The Pulse: Rome
The Outskirts of Rome
Campo de' Fiori
Sitting under a heat lamp at a cafe on Campo de' Fiori, Sandra noticed that the first latte came in a short glass with an octagonal base. The second came in a tall skinny glass with a round base. Five years ago, this would've bugged her. She then believed that all the odd little coffee shops in the world would turn into Starbucks.
The roads around Campo de' Fiori were the most uneven she'd ever seen, and there were wide, deep gaps between the four-inch stones. Not at all like the stonework in the old town in Geneva. Two women walked by in high heels, holding each other tightly, either for warmth or in case a stiletto got caught in one of the harrowing gaps.
A gypsy woman walked over to her table. It was the same woman she had talked to in Piazza del Popolo that afternoon. It was windy in the open square, and her long skirt, which had a slit in it, kept dancing up her legs. She didn't ask for money; she just wanted to talk.
The woman was wearing a very low-cut blouse, more or less covered with a scarf that had a dozen shades of blue. Back in Geneva, Sandra's friend Julie would have asked, Why doesn't she just button up? Julie was very practical, and liked people to look Swiss, at least if they were in Switzerland. Or France. In any case, she didn't like minarets. She would have said that the woman looked too much like a gypsy. And that she didn't understand how buttons worked. And that the colours of her scarf shifted from mid-morning azure to late-evening cobalt, as if she had no idea what time of day it was. There wasn't an horlogerie in sight.
Zigana was beautiful all right, Sandra had to give her that. Her Romani nose was almost Roman. Large, straight, strong. She looked like the rock star Nina Zilli, except that her skin was just south of olive.
Zigana's face wasn't as dark as that of the older, leather-faced gypsies on the steps of the cathedrals. It had lost much of its colour along the way, somewhere in Turkmenistan or Hungary. She could almost blend in, almost be Italian.
Zigana's flowing scarf covered and uncovered the great gulf of her missing buttons, making Sandra wonder if she was going to fall for that kind of beauty too.
Sandra was an exchange student from Canada — from one of those cities with malls and mini-malls. She'd almost finished two years at the University of Geneva, and came to Italy to clear her head. She'd been having boy-girl troubles, and was hoping that a new country would help her see it all in perspective before going back home. Especially to her parents, who didn't see the need for two points of view when one point of view had kept them together for 33 years.
She hoped that Italy would be different from Geneva, where the conformity was starting to make her feel that in some ways she was already home. She wanted a third perspective, to set against the two she'd been bouncing between for the last 20 months.
Yet she wanted to explore one more perspective — not two, and then three, and then a dozen! In Italy one difference seemed to spark another, which then ignited a general conflagration. It was like the Italian parliament, where political parties were forever fragmenting and coalescing, as if they were multiple subsets of some imaginary whole.
She was formulating a theory that for Italians it was differences — le differenze — that mattered. In this sense, she speculated, the Italians differed from the French, for whom difference itself, in the singular — la différence — was the key. She saw le differenze everywhere in Italy: in cars, in fashions, in the buildings that were never in the same shapes — unlike the evenness of Zurich or Geneva, or the Lutetian limestone avenues of Haussmann's Paris.
Sandra started developing this theory about a year ago, when she first met Giuseppe, a Swiss Italian from Lugano. Giuseppe was as lively as the Swiss Germans were sedate. (The French Swiss seemed to be somewhere in the middle. Sandra called them Goldilocks' Dream. Julie agreed with her about this, adding that in the cantons of Geneva and Vaud the people were just right.) Giuseppe on the other hand was truly crazy, partying all the time, looking at every girl that passed by. One minute he was into blondes, and swore that he could only drown himself in a pool of blue eyes. The next minute he was trailing after some desert Egyptian, insinuating by the sway of his blood that he'd always been a Berber, and that his people loved nothing but dark eyes and sand. But he never came out and said as much to Sandra. With her, he kept strictly to metaphors drawn straight from the blue waters of Lake Lugano. She was beginning to feel like his Little Mermaid, with her bright red hair and blue eyes, her purple bikini top, and her flashing green tail.
But he was too good-looking, the dark stubble on his chin was too perfect, and he had too much going on in his head to let him get away. His ideas sprouted all over the place, in the same unpredictable way as his thick chestnut hair. Basically, she was too jealous to dump him. That is, until one night when he ignored her for two hours in a row.
It was at an exchange-student dinner at Les Quatre Canons, and she was wearing a green silk dress she'd bought for the occasion. He, on the other hand, hadn't even commented on her dress. Instead, he spent two hours talking to an exchange student from Beijing. He was obviously fascinated by the way she pinned her coal-black hair into an elegant globe with two chopsticks. As if her head were the Temple of Heaven. She was really playing it up. To make matters worse, Sandra was wearing green Chinese silk.
She started talking to the exchange student's friend Mei-lin, who had also been abandoned. Sandra could hardly make out a word she said, and wondered if it was really a good idea for Chinese students to learn French.
