25 March 2012

LIFE: Roman(ing) Around

SARONNO, Italy - The entrance to my apartment building on Via delle Vite in Rome was through a small green door that had been cut into a larger dark green door. You see doors like this in a lot of  apartment buildings all throughout Italy. The small door is for people, but the big door was for the horse drawn carriages. 
Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna
I always wanted a key to one of those doors, I wanted to be able to enter the inner courtyard and climb the steps to what I imagined would be a fabulous Italian apartment. So for me, the key in my pocket that opened the door to the building on Via delle Vite was a dream come true. 

The apartment wasn’t mine, it belonged to an old woman named Niola. I was in Rome studying Italian at the Dante Alighieri School, and she rented rooms to students. Another girl also rented a room in the apartment, but since I didn’t speak Italian, and she didn’t speak English, the only thing I knew about her was that she was from Argentina. I found it strange that she called Signora Niola, just Niola, which was actually her last name, but now I know that it's not that uncommon to address people just by their last names. I still think it's odd though.   
Trevi Fountain
The apartment was large. It had at least four bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, and a long balcony all across the front of it. You could access the balcony from all of the rooms on the front side of the apartment, including the kitchen. Niola kept most of the rooms locked so my space, and that of the Argentinean girl, was limited to the kitchen, the dining room and our bedrooms. While I would have liked to have had full run of the apartment, Niola’s restrictions didn’t diminish my joy at living in the center of Rome. I was around the corner from the Piazza di Spagna and Via Condotti, and the Trevi Fountain was just a short walk away.  

I did my grocery shopping here and there and where ever I could find a shop open. Sometimes that would be the posh rosticceria on the Via Condotti, but most of the time I shopped at a small open farmer’s market up the street from the Fontana di Trevi. It was just across the busy Via del Tritone and up Via della Stamperia.
A Quick Coffee at the Caffe Greco, Via Condotti
On the corner of the street there was a small bar, and every time I walked passed on my way to the market, there would be this guy standing outside, dressed in a suit, who would take off his hat and bow and say to me, “buon giorno Contessa.”  I would smile, and nod my head and say hello. It was like a fairy tale, the stuff dreams are made of. 

The market, now we’re talking outdoor market, was just a collection of small producers, like the guy with a couple of goats who made cheese and the lady I bought eggs from. You could buy one egg, or two eggs or however many eggs you wanted, but you had to bring your own container. If you didn’t have a container she would wrap each egg in old newspaper for you. 
My Most Favorite Place in the World, the Piazza della Rotonda
In those days my Italian life was pretty confusing and sometimes intimidating. What intimidated me the most was the SIP office. SIP was the national telephone company and they had an office on the Via del Tritone. It was a large room with dozens of telephone booths, called cabine, and a cashier. What you had to do was to wait in line until you got to the cashier, tell her where you wanted to call, and she would tell you what booth to go into. After you made your call you had to go back and pay for the time of the call. 

You could not, as I found out one day, make more than one call at a time. But who knew? I don’t remember who I was calling but their line was busy, so I thought, well, as long as I’m here I’ll call my father and say hello. That was a big mistake. The next thing I heard was a booming voice paging the ‘Signora in cabina tre’ instructing her to immediately hang up the phone and come to the cashier’s desk. Cabina tre? That was me. What did I do? I was so embarrassed. 
Turns out, we were only allowed to make one phone call at a time. Line busy. Too bad. You lose your turn. 
Largo Argentina
Changing money wasn't exactly high on my list of favorite things to do either. I think I had traveler’s checks at the time, all I know is I had to go to the bank, show them my passport and sign my name about twenty times before I could get any lira. But, oh, the thrill of getting those large wads of colorful lira worth thousands and thousands, stacks of 20,000 lira bills. I felt so rich, I was rich. Sort of.

Unfortunately, because my school was not in the center of town, by the time I got back from classes the banks were usually closed. They may have opened again for 20 minutes or so later in the afternoon like they do now, but I didn’t have the language skills to figure it out. Days would go by when all I ate mozzarella and tomatoes because I didn’t have any money and in desperation I would often have to take a day off from school just to get to the bank. 
Campo di Fiori
When I did have money, I would eat at the Il Delfino Self Service Restaurant, an always open cafeteria across from Piazza Argentina. Again because I got back to the center of Rome so late, most of the restaurants would be closed and unless I wanted a panino or a slice of pizza, my choices were slim. So the Delfino was perfect.  Besides I couldn’t really read menus and I was usually starving at that point, so it was also the easiest place to go. It’s still there. If you are ever in Rome and find yourself in Piazza Argentina, stop in and tell them I said hello.

It was a wonderful time. Rome was spectacular, another world that I was fortunate enough to be part of and I loved everything about it. I loved exploring the streets and wandering here and there discovering the things that people have been discovering about Rome since the days of the Romans. I used to think how much nicer it would have been if I had been able to communicate better, but maybe that was part of the charm. Now so many of my experiences in Rome are just a normal part of my life, but it’s still wonderful, just different.

And just because I finally figured out how to do this, here's a walking tour of Rome I found especially for my Aunt Florence, because I think she will like it. It's part of a tour taken by some Japanese tourists and narrated by Dennis Callan. It's a little off beat but he does cover some nice sites.

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