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Hidden Rome

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Photo: Ruven Afanador

And yet many Romans have a different, less affectionate view of this part of their city. Even the most Marxist of them will complain about i cinesi, the Chinese immigrants who took Esquilino by storm several years ago. "I don’t like the Chinese people," one Italian woman tells me. "The Africans I like. They have gestures, expressions, smiles." What the Chinese have, on the other hand, are shops. Small, mysterious little enterprises that spiral in every direction from the Piazza Vittorio, each containing several mannequins forlornly gazing at small piles of unsold clothes. I have never seen a single customer enter or leave any of the establishments, which leads to many angry speculations on the part of the locals—about everything from drugs and prostitution to the warehousing of black-market tigers. But take any of these streets to Piazza Vittorio, the neighborhood’s center, and you will see a different spirit prevail. The piazza, with its endless salmon-hued arcades, was laid out by the Turinese after Italy’s unification in the 1870’s. Now, at the start of the 21st century, all that rational Northern planning has given way to a melting pot that would make New York’s Lower East Side proud.

The palm-studded green piazza—arguably the biggest in Rome and home to a sculpted pair of monstrous dwarfs guarding the procedure of transmuting base metal into gold (I’ve tried; nothing so far)—has the energy of a Moroccan souk. When the sun shows its face, immigrants from nearly every corner of the globe gather here to kick around footballs, aim their cell phones toward Dhaka, sing about their homelands, and sometimes overdose. Older Italian men sonorously flirt with Ukrainian domestics, while beneath the colorful arcades South Asians sell knock-off baby shoes and weird mechanical squawking animals to each other. The piazza has three other claims to fame. There is the Piazza Vittorio Orchestra, an inspired collection of 16 musicians from almost as many countries who seamlessly integrate instruments from the Arabic oud to the Brazilian cavaquinho. There is the ghetto-fabulous MAS discount superstore, frequented by poor day laborers and savvy Italians alike, where five euros buys you a fine Bill Cosby–style sweater. And there is Maria Pia, the best fortune-teller in all Rome. Look for her on the corner of Via Carlo Alberto—she’s the woman in the black beret next to the drunk. Maria tells me that Egypt is calling me and that my next novel will be an unqualified international triumph. What makes Maria Pia so prescient, according to my artist friend Angela, who lives in a gorgeous sun-filled apartment right above her, is that she regularly talks to aliens.

Terrestrial or not, Rome has always been a place for exiles, and after witnessing the hurly-burly of Piazza Vittorio, I head to Via Palestro, where above the small Russian Orthodox Church I find Princess Elena Wolkonsky, the charming descendant of one of imperial Russia’s most powerful families (her grandfather was Pyotr Stolypin, the prominent and controversial prime minister during the reign of Czar Nicholas II). Princess Elena lives in one high-ceilinged pastel room overlooking the balcony where the Russian priest sups with his parishioners after services while some of his five children play soccer in the dusty courtyard below. She talks about Russia, her family, and, in particular, her English governess, Miss Bannister, who also happened to be a governess for the Tolstoy family and helped the Wolkonskys escape the Russian Revolution. I feel as if I’ve entered a brightly lit Nabokovian repository of memories, but my Roman-born hostess is not exactly an exile. Although she is no longer in the first flush of youth and has some difficulty ambulating, once she gets into her little Renault and starts zipping through city streets shouting "Dai!" ("Come on!") at the younger, slower drivers, I realize that she is gleefully, breathtakingly Italian.

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