Rome: The Streets Where We Live

sin-tituloI was tickled to see that someone on Tripadvisor had described the restaurant immediately underneath our flat as being in an ‘absolutely insignificant quarter of the city’. The area may not have a name as such (we have to describe it using a series of awkward coordinates) or any singular identity but it is of significance to us for two reasons: one, there’s the fact that we live here, and two, that it embodies certain tendencies and pressures both global and local*.

Take, for instance, that restaurant. It’s become quite popular of late partly by virtue of its very good rating on Tripadvisor (and/or the other way round). It also attracts quite a few foreigners, a lot of whom may well be staying locally. There’s now something which calls itself a ‘guesthouse’ in our building, but no hotels nearby. I attribute the presence of those tourists to (and I presume the guesthouse is part of) Airbnb. Will Self once remarked that most inhabitants of London don’t actually live in London itself, but rather on the map of underground stations. In a similar way, nowadays most tourists visit a Google Maps version of a city: sleeping in Airbnb homestays, eating in Tripadvisor restaurants, getting driven round by Uber**. A recent report on the effects of Airbnb in Amsterdam mentioned established local businesses getting pushed out by new concerns catering to tourists such as bike rental shops, so it’s not by chance that one has just opened up right across the street from us. To be fair, those tourists do need some way of getting around, given that Uber barely exists in Italy and the public transport system appena funziona. Finding a normal taxi in Rome often feels like getting your hands on something to smoke in an unfamiliar city: you have to hang about in particular places and hope you get lucky, or try to get hold of the number of someone who might be able to supply you with one. At least our area is more or less within walking distance of Trastevere, a much more Woody Allen part of town altogether.

In terms of local changes, it’s noteworthy that the restaurant itself used to (until about two years ago) be a Jewish one. Although I don’t know its history, there’s certainly a community centred on our street, with two butchers and a bakery on the other side of the road. It reminds me of the few weeks in the summer that I spent staying near to the huge Orthodox Jewish colony of Stamford Hill. It struck me as curious that the Orthodox people and the other locals rarely acknowledged each other. Those few interactions I had – looking for directions, asking to get past people on the bus – felt kind of encouraging. Although rumours abound in London about what the Orthodox community gets up to behind closed doors, peaceful coexistence is based on letting other people get on with their lives rather than bashing down doors in case someone’s doing something you could enjoy getting annoyed about. Racism itself is becoming conditioned by the intrusive habits and prurient morés of online life. It seems so easy to resolve conflicts and differences on the internet: you just call people names and it instantly feels like the world’s a better place. In offline reality respectful distance is the basis of civilised accord.

It sometimes seems as if anti-semitism is bubbling away, just beneath the surface, everywhere you look. Just beneath our apartment is a shop run by a guy from Bangladesh. This also feels like home from home; I used to live in a bit of Bangladesh, in Whitechapel to be exact. However, while almost all Bangladeshis in East London come from a tiny part of the country called Sylhet, most here seem to be from Dhaka. The proprietor of the shop works extremely long hours, and is tired of it. He wants to go to London, and he wants to know if there is any way I can help him. He got 5.5 in IELTS ten years ago and he used to work as a pizzaiolo. It’s hard to see how he might get a visa. After ten years here he finds Italy ‘disgusting’. Why doesn’t he like the country any more? my wife asked him once. ‘Because there are too many Jews’, was his rather startling response. Not a great move. Now we choose to shop elsewhere.

Although they might not welcome his support, he may have something in common with the local fascists. A couple of years ago there was a sudden local spate of far-right graffiti and posters against ‘usury’. I recently came across some graffiti from the teenage fascist collective Casapound reading ‘respect the hero, not the refugee’. This seems to be something of a trope on the far-right. They worship violent sacrifice and martyrdom in much the same way as their jihadi counterparts in the Middle East. Both are puerile Valhalla-worshpping death cults. Last December, in one of my proudest moments, I tore down and disposed of a huge fascist poster stuck up next to our local bus stop spreading the standard lies about immigrants getting precedence over local people in housing and healthcare. Then we got on the bus and went to the Museum of Liberation, which focuses exclusively on the Nazi occupation of the city. In Italy there is a keen distinction made between nazis and fascists. In some circles calling oneself a fascist is almost respectable, or at least it doesn’t have the same stigma as nazifascista, which applies only to the German forces. I recently read a book by a prominent US historian of fascism who argued that the Italian version wasn’t nearly as bad and had more in common with Mao’s China than Hitler’s Germany. I find this dubious – such arguments are destined to give succour and credibility to the contemporary far-right.

‘Nationalism is an easy illusion’. That’s what’s written in huge letters on a nearby railway bridge, more or less where Garbatella begins. This area was built during Mussolini but it houses a radical tradition, with lots of squats putting on politically-inspired music events. Just to the south there is the vast district of EUR, also inaugurated by Mussolini as a showcase for fascist architecture; Bertolucci used it to very great effect in Il Conformista. It does have some remarkable and not at all unpleasant-to-look-at buildings, such as the Square Colosseum. Nevertheless, things seem to get poorer and grubbier as you follow the main arteries further south, and the new far-right is keen to take advantage of popular discontent. I recently saw a news report about a squatted social centre in EUR being turfed out by ‘local’ people repeating the usual lies about immigrants. Also beginning just around the corner from us is Via Magliana. This area of the city gave the city the Magliana gang, which appeared to be dormant until about two years ago when a huge scandal broke, centring on the figure of Massimo Carminati. He boasted that his mafia operation was making far more money from running refugee centres than it does from dealing drugs. The investigation revealed a level of murkiness in the distribution of public money that most hoped was a thing of the past. The whole affair reminds me, once again, of Mexico. The fact that the new Mayor, Virginia Raggi, seems to be feeling the unexpected strain of her job may be part of a deliberate design to teach her who really runs the city. Two months ago she lamented that Rome is ‘full’ and can take no more migrants, and then a week later made a laudable statement attacking a gang of racists in a deprived part of town for trying to exploit the housing crisis for their own ends. In the meantime, a series of transport strikes have combined with the ongoing garbage collection crisis to create a sense of impending municipal doom.

