Italy – Tea Drinking In Rome

THE first lesson that many Americans who come to Rome have to learn of the Eternal City is the art of relaxation. Days in Italy are much longer and much more leisurely than in the United States. You may make the morning what you will, for the light breakfast served in your room with your news-paper takes no time and readjusts you to a new day without the strain of liking your fellow beings before you have had your coffee. After lunch you are forced to take a siesta, for all business is suspended from twelve to three, and if you wish to venture out in the warm sunshine, you will find even the cab-drivers waking reluctantly and nothing except the Museums open to you. Dinner will not be served until eight, so by half-past five it is well to rest again and somewhere find a place for table-talk, that delightful exchange of ideas and confidences which whets personality and makes life more scintillating.

The Italians agree so fully with Emerson’s dictum, “the law of one to one is necessary for conversation,” that the tea-tables are generally small, but if you must be more social, obliging camerieri will accommodate you with extra chairs or combine multiples of tables. The Romans will sip hot black coffee while English or Americans linger over tea-cups, but in hot weather all indulge in the famous and fancy ices of the country, cassata Siciliana, gelati, caffè granita con panna, spumone. How delicious the very names are!

The mood of any day may be satisfied by a special atmosphere for one’s tea hour and a little jaunting about soon tells you where to go for the best food, what types of people you see in different tea-rooms, where you may drink to music, where you may loaf and invite your soul out-doors.

English tea, English muffins, Scotch marmalade and the British you will find at “Miss Babington’s” in the Piazza di Spagna. A typical habitué was a dear old Scotchman who always sat in a well-sheltered corner opposite the door and responded to my inquiry for his health with a brisk: “Thank you kindly, I’m in my frail usual.” All during the war he had knitted mufflers and socks for Italian soldiers and in his devotion to his second country he had even sold his treasured first edition of Keats for funds to give the blinded, and now often of an afternoon after reading an hour or two in the sacred Keats’ rooms over the Spanish steps, he would come to “Miss Babington’s” for his tea as do so many of the foreigners who live in sight of Bernini’s ship fountain. You can go in Miss Wilson’s and Piale’s circulating libraries in the square and exchange your books or run into Cook’s or the American Express for information about your next trip, or buy Christmas presents of Roman scarves and Roman pearls across the street, or get an armful of fresh flowers for five lire on the steps above the fountain, and then having enjoyed the conveniences of the Piazza di Spagna, sit down in Miss Babington’s to read your paper or to talk polite nothings, for here tables are too close for confidences or a free getting acquainted.

“Old England” is another tea center for the English and Americans, especially in winter when for us chilly folk there are two open wood fires. There is music too after five, the tea-pots do not drip, there are comfortable wicker-chairs for those who loathe sitting up straight and after your shopping in the great department store of which this tea-room makes the top floor, you can relax here, watching stout British matrons read Mrs. Asquith’s Autobiography by the fire, or, in the outer circle of tables back of the columns, handsome Italian gentlemen talk to their quietly dressed wives or their loudly bejewelled innamorate.

A more purely Italian place is La Tour’s in the S. S. Apostoli, the upstairs room, that magnificent baroque salon of the old Palazzo Colonna where crystal chandeliers sparkle and marble statues watch the crowd below. Here about six every day in the week, Sunday included, you will find the room crowded with fashionable Italians. More interesting to me is the historic little Caffè Greco just off the Piazza di Spagna on the Via Condotti. Its long narrow space is divided by partitions and pillars into five small rooms each of which has its own character. In the front one, an hexagonal glass case in the center displays autograph letters from famous habitués and pictures of the Caffè in times past, and on this case presiding jauntily and incongruously over the room stands a bronze statuette of Mark Twain. At one end of the room is a small side-board gay with wine-bottles. Along the sides elderly gentle-men solemnly indulge in chess and checkers. In the next two rooms, the light is artificial and dim, and here journeys are apparently ending in lovers’ meetings, for smart officers always seem to be greeting their ladies after long absence. How the art of coquetry can be practised under the quizzical and amused eyes of the Pan-statue facing them I cannot imagine. The two rear rooms are long and narrow. On the right-hand one under the sky-lights you will find writers dictating to secretaries, men with ruffled hair composing, artists making small pencil sketches, ordinary persons reading the last newspaper. In the other long room there is a billiard table, and, beyond, the bar where a very hand-some, dark-haired, dark-eyed youth will show you above his head an oil sketch of a beautiful fair baby boy and laughingly tell you “That is myself” while he points out the artist’s inscription :

