How To Write A Roman Postcard

February 18th 2009

I was sorry to hear that my last postcard didn’t get through to you, but hopefully this one will.

Only now it’s too early in the morning to talk and many words are indecipherable. A backstreet you’ve never seen before and the night sky chipped silver is a hard distant finger of black ice. You can taste the last breath of someone else’s cigarette the way senses catch and snag as shadows curl up to walls smooth and jagged. When it comes to how to write a Roman postcard, it takes a lot of practice to avoid the simple errors that lie in the pitfalls of a regular correspondence. There are moments when you can only describe things in a simple childish way at best. Some postcards are silent and other ones too loud; collectors’ items, three for December, nothing more until late May and then one every other weekend until September. Each postcard is another bridge you burn, a shorthand form of honing the assertion. There’s no logical order to them, only moods and the odd idle moment. Less true to the myth of the authentic historical document, postcards are that private glance aside that hints at the real inner monologue. Shiny pictures of monuments that aren’t really pictures at all.

 

The Metro Stop at Furio Camillo

During Ferragosto (the two weeks in August when most of the city closes for its own informal summer vacation), Furio Camillo shrinks into my apartment. It’s a comfortable breathing space, an antique chair and set of drawers, a 1940s radio. The bookcase and bookshelves where I prop the photographs of my family and friends in England. You keep the room cool in the day by closing the green shutters which growl as you raise and lower them like great cats looking for the shade. Against the far wall the dark wooden writing desk sits as sturdy as the first piece of furniture for Noah’s ark. There’s nothing here to come and look for; it’s a regular suburban neighbourhood looking out towards the south of Rome and fairly economical as far as an affordable rent goes.

Directly below my apartment nine floors down is the Metro Stop itself, wedged on the crossroads between Via Appia Nuova and my own street Viale Furio Camillo. During the worst of the summer heat I only tend to venture out towards early evening, and the station while open is often semi-abandoned by any signs of staff. You get the feeling it’s lost its purpose somehow like a flat line on some distant monitor. A local outpost with no signs of life, this is the everyday point of contact with another city ten minutes away; the Rome you have to live with and unfortunately rely on for getting around.

The neighbourhood’s one claim to fame would seem to be that among its more notable clientele the local pizzeria has a picture of Sean Connery shaking hands with the owner; a glimpse by proxy of someone you’d never expect to see in the flesh. As a public service the metro certainly has the mind of a Bond villain; the way at certain random stations unsuspecting travellers are practically decapitated between doors, while at Furio Camillo I’ve seen some of the most beautiful women in the world glide off and on. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve seen the picture of Connery too and think there’s something in it.

It’s an early morning or a late night working to its own particular curfew, while the escalators creak at times as though they’re being wound by hand. Down there in those badly run cavernous regions can feel as though you’ve been taken under the wing of some mysterious witness protection programme. I get back to my apartment and think how temporary Rome is, even in my own small corner as the three a.m. traffic hums past in the night’s perfect temperature. And none of it is mine.

 

March 14th 2013

‘Whoever, being fond of pursuing the joys of fugitive forms, reaches out to the leafy branches to pick fruit, will instead reap sorrow.’ I like this very much. They are predicting Rome will have bad weather next week so it was good to make the most of the sun today.

 

Santa Stefano Rotondo (before a thunderstorm) San Clemente (in a thunderstorm)

Atmospherics aren’t to be exaggerated. When you have a thunderstorm in Rome, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a place you’ve never been before. Thunderstorms are those doorways tucked away that you dive into for shelter. For a genuine appreciation of a thunderstorm before it breaks, Santa Stefano Rotondo takes a lot of beating. When you can see the sky darken and feel the humidity glistening in the air and the city becomes still and semi-deserted; this doorway shows a gentle terror.

