Roma: How Romans Differ From Europeans

Drive across the Alps into Italy and set out southwards and you’re surprised that the capital city on the Mediterranean is still hundreds of kilometers away. That long road ahead makes you conscious of the isolation of the ancient city called Roma. And you are right. Rome is isolated. Far away from the “real” Europe of London and Paris and Berlin, cities of high diplomacy and international accords. Far away not only in kilometers. It is also that isolation that makes Rome and the rest of Mediterranean Italy—packed onto the protrusion sticking out southwards toward Africa—so different from “Europe”. From the rest of the Continent. And therefore its fatal attraction. North Europeans love Italy. Poles have long had a special relationship with Rome—the Polski Dom for Polish pilgrims to the holy city is near my house. Like their writer Gogol, Russians feel a powerful attraction to Rim. The fascination these peoples of the North perceive for Roma is itself a mystery. I find it like the romantic mysteries of, say, Baranquilla or Macao or Alexandria. But one perception that most of them—Germans, Poles, Russians and Englishmen and others—have in common is that Italy is an exotic abroad. So it is no wonder that the mysteriousness of the city of Roma stirs your own imagination. And once there and have seen it you feel you have to get to the bottom of it. For you too might fall victim to it someday.

But then, when you draw near the city, the first signs of the ugly suburbia momentarily deflate your imagination of the wonders you’ve pictured. True, the landscape of the Sabine Mountains and the rugged hills and valleys is magnificent; but what men have built there is scandalous. This is Rome? Well! Be that as it may, you begin reviving on the ‘road of salt’—the Consular Via Salaria—still reaching from downtown Rome 254 kilometers to the Adriatic Sea. Layer after layer of the city unfolds before you and you begin to feel the time of the ages passing. Then, abruptly, the scenery changes again; ugly suburbia gives way to ring after ring of bourgeois peripheries of fortress-like, apparently self-sufficient palazzos enclosing invisible micro-societies. But you see few people even though you sense the proximity of the city core. But where are the people? Truly a mystery. Roman magic. Not to worry, however. For later, you will see the masses of Rome that can form instantaneously; and magically vanish in a flash. The words flash mob took on quickly in Italian.

But unraveling the mysteries of this city doesn’t come for free; it can become a lifetime goal. Thrilling thought! In reality, most visitors never feel the city’s isolation … or its intransigence, its force, its subtle mysteries. For if you arrive by air, you are just in another world city and a guide book suffices. Two hours flight from Berlin, three from Moscow. And tourists have no inkling of Roman mysteries. For you the voyager there are those heavy tomes of Roman history, and archeology and legend, too. But unlike the copious literary fiction set in Paris, imaginative fiction set in Rome is strangely scarce … unless you go for Hollywoodish things like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

So best for you the curious voyager is the arcane book that is Roma itself. You learn it on your own.

Singular, this city of hills and the stone of the ages … a city surrounded by sea and mountains. Truly magical, this metropolis on the dirty River Tiber. Three thousand zigzagging years. In the high times, caput mundi with one million inhabitants. In the low times, sheep grazed in the Forum and the population sank to thirty thousand. But then you may still find the pagan Sun-God Mithras sitting on a pedestal on the second underground level of a church near the Coliseum, still creating magic, while Rome time has marched past. Eternal City—Città Eterna. While Teutonic tribes roamed around the North of Europe, enchanted spaces emerged among the hills of Roma. Sumptuous stone palaces rose. Sorcerers and evil spirits practiced secret exorcisms while urban planners sought the perfect city; alchemists, eternal life.

Roma, the capital of two coexisting exploitative worlds: the secular and the spiritual—both murderously cruel. Curiously though, during the three millennia Romans never rebelled. Well, except for one rebellious slave in the provinces: Spartacus revolted and was crucified for it. And fifteen hundred years later, the monk, Giordano Bruno, rebelled against Church doctrine and was burned alive for it, leaving behind his heretical philosophy and his shadowy statue on Campo de’ Fiori standing flabbergasted amidst food vendors and drug pushers.

But a popular social revolution? Never!

