Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 4: ITALY

May 1 1965

Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 4: ITALY

May 1 1965

Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 4: ITALY

You HAVE TO MAKE at least one mistake on a trip and I pulled a doozer by skillfully plotting my railroad tour of Europe, so that I went through both the French and Italian Rivieras at night. Don’t ask me why. I've forgotten why, although it seemed a brilliant stroke of scheduling at the time. All ! know' is that in my Riviera, Monaco is a little blue station sign under an electric bulb, Grace Kelly lives in a lonely town populated by one man sitting outside a gas pump on a wet motorcycle, and what you do in Monte Carlo is eat a cold ham sandwich at two in the morning and try to figure out how to turn the heat on in a railway compartment, something that was solved for me by a wet Italian conductor who got on in the middle of the night, turned a knob and said, “Time,” meaning, “It will take time,” and managed somehow' to make that one-syllable word sound like the final dying note of a sad opera. He had the softest, most melodic voice I've ever heard in my life. 1 don't know what part of the country he came from, maybe the north, but I know I didn’t hear a voice like that again in Italy, where, in any place I visited, the people can make a simple statement like, “Pass the cheese,” sound as if they're at their wits’ end.

The first thing I saw in the pale wet dawn was a row ot shadowy hills in the distance behind green fields just outside Rome, and in a lew minutes my wife and I were in the Central Station, a building no more Roman looking than Ottawa airport. We w'ere charged $3.60 tor rolls, marmalade, orange juice and coffee by a smiling Italian waiter who must have seen us coming all the w'ay from Toronto.

We made our way outside, and I stood unshaven, blinking at the daylight, and wrinkled from forehead to knee from sitting up all night, amid a mad jam of traffic, looking at palm trees against old (not ancient, just old) buildings in a warm brick color characteristic of Rome, throngs of secretaries and businessmen catching buses for work in a city that's been in business for something like twenty-seven hundred years. I also got my first look at Roman women, who are even more beautiful than French women, which is just about impossible — although “more beautiful” is not quite the phrase. They’re warmer, more emotional looking, with a golden coloring and burnished look, and they look you right in the eye, almost smile at you, but not quite. It's a warm message of recognition from one human being to another, a rare experience for a man from Canada, where girls look at any male too old for college as if he's something history passed by, like the cavalry charge or the coal furnace. A Roman girl recognizes a man as a live and kicking human. He may be knobby, sagging and weathered on the outside, but she looks right through to the eternally lush green interior.

Seeing the famous sights of Rome for the first time is a peculiar experience, and not quite the way you expect it to be. If you take a taxi, you go through a maze of old, leaning, peeling buildings, turn up back alleys not much w'ider than the car, and you are convinced that the cabbie completely misunderstood you and thought you said you wanted to clear your luggage from some old customs warehouse, but you decide to keep quiet for another block or two. Then you suddenly emerge onto a smallish open era, and you’re looking at, say, Trevi Fountain, which you've seen in photographs and movies all your life, without thinking much about what surrounds it. The fact is, it’s surrounded by canting buildings covered in old rainwashed water paint, beat-up bars, perhaps a bicycle shop. But there it is, sounding and smelling like Niagara Falls, with figures in weathered marble riding horses out of the sea. and a busy crowd of stone figures doing all kinds of things with splashing water, which pours out of nooks and crannies of the monument.

Sometimes you come across these well-known features of the city by accident, and when you recognize them it’s a kind of quiet aside to something you're doing. One time I was standing beside some flower stalls, looking across a square at some rather dingy buildings and watching the traffic, when I happened to glance around and realize I was standing at the bottom of a flight of steps. It gradually dawned on me that they were the famous Spanish Steps that every movie star from Janet Gaynor to Tuesday Weld has been photographed on in romantic scenes, and that I was not looking at an ordinary set of steps, that in fact they were very old and beautiful and went up, stopped and turned and w'ent up again to a tremendous height, at the top of which w'as an Egyptian obelisk and behind that more steps surmounted by a cathedral. By that time I'd also noticed a little plaque, quietly announcing that the building I was leaning against was the house where Keats died.

I’ve never had such a sense of remote and exotic scenes quietly materializing around me.

Major exceptions to this sense of famous sights being tucked away modestly in odd corners of the city, were St. Peter's Square, an enormous open expanse so big that it seems, when you’re standing in it, that the rest of Rome was an afterthought; and the old Roman Forum. I saw the latter on an American Express Tour, on which I also got my first view of the Tiber, a sludgey winding river between concrete ramps and muddy banks, overlooked in places by some frightful modern apartments. The ruins of the old Forum are in a kind of shallow valley beneath you, and while you stand there a very dramatic guide tells you that Caesar was murdered right over there, and points out the spot where Mark Antony delivered his famous Shakespearean speech. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” and recites part of it with feeling and without cracking a smile. But if you can get away from him and from your fellow tourists and run for your life through the traffic that drones around the site, you can climb up to a square beside a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, and look across to the Palatine Hill, with the ruins, umbrella pines and cypresses forming a pattern before you like a great hanging tapestry. It’s hard to realize that this stately and reposed scene was the birthplace of one of the first great civilizations, and for centuries was the capital of the world, run by people who were sure that they had the winning combination of all time, and a few thoughtful leaders such as Marcus Aurelius, who warned everyone that life was short and nothing permanent.