The frescos on the walls represent numerous scenes of martyrdom in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. Saints are decapitated, boiled alive, buried alive, dismembered and thrown to wild animals. You realize for all of the modern-day exposure to such scenes of torture and death in the news or at the cinema, you’re not as desensitized to it as you might think. Atmospherics aren’t to be exaggerated. The thunder still hasn’t arrived, but you can feel it closer in the air as you leave.

The rain arrives less than half a mile down the road. The Basilica of San Clemente is a good place to wait out the storm. It feels later in the year and in a strange way more civilized. The thunder is very loud outside and the church full of human voices, children laughing, parents softly scolding. There is great beauty here, but more removed, like the accent of a foreign tourist. Christ is here, but not in the way he was before the thunder in Santa Stefano.

Once the storm has passed you can go anywhere. Yet nothing immediately comes to mind.

 

August 6th 2008

There are times it feels like overload. I’ve yet to see the sea. Sunlight a soft drug that you don’t wake up from. Other times a sudden downpour in Rome is more like an earthquake, where streets begin to bubble up in front of you.

 

Keats’ Grave

The grave itself imitates his own self-conscious legend. That white-faced, slim wafer of a headstone and the broken lyre immersed in background greenery. It’s a lonely place open to the public and the Pyramid which Keats heard so much about yet never saw himself is a hollow tomb by comparison. The Protestant Cemetery adjacent to Via Marmorata occupies a brief moment and then it’s gone again. You go, you have a look and then you leave.

It was my second week in Rome and England had not yet distanced itself from a warmer February sun. I already had in mind the mental image of Oscar Wilde sobbingly prostrate on the ground, declaring it the most sacred spot in Rome and for a moment the thought occurred. What if it isn’t Keats’ grave at all? Just another expatriate struggling with the language and what it meant to be here of all places looking for a miracle cure. Even then standing less than three feet away from the earthly remains of a man some critics consider to be only second to Shakespeare in poetic achievement, I felt Keats himself would have questioned it. A stranger in a not-so-silent land.

I think there is for the English some unconscious perception of Rome and Italy that has never outgrown the image of the Romantic living in exile, whether it be Byron brooding in Venice or Shelley beating his own revolutionary drum. The notion one must go far away to find a place to die, exerts a certain hold over a peculiarly English imagination. Despite how little Keats must have seen of it, enough remains to go into his gravestone and the words Shelley himself wrote on hearing of his death in ‘Adonais’, “Go thou to Rome…/From the world’s bitter wind/Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb./What Adonais is, why fear we to become?” A city from which there can be no return. Streets that were often empty at night and closed shutters everywhere. The constant feeling I was walking too quickly and the rhythm and pace of the city, which was as much in the buildings themselves as the language and the traffic. Later there were people who told me how they were “over it” and ready to move on and I understood what they meant, just as I knew they were speaking of a quite different city to the one Keats never saw at all.

What Adonais is, why fear we to become? There are times when the relentless humidity of mid-September leaves me tired and at times bewildered at how it could ever have been considered a cure for anything. I hum along to The Smiths defiantly as I pay for my cappuccino and the barista rolls her eyes at the fact I’m still paying with a twenty-euro note. “A dreaded sunny day. So let’s go where we’re happy. And I meet you at the Cemetary Gates. Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side.”

 

June 17th 2011

The real skill to surviving here comes with waiting and then more waiting.

 

Belvedere Romolo e Remo

Some things read better in the past tense. During summer and early autumn at night groups of young people gather and light small fires around which they drink and smoke and talk and sing. Behind them the Palatine Hill and the ruins of the Imperial Palace stand dark as though eavesdropping. Overlooking Circo Massimo, there’s a quality of ritual to the torchlights and candles. Hoots and whistles and applause unearthly as the thought of the ancient arena. Part of me would like to go down there and introduce myself and tell a story. Because these lights are real and not the product of my imagination. A secret magic trick, as the nights grow short, to say goodbye.

