I first came to Rome for Easter 1978. I travelled down from Turin with my boss, Sue, and my best friend, Charlie, in Sue’s Volkswagen Beetle. I sat in the back with Lucifero, Sue’s boxer, constantly scooping the drool from his jowls before he could shake his head. Italy was in a state of alert because the Christian Democrat leader, Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped, but what we didn’t know was that a bunch of foreigners from Turin was believed to be involved. We couldn’t understand why, at every road block, we were stopped by armed police. Each time, we were ordered out of the car and told to stand against it, hands on the roof, legs spread; each time, Lucifero would leap from seat to seat in a frenzy, sliming the windows and seats with mucus, while Sue explained once again that her personal and car documents were in her other handbag, the one she’d left on the kitchen table in Turin; each time, her charm and hilariously bad Italian saved us, just, from arrest.
When we finally reached the ring road surrounding Rome, Sue decided we should find a hotel outside the centre, where Lucifero would be welcome. We drove to Ostia, the setting for scenes from some of Pasolini’s grittily realistic films and, the year before our visit, his grittily realistic death. The only hotel with vacancies was a stuccoed beige block with a chilly veranda-cum-dining room attached to the front. The rooms were bare, uninviting, damp. This looks fine, said Sue, who’d promised to pay. After we’d heaved her enormous suitcase onto her bed, Charlie and I mooned along the beach, taking photographs of chipped blue-painted changing cubicles and boarded-up bars while Sue unpacked, Lucifero barking frantically at the cold grey sea.
We were stopped three more times by police on the drive from Ostia to Rome. The third time, we leapt from the car and adopted the position without being told, arousing further suspicion. It took us almost an hour to convince them we were genuine tourists. Later, driving beneath the flickering arch of maritime pines along the Via del Mare, Sue’s patience snapped. She had to get her hair done, she said. The plan was to go to the Vatican, we reminded her. ‘I think I’ve already been,’ she said. She double-parked outside a parrucchiera that also offered manicures. ‘I’ll meet you here in three hours,’ she told us, then glanced down at the chipped red varnish on her toes. ‘Make that four.’
We ate that evening in a restaurant on the road to Ostia, two hundred yards from the catacombs and the Appian Way. The outer walls were encrusted with shards of pottery and scraps of Roman statuary. Inside, the place was empty. We stood by the door, Lucifero skulking at Sue’s heel. After a moment, muttering from behind a screen painted in Pompeii red was followed by what sounded like a thump. A waiter appeared in the breastplate and pleated miniskirt of a gladiator. When Sue began to giggle, the waiter froze, then turned to hiss at whoever was standing behind him. Eventually we were served. The food was dreadful, though we didn’t realise how dreadful at the time. We barely noticed what we ate as the restaurant filled with coach-loads of hungry pilgrims and what looked like the cast of Ben Hur passed by bearing plates of lukewarm pasta alla carbonara.
Five years later, I moved to Rome, to live and work at the university as a language teacher. Aldo Moro was dead by then, his putative assassins – neither foreigners nor from Turin – in jail. Charlie had found a flat on the outskirts of Paris. The last I heard of Sue she’d been involved in a horse-racing scam with her funeral director boyfriend and had moved on from Turin, but that may not have been true. Lucifero may have been dead. When summer arrived I began to go to the free beaches south of Ostia, taking the tube and then the bus, walking the last half-mile until I’d reached the strip known as the Buco, after the hole in the fence through which the first intrepid naturists had crawled before stripping off. The dunes were scattered with men, naked apart from the occasional floppy hat or knotted handkerchief, rising and falling on their heels like meerkats.
My first three months in Rome were spent in a cheap hotel near Termini station, in one of the hundreds of blocks designed to house the fledgling bourgeoisie of the newly united Italy. They still look grand enough from the first floor up, apart from the dusty neon signs for the kind of hotel I was staying in, but the ground floors have been taken over by shops selling Chinese-made cheap leather goods, jeans, local varieties of fast food; the odour of spit roast chicken and reheated pizza hangs grease-heavy in the air. My room was on the third floor, with off-white plaster moulding round three sides of the ceiling and half the central rose still intact, ornate and dusty, against the fourth; the single room neighbouring mine must have been its mirror image. I wasn’t allowed to eat there, and in any case didn’t want to; the mood was depressing enough without crumbs in the bed and leftover packets of salami squirrelled away in suitcases in case the cleaner found them.
