The Eternal City has a
split personality, one that can work to your advantage when traveling there if
you are adventurous and willing to stay up late. On a summer day Rome is a city
of lines, if you want to tour the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Pantheon or any of
the many magnificent architectural marvels of Rome, patience is more than a
virtue, it is essential. Even to find a sliver of shade near the Spanish Steps
on a week day in August takes time.
It’s worth the wait of
course to see the Sistine Chapel or have a brief encounter with the Pope. To
come to Rome and not see any of these places during the day would be a crime.
However there is another
way to see Rome and that is by doing what so many of the locals do – seek
shelter by day and hang out all night. When the summer sun recedes and the air
cools, the romantic glow of tinted lights bathes the city in amber light. My
guide to this Rome was not someone I found through the hotel, but several
African-American expatriates who long ago left American to build lives
I’ve known Pam and Wendy
Lewis since the ‘80s when I dated Pam in New York. Before I meet her in 1987
she’d already lived for a time in Rome and, in recent years, she’d been
teaching English in Dubai, so she had traveling in her soul, Wendy, who was
just a shy college student when I met her years ago, is now a vivacious women who’s
lived in Italy fourteen years, working as a singer with bands and as a solo
artist. Both these women had come a long way from their hometown of Gary,
It was the Lewis sisters
who showed me Rome at night. On my first night in Rome we met around 10pm for
dinner, which was typical for a Southern European meal. Instead of eating in
central Rome, they took me out to an area whose name translates loosely to
“crazy head,” one of the city’s seven zones. From the exterior Angelina a
Testaccio’s didn’t look very promising. A tall, concrete wall with a small
doorway, though there were signs of life above the wall. We walked up a rustic
staircase that seemed more suited to a country house than a big city restaurant
and then arrived at a terrace where there were folks dining and a large, white
walled open kitchen only slightly covered by a canopy.
Wendy, who now speaks
Italian with more ease than English, negotiated with the staff for a good seat.
She’d sung at Angelina’s just two weeks before and knew there was a great roof
deck. After some animated conversation we were guided up some winding metal
stairs to a roof garden where boisterous groups of Roman’s were laughing and
We sat under a full moon
at a long table with house music percolating on high quality speakers. I felt
like I was now really in Rome, eating with real Italians (not tourists) at a
spot they clearly enjoyed. And with good reason. The meal was amazing. The antipasto
was focaccia and had a light, crisp crust like fresh lavosh, not the thick,
dense Boccaccio in northern Italy with thinly sliced ham. The house wine was
sharp and fruity. As my entrée I had a Danish streak, prepared tender, pink and
soft to the taste. I had spinach prepared with butter and grated cheese. Our
dessert was tiramisu served in a clear jam jar, which preserved its flavor,
especially the coffee taste at the bottom of the jar.
As we dined Wendy shared
details of her life in Rome. She first came to Italy while attending Spelman
College, spending her junior year with an Italian family in Florence where she
studied the language. She cites that complete immersion in Italian culture as
what made her bi-lingual and envious of their lifestyle. “Americans live to
work, while Italians put a much greater emphasis on family, food and vacation.”
She’d moved back to Gary
and then lived for a time in New York attending the prestigious Julliard School
of Music, but was missing Italy when she received a phone call from some
Italian musician friends seeking a native English speaker for a band. “I came
back 2000 and have been here ever sense. They love American music – blues,
soul, jazz. All the genres. They want to hear it from a real deal American.
They are lots of Italians who do the soul thing, but the Italians like it
As an African-American
woman with a sweet, passionate voice Wendy has sung in a variety of idioms in
Italy. She’s sung with funk bands, on dance singles and in jazz and gospel
shows. She sang on a big Euro house music hit called “Waves of Love” and has
performed on stages with touring American stars such as Al Jaureau and Gloria
Wendy came to live in Rome
before the 9/11 attack, so was able to get a work visa and ultimately dual
citizenship in a more relaxed environment than today. Her sister Pam, who is
planning on relocating from Dubai, says it much more difficult these days, even
for an American, to get a work visa in most European Union countries.
I asked Wendy whether,
after all this time in Rome, whether she missed America. “I miss macaroni &
cheese,” she said laughing. “I do miss the American mentality. Americans are
very innovative and smart. But Italy is such a gorgeous place. Its kind of like
living in a big open air museum.” She is a great fan of Florence, which she
feels is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
The down side of being
black in Italy is that, despite her grasp of the language and time spend there
“I can still feel like an outsider. Everyday it can feel like I’m on an
interview. People asking where I’m from and do I like Italy. So they
automatically see me as different.”That said Wendy is still very happy in Rome, which she uses as a base
operations, while traveling all around Europe performing.
A house record that Wendy
liked came on over the Angelina speakers and she started singing along. So did
everyone at our table. A nearby table of Italians heard her and started
clapping along and, for a moment, we were one big, well fed Italian party.
It was well after midnight
when we left Angelina’s and, at the suggestion of the Lewis sisters, began
visiting Roman landmarks. The Circus Maximus, where the chariot races
immortalized in ‘Ben Hur’ were held, is as long as five football fields and is
currently a late night hang out for young people to drink and smoke.
If the length of the
Circus Maximus was impressive, the Vatican at night was a wonder. Lit up with
white and gold lights, the Vatican at night has regal calm that can get lost in
the jostling daytime crowds. We swung by a few other beautifully illuminated
landmarks that evening, including the Forum and the Coliseum, but the most
mystical was the Pantheon.
