OVANNI He was an English vagabond whose name was John. I’d seen him almost daily sauntering through the winding, narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere for all the years I’d lived in that quarter of Rome. 32 years, 1978 to 2010. Sometimes he disappeared for a whole season and I wondered where he got to and would he ever come back? He always came back. When I first saw him he was a tall, strong man in his late twenties, I supposed. He had piercing hazel eyes, an uncombed mop of brown hair, and not bad looking, although dishevelled given his life-style. He could be seen walking his cobbled turf or spotted lounging round the old stone walls of the neighbourhood’s many churches by day and evening. One of his favourite places was the 16th century fountain of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He’d engage in niceties with a sea of
strangers sauntering by or, sitting around the fountain’s seven chipped marble steps, involve friends in philosophical conversation. Though his Italian was severely flowed he could always make himself understood. He liked to flirt with the women who stopped to chat with him. From my third-floor bedroom window I would watch him drag a cart topped with rags to the rag-and-bone man, or iron to the iron-monger down my street, who would give him a few coins for his wares. He also collected books, and I’d hear him declare in voice loud enough to be heard by all: “Books are for reading not for throwing away,” over and over again on his way to another customer. He was well known and liked by the clergy and staff connected to the medieval basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The church has a long tradition for charitable work, and the Christmas lunch in the churches’ nave, where incense scents the air and the cornucopia of festive foods is set on wood tables placed on the Cosmati marble floor under 13 th century gilded mosaics of saints, cherubs and doves, is a well-attended ritual by the ragged, desperate, maimed and lost. Clustered together they compose a living work of art that mirrors a Brueghel painting. As steaming plastic plates of pasta coloured by tomatoes and basil were passed around, Giovanni, as he was known, and who in years became considered the king of the street people, presided over these festive lunches, as the master of ceremonies. There would even be an occasional piece about him in a Rome newspaper, defining him as the head of the homeless and telling some small story about him.
Proudly, for days
afterwards, he’d show everyone the article. In time his back became bent as he dragged his cart of wares to sell, but eventually the ironmonger, rag-and-bone-man and others like them, closed shop to make way for upmarket restaurant and bars that were invading the area, and Giovanni lost their custom. He now had a gray beard, his brown winter coat was in tatters, the navy-blue wool cap he wore in all seasons covered a mop of gray hair. But as always he was cheerful, and, indisputably, still the sovereign of the streets. I don’t know where his small change came from. He never begged.
The last time I saw him was on the night of the full moon in April of 2010. He was sitting on the steps of the Santa Maria della Luce, a church, in Via della Lungaretta. The narrow street which leads from the main drag (Viale di Trastevere) to piazza Santa Maria, is normally buzzing in the evening, and on this balmy night was crowded with loud Romans, curious tourists, rampaging youths, and, of course, the ubiquitous gypsies and derelicts: bums, vagrants, beggars on crutches, winos sucking at plastic cups filled with cheap liquor, tramps, hobos, and swaying emaciated junkies with their cluster of dogs. Mingling with the cacophony of human voices screeching bats whizzed overhead. I sat down on the steps by my homeless friend, Viviane, who, shaking her head, pointed to Giovanni who was sitting near-by. He looked eerie and far away in his private world, and hardly his usual jovial self. I’d never seen him in this mood, or state. His hefty legs were bandaged below the trousers he’d pulled over his meaty knees, and infected boils and sores showed through the gauze. He was staring intensely at the huge moon, his eyes glowing with the fire of insanity. Where will he sleep tonight, I wondered? In a dilapidated sleeping-bag placed on cartons under the awnings of some supermarket, as so many of the street people do, or in a crowded dormitory the Caritas charity offered? Shortly after this encounter I left Rome. ******* It was a chilly, grey evening at the end of October of 2011. I was on the 91 going home after a guitar lesson at City Lit. The atmosphere on the half-full London bus was tranquil, but then at the next stop a visible shift took place amongst the passenger as an overpowering plume of an odious pong wafted through the air. A pulse of agitated movement shivered through the travellers. People looked up from their mobiles, The Evening Standard, their babies in push-chairs, their reveries and meditations. Enveloped in his mall-odour, a heavily set, grey bearded man, wearing a navy-blue wool cap over his grey hair, and wrapped in a dilapidated sheep-skin jacket, carrying a stained grey canvas sack that overflowed with stuff stuffed in plastic bags, limped slowly past me. It can’t be,
