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     Volume 7 Issue 33 | August 15, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

A Rome of One's Own

Neeman Sobhan

No, that’s not a typo in the title. I didn’t mean to write ‘room’ and Virginia Woolf is peripheral to this article. This is both a paean and a lament for my city during August, the month when Italy starts to shut down and prepare for the busman’s holiday; when Romans leave the city to tourists and escape to the beaches or hill resorts. It is a paean because, on the one hand, even if August pulls down the shutters on the familiar, vibrant city visible to others, it leaves the stage open for people like me who remain behind to claim this deserted metropolis for ourselves. The other day, for example, I had to go to my University which is now shut or summer, to meet up with a colleague. As the professor and I walked down the corridors empty of students and looked into silent classrooms, I felt a strong sense of intimacy with the place. I feel the same way about Rome in August.

But it is not nice for first time tourists to see Rome at this time and in particular, during this week of the fourteenth of August, called ferrágosto, when the city really grinds to a halt, with restaurants, bars, cinemas, even pharmacies closing down. This is a season when in residential areas like mine, entire neighbourhoods take on an abandoned look as families lock up their apartments and houses, and go off to the sea or the mountains for their summer vacation. But, this is the time I most enjoy Rome; for this is the period when Roma is all mine.

I feel I’m guarding this locality as I go for walks. The breeze blows down the silent streets only for me, perfumed with the dying jasmine hedges bordering the red tiled houses. The birds greet only me, chirping their gossips and scandals. The pines and trumpet flowers, the jaded bougainvilleas, the purple gelsomino wave only to me as I walk down to the piazza early in the morning to get fresh yeasty cornettos from the Bar. I know that this Bar (carrying milk products and fresh baked goods) which is also the place where locals have their breakfast capuccino and their lunch, will shut down in a few days. I want my visiting houseguests to enjoy the pleasures of a breakfast of warm cornettis (Italian croissants) while these are available.

I return to find that everyone is still asleep, so I take my cornetto and a cup of tea and retire to my shaded terrace. The rest of the garden is already held siege under the knife-edged sun. The un-shaded parts of the terrace look as if they were covered with sheets of aluminium foil.

It’s going to be another scorching August day. Away from the sunlight it is lovely when the breeze blows but when it’s still, even the shade can be oppressive with humidity. Yes, finally summer has turned cruel even in Rome. It is crueller for unsuspecting tourists and guests who arrive in Rome for the first time to enjoy their Italian holiday with plans of walking through the streets of historical Rome, sight- seeing and soaking the ambience, to be hit by the reality of the brutal heat and scalding sun of August. But I can’t bear to hear the complaints of first time visitors who find Rome to be horrid only because it was unbearably hot and sweaty. Naturally, every experience and encounter the visitors have now becomes coloured by the heat and sun. The people they meet are bad-tempered; the bottled water and beverages that thirst drives them to buy at every step are too expensive; the ice cream is melting; the food is not fresh or light enough; and when one is sweating and foot weary there is no place or shade to sit down. Of course, it is completely understandable that given the long lines and crowds in the city and the tortures of the weather, what sense would centuries of Art and history make to a tourist? Yet, I have always warned visitors about the dangers of coming to Rome in August, but too often people disregard this, especially when they come from hot Dhaka. Most think, Oh! How hot can it be? Well, that rhetorical question gets answered very soon and in degrees that are unexpected and agonising. After all, back home one would not wander the city with a mid afternoon sun blazing overhead, which as visitors one is obliged to do. Even if it is not sight- seeing, one has to go out for some reason or the other. Today, I’m expecting two young girls who are excited about their first trip to Italy. Tomorrow, I dread to see their hot and tired faces and deflated spirits. Hopefully their youth will buffer them from the battering sun. It is not just the heat and sun. At this time of the year, anyone might get an impression of Rome as an un-likable city, which it can be when sunstroke is imminent on the onlooker. A city that is half-closed and doing its business half-heartedly and peopled only with non-Italians with backpacks, cannot be pleasant.

And yet there is so much happening in the evenings. But tourists don’t want to emulate the locals and come out only in the cool of the evening; they have little time and lots to see and do, so they plunge into the molten sea of sun and sweat and come back with a headache, blisters, tan and a nasty impression of Rome. But it is false, I protest. Come back in September, come back in May and see how this city looks, feels, behaves, normally and at its best. Not being a tourist but an inhabitant of Rome, I don’t mind even this brutal, boring, empty month. To me it’s not brutal because I avoid the sun when I can and do my errands at a pleasant hour and pace. It’s not boring or empty just because shops and conveniences are closed, since I am prepared, and; and even if most of my friends are away, I have other ways to entertain myself.

There are plenty of open-air evening concerts, operas, fairs and film shows to go to. Or, one can eat out at those restaurants which are still open. Or better still, one can just sit back on ones balcony or terrace or park and contemplate the exquisite blue night sky and cool breeze that blows in from the sea.

The other night, we took our houseguests to Piazza Navona. Sitting near Bernini’s fountain of the Four Rivers we listened to the arias emanating from the four opera singers standing under the statues singing their heart out to the accompaniment of an orchestra. The theatre had come out to the streets to the people. I looked around me. Under the shadow of an enormous marble statue stood a human statue in gold, of an Egyptian pharaoh. People stopped to put a coin and watch the statue take a bow. I asked my friends to talk to him and bangla and watch the reaction. The gold- cloth swaddled immobility of the statue crumpled momentarily and through his gilded lips the Pharaoh spoke to us in Bangla. I came away smiling. This is my Roma, I told the others. This city where the Italian marble statues speak silently to one across centuries; and the human statues speak aloud to one across continents. Whether Mother tongue or adopted tongue, or the voice of Arias and music, the language is of the heart, of intimacy and shared humanity. Bernini’s Rome; Bengali Rome; tourist’s Rome; crowded and hot Rome; or solitary Rome: no one is ever far from a Rome of one's own.

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