I'm not sure if it is the season winding down or the gloomy, rainy weather - we had five days of rain in Madrid and Rome has been little better since our return - but my mood today (Thursday) was one of an almost desperate melancholy. Though it was a sunnier and milder day than it has been I found myself very aware of the ruins in this city as I made my way over to Trastevere. Not the Auralian Walls or Porta d'Ottavia - those have become almost commonplace - nor the decaying Renaissance palazzi hiding behind the chipped veneer of the Baroque. I was noticing the ruined people who were around me and seem to have become more numerous on the streets in the past few weeks.
There now seems to be more homeless people sleeping in doorways and sadly more lost souls wandering the streets and often issuing cries to an unhearing heaven. Perhaps it is the mood I'm in that makes me more aware of their presence. Or perhaps it is the time of year - fewer tourists, Romani still away on holiday - that makes them more noticeable. Some are harmless, others more disturbing.
As I stood waiting for the bus at Nomentana and Regina Margherita I hear a soft litany being chanted behind me: Ciao, buon anno. Caio, buon anno. Caio, buon anno. She is often at that corner, tidily and fortunately in this weather warmly dressed, waving to drivers in the car lane, smiling, nodding and quietly saying hello to each driver and now wishing them a good new year. She does not appear disturbed though her eyes are a bit distance, she's always smiling, never asking for anything, the smile getting broader when someone acknowledges her greeting. I have only noticed her the past month or two; perhaps she has always been there and I have just never seen. Her madness - if it is madness - is benign and in many ways touching.
As I pass in front of the Teatro Argentina there is another woman busily fixing a large fake white poinsettia to her skimpy scarf, it matches the red one that adorns her brassy blond hair. Her make up has been applied with a heavy hand but not much heavier than many of the women I've seen preening themselves in the foyer at the Opera House. Her clothes need a brushing but she doesn't appear dirty just disheveled. I will see her later when I retrace my steps.
As I approach the Ponte Fabricio to cross over onto Isola Tiberina I noticed that the old clarinet player, who normally sits tarpaulined against the weather, is not there. His place taken by a youngish woman playing a cello. The sound is sweet though it is hard to say if that is her talent or her audio system. She breaks into Ave Maria as a group of Grey nuns parade past her not then they probably don't have much in the way of spare change to drop in her plate. She is not one of the homeless just one of the unemployed in a country of high unemployment.
Half way along the bridge a bearded man - perhaps in his late 30s - sits with four dogs - an old German shepherd, a mutt and two sleek red dogs, mother and pup. All the dogs look well fed and cared for, the man less so. Today the gypsy woman - hands shaking, bundled up, head and face covered so it is impossible to determine if she is young or old - is not at the other end of the bridge but the piled up rucksack, umbrella and shopping bags that has been there for several weeks, still is. But now they have a handwritten sign attached to them. I will only see the sign on my way back.
After my appointment as I wait for the light to cross Ponte Cestio back over to the Isola, two caribinari are half pushing, half carrying a filthy looking man off the bridge and out into the street - one officer holding up his white gloved hand imperiously to stop the traffic. The man, his pants open and off his waist, is dark, bearded and wild-eyed. In younger days he was probably handsome - now drink? drugs? madness? have distorted his features, made his age indiscernible. He is ranting unintelligibly and at one point makes an almost baying sound - perhaps the officer has been a bit too rough? From the looks of it they have caught him urinating in public and since the Isola is a major tourist spot they are hustling him away. When they reach my side of the road they shove him down the steps into a small piazza and turn away leaving him there, one officer examining his gloves for soiling.
The man with the beard is now walking across the bridge, his station deserted or perhaps hustled along by the police, the mother and pup in front of him on leashes, the other two following single file. The old German shepherd, obviously arthritic, is lagging behind and the little procession stops at the end of the bridge waiting for him to catch up.
As I pass the rucksack pile I see the sign - in English: Thank you for the Christmas cake but please give back the puppy you stole from me. You fed my body, he fed my soul. What has happened here - has some well-intentioned person thinking they were doing the dog a favour made an unwelcome and unasked for, by both owner and dog, exchange? I stop for a moment on the bridge to look at the rising waters and listen to the cellist; she is playing Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring and it is not the sound system that is bringing out the sweetness of Bach's melody. I drop a euro in the her container as do several other people who are passing by - her music is brightening up what has become a bleak afternoon in many ways.
As I retrace my path through Largo Argentino the lady with the poinsettias is standing in front of the Teatro now calling out greetings to passers by. Ciao amore, auguri! Hello my love, best wishes. Unlike her sister well wisher on Nomentana, her greeting is full throated and has a slightly raucous almost bawdy tone to it. But her wishes are voiced happily into the world without malice.
Not so the song, if that is what it can be called, of the woman in the black track suit and blue scarf standing in front of Feltrineli. Her head thrown back she is fadoing her woes to the world in the gutturals of some dialect that I can't make out. There may be a melody to her song but even that is obscure. No one seems moved to put anything in the grubby Barbie cosmetic bag she has in front of her ready to receive contributions. I pass her and then for some reason - guilt? - turn back and drop a few small coins into the bag. Who knows perhaps the sounds she hears are a sweet as those of the cello player.
It is easy to look at all these ruined lives and judge - to make assumptions, as we often do, as to what brought them to their current place in life. Today I feel no such need or urge. Perhaps it is the weather, perhaps the time of year but as much as I can glory in the architectural ruins that surround me daily, today all I can do is inwardly weep for the human ruins that are also there.
§ § § §
Postscript: Yesterday (Tuesday) as I retraced my path over to Trastevere I crossed the Ponte Fabricio as usual. At the approach to the island was that familiar bundle of rucksack and shopping bags and sitting amongst it the owner - long, much-matted, grey-white hair and beard, mismatched clothing, one glove. He was cutting up a piece of sausage onto a tupperware top and there on the sack beside him was a puppy urging him on. A beautiful little puppy, deep red glossy coat, voicing his impatience in no uncertain terms. The man seemed happy, the puppy seemed very happy. The world seemed a little better than it had been only a few days before.
13 gennaio - Sant'Ilario di Poitiers