 

EUR Laghetto

It’s a fairly well-to-do area, one of whose chief landmarks is Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, or what some refer to as Colosseo Quadrato, the Square Colosseum. A slightly verbose neoclassical monument, essentially what you’re looking at is a giant marble waffle which shouldn’t distract you if you get the chance, from a quick walk round the lake in the early spring. It’s a small green landscaped park lying in the shadow of the ENI corporate building where I used to teach business English to the company’s middle management. It had different colors early morning, giving you the idle idea you were really thinking. Later I’d come back and still find it there in the middle of my working day like the parallel universe where I worked my own hours and spoke Italian fluently. It was a view of a different life in Italy, flipside and without complications of rent or the ever-diminishing savings keeping me afloat. Through the prism of reinforced tinted glass the illusion of leisure was never more real staring down at the lake. Men and women sharing their lunch hour together; young families enjoying the first of the fine weather.

Hemingway called it ‘false spring’ in Paris when he felt the happiness and the hunger, at the same time as he was risking his savings at the racing track. There’s a certain way he uses seasons to suggest the reality and the illusion of happiness in a perfect world full of courage and integrity and war wounds. In Rome, spring suggests a similar kind of hunger in that there’s an implied contradiction to the thing that keeps you going; the edge or angst that tells you these words are more than mere ruminations on an indefinite existence. There are times I still think of EUR Laghetto as a symbol of those hunger changes. The false hope that whatever starves you is enough to make you want to stay.

 

May 3rd 2010

Or maybe it’s hearing so many American accents on a daily basis. Americans everywhere.

 

My (favourite local) Chinese Italian Café – La Greace

This is another good place to start. La Greace is a small café run by a Chinese family, a handy ten yards from Metro Furio Camillo itself. I like the non-European quality it has, which is ironically its most continental feature. If I need to change a twenty-euro note there’s no problem and no questions asked. A polite trust is immediately established and I like the fact that they don’t ask my name or try to sell me anything except a simple cup of coffee. There is a woman, the matriarch and two young men in their early twenties and sometimes a couple of girls helping out. Occasionally the mother will give me a Cornetto or small pastry for free.

The poster art on the wall and the atmosphere of cut-out magazines is colorful with a distinct throwback to the late Eighties. In its own way the Eighties effect, suggesting as it does for me the unconscious backdrop to a provincial northern English town, is a page stolen straight out of Hemingway’s Paris. The mirrored wall behind the bar with its neatly arranged bottles of Grappa and Cointreau and Hennesy is a more colorful 1920s where Hemingway knows what his future will be at the the safe distance of forty years as a successful writer. It doesn’t belong there, this real place in my memory that I call my favourite Chinese Italian Café. The same songs on the radio and a clock with the face of Marilyn Monroe on the wall blowing out a full pair of red lips. The glamour isn’t hers or Rome’s or any particular memory as such. The matriarch smiles and nods at me, “Ciao Capo, tutto bene? Hai lavoro oggi?”

 

November 24th 2013

It’s clear that Rome is maybe only half a dozen moments I’ll be able to call to mind if I live to be a hundred where I was sure, the way you expect to ‘know’ for sure as an adult when a done thing is right as opposed to wrong.

 

Santa Maria in Trastevere

It’s a church that has seasons like a tree. The predominant color is the gold of the ceiling and the mosaic cupola, where Christ and the Madonna sit amongst the apostles. Below the cupola you find scenes from the Life of the Virgin by Pietro Cavallini, who as a contemporary of Giotto was one of the first artists to break with the Byzantine tradition in anticipating the vibrant new forms of the Renaissance. Against its background landscape of scenes from the Holy Land, palm trees offer soft calypsos from a shimmering oasis. The wood ceiling, a relatively late addition in 1617 by Domenichino, is a gold and green foliage of its own.

Perhaps it’s the gold that makes me think of Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’. It might not be as grand as the major basilicas of San Giovanni or Santa Maria Maggiore, but it certainly has the warmth of a storyteller. There’s a throwback here, as I think there is with all churches, to childhood. The way that you were back then, too confident or at times, too scared. The way you can’t take in Santa Maria, except through seeing other people and the way they become part of it, perhaps only momentarily to light a candle and then leave. You start to realize nothing is all that visible. With the early evening come vespers, voices building and fading in chorus and solo. The church is alive like an old vinyl record, and it’s as though you’re more sure of yourself as a stranger not knowing the exact words.