Feminine Roma. Whorish Roma. A smiling, deceptive, boisterous, aggressive, vulgar, garbage-ridden Roma. And a generous, haughty, superb, impenetrable Roma. Sinful and angelic, impertinent and condescending, cynical and naïve, uncompromising and malleable, superficial and profound, clownishly gay and effusively Mediterranean melancholy. Those Romes merged into the elusive stone city that remains … majestically impervious to her components. Romans know her somewhat. Wannabe Romans meet her. Her arms are wide open, ‘Do come in … and do it my way.’ And the seduction begins, spiritual and social … and violent. A rape of the senses. Then, after the seduction and acclimation, love and hate, fascination and repulsion remain. Roma, Rome, Rom, Rim.

For beginners, a deep secret: Rome climate is not what it’s cracked up to be. So a discussion of weather is obligatory. In short, most likely you’ll never get used to Rome weather. Only real Romans do. Sort of. Unless they’re in Cortina d’Ampezzo or Rhodes or the Seychelles, even Rome bourgeois claim they suffer constipation if they venture north of Florence. It’s bizarre, Rome climate, what with its winter thunder rolling around Mediterranean heavens. Nevertheless real Romans love their climate, they really do. A climate unaffected by environmental analyses and international accords. A micro-climate as incomprehensible as are the city and its patient people. A people different from Northerners, a people driven mad by the historical cross they bear. Roma! Long before the universal climate change crisis Rome climate was independent, if not autarchic … never all sunshine and roses. Yet real Romans are unconcerned about what is to be done about it, though they firmly believe that a climate crisis exists and is three thousand years old.

Transplants however need a few years to become sensitive to its weather. So say the psychologists. You can observe the phenomenon live on Piazza Navona where a dialectical happening occurs on sunny days in March: Nordic tourists and innocent expats in shorts and sandals stroll around under the noonday rays of an early spring sun on the landmark piazza, lifting their arms in joy, their red faces to the sun. But suspicious Romans, never. Romans of at least five generations back—and a handful of hermitic types muttering about crazy March—marzo pazzarello—dress in multiple layers of clothing and hold close to the sunny side of the stone piazza. Oh yes, the climate changes and so do Romans, but dialectically.

On that majestic piazza on a Sunday morning in March you may experience the reality of the weather-related Jerome Syndrome. Wary of both sun and shade, with consummate care you choose a fine table under a wide umbrella at the end of a middle row at the sidewalk café facing Borromini’s church of Saint Agnese in Agone with its twin bell towers and in front of which they once pilloried Agnese naked so Romans could see what a holy woman’s body looked like. But you of the twenty-first century are cozy in the early spring sunrays warming your half sun-half shade spot so that you sit serenely in security with your coat draped urbanely over your shoulders …neither too cold nor too hot.

An old story, the Jerome Syndrome. In Three Men in a Boat, the English writer Jerome K. Jerome visited the British Museum to study his hay fever symptoms. And after digging into distemper and delving into devastating scourges and all kinds of symptoms he concluded that he had them all: typhoid fever, Bright’s disease, severe cholera and even St. Vitus’s Dance. The only malady he eluded was housemaid’s knee, so is said. And so his hypochondria became known as the Jerome Syndrome. But does it matter? Well, the dialect poet, Gioachino Belli, wrote a famous oxymoron about the syndrome’s causes: the ‘freezing tramontana wind emerging from hell’s fire’. And it had ramifications in Roma: the humidity, the icy winds, sudden freezes and the famous syndrome combined to create the antibiotic craze that affects Romans today: the need for a fix. For the Buriana wind arriving from Siberia brings sicknesses like the chilblains that once plagued the iron-clad centurions of the battle legions of ancient Roma.

Before coming south, Northerners imagine sunning on Rome’s beaches in March: lounging on white deck chairs under colorful umbrellas, radios blaring, kids kicking up sand, beach volley, ice cream vendors, kites flying, fast boats roaring past while couples in the sand are close to going all the way. True that on good winter days you might take the sun on a Rome beach even in January when a beguiling sun makes you do crazy things, excursions into the unknown where nothing is withheld, when your secret self shows forth and that unspoken Noli me tangere relents and unfetters the alien part of yourself to strike camp from the ordinary… a petit betrayal, an unannounced departure to that secret withheld place of your other self. Now that is very Roman thinking: the flight, momentary freedom, and the return, head bowed and you again escape proof.

