The Eternal City

Relentless sentimentalist that I am, the aftermath of a trip manifests itself in a snowstorm of tickets and receipts which I can never quite bring myself to throw away. I can pack in ten minutes, but take weeks to unpack. These tickets are in fact tabs to a mental filing system, their curious hieroglyphics sometimes prompting a furrowed brow as I endeavour to recall the event that each represent. That indecipherable, looping script with abundant double consonants could only be Italian… cappuccino, palazzo… but what was it for? A hotel? Two coffees and an aqua minerale? The Italians love their receipts. It gives the Guardia Finanza something to do.

My wallet bulges with reminiscent litter. A small pink counter ticket with the number 253 – nothing else. That was the queue for a concert in London. The bewigged and powdered portrait of an 18th century young man, which has gone into the transparent pocket where one might reasonably keep a photograph of a loved one, is the ticket to an art gallery in Venice. The blue cardboard folder marked SNCF contains the stub of a train ticket: Roma Termini – Assisi. Do you remember the Filippina nuns, who went to sit down then spotted the sleeping man on the concrete and developed expressions of dismay, deciding instead to stand further along the platform? We are not so squeamish. Or was that Assisi – Firenze? And the Middle Eastern guy with a quick, jittery manner who asked me for a cigarette then complained there was no filter? I remember we hadn’t eaten all day, the bags weighed a ton, we weren’t sure if it was the right train, and you could smoke on the platforms. We did, furiously. The factory opposite had a hole in the roof like it had been bombed. Von Ryan’s Express. Colonel Bogey. All this from a ticket stub.

Vueling Airlines, which I had assumed to be Chinese, turned out to be Spanish – the budget arm of Iberia. And it was, in many ways, a very European airline: the German stewardess welcomed us to “Fooling” Airlines, the Spanish pilot pronounced it “Wailing”. We fooled and wailed our way around the runways of Gatwick for a while to an Ibiza dance music soundtrack as rain spattered the portholes, then took off and within a minute pierced the characteristic murk of overcast that hangs above the British Isles. Suddenly the cabin was filled with sunlight in a premonition of the Mediterranean weather we were heading towards. It was a little over two hours to Rome Fiumicino, but we touched down in a different season: 27 degrees C on the ground.

I walked into the terminal and there was K, waiting just before immigration, as we had arranged – just the same. Passengers flowed around us as we hugged for a long time – it had been six months, a sleepy parting in the hot darkness of a Goan dawn as I climbed into John the Taxi’s car for my flight back to London. At that time we had had no idea when we should meet again; now here she was, and all the stresses of travel arrangements, the tedious bureaucracy of obtaining Schengen visas for non-EU citizens, were behind us.

But after just a few minutes together we were separated once again by our passports – I had to join the EU queue, and K went into the non-EU line. I kept an eye on her progress and we approached the adjacent desks at the same time. The immigration official before me could’ve doubled as a male model in his spare time – olive skin, chiselled features and a tremendously smart navy blue uniform (unlike the UK Borders Agency who have kitted out their staff in shapeless sag-assed black combat fatigues like a SWAT team). I proffered my passport together with my first Italian sentence – a very English “buongiorno” – and he glanced at it and waved me through. On the other side a group of African nuns stood together with arms folded and expressions of inexhaustible patience, waiting for one of their number. A couple of soldiers loitered nearby in shades and designer stubble. I waited. Five minutes. Ten. No sign of K. People I recognised from the queue behind her began to emerge from the same booth. What was going on? 15 minutes. Perhaps she had gone on to baggage reclaim? 20. I walked to baggage reclaim, trying to keep the expression of anxiety off my face. No sign of her.

