To Rome, With Pops
Atop the Janiculum hill in Trastevere there is an elegant Deco pavilion to commemorate those who fought in the Italian wars of independence. Etched into pearly white Carrara marble at the very top of this open-air mausoleum, all in caps, is the slogan, “ROMA O MORTE.” “Rome or death.”
As if one can tell the difference.
Nowhere else is the fact and physical matter of death such an integral part of existence. Death becomes Rome — a geological sfogliatelle stacking up epochs like layers of puff pastry, so that, when, from time to time, the road falls away twenty feet to the roots of an ancient excavation of a wall built before Christ, the millennial drop is a vertiginous look back in time. Everywhere throughout the city you are trampling on the packed dust of the ancients, and brusquely reminded, upon confronting the myriad inanimate specters of genius in ruins — marble testaments to the mortality of even Michelangelo and Bernini — that to that dust you too shall return, to be splattered with spilled gelato and seagull droppings in time.
And the Eternal City is of course famous for springing up at you that way, around every corner, totems of civilization in varying states of decay. Like the monument on which I found this slogan, a rallying cry for Garibaldi’s redshirts in their campaign to unite the peninsula in the Risogimento, declaring, somewhat oxymoronically above the bodies buried beneath it: Rome or death. All or nothing. Either/Or.
Convenient, then, that I should have stumbled across it at the summit of this, one of the largest, though not one of the famous seven, hills of Rome. In some hoary eon many centuries before Garibaldi repelled the forces of France here, an ancient cult worshipped the god of duality on this site, commemorating it for the two-sided Janus, god of the axis between past and future, of war and peace, who presides over passageways and thresholds. And Rome, with its jasmine-limned porticos and windows into antiquity, is nothing but a city of thresholds. Facing both north onto Vatican City, and south, overlooking the Forum and Coliseum, the Janiculum still fulfills this duality, and I, who had lost my way and much of my own history, felt profoundly lucky to have ended up on its slopes.
See, I needed this trip. I had come to a chapter break in my life and was looking for a way to turn the page. Even if I knew that I would not return home to New York the same person who had left — transformed, if only by the natural death and rebirth cycles of traveling — I wanted to see some demarcation line of whatever this crossing was so as to better understand it. I wanted a ritual to mark the occasion, to make it feel more noble than just some garden variety nervous breakdown. I needed Janus to crack open a portal and usher me through.
Instead I Instagrammed the view of the prosciutto-and-melon skyline, tinting the terracotta tile and cantaloupe-colored stucco by degrees until I was satisfied, and starving.
On the second night of our stay, a night unbroken by sleep for me, my father had a revelation. “I just had a revelation,” he announced, at 5 AM, storming into the living room where I was racked on the pull-out couch. In the mornings my father is all exclamation points and whirring activity, as if he has been given a day’s worth of ideas and, like a kid with a pocket of coins, has to spend them all right away. Standing before me in his underoos, while I labored under the crushing weight of a paperback Bond novel, he told me in great detail about how he couldn’t sleep, what precisely he had been worrying about, what he read to distract himself, what he thought was so fascinating about that book —
“Wait,” I managed, “what was the revelation, dad?”
“Well, I think you’re absolutely right,” he said. He was always congratulating me for coming up with things I hadn’t. “This is an eating trip!”
“As opposed to what?” I said.
Pops had been imagining a Caravaggio crawl, as he called it, tromping into churches, chapels, and museums around town to look on the works of our favorite master. Maybe, too, he figured we’d have some discursive adventure, père et fils, following the tide of the city where it might take us. But, no, it was to be food. Of course it was. It would always be food with us.
I first got to know my father — really know him, and become close with him — while I was in graduate school in Los Angeles, and it was basically the breaking of bread that did it. After discovering, though not from him, that my father was gay, I launched a kind of bonding campaign. I basically showed up on his doorstep every afternoon for a year straight, demanding to be taken in, fed, and watered. And, by cooking together on those afternoons, arguing from the same side about recipes, eating and drinking and musing about our love of Italian film — my father and I bonded, you might say, literally and figuratively, over La Dolce Vita — we found a common language.