There is a vibrancy to this area which is partly attributable to the presence of immigrants. When I first visited in 2012 we popped into the haberdashers to get keys made and I found out that the guy I thought was Sicilian turned out to be from Egypt. I feel comfortable speaking Italian with other foreigners. The lingua franca is Imperfect Italian. There seems to be a sense of shared experience despite my evident privilege. One common sight on Italian streets is recent (and sometimes not so recent) immigrants selling books. There appears to be a whole publishing industry based on these street sales, and over the years the quality of the publications has improved considerably. They sell illustrated children’s stories (which will soon come in handy) along with recipe books and some excellent volumes of African poetry.

The Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous used our district as the setting for one of his novels. His books are always pleasurable and easy to read despite the abundance of new and old Italian slang. He presents a laudable defence of multiculturalism without flinching from the difficulties, with terrorism and the suspicion it generates an ever-present background. The world he describes is one I catch glimpses of, one of overcrowded apartments and constant anxiety about renewing one’s permesso di soggiorno (residence permit). One of the largest groups of recent immigrants is from Bangladesh, and they tend to be the ones you see in tourist places selling selfie sticks, luminous flying things and mobile accessories. Like the goods sold on the Metro in Mexico city it’s hard to find out how the goods are distributed. I asked my Bangladeshi hairdresser but he didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Visiting his shop is a cheap if not always cheerful experience. The first time I was there I had my hair cut by an Afghan who spoke no Italian, the second time it was the owner, who has been here for three years. I soon felt guilty about favourably comparing my Italian to his. His first year or two years in Italy were spent working in agriculture in Apuglia, which is apparently not exactly a bucolic idyll.  Before that he had been stuck for months in Libya, before managing to escape with hundreds of others on a boat designed for dozens. It’s tempting to call him one of the lucky ones but I wouldn’t swap my luck for his.

In addition to a local Chinese shop selling useful plastic tat, on the corner of the street there is a coffee bar run by cheerful second-generation Chinese people who seem to speak better roman dialect than the locals (after all, they are locals). It’s a very popular place to hangout, read the paper and argue and also doubles up as a gambling emporium. Although betting shops are becoming more prevalent in Italy, they are more subtly woven into the urban fabric than they are in the UK, and are easily confused for normal cafés. There may well be a link between their increasing number and the amount of people begging on Viale Marconi, outside the hundreds of shops selling expensive baby accessories and the dozens of french fries outlets that have sprung up in a sign that globalisation and austerity may be doing permanent damage to the Italian diet. There are also signs of gentrification, such as the brand new and very swish birreria just around the corner and the artisan beer shop on our street. Given that I am, in theory at least, its perfect customer and I’ve never been in there or seen anyone buying anything, I don’t know how it survives. However, Mexico taught me that just because somewhere doesn’t have any customers doesn’t mean it’s not…solvent. So chi lo sa.

Some tourists come to our area to go to Saint Paolo’s Basilica, in whose café I’m sitting as I write this. Since December 2015 it has been under very heavy guard, with armoured vehicles and fully-armed and camouflaged soldiers outside. The church is of huge historical and religious significance as it houses the remains of St Paul. You could fit several ordinary-sized cathedrals inside it and still have room for one or two smaller basilicas. I used to use it as a soulful shortcut to get to the metro station, but the experience of passing through a metal detector with a machine gun pointed at your feet is guaranteed to shush any spiritual siren calls that were beckoning you in.

To get to the Basilica and the Metro station you have to cross the river. At some not-quite-conscious level I’m always contemplating bridges and rivers and the relationship between the two. Along the Tiber you can walk all the way into the centre. On the other side of the river, towards the working class district of Testaccio, with its former gasworks and warehouse clubbing scene, you see signs of gypsy encampments amidst the overgrown foliage.

Like most areas of Rome our district has its share of dog shit**, graffiti, broken glass and smashed-up pavements. This is not a part of Rome that Penélope Cruz or Jesse Eisenberg will be spotted in any time soon. I haven’t written about many of the delightful things that this area and Rome in general have to offer, its restaurants and gelaterias and galleries and bookshops. I didn’t want to (and I probably wouldn’t know how to) write an Eat-Pray-Love-style elegy in which I boast of the tiny pleasures of sipping on a perfectly-formed cappuccino and nibbling at a melt-in-your-mouth cornetto in a picturesque Roman piazza while reading Dante in the original language. But there is much of significance on any street and I hope I’ve given something of a sense of what it’s like for this individual (me) to be living in this part of Rome at this particular moment in its immensely complex history and some suggestion of what it must be like for those less blessed with good fortune than myself.

 

* I’ve only been living here since September 2016 but me and my wife had already been visiting regularly since 2012.

** I’m aware of the irony of writing about this on the internet.

*** Mind you if you really want to see some dog shit the place to go is Via Vaiano near La Magliana. Mamma mia.

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