It all started with Ryanair, which offered a flight under a hundred euros, round trip, so long as I kept my check-in bag under 15 kilos, something I could manage for a three-day trip. The airline did not try to charge people a whole British pound to use the toilet ($1.66, about 40 cents less in euros)--the notion that this is one of Ryanair's usual charges having been allegedly aired by management on the theory that negative publicity brings in customers. But halfway through the two-hour flight, the stewardess announced that the toilets were "blocked" and asked that passengers please not use them. I was glad we landed on time and the Ciampino airport proved a mere half-hour bus ride to Rome's version of Times Square, namely, the Termini. Named after the Baths of Diocletian, it looked Grand-Central-Stationish, and a comfortably hectic air reminded me of that very much missed icon of New York as I stood online for a taxi. There the resemblance to my favorite city ended, for the driver spoke no word of any language that I could manage, including English, and demonstrated--by waving around an actual paper map--that he remained clueless about the address to which I had to repair posthaste.
"Uh, do you speak English?"
"Eee-talia!" he said. "Leetle bit, okay!"
Once he'd studied his map, he got me there after a ride no more wild nor wooly than that of your average New York cabbie, and seemed ecstatic, practically falling at my feet, when I rewarded him with a tip of one euro.
I was visiting a dear old friend and her lovely new husband, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of Cacio e Pepe, pasta with a whole lot of melted butter, pecorino romano, and coarsely grated salt and pepper. That hit the spot, as did the wine. Rome is, like Paris, once of those places where it's almost impossible to get a bad meal--you have to try really hard, and I didn't try at all, so ate very well indeed.
First stop the next morning was the Colosseum, that ancient ampitheater where gladiators fought to the death and became freemen if they survived a certain number of rounds. Centurions paced the grounds, charging to be photographed with tourists and checking their cell phones. Many hidden catacombs followed--some formerly secret training grounds of gladiators, and then the Basilica of San Clemente, a mosaiced wonder with a second century Mithraic temple beneath it. Layers upon layers of civilizations interlard Rome, just like the layers of olive oil and cheese in most of the delicious food.
We spent some time seeking the exact spot on which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death, a grassy hill plastered with homeless men. We shopped--oh, what a paradise for leather and linens! A gorgeous briefcase, complete with butter-soft leather and piping, was found for my friend's husband, and I almost bought a lovely red leather knapsack that continues to haunt me.
We visited Villa Torlonia, on the scale of New York's Frick, which was rented by none other than Mussolini from an eccentric banker for one lira per year. Frescoes of mythological figures--including a Leda who could never have inspired Yeats, since she's got the swan firmly tucked under her elbow, and his beak, at the end of a weak, skinny neck, seems in a desultory way to be pecking as if for a single grain at the corner of her mouth. An "avian dildo," is how a visiting professor acquaintance described the poor bird. The walls featured photos of Il Duce himself fencing--going by his size, he sure needed the exercise! Art exhibits of Italian painters from the nineteen-forties and earlier graced the upper storey. The Casina delle Civette, or Owl House, a 19th-century Swiss chalet on the grounds, included William-Morris-like wallpaper, stained glass that looked very Tiffany, and a host of increasingly odd and delightful rooms. There is no escape like Rome, the city of ruins and hidden beauties--and my kids loved the bobble-headed Caesar and mini-models of all the ruins I hadn't managed to see.