Read, Eat, Dream
For Tom and Cynthia.
"Methinks I will not die quite happy without having seen something of that Rome of which I have read so much." - Sir Walter Scott
I'm getting really sick of having my mind blown. It seems all one has to do to see something unimaginably beautiful in Rome is take a stroll around the block.
There is a right way and a wrong way to introduce yourself to a city. The number one rule is go slow. Take your time. Open yourself to any possibility and let the place happen to you. Carve an indefinite chunk of time out of your day (even the whole day) and walk. Walk as far as you feel comfortable, then, the next day, walk a little further. Broaden the circle until you are as intimate with the area as any local. Carry a map and stop to get your bearings often. It helps to pick a landmark from which you can always find your way home and always know where you are in relation to it. Also of the utmost importance, if you happen upon something that catches your interest, stop and explore, because you cannot be sure you'll be able to find it again.
My first day in Centro Storico I got lost, badly. The streets here aren't arranged in idiot-proof grids the way they are at home. Instead they interlace in a cobweb of folds, overlaps and zigzags through a labyrinth of narrow vias, viales and piazzas. The tightly-compacted shops and apartment complexes on either side complicate things further by reducing visibility considerably more than the flat, open expanses of the prairies I grew up in. When Cristina suggested we meet at an obscure locale somewhat far from the Pantheon, I made it my mission to get well acquainted with my new environment.
After only one morning of walking, I wasn't all that surprised to find that, again, it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd made it out to be the day before. I could navigate my way from the Pantheon to the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain to Piazza del Popolo in a matter of minutes. Piece of cake. Rome, scaled on a map, is much smaller than any city in Canada.
For breakfast I visited Tazza D'Oro near the Pantheon and tried their famed Granita di Caffe con Panna (frozen coffee granita with whipped cream), then made my way to the Spanish Steps. On the way I stumbled upon another landmark, the historic Antico Caffe Greco, Rome's oldest cafe, the second oldest in all of Italy and a haunt for writers both modern and totemic like Byron and Keats. It costs €8 to sit at a table, so I drank my cappuccino at the bar watching the bow-tied baristas play the antique espresso machines behind the counter like pipe organs.
In Piazza di Spagna, I spotted a livery station - the first I'd seen in Rome - and approached to give one of the horses a pat. I hadn't realized until now how much I'd missed even their smell. You and I, I thought, pressing my palm between the animal's eyes, we don't belong in the city, do we?
"Quanto costa?" I asked the driver, thinking a carriage ride around the city might be a perfect respite from the hardness of the streets and the loud, claustrophobic crowds.
"Cento e cinquanta euro," He replied. A hundred and fifty euros. Not the horse, I thought. The buggy ride. I thanked him and continued on my way.
In the afternoon I went back to the gelateria Marcello had shown me to try the profiterole and creme caramel flavours (yesterday was honey-almond, sesame and ricotta-fig, but today was a chocolate kind of day), then returned to my guesthouse to rest before I had to meet Cristina.
I decided to go for another short walk before dinner, since I already knew the lay of the land well enough to find the rendezvous point Cristina had suggested, and had some spare time. I turned a corner in a direction I had not yet explored from my guesthouse and, not five steps down the block, discovered RED (Read, Eat, Dream), a combination bookstore, cafe/bistro and food store operated by La Feltrinelli. I spent the remainder of the afternoon there, browsing the rooms upon rooms of fiction, philosophy, social science, travel guides and countless more genres in every conceivable language, before going upstairs and ordering myself a glass of prosecco in the cafe. Lounging at a table, sipping my bubbly and flipping through my Little Black Book of Rome, it occurred to me that if I were to die, right here right now in this moment, I would die a perfectly happy woman. I have only felt this way once or twice before in my life - watching humpbacks play in the surf not twenty feet from our whale watching boat in Ecuador, or galloping through the Sonoran desert of central Arizona with nothing but mountains and cacti and red rock for as far as the eye could see. This was heaven.
I met Cristina on a corner in Piazza di Spagna at sunset and we walked across the bridge to her car on the other side of the Tiber. We drove to the Prati district, where we picked up her cousin, Alberto, a culinary-school grad and avid foodie like myself. Thus ensued one of the most memorable meals I would have in Rome, perhaps in my life.
Alberto took us to a small, local trattoria on the outskirts of town called Da Cesare. No tourists knew about it, he said. No tourists could get to it. The waiters spoke only Italian, there were off-menu specials that only those in-the-know could order, and it was absolutely teaming with locals. It was exactly the kind of place I loved, but almost never got the chance to go to. I felt indescribably lucky. Prices are always a good indication of whether or not you've stumbled into a tourist trap. A quarter litre of wine here, for example, was €3.50, as opposed to the €7 or €8 one commonly paid at places around the Pantheon. Also, of course, at Da Cesare, there was no cover charge.
I was happy to let Alberto take the liberty of ordering. He knew what was good, after all, and to have any kind of authentic experience of a place, you have to leave things in the capable hands of a local. He ordered a bottle of red that I absolutely adored, and we shared appetizers of calamari, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, and De Cesare's specialty polpette con pesto. The meatballs were, as promised, outstanding, but it was the fried zucchini flower that really stole my heart. I shared with Cristina and Alberto my opinion that one of the great joys of travel was experiencing flavours that were unlike anything you'd had before. "There's nothing you can compare it with," I enthused. "You can't say it's kind of like this or that...it's something entirely new in and of itself." This notion held true for things besides food. The more you travel, I think, the more you learn you have to learn.
