I can almost understand the contradiction. Almost.
Everywhere you walk in Rome are monuments to Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi, heroes of the late 19th century when Italy belatedly and with untold difficulty merged its walled cities and foreign-owned principalities into a modern nation state able to collect taxes and participate in wars.
The merging process didn’t quite take. Italy still has more dialects than France has cheese, more cynics than patriots, and a rising political party ready to split their section of northeast Italy from the rest of the scuffed-up boot.
In March, Italy celebrated 150 years of nationhood. That didn’t take, either. The official merger was ignored and much more attention given to the matrimonial merger of a royal couple in Britain.
Italians live in a country much younger than the United States. They are more concerned with dodging small trucks in smaller alleys than voting in elections. Their best energies are given to discerning the freshest possible groceries and trying not to step on the neighbor’s dog’s droppings.
Italians casually display what is called menefreghismo – an I don’t care attitude to everything outside immediate family and friends. One highly impolite saying runs Non me ne frega niente! – “I don’t give a (blank) about any of it.”
It’s a useful attitude when it comes to living with blatant corruption in Italy’s only national sport, soccer; when lying politicians own the newspapers and television channels that report on them, when the accused endure decades-long trials whose decisions eventually are overturned, a place where convicted criminals often hold seats in parliament.
Italians admit they live in a casino – a brothel, a miserable confusion, a mess -- but they can smell the olive trees through the garbage.
Naive visitors come for the glories, not the ghosts, and there is nothing wrong with that. Pilgrims to Rome were amazed not only at the bones of the saints and the magnificence of St. Peters, but stunned by the falling-apartness of it all. They still are.
Americans complain how expensive everything is, how this storekeeper lied or that church was closed. We make our personal pilgrimages to Rome in search of Raphael, only to experience invisible hands in the backpack on a hot and crowded bus to the Vatican.
As I listened to the neverending complaints I thought about the joys of sunset at Hadrian’s tomb, Raphael’s erotic paintings in the Villa Farnesina. A freshly squeezed spremuta, the famous pizza bianca in Campo dei Fiori, sliced off cleanly with one terrific swipe of an enormous knife. Etruscan marvels in a spotlessly clean museum located inside a gorgeous palazzo located in turn inside a gorgeous park.
The trattoria down the street where you knock to enter. Nuns flying down the sidewalk. The marvelous marble of Chiesa Nuova which lost the right to be called “new” several centuries ago.
The first strawberries of spring. Homemade ravioli in a homemade sauce served by the person who cooked it. The shouting, the laughing, the unruly joy of it all.
Italy is an unstirred soup, a kettle of contradictions, a tantalizing work of art obscured by a long, dark passageway. A language so ethereal they invented an inflexible grammar to make it real.
All this... and I don’t begin to understand how it all fits together. Does anyone?