“A Mario Gubinelli Ottimo fra i bambini pessimo fra i modelli.”

The rooms are all decorated with oil paintings of Italy and Rome, dark old-fashioned paintings of the Campagna, of Soracte, of Tivoli’s water-falls, of the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus and the Palatine, and in among these panels are set medallion relief portraits of famous past habitués, Liszt, Wagner, Thorwaldsen, Gogol. You can see them all if you go early in the afternoon. Be sure not to miss the miniatures painted by the proprietor, Signor Gubinelli, that hang in a case at the farthest end of the Caffè, exquisite, artistic work.

For classical atmosphere instead of artistic, seek the Basilica Ulpia and do not be misled by the name to suppose you are going to worship. A humorous paper in reporting a Sunday conversation laughed at just this chance of error.

“Have you been to church today?”

“Yes, I went to the Basilica Ulpia.”

“Oh! Then you certainly were in heaven.”

You must understand that the Basilica Ulpia is not a church at all but a very elegant restaurant built in an apse of the old law-court or basilica in Trajan’s Forum. You enter from the Piazza of Trajan’s Column and drink your tea under the unadorned imperial walls, and you may descend (especially after dinner for coffee) to a lower room of the same old structure where your feet will freeze on the great flat stones of the original pavement and imperial awe or shivers from walls so ancient create a need for more and more caffè nero.

The Basilica Ulpia from its classical heritage might well be a modern center of political life, but you will not find it so. To see the Deputies of Rome, you must go to Aragno’s, the great caffè on the Corso Umberto, and watch the throngs of politicians that pour over there from Montecitorio, to sip coffee and liqueurs and make the politics of Rome over the cups. Men sit out at the tables on the sidewalk, women pass by on the other side and this is a pity because the Aragno ices are delicious.

Both men and women, however, may enter the “Golden Gate,” or on warm days sit out in front of that charming tea-room at the top of the Via Veneto, looking at the great Aurelian wall and under its round arches at the green vistas of the Villa Borghese. Half the Roman world drives by, half sits here drinking to dreamy music and watching the passing show.

One can be even cooler in summer on the Terrace of the Rinascente. You step into the store from the confusion and noise of the Corso Umberto, take a rapid elevator to the top of the building and walk out on a wide terrace overhung with trailing green of rose-bushes and wistaria, surrounded with gardenias, and set with wicker chairs and tables covered with gay cloths in blue and white, red and white, yellow and white patterns. The chief attraction is not the “specialty” of the Rinascente, a marvellous concoction of strawberry ice, fresh wild strawberries and whipped cream, but the views all over Rome, of roof-tops, spires, campanili, of the green Pincian, and the Janiculum. My favorite table is one where I can look down on the column of Marcus Aurelius and the bubbling fountain below it and the busy crowd passing so rapidly and so quietly. Up here one is far from

“the noise and fret and fume of town,” fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.

But the most beautiful and thoroughly Roman spot for tea or for dinner outdoors is the Castello dei Cesari on the Aventine. On your way up, driving or walking, you will go to the Francescan church of Santa Sabina for its peaceful beauty of gray columns and marble chancel and to the Villa of the Knights of Malta for the glimpse of Saint Peter’s through the key-hole at the end of the long green way. Then at sunset time you will arrive at the Castello dei Cesari and taking a hurried look at the busts of the emperors in the great red hall inside, you will seek the terrace for tea with the sunset shedding orange and violet lights on the Palatine’s massive imperial ruins and stately cypresses.