Two thousand years ago Roman imperial warships performed naval war games in the crater lake of Nemi in the Roman Castles area. Today, you tramp around an ancient Emperor’s turreted city walls erected to keep out the Barbarians, then you learn that they got in anyway. You shrug. And wandering among an empire’s abandoned spaces waiting for conversion to modernity, you understand why native Romans do not know where and when they are in this palimpsest of a city.

Time passes and one after another things happen, while some things remain the same … but not all. Aches in the belly. Confusion in your mind. Nostalgia rampant. You feel something alien inside you. Then if you stay in Roma longer, the night of your dwindling relationship with your former self thickens. And you suffer from invasive images of a past elsewhere, a longing you justify to yourself that it is only your longing for a different time and for what was in its essence completely different. Like longing for the person who promised you eternal love … and you feel helpless and say ‘shit-fuck! And fuck Jerome and his syndrome, too! And you tell yourself that with enough time you can acquire immunity to Jerome’s illnesses and become insensitive to the magical force of Rome’s winter sun and the bite of those killing north winds. And you say fuck those winds, too! But you still have issues. Pressing issues. The Northerner is enfeebled by memories of a former life elsewhere, life that seems fictitiously fragmented condemning him to live a double life in which he fears he is mistaking fervid imagination and romanticism for prescience. Wavering, you think that Romans know that not every situation requires a choice. That choosing is sometimes presumptuous. And you know you will never get away from that thought.

Clearly the urban passion is necessary to penetrate the gossamer unknown that is Roma. Tramping city streets is harmless enough. An innocent pastime. If you don’t play tennis or golf, you can walk cities. Street by street, block by block. neighborhood by neighborhood, mentally mapping-tabulating the streets of Roma or Paris or Buenos Aires. Searching for the points of juncture between their urban sections, the points where they coalesce, where the expanding city has overrun the satellite townships and hamlets and made of the group of settlements a metropolis. In sum, you seek the essence of your cities … mapping the march of progress. At first glance, a rich neighborhood in Rome may look analogous to the poor ones, only cleaner and with less people. An observant eye, however, draws more profound conclusions. Place and people characterize the city of yesterday and today. The rich still differ from the poor in myriad ways. Rich women tend to be more attractive, as before. Rich and poor people get drunk differently, also as before; the rich more slowly and quietly and somehow reach their beds before passing out. It’s the expensive wine and brandy they drink. The poor drink rowdily and downing anything handed to them; they drink in order to forget their disastrous situation until they pass out wherever they happen to be. The rich are acutely sensitive to bad smells and rough language and noise and crowds and promiscuous celebration. In their neighborhoods: heavy brass door handles, immaculate doormen in black, elegant newsstands with wrought iron framework, darkened cafés and restaurants so exclusive they seem unnamed, tiny parks where pampered canines do their business in private. Boring areas where you might never meet a living soul, so unlike the noisy and dangerous life-on-the-edge poor people encountered in the shitty parts of any big city where people hang out at questionable taverns where mistrust reigns and everyone feels their links with their world but are still isolated one from the other even though they crowd into the same rickety-rick elevators lifting them to high low-ceilinged floors. The nearly invisible rich live together too, albeit with little bumping into one another in their individual mirrored, hydraulic elevators and trendy expensive restaurants at the top of luxury hotels. They like it that way. They shut their eyes to the poverty, the vision of which offends their highly-developed sensitivity. Yet they prefer living near the poor whose proximity helps them feel less their lonesomeness. To dig deeper into people you have to get inside those you meet on the streets and in the taverns and the metro. Asking directions is an eye opener … in any neighborhood, rich or poor. You can classify neighborhoods according to the answers to questions that only seem banal, like: “Where is the nearest pastry shop?” Poor people can send you to the nearest bar but they might not know pastry shops. The fearful rich lady, still good looking in her advanced age, mincing along a garbage-free street waves you away, unaware that exclusivity and ignorance go well together. People present themselves to an inquisitive stranger in a way they do not to an acquaintance. One sends you to the devil, another escorts you to your destination. You might find the love of your life that way.

