Bestselling book on Rome Italy
Bestselling book on Rome Italy



Letters from Italy
Venice: In Grand Style
Italian Eating Habits
Pope John Paul II
Modern Art in Rome
Parking in Rome
Getting around Rome
Christmas in Rome

Christmas in Rome
“Tis the Season to Be Jolly”

Ciao Amici,

Yes, they do celebrate Christmas here in Rome, but it has an altogether different cast. It is primarily a family holiday rather than something you share with people in the office or your neighbors in the building. It is not really religious, not secular either, but rather an occasion to eat the traditional fish on Christmas eve and then the 500 hand made tortellini --rolled pasta with meat inside -- that our Italian teacher Alessandro makes with his mother and sisters every year -- the following day. As I wrote in Chapter 16 in As the Romans Do, The Smallest Big City in the World, it is also an occasion to share the traditional holiday sweet breads -- panettone and pandoro -- with a bit of sweet bubbly spumante. No Christmas holiday in the city is complete without it.

But the Christmas season does have its darker side, and it was in evidence the other day when a 38-year old man climbed up to the top of the Coliseum and threatened to jump out of desperation at not being able to find work. This in fact is not uncommon, as this particular site is a magnet for all those who want to make a statement and feel they cannot be heard otherwise. One day last year we saw the same scene played out as a grizzled old Roman told us not to get too upset because they never jump. He was right. The man didn't. But maybe its the case that the men don't it because a few months after that a woman in her thirties plunged to her death from the first level of the fabled arena. With a history of mental illness, in full view of the tourists milling all about, the Coliseum became the stage for the last act of this woman's sad life. So it was with trepidation that I read the other day in the newspaper about another frustrated unemployed soul who somehow made his way to the summit and proclaimed his desire to end the disappointment that had become his life.

Within minutes he was being approached by a team of rescuers who began to persuade him to come down and consider other alternatives. At a certain point the protagonist made a request -- one that ordinary Romans make hundreds of thousands of times every day and that is easily fulfilled. He asked for a cappuccino and a cornetto to be brought to him. Imagine the scene. Police and rescue teams all around. Dozens of officials milling about, conferring with one another as to how to persuade this desperate person to step back from the precipice, and all he wants is the kind of daily morning nourishment that almost everyone else in the city takes -- a simple sweet roll and a frothy mixture of perfectly blended and roasted coffee and steamed milk. He could think of nothing else that would reassure him that all was right with the world other than the familiarity of an everyday breakfast.

Rome being Rome, a place where people are easily forgiven and even those who are literally on the edge are considered just another part of the whole, the request was immediately granted and within minutes the man was having his breakfast al fresco in the cold winter air on top of the Coliseum. It must have done the trick, because as soon as he finished his meal, he was being escorted down to ground level, and no mention was made about any arrest or mental institution or anything resembling so severe a response. I'm sure he was told not to do it again, or that the next time he would have to pay for his meal.

The episode only reinforced what I have observed about the Romans in the four plus years that I have been here. They are drawn to the familiar -- especially when they are sad and lonely and even desperate -- but also as a way of authenticating themselves. We have been having pranzo -- our lunch -- if late at a little trattoria called La Stampa. It has maybe eight tables and prepares completely home grown no frills delicious dishes. There is no menu and perhaps nine or ten choices in all. The thing that I have noticed is that in the three or four times that I have been there, perhaps four or five regular patrons have always been there, eating what the trattoria has prepared that day, and I get the impression that they would not think of taking their midday meal anywhere else. The food is the type you make a home -- simply prepared soups and pastas and chicken and stews -- food that reminds the patrons who they are, where they live, of their grandmothers and aunts, the type of food they have eaten all their lives and will likely eat for the rest of their lives. It is a scene that makes Rome the city it is -- intimate, familiar, tastes you expect to taste, people you expect to see, conversation you expect to hear and participate in -- a scene that confirms the notion that unlike in America, where the special things are special, in Rome it is the ordinary things, the things in which you can partake every day, that are special.

Alan Epstein

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