Wednesday, January 02, 2008

All Roads Lead To...

My adult introduction to Italy was August 15, 1971. I had decided on my twentieth birthday in July that I would go to Italy by myself. So I bought a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Rome for $900.00, a tidy sum then.

When I landed in Rome on that hot August day, and decided to try walking from the airport to the city, all it took was to get as far as the giant statue of Leonardo da Vinci, to convince me, backpack and all, that I should probably catch a bus.

Once I arrived at the Stazione Termini in Rome I decided to look for a place to exchange dollars for lire. Impossible, it was a national holiday, Ferragosto. It was also a Sunday. To make matters worse, Nixon had just devalued the dollar. I walked around the neighborhood of the train station, found a little pensione on the Via Palestro near the university and somehow managed to talk the landlady into letting me have a room.

I was excited and a little bit jet lagged, so I set my gear down and decided on a little nap. Some hours later I awoke to the sounds of an Italian television program in the kitchen. I thought I had slept for days, but it was probably 4 or 5 hours, just enough to keep me from getting on Italian time.

The kind landlady made me a plate of pasta and some vegetables, and offered a glass of red wine. How wonderful it all tasted. Here I was in a strange boarding house in a big city with people I didn’t know, who were treating me like family. It was a moment that really made me see Italy and Italians through a lens that I still sometimes use. We were only 25 years away from the liberation of Italy during World War II; perhaps the landlady took pity on the young American. It wasn’t that much money, I think with half pension it was about 1,500 lire, or $2.50 a day. My room I would have to share if someone else came in. But it never happened that anyone else came to that pensione in August.

Walking around Rome during the day would be my introduction to Italy. And I walked everywhere, with my cameras, photographing everything in black and white, Tri-X film, with my Canon rangefinder cameras. I was living the dream of a young man to be a street photographer, and Rome was my canvas.

From the Villa Borghese to the Fontana di Trevi, the Sistine Chapel to the Baths of Caracalla, there was no backdrop that I wouldn’t shoot in the blistering heat and humidity of Rome in August.

In that time the city was quiet, many people out of town in cooler places. Just a few tourists and the workforce of Rome, who stayed behind to keep the city running. Many shops were closed for the month, but there was enough life in the Eternal City to get a feel for a place that humans have inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.

Even though I don’t get to Rome so often these days, I have an affection for the city that took me in as a young man, without lire and without being able to speak much of the language. I had my Michelin guide, my cameras and my desire to learn about the country of my grandparents. This would not be my last trip to Italy, but rather the beginning of many visits to Italy and to Rome.

Notes on the photos - they were all taken in Rome in 1971 with my Canon rangefinders.


Anonymous said...

The photo of your room reminds me of the pensione I stayed at in Florence during the summer of '70. Cold water shower next door, but one doesn't mind too much when Florence is scorching. Every night was good for killing a dozen zanzare. Vari had me enroll in classes that were not very demanding. He knew enough that homework wasn't going to be on my agenda. Most of the students spent their time having caffe, or on the steps of the Duomo-like it was their office. I spent some time there too, honing my skills at saving American girls that were being stalked by Italians.

The first time I was in Italy was with my grandparents when I was fifteen. The Excelsior in Rome was quite different than the pensione. At lunch, on the first day there, may grandfather asked me why I kept looking around and grinning. I told him that it was the first time I'd been in a place where everyone was Italian.

I think that some of us have lived our lives not feeling completely at home in either country.


Tracie P. said...

auguri per un anno splendido, ace :)

Anonymous said...

Arriving in Italy for the first time on my own, at the sweet age of 20, was like arriving home ! So dizzy with excitement and suddenly feeling so incredibly at peace with myself...truly magical and i'd only just landed !!!!

After many trips back & forth, (Australia)working & living in Italy and 22 years later with three beautiful boys, as anonymous wrote, i've always felt that i've never been completely at home in either country.....

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