On my last night in Rome, I thought I’d gone blind.
Fortunately, it turned out that I was just very tired. The muscles in my left eye wouldn’t dilate my pupil, leaving me unable to take in more light. It was as though my pupil were a heavy barn door and keeping it open was just too much work.
Rome is not, as it happens, a relaxing place to go on holiday.
It is not a place to go if you’re looking for a more sedate pace of life. It’s a place where architecture falls over itself like people squeezing onto an over-stuffed Metro train.
We did try to have a quiet day. It was raining, so we went to Babington’s Tea Rooms in search of Earl Grey. Earl Grey tea is rare in Rome. It’s seen as more of a medicinal curiosity than a delicious refreshment, so you’re more likely to find it at a pharmacy than a restaurant. As we sipped, we ate sugary cakes that made our teeth buzz like maladjusted transistor radios.
When we’d finished, it was still raining, so we crossed the bottom of the Spanish Steps to visit the Keats-Shelley House. It’s a tiny, intimate museum, filling the space that was the poet John Keats’ last residence before his death from tuberculosis in 1821. We hadn’t meant to have such an English day, but the museum was close and, as it turned out, an excellent find.
As we rang the bell, we noticed an ugly knot of people gathered up, like a fist, around the column in the square. They were protestors. The armed guards outside the Spanish embassy looked nervous.
We’d settled into a dark room to watch a short film about the Romantic poets in Rome when a volley of shots outside drew everyone out of their seats and to the nearest window. So much for our quiet day.
We’d seen lots of protests during that week in April. A few days before, the president had been hastily sworn in for a second term to break the political deadlock that had mired the country for the last few years. Police and press crowded the streets, and jets flew tricolor smoke overhead.
Many Romans saw this as more of the same kind of corruption and cronyism that has caused many to lose faith in their political representatives. They felt dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, and the resurgent influence of Silvio Berlusconi — a man seen by many as an overt criminal — caused tempers to fray. There were blockades of expensive shops and hotels. Everyone wanted to make their opinion heard in ways that the traditional electoral system didn’t necessarily allow. Earlier in our trip we’d sat in a square in Trastavere watching some anti-fascists protesting by playing the accordion. (Didn’t you know? Accordion music is like a stake through the heart for fascists.)
Now, at the museum, we soon learned that the “shots” we’d heard had, in fact, been nothing more than a string of firecrackers that someone had let off under one of Keats’ windows.
The museum’s curator seemed sad. “It’s a vibrant city for sure,” she said, “but there’s a real dissatisfaction at the moment.”
From the outside, it looks impossible for Berlusconi to come back, but within Italy there is a lot of support — and now that he’s gaining power again, people are wondering whether anything they do will ever change anything.
We left Rome in a state of flux, but that’s nothing new. Rome thrives on change, on excitement, new ideas and influences. It is a city that has successfully reinvented itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Even when things seem hopeless, you get the feeling that a change could be just around the corner.
— written by Josh Thomas