Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home   |  Volume 7, Issue 16, Tuesday, April 17, 2012




Life on the piazza

By Neeman Sobhan

I have recently changed dentists from the one near my home to someone whose dental studio is located in town and right in the heart of one of the most beautiful and famous piazzas of Rome: Piazza Navona.

So, it may sound crazy but I actually look forward to going for my dental appointments, and even my husband, when he is in town, eagerly accompanies me there. We start off cheerfully, often far ahead of time, anticipating the pleasures of being in that waiting room with its tall second-storey windows overlooking the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers sculpted by Bernini.

We have so often brought visitors to this piazza, or walked across it on our way to dinner or lunch at one of the restaurants tucked away in the alleys behind, stopping to admire the spacious arena-like piazza, surrounded by churches (Saint Agnese in Agone, designed by Borromini and close by, the Church of Saint Andrea della Valle made famous for being in the first act of the opera 'Tosca' by Verdi) and gracious buildings with flowered balconies (in one of which Existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once resided for a while, as did Sophia Loren's character, Mara in the 1964 Italian comedy film of De Sica, 'Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow' living in a second-floor apartment overlooking the Piazza and pursuing a profession far older than my dentist); strolling past the stalls of artists selling their work (among the mostly garish and kitschy Italian scenes, some talented and arresting landscapes and sketches, too) or making caricatures and portraits of on-the-spot clients; pausing to listen to the musicians playing romantic airs on trumpets, violins and guitars; observing the entertainers (living statues and mummies) and trinket sellers (mostly Bangladeshi boys selling sunglasses, jewellery, toys), the tourists clicking and posing, the locals walking around or sitting on the stone benches and basking in the honeyed sunlight or the velvety dusk.

But our view has always been at the ground level. Now standing at the tall windows of the dentist's waiting room, and stepping out onto the slim ledge of the wrought iron balcony, I get a totally unfamiliar, panoramic over-view of the elongated oval stretch of piazza with its huge central fountain of marble human figures representing the Danube, the Nile, the Rio della Plata, and the Ganges, and to the south and northern end two smaller fountains: the one of Neptune and the one of the Moor.

I feel as if I am one of the pigeons sailing down from the high window sills and flying across the piazza, my eyes skimming like wings over the scuttling life below me, coming to perch briefly on the shoulder of a statue then sweeping over a sidewalk café's awnings to land on a church step.

Before my dental visits here, I never saw the piazza from top down. It is breathtaking and worth submitting to a root canal. Today, I am early and it's a mild spring day, and the piazza is a sun-splashed stage buzzing with life and action.

Dozens of tableaus are being enacted, hundreds of stories unfolding. I don't know where to look. There is a tale beckoning to me wherever I turn my eyes, till exhausted I step back into the waiting room and sit down on a modern swivel chair. But even with my back to the window and a magazine open on my lap, the piazza follows me in, with the sounds.

First, the drifting music, a live soundtrack for the film around me, mixed with the cadence of cascading water as if it were drumming with rain outside, belied by the sunny outbursts of laughter and high voices; and the most magnetic of all, the bells at noon pealing from the belfry across the window, visibly swinging back and forth in a wave of domed melody.

It is hard to resist the pull of the stone piazza behind me palpitating with life, a performing multi-ring circus. I return to the windows. Today, I am determined to make sense of what I see below me, so I focus on reading each patch of the piazza till a pattern emerges.

At the left corner, a noisy flutter billows into a grey cloud of what looks like torn bits of paper, which streaks and whooshes around the lone figure of an old woman, then settles down into a swarm of birds pecking at crumbs being thrown by her from a large plastic bag. The birds fly around the woman like a diaphanous scarf flapping in the wind.

I leave her to see what is happening further down the piazza. The faceless Invisible Man is seated on a chair, a hat and a pair of glasses floating in the air where the face should be, and below, a neck with a scarf and a complete suited body.

Everyone knows there is a real person inside but the illusion is successful. I am curious to find out how the trick is done, the clothes arranged and draped. A troupe of schoolchildren with their teacher shepherding them stop before the faceless man and take photos.

Meanwhile, a pair of lovers is having a spat, while an old couple is holding hands. A family comes pushing an old man in his wheel chair, while a mother with a baby in a pram stops to look at an artist's sketches and paintings. I have always wondered if these pavement artists ever sell even one art work.

Just at that moment, in the café below me, a couple sits down. Soon, the waiter brings a platter of spaghetti for the man and some grilled vegetables for the woman. She cuts the grilled zucchini and eggplant, eats some and forks some into her partner's mouth. He nods in approval. Meanwhile he tastes his pasta then rolls another forkful for the woman. I leave the happy couple to explore further afield.

As I start to follow the career of one Bengali boy who tries to make a sale, I remember the artist. Did he manage to sell anything to the lady with the pram? When I look, she is not there, and my heart sinks for the poor artist. Next moment I see her returning with her husband in tow. After some more looking and haggling, I see the blue of a twenty euro note change hands.

As I raise my eyes to thank Saint Agnese for letting me witness an artist's triumph, I notice that the bird lady is still feeding the birds, but where has the Invisible Man gone? He has vanished and on his chair hangs limply his clothes, like a snake's shed skin. Drat! He has slithered off to lunch and I have missed solving the mystery of the flesh under the skin. I look out for his return.

I check briefly on my lunching couple, who have finished their meal. Dessert, or no dessert? Before I can find that out an ambulance wails and I jerk my head to my extreme right and see the shrieking vehicle enter the no-traffic zone of the piazza and drive right to the fountain's edge. The last scene from Angels and Demons flashes to mind. Strange, I hadn't noticed the small crowd gathered around a young man sitting on the ground. A stretcher is brought and he is lifted to the back of the ambulance. How could I have missed whatever had been happening at that end? The ambulance screams its way out and I feel inadequate.