The urban conglomeration of Roma: three thousand years of crushing apartment complexes for rich and poor. Now, subways, buses, trams, central stations and high-speed trains, shopping malls, escalators, fountains and park benches, homeless, fortune-tellers, gadget hucksters, green grocers, corner shops and tiny supermarkets, hidden gas stations, billboards, theaters and cinemas, hospitals, schools and dance halls, all part of the lives of ant-like human beings piled atop each other, many detesting each other in the struggle for space and autonomy but restrained by social rules from shootouts and other such apocalypses, combine to make you aware of what specialists describe as “the mysterious disappearance from the pages of history of cities” like the ghost cities in the Bolivian Andes known only to a handful of archaeologists. Rich and poor comprehend that the best way to torment one another is to group together in an exclusive society. Sartre wrote a play about the “hell” of the restricted unchanging group. Cioran wrote that all countries should be like Switzerland: people should occupy themselves only with matters like hygiene, the idolatry of the laws and the cult of man. I find Sartre’s conclusion truly hellish. And Cioran’s concerns, dull. Dull? Because the sometimes apparent neutrality between rich and poor is deceptive and ambiguous, and the gulf between them—whether in Switzerland or India or the USA—is not something about which you can remain neutral. Not if you are engaged in the permanent war between the two classes. Class struggle and resistance against capitalist-inspired violence should be the normal way of life. But instead it has become an anarchic everyone-against-everyone hell. That is just so much merda. It really is. And neutrality is impossible … unless you are alone in the desert without water or compass or even a name.

So, you float like a phantom through the streets of the eternally new city of Roma seeking confirmations. Marmorean Rome. Empire marble from Spain and Gaul, Tripolitania, Greece and Asia, from Oriental lumachel to imperial reds. You stand on a piazza and crane your neck to observe the return of the birds, great formations swelling and shrinking, inhaling and exhaling, ready to occupy the stone city for a time. You wander over cobbled alleys inhabited by shady figures with conspiracy in their blood and through the ugly semi-periphery, down the putative freeway to open-air markets and the pulsating train stations for the seashore of Ostia. You examine deserted tram tracks covered haphazardly by layers of fresh macadam but patiently waiting for the next tram to arrive—which happens: trams are re-born into new existences, emerging from the pressed tar to add to the confusion Romans love. You investigate the tombs and imagine the cobblestoned roads lined by rows of the crosses of crucified Spartacus and his dissident army and marching legions herding new slaves and prisoners of war from newly conquered foreign lands, strong men whose blood will flow on the sands of Emperor Vespasiano’s Coliseum. When you feel fixed in your escapist mode of the urban wanderer, you feel a distance from Rome while at the same time striving for connection with it. (“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.” Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood, around 1900)

Once upon a time I liked to stand at the French bay windows of a Via Cassia flat and peer across the chaotic web of streets toward Monte Mario. I was looking for the wandering Roman forever searching for himself. I used powerful binoculars to zero in on figures moving back and forth inside a window in one or another of the pastel palazzos swarming among the hills and valleys, many of which uninhabited. Voyeurism? No. Or not very. Actually a complement to my urban explorations. Why the construction of apartment buildings destined to remain empty of people? And they keep on filling in every empty space, every piece of green that remained after the construction industry’s previous “rape of the Eternal City” in the sixties and seventies leaving behind an ugliness—to which Romans seem blind—and scattered abandoned spaces, they too ugly—an uncontrollable putrid mess of real estate scandals and administrative corruption that combined to leave an indelible mark on the landscape of the chic heights above the two thousand year old Milvio Bridge: the Foreign Ministry and Olympic Stadium flanked by swimming pools and tennis courts for international meets.

