ROMA: Stale Spaghetti Sticks
They should have made fresh pasta. But they couldn't make a sauce. The pork mince was a day old, and they didn’t notice until it was opened. It would be impossible to cook with. Unwise today at least. The pungent stench of dead meat spun out like raw fish and ripe fruit. Overripe. Joel perched himself up on the kitchen counter where there was a small patch of ungreased wood, which seemed safe to sit on. The rest of the counter had sprawled radish heads, soft spoiled spring onions and the greens of carrots that were put aside for potential bitterness to a pesto idea. He saw them do it in a YouTube clip. The kettle was boiling for the big metal pot, and the espresso machine blinked green through its buttons after being woken, and the chopping board had specks of salt and splashes of juice from courgette and cucumber. Diced. It also had green patches from chopped parsley and basil. The soft sizzle and pop of sauté pans – around four sitting on the stove – interrupted the steadying loudness of boiling water. One pan held oil for frying eggplant in perfect little cubes of yellow and dark purple, the other for Offal that was minced with chopped celery and Szechuan, the celery draining in water as it evaporated from the pan. There was a bottle of wine next to the sauté. There always was. It was always hard to tell whether more went into cooking (which was why it was bought) or into the mouth (which was why it was bought). The offal sizzled away, probably burning. It was too far to reach the handle from the bench where he sat. Instead, he chose to claw his feet over the perpendicular bench to fit his toes between the P-printed nub of the pepper grinder. His quick snapping legs swung down at the knees and the pepper was back in his hands. Ready to twist. He swivelled the pepper over the offal as his shoulders wrung perpendicularly to his hips, cracking his back as he rotated to face the stove. The gaps in the greased spotted windows helped with the sauna of the hardly ventilated kitchen. Kim went inside to help, perhaps to help set up the table or cut up radishes or garlic. Kim couldn’t be trusted with the radishes, that was for sure; radishes needed to be sliced the perfect way to ensure they all had the same thickness, and this was harder to do when the knives weren’t sharp or many.
The job was easy. Help with a barbecue since the night before...
...Joel could not remember.
Not typical, just...
Before his first time, he asked just that. One word. One question. One city, one city which has had opinions pulled from it like protuberances from a lean body. One city which, upon asking his friends, family, and even strangers, he received as much of a straight answer as one could hope for when directing a question based on arguably, the most famous city in Europe. The city itself makes about as much sense as the previous two sentences. Such an immense reputation has existed for so long over so many immense changes to the cultural, physical and social landscape that has spread across the vibrating yellow buildings, dusty orange streets, and the wobbled cobblestones that have been stepped on for centuries now. The city that smells a bit like shit when the wind blows unfavourably. The city is densely populated by not only tourists but garbage bags that line the tight cornered streets and pile up as a meringue of sorts next to closed doors. Not only do the locals throw their trash out directly onto the road – with the garbage collectors dealing with the rest of the work – but everyone else has adopted a relaxed attitude towards rubbish which sees the streets sprinkled with cigarette butts, old masks and floating tissues which roll across roads as they weigh themselves down with whatever human flagellum has been blown in them. Rome is where tourists find a way to turn culture into ketchup as they splurge the crap all over the town as if it were chips in a paper box. The odd streets where tourists get lost allow for a brief moment of silence or an equally relieving sound of Romans actually living in Rome; usually, that sound is characterised by people working rather than waving their cameras with their straps around their necks as they bounce from Birkenstock to Birkenstock.
There are too many Americans there.
It was intriguing to note the vast differences the locals hold to the swarming flies and their sneakers and high socks. Aside from the language barrier, the tourists ran rampant like damp ants on tiled floors, squinting and wincing at the glaring sun through the laneways. It was always easier to walk with purpose and pace through the weeping muddled buildings; strolls attract attention and raise the brows of thieves. Romantics love to stroll with their hands in their pockets. Locals? There will never be a full hand in the pocket. Ever. The cuffed jeans and tight jorts repel pockets from being filled any more than with a key and a card. Decks of cigarettes are held in dark, dry palms with Camel Blue’s viced onto outstretched fingers as they lever up and down from chest to chin. The Roman men had neither time nor care for you and your immutable movements around the walls of history and the ruins of old. Their busy lives were nowhere close to the leaning-on-a-moped-living men that existed elsewhere. The click clock of high heels following red dresses and lanyard phones could be heard from streets away.
