Letter from Rome: When the Fountains Ran Dry

When the fountains ran dry

To return to Rome at the end of summer is to find a city altered. Where water flowed from waist-high fountains in June, now their drains are chalky instead of slippery-green.

A drought stalks the city.

I hear imagined trickles the way a new mother hears ghost cries. The dog and I turn medieval corners in Trastevere, following our ears. We spot a red-headed bride being photographed on a piazza, the bottom of her dress grey with soot. A waitress stops to pet the dog and brings out a dish of tepid tap water in a takeaway box.

The expansive green park where my kids like to play on weekends is brown and dusty. The grocery store in my neighborhood is closed for renovations. The gym is running on an abbreviated schedule. My hairdresser is at the beach, stretching summer for two more weeks into September, perfecting his tan.

When we leave our homes for a period of time, we hope to resume our lives as we left them. But Rome is a city where one day all the buses run and the next they don’t, where cars park diagonally on corners in defiance; a city that refuses to adhere to something as dull as predictability.

My patience splits and frays. During the summer, the two smart, young women who run the organizations I work for have resigned. A sign of the city’s faltering economy, and its concomitant management style. The music teacher at my children’s school, who often rode the bus with us, and was the brightest part of anyone’s day, is no longer employed there. I am still processing this when I get the next surprise: the school rules have changed, and my children can no longer walk home on their own. My afternoon routine of reading and cooking dinner is over.

Emotionally spent, I stagger into the cafe at the foot of our hill, where an elderly mustachioed man runs the kitchen and counter.

Sto cercanda pesce, I lie.

What I’m really looking for is comfort. He slips into the kitchen and grills a piece of tuna. I wash it down with a Peroni. Neighbors pop through the door every few minutes to pick up a dinner they didn’t have time to cook themselves. Each shares some bit of news with him. In the moments when the cafe is empty, he chats to me in broken Italo-English, tolerating my clumsy verb conjugations. A vanilla ring cake emerges from the oven. He passes out hot slices to all who enter, and its effect is the balm I’ve been seeking since the nasoni were turned off. (And isn’t food always the go-to savior in Italy?)

This is also the city that made him.