A bowl of zuppa
The dwarf who serves me the bowl of heart-warming, cheek-blushingly hot bowl of zuppa on that cold winter’s evening is short and squat, with a warm, stretched-out smile. The cloth on the table is cotton, checked with red and yellow. The tabletop is filled with glassware, like an apothecary’s shop. Olive oil and vinegar sparkle with red and yellow clarity inside elegant bottles. Wine glasses in different shapes and sizes stand side by side. Sunshine-yellow napkins nestle in the rounded depths of wooden holders.
“Roma! Roma!” The waiter is impatient as I try to dig further into the heritage of this tantalizing zuppa—Genoa? Sardegna? The steam rises from the thick broth.
Who’s the cook? I ask, as if I can extract the recipe by finding out the exact identity of the person who put it together in the kitchen. “My faather! My mooother!” he exclaims with impatience. He walks away, disgusted with this questioning. How could this foreign girl not understand a good Roman zuppa in a local trattoria when she saw one?
His irritation is instant. People in Rome, it appears, lose their temper quickly. They don’t have the large tolerance for strangers that one comes to expect from a tourist hotspot. This is understandable when you live in the most glorious city of the world, and the barbarians who invade it every day disgust you with their lack of ancient sophistication, and their gawking.
This place, for all its color coordination, looks like Delicatessen, the movie. It is long and rectangular, filled with exquisitely set tables, all empty, except for one table of jovial diners. The old man in the background, who I take to be the father, hovers with sad-eyed, wrinkled intensity. He holds a giant knife up as he stares at me. I am sola, a sole traveller eating a solitary meal in an eatery meant to be filled with the chatter of big families. The mother looks like the woman out of American Gothic, only more lean and mangy.
I hurry with my hot soup, savoring the broth and trying to finish as I see the group sitting three tables ahead of me pay their il conto. That group of people, refreshingly normal, chatter and laugh with the proprietor as they get ready to leave. I spoon hot zuppa into my mouth, sprinkling fresh olive oil on the bread, and stuff it into my mouth, trying to chew without hurting my new and ill-fitting dental crowns.
The long restaurant, curtained with red curtains, is eerie in its emptiness. I don’t want to get caught with Mama and Papa and dwarf son in Delicatessen alone. Strangers of the brown-skinned hue draw special disdain. I have seen Bangladeshi vendors selling umbrellas in the unseasonal and ice-cold December rain. Bangla immigrants, it appeared, were the Arabs of Roma—the scapegoats of all social and economic ills. Italy was sinking under a mass of imitation Italian designer goods, all made in China. The Chinese dragon was eating Italy alive, and the only way the Italians could get back was by savage treatment of the foreigners they could see. This meant the Bangladeshis, who tried to sell bunches of red roses to couples dining inside restaurants and got shooed out as if they had mental illness. This meant me—trying to buy a fake pearl and amber choker in the market, I smell the leather string jokingly to determine the exact status. I discover it is uncured rawhide leather. It smells rank. I wonder if I can put it in my carry-on luggage and not get stopped by the airlines staff. My expression riles the vendor, who says something so unbelievably bad that the whole tableful of browsing customers march off in protest.
Perhaps this hospitable couple had a cellar below their little trattoria where they kept a live tiger, feeding unwary aliens to the cat.
I met a predatory Roman the moment I stepped down from the Termini’s exit, stepping down from a train from Milan. The taxi-driver who had picked up me and my American friends demanded twenty euros for the taxi ride. The American friends, a nice, friendly couple with whom I’d spent a month at a scholar’s retreat, agreed without a squabble, smiling in their genial Mid-Western way. They waved aside my concern. I pointed out that my hotel-guide had told me it would cost 4 euros, but they didn’t mind paying extra. My suspicions aroused— I am used to taking cabs in Mumbai, where noone is to be trusted— I asked if I could be dropped off first.