Like the average middle-class English person, I was pretty confident about Italy. I had schlepped round Florence, felt Jamesian in Venice, almost driven off a vineyard wall in Montepulciano. Now it was time for Rome.
Admittedly, I could barely remember my first trip there, beyond bells and ruins and a sexy St Theresa engaged in flagrant self-appreciation. I had been violently hushed at the Vatican, learned to drink Aperol without wincing and discovered that anyone with a Latin GCSE and, ideally, no inhibitions, can speak surprisingly effective pretend-Italian.
Ah yes, la bella vita, caput mundi; Rome, I thought. I can handle you. As it turned out, Rome could handle me.
In childhood, one of my many worries was that “the world” was a complex construct devised to fool me, for reasons as yet undisclosed. You say paranoid, I say child genius; either way, I was absolutely right, up to a point. Rome is so perfectly, gloriously as it should be, so exaggeratedly Roman, that it can only be a construct. It’s a miracle anyone is ever fooled.
The first clue was the vending-machine outside the legendary roastery Tazza d’Oro, from which, with only a small mortgage, one can buy an emergency sacklet of their famous coffee beans. Coffee is my one true addiction; I grind my own and lurch between cafetieres, growing ever snappier. But even I have never had an out-of-hours Arabica crisis. And, come to think of it, weren’t they laying on the “Italians Drinking Coffee” action a little thick? The young priest shyly ordering a tiramisu caffé; tired workmen necking espresso like medicine; a row of customers vigorously shaking sugar-sachets like the chorus in a rather niche musical: really?
Outside, unnecessarily attractive customers gossiped deafeningly, resting their granitas and Prosecco on the bonnets of parked cars. In Britain, touching a stranger’s vehicle is a capital offence. But in Rome, each corner is a stage-set; every group a stock shot of La Dolce Vita. Imagine: these people don’t need booze to talk to strangers!
Their attitude to civilisation is similarly un-Northern European. Rome’s collections of art make the British Museum look scanty and the Hermitage minimalist. Admittedly, by this stage I was boggled with coffee, but isn’t there always a point on trips to Italy when art becomes absurd; when the murkiest corner of the dimmest church is so clotted with Caravaggios, with altars like carved liver and a rapper’s dream of gold that, staring up at the putti, the sappy St Francises and hairy-toed disciples, you never want to see another Baroque finial again?
But the secret to Roman bliss is to bypass the Colosseum (big) or the Spanish Steps (hot). Let the tourists throng like sunburned lemmings to the Sistine Chapel. It’s in the shaded palazzi-museums where true pleasure waits; so many glistening Apollos, beardy generals, acanthus leaves and busty emperors’ even bustier wives, all displayed with apparent casualness, that one becomes casual too. Bernini’s fabulous Pope Urban VIII is so alive, patchily shaven, one marble button not quite pressed into place, that unthinkingly I almost touched him. At Altemps, zoom straight to the first floor where you can view the sexiest Aphrodite and the most beautiful sleeping Ereni, completely by yourself. At Doria Pamphilj, enjoy the finest creations of humanity with the assistance of the poshest and most charming audio guide ever recorded, by my future husband, Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj (that he lives upstairs with his husband and children is mere detail). Better still, it’s so enormous that the few visitors are diluted; I spent 20 minutes communing alone with the Lippi annunciation, barely thinking of how to fit the 56 remaining essential restaurants into my last two days.
Everything was slightly too much: a surfeit of ruins, sun and scent. Even the plant-life is taken to extremes: Virginia creeper pouring from roofs, cacti pressed against railings. In London, one spots an occasional Trachelospermum jasminoides optimistically climbing a trellis; in Rome, the place reeks of it, clouds tumbling over balconies and cloaking walls. No one seems to have told the Romans that they’re overdoing it: that elegant old women eating solitary three-course meals and small boys in smart shorts playing night football against church pillars are taking things too far. We get it. Your ancestors deserved to rule the world.
But the closest I came to total capitulation to Rome was at the hands not of its artists, nor its princes, but its waitresses. Inevitably, my visit was dominated by greed: how to optimise the last days of the artichoke season; whether I’d missed my favourite chicory, the succulent puntarelle, and would have to make do with agretti instead. But my attempts to order, well, what I wanted, were repeatedly foiled by the restaurants’ charming, fierce and exceedingly Roman staff.
No, I was told at Da Enzo: no carbonara. Have cacio e pepe.
“I had cacio e pepe at lunchtime.”
“Ah, but not ours.”
No to gelati at Emma Pizzeria; have the Scomposta di Cannolo Siciliano al Cucchiaio, con Ricotta di Bufala, Scorza di Arancia Tarocco Candita e Scaglie di Cioccolato, instead. (I beg you, do the same.) And, at Sora Margherita, free will was abandoned entirely. When the waitress saw I’d left a single outer leaf of my deep fried artichoke, she frowned. “Tutti”, she said, holding it to my mouth and, obediently, I ate it up. Amatriciana was forbidden; instead, she insisted I order “sorpresa” — that is, whatever she felt like.
She was right. I ate and ate and when she suggested tiramisu and, in the last shreds of my pretend Italian I demurred, she ignored me. The tiramisu came; she watched me eat it until every scrap was gone and, as I left, she kissed me.
I want to be Roman. Tell me it’s not too late.