I exclaimed to myself. He sat down next to the woman in back of me who quickly got up and took another seat at the rear-end of the bus. I turned around too look at him again. I must be hallucinating, I thought, but then asked: “Are you John from Rome?” “I’m Giovanni, from Trastevere,” he replied, and I got up to sit next to him. “What are you doing here?” I asked, astounded. He had to leave, he said. “I lost all my friends in Rome,” was as much information as I could get from him. He said he didn’t want to talk about it as it was too painful. For some years now, Alemanno, Rome’s, fascist mayor, had been cleaning the streets and piazzas of the street people. Police swooped down on them, asked to see identity papers and shifted them back to wherever they came from. I suspected Giovanni had finally been given his marching orders by the Italian authorities also, and shipped back to his native England. He hates London, he said. “You can just die here and no one cares. When my mummy and daddy died they couldn’t have cared less. I was shocked to see how cold and nasty people can be. That’s when I moved to Rome. The people there are warm.” What kind of mommy and daddy did this man have? What kind of childhood? What brought him to the streets? I asked myself, but I shall never know. With bitter expression on his lined face, he continued asserting how awful it was for him to be in London. “If I don’t die, I’ll kill myself.” A man who had basked in the Rome sunshine now looked as gray as the London weather. “Where do you live?” I asked. “In a prison,” he said with scorn. Which means one of those desperate hostels for desperate people like him. I’ve heard it say it’s a hell on earth. When I got off he said, “See you in heaven next time we meet.” Should I have invited him to my home? Had him take a shower? Fed him? I couldn’t do this; I wasn’t strong enough to take on the mammoth task of befriending him.
I didn’t know what to make of this startling encounter, and later that evening consulted the I Ching: “What is the significance of my bumping into Giovanni?” Hexagram 8 – Union. The waters of the earth flow together wherever they can, as for example in the ocean, where all the rivers come. Giovanni, I think, must be the vagrant in me.
November 14, 2011 Two weeks later, two stops later Giovanni gets on the bus again. This time he recognises me. “I met you the last time, didn’t I?” He sits down next to me; I try to handle the stench. The young guy who was standing near me moves off. We chat, again he tells me how much he hates it here, how uncaring people are. I told him I’d met with nothing but kindness when I arrived from Rome penniless and got housed by the Islington Council in short time. “That’s because you’re a foreigner,” he said, and he might have a point, although I do have an English passport so basically I’m not a foreigner. Not that John could have been housed – he lacks the skills it takes to handle living in one’s own home. He grumbles about the state of things, “We have become American,” he says. He complains about the government and the Royal Family. “What good do they do? Do you know how rich they are?” “In Rome they have the rich Vatican,” I say. “Don’t confuse the two, the Vatican is about spirituality, the Royal family is just about making money. What do they do for the people?” He might have another point, I thought, although I don’t feel the rich Vatican state is solely about spirituality either.
April 24th - 2012 Can’t believe it. On my way home from a visit to the British Museum I stopped to have a coffee on the terrace of the cafeteria in Russell Square Park. Spring sun-rays spilled over the tree tops of high plane trees, flower-beds, shrubs, happy dogs and nervous pigeons. An eclectic array of people were enjoying themselves sitting on wood benches around the fountain or sprawled on the green lawns in this oasis of tranquillity. I felt elated, and grateful that I was blessed to be a part of this miniature Elysian field. Then I made my way to the nearest bus stop, and who did I see sitting there? You’ve guessed it, Giovanni. I did not want to stop and have another conversation with him; I did not want to hear his unhappy and bitter story again. Apart from taking him home (which I wasn’t going to do) I didn’t feel that there was anything I could do for him, so I walked to the next stop, got on the next bus and was relieved he was not on it. The next time I saw him was from the bus’ window. He was sitting on his own at a pavement café in Kingsway. His canvas bag and other plastic bags at his side. And then again some ten days ago, again from the bus’ window, I saw him sitting at an outdoor café near Euston Station, talking to a homeless friend. I was pleased to see he was in company. He was, after all, a gregarious chap. Then again meandering around the Angel underground. I am aware that only a thin line separates Giovanni and me, and that there, but for grace, go I.