God's eye view of life is not easy for a human. Even as a writer, I have not been able to provide a story for the many other sights that raised questions in my heart. What, for example, is the relationship of the two ladies accompanying an old man in a walker; or where are the two Bangladeshi boys rushing off with their sunglass display-board and the police chasing them as well as the African hawker of designer bags.

I am praying that the young man being dashed off to emergency recovers soon, when the nurse comes into the waiting room to say the dentist will see me now. I turn to the window for a last look. The lunching couple has left; so has the bird lady. Two East European men have arrived at the invisible man's chair. One helps the other drape the suit over his head and attach the hat and sunglasses with a thin wire on top. And I had thought the Invisible Man underneath, was a woman.

I collect my bag containing my unread Kindle and walk down the corridor to the dentist's room, feeling as satiated as if I had read an anthology of short stories. The Collected Lives of Piazza Navona.

Neeman Sobhan is a writer and journalist, living in Italy and teaching at the University of Rome. She also writes the fortnightly 'A Roman Column' that appears in the Star Weekend Magazine of Fridays.



Chocolate truffles
These chocolate truffles are a delicate way to show one's love for family and friends. The chocolate base is easy to make and options of coatings are simply endless. Serve on a nice glass/silver platter or in a nice paper box.

½ cup full cream milk
3 tbsp melted butter
1tbsp vanilla extract
1 to 1½ cup finely chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
¼ cup icing sugar
¼ cup sifted cocoa powder
½ cup finely chopped assorted nuts, such as almonds and pistachios

In a small saucepan, whisk together milk, butter and vanilla extract and bring to a boil. Remove from heat; let stand for 15 minutes. Return milk mixture to heat and bring to a boil again. Line a baking pan with parchment/oil paper. Keep another pan aside.

Place one cup of chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Remove milk mixture from heat and pour over chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth. You can add a little more chocolate if you think the mixture is too runny.

Pour chocolate mixture onto the unlined baking pan, and spread in a flat layer. Transfer pan to freezer; chill chocolate until hardened but soft, for 20 minutes.

Using a tablespoon, grate enough chocolate from pan to form a roughly shaped 1-inch ball. Transfer balls to the parchment-lined pan. Repeat till all the mixture is used. Chill truffles in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Place icing sugar, cocoa powder, and chopped nuts in 3 separate bowls. Roll the truffles in desired coatings.

Keep in a cool, dry place till serving.

Black Forest trifle
Get a new twist on your favourite cake! This Black Forest Trifle has the same components as a Black Forest Cake. Serve them in tall, clear glass bowls with nice spoons.

4 pieces of brownies
1 cup crushed vanilla cookies
1 can of cherry pie filling (available at Dhali Super Store)
1 sachet of Foster Clark's Whipped Cream
4 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Chocolate sprinkles or chocolate chips for garnishing

In a bowl, beat the ingredients of whipped cream according to the package's instructions, with two tablespoons of sugar and vanilla extract, until stiff peaks form.

Drain the cherries from the can, reserving one and a half cups of liquid. Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar into the liquid.

Take the brownies and cut them into small bite-sized pieces.

Place brownie pieces (about 1 piece) in the bottom of each trifle glass. Next, place a spoonful of the cherries, and their liquid, on top of the brownies. Top with crushed cookies. Place a large spoonful of whipped cream on top of the cookies.

Repeat the layers, starting with the brownies. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours to allow the flavours to mingle.

Serve each trifle with chocolate sprinkles or chips and top with a cherry.

Shortbread cookies
This is also a great recipe that works with both adults and children. Hide them in lunch bags with a simple note for a nice surprise at work or school.

1 cup butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup powdered/icing sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3-4 tbsp milk
½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
Red food colour
Heart shaped cookie cutter

Whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, and extract. If too thick, add more milk a few drops at a time. If too thin, add more powdered sugar. Use food colouring to tint the icing pink.

Beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy. Add vanilla and beat until combined.

Combine flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Add mixture slowly to the butter mixture, stirring on low speed. Stop beating as soon as the flour mixture is fully mixed.

Form the dough into a slightly flattened ball and chill for about 4-6 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees f/177 degrees c/Gas Mark 4. Line baking sheets with parchment/oil paper or grease with oil. Dust the surface you will roll the dough on with flour

Remove cookie dough from fridge and roll it out at least ¼ inch thick. Cut into heart shapes and freeze for 10 min.

Bake cookies for 10 -12 minutes at the middle shelf of the oven, until light brown around the edges. Cool the cookies for 10 minutes on the baking sheet. Remove and cool completely before icing.

Ice cookies by applying the icing on top of cookies with a knife or by dipping the cookies in frosting.

Allow to sit until icing is dry.

Chocolate fondue
2 cups of chocolate, well chopped
½ cup full cream milk
¼ cup melted butter
Assorted fruits, cakes and cookies

Prepare fruits: sliced bananas, apples, pears, grapes, etc.

Prepare cakes and other sweet things: cut bite size pieces of pound cake, cookies and wafers, marshmallows, brownies or meringues.

Arrange the dippables on a platter. Arrange forks or bamboo skewers, to dip the dippables into the chocolate mixture.

Pour the milk and butter into a medium, thick-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted.

Transfer the chocolate to a fondue pot or a nice metal bowl and enjoy. To keep the bowl warm, you can have a small tea candle underneath the pot/bowl

By Anahita Ahmed
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Food: Desree Dessert


home | Issues | The Daily Star Home

2012 The Daily Star