I passed my days waiting for the phonogram from the Ministry of Education that would confirm my contract, wandering around the station and the surrounding area, then down Via Nazionale to the rest of the city. I spoke to almost no one other than waiters in restaurants and the harassed English professor responsible for my contract. Friends who knew Rome had recommended restaurants that were good or cheap, but never both. It didn’t take long to move from the first group to the second. Mario’s (aka the Poisoner) in Trastevere – where you could eat a plate of pasta with oil, garlic and chilli pepper for less than 40p – was a favourite. Just round the corner, in Piazza de’ Renzi, was da Augusto, a trattoria with paper tablecloths and Castelli Romani wine on tap, run by a grumpy old man – presumably Augusto – with a speech defect and an upwardly mobile son. The fourth time I went there, I’d spoken to no one for almost three days. When Grumpy flung the menu onto the table and snapped at me that the lamb was off, I burst into unexpected tears. He hugged me, once, and brought me wine and bread. I’ve never been more grateful to anyone in my life, though his tone didn’t change and I was never hugged again. At a party years later I bumped into his son, accompanied by a glamorous American model, and told him what his father had done. ‘È sempre stato uno stronzo per bene,’ his son said cheerfully. He’s always been a decent sort of shit.
By day, though, it was churches and ruins. Obsessed by the Pantheon, my favourite building, I passed hours beneath its perfect dome, hoping for rain so that I could watch it enter through the central hole and sparkle white-gold as it fell. One May, a year or two later, I happened to be there for Pentecost, when firemen empty sacks of rose petals through the hole in the dome, a practice that began when Rome was home of emperors, until the interior is rippled by red-reflected light, the ancient floor a scented carpet lifted by breeze. I stared at the Byzantine mosaics in Santa Prassede for hours. I did the Borromini trail, from Sant’Agnese to Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, learning about Baroque by stroking its warm curves with my hands.
But all roads led back to Termini. Most evenings I’d eat a slice of pizza and hang around the station, drinking amaro Averna while conscripted soldiers barely out of high school drifted from bar to bar until they were picked up, or called it a night. Piazza Repubblica used to have two porn cinemas, the Moderno and the Modernetto, their raison d’être to provide a roof for the oldest profession in the world. Military service was abandoned some years ago, the conscripts replaced by rent boys from Eastern Europe, the cinemas converted into a luxury hotel. The underworld of the station has been spruced up into the retail experience all major cities offer, with rail travel an optional extra. Even the hotels around the station look smarter than they did, although the front they present can be fragile. In January this year, two Romanian girls, working as prostitutes, were found with their throats cut in a hotel fifty yards from the one I stayed in over twenty years ago.
My first real Roman home was in Testaccio: home in the sense that I didn’t pay by the day. I’d started work at the university and one of the professors said that her daughter had a room I could use if I didn’t mind roughing it. I went round that afternoon. The flat was on the second floor of a 19th century block, with a trattoria opposite that sold Marino wine by the litre. The Protestant cemetery was down the road and Monte Testaccio, the heap of ancient rubble that gave the district its name, a few minutes’ walk away. Miranda showed me the room and I understood what her mother had meant. There was a metal-framed bed in one corner and a trestle table in another, a single straight-backed chair. I didn’t care; I had a wall against which to stack my books and a floor to dump my suitcase on. Best of all, I could use the kitchen.
I soon settled into a routine. Cappuccino and cornetto for breakfast, a rosetta – the ubiquitous breast-shaped roll, complete with nipple – stuffed with ham for lunch. In the evening, I made myself pasta and tomato sauce and drank a litre of rough red wine from the trattoria, then went to my room in a drunken haze to work on a jigsaw I’d found in the flat. I ate with the professor’s daughter once or twice but she led what struck me as a curious half-life in her room, decorated with artwork by the man who designed the monster in Alien, and didn’t seem to want to be friends; didn’t seem to want me there at all.
One day, she introduced me to someone she must have thought I’d like, a gay teenager from one of the working-class areas in the city’s outskirts who dressed in a sissified punkish way. He was flirtatious and dismissive in more or less equal measure; I took an instant dislike to him. The next time I heard his voice, I closed myself in my room. I’d bought the poster of Salò, Pasolini’s last film, to hang on my otherwise bare wall. I curled beneath my only other significant purchase, a second-hand German army duvet, fully dressed, to read his Roman novels in Italian. I spent more of my first few months in the Rome of Pasolini than in the one outside my door. At weekends, friends came down from the north to visit and I’d become a tourist again, crossing the river to Trastevere, exploring the Porta Portese Sunday flea market, forgetting that I lived there and would be alone again on Monday.
I moved back to Testaccio four years later, with my partner, to a three-roomed flat overlooking the more elegant of its two squares: Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, the one with the local church and the working theatre, rather than the smaller one round the corner where the food market was, although it’s since been moved. We had a flat on the top floor, our windows more or less level with the tops of the maritime pines rising from the gardens below. Our building was next to the one in which Gabriella Ferri, the Roman folk singer, had been born; there was great excitement when RAI television came to film her in the entrance, not long before she killed herself. A friend of mine bumped into her once in the Alibi, the gay club carved into the side of Monte Testaccio. She asked him if he had a joint, then drifted off, majestic and blonde and lost, before he had a chance to answer. More recently, Nicole Kidman pretended to be a Roman housewife on its roof terrace, pinning out her washing for an advertisement.
