Alessandro of Rome
We are standing outside the Circus Massimo Metro station opposite the roman chariot raceway of Circus Maximus. Traffic roars through the massive roundabout as if re-enacting the roman charioteers. A young man of about thirty with a spring in his step, jeans hanging off his bum, runs across the intersection followed by three girls with large bags. Two are platinum blonde the other dark haired. Finns we later learn. A dark eyed southern girl (Napoli it transpires) who has been standing beside us for the past five minutes suddenly answers my thoughts. She says they’re taking their bags to the shop on the far side of the Circus to store them while we do this walk. A few minutes later they emerge and the young man shepherds the Finns through the chariots towards our corner of the circle.
This is our introduction to Alessandro, a young history nut from Rome who runs free walks twice a week to the places tourists and other tour guides don’t go, the back streets the hidden sites. The group has meanwhile grown to about twelve people – the three Finns, two Belgians and a scattering from other nations including North America, Sweden, Poland, Argentina, other Italians and we two Australians. We think we blend in amongst the largely twenty something group but in reality we are the grandparents of the cluster.
Alessandro beckons us to form a tight group around him and begins. He apologizes for not being in good health. He has an allergy of some sort and is on medication. He hopes he will survive the tour.
Before we leave the curb he tells us his three rules for crossing the roads of Rome (he has not lost a guest yet and wishes none of us to be the first). Rule 1. Make eye contact with the oncoming driver; check they are not texting. Rule 2. While maintaining eye contact, confidently (as if you own the road) step into the traffic walking steadily and allowing the traffic to flow around you if necessary. Rule 3. Never run, never hesitate - any sign of fear will only encourage drivers to revert to their instinctive wild state – programmed to kill and maim. The exception to these rules involves buses and taxi drivers. He then leads us into the melee.
He is full of knowledge and apologies for his health – though none of us can detect any sign of his malaise. If anything it seems likely he might have had a big night out the previous evening. We don’t care. He throws us questions, the answers to which we are rarely able to answer which introduces his next gem of information. We leave the circus Maximus and I am immediately lost. We are below the walls of the Paletine Hill and Rome has no sky scrapers by which to navigate. A moment ago the Coliseum was in sight and now a lane or two later, my sense of N, S, E and West have abandoned me. In addition it is approaching late morning and the sun is scorching down from high in the sky. I can’t even use my old boy scout’s trick using my watch and the hour hand to get my bearings.
The group is largely quiet and attentive except for the Finns who talk loudly to each other as we try to understand Allesandro’s accented English. The other exception is a Belgian girl who begins the tour (within the first 100 metres) accusing Alessandro (and all Italians) of cheating in the recent World Cup. (Belgium was knocked out by Italy apparently – I don’t care, I am Australian with an Australian flag flying proudly from window in Malta). Thus begins an argument that continues for the duration of the walk.
I’m sure we walk at least two kilometres by which time we reach a farmer’s market full of local cheeses and olive oil, meats, fish and homemade delicacies. I’d love to come back here so I ask Alessandro where we are on my map and he points to a spot about 500 metres from our beginning point.
Alessandro has a great sense of humour and reserves his most mocking comments for the ugly white monolith which was built to honour the first King of the newly united Italy (1861), King Victor Emmanuel II. This monstrosity could have been designed by the Third Reich’s Albert Speer such is its scale. It features oversized statues and overwhelming friezes and seems to herald some terrible return of another Roman Empire and perhaps hints at the emergence, in the 20th Century, of Mussolini and his grandiose aspirations. Alessandro is passionate about his city.
He has his rhythm now and races ahead with his commentary. His English is good with the occasional charming mispronunciation. Ironically the tour is in English but only three of us are native English speakers. Allesandro’s medications have kicked in and he shifts a gear resulting in some of the others getting lost in his rapid fire comments.
The noisy Belgian girl is an exception. Her English is excellent and she continues her battering of the Italian football team at each pause in the tour. Alessandro meanwhile is not short of an opinion. In pretty much everything Italian he claims expertise. And yet he is not pretentious, just confident of his knowledge and unable to resist a challenge.
