Home, sweet Rome

Times Staff Writer

Last fall, I asked myself where I really wanted to be.

I had just returned to L.A. after four months in China and, before that, three years in Paris. I was living temporarily in a furnished studio apartment near the beach in Santa Monica. Road-weary, feeling like flotsam, with most of my belongings scattered in storage units around the world, I was finally ready to settle down. I knew without deliberating where I should be.


So here I am in an apartment overlooking the Roman Forum, next to an early Christian-era church. I awake every morning to the sound of pigeons scratching against the skylight over my bed. I make espresso on the stove and try to concentrate on what needs to be done.

But I cannot go out to buy a newspaper without getting waylaid, and it’s worst on Sunday mornings, when the doors of every church in Rome stand open. On a recent Sunday on the way to the Santa Susanna lending library near the Piazza Repubblica, I peeked into elliptically shaped San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (affectionately known as San Carlino), a Baroque jewel more like a pincushion than a church. When I emerged, I heard bagpipers playing in the courtyard across the street at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Scotland.


I am overcome by the warmth of the Romans. It took me months to defrost the shopkeepers in the Paris neighborhood where I lived, but here, the wedding photographer who has a storefront office next to my front door accepted two suitcases delivered to me when I wasn’t home. Here, the owner of the hardware store down the block -- which has one of everything in a space the size of a bathroom -- embraces me when I pass by, and his breath doesn’t even smell of wine.

It would take volumes to say what I love about this city, beginning with the old-fashioned Nancy Drew keys to my apartment, the big windows in the living room overlooking my neighbor’s terrace and the clothesline on the roof where sheets dry in no time under the hot Roman sun.

I love the lost little Piazza Madonna dei Monti, where a recent weekend festival meant free red wine from jugs and cooked broad beans that people cracked open while sitting around the fountain, listening to a uniformed band play movie theme songs.

I love to drink cafe macchiato -- espresso with a touch of foamed milk -- at the Antico Caffe del Brasile on the Via dei Serpenti. I love the 117 mini-bus, which winds through the neighborhood between the Forum and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, crosses Via Nazionale, takes the tunnel under the Quirinale Hill and then arrives at the Spanish Steps, which was decked with purple azaleas this spring.

I love the slightly rancid taste of fresh pecorino cheese, the local bag lady with her hair in curlers, and, of course, I adore the Roman Forum just outside my door.

But I’m of two minds about the $16.50 admission fee instituted in March, which was intended to cut down on pick-pocketing and underwrite further excavation. With entrances now monitored, the erstwhile center of the Roman World is no longer like a public park. You can’t stop in to eat a panino or sit and think on a block of travertine.


One recent morning, I was the first person to enter the Forum from the Via dei Fori Imperiali and had the place to myself. The sun cast oblique shadows on old stone, red poppies preened among fallen Corinthian capitals and sea gulls wheeled. I walked up the Via Sacra, paused to inspect an inner bas relief on the Arch of Titus showing Roman soldiers pillaging Jerusalem around AD 80, then climbed the Palatine Hill.

My goal was the House of Augustus, a modest residence purchased by Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew Octavian, who ruled the empire as Augustus Caesar from 27 BC to AD 14. After years of restoration, four exquisitely frescoed rooms opened for viewing there this spring. Owing to the fragility of the wall paintings, just five people are allowed inside at a time, and Augustus’ second floor study can be viewed only through Plexiglas.

Its frescoes are the most complete, featuring bright vermilion decorative borders like a page from an ancient interior design catalog and shapes that coalesce into dim figures the longer you look at them.

Down at the Colosseum, costumed gladiators were getting off motor scooters for another day of posing for pictures with tourists. The lines were already long by 9 a.m. I went in with a tour led by a guide who claimed to have watched the movie “Gladiator” 19 times, but I peeled off from the group to check out Time Machine, a new way of touring the Colosseum. It uses hand-held video monitors that show digitalized images of what the place looked like when the Romans were watching those blood-filled games. I’ve found numerous changes since my last sightseeing trip to Rome some years ago. In any other city, new developments are welcomed. But people who care about history and art don’t want anything to change in Rome. Fortunately, some of the changes make it an even more crucial place to see.

Last year brought the opening of the Imperial Forums Museum, a stunning restoration of Trajan’s Markets just east of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. An electric tram now connects the historic center with the movie, restaurant and night-life hub of Trastevere across the Tiber River. And the divine little Basilica of Santa Pudenziana, with its apse mosaic dating from the 4th century, is now a thriving Catholic worship center for Rome’s Filipino community.

Museum exhibits this spring seem more compelling than ever. They include “The 19th Century: From Canova to the Fourth Estate” at the Scuderie del Quirinale and “Il 40 a Roma” at the Museo del Corso, on the life and arts of the city in the 15th century.

I’ve often wondered why travelers respond to certain places and not to others.

Rome has filled me with passion and joy from the outset, but Paris was a city I had to learn to love. Perhaps it’s a matter of psychology and genetics. I’m Italian American, after all. And maybe I will become disenchanted the longer I live in chaotic, illogical Italy, by all accounts, the most retrograde nation in Western Europe.

There are practical problems too. I am going broke living here, given the weakness of the dollar. Rome is a nesting ground for mosquitoes, and my windows lack screens. I’m still waiting, though two months have passed, for a high-speed Internet hookup and a telephone in my apartment, though my cellphone works if I stand on the tiny piazza outside my front door.

Anyway, it’s nice out there. I can see the ruins of Augustus Caesar’s Forum while I try to make calls.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to know Rome. Probably not, because every time an archaeologist digs a hole in the Forum, something new is unearthed. That’s the kind of development I like.

I’m glad I lived in Paris and will always have it. But I’m happier in sun-struck Rome. It’s all right with me if I never get to the bottom of it. For now, at long last, it feels like home.