My Roman Holiday

When there, I do my best to party as the Romans do.

By Steve Burgess 5 Jun 2009 |

Steve Burgess would be writing about film this week, as he usually does, except he is travelling, which he sometimes does and then writes about for The Tyee.

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An evidently happy Burgess (left) with "Con Artist" Mark Kostabi.

[Editor's note: Burgess has flown the coop again. If and when we get more reports from his gallivanting around the Old World, we'll relay them here.]

Hello from Rome, where Italians have just finished celebrating their national holiday. Good news: there's confirmation for my important theory that long weekends bring crappy weather wherever they occur. Sure I'm wet, but for science, it's worth it.

There was pre-weekend celebrating in the Eternal City as well. I arrived in Rome only hours before the Champion's League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United. European supremacy was to be determined that very night in Rome, first in drinking, later in soccer. The bottle-passing started on the train from the airport. After Barcelona's victory, the boozy singing continued beneath my window till 4 a.m., while I whimpered in jet-lagged self-pity.

At least the Mancunians lost. With all due respect to my U.K. friends, the Brit fans have more of a tendency to sing with their fists.

Duck! It's Delores!

But Romans can get violent too. Case in point: recently near Piazza Navona, I spent some time trailing a woman who may or may not be named Delores. That's what they call her at Caffe Della Pace, where I was sitting when I first saw her -- an elderly woman with long blonde hair, a rubber-mask face, and a certain style not often found among the deranged. She ambled off the street and began talking with a waiter. After a few moments, she slapped him in the balls. He just smiled. I was as surprised by his lack of reflexive flinch as by the sucker punch, but I guess he braced himself right off the bat. They know her, you see.

"Delores," the staff later informed me, is a local fixture. Rumour has it that during the heyday of Fellini she was a very prominent hooker with a client list many would recognize. She would probably be a beloved eccentric, were it not for her rather violent streak of racism. She is convinced that bad weather is caused by black people (another long weekend ruined, damn them) and dislikes other visible minorities, too. Another day I watched her rambling down a pedestrian lane, clutching a plastic bag. A couple of young Korean tourists passed near. Delores glided in like a shark, swinging the bag slingshot-style, and delivered a solid whack on the nearest girl's shoulder. They scurried off, chased by Italian oaths. Later she feinted a charge at a young Japanese woman, who was looking away the whole time and remained blissfully ignorant of the danger. That's why you shouldn't listen to an iPod while walking. And make no mistake, no one is safe -- I also saw Delores threaten to punch an Italian woman. Perhaps that equal-punching policy speaks well for her.

Caffe Della Pace is a great place to meet all kinds of people. Last year I met a staffer named Andra, a transplanted Romanian who seems to know just about everybody. We kept in touch, and this weekend she told me about a party happening in Trastavere, the medina-like student district across the Tiber. I trekked through the winding lanes searching for a non-existent cafe (Andra had messed up a detail or two) until finally, in the twilight on tiny Via de Fianaroli, a head poked over a rooftop and called out that I should climb to the top floor.

It was quite a place, and quite a crowd. The rooftop terrace was set up Moroccan style with cushions and throw rugs. That the crowd represented a selection of interesting local artists can be demonstrated with a story: Earlier that day I had stopped cold in front of a small gallery near Campo di Fiore, admiring nudes set among gorgeous multi-coloured flowers, set off by large bunches of similar flowers in the gallery itself. I didn't catch the artist's name. But as it turned out, her name is Adina Drinceau. Like Andra, she is Romanian. I learned all this at the party, as we danced together on the rooftop. Perhaps Rome is really a small town.

Hangin' with genius

Mark Kostabi was there too. You may even have heard of him. You may even own a piece of his art if you bought the Guns n' Roses album Use Your Illusion. His friend Lavinia, an arts reporter for Italian TV, told me, "He's a genius." A friend familiar with his reputation described him as "punchable." There's a new documentary about the guy that just played the Tribeca Film Festival -- it's called Con Artist. He's pleased about that. "I do 1000 paintings a year," he told me. "I don't paint them. I don't come up with the ideas for them either -- I pay people to do that. I just sign them and sell them for a lot of money."

It's true. He is a genius.

There were musicians, DJs, more artists, even an Australian. Her name was Melissa Oyoung, and she knew one thing about Vancouver: Montgomery fries. She insisted that a friend had told her that this special culinary creation was what Vancouver was famous for. Apparently they involve some kind of salsa and peppers or something. I tried to be polite and say that, indeed, the hardest thing about being abroad was my insatiable craving for Montgomery fries, but she could see I was bluffing. At any rate, it certainly suggests that all the Tourism BC dollars are for naught -- either someone picks up The Economist and reads about bodies in the Vancouver streets, or disappointed tourists wonder why the nasty waiters are refusing to bring out the Montgomery fries.

Here on this Trastavere rooftop, the delectables were good enough to compensate for any missing fries, real or imagined. James Brown music played, and people on a nearby rooftop started dancing along. The party was going viral.

Roamin' at night

Later I hopped a circuitous bus back to the Termini station, crammed together with tipsy young Romans. They tend to be more charming than our own drunks, in my opinion. Instead of bellowing, belching, and worse, these kids formed a circle and began singing. Fairly well, too. As long as it's not under my window, I enjoy it.

Rome is one of the great cities of the world. And if they can't match our skill with French fry variations, well, some of their food is OK too.

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