A clear geometry at work, rational thought and science applied to support the design measured in the rhythms and the algebra of structure. The classical lines of the Ionic columns where the late afternoon sun provides an exact angle and spotlight. It is a masterpiece that in its various moods makes me think of the pure language which is the same as the equations NASA scientists send out on satellites into deep space to communicate with what it is they barely understand. The faithful are more easily recognized as travelers.

Outside by the fountain you can sit and watch it dim in the summer evenings as the temperature cools on your shoulders. A human statue breathes. The street performers take a bow. You see it all in its different lights and colors. A young girl or a restive waiter. The old woman unconscious on the cobblestones and the drunks and the frescos have faded now, but the gold remains. The campanile chimes an hour more than a thousand years ago. What you see inside there, dreams outside, like those who have love and those who don’t. There are times when I just like to look at it fading around me in the violet and blue.

 

September 5th 2008

Even after 2,000 years there isn’t any distance or perspective to it yet. Ironically all you have is ancient history to remind you.

 

The Jewish Ghetto

Nothing has ever happened to me in the Ghetto. I have no story of my own to bring or take away from here. It has a slower atmosphere than the rest of the city, less of the hustle of Trastevere or Piazza Navona. Despite being part of the historic centre, the Ghetto remains in many ways a backdoor which doesn’t directly announce the fact it is the only part of Rome that represents over two thousand years of continuous community. A starless juxtaposition as you stare at a wall which is blackened as though scorched by fire and the yellow cat’s eye in the distance, which must be an attic window hovering above the Theatre of Marcellus. Its charm is much to do with the fact you don’t know what it is. There’s no arguing with a darkened window or the glimpse of a wood beam ceiling. In layers you can see through the archways an ongoing process.

 

Ponte Sisto

The river is dark by nature. You can see it in the electric lights which barely penetrate the surface. Jetsam that floats out towards an unseen sea. From a distance Ponte Sisto stands out with a hole in its side like a bloodless shotgun wound. At a certain angle it adopts a slight optical illusion, as if you could almost stretch your hand through its mysterious portal like a cheap magician’s guillotine trick. A hundred yards downriver Tiber Isand curves up like a Roman galley frozen at the point of ramming speed. Perspective again can be a tricky thing when you’re trying to judge certain distances. Ponte Sisto like so much of Rome is part performance, where there’s a kind of gladiatorial prelude to the gentle incline which brings you to the centre of the river. The bridge is a trade of sorts; a glimpse at how other people look in exchange for your loyalty. Call it continuity or culture or the naïve idea that there has to be a point of connection between the person I was before I crossed the river and the one that came after. I like to dispose of those various human disappointments here, where the river is a convenient depository for certain names and places. It forms part of your routine; the same constitutional route you take of an evening. Memory dropped like a five-centesimo coin into the darkness without even making a wish. Everything after is Trastevere.

 

July 6th 2011

Good restaurants in Rome have a backstage quality of amateur theatre.

 

The Time F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t meet me at the Vatican

I’ve never met anyone famous in Rome although I did once pass the American actor Willem Dafoe walking down Via Merulana. He’d grown his hair long like that time he played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and me and a friend doubled back just to check it was him ordering ice-cream. There was another time early in my first year when I saw a crowd gathered round a jewelry shop on Via del Plebiscito and caught a brief glimpse of Berlusconi’s toupée as he made his Il Duce-style exit surrounded by bodyguards hand-chosen by Gucci. Then there was Good Friday 2010 and a momentary glance at Pope Benedict, who was speeding past in a convoy of limos and police sirens, doing an easy 120 mph on his way back from saying Mass at Colosseo. Yet none of these minor claims to fame come close to the time I didn’t meet F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Vatican.

