26 May 2013

LIFE: All Roads Lead to Rome

CHIAVARI, Italy - Rome was the first city in Italy I ever lived in, and like a first love, it holds a special place in my heart. I was there to study Italian. Through the school I found a room to rent on the Via della Vite, near the Spanish Steps. The apartment was owned by an old woman named Niola, and her only other ‘tenant’ was a girl from Argentina who was also going to school in Rome.   
S[panish Steps

I don’t know what she was studying, or anything else about her as she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian. But we got along ok, she didn’t take up space on my shelf of the refrigerator and I didn’t take up space on hers.

Every weekday morning I would take the bus from Piazza San Silvestro out to the school on the Via Nomentana and spend four grueling hours trying to get a grip on Italian grammar. It was torture trying to wrap my tongue around all the complicated verb forms, but thankfully, from one o'clock on, the day was my own and oh how I treasured it. 

Via Condotti 
I loved living in the center of Rome.  Every afternoon as the stores re-opened from their mid-day break, the narrow streets of my neighborhood, which included the famous Via Condotti, would slowly fill with people of every age, Romans and foreigners alike. I used to spend hours walking those streets, window shopping and dreaming of the day I would live in Italy forever.

It was great fun to look in the windows of the oo la la fancy shops on the Via Condotti, but more interesting were the small open air markets that seem to sprout up from one day to the next like giant mushrooms after a rain. I found them irresistible, especially the food markets.  Growing up in a country where most foods come pre-packaged and shrink-wrapped, I loved being able to buy three egg, six carrots or just one potato, if that was all that I wanted.  No one cared. It didn’t matter. Everyone shopped that way, and they still do.

Trevi Fountain 
On days that I didn’t have school, I would walk to the small outdoor market near the Trevi Fountain to do my weekly grocery shopping.  I would cross the Via del Tritone, go up Via del Stamperia, then turn and head toward the vendors. It was just at that point, near the corner bar, that I would be greeted by a Rudolph Valentino look alike who bow ever so slightly and say,  "Buon girorno, Contessa."  I'd stutter and stammer and finally come out with what I hoped was "and a good morning to you too." 

Now I know that in Italy everyone calls everyone else cara or carrissima, or caro if it’s a guy, or Contessa or any of the other hundreds of endearing names and it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Even my slightly senile landlady, Signora Niola, used to have imaginary conversations that always started with ‘ciao cara’ and continued as she walked around the apartment  talking to ‘her.’ At first I thought she was talking to me, but she wasn’t, so I got out of her way.

 Trevi Market Looked Something Like This

But I liked the Trevi market and if having this guy call me Contessa was the worst that was happening to me, it didn’t seem bothersome enough to worry about. The Trevi market was not organized like most of the other markets in the city, it was more of a meeting place where farmers sold their produce and goods like honey and jams and wine. You had to bring your own bottles if you wanted to buy wine, and they would fill them from the barrels they had on the back of their trucks.

My favorite stall was run by a very old woman who sold live chickens and eggs. She would wrap the eggs, one by one, in torn off squares  of newspaper, hand them to me to put in my shopping bag, and then hold out her wrinkled hand for the money. She never spoke to me. I later figured out that it was probably because I was actually asking her for two or three grapes, confusing the Italian words for grapes and eggs and she realized any attempt at conversation would most likely be a complete waste of time.  

Daily Market at Campo Dei Fiori

There are open markets in most of the city's neighborhoods. One of the best is the one at the Campo de'Fiori. There are two very different versions of how the Campo got its name. The most obvious is that before it became part of the city, it was a meadow of flowers. It's a nice story but I prefer the Roman legend which says the Campo was named after an actress named Flora, who lived during the time of the Caesars. Her theatre, which was the largest in ancient Rome, used to stand on what is now the northeast corner of the square. Or it could very well be that both stories are true. In Rome anything is possible.

Some of my favorite Italian memories come from those early experiences in Rome, and every once in a while I get a hankering to go back and walk the streets and revisit those early days, which is what is going on right now.

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