At any and all of these places, you may hear, if your ears are attuned to the beautiful Italian language and if you are not talking too rapidly yourself, the chit-chat of the hour. Bits of conversation wafted to your ears show what is in Rome’s mind from the eternal newspaper to last night’s opera. What is the exchange today? Will the ministry fall? Are England’s domes-tic difficulties greater than Italy’s? Who drew the successful number in the Tombola? Is Dina Galli or Emma Grammatica the more artistic actress? Where is D’Annunzio now? How is it that the ex-Kaiser still owns the Villa Falconieri at Frascati? Who is operating the Fiat works at present? Can the steamship lines continue service to the United States under the new immigration laws?

Suddenly you cease to hear the stray questions of the talk of others and your mind instead of following two lines of thought is absorbed in one as your companion grows more interesting. I shall never forget one talk up at the Castello dei Cesari this spring or what a young Sicilian Lieutenant told me.

It does not matter how we utter strangers came to be there together at tea-time. The stupid details of preliminary introductions I will forego and only state that we had never seen each other before and probably never would again, and that sense of detachment perhaps made him talk more freely to me. The men who have fought say so little about their war experiences that certain stray sentences stick in my mind. Not long before a Captain had remarked to me: “I would never tell you what war at the front was like, but just imagine a river running red with blood, with blood!” An Alpino had emphasized another aspect. “It was different for us up in the mountains,” he said. “We didn’t have the vermin of the trenches, and when our officers died we covered them with the bright Alpine flowers and buried them in the mountains where the beauty made it a little easier.” A few words may say so much, but the young Sicilian officer told me more, in fact a little story, which might be called

“A Bottle of Strega.”

“Yes, it is my right arm that is limp, Signorina. It was paralyzed and doesn’t work yet, so the doctors sent me back to Sicily for a rest and now they are going to try electricity on it. I get on very well with my left hand as you see, and I’m here.”

He was the picture of life with his high Sicilian coloring, all bronzed and crimson-cheeked, his dark eyes glowing.

“I was up at Monte Grappa. I was there for months and months. It was very dangerous, and little by little life became different. Our minds were all right and we thought about everything, but we did not feel any more. I don’t know why it was unless we gradually returned to a kind of wood life like the animals because we were always in danger and our minds were bent just on keeping alive. An officer would be killed, some man with whom I had served two years, who was more to me than a brother and I’d just say ‘E morto, poverino,’ ‘He’s dead, poor man!’ and there it was! I knew it, but I didn’t feel it at all. One night the Colonel told me that the next day we were to take the peak ahead from the Austrians. It was a very dangerous assault and there wasn’t much chance of coming back. At such a time I thought of my father and mother and home, but I didn’t feel anything. That night I had one hundred lire. I said to myself : ‘If the Austrians take me prisoner tomorrow, they will get the one hundred lire, and if I am killed, there it is!’ So I decided to buy a bottle of Strega and I treated the men and we were sipping it and laughing over it when the old, long-faced Colonel came by and called me.

” ‘How can you go on so tonight?’ he said. ‘ Don’t you know the danger you are going into tomorrow? I will carry the important papers because I shall be in less peril than you will.’

“Well, we finished my bottle of Strega, and the next day we took the peak. The old Colonel was killed and I only had my right arm hurt and here I am. But it still all seems so strange, Signorina. I often wonder about it and try to think why I was so different, why I felt nothing, and I cannot explain it. I think that my heart was paralyzed then and now it is only my arm, so it is all very well. But I always think about that night when I have a little glass of Strega like this.”

For me too now the word Strega has an association and I never see the golden ‘witch’ liqueur without remembering that vivid young Sicilian officer, so intensely alive though partly broken, so merry and so sober, so simple and so brave.