To celebrate our newfound friendship, we traveled to Rome, nexus of the food and culture that had provided us our lingua franca. Now, ten years later we were back. Older, sure, and a step or two slower, but no less enthralled by the sweet life. So it was a little surprising when, shortly before we set out — he from Palm Springs and me from JFK — I revisited the great Fellini movie I had seen no less that two dozen times, to discover I had completely edited from my memory the father-son sequence in the middle, the father-son sequence that, on this viewing, so closely mirrored that of our own situation.
In the movie, the tabloid stringer Marcello Mastroianni receives a surprise visit in swinging Rome from his desperate-to-be-hip father. Marcello is indulgent and kind, taking his father to all the cool spots, and his father tries to show off, affects grandeur for his new audience. After one drink too many, perhaps, or maybe because of his age, Marcello’s father has some sort of freak out. Marcello tries to soothe him, but to no end, and the father leaves in retreat to return home, to sleep, perhaps, or to die, we are allowed to think.
When my own father gets morose, or gloomy about his mortality — which he is wont to do — it is to Rome his mind turns. When he starts talking bucket list it is never India or Asia or kite surfing in the Galapagos, but a return to Rome. Always Rome.
For a young lapsed-Catholic, a gay man from Missouri on what he called, rather grandly, his Grand Tour in 1953, Rome was, I imagine, the absolute pinnacle of glamour. It was both freer and more rigid than the States, more progressive and more pious. He may joke, as he did on our recent visit, that it is time to “come home” to Mother Church, but meeting Pope Pious XII and Franco Zeffirelli on that first trip (though not at the same time, alas) was, and still is, a kind of come-to-Jesus moment. Rome has been a kind of fantasy home for him ever since — an axis point, maybe, about which our alternate selves and realities orbit — a place he is always trying to get back to.
Such was the inspiration our trip, connecting with a past, with a fantasy, perhaps, and with each other. But for two people who live so resolutely alone, by their own schedule, and according to their own demands, the two of us struggled to share an itinerary. But whereas my father was a good sport about it all, ebullience itself, even as he got sicker and sicker with a cold, I reverted to the petulance of an adolescent, flaring up at his early morning energy, pouncing on his repeated statements, correcting him unnecessarily, contradicting him to no end.
At its root, my frustration came from the divide between the trip I had imagined — the fantasy trip — and the trip it was now becoming clear we were actually on. Frankly I was struggling mightily against the jetlag, feeling flattened out and cranky with the lack of sleep, and penned-in, wanting to shuttle around the city more quickly than my father, on his dear old legs, could. But, during little moments of pause, when and if I cared to consider it properly, I was aware that my irrational imposition of fantastic expectations on reality was the same thing that had been causing me so much trouble at home. My life, I kept thinking, like the trip, was not the one I had imagined for myself. I was this person, over here, when the me I was supposed to be was that one, over there, living a completely different — and, it hardly needs be mentioned, utterly fabulous — life.
Alas, an accurate diagnosis of the sickness does not immediately precipitate a cure and, even as I now knew what was wrong with me, I was a roiling boil of impatience and crankiness. I sulked and shouted. And still Pop remained in good cheer — agonizingly, annoyingly good cheer. Popping into high baroque churches he would let out a little squeal, whisper-shouting, “Look at all those squirming angels. It is almost too precious to be true.” He was bloody having the time of his life, damn it, and I was dragging my feet like a teenager.
Thankfully this was an eating trip, and petulance is often cured by food and booze. And, ohhhhhh did we eat, in the high churches of Roman cuisine, and trattorie where Fellini hung out. At the legendary Osteria al Moro, where il Maestro was a regular, and whose owner he cast as the role of the debauchee in his Satyricon, my father and I had their famous carbonara the way others, no less devout, take communion. We visited sainted San Crispino for its holy gelato, and Tazza d’Oro for the hallowed granita. But we also went a tad bit off track, visiting little trattorie I’d discovered for braised rabbit, osso buco, fried zucchini flowers and, of course, spring’s glory, fava beans. We ate and we ate.
Having eaten, we could finally get back to the main subject: talking about food. As soon as we’d wake up we’d have our lunch destination planned, and by the time we’d finished our cappucini at Caffe Sant’eustachio, milk mousse still on our lips, we knew where we were going for dinner. Get us in a groove and by the time we are eating one meal we have already ordered the next and planned out a dozen more.
