The Watcher: Rome continued III

I was late. I should have been in Santa Maria in Trastevere half an hour ago. And now I could find no sign of Roger. The church was shrouded in darkness. The saints marching across the gold mosaic under the eaves were quiet and withdrawn. Inside a sermon was in progress. I entered silently and stood by a pillar. Lights shone on the golden mosaics in the apse and the figure of Christ glowed and commanded my eyes to be lifted. The disembodied voice of the priest floated somewhere underneath in the darkness, candles flickered in the aisles. I got caught up in the sounds of meaningless words and the occasional creak of a chair or of the footsteps of someone coming in. But I was supposed to find Roger.

I knew the apartment was on the third floor. I knew that one of the windows looked out on the fountain in the square and on Santa Maria. And that the hosts were English. So I started the rounds. Up stairs and down, looking for an English name, knocking on all different kinds of doors. One old man said no, he was sorry but to come in anyway. Finally nearing the end of the circuit, I found it. Roger was there with two friends, the Italian boy delighted that for a change an American should be late. They mixed me a drink and we sat and talked while my bath water was run. For after all I could not miss the chance of taking a hot bath in a modern bathtub. Finally, late again, off to the New Year’s party.

The hostess was English. There were guests from Spain. From France. A couple of Romans. Guatemala and Mexico. A Russian. A boy from Ireland. Several United States citizens. Music, talking, singing. A typical New Year’s party, if there was such a thing. Latecomers had to be let in through the barred gate downstairs. Of course the keys got lost and the guests amused each other through the bars until  someone discovered the keys around someone else’s neck. Midnight. A toast. One kiss, or more. And the people. My second self stood to one side and watched. I was there and talked and danced, but that other part of me detached itself and stood, a silent observer, at the edge of the group.

A curiously jumbled crowd of people – the homeless ones of Rome. Each of them living a life that was anything but ordinary. Unless drama and tragedy can be considered part of each life. There was a love affair that had been in the process of disintegration for several months. There was a young painter, almost on the verge of starvation. One of the women was in love with an Italian who was married and with children, whom she saw perhaps once a month. Someone else had married a girl he had saved from committing suicide, and now the two lived separately. And if the problems were not with the opposite sex, they were with people of the same sex. But all of this was under the surface. Standing and watching one saw only people at a party. Susan, a rather pretty grey-haired woman in an off-the-shoulder satin dress, looked comfortable rather than elegant. Intelligent and lively except for a habit of saying “what” in a surprised sort of way when she simply hadn’t understood what was being said. She was drinking too much and there was always a cigarette in her hand. There was Adele, not very young, not pretty at all, wearing a dress that was much too tight over her thin frame, and dancing with an awkward abandon. Perhaps one would have to dance this way – or be very good – if your partner were the Irish boy. But at least his movements had charm, and in their rather wild imagination, much grace. Strange that the South Americans were so un-Latin. Small, somewhat soft, they clustered around the rather glamorous mother of one of them and sang the songs of their countries. The dark angular Roman was full of compliments and attentiveness, perhaps one of the few uni-lingual people present. The tall blond American boy from New York moved about the fringes of the party, seeing that everyone was being taken care of. The dramas were there, but tonight one saw only the people.

It was the evening of the first. The Roman boy, Sergio, had invited me to a supper party in Trastevere. We walked through dark back alleys, past a giant foot on a pedestal, through a pass with angels painted on the ceiling. The moon and stars were very bright and shone down on streets gratefully empty of their usual mobs. Here the buildings could almost be seen in their entirety, not just as walls glimpsed in passing. The restaurant was small with simple wooden tables covered with white paper. Bright garden scenes were painted on the walls. A cat and her kittens played in the back around the wine bottles. We all sang songs as we waited for the spaghetti to cook. Wine was brought in. The Padrone got his guitar and accompanied himself as he sang Roman, not Italian, songs. After the spaghetti, lentils for they signified money. Roast kid and bread. The Padrone sat in a corner with a few of his friends and played and sang. Stornelli – improvised verses to which the person addressed had to respond, or pay a forfeit of half a liter of wine. When the cooking was over, the Signora joined the group. A buxom solid woman, with short dark hair and a lively but somewhat coarse face. She was still wearing her smudged white smock as she sat down near her husband and began to sing. Her powerful voice unhesitatingly carried the melody. To me it seemed more a bawling kind of sound, a voice of the people if one wanted to call it that. Her songs were in the Roman dialect, accompanied by movements of her shoulders and torso, explanatory gestures of her hands. And some ended in a burst of laughter for they were what in polite terms could be called Baudelairian. Verses with double meanings, and some with not so double a meaning. My Italian friends explained them in varying degrees of clarity, most of them still remaining pretty obscure. After about half an hour a slow disintegration set in and by one o’clock I was also ready to leave, with my American friend and my Roman friend settling the argument of who was to escort me home by tossing a coin.