My mouth was dry and I bought water from a machine, gulping it greedily down. Half an hour had gone by, and by now I was feeling sick. What if there was a problem with the visa? What if they just stuck her in a holding room before the next plane back to Delhi? I saw a lady wearing a yellow Fiumicino Information vest and approached her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “There’s always a delay for non-EU. Maybe 15 minutes.” By now it had been 45, I told her. She pulled out a phone and called a friend in Immigration, who also said not to worry. I asked her what I should do if K didn’t come through. “Well… you could try the police?” she said uncertainly, clearly with no great enthusiasm for my prospects of success with them. I paced up and down the baggage hall, wondering what the hell I was going to do. The phone didn’t work. The free airport wifi wasn’t connecting. It was all going wrong.

Then, suddenly, there she was, flip-flopping her way across the concourse, looking harassed. “Surrey!”

“What the hell happened to you? I was worried sick.”

“They took me out of the queue and I had to wait. Then I had this interview and they wanted to see all the hotel bookings. I told them you were waiting and tried to message but they told me to put away my phone.”

“I’m sure. They don’t want people causing a scene. They’d have just quietly deported you and I wouldn’t have known anything about it. Anyway, you’re here. Viva l’Italia. We’re in.”

There was a small booth outside the airport terminal where you could book a seat on one of the many buses heading to the city centre. We chose Terravision, largely on the strength of the name, and took our place in a crowd that couldn’t properly be called a queue in the British sense of the word. A forest of arms reached over the shoulders of others, proffering tickets to the one girl who was wearing a Terravision tabard. A group of Germans who had been patiently waiting were shouldered aside by a phalanx of Chinese who used their enormous wheeled suitcases like a battering ram. Realising that we were playing by Delhi Rules I dived in, somehow getting the big orange backpack into the luggage hold while clutching K’s hand so as not to lose her in the crowd. It was an interesting cultural introduction – neither the orderly queueing of northern Europe nor the free-for-all melee of Asia, but something in between. The Chinese tutted at these Indian upstarts with their underhand techniques such as the Casual Footplant, the Accidental Rucksack Blat or the Art of Becoming Immovable Unhearing Object. But it got us on, and we got seats. Looking out of the window as the door closed I saw a disconsolate group of Deuter rucksacks and Jack Wolfskin anoraks still standing on the pavement. The Germans would have to take the next bus. “Surrey!”

Roman traffic, too, was a strange kind of hybrid; there was some desultory hooting, but not too much. Cars raced towards zebra crossings, but then did actually stop at the last minute for pedestrians. The personal space measure had shrunk, but not too much: if a pedestrian comes within a metre of a moving vehicle in London the driver is likely to have a panic attack; in Delhi it’s more like a centimetre or two. Rome’s yardstick was a good 30cm – ample room by Indian standards, but disconcerting for Brits and others. Despite the ominous warnings of the guidebooks it all seemed quite orderly really.

And Rome was beautiful. I had been expecting traffic-snarled streets and the occasional ruin surrounded by scaffolding with bits dropping off it periodically like carious teeth, as gangs of moped-riding youths – scippatore, my guidebook helpfully explained – lay in wait for unsuspecting tourists to relieve them of their handbags. But instead there were wide, tree-lined boulevards, with turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. The mopeds were mostly ridden by smart young women in designer clothes. Sometimes we’d pass walls or arches with narrow terracotta brickwork that looked ancient, and the street names were large stone rectangles carved in an elegant, Romanesque font, unlike the functional metal placards in much of the world. The metal signs that did exist, such as for traffic signs, all had a tall and skinny, slanted font – the very definition of Italic. Another sign, on a billboard, left me nonplussed: “Study for British School – Via Rhodesia”. It took a moment to realise Via Rhodesia was the street name – surely the only one left in the world. We passed an enormous ruin of walls and archways – the Emperor Caracalla’s Baths. Then, suddenly, turning a corner the view was dominated by the unmistakeable outline of the Colosseum, prompting a series of oohs and ahs from the passengers, swiftly followed by the assorted clicks and chirps of dozens of cameras. It was, I’ll admit, all very impressive.

