly occupied the two single beds in the other room. At this point Dan was required to perpetrate a sequence of acts of quite heroic cruelty, forcefully evicting the gabbling crone and packing her off to her country house outside the city. It took an entire hour to manoeuvre her, yakking on all the time, out of the apartment, as she showed us the kettle, the contents of the fridge, the shutter mechanisms, the taps, the keys, the condiments, her eldest son's parking fines, her wedding photos---a whole battery of self-evident gewgaws. We had to stop her laying the table for us, explaining that what we really needed was to be left alone. ('Stand not upon the order of thy going...' murmured Dan.) Eventually, she tottered off, still wittering about a tree that had 'fallen upon all her little chickens' (?), leaving us bemused with a stepladder and three lightbulbs to replace for her.
That night we explored Trastevere, the lively area where sensible people stay, which really did look much like this:
Winding streets, peeling ochre stucco, lemon and bay trees in pots, a vague, thrilling smell of cooking, dead fish, and urban drains. Boys zipped past on vespas, as the glamorous and underemployed youth of Rome (who presumably all still live at home with their mothers) hung out outside bars and cafes in the pleasantly warm twilight. Pale and English, I tried to feel more Helena Bonham-Carter than Kathy Burke. At a little pizzeria that night (sourced from the generally reliable Guide) we sat ecstatically picking at hard-boiled eggs and salty artichoke hearts while drinking Frascati. Just behind where I was sitting we could hear a well-educated American voice ordering pasta, and after a while we turned to see a woman of about thirty eating farfalle and drinking a whole bottle of red wine to herself. Now, this would be wholly unremarkable in the drink-swilled alleys of the UK, but I was vaguely under the impression that conspicuous, unstinting solo drinking should, in an American, be read as a sign of a liberated, unpuritanical spirit.
We fell to chatting: she was a New York banker on a break between one job ending and another starting, the rent on her Greenwich Village apartment was more than my salary, she had majored in English at Yale. After a few minutes I had her down as a brittle drunkorexic: alarm bells began to ring and I began to have a vague ressentiment to the idea of spending further time with her; unfortunately in an uncharacteristic fit of kindness I'd just that minute asked her to join us for a drink after. Lauren (let's call her) soon revealed, under the influence of a further two glasses of red, an abrasive stripe to her personality, a windswept hinterland of harsh neurosis. Gems included 'If you have a BMI above 24 you should be denied healthcare!', and the immortal question, shrieked over a twilit square in a voice like an electric drill, 'Are Gypsies, like, Roman Mexicans?!' We sent her home the 500 yards to her hotel slumped and slurring in a taxi.
* * *
Next day's goal: the Villa Borghese, with its astonishing Bernini sculptures. Walking a long way---perhaps ten miles---from the flat to the Borghese park, we wound up past the Roman Forum, Trajan's Column and various other monuments, dodging all the while the heaving, frenetic urban traffic, seemingly controlled by no law of God or man.
For half an hour or so, we lay in the park, waiting for our entrance time-slot: bright green grass, the splash of water distant under umbrella pines and holm oak, white daisies scattered starrily through the fresh, uncut grass. Pigeons moved bobbing their heads through the flowers, their neck feathers shining purple, blue, green in the sunlight. Utterly ensorcelled in this paradisial, wholly artificial place---a Cardinal's pleasure palace at the heart of an enormous city---I thought of the laus Italiae in Virgil's Georgics, and idly conceived a plan for a garden that would replicate as far as possible the idealised locus amoenus at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose. (How do you put two crystals at the bottom of a fountain which each reflect half the garden anyway? Something like a mirrorball sliced in half?!)
The highlight of the Galleria was Apollo and Daphne, a statue I had loved since I first saw a picture of it as a child. In situ, it is simply breathtaking: as though caught in freezeframe, Daphne becomes the figurehead of a ship's prow which is also herself, breasting a wave of metamorphosis. A visual paradox: she is never going to move again, but she looks at this final moment as though she is about to take off like a bird, caught in an upward helical swirl of leaves like wingbuds. Delicate, almost translucent foliage bursts from her fingers, roots emerge from her toes. Bernini manages to depict her enclosing within a slippery, organic sheath of bark, and a sculptor who could believably depict the texture of bark covering over human skin could have done anything. She shrieks in fear and ecstasy as she becomes something else, something non-human, from the inside out and from the ground up. My sense that this intersection of stuprum and metamorphosis is also in some sense an orgasm was confirmed by something one never sees in photos of the statue. Wandering round to admire Apollo's peachy rear, I saw (could not help but see!) that for all her flight, Daphne's newly-opened leaves creep backwards to caress the sun-god's divine balls.
