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Letters From Rome

Ciao, Grazie

Just when you feel like you’ve arrived, you’re called away. Our correspondent tallies up his stay and says goodbye to the light, the heat, and the several thousand Pampers left behind.

Two mornings left in Italy. A couple hours ago big silver clouds were blowing past the windows, but now the blue is back, huge and depthless, and the sun rains its hot light onto everything. The weedeaters and drills are running; the traffic is sighing; a helicopter roars overhead.

“When we get home,” my wife says, “it’ll be quiet,” and I’m thinking about air conditioning, and wondering how it is possible that I might miss having fighter jets scream over our apartment, or the two a.m. trash truck come and slam the dumpsters around.

This week the streets have been open-air ovens. Living hour after hour in this heat is like having your brain removed and a bunch of dry cotton stuffed behind your eyes.

Eighty-five feels like a hundred. Ninety is unbearable. The monks and nuns walk about in their heavy outfits, like refugees from another century. Girls tug off their sandals and soak their feet in the fountains. Our sons sit drenched in their stroller. We pour gelato down our throats, we find cool air drafting through an alley and pause and close our eyes.

What have we contributed? Several thousand Pampers in various landfills. The sweaters we stuffed into the church donation box. A good stroller.I know it’s because I’m leaving, but I’m back in love with Rome, the glowing buildings, the light-drenched views, down Via della Scrofa, down Via Condotti. All day the city is a kiln and all night it throws heat back into the sky, the ancient forums and the pulsing rooftops, the cars swirling through Piazza Venezia. The four of us lie at night with a fan in each of our faces and dream of nothing. Out by the train station our babysitter, Tacy, pads through her apartment, knowing tomorrow might be the last time she sees our boys for the rest of her life.

In some ways we are already gone, thinking through bags and airports and what will need to be done once we’re home, diapers, high chairs, utilities, the mail. Rome has seen so many young families come and go, fixing its assorted imprints onto them, that we are hardly worth mentioning, hardly a blade of grass. The city has outlasted every single person who has lived here and it will outlast us. Rome is person-less, almost nameless—people dedicate themselves to it for a time and then are gone. Not even the structures endure, really, not without endless restoration. Only the strata, and the light, traveling thirty miles in from the sea.

What have we contributed? Several thousand Pampers in various landfills. The sweaters we stuffed into the church donation box. A good stroller. And the little Ziploc of change I set on a guitar player’s guitar case on Via Coronari two days ago, his “Grazie!” surprised and earnest, making us smile. We leave our sewage. And our friends.

What we take is harder to articulate. Some nice shoes. A hundred or so pages of a novel-in-progress that may or may not be any good. We take maybe 25 more pounds of children home with us, and ten thousand memories: the pasta shop, the cheese shop, the kind face of the butcher in his Tecnica ski hat, and his wife, and the son who we call Jude Law, with his bleached hair and yearlong tan and cell phone and cigarettes and surfing necklace. We take with us the realization that our boys are developing just like any other healthy kids, and that no matter how extraordinary we think they are, there is nothing we can do to stop them from growing up.

We take the echoes of sirens and car alarms, the restoration cranes looming over the monuments, the accumulation of dirt and the efforts to scrub it away. After you live here a while, you begin to realize that almost everything Americans think of as familiar originally came from Rome: churches and shopping malls and courts of law and staircases and the boundaries of art-making, what literature is, what a painting can be. Rome echoes in everything, our glass windows and our cuisine, but it is still a place, too, that has olive trees and clouds and hail blasting the windows and six or seven escaped parrots who soar en masse past our balcony every couple weeks, flashing their pale green. Rome still swallows the sick and the bloodied, absorbing everybody, and it is never static.

If this is true of every city, it is Rome that has perfected it; it is the original, and it is unapologetic.

“I’m going for a run,” I tell my wife, and then I stand over the sock drawer. The fans spin maniacally. The sun bursts off the white tiles of the terrace. I don’t even make it out the door.

I’m afraid everything—communicating, getting groceries, finding our way—will seem unchallenging back home, and disappointing because of it. Stores will be open when the posted hours say they’ll be open. When the boys get sick we’ll know where to take them.

The Tiber pours beneath the bridges, another pope wakes and pulls on his robes, the summer heat builds, then wanes, and the Earth tilts away from the sun and the nights cool and the chimney swifts leave, and the city breathes in and breathes out.

I’ll miss the breezes and watching my sons toddle around the gardens. I’ll miss the gnocchi and calamari and aceto and straccetti and the apricots and zucchini flowers. I’ll miss the short ladies and the men who carry beautiful wooden canes and the priests in black cassocks with stiff collars and the ridiculously beautiful women we see every now and then and the way everyone dresses too warmly. I’ll miss the sight of a corner of the city, glowing softly, wrapped in shadow, as I pass from the bathroom back to the bedroom in the middle of the night.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at More by Anthony Doerr