Neighbourhoods adjacent to main train stations are rarely salubrious areas, and I had some misgivings about our hotel’s proximity to Termini, recalling the shooting-up gallery round the back of Oslo’s Sentralstasjon or the seamy backstreets around London’s King’s Cross. But this too was unfounded – it was a pleasantly central location off the Via Merulana, heading towards Vittorio Emmanuele park. The hotel itself, Auditorium di Mecenate, was on the third floor of an apartment building serviced by the type of ancient elevator where you have to pull an iron grille across to shut yourself in. Next door was a cafe, across the road a pharmacy, and there were many small shops about. Over the next three days we gradually got to know the neighbourhood, and later, at the end of the trip, we returned there out of sheer familiarity – although to another hotel as the Auditorium was fully booked. Indeed the next time I’m in Rome I’d probably stay there too. Of course there’ll be a next time.

Dawn makes any city unfamiliar. Even if it’s the one you live in, the first grey light of daybreak throwns different features into relief, and the dimensions of the streets assemble themselves naturally without throngs of people to disrupt the view. The birds begin to stir, singing the day into being. The occasional passer-by, huddled against the cool air, walks with the furtiveness of an urban fox, away from the retreating night – heading to work, perhaps, or home from the night shift. The first shutters begin to rattle up on the cafes and a yawning waiter wipes down tables before unstacking the chairs. Four cops draw up in a car, the bubbling blue-and-white Polizia sign on the side looking like a toothpaste advert. They climb out and adjust their uniforms, smoothing their hair, settling caps on heads – two men and two women – before heading to the counter for coffee. A priest in long black cassock cinched with a wide leather belt goes in, and greetings are exchanged.  He bestows a benevolent smile upon the pastries behind the glass counter, finds one he likes in particular and points it out to the waiter. Two African men carrying large bags go past, their eyes swivelling quickly over the cafe’s customers before moving on. Nothing to see here.

I hadn’t appreciated how small Rome was – the historical center, at least. The hotel receptionist furnished us with a map of the city centre, and drew swirling italic rings around various sites of interest in ballpoint pen. Over the course of the day we managed to visit most of them simply by ambling about in pursuit of a series of coffees – the kind of sightseeing I like best. From the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, dominated by the church of the same name from which issued ethereal singing at certain times of day, and clanging clock chimes at others, it was a 15-minute walk downhill to the Colosseum. Thronging with tourists even in the early morning, it loomed over Constantine’s rather diminutive Arch nearby. A series of Bengali men lining the stairs offered selfie sticks to the descending tourists, and nearby a Roman Legionary in helmet, tunic and sandals peered glumly at his iPhone before perking up at the approach of a group of girls who wanted their picture taken with him. Two ladies, each with their own selfie stick, took pictures of themselves repeatedly, only halting at the approach of a vendor who offered them… a selfie stick. “I’ve already got one?” said the taller of the two in distinctly Australian accents. “So has she? Why would I need another?” It was a fair question – or series of questions – and the vendor sloped away, saw me watching and half-heartedly lifted one before deciding it really wasn’t worth it, nothing was really worth it, and he might as well just go and sit down on that rock for a while and watch all the other vendors get rejected too.

There was a kind of vendor hierarchy, with selfie sticks lowest of the heap. Above them were the flower guys – all of them also Bengali – who would approach a couple with a bunch of roses and offer one to the lady. They had cultivated an expansive air of Italian romance – “please, take it for free, beautiful lady” – but would then hover around until paid to go away. They tried it on couples seated outside cafes too, laying a rose on the table before lurking round the corner and coming back to extract payment. There were Africans – mostly Senegalese, it seemed – who sat on small stools along the pavement selling wooden items: little, hideous giraffes, the kind of intricately carved folding bowls such as the one I bought in Afghanistan, and various other trinkets. Some of these, too, would ambush customers in cafes, lurking in the field of vision with a repeated, questing refrain of “Buongiorno? Buongiorno?”, until dismissed with a wave of the hand or an impatient jerk of the head. Tourists tended to get into conversation with them, which was inevitably a mistake; on more than one occasion I saw British tourists (“Bon jaw know,” they would fatally reply) doing that mildy exasperated apologising that the British do so well: “No, I really don’t want one, thank you… sorry, no, not today… no, well not tomorrow either, because we’re going to Pisa, haha… sorry, no thank you”. And the vendor would hear: “sorry… thank you… sorry… thank you” and think: “Aha! If I just keep on standing here and guilt-tripping them into a state of grovelling abasement I’ll wear them down”. After one of these encounters, our waiter – who was Punjabi – rolled his eyes and said to us (in Punjabi): “These guys just try to make everyone feel like wankers”.

