Writer and professor André Aciman reads from his story, "Roman Hours," originally published in Conde Nast Traveler and reprinted in The Best American Travel Writing of 2002. In it, he transports the listener to the Rome he moved to as a refugee at age 14, and the home he longed to live in.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
You’re listening to our annual storytelling special featuring Jay O’Callahan, André Aciman, and Diane Ferlatte, who’s just told us a wonderful tale about her yearly trips back to her family homestead in Louisiana. Diane, you’re story reminds me of a story I’d like to share with you all. It’s about the years that my mother and I would return home from her job in Ohio to the family home in New Hampshire for Christmas and New Years.
No one lived there, once my mother started teaching out in Ohio my grandmother moved out to my aunt’s house in another state, but the spirit of home was still there. Now this house was built in 1755 and it was always stone warm. In the winter sure it was cold, because the heat and water were turned off, but it was always warmer than the outside because there’s a big, actually it’s a massive stone center chimney that reaches down to the constant 55 degrees of the earth. So it doesn’t take too long to get a wood stove going to get the place nice and toasty. And when we come back that’s what we’d do, we’d stoke it up, get the place nice and warm, and head out to cut the Christmas tree.
Even today, when I hear feet stamping at the back door, getting the snow off, that says snow to me, justa s much as the crackle of the fire that was going. And each year, we’d spend a lot of time in that car, toll after toll, highway after highway, gas station after gas station, getting there. And more than once we must have gone through some pretty nasty snow and ice storms. But no one ever asked if it was worth it. It was all worth it when you were there, just to be able to throw another log on the fire from a tree that you had cut down maybe the previous year some place out on the thirty acres. It warmed you back then with the sweat and the saw and it warmed you again. And in just a few days we’d be gone again. But there’d be no doubt that we’d come back for the holidays another year.
So that’s my story, Diane.
DIANE FERLATTE: Mm, a good one.
CURWOOD: And I don’t have to travel that far now to get there because that’s the house I live in now. How about you? When’s the last time you went back to Louisiana?
FERLATTE: I went there in August. I took my mom back, because she has beginning Alzheimer’s now and she keeps talking about going back to Louisiana, going back to Louisiana. So I said, we’re going to take her. So we took her back in August, my husband and I. I saw the house where I used to live when I was a little girl. Man, had it changed. It’s all the, you know, houses that I used to remember running from porch to porch. There’s only a few people left on the block that knew me and my momma, but it changed a lot.
But the funny thing about this trip to Louisiana, now that we’re back home in California, my mother doesn’t even remember going.
CURWOOD: Hmm. How strong is that pull on a landscape of that community for you?
FERLATTE: It’s a strong, because I have a-- I went back there every year. It was always, you know, people knew me, knew my momma, my cousins. It was just such a warm – everybody -- I felt loved.
CURWOOD: So it gets harder and harder to go back the longer you’ve been away perhaps.
FERLATTE: Yeah, especially since everybody is going and the neighborhood is changing. My house where I used to live looks so different and so old. Different people are living there. It was kind of a rough neighborhood now. It’s just different.
CURWOOD: Jay, what did Diane’s story evoke for you?
JAY O’CALLAHAN: Oh Diane, I love the love you had for Louisiana. I love the sense of smells and community and the voices, the welcoming, and I love the sense of your life going to California, that journey and then being pulled back. And then the wonderful, wonderful cake. It was just like a wonderful invitation into your journey. Thank you. Beautiful.
CURWOOD: And André?
ACIMAN: Oh, it filled me with so many things in common. To start with, you know, I was born in a city called Alexandria, so it instantly rang a bell. But the thing that I was -- kept thinking of is now that you basically have lost that childhood home and the childhood city, town, can you recreate this for other people, that same feeling of love and welcoming and family and friends, community? Can you reproduce that elsewhere or is it permanently lost?
FERLATTE: No, I think it can be created other places, especially where I live now. I get to know my neighbors. I know everybody on my block. And I invite people over to my house all the time, we’re always eating. So I try to create that. Of course my family, who lives in California, they still come over and we always gather, eating. And my mother can still sort of make hoe-cake bread, but she’s losing it. And if I don’t get the recipe, it’s going to be gone forever.
CURWOOD: Yeah, I hope you get it soon – I want to try it myself. André, you’re up next. Now you grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. And at the age of 14 you and your family who are Jews were expelled from that country, back in 1965. Your family fled to Italy.
ACIMAN: That’s right.
