We’ve been living in Rome for the best part of six weeks, close to the crossroads of Via Romagna & Boncompagni. It’s been long enough for us to get to know our neighbourhood a little. Long enough to be on smiling terms with the older couple who run the little shop round the corner on Via Sicilia, where we run for fresh bread & milk at 7am, buy persimmons for lunch, or dash for chicory for dinner. Long enough to be relieved to make it back up here, after the chaos of downtown. Up here, just inside the north-east city walls, it’s a quieter, working neighbourhood. This is the banking district; groups of nattily dressed thirty-somethings down espressos, or take light lunches at the bars and small restaurants all around here. The Japanese Embassy is a block away, in a beautiful lemon-coloured villa. The American Embassy, is a few more blocks away along Boncompagni, – you’re not allowed to walk on the pavements outside the embassy, and because it’s so close, and so vast (it takes up a whole block) we are constantly crossing the street to keep safe. Kids not impressed. We’ve also been here long enough to recognise the beggars on the streets, and wrestle with ourselves about how to explain poverty to our children. This isn’t a first attempt – we have our children because of third world poverty, and they understand something of that, but this is different. It’s daily, and it’s right here. Directly opposite our bedroom on Via Romagna, there’s an empty, modern office block. It’s unusual for this area, both because it’s empty, and because it’s not nineteenth century. On the ground floor, there are walkways designed to make space for air and light and greenery. Now, these are carefully wired off, and the beds once full of trees and plants are homes to dry earth. Behind one of these high marble beds, there is room to hide from the street, and a week ago, I realised a group of people come in the evening, carefully place cardboard against the wire mesh, and sleep there. That morning, I watched them dismantle their camp, pile up sheets of cardboard behind the marble planter, and sweep the space with a broom. They were gone before 8am. I also watched, hand over mouth, as one of the men kicked one of the women, seated with her dogs, before leaving.
I’m writing this on Sunday evening, the children are in bed. I peek through the shutters, and three floors down, there they are, busy setting up camp – cardboard up, sheets of foam being laid down. And so, this is not Ballymacoda, and the big city is curling up in our hearts in ways that make us ache as well as wonder.