A letter from Rome
The Statesman (Kolkata) 28 June 2011 (Perspective)
India with her abundance of sunshine obviously does not appreciate this European yearning for open space. To us in India, a good life means to be closeted inside air-conditioned coolness, writes martin kämpchen
This has been my third visit to Rome, the “Eternal City”, in as many years. Where does the fascination of this city come from? Is it its antiquity going back several thousand years? Or its imperial, often cruel, often superbly creative, past? Its imperious statesmen, its remnants of the Renaissance period with its visions of universality and genius? Is it the attraction of a modern city, one of Europe’s commercial nerve-centres, a fashion hub, is it its famously good food and ice-cream? My reply is a helpless: Well, it is all of these! It is the comfortable blending of antiquity and modernity, of ancient pride with rustic, joyous simplicity, of the bonhomie generated by elegant living with the poverty of the immigrant population. But foremost is this astounding cooperation between the monuments of the past and busy, irreverent modern life!
I stayed in the via del Corso, one of the large thoroughfares, cutting through the old city centre from north to south. Close to the Plaza del Popolo, squeezed between the avenue’s eastern row of houses, is the Casa di Goethe, the Goethe House. This is where Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Germany’s foremost classical writer lived, escaping from the severity of his duties at the Weimar court and from the foggy climate of the north. The German government acquired the flat and turned it into a cultural centre where exhibitions, lectures and discussions are being organised in Italian or German. Last year, I gave a lecture on “Goethe and Tagore”, this year I read from my recently published German translations of Rabindranath’s poetry.
The via del Corso is thronged by tourists during most of the day as it leads to several tourist sites. I try to avoid places which tourists frequent. For how can we imbibe the spirit of any ancient location when we have several hundred competitors? It is as absurd as watching the sunrise on Darjeeling’s Tiger Hill among a throng of one thousand people eagerly oh-ing and ah-ing at the first glimmer of light. Any historical site emanates its particular atmosphere, or aura. We need a contemplative attitude and a certain solitude and isolation to absorb and to profit from it.
However, I discovered a way out. That was to cruise Rome’s popular avenues early morning, at 6 or 7, when tourists are still asleep. Like in India, dawn and dusk are auspicious times. In India, sandhya is the time when we are meant to pray, meditate, visit the temple, read and study. Similarly, in Rome the early mornings are a time when the city belongs to the native people occupied with their routine jobs, like walking their dog, going on their round of jogging, buying a daily newspaper, attending early mass in one of the numerous churches, and sipping their first coffee to become fully awake.
Between the via del Corso and the spacious hilly park area surrounding the Villa Borghese I discovered a criss-cross of narrow lanes which are frequented by few outsiders throughout the day. Here, it seemed, the arty, bohemian population had settled in. Studios, galleries, art shops dotted the roadside. On the via Belsiana, I discovered a coffee-shop which opens early and caters to workmen. A few tiny tables covered by bright-red, soiled cloths had been placed on the road. I sat down and ordered a cappuccino with a croissant and a toasted cheese sandwich for breakfast. Leisurely, I watched life pass by. The young men with their lively faces and expressive gestures sauntered in to gulp a quick espresso, they greeted their chums and ran off to their places of work. Outside vehicles brought new supplies for shops, and the sweepers were busy clearing the garbage and wash the cobble-stoned road.
It was the same routine every morning. On the second day a sweeper, recognising me, nodded into my direction, and on my forth and last day, he saluted me with a raised hand. Equally, on the third morning the elderly, grumpy owner of the coffee-shop no longer asked what I wanted, he just took it to me outside. This is what I love ~ bonding with the population in tiny but, to me, significant ways, establishing a belonging of sorts. This is how the pulse of a city can be felt ~ not by goggling at a few more monuments every day, but by watching the same scene at the same place day after day. These street cafés tucked away in some secret lane are truly an idyll. I sit there and become part of life, and yet I watch life in its everyday-ness pass by. I observe the hectic or joyous or greedy pace around me, and yet I do not get sucked in.
My coffee-shop was cheap, too. I paid just 6 euro for my breakfast. Contrast this to the restaurants on the Plaza del Popolo, for instance, where one cup of cappuccino costs you 5.50 euro. Calculate my loss yourself: 1 euro is plus-minus Rs 60.
Sitting outside to eat and drink is an established mediterranean habit. People in Italy and Greece yearn to live outside as much as possible. As soon as winter has departed, tables are placed outside for meals and coffee. The sun, the unclouded blue sky are so precious and deeply anticipated in Europe. This southern habit has travelled northward in the past several decades. As a boy I never sat outside restaurants or cafés to eat or have coffee and cake. Nowadays, a café without a garden to sit in or an enclosed patch along the street is doomed to do unsatisfactory business.
India with her abundance of sunshine obviously does not appreciate this European yearning. To us in India, a good life means to be closeted inside air-conditioned coolness. Mosquitoes, the dust of the road, the crowds passing by, and concern for ritual purity rather discourage city people from open-air eating and living. By contrast, in Rome restaurant tables a squeezed precariously in between house walls and people flooding by, in between cars, honking motor-bikes spewing toxic fumes and people standing around, noisily chattering and gesticulating. But nobody seems to mind.
In the evenings, Rome explodes with the grateful bustle of a day’s work completed. Then, visitors and inhabitants do mix with ease. The Romans offer and sell, or relax and squabble, enjoy a meal, and play with their children, supremely undisturbed by camera-wielding tourists.
Never visit a city where you have no friends! I have followed this motto throughout my decades of travelling. In India, it is not only a privilege but a necessity to have contacts in a new city. No Indian family would normally venture out to a place totally devoid of a welcome. At the airport of Rome, Alice met me. The young Italian anthropologist had spent several months at our Santal village, Ghosaldanga, near Santiniketan working on her dissertation. Her eyes still become moist when she enquires about the children, her far-away friends. She and her partner Daniele took me one evening to the outskirts of Rome to have a rustic meal among the locals. The menu card was printed only in Italian ~ no English for the tourists!
On Sunday, I went to the Abbey of San Anselmo perched serenely on top of one of the seven hills of Rome. The Latin mass was recited by the Benedictine monks who hailed from different continents. The Gregorian chant, simple, almost monotonous, but so exhilaratingly beautiful in its unhurried flow and sweep, filled the church like angles’ voices. Abbot Notker Wolf met me after mass. He is a leading spiritual writer and the head of some 20,000 monks and nuns in the whole world. Yet, his demeanour was simple and jovial, devoid of suggestions of pride and prestige. What a joy to know simple people who have the courage to be just themselves. Thinking of the workmen in the coffee-shop and its owner, of Alice and Daniele, and Notker filled me with gratitude when I returned to Germany.
The author is based at Santiniketan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .