By Robert Damien Santagata
As we enter the city, I can see the Colosseum standing tall, majestic, powerful, even intimidating. It is an incredible sight to behold. It has stood for nearly 2,000 years. It is the second most visited monument in the world – the Eiffel Tower is first – and draws millions of tourists from all corners of the globe. It is a testimony to the colossal engineering brilliance of the ancient Romans, and it is simply fascinating.
I meander through the streets and take in the vibrancy of Rome. It is a sight to see. I wonder what life was like at the height of the empire, when Rome’s population exceeded 1 million, which is extraordinary to say the least. I do know that the poor lived miserably – as they often do now – and struggled to survive. They lived in insulae: multi-story apartment buildings that often lacked basic necessities, such as water and heat, not to mention cooking facilities. The plebeians, or “plebs,” comprised anyone that wasn’t a member of the patrician class. The poorest people survived often with only government assistance, as many were unemployed. While the patricians lived luxuriously on expansive estates and ate extremely well, the poor in Rome, and the provinces, lived in cramped quarters and ate whatever they could find, generally not rich or wholesome food. While filmic depictions of Ancient Rome often focus on the ruling class, the grandeur, opulence, and great, powerful men, the vast majority of the population lived absolutely antithetical lives. I resolve that I would not want to be considered a pleb!
I decide to sit in a café and have lunch, for I haven’t eaten since 6 o’clock in the morning and am now quite ravenous. I order a Moretti beer and watch that motley parade with which I am so utterly enthralled. Street vendors are hawking their merchandise, pestering passersby, doing everything in their power to secure sales. Alas, the majority of those passersby are seemingly uninterested in bogus Gucci and Prada bags, Lacoste and Polo shirts, and Fendi leather goods. These vendors can get downright aggressive, I might add from experience: In Florence, I once purchased a bogus black Prada bag, but only because the seller, who hailed from Africa, followed me for a while down the street and was determined to sell this bag to me. I think I paid twelve euros for it. Truth be told, it is a rather nice-looking little bag, and would fool all but the most discerning fashionistas. I never once strapped it over my shoulder and walked down the street. I merely felt sorry for the chap.
I order a Jewish-style artichoke, which I have never tasted. It is a Roman artichoke that is deep-fried and all the rage in Rome – has been for probably millennia. For the pasta course, it is to be spaghetti alla Gricia. I order abbachio Romanesco (suckling lamb) chops that are grilled and eaten by holding the bone and biting into them. I find this recipe very enticing, for while I don’t eat a lot of lamb, I revisit eating lamb chops with my dear mother at her dining room table, picking up the nearly bare chop and finishing it off hand-to-mouth. Primal, savage, and utterly satisfying.
I awaken at 6 in the evening. I begin to mull over the towns in which I will ultimately settle and weigh the pros and cons of each. I am determined to live quietly for at least the next six months. I desire to write, cook, eat, relax, and ponder life under the sun and stars. As I have already said, I do not want to be surrounded by a sea of humanity; therefore, the major cultural and artistic centers are out of the question. Too touristic, loud, bustling, and at times chaotic. I again consider the south of Italy, particularly Apulia and Campania. Apulia, where Mom was born and where I scattered her remains, is a Mecca for beach lovers. I like beaches, but not swimming in the oceans. Campania, the region in which Naples is located, has lots of history, more international tourists than Apulia, and a great deal of art and culture. It is also endowed with plenty of sleepy little towns and villages that would prove ideal environments in which to write, relax, unwind, disconnect, etc. I absolutely love the whitewashed Apulian villages – Ostuni, Polignano a Mare, Martina Franca, etc. – and rather consider them more conducive to what I intend to accomplish. I want to be amongst the locals, the natives, with whom I can hone and lube my meager Italian speaking skills; purchase fish at the docks as the buckets are unloaded from the boats with writhing sea creatures inside; or wander through the narrow, serpentine streets, observing the mundane life of a small town and becoming one with it. I want to be a local, a native, an Italian.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative accounts of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.