Full disclosure: I love Rome. Shamelessly. Nostalgically. Unconditionally. It helps to admit this so you can douse my romanticism with a handful of salt. I see what I want to see. Come rain, shine or fascism, I will always see Rome in the golden sun-kissed hue of ‘magic hour’ light, the ancient, almost pheromonal perfume of the Tiber in the air, and somewhere beneath the clatter of plated Carbonara, the hypnotic soprano of Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro. That happens even before the architecture, the scale and magnificence so awesome (true definition), that a single structure alone, would be enough for even the most granite-chinned of cynics to fly a thousand miles for a glimpse. In fact, with a jaw-dropping vista or logic-defying edifice at every corner, Rome feels like a collection of archaeological treasures connected via cobbled streets like a Renaissance Legoland.
The Roman tableau nearly brings me to tears. Nearly. I’m not psychotic. Although I did just admit to hearing things… it’s probably fine. The point is, I see what I want to see… which is useful after a country has been taken over by pudgy populist pseudo-fascists. But then you always needed a certain myopia in Rome, if only to ignore the obelisks and monuments to Mussolini that are inexplicably still standing. It speaks volumes for Italy’s dichotomy, that it could be as famous for the quality of its produce, as it is for pelting Mussolini’s hanging body with presumably organic vegetables.
As a writer, there is a lens of romanticism essential to survival; a lens that is, by definition, tested by real life. And in Rome, the language barrier is the first line of defence. Having been born in Italy but leaving at a young age, the one benefit to forgetting the language is that some absolute bell could be espousing the virtues of mass-deportation, but to my virgin-ear it sounds like Verdi conducted by Arturo Tosca-fu*****-nini.
Yet it is at the table, that the glory of Rome feels impenetrable. At the table, it feels entirely reasonable to believe that the creeping dangers of so-called ‘populism’ could be blunted by a bowl of spaghetti alla gricia. A Roman table feels at once both sacred and a celebration of life. Cynics may argue that such emphasis on food while the nation slides into darkness, is an example of la bella figura; that much misinterpreted Italian philosophy, translated as ‘the beautiful figure,’ but meaning, ‘the good impression’. That given the undercurrent of xenophobia that permeates the country, this bacchanalian celebration is not only a Trojan-horse rejection of other cultures, but that worse, it is just for show. But what if there’s something more noble at work?
This holiday season in our own politically-divided times, it has been impossible to avoid online manuals to Christmas dinner small-talk with your peak-Brexit parents or ‘How To’ guides to not dropkick your MAGA Uncle in the egg-nogs,’ as if the table were something we must endure. Do such articles exist for Italians? And if not… why not? What does the table do for them, that it doesn’t do for us? Why does the table serve Italians as not merely a respite from the turmoil outside, but a gastronomic oasis where said turmoil seemingly doesn’t exist?Could the Italian table be a… ‘safe space’? For the sake of Piers Morgan’s puckering sphincter (it hears the phrase ‘safe space’ even in print), let’s say no. But as a British male, my instinct to gazing enviously at something another country possesses, is to steal it, bring it back to Blighty and make a slightly less-seasoned version of it. So naturally, I asked every Italian I met until I found the answer.
The table does not have pride of place despite the turmoil outside, it has pride of place because of it.
Chaos, corruption and boondoggle bureaucracy are as baked into the fabric of Italian life as they are in the expectations of its people. Brexit duplicity and incompetence wouldn’t have surprised Italians – they would have found it cloyingly predictable. So, if as the poet George Herbert once wrote, “Living well is the best revenge,” then Rome has turned the table into an exercise of daily insurrection. Rich or poor, there is no life without eating and drinking well. Quality ingredients and restaurants are affordable, precisely because they are essential to Italian life. Even foreigners who sell ubiquitous ‘tat’ on the street, don’t ask for change, they pincer index-finger and thumb around an imaginary espresso cup and ask, “Per un caffè.” A ploy to be sure, but if that doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the culture then perhaps nothing will.
Sitting down to a meal with family and friends is to be savoured and celebrated, not fetishised. It is a necessary part of daily-life because without it, what joy would there be? It is the silent reward for their endurance. Every time a Roman knife pierces a deep-fried artichoke, it is two-fingers to the bungling powers-that-be; every strand of unctuous Cacio e Pepe twirled nonchalantly around their fork? A giant screw-you to the corrupt cowards sabotaging their lives with impunity.
So, in our own politically calamitous times, how might we follow suit? If living well is the best revenge, then perhaps a black-pudding Scotch Egg is a Shakespearean act of bloody vengeance.
Perhaps one of the reasons our discourse has become so toxic and selfish, is we no longer possess communal crutches to lean on in times of strife. We are all strangers now. But the table is where family begins, where friends become found family and neighbours become community. When all our institutions fail us, perhaps it is at the table where we can build something decent and fundamental once more.
Maybe coming together to share a table – to share life as an act of sheer defiance against those who seek to divide us – is how we can survive this incompetent, xenophobic Brexit imbroglio… at least before we need to start stockpiling tinned pilchards. We can be Gladiators who won’t need our revenge in this life or the next, because we will have Stilton. And Cornish Yarg. And Shropshire Blue and chutneys, so many chutneys! We will not yell, we will savour. Our pleasure and conviviality will be our rebuke. The crunch of pork crackling in our Sunday Roast will say, “F**k you Rees-Mogg, you reanimated waxwork of a Victorian-era paedophile!” The frazzle of Haddock in the fryer at the chippy will ring out, “F**k you Boris, you bloated, duplicitous eunuch from a poorly-received episode of Cadfael!” And we will rejoice and laugh and enjoy each other, for this is our reward. And we will do it from the comfort of our kitchen table. Our table will be our salvation, our survival… our revenge.