Like horses and their hooves, as they hammered over cold cobbles, the city and its workers kept to themselves and let the Americans and the rest of the world cluck away to their overpriced pasta and hardly-fresh burrata. The river cruising through the city centre and the Vatican played past your mind like doll houses with no back walls. It could be seen and followed from point to point without discovering any more than what could be seen in Paris or Florence. All were dirty and used for faecal flowings of muddy water. The river ran slowly but stunk a stench as green as the swamping mangroves in Punjab. The mix of pizza dough and cheap coffee ran out of the bridge side cafes onto worn promenades and paths that would crowd intolerably except in dawn hours. Paper cups and dark bottles wrapped around the shoulders of abiding girlfriends as they strutted to steal a spot by the side of the canal.
Kim had escaped the touristic populations and laid low behind Vatican walls. Outside of them still. The walls sprung up in a rocky sandstone blizzard, slanted and tall like a desert fortress surrounded by abbeys, not soldiers. Lines of fathers with varying fits of black robe waited patiently every morning in dazed excitement and dozy conversation. Rows upon rows of sandals and black sports shoes could be seen just under their cloaks and backpacks. The fleet of little penguin feet walked their way to the heart of their world, pilgrims and praisers entering daily. Kim’s apartment could only see the walls of the city from his balcony, the structure decidedly higher than all other buildings in the vicinity – for protection and humility, perhaps. Its movements involved only a solitary helicopter which chugged low over the city, into and out of the complex daily.
‘That’s the Pope’, he told Joel.
You could probably see from a balcony the sheer quantity of priests lining up to enter. They flooded the city's gates like any one of the floods mentioned in the bible (just think of one and go with it). The complex's streets were filled with tourists and, surprisingly, church shops. It is difficult to summarise what these stores were in only a few words, so perhaps more description is required.
Joel struggled to grasp the historical immensity of church shops and their meanings. ‘Was there even a way to think of it other than how it lays as it is?’, he thought, opening his backpack to take a shot of the ‘Sale’ signs posted outside the doors.
They were stores selling...well, churchy things like crosses, bibles, rosary beads, postcards, magnets, cups, mugs, plates and everything that could fit a little lacquered label of something biblical on it. They sold cassocks, Chasubles, and multicoloured garments from emerald Stoles to violent violet vestments and sepulchral white albs. It was the religious equivalent of Toys R’ Us. A Gospel GAP, if you will. The main thoroughfare roads into the Vatican were filled to the brim of the stoup. A Christian cesspool of money and passion and adoration and black robes in dry powder heat. The beggars were the most uncomfortable part.
One tends to expect the homeless to be, if not partially, usually undereducated and, in most cases, helpless. In most cases, the helplessness aspect is accurate. However, as the crowds of tourists breezed through Rome to take photos of the opening doors to the city, the homeless got the intelligent idea of begging outside of it. For an organisation – sorry, religion – built on charity, it was quite an ingenious idea to begin amassing a movement towards where one would hope help would be given in some means or another. It turns out that begging is no longer a requisite for support anymore. The Mecca of the Christian world is as close as the Italian culture by which it is surrounded. Sure, Islam had the same thing to say regarding the notion of begging and it is ‘frowned upon’ and realistically forbidden. However, the Qur’an at least promotes charity in giving for the sake of others, even if it is seen as an embarrassment to receive. For the women weeping next to the white walls with worn sheets wrapped around crippling bodies? Embarrassment means not a pinch of dust compared to what it means to most others.