CURWOOD: I first read your essay in The Best American Travel Writing of 2002, and I have to say I’ve never been able to think the same about Rome ever since. So let’s here your story called “Roman Hours.”
ACIMAN: We may never become Roman, and yet it takes no more than a few hours for the spell to kick in. We become different. Our gaze starts to linger. We are less fussy over space. Voices become more interesting. Smiles are over-the-counter affairs. We begin to see beauty everywhere. And the city is beautiful in such unpredictable ways: the dirty ocher walls are beautiful, and why not? Ocher is the closest stone we’ll ever come to flesh. It is the color of clay, and from clay God made flesh. The figs we’re about to eat under the sun are beautiful. The worn-out pavement along Via dei Capellari is however streaked with dirt, beautiful. The clarinetist who wends his way towards the sunless Vicolo delle Grotte, wailing a Bellini aria, plays beautifully.
What wouldn’t I give never to lose Rome? I worry on leaving that I slip back into my day to day life far sooner than I thought possible. It’s not just the beauty that I’ll miss. I’ll miss too the way the city gets under the skin and for a while makes me its own.
I first arrived in Rome as a refugee in 1965. Mourning my life in Alexandria and determined never to like Rome, I eventually surrendered to the city and for three magical years the Campo Marzio was the place I came closest to ever loving. I grew to love Italian and Dante and Leopardi, and here as nowhere else on earth I even chose the exact building where I’d make my home someday.
Years ago, after school I liked nothing better than to lose my way in a labyrinth of tiny, shady furtive ocher-hued vicoli. What I wished above all things was to amble freely about the streets of the Campo Marzio and to find whatever I wished to find there freely, whether it was a true image of the city or something in me, or a new home to replace the one I’d lost as a refugee.
Then one afternoon a miracle occurred. During a walk past the Piazza Campitelli, I spotted a sign on a door. Affittasi, to let. Unable to resist, I walked into the building and spoke to the portinaia saying that my family might be interested in renting the apartment. When told the price, I maintained a straight face. That evening, I immediately announced to my mother that we had to move and would she please drop everything the following afternoon and meet me after school to visit a new apartment.
She did not have to worry about not speaking Italian; I would do all the talking. When she reminded me that we were poor now and relied on the kindness of relatives, I concocted an argument to persuade her that since the amount we paid a mean uncle each month for our current hole in the wall was so absurdly bloated, why not find a better place altogether? To this day, I do not know why my mother decided to play along. We agreed that if we couldn’t persuade the portinaia to lower her price, my mother would make a face to suggest subdued disapproval.
I would never have believed that so run down a façade on the Campo Marzio could house so sumptuous and majestic an apartment. As we entered the empty high-ceiling flat, our cautious, timid footsteps began to produce such loutish echoes on the squeaking parquet floor that I wished to squelch each one, as though they were escaped insects we had brought with us from the Alberone district that would give away our imposture.
I looked around, looked at mother. It must have dawned on both of us that we didn’t even have enough money to buy a kitchen table, let alone four chairs to go around it. And yet as I peaked at the old room, this I already knew was the Rome I loved, thoroughly lavish and baroque, like a heroic opera by Handel. The portinaia’s daughter was following me with her eyes. I tried to look calm and glanced at the ceiling as though inspecting it expertly, effortlessly. I slipped into another room. The bedrooms were too large and there were four of them. I instantly picked mine. I looked out the window and spotted the familiar street. I opened the French windows and stepped out into the balcony, its tiles bathed in the fading light of the setting sun. I leaned against the banister. To live here.
My mother had come well-dressed that day, probably to impress the portinaia. But her tailor-made suit, which had been touched up recently, seemed dated and she looked older, nervous. She played the part terribly, pretending there was something bothering her that she couldn’t quite put her fingers on, and finally assuming the disappointed air we had rehearsed together when it became clear that she and the portinaia could not agree on the rent.
“Anche a me dispiace, Signore - I too am sorry,” said the portinaia’s daughter. What I took with me that day was not just the regret in her dark, darting eyes as she escorted us downstairs, but the profound sorrow with which, as if for good measure, she had thrown in an unexpected bonus that stayed with me for the rest of my life. Signore. I had just turned 15.
I have often wondered what became of that apartment. After our visit, I never dared pass it again and crafted elaborate detours to avoid running into the portinaia or her daughter. Years later, back from the states with long hair and a beard, I made my next visit. What surprised me most was not that the Campo Marzio was riddled with high-end boutiques, but that someone had taken down the affitasi sign and never put it back up again. The apartment had not waited. And yet the building I never lived in is the only place I revisit each time I go back to Rome, just as the Rome that haunts me each time is still the one I fabricated on my afternoon walks.