* * *
Bowled over by the Borghese Gallery, we wandered back to the flat via the Spanish Steps (street-hawkers shipped in from the Punjab), the Pantheon (a great shaft of sun from the oculus piercing its vaulted gloom) and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic basilica in Rome. I was so stunned in the dim light by the hallucinatory gold-bestarred lapis lazuli of its ceiling vaults (19th century) that I burst into tears and quite failed to notice the tomb of Catherine of Siena.
That night, it was time to Go Out. Dan and I have trailed through gay bars in half a dozen cities; as I loathe clubbing I have to get into the zone with this kind of thing, accomplishing the necessary mental gear-shift between open-hearted aesthetic rapture and the grim-faced brazenness necessary in a corybantic meat-market. We started off gently with a trendy, glass-fronted bar called 'Natali', on Via Bissolati. It turned out to be women's night, and Dan and I were startled by Roma lesbica: a trendy, white room full of edgily gorgeous, perfectly coiffed girls, all of them (like lesbians everywhere) as swaggering as pirates, as idle as sultans. Suddenly, 'In the Mood' started up and we realised that, faaaaabulously, we'd come on the monthly night for Lesbian Burlesque. Feathers, nipple-tassels, women looking like Dita Von Teese with enormous fans, you name it. It was quite a sight.
Tottering out stunned after one beer---bedraggled weeds drifting on the Lesbian shore---we headed towards our other option, 'Hangar', described in Time Out as 'Rome's oldest gay bar.' This place was the brainchild of an American expat who had decided in 1990 to transpose a '70s San Francisco-style joint to Rome. It was hilariously ghastly: the barman appeared to be Benedict XVI on his night off, and while the clientele were certainly cruising, it seemed in many cases to be only in the direction of their pensions. Dan and my jaunts to this variety of seedy dive always follow the same format. My role is that of place-holder: like the square root of -1 in algebra, I allow a certain calculation to take place but get neatly cancelled out before the equals sign is reached. I'm perfectly happy with this: as Dan is on a writing retreat in the country with his mother and father, opportunities for performing the Act of Frightfulness are limited, whereas for my part, let us just say, living alone means that the threshold of Bo Towers is not exactly uncrossed. As we sat by the bar we played the game of cheerfully wondering, in order, how many men there were over 60; how many were in Holy Orders, et relicta. I grimly contemplated the fact that I shall no doubt die the lonely death of the sexual pervert.
After a while, bang on cue, some greasy, diminutive chap wandered up. I felt like holding the palm of my hand right up in his face, before saying brightly, 'I'll just stop you there, shall I?! You are now going to utter a sentence which we may analyse as follows---
[INDIRECT OBJECT (First Person sg. Pronoun in Dative)] + [IMPERSONAL VERB (3sg. present indicative, 'please')] + [SUBJECT]
---said subject in fact being, viz., Dan here. Aren't you!? Don't even try denying it.' But I refrained, and so out came, as per: ...mi piace tuo compagno...
Given that I pick up in bars with roughly the same frequency as an asteroid strike, I'm perfectly content to play the aide-de-camp (as it were) in these situations: I obtrude when attention is unwelcome, and recede behind fan and powdered wig when it is welcome. Dan took no liking to this bopping elf (as they used, preposterously, to call Marc Bolan), but when he got chatting to an attractive Austrian boy of about 30, it was time for me to withdraw backwards, like a smug French courtier witnessing the teenage Marie-Antoinette being put to bed with Louis-Auguste. I emerged from the din peacefully into the warm 2am streets of Rome with a map and the keys to the flat. On the sly, long late night walks around foreign cities are something I quite enjoy---the hint of danger and disorientation, the need to make a leap of faith while navigating from point to point in the dark.
To Come: Day 2...