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Letters From Rome

Fighting Smog

These are tough days for Rome, with many worried for the Pope’s health. Feeling equally worried for his own and his family’s, a newcomer reports on days of tiny miracles, crossbow makers, and a lack of Ziploc bags.

To spend a day walking the streets in Rome, we are told, is to inhale the equivalent of 18 cigarettes. I push the twins in their stroller and a woman passes, smoking. Two more pass, smoking. Motorinos growl and cough; a bus turns and nearly shaves off our front wheels. No wonder the pope is in the hospital. I think of my sons’ 10-month-old bronchi, bright and pink; I think of John Paul’s trachea, 84 years of Polish and Italian pollution worn into its rings.

In front of St. Peter’s, reporters smoke and aim cameras at pilgrims: Are you praying for Giovanni Paolo?

Am I? When the breeze is down and the light is right, you can see the smog: ribbons of blue and gold. Fields of it hang above the churches.

Here’s the latest anti-smog measure:

The city of Rome will limit driving within the fascia verde on Thursdays to cars with either odd or even license plates. Starting Jan. 13, if your car has an even license plate number, you will not be able to drive between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon and again from 3 to 7 p.m. The following Thursday it will be the turn of the odd numbers. And so on, alternating between odd and even through March 31.

The regulations are so convoluted and maddening they become almost beautiful. Which is what it’s like here. We’ve lived in Rome four months now and I still hardly understand how to pay for coffee in a bar.

Or try this. Ten years ago a plaster Madonna in a garden in Civitavecchia, a village north of the city, cried tears of blood. Last week, a report released by “a team of legal, medical, religious and scientific experts” was printed in the paper, concluding that the event “was supernatural as there is no scientific explanation for the tears.”

Everything is set on top of something else, something older. Alleys rear and twist and cough up their huge, cracking cobblestones. A street for one block is called Via Carini and in the next block becomes Via Barrilli. F. Torre becomes A. Colautti. Halfway up a hill Perotti transforms into Marino. We walk the street of light, the street of flowers, the street of crossbow makers. I look up and realize I have been here before. Still, I’m lost. Three nuns in a Jetta wait for us to pass and study our big jogging stroller with practiced, weary eyes. “I think we go left here,” I say, and my wife, shaking her head, leads us right, toward home.

This is the city where the Etruscans may or may not have had big, healthy orgies and apostles were crucified upside down and popes nailed the tongues of heretics to doors. Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a labyrinth of astonishing density. Before I can get my permit-of-stay, a silver-mustached police captain rolls my left hand in ink—every finger, the entire palm, an inch of my wrist. Then he does my right. I wait an hour and walk away with a stamped sheet of paper and stains on my pants.

Our days overflow with small miracles. We buy pizza rossa by the kilogram; we buy shortbread so rich with butter it eats through paper bags. At dusk, starlings flock in big, flexing clouds. After a rainstorm, a rainbow of water bottles and soccer balls gathers beneath a spillway in the Tiber, turning and turning in the foam. In the Campo dei Fiori, Bruno broods under his big stone hood and a man pokes pigeons off an awning with the end of a broomstick. On Sundays the air fills with bells.

This is the city where Renaissance bankers ate soup made from parrot tongues. This is the city where the Etruscans may or may not have had big, healthy orgies and apostles were crucified upside down and popes nailed the tongues of heretics to doors. And what was heresy, really? A bad poem? Aiming your lens at a star?

There are days in Rome like this: On the way home from the grocery store, I step dead-center into a big piece of dog shit. Thirty minutes later my wife drops a jar of mustard, which explodes on the tile and sends hundreds of mustardy glass fragments flying across the kitchen. A baby needs to be changed, a baby has woken up an hour too soon, four dozen toys need to be put back in the cardboard toy box. After dark I sit on the edge of the tub in Owen’s bedroom (which is really a bathroom) and feed him his nighttime bottle. He sighs; his eyes get sleepy. I rest my toe on the base of his crib and suddenly the entire side rail splits apart, slats falling everywhere. A half-hour with Super Glue while my wife bounces both infants, and finally the crib holds together and we lower our son in, and all night I lie awake and wait for the sounds of splintering.

Then there are days in Rome like this: One yellow rose, plump and clean, blooming on the top of Urban’s wall in January. The moon rides above the Piazza della Minerva; in the Pantheon, we pause and look up through the oculus at a circle of darkening sky. We eat hamburgers made from veal, we eat a disastrously good tomato soup. We buy more of the yogurt we love in the little bell-shaped jars and feed our boys shining white spoonfuls.

There is graffiti inside Trajan’s column four times older than the United States. I think: Where we’re from will never look the same again. I think: Maybe what thickens the air above the churches is souls; maybe it’s prayer.

I wonder what the pope prays for, tucked into his bed, surrounded by flowers, his gray lungs inflating and deflating. Does he see the streets of Rome peel away, the mouths of graves groan open, the descending trumpets of angels and 10 million ghosts hauled skyward? He probably dreams bigger: the planet gliding through space, the slow grinding of tectonic plates.

We miss skim milk and 120-volt outlets and toilets with just one flusher. We miss broad, smooth sidewalks. Send us Scotch tape, the good kind. Send us Ziplocs.


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