Testaccio’s proud of its reputation as the working class heart of Rome, though there’s increasingly little evidence of this apart from an atavistic attachment to Roma football club. The area’s part of the grown-ups’ playground of eating and drinking places that has taken over much of the centre since retail licensing was deregulated in Italy, not, surprisingly, by one of Berlusconi’s governments but by a centre-left administration. The change in the law went almost unnoticed but it’s as done as much as anything to destroy the sense Rome once gave of being a city of semi-autonomous quarters, each with its network of local shops . You could live in Piazza Navona thirty years ago and find practically everything you needed – from olive oil to knitting needles – without leaving the square. Now all you can do is eat, expensively, and drink coffee, and be a tourist.
4. CENTRO STORICO
I finally made it to the historic centre in my fourth year in Rome, moving into a shabbily splendid flat in Piazza Santa Caterina della Rota, the martyred virgin and founder, albeit unwillingly, of the Catherine wheel, just round the corner from Piazza Farnese, opposite the English College. I shared four hundred square metres – the entire second floor, the one above the piano nobile traditionally reserved for the building’s owners – with an English colleague and an American woman. The British Embassy had rented the place for its lowlier diplomatic staff, but it had fallen into my colleague’s hands and we lived there with remnants of its past, two broken-down but comfortable sofas, a dining table that would happily seat twenty, Murano chandeliers dangling imposingly from most of the ceilings, a kitchen only servants could be expected to work in, two poky bathrooms fitted in anyhow, as an afterthought or concession to mere bodily needs. The doors and ceilings were decorated with painted curls and floral business, lovelier for being faded. It was all I could do to sleep, my bed beneath a meringue of glass and pastel wreaths. Beneath my bedroom window was one of the few remaining petrol pumps in the city centre, and a bicycle shop. Their metal shutters, pushed noisily home, woke me each weekday morning at eight o’clock. With my windows thrown open, I could hear the seminarians in the street below as they bitched about one another or the older priests in their shrill camp voices, imagining themselves unheard. In the echoing high-ceilinged rooms, the three of us lived our separate lives as though we’d been billeted there in wartime and the owners had carried off what they could before the barbarians arrived.
5. SAN LORENZO
I first lived in San Lorenzo when we moved back to Rome in 1991 after a failed attempt to relocate in London, but the district had always been on my personal map of the city since I was first taken to da Franco, a fish restaurant in Via dei Falisci, famous for being cheap, generous with its portions and not a risk to health. Residential San Lorenzo is wedged into a sort of quadrilateral, with Termini and the city’s historic cemetery, Verano, roughly to its west and east, while to the south lies Scalo di San Lorenzo, a square kilometre or so of railway lines representing the main transport hub of the capital and the reason the district was bombed more heavily than any other during World War Two; the scars can still be seen. Like Testaccio, it was predominantly working class; unlike Testaccio, it still is, although the proximity of Rome’s main university, La Sapienza, to the north of the area, has led to an influx of students, sharing rooms in hastily converted, over-priced apartments and enlivening the early hours in a variety of bars and pizzerias, much to the chagrin of those historic residents who haven’t let their homes and loved somewhere quieter.
Eleven years after that first plate of spaghetti alle vongole I found myself living three streets away and then, a few months later, almost directly opposite da Franco. The flat was tiny, but we were grateful to be back in Rome and to have what passed for a terrace, overlooked on all sides by taller buildings with external balconies and occasionally used as a bin for cigarette ends, scraps of paper, sweet wrappers and used condoms, which we would sweep up every few days. We stayed there for a few years, making friends with our neighbours in the other three flats in the building and becoming regulars at Bar Marani, a bar whose clientele covered the entire demographic of the quarter, from creative types, impecunious and otherwise, to signore of a certain age with jet-black hair and shopping lodged safely between their feet. Good times, but the flat became too small and we moved on, eventually leaving Rome. We had no idea that twenty-two years later we would be back in San Lorenzo, on a temporary basis that turned out be less temporary than we’d imagined. We spent the first lockdown there, and watched the students leave and the seagulls take over Piazza dell’Immacolata and the bars put up their shutters.
The title of this piece is a play on words. Five quarters of the city, using the word quarter in its Italian or French sense is the primary meaning. But to a Roman the term ‘quinto quarto’ or ‘fifth quarter’ refers to offal, to what’s left when the animal has been butchered and divided into four to be sold. The fifth quarter is the part of the animal reserved for those who would otherwise have nothing, and has provided Roman cooking with some of its most delicious, and typical, dishes. Coda, coratella, pajata. Rome is a city that makes do with what it has, that complains about everything and then finds a way to make what’s wrong work in its favour—si arrangia, as the Italian has it. It isn’t an easy city, but then, life isn’t. Like Augusto’s, its heart is often concealed. Maybe Augusto’s son had the words for it.
Uno stronzo per bene.