At home my father’s favorite topics are food, wine, and Rome. So, when in Rome, while eating and drinking, we actually managed — maybe for the first time ever — to talk about what we were doing the moment we were doing it. It was probably the most present the two of us have ever been. We were practically yogis; so focused were we on the Now.
After lunch, and after depositing Pop back at the apartment for a nap between meals, I would walk around the city, usually passing through the Piazza Santa Maria della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. If the Janiculum is his country home, the Pantheon, with its celestial sunroof, is the pied-à-terre Janus shares with his colleagues. Floating around the aquamarine fountain in the piazza, watching the sky turn that fabulous washed indigo as the streetlights glowed amber is sublime. If Terrence Malick has not yet convinced you of the divinity of light, Rome will. Surely the powdery blues of that springtime sky are sentient, and the blush of the afternoon as it melts into evening are the only god I’ve got.
Softened by my lunchtime wine and floating on what was left of the caffeine in my system, I wandered all over the city center, staggering here and there on the uneven cobbles, in a reverie with the light, and scowling at the millions of tourists. “We had roses in Rome, and artichokes,” as Montaigne wrote, but also crowds. Inasmuch as I was impressed by Rome’s capacity to host these hordes, it was devastating to see the center of the most glamorous city in the world converted, essentially, into an august outdoor mall. Up at the Spanish steps there were so many millions of people looking at themselves looking at the Spanish steps, that the Piazza di Spagna felt like a backlot for a cheesy romcom (which, of course, it has been many dozens of times over).
Like a famous old institution that traps itself in amber to prevent aging or reinvention, to provide the “authentic” experience for tourists coming through, Rome had become a kind of cartoonish shrine unto itself, a Universal City Walk where visitors can pose with the statues posing as themselves. Rome is just playing itself in a long-running revival. (Of course, Cinecittà, the great film studio outside of town, that doubled as Rome in Roma, among a million other movies, actually has become a kind of Universal Studios, welcoming visitors to gaze on real ruins of fake ruins.)
Goethe, who lived not far from the Spanish Steps, was, according to the travel book my dad brought along, “somewhat perturbed” by the numerous murders in the street outside his window (one wonders what he would have thought of all the tourists). However, the guide goes on, rather breezily, the great German writer was, despite the nearby carnage, rejuvenated by his stay in Rome.
And it is rejuvenating. The concept of renewal and refreshment could have been invented for this city, with its acqua virgine water running through the walls of coffee shops (as it does, literally, at Tazza d’Oro). And perhaps the masses of tourists can be forgiven for their blight, as they are simply seeking out that same rejuvenation, coming for some sort of communion with the holiness that is Rome. Think of the wonderful sequence in 8 ½ when Marcello heads out to the natural springs, to take healing waters from a glorious, virginal girl in a starched white nurse’s uniform.
Then picture me, sitting at the very heavenly Caffe della Pace off the Piazza Navona and taking negronis, several, from the gorgeous waitress with whom I was having a vacation flirtation. Worn out from my jaunts out to Trastevere, under the iconic umbrella pines, cypress, or up to the Piazza del Popolo to see two of my favorite Caravaggios, my afternoons at Caffe della Pace were rejuvenating in the extreme. Perked by the sweet vermouth and piqued by the gin and Campari, I would fill my journal with a dozen variations of the cry, “HEAVEN!” to the sound of near and distant bells — is there anything more evocative of Rome than the dusty, diffuse sound of bells? The bonging here is different from anywhere else, smoother and more sonorous than bells in New York or Mexico City, deeper and more honeyed than the pealing in London or Paris.
For hours I sat here, smiling idiotically, sipping negronis, admiring the bells and the bella while the bright sky softened to a watercolor royal blue and the golden lamps glowed like a million moons on the rain-slaked cobblestone streets. Here I was protected from the anxiety that had split me in half in New York, rending me from my real life, the life I was living, into myriad parallels where possible realities, good and bad, splintered me to bits. Here I was whole, outside of time even as I watched its progress so intently, in the bruising of the sky and the sinking of my drink’s contents.
