Reading. Levi. (Carlo).
I fell in love with Italy long before I found myself climbing up the endless steps to the top of the Duomo in Florence, before I walked through the dusty, ancient ruins of Pompeii, before I sat, cross-legged, on a bench on the deck of the hydrofoil that ran between Capri and Naples, ate sun-warmed figs and breathed in the salty air as the sun beat down on our heads. (I was then fourteen years old). This is what literature does for us, illuminating a time and a place so vividly that when, at last, we find ourselves crossing the piazza where Lucy Honeychurch fainted in George Emerson's arms (in A Room with a View) or looking across a garden filled with blooming oleanders (which brings to mind the castle gardens of The Enchanted April), it is as though those luminous words written nearly a century ago have come alive in front of our eyes.
But Rome was another story, something I knew only from films and history texts. More than a decade would pass before I would return to Italy, a decade in which I spent more time in Asia than I did in Europe, a decade in which art meant more than literature. (And in the end it would be literature that would endure beyond all else, to my surprise). I had just turned twenty-five when my parents and I spent two weeks traveling through Italy, my father driving recklessly in our tiny rented car, me trying (and often failing) to navigate, clutching an assortment of guidebooks, shedding ticket stubs from various museums and parking garages and carelessly folded maps in every direction. We made our way across the Abruzzi, through Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, before my mother and I left my father in Lucca (he had a conference) and headed to Rome, city of crooked cab drivers (one of whom cheated me out of more euros than I care to remember) and la dolce vita, now sleepy in the hazy heat of early August.
Those August days are now somewhat blurred in my memory, a haze of ancient monuments and prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and granita di caffé at a coffehouse that looked like it had been there for at least a couple hundred years. One night we had dinner at a restaurant that has been known for its seafood for forty years, just the two of us making our way through four courses spread over three hours, and a half-bottle of white wine that tasted like the late afternoon sunlight. Into the falling night people would still be strolling through the streets and piazzas, sitting at outdoor café tables or on the edges of fountains, eating gelato or having drinks. It is different from Florence, whose cathedrals and distant hills I have loved for most of my life; what I feel for Rome is something else, part of that time and place. But those days and nights in that ancient, eternal city came alive again in the words of Carlo Levi, in his essays that make up Fleeting Rome, which I came across after discovering his Christ Stopped at Eboli.
(to be continued).