Mei-lin's hair was so short she almost looked like a man. And she was also almost as flat as a pancake. Yet the way her nipples poked out of her thin shirt made it hard to confuse her for a man. A golden pancake, Sandra thought to herself, half-jealous. She took another look, and concluded, now almost bitter, one of those perfectly smooth ones off the griddle, buttery-soft, with a sheen, verging on a tint of brown. She laughed at her own metaphors. What was she, ordering breakfast?
She wondered if it was the mannish figure that attracted her or the smoothness of her skin. Could it really be as soft as it looked? And then she realized that it wasn't so much that Mei-Lin looked like a man as it was that Mei-Lin was a woman.
The buttonless gypsy was offering to put Sandra up for the night. That Sandra already had a room on Via dei Pettinari didn't seem to make any difference. Zigana said that she really ought to see more of Rome, and that while it would be easy for her to find a better room, she'd be hard-pressed to find a better bed. Sandra thought again about her room on Pettinari. Outside her window drunk students shouted and sang all night, on some early morning pilgrimage between the bars of Trastevere and Piazza Navona. Till four in the morning. She could definitely use a break from that.
Zigana said in English that she lived on the outskirts, which Sandra took both literally and metaphorically. She was, after all, a student of Post-Modern Semiotics, or PMS. She inhabited a realm of hyphens, margins, and indecipherables. She'd just written a term paper entitled, Untranslating the Translation.
Sandra wondered if she should chance doubling the outskirts metaphor: What would it be like to live inside a skirt like that? It billowed in and out like her blouse which floated over smooth mountains scented with vineyards and myrrh. There was something vaguely Semitic about this gypsy, reminding Sandra of The Song of Songs. Something about running away together, olive oil and vineyards, borders of gold with studs of silver, and lying all night between her breasts.
Something reminded her of grapes.
Last Fall she'd signed up with Mei-lin for the vendange, on a vineyard a dozen kilometres west of Lausanne. They shared a small room with two Sicilians, several hundred meters above a shimmering Lake Geneva. The room was cold and had two beds, hardly large enough to be called double beds. Sandra and Mei-lin could see their breath, and shook in an exaggerated way in their strangely-matched flannel pyjamas. Mei-lin suggested that they should sleep back-to-back to keep each other warm.
Somewhere in the middle of a sleepless night — after the back of a leg would stray across the back of a leg, and then pull back reluctantly; after an arm would fall backwards onto a hip, and then slide back up, slowly; after one girl would sigh in a way that said, I can't sleep, can you? and the other girl would sigh back, No — Mei-lin rolled into Sandra, and kissed her on the neck.
At first, she seemed like a man in her arms. But then her smell was different. It was hardly there, and what was there was light, like a thin layer of the most expensive hand cream. Her skin was so soft it seemed to melt into her own. And then she moved her lips across Mei-lin's neck. From that exact moment — 3:28 a.m. October 1, 2015 — Sandra forgot about men. This softness, this fine curve of a neck, this closeness to the warmth of her doubled pulse, was what she wanted.
It was like an electric current, having always flowed against her blood, now flowed in the same direction, in and out the pounding chamber of her heart.
Zigana was another cup of tea altogether, she mused. If Mei-lin was jasmine in delicate porcelain, sipped in intimacy at the back of a second-floor tea house in Suzhou, Zigana was strong mint tea in chipped stoneware with dark cracks, sweetened with coarse brown cubes. She'd have to be taken in swift draughts, next to a windy tent on a deserted steppe. Sandra liked that comparative metaphor so much that she was surprised when Zigana tossed back her remaining half glass of grappa, and slammed it on the table. So, are you coming?
Outskirts in this case were not just metaphorical. Zigana took her from their cosy spot on Campo de' Fiori down alleys that were dark and cobbled, where snippets of Italian flew out, on ribbons of sound, from bright surreal cafés that dotted the dark streets. They boarded a tram and then a bus, full of blue-collar Italians and Sri Lankans, to some place so far south that it wasn't even marginal. It was off the map.
This was also what Sandra wanted: to go beyond all the postmodern, post colonial talk of hyphens and margins — the eternal negotiations between Europe and the Other. The Other, how she hated that term, especially since everybody felt compelled to capitalize it. To her, it just seemed another way of talking about European guilt and about the European centre, long after it was central. Her professors went on and on about Eurocentrism, yet she couldn't help noticing that the next words that came out of their mouths had to do with London and Rome. Of course Rome and London were important. Yet surely, at some point, there had to be something else.
She had seen a film on the worst of Italian organized crime, set in Scampia, a suburb on the northern outskirts of Naples. The film was called Gomorrah. It had all of the violence and none of the sex. She had no idea that people lived in places like that. It terrified her, but in the same way Hell terrified her: it was so far away that it seemed mythical.
Zigana lead her down a pot-holed cement road several kilometres past the outer highway, the Grande Raccordo Anulare. She saw broken concrete, garbage on the streets, and rusted caravans. She thought about the Campo de' Fiori, with its perfect imperfections, its buildings at angles that would make Haussmann call out the wrecking crews.
In the back of her mind she knew that this was a small taste of the way the world was for much of the planet. This was just an intimation of Dharavi and Tondo.
At the moment Zigana opened the flimsy door, Sandra thought longingly of her third caffè latte, and the mystery of its final shape, under the heat lamps of Campo de' Fiori.
Next: Still Waters