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Friday, 9 June, 2000, 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK
Farewell to Italy
trevi fountain
The Trevi fountain: A monument of beauty
By Orla Guerin

It has not gone down well in the neighbourhood. Ever since I broke the news that I am moving on, the usual smiles have been replaced by mystified sad faces.

Passing traffic is - of course - allowed here. But once in, they prefer you to stay.

Work is an irritation - something to be kept under tight control

My neighbourhood, Trastevere, has a particularly strong sense of local pride. In early times it was separate from Rome.

The name came from its location across the river Tevere. And some of the older residents here are still reluctant to cross the river.

Many of the families living in the cobbled and congested back alleys have been here for generations.

Shameful news

So it is a source of puzzlement that you would leave the area - let alone tear yourself away from Rome itself.

I broke the shameful news to Mauro, the flower seller and unofficial watchdog of the district over a cappuchino in Sachettis.

This is the neighbours' favourite bar. It is seen as dereliction of duty if locals don't begin their day with a frothy coffee in here - and a quick interrogation by the bar staff.

I tried - in vain - to explain to Mauro, that I was leaving for professional reasons. It's not an easy message to convey here.

Italy may have the fifth largest economy in the world but for many Romans work is an irritation - something to be kept under tight control, ensuring that it does not encroach on family and leisure time.

"How could you?" he said finally, his weary eyes looking even more mournful than usual.

Nowhere compares to Rome

Mauro has never left Italy - at 58 years of age he has yet to board a plane. But he says he has seen enough of the world on TV to know that nowhere compares to Rome.

"You'll never see this much beauty again," he said with a sigh. Having already been on more planes than I could count, I can only agree.

Roman neighbourliness is one of the great benefits of living here. And like many facets of life in Rome it is a blessing and a curse.

"I can't wait to be anonymous again," a foreign friend said recently. "I want to live in a normal city, where people ignore you and look the other way."

That seldom happens here.

Roman neighbourliness

Roman a blessing and a curse

Every time he takes his baby daughter out for a walk he is accosted by neighbours convinced that his child is getting too much or too little, food, air and exercise.

They don't give advice he wailed - they issue instructions. And they are quite sure that it is their business.

Another friend was approached by the local butcher when he returned home after a three-week trip abroad.

"Just to let you know," he said, "you have nothing to worry about. Your wife was out and about every day. But," - he assured him conspiratorially - "not with any men".

The same friend cannot help but know his neighbours' business. In the apartment below lives a convicted mafioso, enjoying the comforts of home under house arrest.

When the police come by to make their regular checks on him they don't bother to come inside. They simply holler at his window from the ground below. And he shouts back down to confirm that he is indoors.

Stray shouts

This kind of dialogue is a Roman art form. This is a city of stray shouts ...escaping from open doors and windows, filling the streets with a kind of broken melody.

I will find all this hard to leave behind, but one friend here - who is half Italian - insists that he envies me my departure.

"It's a lucky escape for you," he said, as we sat talking in Campo dei Fuori - one of Rome's most famous squares.

Here the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for heresy, and Julius Caesar was stabbed to death not far away.

"Nothing ever changes in Italy," my friend lamented. This country still specialises in going to the brink and then pushing the brink back.

Political achievements

romano prodi
Former PM Romano Prodi: Stabilised politics
But Italy has made big steps forward during my years here. Former Prime Minister Romano Prodi did the impossible on two fronts - he got Italy into the single European currency and for a time he made Italian politics so stable that, frankly, it was dull. In this country that was a major achievement.

But in key ways Italian society is constant - and happily resistant to change. There is a kind of proud and steadfast inefficiency.

After receiving incorrect information from directory inquiries - three times - a friend rang a supervisor to try to complain. "Oh, there's no point," he told her. "I'm the only smart one around here," he said.

On holidays in the southern region of Puglia the same woman rang the directory service to get the surgery number of the local doctor.

"Well I can give it to you," the operator said. "But he'll be at his mother's for lunch - he goes there every day. Why don't I give you that number instead."

The real Italy

This is the real Italy - a place where La Mamma is still revered and families' ties still bind

This is the real Italy - a place where La Mamma is still revered and families' ties still bind.

Returning here over the years from troubled places like Kosovo, and Chechnya, there have been times when I felt I should kiss the ground. But Italy also has its pain and its scars.

There's more to this place than la dolce vita. These days organised crime is discreet, but its effects are still being felt.

In a bunker of a courtroom in Sicily I came face to face with the cosa nostra's so called boss of bosses - Toto Riina - during one of his many murder trials.

As we watched and filmed this paunchy middle-aged figure he also studied us, letting us know he would not forget our faces. It felt like a threat and it was meant to.

One of his co-accused went further - gesturing to supporters with a familiar Sicilian hand signal. Before they bring us down, he signalled, we will make them drink blood. This too is the real Italy.


But there is much I'll miss - the overwhelming beauty, the warmth, the chaos, even the rudeness.

An Italian colleague says having good manners here is seen as a sign of weakness. Maybe so, but even the rudeness here has a certain style and a certain charm.

I'll even miss the relaxed attitude to deadlines. The shippers who came to move my belongings appeared bright and early. They were typically Roman - friendly, and boisterous.

We had never met but they professed themselves to be devastated at my departure. And they got everything packed up in time to go off and have a good lunch.

So far so good but their truck did not appear until the following day. By Roman standards that was more or less on time.

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See also:

17 Feb 00 | Europe
Rome celebrates heretic monk
21 Mar 99 | Europe
Rally in Mafia stronghold
10 May 99 | Europe
Profile: Romano Prodi
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