My second visit to a historical site was a much more memorable one for me. I went out at midnight in the pouring rain with a friend who has lived in Rome for years, to find the spot where Caesar was actually mugged, and which is pinpointed in a fine book. The Traveller hi Rome, by H. V. Morton. It was at a new theatre where the senate was sitting temporarily while some construction work was being done on the senate building, and to which Caesar had walked from the Forum. My friend and I got there through back alleys and along some of the darkest, most sinister little streets I’ve ever seen. There was only one person in sight within a scream of the spot where Caesar was assassinated the night I stood peering at dripping walls, expecting to get stabbed myself, and he’s probably standing there now' as you read this, a lone bent little man in a wet coat, watching the parked cars for a few lire, which modern Roman motorists are not reluctant to pay — car thefts in the city are as popular today as stabbing emperors used to be.

I found the people of Rome a mixture of rudeness and helpfulness. They shove you off the sidewalk, never apologize for bumping into you; yet if you’re in difficulties there’s always someone there to take charge for you. I had priests crowd me off the sidewalk, and crowd my wife off the sidewalk, without even looking up; yet priests would come up to me when I was standing on a corner looking vague, give me directions, draw diagrams, walk part way to bus stops with me to show me exactly what route to take. Everyone pushes in lineups and tries to get ahead of you; yet the same people, almost while pushing you, will take a personal interest in your problems. One little woman at a post office was pushing so hard to get into a lineup ahead of me that I put my arm out to block her. Then when I got snarled up with the language, she helped me get the right stamps, told me I was spending too much on postage, took bills out of my wallet and handed them to the postal clerk, made change for me, told me to count it, put the stamps in my wallet and left me feeling like a dirty unmannerly dog for not letting her push in ahead of me.

I took the train from Rome to Brindisi, an eight-and-a-half-hour trip to the heel of Italy through soft-looking country, past beautiful mountains that are green to the top, with villages perched right on the peaks, sometimes draped with clouds. But as you enter the towns you see some appalling squalor, shambles of straw stacks, chickens, donkeys and houses all heaped together as if they’d been emptied onto the spot from a big bag. Brindisi was the Roman city of Brundisium, the end of the 333-mile Appian Way, which was the chief road to Greece, and it’s a rather amazing place. The night I arrived it was absolutely deserted, dark, gloomy and depressing. I found one awful little restaurant open, had the worst spaghetti I’ve ever tasted, and began thinking of trying to get an early-morning flight for Athens.

The next morning the town was booming and huge-wheeled carts

It’s a land of ancient ruins, rudeness and kindness and mad motor traffic, where the familiar is a constant surprise, the glance of a girl makes a man a Man, and where our writer fell in love — with Rome and Brindisi

pulled by donkeys passed my hotel corner. 1 walked past all kinds of stores that went in for fancy cakes and pastries, had the best cup of coffee that I'd had in Europe, and the only pizza I've ever enjoyed in my life, juicy and full of flavor. By evening the main street of Brindisi was the site of one of the strangest mob scenes I’ve ever witnessed, crowded by what I estimated to be two or three thousand people, all men, all in dark clothes, all shouting, but apparently not waiting for anything in particular. 1 learned later that they were peasants in from the country akd looking for work.

We went down to the harbor, where a ferry registered in Piraeus was disgorging passengers, and The African, an enormous white steamer out of Trieste, was about to sail for Tanzania. We watched the classic scene of a departing ship — the mounting crisis of shouts, booming loudspeakers, the lowering of hatches, the gradual dignified folding

away of the deck booms after they’d hauled up their own gangplanks, the casting off of lines, the series of blasts from the horn, the steady ringing of a gong, and the ship, ablaze with lights, nosing slowly out into the harbor. A man I’d met on the train from Rome, a gruff, pleasant old Frenchman with a voice like Maurice Chevalier’s, waved to us from the top deck. The people left the pier. The terns came in to pick up the scraps in the dark water appearing between the side of the ship and the dock.

When the boat was just a cluster of lights on the dark harbor, we went up and looked at an old Roman column, the only one of two that once marked the end of the Appian Way, surprised a young couple making love under a full moon and went back uptown where Brindisi still had a surprise for us. We found a restaurant with bowing, whitejacketed service and frosty-white tablecloths, had a delicious mixed

plate of shrimp, octopus and a fish that looked like a little red snapper. saw a violinist serenade a huge fresh fish that was wheeled in on a cart for the inspection of three men customers, and listened to a fine jazz pianist in sun glasses play Pennies From Heaven — all 1 or $4.15.

Later 1 wandered down to the railway station, feeling better and better about Brindisi, and watched one of the best shows on earth — a group of Italian porters arguing. It was better than the Liston-Clav fight, without a blow being struck.

I don’t know’ whether Italians sing at the top of their lungs as they're supposed to, but they do shout at the top of their lungs. The porters waved their arms and made gestures palms up as if lifting sagging shelves. Every now and then when the noise was almost unbelievable, a fat woman behind a cash desk would stand up and let out a yell that would cut across the racket like a saber, and all the porters would be quiet for a while — until one Italian would make a motion as if tossing a plate of soup at another Italian, and they would all start screaming again. When I went to bed that night, a maid and a porter outside my room w’ere discussing something as if they were having a fight to the death.

Next morning we got up at five to catch the flight to Athens. As far as I could see, there wasn't a soul on the street. But as we walked toward the airline terminal, we heard shouting. An old man and woman were strolling down the middle of the road all by themselves. There was no traffic and no noise but their voices. The man and woman were no more than twelve inches from one another’s ears, yet they were both shouting loud enough to be heard for three blocks. They were apparently just shouting away happily at each other as they went down the golden path of marriage together, and I found it rather a nice thought to take with me as I left this old. old civilized land of Italy. ★