Retired in Rome Journal: The new apartment in a pre-Renaissance building

My living room of my 30 square meters (325 square feet) apartment.
My living room of my 30 square meters (325 square feet) apartment.
The outside of my 700-year-old building on Via di Montoro
My bags outside of my 700-year-old building on Via di Montoro

It’s an odd sensation driving with all your present and future possessions to your next home for two months. That’s not a long time but for a traveler it’s a lifetime. You become friends with the cafe owner and the cheese vendor, the newspaper salesman and your neighbor. Moving into an apartment sight unseen is like parachuting into a different planet with no escape.

Fortunately, no escape necessary. In fact, throw away the key. I’m home.

Via di Montoro, 4, the address I’ve given everyone from friends to my banker, is fabulous. Oh, it’s not much to look at. The second-floor flat (third floor in the U.S.) is about 400 square feet and if my hair is particularly curly in the morning it brushes against the low ceiling. It has one of those mini fridges we had in our freshman dorm, the kind that fits about two six packs of beer and that’s it. The light comes in from a small oval window in the living room, a smaller window in the bedroom and a window a hamster couldn’t jump through in the bathroom.

But the elevated living room has a couch, a beautiful flat-screen TV and plenty of lights. It has this writing table I’m pounding away at with a, um, “view” of a shuttered window across the street.

The building and location are right out of Architecture Age.

The building is — get this — 700 years old. That puts it right before the Renaissance which art scholars claim was the greatest hundred years in the history of man. Of course, it also came right before the Black Plague, the disease that halved Rome’s population to about 20,000. I wonder how many black, disease-toting rats once roamed these floorboards.

But oh, the location! I am smack dab in the center of Rome! Go out my building to the right and around the corner is Piazza Farnese, home of the French Embassy’s palace and arguably the most majestic piazza in the city. Out my building to my left and around the corner is Campo dei Fiori, for centuries the site of public executions and now Rome’s most raucous piazza. About 2.5 million tourists a year come from all over the world to roam these streets.

Here I am living on them.

While writing in this journal yesterday, I held back tears so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. The fact that the Internet didn’t work was of little consequence, primarily because I knew coming over here — and knowing Italy — I had a better shot at meeting the pope the first day than the Internet working my first day.

Instead, I explored. Rome is very appropriately named. To roam in Rome is to discover. And in Rome, every street has its own personality. The twisting, tangled alleys are like a gathering at a party. Via di Montoro is the slightly disheveled guest. My building is surrounded by workshops. Three construction workers, their faces covered in masks to deflect the dust, took cigarette breaks at my massive front door as I waited for my realtors to let me in.

There’s a utilities repair shop, a Vespa mechanics garage and, showing a little class, a tiny shop where a wrinkled old man in thick glasses repaired violins. Violin skins hung on his tiny wall like pelts. Also nearby, hoping this wasn’t an omen, was a shop selling billowing snow-white wedding dresses.

Campo dei Fiori had changed a lot since I was there three years ago. Vineria, my favorite enoteca where I used to buy glasses of Barola for 2.75 euro, is gone. Obika’, the antipasti bar specializing in the freshest bufala mozzarella in Italy, has replaced it. A sprawling beer hall with the Anglicized, tourist-magnet name, Roman Beer Company, dominates the other side of the piazza. Neon lights illuminate a coffee bar.

The one constant, which has been here since I first set foot in Rome in 1978, is The Drunken Ship. Very appropriately named, it has been home to drunk North American backpackers and swarthy Italians hitting on drunk North American backpackers since the discovery of testosterone. I walked in as they set up and asked a muscle-bound bartender, “Avra’ le partite di football Americano domenica?” (Will you have the American football games on Sunday?)

“What, dude?” the guy said in perfect English.

Ricky the bartender has lived here three years after getting a master’s at St. John’s of Rome. As a rugby match played on a TV overhead, he said he likes living here but “It’s pretty pathetic that I can make more money with a master’s as a bartender in Rome than I can in the States.”

The Drunken Ship still caters to 90 percent North Americans, not including on this day an Italian who, spotting a hot blonde tinkering with her cell phone, said, “Are you calling me?” When she ignored him without a twitch, he said to his friend with a laugh, “She must not speak English.”

My first order of business was find a local cafe. I have two choices: Caffe Peru, a nice, local joint featuring a weathered but friendly wait staff and wifi in an adjacent sitting room, and Cafe Farnese, a tony, touristy bar featuring brass railings, waiters in ties and tables and chairs pointing out to the sprawling piazza.

Cafe Farnese isn’t the ripoff I expected. Just stand and a glass of vino rossa della casa (house red wine) is 4 euro ($5.33). It’s 6 euro ($8) if you sit outside. A glass of Havana Club, illegal in the U.S., is only 4 euro.
I stood and tried to make friends, not easy in a bar hardened by decades of stupid tourists. The bald bartender did tell me locals do come in and he was right. You can always tell a Roman in the winter because he’s dressed to dogsled across one of the poles. It was in the high 40s and one couple came in dressed in overcoats, gloves and scarves so thick they looked like anacondas wrapped around their necks.

The overweight woman, a rare sight in Rome, at the cashier’s table recommended a local restaurant nearby called Bafetto Due but I continued prowling for food. I stumbled onto a tiny trattoria called La Locanda del Pellegrino (Inn of the Pilgrim). A very appropriate name. It had the homestyle feel of a family inn, one that took in travelers who wanted something unpretentious, hearty and hot. The place was only locals. A young couple had a long talk over four or five courses of antipasti, pasta, meat and chocolate desserts. Two fat guys watched an old Italian TV show on a TV set, circa 1978.

The place was so brightly lit, like an Italian’s kitchen, I practically needed sunglasses. Paintings of old Centro Storico hung on the walls. So did a an odd painting of a rowboat on a sunset beach. It was wonderfully maddening, just like an Italian’s home.

I had cacio e pepe, the classic Roman dish made with thick round pasta and seasoned with cheese and pepper. God, the difference between homemade pasta and the boxed stuff in the States is like the difference between a steak at Morton’s and one at IHOP. The noodles were soft and exploded with flavor. The cheese so fresh it melted in my mouth. With a half liter of house Montepulciano, I had a great local meal for only 14 euro ($19).

While I paid, I tried holding back tears.