Retired in Rome Journal: A welcome home to the city of my dreams
MONDAY, JAN. 13 — ROME
I’m not into omens much. Man determines his own fate. That’s why I’m sitting here in Rome, my life’s remains enveloped in the five bags that surround me as I await passage into my new apartment. An early retirement that has baffled friends and foes alike has taken me to Rome, site of the wildest 17 months of my life and hopefully home of many more to come. But sometimes omens fall in your lap, kind of like turning a corner and finding a silver dollar the day the stock market explodes.
I landed in Rome Saturday and laughed off a middle-aged airport hustler who wanted 70 euros for a ride into the city, only to drop it to 30 “for my private service” when I told him, “Un taxi e’ solamente quarantotto.” (A taxi is only 48.) A half hour later, I got a greeting only a visiting king could appreciate. The Blooms are the kind of people every expat needs as well as every city. They love visitors and love Rome, not necessarily in that order.
“You could not have picked a better person to justify your decision, John,” Peter Bloom told me after a taxi dumped me on his narrow cobblestone street.
The Blooms are retired World Food Program vets whose life’s mission was a little more noble than mine. I gave people in Colorado some passable entertainment in the morning and a cat liner by the afternoon; the Blooms fed the world’s poor. While my articles were damn good cat liners, these two were in Afghanistan and India and Sri Lanka. Peter has been to 40 countries in Africa. They met in a bar in Bangkok and have been traveling ever since.
They don’t have an apartment. They have a palazzo. It’s a huge living room, about the size of my 850-square-foot condo in Denver. It’s filled with African artifacts and pictures of their children in exotic locales. There’s a picture of Peter wearing a turban in India, another of their son, who’s a professional clown, dressed in full circus regalia — at his wedding.
The flat has a spiral staircase that winds toward a rooftop patio with a spectacular panoramic view of Monti, their trendy neighborhood in the heart of the city. On one side is Vittorio Emanuele, the massive monument dedicated to the founder of modern Italy. It’s a giant confection of white marble, so brilliantly white they call it the wedding cake. Fascists in the mid-20th century preferred a more imposing nickname.
The 98 steps to their flat are totally worth it.
The Blooms’ street, Madonna di Monti, is so classic ancient Rome. It’s cobblestone and just wide enough for a car — one car — to precariously squeeze through with deliveries of bread or cheese or wine or whatever else is sold in the quaint trattorias and cafes.
We went to their favorite haunt. La Taverna dei Fori Imperali is one of the most romantic restaurants I’ve seen in Rome. That’s not saying much. Rome is a very romantic city — outside. The dimly lit piazzas, so secluded that noise from busy streets rarely penetrates, are the biggest gift Rome’s emperors gave the world. A close second is the art of burning Christians at the stake but that’s another story.
Most Rome restaurants are as brightly lit as a Roman’s home. When Romans go out to eat, they want to eat what they normally cook in similar trappings. They just don’t want to cook that night. So most restaurants are as bright as Yankee Stadium and almost as noisy.
This place had a dimness I found totally fetching. Little lanterns on the walls lit the narrow room. Soft Italian music, not the soft rock you hear in the U.S., filled the air. A wall of fame had pictures of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with their arms around the owner, a good friend of the Blooms who can get a table anytime they want. Apparently, that’s not easy and I could tell by how the place didn’t have an empty seat by 9 p.m.
We had a feast that confirmed any doubt I had about restarting my life here. If only my doubters could’ve had a taste. We had bruschetta with olive oil and tomatoes and radicchio, a fantastically flavored shredded radish that almost tasted sweet. Then came my main dish. Pasta Roma is big, fat, round buccatini with pancetta (bacon), sage and mushrooms. The freshness of the homemade pasta exploded in my mouth and the pancetta was as lean as a $100 steak.
A bottle of Chianti and a white chocolate souffle put my portion of the bill at 30 euro ($40) but I chalked it up to a welcome back meal. When you come to paradise you don’t start by eating gruel.
After dinner, Peter gave me a tour of his hood. Apparently, I couldn’t find a better guide.
“I am the mayor Monti,” he said, his arms spread to envelop the narrow streets. “And this is the ‘in’ place in Rome.”
Peter said Monti is booming. In a city where the economy is so bad that dreadful all-you-can eat buffets have sprouted, Monti is brimming with new places. Fafiuche is a tiny, dark cafe with about eight tables, two outside, specializing in Piedmont and Puglia cuisines. We stopped off for an espresso at 2 Periodico Cafe, a hip little bar (In Italy, cafes are bars and bars are cafes.) with young kids sporting tattoos and bad haircuts spiriting coffee and Proseccos in a long narrow room.
Across the street from his door they even opened an ice bar. They started in Scandinavia but are spreading throughout Europe. You walk in, pay a 15 euro cover and they give you a blanket for the 30-degree temps inside a room consisting of nothing but big blocks of ice and ice tables. It’s for the rare Roman with disposable income or the odd tourist who happens to stumble their way onto Madonna di Monti and wants to freeze his ass off and get ripped off at the same time.
Jet lag didn’t hit until I slept in their lovely guest room. I woke up on a perfectly cool Roman winter day, about 50 degrees and sunny. Romans are weather wimps and the Blooms were stunned I would go outside in just black jeans and a red henley. I lamented and put on my black leather jacket that lasted about 10 minutes before I looped it over my shoulder.
Rome is warm in more ways than one. It still is. One worry I had started on my last visit two springs ago. Sundays were always the day of rest. Jesus started the trend and the long string of popes in the Vatican made sure Rome continued it. All businesses were closed. You had a big feast, then walked the streets in a mass “passagiata” (stroll).
The Blooms live a Frisbee toss from the Roman Forum. Two thousand years ago, the business center of the Roman Empire was just down the street from their apartment. On this Sunday, the traffic was closed off. Peter was ecstatic about a new street the city opened for pedestrians.
“This was never open before!” he said. “NEVER! EVER! This is fantastic!”
We walked along the back side of the Forum peering down at the collection of giant marble that once formed markets and tavernas and meeting halls of the Roman aristocracy. Today it’s being trampled on by a large legions of camera-toting Japanese.
We climbed past the Campidoglio, the original city hall of Rome, down a street and came across Campagna Amica. This public market is open only on weekends and it has all the delicacies you don’t get in the average Roman market on the streets.
Entire stands were dedicated to chocolate spreads. A beaming, fat-cheeked woman in a yellow smock had me dip pieces of homemade bread in tubs of mandar arancia (orange chocolate) and cioccoliva bianca (white chocolate) and pistachina (pistachio). A pretty, olive-skinned woman had an entire line of tartufo spreads, the mushroom delicacies dug up by specially bred pigs in northern Italy. Lazio wine went for 3.50 euros (about $4.70). Salmon and haddock and squid were in wood boxes tended to by burly fishmongers in blood-stained white aprons.
We came home in time to watch the Roma game. Francesca Totti scored and Roma drubbed Genoa, 4-0. Hmmm.
Another omen perhaps.