Life in the Piazza
On an April vacation in Rome, my wife and I rented an apartment in Trastevere, an old working-class section of the city just across the Tiber River. It has become a tourist attraction in recent years because of its narrow walking streets, many restaurants, reasonably priced rental apartments and closeness to old Rome. Our apartment building was just off the Piazza di San Cosimato. We spent many hours watching the varied life there.
It didn’t take very long to realize how important this public space was to the neighborhood. In the wee hours of each morning Monday through Saturday, the fruit and vegetable venders convened to assemble their tables, unfurl their umbrellas and ready themselves for another market day in Trastevere’s only outdoor market. By sunrise, the fishmonger and cheesemonger, the butcher and even the bookseller had opened the metal doors to their stalls and crowds of buyers began to purchase what they needed for the day. By mid-afternoon, the venders had begun to fold their umbrellas and collapse their tables and pack away what remained of their goods. Their day had come to an end.
Market at Piazza di San Cosimato (mid-morning) ©Lawrence Earley
Piazza di San Cosimato (mid-afternoon) ©Lawrence Earley
But into the morning hours and throughout the day, small children accompanied by parents or grandparents moved into and out of a gated playground at one end of the triangular-shaped piazza. And in the late afternoon, older children had returned from school and many of them gathered in the piazza. The teenaged boys played soccer. One boy served as the goalie near the cheesemonger’s locked stall while the others tried out their best moves to kick the ball past him, or, as happened often, over the stalls and into the street beyond. There didn’t seem to be many rules governing what they were doing. There didn’t even seem to be a game going on, or scorekeeping. Freelancing seemed to be the rule. A boy would kick the ball into the metal door of a stall, and when it bounced back another boy would command it, dribble it around a while before unleashing a terrific kick that banged off the stall doors again. Players left the field and sat on a wall every now and then, kibitzing with others, then hurtled back into the fray, heading a ball in the general direction of a goalie. Groups of girls flirted with the boys at the edge of the piazza. There seemed to be many centripetal and centrifugal forces operating in the piazza, as boys and girls ran in and ran out.
One of the places they ran to was the sidewalk cafes that lined the piazza. Knots of adults often gathered at the tables at this time, sipping coffees and colored drinks and talking animatedly. Sometimes the boys or their female admirers would detach from the piazza and run across the street to sit with a parent or grandparent for a while. The adults pretty much ignored the children, talking and smoking and sipping at their drinks, and after awhile the children would rejoin their mates.
In the early evening, the children slowly began to separate and head home. But well into the night, couples strolled or hurried through the piazza on their way to a restaurant or their homes.
One morning we went to the piazza to shop for fruit and vegetables. We bought a couple of apples and oranges, and then stopped at the cheesemonger’s stall to find cheese for lunch. Unfamiliar with the Italian names of the cheeses, we hung back, inspecting each cheese and trying to decipher what the names suggested. Other buyers jumped ahead of us and made their purchases. One of them, a mother with a two-year-old girl in her arms, approached the cheesemonger and auditory mayhem broke out. Five or six elderly ladies began to croon at the child in vowel-inflected voices. The cheesemonger himself blew kisses and uttered words of ecstatic love. The choosing and wrapping and buying of cheese were abandoned as everyone at the stall expressed their amazement at this little girl. It was as if they had never seen one before. The little girl herself remained unimpressed throughout. We watched all this, enchanted both by the girl and the music of her admirers’ voices.
The Italian language is so musical that men and women seem to savor every syllable, their voices rising and falling even when sharing everyday matters. But when stirred by emotion (this little girl is so cute, the mail hasn’t come, Mama has died), voices take on a new enthusiasm in piercing sounds of appreciation, sorrow or anger.
As mother and daughter moved to another stall, hosannas of high-pitched good-byes followed them, but then life resumed in a lower key. People huddled over the rows of cheeses once more and their voices became murmurs. But wait! Mother and child have returned and the clamorous demonstrations begin all over again. Now the child realizes that she likes all this attention. She looks directly at individuals and points coquettishly. The response is gratifying to her and she points at others. Soon, cheese purchased and in hand, mama and child walk away. We are finally able to make our purchase. It comes to 5 Euros, 31. We pay 5 Euros.
“A discount for you!” says the merry cheesemonger.
After an afternoon of shopping in Trastevere one day, my wife and I returned to our apartment. Renee said she wanted to nap, so I said I’d grab a coffee somewhere. I took a table at one of my favorite cafes that looked across to the Piazza di San Cosimato. We often stopped here on our return from a day’s activities. We’d drink a Prosecco if it was late in the day, or a Café Americano or orange drink in the mornings and early afternoons.
It was about 3:30 or 4 p.m. I ordered a coffee and began to read a book by the British novelist Barry Unsworth that I had picked up at an English bookstore that morning. The piazza was empty. The fruit and vegetable sellers had already left. Tables, boxes and umbrellas were gone. Between the café’s outdoor tables and the piazza was a narrow one-way street occupied by an occasional noisy motor scooter or car on its way to the shops on the other side of the piazza. There was a nice feel about the day and I enjoyed my book and coffee.
From time to time I looked up and noticed a solitary city employee in his orange uniform sweeping up the refuse from the morning’s market. He wore a military haircut and had tattooed arms, and he carried a long broom and a shovel. He pushed fallen lettuce and cabbage leaves, the odd tomato or apple into a small pile, wheeled his trash bin over and shoveled the litter into the bin. He worked deliberately, moving from one island of refuse to another. You wouldn’t say he was working hard, but he wasn’t dogging it either. He was doing a job. I’d look up from my book and the man would be moving slowly across the piazza.
As I watched him, I realized how unusual the scene was. The man was employing a broom to sweep up refuse. How quaint! How delightful! How quiet! Where I live in North Carolina, no respectable yard and grounds man uses a broom or a rake any longer. They use powerful commercial backpack blowers with a dangerous decibel range that requires operators to wear ear protectors. Hardly a beautiful summer morning back home is unmarred by the jarring sound these instruments make. Two or three workers will gather at 7:00 am to chase a few candy wrappers, some cigarette butts and a lot of dust from a small parking lot. In the fall, when leaves drop, they blow them into the streets. These big blowers may be efficient at what they do, but they don’t seem to do much. Mostly what a blower does is noisily move trash somewhere else, usually to someone else’s property.
But here in the Piazza di San Cosimato, a single man employed a simple tool to remove debris from a large public space, and he didn’t break the silence of a pleasant afternoon to do it. I watched him close in on the last pile of refuse, shovel it into the bin, place the bin and his tools in the back of a small truck and drive away.