Italians in the Forum and in the Streets

We went to the Forum on the first Sunday of the month, when it is free. Nearly everyone there was speaking Italian and it was crowded, but the space is so large that it doesn’t seem any different than it probably did in ancient times. It was wonderful to see so many different Italians out and about on their day off, particularly the families.

Italian children, in general, are allowed a lot of freedom. They climb on things, such as fountains and monuments, often at an age younger than most American moms would permit. Their parents pay very little attention to them while they do this, and they are mostly successful. They play with their siblings or cousins or with other little kids who happen to be around. They are loud and very, very active. They love to jump and spin around. They do quite a bit of play wrestling and horseplay, sometimes resulting in genuine insults and tears. By about the age of 10, most of this has stopped, but at the forum I watched a set of kids playing their version of King of the Hill by using part of a fallen column, which was lying in some grass. One kid would get on top and the others would try to push her off. The group was 3 girls and 1 boy, who was maybe 2 years younger than the girls.

The winner of the King of the Hill contest, each time, was one 9-10 year old girl with the most beautiful long, wavy blonde hair. She was very pretty in general and quite the competitor. Eventually, only her brother was challenging her and he was so determined to get her off that ancient marble. To do this, he first had to get on top himself (which she prevented without using her hands, just her legs) and if he ever did get up onto the stone (it was about 2 feet square), she just used her butt or torso to bump him off again, sometimes resulting in him taking quite a tumble.

Eventually, after she had beaten her three competitors (remember, the Colesseum is in the background during all of this, with the ersatz Gladiators in all their crimson glory visible way below us, as this was taking place atop Palatine Hill), she flounced off to tell their parents she was the winner – but before she did, she turned and spat at her little brother – and it was quite an accomplished spit. A veritable fountain. Yet, she made sure she was far enough away from him that it didn’t really land on him. The look on her face of absolute triumph, I’ll never forget. The boy responded by getting on top of the rock (the other children were now ignoring him) and standing there sadly.

Later, as they were all leaving (throughout all of this, none of their parents had so much as glanced at them, despite the fact that with all the horseplay and falling of the rock, there could have been scrapes and bruises – there are no helicopter parents in Rome, as far as I can tell), the little girl glanced at me and I thought I saw both glee and a bit of chagrin (she knew I was watching, and she knew I was foreign). By then, the children had switched to a game of “volare.” (It really helps to know Italian lyrics!) They were going to “fly” down the steep hill, screaming like eagles or at least, screaming. Dodging other visitors, including the elderly, I could hear these kids as they flapped their arms, sometimes bumping into strangers, and “flew” down Palatine Hill. It looked really fun, but at the same time, illustrated to me a big difference in our cultures. Very few suburban California kids run off ahead of their parents like that, much less in a huge public space, and certainly not while bumping into random other people.

That’s just one example. There was the couple who decided it wasn’t enough to sit on the big chunks of marble at the foot of the Temple of Saturn, they needed to climb higher. Saturn, you may recall, is the God of Death and the Underworld. He is also the primary founding god of Rome and his temple is one of the most amazing still standing. We were sitting there too. So this couple climbs up higher than every one else (if she had been successful, her feet would have been dangling 5-6 feet above my head). But, instead, she fell off the rock (they were essentially rock climbing on ancient, slick marble that had grooves in it) and landed on her back a few feet below, right at my feet. She had enough sense to pull her head up as she landed, but the force of the fall still made her head hit the stones below (worn smooth by centuries of passersby). Her immediate reaction was to start laughing. I could tell it hurt, she grimaced, too. I asked in English if she was okay (I didn’t know her boyfriend was with her). He climbed down a little and laughed at her, and then she climbed back up. They now climbed to an even higher spot because, you know, that’s the way to get back on the horse after a fall.

At the top of Palatine Hill there are beautiful gardens, one feature of which are dozens of orange trees. The oranges are ripe right now. All of the lower hanging ones have been picked, so we watched groups of people shaking the trees trying to get more oranges. Big burly men would get together and shake the trees hard, and little boys would try to help too. I kept thinking they should just stick one of the little boys on a man’s shoulders, which is in fact what eventually happened. One group was Russian, several others were Italian. Now, everyone had free oranges. The Italian father who had figured out first that putting his son up into the tree was efficient made his little boy put the orange peels into the nearby trash can (this is an unusual feature of the Forum, compared to Paris, trash cans are few and far between). But the Russians actually went over to a beautiful, classic, 1600 year old marble bath tub (in a beautiful, secluded part of the garden near where I was sitting) and threw their peels into that piece of art! When we walked by, all of them went from laughing and throwing peels to looking embarassed. It was funny. I’m sure the seagulls or crows will take care of the issue, but still.

There’s so much more in this same vein: the street wrestling of little boys, the way that even adult men use space, and the way that women, while smaller than many men here, manage to control the social space around them (for example, stopping near at the top of a staircase where lots of people are trying to get to the top to see a view, and extending their arms so no one can pass – so they can see the view unobstructed!) All of this is shown or alluded to in Fellini’s Roma…but shucks, folks, I didn’t realize it was real. And there are clowns, everywhere. The tiniest children seem terrified of them (Clown Santa in particular), but there’s also a lot of public clowning (should start taking videos) of many kinds. For example, I watched a forty-something man try to “rock climb” the face of the church across the street (unsuccessfully but trying everything he knew for at least half an hour, including, at one point, lifting up his shirt and carefully examining his belly before adjusting his belt, apparently to help in his climbing). Mind you, this man was not in any way built like a climber and his friend, whom he was trying to impress, simply sat with his back to him and smoked a cigarette. Failing to climb the church, he then tried beating on the door and kicking it. This was at 9 am, no one appeared to be drinking. It didn’t hurt the door at all – this door has seen way worse. In fact, it seemed to me that the man was doing an able job illustrating just how impenetrable Roman buildings are, even to the determined. Maybe that was the point.

So, those are the ethnographic highlights of yesterday, January 3.