Just back from Rome where we walked and walked and ate and ate–which was the object of the visit.
I planned this trip–to celebrate my 75th birthday with our friends, Helen and Keith (his birthday is two days before mine)–as four nights and eight meals.
Worked out very well.
This might seem to undervalue Rome–the Eternal City, heart of the Catholic Church, ancient heart of the vasty Roman Empire.
Church bells sound on the quarter hour and bits of antique Rome are tucked into walls in unexpected places.
HISTORY is everywhere–writ BIG!
But so is the Roman love of FOOD.
Close to our hotel, Campo di Fiori–home to a proud statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar burnt at the stake in the piazza in 1600 as a heretic–now it’s famous for its daily market.
Food and history, side by side.
On our last morning, we bought a large handful of prepared punterelle, handily vacuum-packed for the journey.
Puntarelle is one of the culinary wonders of the region.
A member of the chicory family it is traditionally served in an anchovy, lemon and olive oil sauce.
On the way to Keith’s birthday lunch we walked through the old Jewish ghetto–where the inhabitants were locked in at night until the middle of the 19th century.
Now there are police sentry posts at the entrances–keeping attackers out.
Restaurant barkers in yamakas–stand outside in the freezing cold, tempting us to try the famous fried artichokes.
History and food–side by side.
The signature dishes of Rome are on every menu.
I ate an exquisite artichoke fried to a golden finish–the Jewish way–in a tiny restaurant called Soro Margherita (recommended!) in the Piazza delle Cinque Scole on the edge of the Jewish quarter.
I’d been to Rome with the National Youth Theatre in the summer of 1960 with our modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The following year I returned with a school friend.
Rome was one of our stops on a whirlwind nine-week tour of Europe before starting university.
I remember a single meal from this short visit.
It was a packed lunch of chicken and salad; eaten on location on the edge of what smelt like a sulphur pit.
It was my second day as an extra on a film called The Best of Enemies–starring Alberto Sordi and David Niven plus a galaxy of famous British character actors playing varied ranks in the British army in the Western Desert.
I’d met this guy in the youth hostel who had already been an extra on the film for weeks in Israel, but had decided to quit.
“Why don’t you take my place?” he suggested. “They won’t notice if you keep your head down–just say you’ve come from Israel with the others. They pay £11 a day!”
A FORTUNE on our budget!
“Just make sure you are at the studios (the legendary Cinecitta at the southeast city limits) by six in the morning,” my benefactor advised.
The hostel opened at six, so no chance of sleeping there and making the studios in time.
So I decided to try a bench at the main railway station.
They moved me on.
I don’t remember HOW I got there–but I ended up sleeping on the wall outside the studios and–keeping my head down–coolly signed on.
The first day we shot in the studio.
There I was–hobnobbing with my HEROES–Harry Andrews whom I’d seen playing at Stratford two years before with Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus and Duncan Macrae, the bony Scots actor whom I’d also seen with Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in the West End.
I have no memory of what I ate that day!
The second day we were on location outside Rome.
I was a dressed as a Private–khaki shorts and boots–Desert Rats, they were called.
When we broke for lunch I took off my hot, sweaty boots and dipped my toes in a nearby puddle while tucking into my grilled chicken lunch.
By the time I got back to the studio, my left left leg was feeling odd–painful even.
It got worse quickly. Whatever was infecting that pool of water was now climbing rapidly up my left leg!
By the end of the day, I could barely hobble on it–and I had to inform the third assistant director that I didn’t think I could return in the morning.
Then it all came out that I was taking the place of the previous guy–and it got a bit awkward!
They paid me off, but said “don’t bother to come back!”.
As I limped into the hostel, Chris Fordyce, my school friend and traveling companion, looked worried. By ten that night he persuaded me to consult the hostel manager.
He sent me directly to a doctor in the neighbourhood, who by some MIRACLE was still at work .
The doctor examined my leg, shook his head solemnly and said in a wonderfully accented English:
“Eets very lucky you come see me tonight. Tomorrow, I would have to take your leg off!”
He gave me a shot of penicillin and a week’s supply, with a single needle to inject it–brave Chris’ job.
I was in bed for seven days–and the needle got blunter and blunter.
But I kept my leg.
Life might have been so different!
I eventually saw the film at the Odeon Leicester Square and thought I caught a glimpse of a very thin ME clambering over rocks with other desert rats–but I wouldn’t swear to it.