The festivities passed. But not the cold. Perhaps it was time for me to move on, to go south, like the birds. Rome to Naples. It was not that I particularly wanted to see Naples, but I did want to go south, to warmer Sicily. I could of course take a train but an overnight ferry from Naples seemed more appealing. Rome to Naples by train was simple and Roger had given me a contact at the military base, someone who would see to my luggage, way too many pieces at this point, what with cameras and typewriter, and host me overnight. With luck, I would have enough time to see a bit of Naples, with hopefully no adverse “adventures”. Naples, they told me, was not a place to wander around in by oneself.

At least the train was nice and warm. There was only one other person in my compartment and he was already there when I found my seat. I supposed he was coming from Florence, or perhaps even Bologna. Lean and with a weather-worn face and rather bad teeth I judged him to be about 60. There was something rather enigmatic about him and I finally figured out why. Despite the fact that it was winter he appeared not to have an overcoat or even a purse of any kind. Usually I was the one the other passengers “disrobed” but this time I noted his pristine shirt, probably new to judge from the cuffs. His jacket also looked relatively expensive, with hand-sewn stitches along the edges of the lapel. His shoes too were what one would call good sturdy shoes. Eventually after the usual fifteen-minute delay “for technical reasons”, eye contact was established and he told me he was a “carpentiere and muratore” from Caserta. But what fascinated me most were his hands, with their well-manicured nails and soft skin. Not a sign of callouses, definitely not the hands of a mason who builds walls and roofs. He said he worked up north, where there was less petty crime and that he had three grown sons. Then rather suddenly he decided he had said enough and went into the corridor. And that was the last I saw of him.


Napoli Vesuvius

After an uneventful evening in the military base, I got a chance to see Naples before being deposited on the ferry to Palermo. Naples was another world – neither Florence, nor Rome. If only it weren’t January.  The bay was beautiful and the windswept height called Vomero commanded a wide clear view, full of light. Walking down the hill was like being drawn into a kind of primordial world of life without individuality. The streets narrowed and the buildings grew higher. Light never seemed to penetrate all the way but stayed up somewhere out of reach. The density of life and living engulfed one. The city gave the impression of being turned inside out, its streets moist and visceral, a constant shifting and readjusting of the density of the population, an internal activity. Here in the center, the light from the sky was further blocked out, or perhaps reflected down again, by the laundry strung from house to house, put up on fences, stretched out of windows, projected into the street in half human shapes on poles. Sweaters and dresses flapped down, looking somehow like skins stretched out to dry. Dante’s Inferno. Bright red with black skirts and shawls. But most of the laundry was forever sheets. Big white uneven shapes, pulled out of their former logical squares by the illogical mended rents and tears. The twisted souls of the sheets. Despite the cold they dripped down on other laundry, on a basket of peas in the vegetable stand, on anyone walking underneath. The laundry was said to be a characteristic of Naples. It was there every day.

Yet Naples did not seem clean. Perhaps it was the ooze-filled streets – a morning ooze due in part to the washing down of store walls and floors, attempts to sweep the dirt from private areas into public ones. Yet the difference between private and public was less than a doorjamb. All of Naples was internal. One didn’t have to go inside the houses – didn’t first have to find a way to break down the walls of reserve and stone which are called houses – for they and the workshops and the streets were one. Windows were part of the doors, they opened and the street simply changed texture to become a floor. It was the bed particularly, which made me feel an intruder. This and the shrine somewhere in the background with a small light burning in front of it. The life of the spirit and of the body. The shrine and the bed. A private place. I had the same feeling of intrusion entering a church where people were meditating or praying, or in passing two people making love, however mildly.

The activity was relentless. Not frenetic, just continual and normal. No one simply walked from one place to another. It was always a matter of carrying something, eating, doing over and over what one did every day.

To be continued . . .

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