Francis and Beppe

In the end the Argentinian guy won. You can bet your bottom dollar that pissed off the Brazilians, even if the new pope is Latin-American. If there’s one thing they don’t like in Brazil, it’s being beaten by Argentina.

I missed the white smoke, but as soon as I went outside it looked like Roma had won the Champions League. And outside is where you need to go, if you’re lucky enough to come to Rome. I passed through the city very briefly a few years ago, in transit from the Adriatic, long enough to catch a taxi back out. I had technically missed a flight, but I’m stubborn. I picked one of the older cab drivers―they’re the ones who’ve survived―and headed out of town. Like Don Corleone, I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. We were in the days of the lira, a currency that had more zeroes than the U.S. national debt.

Before World War I, one greenback would buy you five lire. Two years after World War II, a dollar bought you nine hundred of the little fellows. I traded the cabbie double the fare for half the time. He flew, scattering Japanese tourists and Nikon cameras in his wake―of course I made the flight―they do say you pay more for a happy ending.

Made famous by Berlusconi, a one-time cruise ship crooner (imagine the heels), and now the butt (scusi) of toilet jokes, a poster tempts young ladies into a career in bunga bunga.

Made famous by Berlusconi, a one-time cruise ship crooner (imagine the heels), and now the butt (scusi) of toilet jokes, a poster tempts young ladies into a career in bunga bunga.

The Piazza Montecitorio was buzzing with the likes of Beppe Grillo, Berlusconi, and Bersani. Although the Brussels bureaucrats are worried about the political situation here, this is nothing new―Italy has chewed up fifty governments since the Second World War, with no major ill-effects. I think partly that’s because Italians are talking machines, and for decades the various coalitions have in fact done very little barring the use of their tongues.

Right now any coalition is made more difficult by the fact that Beppe won’t talk to Bersani, Bersani won’t speak to Berlusconi, and uncle Silvio won’t talk to Grillo. A truly Italian SNAFU, made more fun by radical left wing demonstrators jumping up and down this morning in front of parliament, carabinieri with sub-machine guns and black superman capes, gangs of reporters surpassed only by their CNN peers across the Tiber in Vatican City, and by the curious fact that all three key politicians begin with a ‘B’.

Every picture I’ve seen of Bersani shows him with his head in his hands, smitten by despair. Berlusconi is the usual tragicomedy, the man who described Obama as ‘bello e abbronzato’ (handsome and tanned) and emulated doggy-sex with an oblivious policewoman in front of his whole entourage. And Grillo’s the comedian.

The cabbies are unanimous in their diagnosis: the politicians mangiano troppo, they eat to much. The hunger in this case is for euros, not pasta, preferably stashed in the vault of a discreet bank in a small country just north of here.

It’s a short drive from secular mayhem to the kingdom of heaven, down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and across one of the many bridges that span the Tiber. Rome is hedonistic, perhaps a little less so than when Nero ruled the roost, but HPLC chemical analysis shows a marked spike of cocaine residues in the river water in the wee (sorry) hours of Saturday morning.

Driving in Rome is not for the faint-hearted. I wasn’t at the wheel, but often rode as the front passenger in taxis, in what the Portuguese call the lugar do morto, the dead man’s seat, and I had a blast. The most enjoyment can be secured by ensuring the driver is gesticulating fiercely, which can be triggered by an innocent question about politics, soccer or (this week) the pope.

When we found out an Argentinian had won, I tried to persuade my driver that the new occupant of Peter’s chair would take the name Leonel, or perhaps Pope Messi I, and we did several roundabouts at right angles, hands thoroughly disconnected from the wheel―a Roman version of fly by wire. My passengers were not thrilled, but at least they were watching from the bleachers.

Zebra crossings are an architectural curiosity serving no purpose whatsoever, the city has remarkably few traffic lights, and no discernible roundabout lanes. I did a copious amount of jaywalking, and discovered the relationship between pedestrians and traffic is a continuous yin and yang. No driver will willingly stop for a pedestrian, and the reverse appears to hold true.

Hidden behind a back street, displayed by the magic of modern technology, a palace surprises the casual wanderer.

Hidden behind a back street, displayed by the magic of modern technology, a palace surprises the casual wanderer.

In a country battling austerity, Rome is full, exciting, and expensive. I walked.

You see, when you get off the main thoroughfares, which are noisy, smelly, and often devoid of large swathes of sidewalk, the back streets surprise you at every corner: an alley broadens into a square, a church appears out of nowhere, an archway hides a courtyard the size of a football field, with a palazzo at the end of it.

Someone told me Paris is nice but it doesn’t hold a candle to Rome. I agree. Rome has more gravitas, more inner and outer beauty, and more beautiful women than any other city I know. And the people are genuinely nice.

I made my way into Vatican City, negotiating armies of Indian street vendors and a flotilla of satellite-dished TV trucks, wilting in post-papal lassitude. I marvelled at the power of this religion, at the immense opulence of St. Peter’s Basilica, the square still full of gunmetal-grey barriers and black plastic chairs. In front of me, on the second floor, the red velveted balcony where the pope blesses the faithful.

A cardinal escapee makes his exit from St. Peter’s square. Buon Lavoro! shouts a woman, praising the results of the conclave.

A cardinal escapee hotfoots it out of St. Peter’s square. Buon Lavoro! shouts a woman, praising the results of the conclave.

I got into the basilica in less than ten minutes. Admission is free, which is very sensible – if you needed a ticket the queues would be fierce. But all around the square, you can’t help but be reminded of the moneylenders at the temple―gone are the Indians selling various flavors of crap, replaced by Vatican stores of every variety.

As I walked through the nave, and gazed at the burial place of St. Peter, the very first pope, it struck me that unlike Mecca and Medina, the Islamic holy cities, which are banned to unbelievers, the Vatican is open to all comers. A sign in Latin tells me god welcomes everyone, good and evil alike.

Several Christian arabists have done the Haj undercover, at great personal risk. The first on record is the spy Pêro da Covilhã, one of the heroes of The India Road.

Joining the throng of devoted Muslims, he made his way to the Grand Mosque of El Haram and stood before the great door with its gold paneling and ornate hammered circles. Nineteen gates made up the entrance to the huge courtyard housing the Kaaba, the Holy Cube of Islam. Pero stood near the center and stared at the holy site: built by Adam, rebuilt by Abraham, in the image of the house built by God in heaven before the world was made. The Kaaba was made of granite, the walls seven or eight times the height of a man, the corners aligned with the cardinal points. The whole structure was raised a full span above the ground, supported on a salient marble slab. The spy looked up in awe at the black silk curtain, embroidered in gold, that covered the upper part of the Cube.

I counted one hundred and forty eight popes buried in the basilica since the start of catholicism. Over two thousand years, it works out at about thirteen years per pope. On the marble plaque, there’s only room for another forty popes, that’s just over half a millenium. But the church is slowly changing. After all, until a few years ago the ATMs of the Vatican Bank operated entirely in Latin.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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