Today the building is no longer drab ocher, but peach-pink. It too has gone to the other side, and like the girl with the blackamoor eyes, is most likely trying to stay young, the expert touch a beautician’s hand filling in those spots that have always humanized Roman stone and made the passage of time here the painless, tiny miracle that it is. At 15 I visited the life I wished to lead and the home I was going to make my own someday. Now I was visiting the life I had dreamt of living.
Fortunately the present, like the noon-day sun here, always intrudes upon the past. Only seconds after I come to a stop before the building, a budding indifference takes hold of me and I am hastening to start on one of those much-awaited long walks I already know won’t end before sundown. I am thinking of ocher and water and fresh figs and the good simple foods I’ll have for lunch. I am to go out tonight with old friends to a restaurant called Vecchia Roma on the Piazza Campitelli. On our way I know we’ll walk past my secret corner on the Campo Marzio. I always make sure we take that route where I’ll throw a last furtive look up at this apartment by the evening light.
An unreal spell always descends upon Rome at night, and the large lampadari on these empty interconnecting streets beam with the light of small altars and icons in dark churches. You can hear your own footsteps, even though your feet don’t seem to touch the ground but almost hover above the gleaning slate pavements, covering distances that make the span of years seem trivial.
Along the way, as the streets grow progressively darker and emptier and spookier, I let everyone walk ahead of me, be alone a while. I like to imagine the ghosts of the poet Leopardi or of the French novelist Stendhal or of the actress Anna Magnani, rising by the deserted corner, each one always willing to stop and greet me, like characters in Dante who have wandered up to the surface and are eager to mingle before ebbing back into the night.
It is the 19th century Frenchman I’m closest to. He alone understands why these streets and the apartment up above are so important to me. He understands that coming back to places adds an annual ring and is the most accurate way of measuring time. He too kept coming back here. He smiles and says that he’s still doing so, reminding me that just because one is gone doesn’t mean one loves the city any less, or that one stops fussing with time here once it stops everywhere else. This, after all, is the eternal city. One never leaves. One can if one wishes choose one’s ghost spot. I know where mine is.
CURWOOD: Ghost spot. What an evocative image. Not only did you really bring Rome alive for us, André, but what a powerful ending, choosing a place that you'd like to haunt.
Let’s talk about Rome for a moment. What made it so difficult to adapt to life living in Rome after leaving Alexandria?
ACIMAN: Well my father had basically become an Italian citizen while still in Egypt. I suspect he must have bought a passport and we became Italian. So when they kicked us out of Egypt and expropriated everything we owned, we basically had to end up in a country that was our homeland, which it really wasn’t. In Italy we arrived as refugees, as Italian refuges.
CURWOOD: And back in Egypt you were quite well to do?
ACIMAN: Yes, and we were totally, totally penniless when we arrived. And clearly what I tried to evoke in the piece was the young kid, me, I was trying desperately to reconstruct something that contained the best of Rome, which I didn’t know much of, and just basically try to transport everything I had lost back into Rome and try to put the pieces back together sort of with spit glue and make believe that we were okay again.
CURWOOD: And I’ve been thinking actually since you finished reading what my ghost spot would be, and I think I’ve finally come up with one. At first I thought, well it’s the family farmhouse, but hey, there’s a captain of the Revolutionary War that has that as his ghost spot. Really the place for me is a pine grove that’s not very far from my house where I would go when I was very little and find a bed of pine needles and just relax and look up at the sky and smell the pine.
Diane, how about you? I wonder if there’s a spot that sprang to mind for you, or you Jay, when you heard André talking about his haunting spot.
FERLATTE: I don’t really have a ghost spot or haunting spot. I think what I like or places where I like to live has to have greenery, I guess because maybe because I was born in the South and there was so much green around me. I need trees, I need grass, I need, you know, to see some of those things around me wherever I live.
CURWOOD: How about you, Jay?
O’CALLAHAN: One of my ghost spots is a tree, like yours Diane, but this is, it’s a beech tree that was seven realms high when I was a little boy, and it still exists, it’s still on Pill Hill. And I would spend hours when I was seven to maybe 13 climbing up that tree. I loved to use my arms and feel the roughness. It was like a rough, rough grey elephant. And somehow that’s a ghost that gives me strength, just feeling that and almost feeling the roots going down into the earth.
CURWOOD: We’ll be right with more of our storytelling special in just a minute. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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