I’m one bite in and I realize two things at the same time: over here, they make carbonara with egg — which isn’t bad, and, they’ve over-salted the hell out of this pasta — which is bad. Inexcusably bad.
But I’m smiling. I figured something out.
“Only a slow train from Milan at that time.” — Lord Marchmain
Rome, IT — September 2016
Call it a consequence of my newly-defensible mid-thirtiesishness; I’ve grown tired and stayed tired of the all-encompassing search for cultural authenticity as the latest watchword for disillusioned American professionals like me seeking renewed purpose and principle in an era of progressive advance — rooting the diseased history of empire looking for one good organ.
Bad news, kids — time is messy, borders were never fixed, histories are mostly contradictory propaganda, and everyone’s got something to sell you. Authenticity isn’t yours to seek or pass judgment on, I don’t care if your full name is Mr. The New York Times. It ain’t a book we get to write.
That may be why I found myself feeling a little more at home in Rome, a city with no shame in repurposing its past while ceaselessly building over it. Wi-Fi routers nailed to trees in English-style gardens, steel ampoules of concrete mixing vats jutting up from the ground inches from the ancient Coliseum, fashion and corruption, gold nameplates in grotto alleys, and a culture fully versed in consuming the obvious poached paradoxes, spitting all the little spiny bones back out onto the plate, tied in a knot.
Don’t Bring Your Weak-Ass Columns in Here
Outside the obvious gift shops, there’s a notable lack of historical-integrated kitsch in Rome, that sort of unironic epochal skeuomorphism popular in the United States; you know, the kind that has actors dress as Abraham Lincoln to sell you a new mattress on President’s Day, for instance.
You don’t see similar edicts from Caesar, telling you to visit the Forum. The posts to scan your Roma Pass for city attractions aren’t dolled up in crumbling faux-marble columns. It’s as if there’s a conscious effort to keep the dissimilar mental metals from touching lest an unwelcome current sap Rome’s battery.
Instead, you’ve got layers of era-identifiable, bolt-on explanations all well-separated from one another — cultural plaintexts of retellings and reinterpretations of history, with the inevitable hagiographing of the wealthy patron that Made It All Possible This Week.
1st century stuff, preserved by 6th century stuff, fenced in by 17th century stuff, interpreted by 19th century stuff, reachable by 20th century bus, supplied with 21st century Pokemon…
Digging deeper, you’ll find war, conquest, exploitation, and it’s here where I can’t get the current cultural read. Is Rome that proud of its past? Or are the spoils of empire dismissed as something that people just did back in Those Days, before being enlightened and getting the Discovery Channel on their cable boxes?
Well, screw it, I can’t know everything. So.
I’m Pretty Sure You Said “American Express”
My first day here, I had some godawful pasta. You heard that story at the start. It was cheap, it was around back of the Pantheon, they brought out strawberry wine, they only took American Express…
As bad as it was, I was thankful to be sitting somewhere shitty. Too often the belief is that any cuisine in any country away from yours is automatically superior because it teaches you something, as if other cultures only exist to selflessly educate you about themselves, and not, you know, try to make a damn buck or anything because hey, we gotta eat too, man. They do have to eat, and they sure don’t eat this.
Truth is, the enchanted Other as a culture isn’t here to save you. They make similar choices between cost and quality, attraction and retention, location and load as anyone would have to, anywhere and everywhere around the world, and the result is Yet Another Salad Bowl.
Fractalized culture, and it’s comforting to me — it’s the calculus of living that makes us human, that makes us the same in some fundamental way, and shitty pasta in the heart of Rome is a window to that vital equation that somehow renews my spirit and faith in our ability to find our way in a world of modern colliding empires.
…all this said, I’m still staying away from Italian sushi. I’ve got nothing to prove to you.