Of all the places in Rome I’d remember not meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Vatican is in many ways an inspired choice. It’s got everything you need to ensure you remember a day when F. Scott Fitzgerald might have given you some valuable life advice and yet for some inexplicable reason he just didn’t turn up. The Piazza and the Pietà and the touch of early genius. More than the combination of historical period, Constantinian, Renaissance or Baroque; St Peter’s beauty covers more than the impenetrable seat of power and ascension. It’s the one person you’d like to meet and swap wisdom with or ask that simple series of questions which proves it can’t just all be about the American dream or a love affair gone wrong or the whispers of lost youth.

Rome gets you in its clutches with the Trastevere moon and backstreets smelling of fresh bread and the open windows of a hundred kitchens and restaurants and before you know it your pockets are empty and your shoes shredded with those romantic cobblestones. It’s no surprise not meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald would leave such a lasting impression on me given the circumstances. Fitzgerald’s brief encounter with Rome ended with him taking a beating from the police after he drunkenly attempted to engage the locals in fisticuffs. That said he did rewrite a large chunk of Gatsby here despite him carrying a certain resentment towards Italians in general after this unfortunate fracas. Nevertheless, the fact I live in a city where any part of that book came to life alone is enough to fill me with genuine satisfaction. I still feel the Vatican would be the perfect place to deal with the disappointment of a missed appointment with the man himself. If he had turned up I’d have told him not to take it all so personally. There’s an Irish bar within walking distance where we could set the whole thing to rights.

 

December 12th 2008

It’s impossible to make any predictions when it comes to next year or the year after that. It’s like the beginning of any new friendship.

 

Scholar’s

I wrote my first postcards here; I remember that because I was always putting too much into them. I didn’t know then whether I was just a tourist or a future citizen or simply in over my head. It was a strange way to finally learn a trade and find the only real education in life is to look around you.

Scholar’s Lounge is an Irish Bar that lies halfway between Piazza Venezia and Largo Argentina on Via del Plebiscito. As a place to write postcards it offers good company and lots of background conversation. My favourite time there is when it’s quiet, the same way Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe’s erstwhile drinking partner Terry Maddox describe bars being quiet just before opening in The Long Goodbye, “When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny…I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation.” You can sit there and think of all the postcards you wrote and the fact you know better now when it comes to taking out the part about ancient history. When I talk to people about it back home I’m often tempted to come up with some memorable drinking stories about the time I challenged an entire travelling convention of Oliver Reed lookalikes to an arm wrestling competition, or the night I worked my way alphabetically through every fine and rare whiskey the bar has to offer. Unfortunately, abstinence rarely makes for great material in the true vein of a legendary bar fly anecdote.

Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Shaw stare up from the menu and I can’t help but think that Yeats in particular doesn’t like me and you realize how ludicrous your own small ambition compares, but there’s always a double cheeseburger to console you filling in the white space on your postcard that tells you not to write below the line. Only I’ve never understood why that is.

 

February 2nd 2014

It’s easy to be wrong about Rome in the same way as it’s easy to be wrong about art and religion.

 

The horse is Rome

There are certain parts of Rome where you hear the water before you hear the traffic. Piazza del Campidoglio is the vantage point. Designed by Michelangelo, you must first climb the Cordonata Steps, passing under the eyes of Castor and Pollux to reach the inescapable geometry of its spider’s web, a clean circle of pure construction. Home to the Musei Capitolini and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The animal is huge as Caesar grips through the stirrups the weight of its flanks, a stallion with a full veined belly moving at a steady relentless pace. This is death and mercy and the sightless arch of intelligence where the world is long conquered. The horse is Rome and the man is the author of the Meditations, which in their individual brevity would probably fill no more than a postcard each themselves. As you come closer you realise he’s not even touching the reins. That’s an incredible thing to see, to know that the man is not afraid to fall. The old world is behind the old Emperor now and the Tarpeian Rock where traitors were publically executed by being thrown to their deaths. Looking out across the Forum at night is the time to see it. A bride and groom approaching with their wedding guests. The Goddess sits at her fountain, light glimmering in marble like a 1930s cinema reel.