Aside from two young
couples and a fellow sleeping one off, we were the only people there. As
imposing as the Pantheon is by day this building was majestic up close. I stood
next to the Pantheon’s massive columns and was knocked out, as you are often in
Rome, by its design brilliance. Moreover, because of the hour, it felt like it
was my personal playpen.
The heat of Rome in August
beat down on me the next day, as I joined the throngs at the Spanish Steps and
then later walked through the Colosseum. During the days of the gladiators the Colosseum
held 65,000 folks and, to this day, is still the gold standard by which all
sports stadiums are still held too. Some of its wood floors have been re-built
to give us a sense of how the myriad trap doors were used to unleash lions,
tigers and rival fighters on unsuspecting gladiators.
After a late afternoon nap
and a shower, I hooked up with the Lewis sisters again, who took me to dinner
at Pierluigi’s, a classy al fresco restaurant in a courtyard bordered by high
windowed residences. As we sat down to dinner a little boy kicked a soccer ball
just across the way and laughed with his father. At night Rome, somewhat like
Paris, is bathed in a yellowy glow, though the light in Rome is more shadowy
and feels more mysterious because of its many narrow streets, streets Roman
drivers pass rapidly through without a moments hesitation.
Lorenzo Lisa, Pierluigi’s
very dapper young owner, took an immediate liking to the Lewis sisters
(fulfilling that Italian stereotype) and was very attention to our table all
night. We had another amazing meal starting with calamari and croquettes.The freshness of the food, as well as
the preparation was overwhelming. Also the service was worth noting. The
Italians take presenting food very seriously. Never does your server interrupt
your conversation, reach over your food while your talking or, in any way,
impose himself on your dining experience. Yet they are very present and ready
to take your order. A far superior service experience than you’ll have even in
some of New York’s finest restaurants.
The highlight of this
evening, however, was not the food, but the arrival of 80 year old Harold
Bradley, a brother who has lived on and off in Rome for thirty years. Though he
played right guard in the National Football League for the Browns and Eagles,
Harold had always yearned to be an artist. In the late ‘50s he saw the Italian
neo-realistic masterpiece ‘Open City’ and decided to visit Europe.
“Even when I was in the
NFL my life always evolved around art,” he recalls. So the Chicago native first
traveled to Paris in 1956 and then Rome. He settled in Italy in 1959 to study
art history, using the GI Bill to pay for his schooling. He married a German
woman, had three kids and made a life for himself.
The Rome Harold arrived in
was still in recovery from World War II, so there was still a lot of damaged
buildings and the economy was shaky. But for someone who wanted to paint and
study art “what place on the planet could be better,” he recalled with a smile.
In the bohemian Trastavere section of Rome (kinda like the city’s Greenwich
Village) Harold helped found the Folk Studio, a gallery/performance space where
artists of all kinds performed.
It was the era of sword
& sandal epics, movies built around the history and legends of the Roman Empire,
and Harold found himself acting in some twenty odd movies. In the notorious
‘Cleopatra’, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Harold played four
roles – a slave, a king, a gladiator and a soldier. “If you watch it on DVD you
can see me in a number of scenes. There weren’t many black actors to go around
in Rome then.”
Aside from black GIs who
hadn’t returned to American after the war, there were few blacks in Rome in the
‘60s. But he felt very comfortable and folks were friendly. On a return trip to
the U.S. in 1968 Harold was recruited by the Governor of Illinois to work on
the state’s arts council. Moreover the civil rights struggle pulled him in and
Harold worked in media, including a stint on camera with public television and
a CBS affiliate. From 1968 to 87 he lived in the U.S. but a trip with his wife
took back to Rome and he found he couldn’t leave.
Harold’s had another
artistic life this time in Rome, working primarily as a singer. Though he was
well known in Rome for singing jazz and for doing tributes to Paul Robeson,
much of his time now is spent singing spirituals and gospel music. “Italians
love gospel music,” he says. “They know Mahalia Jackson and other famous
singers, but have heard very little of it live. So I’ve worked to fill that
space.” If you come to Rome check the schedule at local spots the Cotton Club
or the Music Inn, where’s he’s performed a lot in the last year.
Harold has worked often
with Wendy over the last few years and its cute seeing them together, two
expats from the American Midwest speaking to each other in Italian, so far from
their original home.
After Harold headed home,
I joined a posse of folks at Lorenzo Lisa’s other business – a wine bar called
_________, which is located in Campo Di Fiori (aka Field of Flowers.) Back in
the day it was literally a field filled with flowers. Now it is a large
concrete square filled with cafes. At 2:30am Campo Di Fiori is full of vino,
chatter and music. Though in most places this would be the dead of night, in
this spot in Rome it was buzzing like lunchtime.
Chasing the dawn with the
Lewis sisters and hundreds of Romans (who seemed in no hurry to head home),
seemed a fitting way to end my too brief visit to Rome, a place historic by day
and delicious at night.
Nice piece. You're right, Rome is a city of lines during the day. But at night -- especially during the warm weather, which is most of the year -- the city shows her best face at night. Dancing in Testaccio, live jazz under the umbrella pines at Villa Celimontana, a quiet walk in the silence of St Dominic's orange trees atop the Avenine hill....