July 21, 2012


"Please don't retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them."
~Anna Magnani

In the Piazza delIa Madonna dei Monti, in the ombra di colosseo, expats gather to complain. Not about the piazza itself, generally agreed to be among the prettiest in Rome. The central cafe looks out upon a two-tiered fountain, mercifully cherub free. The thin white column of a Ukrainian orthodox church is discreet, unexpected.

Depending on the hour, we watch American kids drink cheap wine straight from the bottle; tanned Roman girls, chain-smoking, dressed in the sunset silks they bought in Mumbai; hipster gays en route to Testaccio; three boxer dogs; delighted German tourists who think themselves the first to discover the place; very old Italians of suspicious vitality; two boys who use the church door as a goal mouth; and a beautiful young man who has been sleeping rough here for six months after a disagreement with his girlfriend. The young man is much appreciated-he is the sort of local color for which we came to Rome in the first place.

And we enjoy Sundays, when the Ukrainian church congregation spills outside, bringing with it a close-harmony praise song. Everything else is complaint. Italian bureaucracy is impossible, the TV unwatchable, the government unbelievable, and the newspapers impenetrable. Expats in Rome are somehow able to consistently maintain their sense of outraged wonder, despite all reading The Dark Heart of Italy on the plane here. Italian Women is a subject to stretch from morning coffee to midday ravioli. "The land that feminism forgot!" And on cue it all rolls out like an index: the degrading sexualization of, the nightly televisual humiliation of, Berlusconi's condescending opinion of, perilous abortion rights of, low wages of, minimal parliamentary presence of, invisibility within the church of, et cetera.

Yet there exist confusing countersigns. The new mothers with tiny babes-in-arm, welcome at any gathering. The four women chatting at the next table, a frank, practical conversation about sexual pleasure. The handsome lady grocer with her giant biceps and third-trimester belly, unpacking boxes of beer from the delivery truck, separating street fights, bullying her menfolk, lecturing the local drunks, overcharging the tourists, strategizing with the priests, running this piazza and everyone in it. Respected, desired, feared.

Such countersigns are not unified: they do not all point in one direction, and so ex pats find it difficult to process them-which may be the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant sensibility. The strongest countersign of all is Anna's face. It follows me everywhere, staring out from restaurants, pub bathrooms, private houses. Nannarella. Mamma Roma. La Magnani. Anna is a confusing countersign, in the land that feminism forgot.