gypsy royal diadem

An Essay By Ben // 4/13/2002

Yesterday I was remembering how I felt at the beginning of this semester when we first arrived in Rome, and I had to laugh. When I was by myself I felt lost in every way! Trastevere - the neighborhood we live in - seemed like a maze of streets that all looked somehow alike. Cars and mopeds chased me down until I slunk into dark corners. And in the dark corners a bum might be sleeping. At night the neighborhood became a different place altogether. Italian couples and old gypsy women blocked my steps. Bums drank, and dogs howled. Jazz and techno filled wine and Guinness bars. Crumbling back alleys all seemed to lead me away from home.

But, as I remember it, feeling lost was mostly exciting. Some of the things I wrote in my journal in the first week seem silly to me now. Isn’t it amazing how our conclusions about a place change so much given a little time! If I had only lived in Trastevere one day or even one week, I would have a very different impression of it than I have now.

Some things haven’t changed ever (Italian couples and gypsies still seem always in my way), but a lot has changed for me. Living here for almost three months has allowed me to feel completely comfortable in Rome. Over time, I learned the streets of Trastevere. I learned that if you shake your head and say "good evening" to the gypsies they will usually stop asking for money and act like decent human beings at least until you get past them. I learned how to get around Rome by bus, where I can buy English books, check my email, watch an English movie, find good pizza, and go to mass.

After dinner some night, I might go to the local Tabacci shop and buy a phone card, step across the street and buy some Kleenex (my nose sometimes requires a lot) from an old man, and then spend time drinking a glass of house wine or Novella at a small wine shop owned by Biaggio and his wife. Sometimes I buy groceries at STANDA for lunch – a jar of dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil and seasoning, fresh bread, crackers, and maybe a jar of olives. The tomatoes are the best!

There’s an old gypsy with her daughter and son who pretty much spends all her days begging at the main square of Trastevere – Piazza de S. Maria in Trastevere. I know her ways pretty well by now. She usually sits at the entrance to the church with a McDonalds cup held out. Sometimes she has a bowl with prayer cards, too. She is cross-eyed and wears a flowery silk dress and shawl. She’s ugly. One moment she will be yelling at her daughter to go out to a street corner of the piazza to beg, and the next moment she will plead for money from someone passing her. Yesterday, I saw her eating pizza on the street and I said good evening to her, but all she did was start begging. Another time I saw her eating a huge cone of gelati (ice cream pretty much, though better) and begging at the same time! It’s funny, irritating, and sad to watch her and her children. The gypsies on the whole are a strange people. They won’t work or earn their money.

There is this one gypsy girl who is really sweet, though. I think she’s about 7 years old, and everyone who walks through the piazza a lot seems to like her. One day she had a piece of cardboard and was hitting her brother on the head with it. I played a game with her where she would chase after me and try to bop me on the head with it, too. It was fun for both of us. Then, a few days later, her mom got her a wood stick with a balloon tied to the end. She bopped everyone she met with the balloon, and sometimes with the stick, too! I have a great picture of her holding the stick and posing for my camera. A traveling band came into the square about three weeks ago, and she danced. The music was really great, but her gypsy dancing took the show. Lately she has been asking me for a "bambino" whenever I pass her. I think she wants me to buy her a doll.

Sometimes it seems this is a different world of people, and sometimes it’s clear that people here are very much the same.

Here’s a poem I wrote quickly about sitting on the steps of the piazza fountain:

Sitting eating pizza dripping on my reading,
At the steaming piazza fountain.
Laundry airing windy locals chatting,
Pasta breath a basil mountain.
Watching bums drinking dogs sneezing,
In the tanning piazza square.
Stringing music accordion whispering,
Tourists relaxing in a chair.
Gypsy royal diadem decked whining,
Blackest past ancient hair.

Enjoy apricot!



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