I went to a Super Bowl party this morning.
Here in Rome the game started at 12:45 a.m., about three hours after all of Rome closes up on Sunday night. I had to watch. It’s not just because it’s the Denver Broncos I’ve read about all season but since the Super Bowl began in the 1966 season, I’ve missed only one. That’s only because in 1979, much to my shocking dismay, I could not find it televised anywhere in rural Sumatra.
Today was my sixth Super Bowl seen outside the U.S., my fourth in Italy. This was by far the wildest, noisiest, rockingest overseas Super Bowl I’ve ever experienced. Then again, that’s not saying much. I watched the 2001 Super Bowl in a sprawling sports bar in Belize designed by a Belizean who’d spent a lot of time in corporate sports bars living in Southern California. I watched the Ravens beat the Giants with three Peace Corps workers. That’s it. As soon as the final gun sounded, the place flooded with locals coming to sing karaoke.
This morning was more “Animal House” than open house.
It started so calm, too. When a game starts at a quarter to 1 in the morning, you have a lot of time to kill. I had dinner at a tiny osteria around the corner from my flat. La Fiaschetta is named for those big wicker-covered Chianti bottles Italians used to drink from and we used to turn into ugly, oversized, wax-covered candles. On a quiet, cobblestone alley (I love the original Roman city planners. This city is nothing but a labyrinth of quiet, twisting, charming alleyways), I had some exquisite rigatoni amatriciana (thick tube pasta with bacon, tomato sauce and red pepper flakes) and a nice glass of Montepulciano. The young, mustachioed waiter was a multilingual sports nut who didn’t know what day the Super Bowl was, let alone who was playing. Neither did most of Italy. I thought I’d spend last night on assignment in Empoli, a town west of Florence. When I called around its sports bars, not a single one had even heard of the Super Bowl. Instead, the waiter and I chatted about A.S. Roma’s soccer match getting postponed by rain earlier that day and how Inter Milan had to beat the mortal piss out of hated Juventus on the one TV in the joint.
I went home and read until 11 p.m. then wandered across the lone boulevard near my apartment and down an alley to a great little Irish pub called Abbey Theater. I’d watched the 49ers-Seahawks conference championship there two weeks ago in the atmosphere akin to a crowd watching a political debate. The only patrons that night were a couple of hard-core fans, some European tourists and Italians curious what in the world a bar in Rome was doing open at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning. I walked into Abbey Theatre this morning and I had to ask a young woman to squeeze ahead three feet so I could open the door. Every one of Abbey Theater’s three rooms were packed to the Irish flags hanging on top of the walls.
British and Irish pubs are big in Italy. One reason is the expat population here is nearing the numbers of the Mexican population in Arizona. Another is pubs serve good beer and Italy’s national brew is Peroni, which the Italians have labeled, “La birra della senza tetto” (The beer of the homeless.) That’s partially true. You see very few drunks in Rome but the ones that are passed out, an empty liter bottle of Peroni is usually within arm’s reach. (I have learned to emphasize the “O” in tetto. I more than once called it “La birra della senza tetta” (The beer of the titless.).
These pubs are also popular here due to many expats’ complete inability to meld into a culture. The pubs show British and Irish sports, serve British and Irish food and speak nothing but English. The waitresses in Abbey Theater all look like they hopped off bars of Irish Spring soap. You can hear more Italian spoken in an Olive Garden.
In the first week of February, Rome is nearly void of tourists. It has rained for a week. Temperatures have dipped into the 30s. If you ate outside, your pizza would float away. Who’s here in massive droves are American college students. They come on three-month overseas programs to study art or architecture but pretty much treat all of Rome as one giant all-campus party. That’s where Abbey Theater comes in. This morning Abbey Theater was a frat house.
I saw students wearing T-shirts from San Diego State (“San Diego State football just sucks!” the owner told this one totally unimpressed blonde babe) to Tufts. I saw one mousy bespectacled blonde in a ponytail wearing a retro white and gold University of Colorado hoodie. The entire bar was void of blue and orange. One corner of one room, however, was commandeered by a table of students wearing Seahawks jerseys. The University of Washington has a big overseas program in Rome.
I found a barstool next to an Irish couple who came in for a quiet Guinness and found themselves engulfed by a Theta Chi rush party. A graphic came on TV that compared the two quarterbacks’ salaries. The Irishman turned to me and said, “Peyton Manning makes $900,000 a week?!” I tried to put a disclaimer on it but obviously failed miserably.
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s only for 16 weeks.”
“Peyton Manning makes $900,000 a week?!” he repeated.
The game was merely an excuse for the college kids to drink at 3 a.m. in Rome. Few in the room where I sat watched much. You couldn’t hear the sound over the high-pitched screech of the corner full of coeds who learned one had a birthday at midnight. Some swarthy Italians wandered in with little clue what state Denver was in let alone Peyton Manning’s TD record. They were more interested in the college coeds, remembering endless stories of other Italian men who shtoinked a coed looking for a good tale to tell their sorority sisters back at Ohio State. I overheard two Italians walk by and say, simultaneously, “Molte ragazze!” (Many girls!) One ruddy-faced Italian who kept his scarf wrapped around his neck despite the rising temperatures, mistook one girl’s squeal as a mating call. He ran over to jump into one of the endless number of cell phone pictures she took. She knocked him away nearly harder than any Bronco hit a Seahawk.
“I don’t know who you are,” she said, suddenly very sober.
I asked him and his bald friend if they actually like American football. The bald guy was raised outside of Rome but once visited New York and went to a Giants game the season they won the Super Bowl. He follows the NFL about as much as an Italian can. That means you go to Abbey Theater for the conference finals and Super Bowl.
I knew the game was an afterthought when Broncos center Manny Ramirez brainlocked and hiked the Broncos’ first shotgun snap nearly into the East River. I was the only one in the bar who yelled, “HOLY FUCK!” As I watched the Broncos tailspin into a humiliation that will last until the end of recorded time, I was no longer in Rome. I was in any living room in the States, mesmerized by this theater of self-destruction. I’ve read descriptions of Christians’ faces before they get eaten by wild beasts in the Colosseum. That description fit Manning’s expression in the second half.
I had told some college kids shortly before the game that I liked Seattle because of its defense and superior running back. When they learned I was a sportswriter, suddenly I was St. Francis of Assisi. They all wanted my insight. I assured them I knew nothing more than what I’ve read in The Post which, for the past three weeks since retiring here, has been not one syllable. I wound up talking to a soccer player for Catholic University about Italian soccer and how his team keeps getting sodomized in the Division III playoffs every year. The conversation was a lot more interesting than the game in the second half. I found myself glancing up occasionally in the macabre way you can’t look away from a train wreck or a mismatch in MMA.
I walked back to my apartment at 4:30 a.m. feeling real sorry for a Manning who will get a lot of the blame for his teammates’ inability to block or look upright when a football is thrown at them. But as I walked down my empty alleyway, before the blackness of night slowly turned to the light of day, I felt Manning must know more than just this beckoning sun will come up again. I felt the stillness of the night and the emptiness of the streets and thought Manning should knowing something else.
Most of the world really doesn’t give a damn.