The Roman! Mysterious like his city. Must be his age that makes time so fundamental for the Roman. The Roman talks a lot about time. Past time, you would think. Yet the future weighs heavy, the future awaiting his children. The Roman lives to the full the present, though not wisely. A recent “scientific” finding puts Romans in second place after Bogotà residents in the number of annual hours spent in their cars: Romans spend 254 hours: they say it is because of a city sprawl bigger than London’s, besides some of Europe’s worse public transportation and traffic worse than Calcutta or Mexico City. The Roman should be furiously revolutionary. But no! The Roman’s relationship with time and his car saves him from the final step of reviving the guillotine. For his time is relative. He just doesn’t give a shit about those 254 hours. Oh, yes, he gripes. Yet many seem to love those wonderful hours. Why? Because the Roman is the personification of urbanity and patience … Italian style. This is NOT North Europe. Maybe not even Europe. Some years ago in the high political spheres of Rome they posed the question: Does Italy need “Europe”, meaning the European Union? Europeanists answered that Italy without Europe was not Italy; nor was Europe without Italy, Europe. Oh, young Italians want to be Europeans. And they are. More or less. Each year one hundred thousand of them, educated and smart, leave the peninsula. But many return, especially the wandering Roman comes back home.

For Italy remains that exotic land separated from the rest by the Alps and the seas. Just a tail, barely attached to Europe. A protrusion from the protrusion that is Europe itself from the great Euro-Asian continent. And since the time of the Huns of Attila Northerners have felt an irresistible attraction to that Italic protrusion. Also Romans feel the same irresistible attraction. They may leave, but most return.

The Roman is simply different. No planned 9-5 jobs for the Roman. Though 8-2 is more his style, he opposes fixed hours … unless it’s a bank sinecure. But generally if a specific job is to be done, the Roman forgets time and does it. Around the clock. A Stakhonvite. Otherwise he goes out for a café. His relationship with time makes him the best of workers: he and his Italian brothers built the New York subway and re-built post-WWII Germany. Good soldiers, revolutionary failures. Fickle Romans in fact love their tyrants who take care of things … but for a limited time. Then away with him. And bring on another. Il Papa é morto. Viva il Papa!

And religion? Christianity? Well, yes. The Roman is a catholic. But also an atheist. A technical atheistic catholic. After baptism at birth, he goes to church only for marriages and funerals. Or he takes a foreign visitor to see Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi or Santa Maria del Popolo.

Then what about St. Peter’s Square—you know, popes on the balcony, the Swiss guards, the security checks? Oh, that charade is for fanatics and tourists. And Vatican City? Rumors fly about bribing a certain priest to show you its Inquisition torture chamber where many victims entered but few came out; the same priest who once said there’s no better place to lose your soul than the halls of the Vatican … an organization run by criminals. Still, the Roman loves his Pope and the World Church … but at a distance. Gives him a sense of the international community even though he considers it all hokus-pokus, The Roman wonders if American Protestants are even Christians, considering all the fundamentalists and their billionaire preachers over there. What goes around, comes around!

The Roman confuses the names of the Seven Hills and includes his own hill among the original seven. And he knows the names of the city’s thirty bridges, more or less, but he doesn’t give a shit for the River Tiber even though he knows Julius Caesar once stood on its banks somewhere and said “the die is cast”. What Julius did then is cloudy. But that river! You can simply fill it in and eliminate it. Good riddance. But we have to keep our bridges. National heritage. Names of Kings and Queens and gods and angels. Once good also for hanging heretics’ bodies.

Football! The term is confusing; calcio (kickball is proper). Die for your Rome big league team. Lazio for fascists; Roma for communists (once upon a time). Calcio and food! That’s life. And holidays and holiday food. Christmas and Easter (Natale e Pasqua: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi!—Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever!). Where is the best pasta carbonara made? Roma! And fettucine Alfredo? Roma!

