A mild, late-September evening in Grottaferrata. From the ramparts of the great medieval abbey your eye is drawn down to the city of Rome, and it’s easy to imagine the ebb and flow of heavy traffic, motorcycles and scooters daring you to challenge their right to butt into your “lane” and find a speedier path out of the city’s maelstrom of vehicles as everyone heads home for the day.
But—thankfully—you aren’t down there in the exciting ancient city on the Tiber, trying to protect your rental car from any inadvertent fender damage, but rather up in Roman hills, the Castelli Romani area to the south of the city. You have wandered down from the abbey and now sit on the square of this lovely little town to watch Italian community in all its charming interaction. Under the canopy of umbrellas closest to the action, you order mineral water and an espresso, and you’ve bought yourself a ticket to the most enjoyable of Italian social customs, a full evening’s passeggiata.
In any Italian community, come this time of day, the citizens take to the streets, usually the centro storico, on the main street or square, often in stylish dress, to celebrate belonging. And they stroll, and gather to chat, or (as you are doing this evening) just to observe humanity doing what it used to do so well. Commune.
The children play. There, down there, beyond the central fountain…a mini-soccer match goes on endlessly, boys and the occasional girl kicking the ball about, trying to score between the handrails of a staircase. A young boy with foreshortened arms scrambles in the midst, totally absorbed in the game and treated as the equal he is by all the other children.
Closer to your table, a rascally little girl races about on a scooter, taking advantage of a ramp to shoot down through the constantly shifting crowd, feigning tears from time to time to be sure her parents pay attention. Her companion in mischief is a small boy with a bountiful puff of hair, the two conspiring to come up with new ways to keep the square in motion.
Over there, a little girl in skates, taking her first tentative try at matching the success of her playmates. You’re tempted to join in the unabashed fun. And here comes another child on a bicycle, weaving in and out of the adults and otherwise active kids.
The young teens flirt. Seated beside the fountain, a boy of perhaps twelve sidles up to a lovely young girl with long brown hair, his devotion and yearning obvious to the watcher. She likes him, you can tell. Her cell phone rings, she answers briefly, and moments later her best friend appears at the upper end of the square. She leaps up and runs to embrace her, the boy tagging behind, anxious not to lose the connection he hopes to have gained. The three find seats side-by-side on a concrete coping and talk, laugh, smile, flirt some more. (You contrast the American youth scene, where half the kids are on cell phones, even amongst their friends, absent though in their presence.)
The adults talk, hands animated, laughter frequent. Parents sharing their day’s trials, their children’s successes and foibles. There is no constant eye out for where the kids are, what they are doing, no fear for their safety. They know the whole community is present, babysitting. They squat down from time to time to listen to a child’s recounting of his or her latest play activity, or to check out a new bruise. From on high, an elderly woman observes the life of her town from her balcony.
A cat wanders up the stairs, takes in the scene of constant motion and action, thinks better of it for the moment and mounts a concrete pillar to join you in your observations.
Don’t worry about the table you are occupying for hours—all for the cost of water and a coffee—your waiter is patient, doesn’t care if you spend more, order more. For three euros you have bought yourself a ringside seat to the best show in town, and it will last well into the night, when the last rays of the sun have gone from the sky and the square lights are on, and still children play with no sign of exhaustion, and still adults chat, with no sense of urgency to get on with life, and still the old woman above the square watches with memories of so many other evenings like this to keep her young.
The crowds have thinned. Dinner must be enjoyed. Some parents call to their children, who come running without complaint and the family wanders home. The restaurants are filling and the streets are less full, the shops have shuttered for the night.
A fist fight breaks out in front of a sports bar across from the square. Two groups of youths. No knives, no guns…just traditional swinging of fists and hurling of angry words, shoving. Perhaps disagreement over soccer teams. Perhaps something more. A middle-aged woman lifts her cell to her ear to phone for help, should it be needed. Word is out, the polizia might come, and the youths race to their cars and abandon the scene.
Now things are quieter. You begin to imagine those ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, that glass of Frascati. Perhaps it’s time to pay your meager fee for the evening’s hours of relaxation and entertainment.
The cat observes. Finds the moment right. Abandons the stone wall and wanders beneath the now empty café tables, winding his way to the edge of the fountain. Reclaims his square and waits for the next act of a centuries-old play.
Italian community. Gotta love it.
Where to stay: Locanda dello Spuntino in the heart of Grottaferrata. Just twenty-five minutes or so from Fiumicino Airport, even closer to Ciampino Airport. Warm welcome, very nice accommodations.
Where to eat: Taverna dello Spuntino, adjoining. Gracious people, delicious food.
Copyright Patrick W. O’Bryon 2013