In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.
And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.
On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.
The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.
On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.
The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.
The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.
I still wonder how they got that on film.