And they did. But it wasn’t really their fault, either. All summer columns of refugees had once again trudged back and forth across Europe in search of sanctuary, to a wall of monumental indifference; a wall whose height was added to by each passing, hateful headline. Migrants desperate for a better life – or any kind of life at all – had risked everything to get to the final, glittering citadel of the EU. Now they were in, legally or otherwise, and what they found was indifference, resentment, hostility. Nobody would give them a job in a country with 50% youth unemployment. No-one wanted to buy their tat – no-one had any money anyway. The Bengalis sold the same green laser lights and glowing parachute toys that they sold on the beaches of Goa; the only difference was that here, when they did occasionally make a sale, they got paid in Euros. And in a street just next to the Colosseum, at an ancient, cast-iron pump set into a wall, an African clad only in his shorts stooped splay-legged like one of the giraffes that he sold, and with the quick, deft movements born of long practice, soaped himself all over, sluiced water over his head, scrubbed his teeth vigorously, washed his socks under the stream of water, and then dried himself off with a small towel and repacked his daysack before trudging away down the street towards the crowds of tourists once more.

The hotel was on Via della Statuto, and at the end of it, past the kebab shop on the corner, lay Vittorio Emmanuele Park and the metro station. The pavements outside the shops were colonnaded, with canopies offering shade from the sun, and each morning stalls selling cheap clothing were set up, again mostly manned by Bengalis. They seemed to do a roaring trade – there were nearly always people looking for a bargain, whether tourists in daypacks with cameras slung about their necks or smartly dressed housewives leafing through the racks of clothes with a vague air of distaste. A staircase descended into Vittorio Emmanuele Station, which was fairly grubby, with bare concrete walls and a distinct absence of the advertisements that line every London platform. Rome’s metro is essentially just two lines – A and B –  and looked a little knocked about. Machines on the concourse sold tickets for €1,50 which were valid for 100 minutes of travel – which would probably take you to the end of both lines and back, if you were so inclined. We were bound for Ottaviano and the Vatican Museums, a few stops away across the River Tiber.

Emerging into the heat on what looked like just another Roman boulevard, it slowly became clear that the demographic had changed: the streets were full of nuns. They went past in groups, of all ethnicities and languages, the colours of their habits varying a little from one group to another, and yet there was a drab uniformity to them all. All seemed to favour sagging grey ankle socks worn with sandals. Sometimes they hurried, sometimes strolled, and they, too, became impatient with all the tourists, following each other in their little groups round clumps of daytrippers who had stopped en masse in the middle of the pavement for no reason at all. I eavesdropped on the conversation between three nuns ahead of me, who were speaking in English: two who I took to be Irish from their accents, and a younger African one. I only caught a fragment of it, but one of them said to the African nun: “And did you receive absolution this morning?” For what? I thought.