During a break at the half way point he shepherds us into his favourite ice cream shop (there are many ‘best’ ice cream shops in Rome depending on the “private arrangement” guides make I suspect) and over macadamia and vanilla bean ice cream he discusses (most vigorously with our friend from Belgium) the authentic Roman recipe for spaghetti carbonara and the important place of offal in traditional cuisine.
Alessandro lays his trap by inviting Miss Belgium (as if she needs any encouragement) to describe her carbonara and then begins his dissection. Mushrooms – NEVER! Bacon – OUTRAGEOUS! And NO cream. Miss Belgium is baffled. What about the creamy consistency? It should come from the pecorino and parmigiana cheeses cooked, not in oil or butter (well, perhaps a little olive oil) but in the juices from the pork cheek (remember, never bacon) and then the egg. Miss Belgium argues strongly and objects frequently - pepper and salt for seasoning? Pepper yes, salt NEVER! Alessandro is unshakable and wins this round. Simple food with quality ingredients. It’s peasant food he reminds us - Alessandro scores a simple goal. It’s beginning to look like the Netherlands v Brazil game.
At the half way mark it is Italy – 3, Belgium - 0. The topic has broadened to encompass all World Cups and European Cups. Miss Belgium cites a game played in 1910 as evidence of something which none of understand or have any knowledge or interest in. Alessandro responds with the information that the game was actually played in 1912. Miss B is silent. She has scored an own goal. Italy – 4, Belgium – 0.
On the walk Allesandro’s hyperactivity continues. He checks his mobile constantly. In the middle of his comic exposition on Roman statues (he has found an example of an ancient ‘selfie”) his phone buzzes. He checks it and mid-sentence breaks off to take the call. We all sense that something important must have caused him to do this. ‘Mama, no…….. not now ……….. Yes I’m okay. Yes, I’m taking the medication. No I’m not going to die. …” The call between Alessandro and his mum continues for three or four minutes while he prowls the square, waving his hands, bending double as if in pain, embarrassed at his mother’s attention. When he returns he regales us with the story. He sneezes and his mother wants to call an ambulance. He doesn’t call her and she thinks he is dead. The girls in the group are in fits. Italian boys and their mothers. They think it’s hilarious.
Alessandro leads us into secret courtyards and up alleyways behind the crowds of tourists, at each point allowing the story of Rome to unfold. The most remarkable thing I learn is the amazing amount of Roman buildings, foundations, walls, remnant buildings which have survived and been incorporated into subsequent buildings. At one point we are looking at a building which incorporates four different eras of construction into its fabric. We avoid the long queue of tourists waiting to kiss the feet of Jesus at a church built on a Norman structure, follow a narrow winding lane full of hat makers and end the tour in the courtyard of a small square. A tiny space entered through the ubiquitous arch surrounded on all sides by ochre walls. Hidden marble steps lead to the 2nd and 3rd levels where washing hangs from balconies and garden ferns drape from the windows. The square is lush with greenery. We all want to live here. It is romantic Rome at its simplest and best.
The football argument continues in this small space. Miss B for belligerent is determined to score a goal. Alessandro is unwilling to concede. Eventually I suggest a truce with as much tact as possible and there is a moment of quiet as Alessandro brings his story to a close and bids us farewell.
I score him a perfect 10 for his knowledge and entertainment value and Andrea and I offer him a generous tip for his services. The others offer nothing except their adoration. They are all students and are not as cashed up as we are (in fact the three Finnish girls and their bags – remember their bags? - are sleeping on his floor tonight. Couch surfing). Alessandro does not even ask for money or a donation.
His passion has been sated for another week. His audience has been enthralled. That has been his reward. We have been with him for four hours.
Eight of us then join Alessandro at a small pizzeria nearby for lunch. The Argentine boy invites Andrea and I to join him at the Argentine Embassy for the final of the World Cup later in the evening; the Polish girl who is about to begin the final year of her medical studies offers to assess Allesandro’s allergy symptoms; the Finnish girls eat like horses and we have a beer. Notably absent is Miss Belgium who has retired to the change rooms to lick her wounds.