And then, like clockwork, something would set me off. I’d be snapped out of my reverie, rent again into pieces, pulled apart by a panic about who I might be tomorrow or the day after. Animated by this panic I would pay my check, smile feebly at my crush, and scurry off to collect Pop for dinner.
Woken again, as if for the first time, my dad was a bundle of energy, jousting at, through, around and behind ideas, talking things to smithereens in what I discovered to be a very Roman way. After only minimal generational friction I would steer him to one of our established favorites — al Moro again, or Osteria del Pegno, La Campana, or Mazzoni Settimio, a little family-run place where the dad watches soccer in the front room while the momma cooks up the goodies while their kids and grandkids run all helter-skelter around the joint.
Once we were seated we would again find peace. Well, more than peace, really — on our eating trip we often reached points of exaltation, transcendence, epiphany. I had three of the best meals of my entire life during the week we were in Rome, and two of them on the same day.
The best, on one of our many visits to La Campana — “the bell”, fittingly — a little trattoria that has been in operation, more or less continuously, since Michelangelo was a boy, began with a deceptively simple fettucine dish with fresh porcini. Against the starchy cool of the blindingly fresh pasta, the taste of the mushrooms — ancient, haunting, of an enchanted forest — was enough to make me feel druidic and pagan. Everywhere we went the house red wine was just fine, but at La Campana their Montepulciano was exceptional, and Pop are I were in high spirits when our secondi arrived. Maialino, or roasted baby pig, is one of the greatest dishes known to man, full stop, and this was the best I’d ever had. The skin was as crisp as a cracker, and the succulent flesh, flooding with goodness from the nearby spine, was…well, I don’t have words that go that high. Episodes of my life literally began to flash before my eyes. I reverted to something pre-adolescent, googooing and gagaing like Bourdain in the third act of a No Reservations episode.
“Reveries,” Barbara Grizzuti Harrison writes in her exquisite travelogue, Italian Days, “take as their subject matter not the events of our majority, our middle years, but the events of our early lives: the source.” And maybe that explains why I was hurtling into my earliest memories at the taste of the piglet.
As if in a movie I was suddenly a little boy, sitting at table with my pop — an incredible cook himself, who spoiled me throughout my childhood with such culinary delights — and still I was present, here, in Rome, exploding with endorphins brought on by the protein high, the wine, and the renewed connection with my new best friend.
My favorite Italian saying is, “A tavola non si invecchia” — at the table, no one gets old. Time stops while you are eating and you enter another dimension of existence. And that is surely how I have experienced my greatest meals, as I did the meals with my father in Rome. There is a sort of slippage, of time and ego, a sloughing off of immediate concerns and vexations, like an unwanted coat flung on the back of a chair. Then, as you settle into your seat, all, or at least many more than the normal amount, of your experiences and selves sit down with you. By the time you’ve finished your aperitivo, you enter into a unity of time and identity experienced nowhere else in life.
Freud describes this eternal mindset by imagining, coincidentally, a pristine Rome wherein all that has ever been is still. “Not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest.” And in this manifold, eternal city, a picture of our perfect, un-ruined consciousness, we would see that, “the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths.” If we were to stand, “where the Coliseum stands now, we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House.”
And, in fact, isn’t this the “Rome” we visit when we visit Rome? Isn’t Marcello still sitting at the edge of the Via Veneto watching the celebrities stroll by as he did in La Dolce Vita? Isn’t, in my mind, Fellini still at table at al Moro, and Cheever walking down the Corso complaining of the dangers as he did in his diaries, and Pasolini prowling Pignetto as he did in his novels, and Goethe rumbling about the murders outside his window, and the Goncourts raving about the light, and every other person doing every other thing as I remember it in the way that they have built the fantastical Rome of my imagination?
Rome may be a projection, a fantasy, but it is a unified field, where all of our projections comingle. Rome shatters the divide between fantasy and reality. It is both, all, at once. That is what I have decided that Janus means, not a duality but an all-encompassing singularity — not an Either/Or, but a oneness where here and there, on and off, young and old exist at the same time.
Rome is our nearest approximation to everything — life, death, past, future, beginning and decay — in one explosive now. Here we can approach eternity. We can be in two places at once, in two times, two versions of ourselves, or all of them. And we never even have to get up from the table.