I sat down on a rock in the shade of a nearby wall and rolled a cigarette as the column of nuns went by. As I sat there, five German girls in tight denim hotpants came and stood in front of me. More arrived – clearly a school group – all of them in these cheeky Daisy Duke shorts. I wondered how they were going to get into the Vatican dressed like that (the answer was, by using temporary sarongs to cover bare legs and shoulders). Soon I was surrounded by 15 or 20 blonde teens who seemed completely oblivious to my presence. They had a heavyset, milk-fed kind of manner to them – rather clumpy and big-boned, for the most part – a small herd of nubile Teutonic heifers. Their teacher, a harrassed-looking thirty-something man with a prominent Adam’s Apple and razor burn, addressed them all from an adjacent rock. They scowled, looked at the floor, played with their phones. Their shorts looked terribly uncomfortable. There was a lot of furtive wiggling and readjustment. The nuns slopped by in their orthopaedic sandals and baggy socks, smiling sadly.

The Vatican, a miniature state-within-a-state, didn’t require a visa, at least. But there was security to be cleared – airport-style scanners and X-ray machines for the backpacks. Notices warned of a ban on objects such as scissors, penknives and hammers, which had been introduced after an incident in 1972 when a mentally disturbed man, Laszlo Toth, attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta statue with a hammer in the Basilica of St Peter’s. Although I didn’t anticipate having such a visceral reaction myself to any art I might encounter, I realised that my penknife – an enormous, inch-thick Swiss Army Knife with 42 blades (apparently) – was in my backpack, and wondered what to do with it. In the end I just left in in the bag as it went through the scanner, and they never picked up on it. (Thai Airways, Air India and Singapore Airlines have also missed it in security checks over the years, which is a little concerning I suppose.)

St Peter’s Basilica was immediately cool and dark after the broiling sun. There was a low sussurus of murmuring as the crowd of tourists endlessly perambulated anticlockwise with necks craned aloft. Crepuscular rays descended in tapering columns of light from the windows around the high dome, creating a suitably heavenly atmosphere. From far above came the triple-clap of pigeons’ wings and a faint cooing. Sculptures of assorted saints in heroic poses lined the walls; Saint Veronica appeared to be attempting to escape from her dress; St Andrew reclined upon the X-shaped cross that came to be named after him, hand outstreched and eyes turned aloft beseechingly. Over the altar was a baldacchino, designed by Bernini, oddly reminiscent of a four-poster bed. Dark wooden columns twisted and fluted their way aloft, rising to 20 metres in height. At the base of each was a marble plinth, and upon these were carved a heraldic shield containing three bees in triangular formation – the coat of arms of the Barberini family, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini having become Pope in 1623 and taking the name Pope Urban VIII. The removal of ancient bronze beams from the Pantheon to provide material for the baldacchino led to an anonymous critic of the time writing the Latin pun: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” – What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did. 

But it is only on closer inspection of the plinths that one can detect that Bernini’s monument has an extraordinarily graphic detail, given that this is the most sacred spot in the Roman Catholic world. Each shield is enclosed by a woman’s head, and while initially appearing identical, when viewed from the front left plinth it is possible to discern her changing expression. As Witkowski (1908) writes:

The scene begins on the face of the left-hand front plinth; the woman’s face begins to contract; on the second and following plinths the features pass through a series of increasingly violent convulsions. Simultaneously, the hair becomes increasingly dishevelled; the eyes, which at first express a bearable degree of suffering, take on a haggard look; the mouth, closed at first, opens, then screams with piercing realism. … Finally, comes the delivery: the belly subsides and the mother’s head disappears, to give way to a cherubic baby’s head with curly hair, smiling beneath the unchanging pontifical insignia.

Interpretations vary as to Bernini’s message. Some believe that the faces illustrate the labour of the papacy through the symbolism of childbirth. Others maintain that they were commissioned intentionally by Urban VIII at a time of his niece’s problematic pregnancy in gratitude for the successful delivery of the child. But perhaps the most entertaining account is that it stems from a piece of Roman gossip at the time – that this was Bernini’s revenge on the Pope for having disavowed a child illegally born to his nephew Taddeo Barberini and the sister of one of Bernini’s pupils. Even Popes are not above the morality of Vox Populi in the Eternal City.