A ramble in Rome

The Romans gathered at the old gate at Tiburtina. They came in ones and twos, and suddenly there were more than sixty of them--young and old, male and female, all raring to go. We had gathered there to join a "Stalker" walk through Rome. We heard about the walks through our friends in Perugia. This was no ordinary walking tour; we'd heard there might be sewers and trespassing involved. Our instructions were simple: bring lunch, and just show up. So there we were 10:00 AM on Sunday morning.

We had by then been to the Forum and the Colosseum, where the hordes seemed appropriate, and to the Sistine Chapel, where the ceiling seemed too far away and the crowds too close for comfort. These monuments were evidence that in those times, Rome was a city of power, intrigue, and life. Today, the center of town felt a little bit tame. The Stalker walk had excited us because it promised to take us to a Rome that was still alive, filled with real people, and a place of contemporary struggle, mystery, and political intrigue. Our only barrier--the stories would be told in Italian. We were adopted by numerous kindly bilinguals on the walk, but I am sure we lost out on some of the subtleties. We sometimes felt disoriented, though also feeling immense pleasure at just being present. If our narrative seems a bit fragmented and surreal, this is probably why.

We started in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome, outside the old city walls. The area was home to La Sapienza, Rome's first public university, and a hotbed of student activism in the 1960s. It was also the only Roman neighborhood that had been massively bombed by the Allies during World War II, because of its strategic position next to the rail yards. We learned about the bombing in an old barbershop converted into a museum dedicated to those who lived and died in those years. Inside, a video played on a loop: Italian war propaganda, followed by American war propaganda. The barber still worked there, in the midst of his DIY museum. The small room was filled with photos of smiling men, women, and children; you could spend hours there wondering what happened to all of them.

We would soon be greeted by more faces from the past at Verano Cemetery. On almost every grave there was a picture of the deceased. It wasn't clear when the moments had been frozen. Did the images depict the dead near their final moments, or the way they wanted to be remembered? Among these faces resided more than 200 Filippo Severati funerary portraits. In the fight between painting and photography, Sevarati won out by devising a special (and until recently, secret) technique that married paint, enamel, and lava to create portraits that retain their color and clarity, even after being exposed to a century of wear.

But before we knew it we were walking into a tunnel. There had been brief stops at an old bus warehouse, a new bus station next to a deserted fish processing plant, and finally we were at Roma Tiburtina station, the new hub for high speed trains to Rome. We walked through the shiny parts of the station, before descending into an off-limits construction zone. We caught snippets of the conversation around us. Disaster after disaster: area residents had been relocated to make way for the new station; the project was over budget and behind schedule; and finally, the large dark tunnel we stood inside had turned out to be prone to flooding, making it impossible to use. It was indicative of other things that might have gone wrong, and a disheartening reminder of the familiar follies of big construction projects.

A short walk later, it was time for a break in a small meadow filled with red poppies. Neighbors looked out the window as we sprawled on the wild grass and ate our lunches. A smiling local offered the group a couple of bottles of wine. We were like children on a picnic. Happy voices all around us.

Next came the dislocated. We entered a squat area where we saw a group of Roma families. Excited children ran around offering us glasses of water on this hot day. They were expecting us. A member of our group started interviewing a community leader about the space, and we gathered around to listen. The Roma families in the camp had been squatting in this unused land for almost ten years. They were originally from Romania, he said, and should be afforded the same treatment given to other European Union citizens. Half an hour later, we were walking along the path to the Quitaliani station, when a Roma man and his family asked us where we had been and whom we had talked to. He went on to accuse the "community leader" of being corrupt and controlling. The dynamics left us doubtful, confused, and a little bit cynical.

Under the shade of the tree at the mouth of the entrance to the Quintiliani metro station, we learnt how the land around us was the site of the promised--but never realized--Sistema Direzionale Orientale (SDO). Per the plans, the site would house city of Rome's administrative and executive offices, and serve as the anchor of a new district at the edge of town to relieve pressure on the city's historic center. But even though the metro line had gotten there, the rest never followed. The reasons had to do with funding, bureaucracy, etc. but the complex history of the SDO was a little beyond our reach in a foreign language.

We breathed easier as we approached farms and more natural lands, with the Rome we were familiar with far off in the distance. We strolled along fields of wildflowers and by farms with rows of produce. The sky turned dark in the distance. We happened upon an abandoned house with its still-bright blue paint. We walked in a long line across wildflower fields and along the Aniene river, and stopped to observe the bridge over this tributary of the Tiber. Lightning flashed in the sky. The clouds covering the sun produced their silver lining: the rain suddenly started came down in buckets, but in spite of our feeling of remoteness, we were only two minutes from a metro stop. We ran, and barely missed a soggy ending to a wonderful ramble. As we shook the rain off, we realized that we had been busy "stalking" for eight hours.

The walk inspired us in ways that the beautiful dead places of historic Rome hadn't. These alternative urban sites were rich and alive. Stalker helped us uncover some of the drama of everyday life on the periphery, alongside fellow Romans. As one of the few out-of-towners in the group, it was inspiring for us to see Romans blur the line between "local" and "tourist." Couldn't we do this at home too? Uncovering the hidden spaces and stories of our communities could make the familiar unfamiliar and then familiar again. We wanted to try this at home.

Next post: Inside the German parliament

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We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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