Roma a Manarola

I ought to add, after the fact, that the question of Rome’s postmodernity only arises in the light of the Berlusconi effect. Part of which, a major contributing part, has been and is his reliance on the media by way of a controlling influence if not always outright ownership of the media to create his agenda. The entrepreneur who drove us in his van from the airport into Rome said boo Berlusconi. The other feedline into there being a postmodernity of Rome is the virtuality of its history as brought to life in digital dramatisations and scenic overlays. As if every entrepreneur involved in the Rome experience – of millions – is his own stage-manager hiding behind the veil of the city’s history, not, like those touristic through-backs, having to wear tunics and sandals like centurions, only having to conjure up the cloud of history, magic dust, fairy dust, before the eyes to blow it in the eyes of visitors. Less guides to the city than puppeteers of a visualisable therefore generalisable representation of the past. I suppose it’s odd – I’m sure I’ve been overusing that word – that it is Imperial Rome which is conjured, in parallel with Peter’s Rome and, not apparently but with a little digging definitely sub rosa filtered through, the Rome of the Risorgimento and following. Afterall, what is the story of Peter’s Rome but the history of global dominance through the Church? a repeat in difference of global dominance through the figure of the Emperor? repeating after a kind a global dominance refracted into the present that is in Rome its own virtuality, or, more simply, simply one making it a place of power.

This morning we were leaving Rome, sadly, having not accomplished half of the things we’d wanted to. But with the strong impression that that half or so were better left to the customers who measure their satisfaction in sites visited, boxes ticked, tasks achieved. And for that, I was sad. Since we had made the right call to leave the ridiculous queue into the Sistine to go via Metropolitana to Villa Borghese – and hired a ridiculous rickshaw, or risco, pronunciation closely related, and gone round in circles in the park; and we had, the day before, made the right decision not to enter the Forum, Q. sick, the sun beating down, and the expense seemingly unmerited: that we hadn’t managed to soak in what Rome was about, stop and consider that the compulsion to get to this place and that place might be a syndrome brought on by the city. Even though we’d sat and listened it had been hard to hear Rome’s heart beat.

Of course, there is the fashion, famous Italian style, of facere una bella figura. And there is the official disdain for questions even if the office in question is one that involves information. As in the Tourist Office where the two women would rather have been chatting to one another, where the official position precedes function: that is, an information officer is someone who possesses information not someone who gives information. We struck this a lot today.

The rockstar at Tourist Information at Termini whose office boasted a big sign stating that no train information would be dispensed, as if there were a Train Information office. There wasn’t. And later, the same thing at La Spezia Centrale, a Tourist Information official who told me that for train information I would have to join a queue running out the door of the extremely hard to find bigliateria. Going back to the rockstar, we asked where we could get our Eurail tickets franked, which is what you’re supposed to do the first time you use them. He pointed, over there! Where?

Where? We walked all over the station looking for the right queue to join, adding our numbers for a time to one belonging to a travel agent, before finding a zig-zagging colossus of a line running through one of those seatbelt cordon mazes into a line of at least ten desks only two of which were occupied. For Trenitalia.

Our initial plan had been to dump our bags at the station and check some of the sights left untouched. Entering the line to Italian trains that dream left us. 9:30 we arrived at Termini. By twelve we’d only just found our train, had our tickets franked and grabbed a bite to eat. A very good bite. At Autogrill, a sort of railway food buffet with an emphasis on the fresh and flavoursome and with free olive oil and vinegar at the tables. By then then, we’d been sucked in to paying an extra fee on top of our Eurail passes of 10 Euro per person because, is how the man behind the desk put it, the non-reserved seats had already sold out. How do non-reserved seats sell out? apart from by changing the nature of their being, their ontological status, from non-reserved to reservable?

When we got to it the train was good, 1st class went with our severely reduced options as the official for Trenitalia in his grudging – facere cruddo figura – style. Two American gentlemen (I know) gave up their monopoly over a four seater block so that we could sit together and we hurtled on the Express in airconditioned comfort for three hours and fifty minutes. It went like 3.5.

We passed four power stations, all with red and white-striped tall chimney stacks and the landscape was largely unchanging, olive trees pruned into fluffy Vs, buffalo grass, tilled fields, fields full of sunflowers all dead, swarms of birds rising from them, seaside towns the universal practical arrangement in stacks of seaside apartments, or condos. Then Pisa really marked a border. A beautiful view of the buildings descending directly into the river there. The hills came and finally we descended at La Spezia.

The Trenitalia queue in Rome had been an ordeal. Now we had unhelpful – just because I am full of help means I need to be helpful? – Cinqueterre advice; we had running down the platform to catch a train that first shunted one way, then the other and at last gave up. We had Chinese whispers running up and down the spooked tourist community: first it was – over to platform 2 from platform 1 ASAP;then platform 7 had something going for it; meanwhile the Tourist Information informing me of no Train Information; finally the conductor overhead telling a young woman travelling that the train to Manarola was due to depart from binario 6 at 5:05 pm. We scooted down and up and under to come out there. And nabbed the sweaty aircon-less thing, thinking twice about taking seats, perched in one of those inbetween areas, where some very pleasant La Spezians helped us to get off at the right station. Riomaggiore. Then Manarola.

By now we were over an hour late to meet up with the key man or woman for our apartment and hadn’t been able to ring ahead. Not our fault we were later told. Anxiously through the tunnel, picking the brightly coloured multi-storey blocks perched on the hillside above, excitedly, but not too, lest disappointment, out into a funny little square where the locals were holding a party; consulting the directions again, down through the fishing village, its orientation predominantly vertical, like a miniature Hong Kong, fishing boats on either side of the main walkway down to the sea, small dinghy types, with upright bowsprits, like the forebears of gondolas. At the moment I spotted the sign we saw Giacomo coming down the cobbled slope to meet us. You’re psychic, I said, explaining I’d been unable to phone ahead to say we were delayed.

He opened the door into a smallish room with a spiral staircase at one end, told us to leave our luggage there on the ground floor, in the kitchen and follow him upstairs. Where he showed us the single bedroom. Bathroom. TV. Balcony. Then up another flight to the double, again with balcony. Both balconies having unimpeded views out to sea, westward. Magic. Totally paradisaical. Down below, a swimming hole.

We visited it before dinner. The water pellucid. Fish nibbling my toes as I sat afraid to launch out into the void, the deep and clear. Fish everywhere visible. Big fish. A little afraid of jellyfish, we retreated this time, to see what the locals would do with the strange transparent worms – perhaps fish eggs? – floating below the surface of the water. It was so late by the time we got to it nobody else was in the water. Apart from some thrill-seekers jumping in on the surfy side to impress a girl.

Dined well on pizza and calzone and a wine called Scogio, locally produced, very: from La Spezia. The agriculture of this area is astounding. As is the hydroculture. Terraces rise up behind the multi-coloured domiciliary towers against the steep slopes of the hills. The water runs down. We see the waterwheel and where once it turned a millstone for powdering wheat.

The sun sinks in plain dazed sight. The moon rises up a quarter of the sky, turns yellow, then cheese, then nicotine-stained, then deep pustulous yellow, then blood. And proceeds to sink before our eyes, winking out at last, the sky swept with stars.