For my main course I ordered Tonnarelli (more of that square-cut, homemade egg pasta similar to spaghetti) alla Gricia, a typically Roman dish with some variant of bacon (mine had guanciale), cheese, olive oil and pepper. The one I ordered was an off-menu special which also contained in-season artichokes. Alberto even offered me a taste of his Coratella, a stew of lamb's heart, lung and oesophagus, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it tender, flavourful and not possessing any of the challenging funk characteristic of most offal meats. I would say it was quite delicious, actually. For dessert Alberto recommended Millefoglie (literally "thousand leaves"), Napoleon-like layers of homemade puff pastry and vanilla cream that also happened to be a house specialty. It was simultaneously delicate, flaky, rich and airy in a way that is, like the zucchini flowers, incomparable to anything in North America.
The dinner went late - well-past midnight - and although I was too tired to adequately express it now, I made a mental note to e-mail Cristina in the morning and thank her and Alberto again for what was one of the truly great meals of my life.
Resolved to taking it slow after the lengthy dinner and multiple glasses of wine (Alberto insisted on topping up my glass whenever it got close to being even half-empty), I dedicated the next morning to 'taking care of business', as much as I despised the thought. And when my next week's accommodation in Florence and my subsequent flight to Croatia were booked, I decided to reward myself with a rather decadent lunch at Da Fortunato, a restaurant just steps from the Pantheon which I'd read had the best, non-touristy food around. Cristina had treated last night, after all, and I felt I deserved to permit myself a little splurge.
I sat at a table outside set with fine silverware, a white tablecloth and a single rose in a tall glass vase, the Pantheon in clear view over my shoulder. Opening the menu, I made the conscious decision to order whatever I wanted, just this once, and just close my eyes when the bill came. I promised myself it would be worth it.
I had just put in my drink order when the hostess seated another couple at the table next to mine, awkwardly close, since the tables were tiny and compressed in such a way that almost encouraged family-style dining. The edge of their table and the edge of mine were literally touching, and it felt more like we were a party of three than separate diners. I decided to make the best of it. Overhearing them address the waiter in Italian but talk amongst themselves in English, I asked where they were from.
"Cleveland," the woman, who looked to be in her sixties, told me. "You?"
Over the next two-and-a-half hours we got to know each other well. He was a professor of biomedical ethics returning from a conference in Singapore at which he'd been asked to guest lecture. They'd had their honeymoon in Rome in the eighties, and had decided to meet each other halfway. They just happened to be using airbnb too, to find affordable lodging in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Their names were Tom and Cynthia. They knew only that mine was Alexandra, last names unnecessary for the purposes of our transitory meeting. We shared advice and anecdotes and food, and they let me finish the bottle of white wine they'd ordered but didn't get all the way through.
It turned out Tom was a writer, too, and had been published in a number of notables. He was very interested to learn that I was on-course to hopefully establishing a career as a food-and-travel writer and was keeping a blog of my experiences on this trip. I wrote down the address for him.
Cynthia and I both ordered Carciofo alla Giudia, or fried Jewish-style artichoke, which was light and crispy and, of course, delicious. Since Da Fortunato was renowned for its seafood, I decided to spring for the Spaghetti alle Vongole for my next course. The pasta was, obviously, homemade, and the clams some of the freshest I've ever tasted. Devouring the entire plate, I was reminded of the grassy expanse of ancient ruins I'd stumbled upon the day before on my afternoon walk, just sitting there in the middle of a busy intersection. No museum information signs, no red velvet swags. Great and special things in Rome were just...there. Naturally. After a while your only response was to shrug, like, "Sure, why not?" when you turned a corner and ran into something incredible.
And it was more than just the food at this lunch that was incredible. Enjoying the company too much to let it end, I ordered a post-lunch grappa. I'd been wanting to try it and this seemed as good an opportunity as any. What was another €5? We talked a while longer, then, finally, we said our goodbyes and Tom and Cynthia got up to leave. When they had gone, I asked my waiter for the bill. He told me something in rapid-fire Italian that I didn't quite catch. Seeing my blank expression, he switched to lilting English. "It's been taken care of, Miss."
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking again, lightened by the grappa and the warm-fuzzy feeling that resulted from my lunch with Tom and Cynthia. It bothered me somewhat that I didn't even have their last names to look up so I could thank them, but I also knew, in some way, that it would cheapen the magic of the encounter if I did. So instead I decided to honour these grand people in another way, and went to Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona to try the tartufo, per their recommendation (it was every bit as rich and chocolatey as they'd promised), then went to San Crispino, a world-famous gelato purist by the Trevi Fountain, for good measure.
It seemed fitting that my host's Irani roommate offered to take me to a lavanderia to get my clothes cleaned that night. I had been searching desperately for a means of doing so for days, and although I was exhausted, I was grateful to walk with him the fifteen-minute distance to a self-service laundromat he knew in Campo di Fiori. Watching my clothes tumble over each other in the front-load washer, I considered my initial suspicions of the men I was staying with, of everyone I crossed paths with, in fact, and realized how utterly ridiculous they were. The world was a beautiful place, full of beautiful people, and if we all spent as much energy focusing on this rather than the bad things, on our dreams rather than our fears, we might actually take notice when they came true.
I hugged my garbage bag full of clean clothes - still warm from the dryer - close to my chest the entire walk back to my guesthouse. My host's roommate had accompanied me halfway, until I said I knew the way from here, then left to take care of other engagements for the evening. The sun was going down when I finally arrived. I carried my clean clothes up the steep, dark, narrow steps, past the hellish, God-forsaken bathroom and into my room where I dumped them out on the bed and curled up in them, thinking only of how good they smelled.