 

October 7th 2010

I haven’t kept in touch with anyone from last year. I look at photographs on the internet, and it’s not the same thing.

 

Shortcuts to Santa Maria Maggiore

Now it’s all uphill for a time. The cool glow of a Saturday afternoon in early March along Via Cavour reminds me of people quite literally on the other side of the world, for whom Rome was the space of a postcard gap in their lives, between starting a family or meeting their future wife or husband. Postcards you crossed off your map one by one like the streets where you’d arrange to meet them on a weekend and what they left behind were shortcuts to the second biggest church in Rome after St Peter’s. You didn’t notice how close you were at the time and then with a sharp right you turn a corner and Santa Maria Maggiore is lionlike in the way it appears to rest its hindquarters atop the Esquiline. From behind it feels as though you aren’t looking at a church as much as the rounded loins of some great cat about to pounce. I’m perspiring with the climb, but once inside those shortcuts come back to you whispering “Take me”. These are the postcards that are their own means of transportation as you come to realize there is no way to circumnavigate Rome and draw a perfect circle. People are far too complicated when they arrive. I’ve long since learnt to recognize a rundown neighbourhood where a woman might let you hold hands with her. Nothing more profound than a brief smile and a couple of drinks, and only afterwards do you realize how much it makes you feel ashamed. Shortcuts to enhance and prolong an all too quick and easy friendship. Holy Ground looking to play with you with its paws.

 

January 12th 2012

It gets old for saying it, but I hope you’ll come out to visit this year. There’s nothing else about my life here I regret.

 

Sleepers

Springtime you start to see the breeze and the brassy accent of the buildings turning their secret terraces to a blue sky whose word you can only take for it. Light painted on a faithless parchment’s skin all colors like the song of the preacher in Ecclesiastes. The sun is out and the sleeper faces the sky from his stony bed beneath the figure of St Francis in Piazza di San Bartolomeo all’Isola. You’ve just crossed Ponte dei Quattro Capi – the Bridge of the Four Heads – whose marble features have all appeared to melt like wax. At the back of Tiber Island the river begins to flow more quickly and there is a minor dissonance of footsteps and Arabic dialect. Black men trying to sell fake Gucci merchandise and artists painting from memory a door in Technicolor. Nothing disturbs the sleeper and no one paints a picture of this, his own private city complete in itself. I have to keep moving and it’s only back in my apartment that I allow myself the luxury of an hour’s siesta. People choose the strangest places to rest their eyes in Rome, but sleep is like that here; a common feature of everyday life, these urban snorers. How wonderful to take such full possession of oneself in this way! It’s sleep that serves the common good, a brief pause in the continuum, often shameless as a missing shoe, one of many who appropriate the city with eyes half-closed, lying down at their leisure on a bench or the steps to a cool grey archway. A tiny irregular heartbeat that constantly serves to break my train of thought.

 

March 2nd 2009

There’s a man on his knees in Trastevere. His knees may as well be his knuckles and he doesn’t say anything. This is the only postcard I have to send to you today.

 

Muse

The American humourist Garrison Keillor writes that a postcard in order to maintain its grace and integrity of meaning is ideally no longer than fifty words and comes with a clear picture. He describes it as a strict form that shouldn’t attempt prosaic overpour. In Keillor’s view, with a postcard you are very much in, then out of the moment with no time to linger on schedules or itineraries.The problem is a Roman postcard wants to talk a lot more than that. It doesn’t describe an image as much as serenade one. A Roman postcard wants you to hum along rather than read in silence. It’s the tight compression and contradiction of both flesh and spirit, where a local prostitute can suddenly reveal a very real figure sitting in a bar or taking Holy Communion. The analogy of Rome as mother-whore to the civilized West is nothing new in literature or art until you consider that as the combination of both a spiritual and sensual life, fifty words are not so much hyperbole as a false understatement, which to anyone else must seem like the muse of a lifetime.

