The weather in Rome has been on the chilly side, but compared with Rockford in January, it’s positively balmy. Warm enough, in fact, to risk a charge of heresy (or at least philistinism) by capping the first full day of The Rockford Institute’s 2008 Winter School with, not a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but a pint of beer. And not just any beer, but an unfiltered, heavily hopped light ale named ReAle, from the brewery of the commune of Borgorose, population 4,500, about 70 kilometers northeast of Rome. The ale is reminiscent of the best beers produced by the few remaining local breweries scattered throughout the Midwest. It takes a mass market to make a bad beer, and sadly, in the United States, very few local markets remain. For now, most of Europe has avoided our fate, but the E.U. bureaucrats in Brussels are doing their best to impose it from above.
The pint is hand drawn over the course of five minutes as the bartender attempts to balance the slightly cloudy elixir, more golden than brown, with the creamy white head of foam. No American bar, even a brew pub, would make a customer wait so long, for fear of losing a sale. Here, the wait simply adds to the expectation, since we have sampled the ReAle already. There’s far more to do and to see in Rome than in Rockford, yet life here moves at a much more human pace.
The bar is literally a hole in the wall in Trastevere, its name painted roughly over an unfinished wooden door. Inside, eight or ten barstools line the bar and the opposite wall, and the bartender stands in a galley barely large enough for him to turn around. With his thin face, light mustache, and long, curly locks flowing down to his shoulders, he looks like a more delicate version of Weird Al Yankovic. That, and the little lamp next to the cash register, with its decoupage lampshade featuring images of Liza Minnelli, briefly give me pause, until the only other patron of the bar, a native Roman, turns and introduces himself.
He apologizes for the heated discussion that he and the bartender have been having. “In Italy, there are only two things that men argue about. And since he—” (tossing his head toward Weird Al) “—doesn’t like soccer, you know it has to be a woman.”
“I like American football—the Chicago Bears,” the bartender tells us, and Mark Kennedy and I explain that our hometown is not far from Chicago. That’s all the prompting that the other patron needs to begin a long disquisition on the superiority of soccer—not just over football, but over every other sport invented by man.
“In all other sports, you can stop the clock and challenge the rulings of the referees. In soccer, the ref’s decision is final, and the play keeps moving. And we have only a limited number of substitutions. Then, if someone gets hurt, you play with one man down.”
All of this “makes soccer more a game of chance than of skill. A weak team and a strong team can end up in a championship game, and the weak team might win. It’s the unpredictability that makes it so exciting.”
There’s more—much more—and I listen politely, but my thoughts have turned elsewhere. Our Italian friend may be talking about soccer rather than roulette or craps, but I hear echoes of Andrei Navrozov. Andrei’s passion for gambling may be (as he suggests) a rebellion against the increasing monotony of the modern world, as exemplified by life in the United States, but I wonder if there’s not something more, something that only a European living in a still vibrant city or town can understand. The men playing the tables at Aspinall’s likely have a somewhat different outlook on their gaming than do the blue-haired ladies in lime-green leisure suits pulling the slots at Ho-Chunk Casino.
Today, my wife and I ate lunch at the Hostaria Farnese, a wonderful restaurant not much bigger than this bar, off of the Campo dei Fiori. We had eaten there twice on our previous trip in May 2000, and, other than now being denominated in euros rather than lira, the menu has not changed. Before lunch, we browsed the stalls of the daily market in the Campo, where the same woman gave us samples of the same prosciutto and bresaola that we’d tried over seven-and-a-half years ago.
Rockford’s downtown, over the same period, has been remade more than once, and some storefronts have housed two or three restaurants in succession. The monotony of life in much of America is a monotony of change. The stability of life in Rome is the very opposite of monotony, and perhaps that can make a game of chance more an affirmation of life than an act of desperation.
These thoughts are still inchoate a week later, as I stop in at the corner café for a quick espresso before the afternoon lectures. Quiet in the morning after 6:30 Mass, the café is bustling now, and I’ve finished my espresso before the soccer fan from the bar claps me on the shoulder and calls out, “Buona sera!” We chat briefly as we push our way up to the register, then fall silent as I pull out my wallet and fumble for change. The espresso is 70 eurocents, and I realize with pleasure that the three coins I’ve grabbed without looking make up the exact amount. A perfect espresso; a chance meeting; a random draw; and I walk out onto the cobbled streets of Rome a happy man.
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.
This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.