ROMA, ROMA? What does the word mean? Three millennia-old after all, the name of our city. Maybe ROMA derives from the ancient word Ruma meaning “breast” or “hill”… a silly name for the city that dominated the Old World. Or, Roma is the Etruscan Rumla, the name lent to the city by the three Etruscan kings of early Rome. Or, the name is more enigmatic than its simplicity suggests. The explanation lies in Rome’s secrets. A mixture of myth and fact. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of an occult reserve name for Roma. Uttering that name outside secret rituals was a crime carrying the death penalty. All the same, that secret name proved to be naive: a derivation of “Ara Volupiae or Altar of Volupia”, a Roman goddess. Through a series of mystical mental gymnastics, from the pleasure of voluptas you arrive at the Greek Eros, whence to the Latin Amor which, as even non-etymologists can decipher, is Roma written backwards. As the graffiti in black and blue and red on Rome’s subway station walls, the simplest palindrome, ROMA-AMOR, AMOR-ROMA. It is said that the secret name theory derived from the Renaissance idea of creating a parallel Rome of economic power to the north, leaving the political-cultural life in the fraudulent hands of the Vatican whose presence many Romans consider the cause of the city’s backwardness and wish was back in Avignon.

In the sixteenth century, Pope Sistus V, the Italian, Felice Peretti, counter reformist pope, also wanted to restrict Rome to “the city of the Vatican”. But that retrograde pope was also an urban explorer … his only redemptive quality. There he is driving around in his purple papal carriage peeping out from behind velvet curtains at the urban wonders, his face lined by a conniving papal smile. He stops his eccentric vehicle near startled strollers on the Pincio hill from where St. Peter’s Basilica and the steeples and domes of the city are so picturesque at sunset. The Pope opens a tiny window and bestows holy trinkets on befuddled idlers who have no concept of a planned city design and wonder what that wild man with the besotted smile huddled inside his mysterious buggy is drinking. May your cup always be filled, Sisto! Actually, Sistus was fascinated by a city design in the shape of a star, the principle points of which were the obelisk of Trinità di Monte at the top of the Spanish Steps and the basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni, and Saint Peter’s itself, still in their same places, symbolic of the Renaissance search for the ideal city. And the star was the symbol of the sun. Sistine Roma became the “city of the sun”, the ideal city of the Golden Age.

Yet despite rampant fraud and corruption the Roman is too forgiving for his own good. The Roman forgives the misdoings of others for he too wants to be forgiven his own aberrations. Now this is the terrible part for any society: The day-to-day reality for Romans is a society in which corruption is an established norm … not really sinful. Every step has its graft price tag. Actually corruption has a certain allure: you always know where you stand with the corrupt. The Roman concurs that good intentions and personal morality and public ethics are admirable qualities indeed; but what exists in reality is a culture of amorality and illegality. A society in which it’s almost as immoral to actively oppose low-level corruption as to demand bribes for performance of one’s duty. A society in which the difference between the corrupter and the corrupted fades. Call a plumber “friend” to fix a bathroom pipe. You pay an arbitrary price, no receipts, no tax paid. He is the corrupted, you the corrupter. Rome society in which to be anti-corruption or anti-clerical is in essence anti-Italian.

These Romans, questi romani, are a cynical people, scheming and not at all romantic as Northerners believe Italians are—and they have not changed since the Roman Empire. Not one iota. They hold tight to their Machiavelli, who took the shortcut of separating politics from morality. Many believe—but never admit—that the end justifies the means. Therefore they will elect a half-educated party leader to a government position, a politician who may rise to national leadership and one day demand “full powers”. Corruption lives in the heart of Roman society; everybody plays some small part in the corrupt society; and the state is the reflection of that society. The Roman considers this reality universal. And who can say he is wrong?

History! Opinion or legend? Tales told by storytellers or truthful social evolvement? From abroad your fixation had been ‘historic Rome’. But after coming to know the minutiae of the city, the real Roma emerges as proof that pure historicism has no heart. Walter Benjamin reminds us in confirmation of Napoleon that “All rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.

And we see the Roman armies as we do our foreign armies in the Middle East today, etiolated victors hurtling forward with zero regard for the past, carrying away the victor’s spoils of that past; cultural treasures now stained by terror and indelible blood tainting the transmission of those treasures to the future. The elite but simplistic white species has distanced itself from the main body of mankind: those of dark skin colors, the great wave of the future—while the blanched ones march toward extinction. That is to say that the others do count. Real life is based on man’s capacity to see and identify with the other. A universal truth … if there is one truth.

Thoughts inspired by Roma.