Letters From Rome


The first month of living abroad in one of the world’s great historical cities is full of sights and wonders. The eighth month is full of grocery shopping and car alarms.

May brings wind: the sky blown clean, the cornices of palaces polished with light. Flowers explode out of the trees, and swallows race into gaps in the shutters and clamber into hidden nests. The clover trembles and the awnings flap and there are the big oceangoing sighs of the parasol pines.

But we’re sick of Rome. Sick of wrestling one twin or the other into his diaper only to have him poop a minute later, sick of pouring milk into bottles, sick of the incessant car alarms and the way shopkeepers sink into a quiet panic if you don’t possess something very close to exact change, and we’re sick of always knowing there’s one more Botticelli we still haven’t seen, one more ruin, one more sight.

“Happy is the town that has nothing to show,” D.H. Lawrence said. “What a lot of stunts and affectations it saves!” Beauty becomes a millstone. What is dreamy and magnificent in the first month often becomes insufferable by the eighth. This is true of pregnancy and winter and farming and maybe even—temporarily—Italy.

My friend Stephen calls the city “a gilded cage” and I feel he’s right as I carry yet another cluster of grocery bags a half-mile through the traffic and up the stairs. Lately it seems all we do is empty grocery bags into our refrigerator and into our babies and then fill the bags again with rubbish and diapers and carry them back out.

So we do something slightly crazy: We rent a house in Sardinia for a week. I have to look on the atlas just to make sure I know where Sardinia is. Caught between Europe and Africa, not quite Spain, not quite anywhere, it is Italian by proximity as much as history. But for a dozen nights we whisper it to each other before bed: Sardegna, Sardegna.

The flight is an hour, and the whole time my son Owen slaps his palms against the seat back and stomps my groin with his sandals. But to walk off the plane into the clear Sardinian evening, the hills of Alghero drenched in gold, oxygen pouring across the tarmac, our strollers waiting beside the jetway—the heart soars. What an island! What light!

The wind is blowing 35, 40 miles an hour. We drive a rented Ford 90 minutes east and the sky curdles in a thousand shades of violet. The roadsides are alive with poppies. Sheep and cows, orange-roofed villages tucked into the folds of mountains, the ruins of ancient nuraghi in the shadows like 3,000-year-old sandcastles. I think: It’s like Sicily, and Mexico, and Ireland.

We deal with the disappointments of our rental house: no heat, a tiny shower, no tub for the babies. It is not even really a house but a condo. But outside our windows, the sea is alive and blue and the town of Olbia is low and pale beneath the mountains. No smog, no motorinos. Big container ships come and go. Fires burn across the harbor.

We are driving into a village when my wife peers into the back seat and says, “Henry, Henry, are you all right?” I turn in time to see him vomit what looks like a tube sock—that big and that white, slowly drawing out of his mouth. May is early for tourists and everything is closed and hardly anybody is on the beaches. Every condominium save ours is shuttered. The big resort hotel below us is completely empty, just a lonely bartender named Claudio and a big white beach and the wind blowing our footprints into dunes.

Our boys are still learning to walk, and they turn laps in the sand half-drunk with the pleasure of it, tipping past us and cackling. “Go, go, go,” Henry sings, and around and around they go, carrying their Legos or bottle caps or water bottles or balls, wiping out every 20 or 30 seconds.

Gulls soar hundreds of feet above us like confetti. The sun swings over the hills in a high, smooth arch, eating the heart out of everything, and I look at the prickly pear and naked granite and think: In July, in August, this place must be a kiln.

The hours are sucked out of us, one after another. What is time in Sardinia? We blink and the sun has rolled across the bay again and melted behind the hills. The lights of Olbia come on, small and twinkling.

This is vacation, but it is still a vacation with two one-year-olds: I cut up a small orange fruit I don’t recognize (kumquat?) and fry a hotdog and slice bread with jelly on it and serve the boys all of this in their preposterously unsafe bamboo high chairs. They open their palms and smear it casually back and forth. Owen bangs a chunk of fruit flat. Henry seals his lips and swerves his head away.

Later, I pick up the food off the rug. At home, this is what my wife does all day long.

Also this: We are driving into a village when my wife peers into the back seat and says, “Henry, Henry, are you all right?” I turn in time to see him vomit what looks like a tube sock—that big and that white, slowly drawing out of his mouth. We go through 30 wipes cleaning him and later I have to spray the car seat for 10 minutes with a hose.

In the end we visit only beaches: the white, white sand and stones the color of bricks and the miraculous shelves of blue in the Mediterranean. Islands lurk here and there, full of cliffs. The boys play with plastic buckets, and we eat Magnum Classico ice cream bars and realize that despite everything this is still pretty much the Sardinia of a thousand years ago: the beetles, the thorns, the big hills baking, and time folding over the islands like fog: stars and sea, and the caps of rocks that show themselves at low tide before going under again. All of it has been there since before any of it had a name.

We drive home and put our boys to sleep in their little port-a-cribs and eat ravioli stuffed with potatoes and mint. The maquis fills with night sounds: the wind, some insects, an owl. A herd of goats tramps along the pale cape road, and their wooden-sounding bells clank softly.

Down at the abandoned hotel, I tell Claudio his island is very beautiful.

He tells me it is very dangerous for Americans in Iraq. “Iraqis see you are American,” he says, and shakes his head, and draws a finger across his throat.

“Maybe,” I say, in my sledgehammer Italian. “Tomorrow, though, we are only going back to Rome. Not to Iraq.”

But Claudio, tall and trim in his vest and collar, is getting eager. “First there was his father, then Clinton, now Bush again. Berlusconi is friends with Bush, but Italians, they are not friends of Bush.”

“And Sardinians? They are not friends of Bush?”

“Sardinians,” he says, and sets one serious finger on the bar. “We are Italians now.”

Then we nod, a strange assent. On the TV in the corner, two Indian men wrangle a cobra into a basket.


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 anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr