Rome was Rome, not only in the obvious and universal sense that, however much the city changes, it remains the urbs aeterna and not just for Catholics, but in the narrower sense that when you are in a place every year for more than a few days, it loses the exotic charm of unfamiliarity and gains the solid attractiveness of an old friend with whom you can talk about the same things and the same people without every really getting bored, because there is a common frame of reference.
We stayed at the same place we have been staying for several years, up on the Gianicolo, where we were served drinks as usual by Francesco, that is, when we did not step the half block down to the livelier Bar Gianicolo. We saw people we usually see, though there was not time to see some we wished to, we visited museums, churches, and sites we'd been to many times, but we never tire either of the Forum or of San Giorgio in Velabro.
The great treat this year was seeing Andrea Kirk Assaf, her children, and her mother, an old friend whom we had not seen since several years ago in Rome. I shall not disclose the lady's age, but she is impossibly youthful and beautiful, without medical assistance or even art, and as smart and vivacious as ever. We talked, as old friends do, of good friends dead and gone: of her husband Russell, whose legacy, if it is lost on younger conservatives, will be a greater loss than they will be able to conceive of; of Sam Francis and his departure from this life as a Christian, of Mel Bradford, whose best essays need to be collected...
I suppose the complete collapse of conservatism in America was to be expected. I saw it happen in Reagan's first term as movement types did not so much get corrupted by DC politics as rushed headlong to sell their paltry souls to the highest bidder--and the prices were low enough. I remember how some of Bradford's friends sold him out. One of them went on to fortune, albeit not fame, in the think-tank universe. The fact is: outsider movements attract a sprinkling of talented idealists but fill the ranks with losers who would happily join the left, if only the left would have them.
One great basher of the neocons I used to know confessed to me candidly, more than once, that he could have been bought with a few invitations to write for Commentary. The only difficulty lay in the fact that Commentary--and the New Republic--had higher standards, and they still do. Of course, leftists are entirely wrong and many of them are evil and disgusting people, but they are far less likely to be third raters, which is the highest class of most conservative journalists and intellectuals. I remember the response of an African-American conservative pundit, when asked why he became a Republican. The poor fellow had realistically sized up the situation and concluded that there was too much competition for black journalists on the left. This was only the extreme case of a general phenomenon.
Back to Rome. We returned to our favorite trattoria in Trastevere, Da Fabrizio. Fabrizio recalled the professore who had brought so many friends over the years and stuffed us on the antipasto selection he prepared for us. At his advice, we skipped the pasta and went straight to a platter of several meat dishes. Frankly, our friends astonished us by their appetite, and we finished with some sweets and both grappa and amaro. Thank goodness for the long steep walk up the Gianicolo. It must have taken off 5% of the calories we had ingested.
Most of our student friends, apart from Michael the artificial Dutchman, were gone by Saturday morning, and we could ramble the city at our own pace, having lunch at "Wanted" as we had done years ago with Michael and two of his many children, and doing basically nothing.
In the end, we were happy to leave the big city and return to Pisa, where we have more room to spread out. When it is comparatively warm, I can sit on the tiny terrace, smoking my cigar and writing this banal nonsense on my iPad and wireless keyboard.
The first full day was sunny and cool, though the sky turned dramatically dark in the late afternoon. We walked up to the Piazza dei Miracoli in search of an alabaster gimcrack for a table centerpiece, and after snapping a picture of two Italians in love in front of the tower (with their camera), I took one of my own. The brightness of the stone "pops," as they say in the business, against the dramatic backdrop of lowering dark clouds.
This last week of doing nothing in Pisa is an experiment to see how well we take everyday life in Italy. Over the past 25 years we have seen nearly everything work seeing in the city, and with the uncertain weather we are not making excursions out of town until perhaps Saturday, when we hope to go either to Livorno or Empoli.
No, we are quite lazy. I work for several hours, we shop for food and wine, and go out for lunch or dinner. Last night we tried dinner Al Signor Mimmo, a transplanted Pugliese around the corner. I wanted to like it but in the end did not. The ladies who waited on us were very nice, and the food was honest and the price more than fair, but...
We were having our little breakfasts "at home," but we have grown fond of a bar near the station--nearly a mile's distance from the apartment. It's nothing special, and the lady who owns the place is having a hard time surviving in a bad economy, but she buys decent pastries and the girl at the counter always welcomes us like old friends. I am fond of the location. A long time ago, when it had a different proprietor, I left a book bag with tickets, passport, camera, tape recorder, dictionary, and too much money. A half hour later, searching for my Italian dictionary, I panicked and ran back. A lady with a blank face shook her head then burst into laughter as she reached under the counter to produce my bag with all its valuables inside.
The rest of the time we just read and talk. I am rotting my brain on mysteries by J.S. Fletcher, Freeman Wills Croft, and Rex Stout, but as soon as I finish The Chestermarke Incident, I am returning to Pirandello's Il Fu Mattia Pascall. Poor Pirandello, a great writer who put himself on the wrong side of history by joining the Fascist Party.
I hear it is warming up to the freezing point today in Rockford, after days below zero. It's grey with light rain here in Pisa and only rising to 54, but I still feel happy about being somewhere where we can walk five miles without facing broken bones or frost bite.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.