 

February 21st 2015

Reply not to me with a fool-born jest;
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

—Henry IV, Pt. 2, Act V

 

The Ones That Have No Name

I don’t remember when I first realised Ciampino Airport was actually a trapdoor. Something along the lines of that scene from the movie The Prestige where Hugh Jackman plays a magician who convinces everyone he’s disappeared, only he’s really dropped his double into a sealed water tank to drown beneath the stage. From security to gate, you can’t escape the feeling any moment the floor will give way, like the sensation of looking down on the coastline of Lazio from 30,000 feet. The rehersal of coming home with tales of a new life. Flying out of Rome for the first time seven years ago I’d no idea how well I’d get to know it. The uncertainty of what keeps you in the air or how I’d feel when I got back. You’re up there for seconds or maybe it’s hours, the same way you’ve been here for years now thinking about the ones that have no name. The actions inside each observation, small cruelties and kindnesses impossible to assimilate or deny. A postcard. To write. The verb accelerates towards you with so many dopplegängers. Your first day or your last. Trees darkening in June heat languous as bodies during sex. You can almost taste the sweat on those razor-sharp leaves. An hour’s wait for a bus travelling back up the coast, skin tenderized with the intensity of the July equinox. The expression half-laugh, half-snarl, of a middle-class matron refusing to take a free seat next to an old gypsy woman on the bus. White gravel that blinds you with the scream of an ambulance siren. A lick of female perfume laced with the street’s dark overripeness as the garbage trucks go to work hosing down the night that’s gone and will never be again. Your flight finally touches down and instead of finding England look up and you’re already back in Italy. Endless lines of Vespas blocking your way across the street. A pre-laid table for one you didn’t ask for.

 

September 17th 2014

If it was ever just one person it shouldn’t be. One night when the Pantheon was just another building by comparison that leaves you wondering.

 

End of a Season

Towards the church of Domine Quo Vadis the proximity of the old countryside and the city blur lines. Here on Via Appia Antica is where St Peter is said to have made his decision to turn back to Rome and face his death. It’s a long road serviced by the 118 bus leading out towards the Catacombs, which also passes by the Ardeatine Caves where 335 Italian partisans were executed by the Nazis in 1944. The martyrs of historical fact and religious legend are a curious mix to establish your bearings. The dead are never where you find them in the spring, which is perhaps to say their natural element. Between the two locations a man may be a martyr or a murderer depending on the form of execution. It’s always easier to be one than the other.

There’s no way to test the theory when it comes to hieroglyphics in high definition. In another thousand years will it all seem as new or as alien? A mysterious Latin font like new technology creeps up on you. It’s a city captured on smartphone and tablet nowadays rather than in postcards. The idea of a city you can carry with you to email, surfing the Net as much a part of what you’re looking at as the thing that’s slowly crumbling before your very eyes. The ruins smooth out on a cracked surface; a portal with a limited battery life, imperfect as anything prescribed; an antiquated form each to their own separate season.

It’s a machine filled with gigabytes of data without memory. A computer screen or a postcard without a date or signature. I’m looking at a man in front of me who’s reading through a small manuscript of what I can only assume to be his own handwritten notes. He seems dissatisfied, anxious even, unable to add to what looks like a short story or perhaps the first chapter of a novel. I have everything and nothing in common with this stranger; the silent thoughts he is struggling with in his head in another language. Good Friday and I’m sitting in Santa Maria di Trastevere wondering if prayer is no different than to see ourselves limited by our five senses. Postcards drifting through the eternity of bric-à-brac shops in the backstreets of major cities for whom their sole existence is to say to someone else I was here, and I saw with my own eyes, and it was glorious.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Hamilton Stone Review.

Jonathan Jones qualified in 1999 with his MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University College and in 2004 with an MRes in Humanities from Keele University. He now teaches writing composition at John Cabot University in Rome.

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