In the early morning hours, when the thin night thickens to its fullest, the streets and promenades are dead. Not even the partygoers want to walk through the cavernous roads leading into the Vatican. It is as silent as an old ruin or grave. Walking through and around its barricades is a struggle in itself, not by the arch which redirects course, but with the rows of staring statues standing above around St. Peter’s Square. One hundred and forty statues poking out of the night atop the colonnades, Saints and Martyrs surrounding the entrance to the Basilica with unwavering, white stone eyes. The city may be pimpled with graffiti and ugly new buildings, and a tedium of rubbish collection. But here, the aortic valve of Christianity keeps pumping.
Whether in resigned pain or dignified in eloquence and religious rhetoric, the city and nation will forever be different to the Rome that surrounds it.
The sun sprung onto the rough cobbled streets and whipped yellow onto the brilliant apricot low-lying walls. The tempest-tossed night turned away to rest, the quiet of morning bringing out the tangled, rusting rattles of coffee machines and fiats. The town begins to start work like all others. Only the workers and the odd walking couple awake early in the morning. The rest of the tourists probably stayed up to catch the Trevi Fountain or a late-night show. Everyone dreams of seeing Rome at night. It can be as romantic as Paris at night. Or any other city if you shake your eyes into the mindset. The nasal ebb and flow from the river splodge are easily ignored. Simply cross the bridge, and no notice is taken. Life outside of tourist presence hums and continues like petrol from car engines dispersed into the air. The little birds sing just as they would in the countryside. One could even expect small strings of smoke rising from old red tiled roofs. The brisk air and pale grey sky give the illusion of just another small town, an illusion that there is no angry filth set about coarsely over the street. The illusion of thin slates of dew forming over windshields and panes. The buildings all still hide just below the Basilica’s teet. The gold-cross nipple still pops up above the surrounding buildings. The little teeth of buildings spring from the receding gums of the street. The molars slowly age while the incisors are replaced by shiny organic coffee shops and natural wine bars—more shiny fillings. The whole town waits for the full sun to put on its mask and boost its industry. The entire town wears its facade with dread and desire, a desire to keep living here and hold onto their natural teeth, a desire to keep some history alive. In any way, they can.
Dread. They dread the inability to hold onto the white fading to yellow. It seems to rot too quickly now. Reality can do that sometimes, but that’s not always a bad thing. The actual city still exists. The real city is alive in the early hours of day. It still breathes, just only at certain times. But it still breathes – Before it hosts the world.
The reverie of the famous city sleeps in.
Until you head out onto the street.
Afterthought: describing Rome in a non ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ cheesy-corny-slimy way is quite tricky. It took months upon months, and countries boundless and bold. Finally, it was possible. Romans, and Italians alike, are well fed on carbs and will continue to be well fed on carbs as a belly body is a healthy body. It took Joel four months and a trip to Ibiza with his dad, who apparently got wasted there, to describe it. To take notice. To see what was most memorable. The sights that are stagnant are lost in the stone and screen. The experiences are hidden by distracted eyes that prioritise. He did not even remember much of the experience.
A blur. Aside from the fact that Joel had stupidly decided to get as blind as a star-nosed mole on most nights, he enjoyed himself. The cooking was the best part. And the people. The searing hot barbecue spat popping oil from cooking eggplant while Frederico swiped and flipped steaks like light, fluffy pancakes. The hot coffee-filled kitchen where espressos were being made turned out faster than Joel could pour olive oil over salads. The Rome warmed up just enough to have a candlelit dinner facing the Vatican on a rooftop patio that still had glimpses of the sun. The Rome that facilitated. Promoted. The Rome, where the number of dishes amounted to ten, for the party of eight. Finish your plate. Don’t be rude. Joel broke into a sweat either because of the coffee or the haptic hot cooking he performed to balance the steaks as they seared and the anchovies as they slowly got swiped up.
The Rome that creates family, all with a helping hand at dinner.
That creates family when they all sit down.
A group of four girls sat down at a restaurant.
8:00 pm. They ate spaghetti. A bowl each.
Before they sat, two unbuttoned their jeans.
One unclipped her waist-high skirt. One loosened her waistband-bound pants.
Before they sat,
they knew they would bloat.
Well, they left after mopping up the sauce with their bread.
Content. They knew what they were getting into.
By the looks of it.