From Trastevere to Testaccio in The Moonlight: Haunted by History and a Haywire Entorhinal Cortex

“Say Si guarda bene to any boy you find handsome, on the streets, in the bar, in the club, anywhere. I promise you, you will not be disappointed”, Max, my brutally honest and handsome friend hailing from the heart of Turin, said to me on skype, helping me plan my trip to Italy. This was obviously not the only advice he gave. He saved me a great deal on metro tickets and spared me from spreading my resources thinly over many Italian cities and told me to focus on Rome and Rome alone. I take advice from reliable resources seriously, and I intended to take Max (short for Massimiliano, which is like Mohammad or Abdullah in Pakistan) very seriously until I got this sample of his pick-up techniques.

“Max, I cannot just go around telling Roman men how hot they are! That is ridiculous. In fact, that is a very pindi thing to do”, I implored.

Some context though…

Pindi is short for Islamabad’s twin city, called Rawalpindi. Before Ayub Khan decreed that a new capital for the country is to be built on Potohar Plateau, the area was known by its old settlement. It embodies the old spirit and culture of the small town that grew into a city. Over the years, the shorter name was adopted for vernacular use. As Islamabad grew into a city of Bureaucrats and government officials with people hailing from all over Pakistan, moving to the capital and making up a culture of its own, Pindi’s culture began to evolve a certain distinctness. As Islamabad began to house diplomats and foreigners alongside the intellectual elite of the country, it developed an international flavour in the lifestyles of the inhabitants. Rawalpindi on the other hand retained its old culture reflecting the norms and practices of rural Punjab and Potohar.  

Thoroughly enjoying the silly confusion on his face, I went on to explain the phenomena of being Pindi. “Max, being Pindi is a state of being. It is a school of thought that I have discovered in many cultures of the world. It involves following ubiquitous fashion trends including the likes of pink trousers, parrot green t-shirts, paired with white rimmed sunglasses and yellow shoes.” I said so with a serious, matter- of-fact like expression, and the perplexity evident on my friend’s face was highly entertaining. I continued to enlighten him. “Max, Pindi is also a specie. It has male and female of course. But the male of this specie is worth special attention. The locals use a term Pindi Bwoy to explain this massively important cultural phenomena. A typical pindi bwoy will possess a few dazzling trinkets including obtrusive rings for the fingers, shiny golden chains (sometimes real gold) adorning the neck, some bracelets to match and if not those, some digital watch that one usually sees on a 10-year-old American boy/girl. This bwoy will ogle shamelessly at women, regardless of age, complexion, body type (must be praised for egalitarian values) and feel that it is their national duty to cat call women walking on the streets, sing songs for them, whistle and sometimes even touch inappropriately. Moreover, this specie travels in pairs or groups, so that they always have an accomplice for their social misdemeanours.” I could see Max shifting uneasily in his seat and smile even more uneasily before remarking, “Well in that case, enjoy the food?”

Food, I did enjoy of course. The ‘free dessert for the pretty ladies’ as a follow up to a hearty meal of beef lasagne, in a restaurant at Trastevere’s inner most streets, did a few good things for my self-esteem. It would not be an overstatement, if I say that the evening spent in Trastevere was one of the most satisfyingly enjoyable experiences of my entire existence. Trastevere: beyond the Tevere or the River.

All the nuts and bolts of my imagination were already running wild after a night time stroll around the Trevi fountain, a sculpture that made me feel time had stopped under water and Triton with his Trishul was rampaging the mighty waters of the Mediterranean. The rage on his face, the flair in his beard and moustache, the alacrity in the chariot riders’ faces alongside him, the adrenaline in the faces of the horses pulling the chariots, set against the backdrop of an architectural wonder, turquoise mosaic tiles lining the floor of the pool in which this sculpture was oozing out water- the sculptor had breathed pulsating life into a piece of stone. Already in a lulled trepidation from the awe that only a magnificent yet simple piece of art can invoke, we chanced upon Trastevere. A kingdom of fantastic and mundane, meshed intricately together, like that crevice between dreams and waking life. If you are the one to enjoy the simpler things in life and the finer threads of human vibrancy and energy, Trastevere can be the fountain of life for the seeker.

Street shows are common all over the world. Mime artists, musicians, ventriloquists, singers and varied assortment of talented people showcase their craft and get direct feedback from the public. The heart of Trastevere is just like any other happening place within a European capital, however, the spirit of the city is un-matched. A strange humility in the warmth of hospitality, a sagacity in the smiles and laughter of the chefs and shopkeepers, an awareness of the heavy past lurking in the air and yet refusal to let go of life itself. Trastevere gives you hope. Hope in the strength of the human spirit, its resilience, its ability to find reasons to smile, despite atrocities and desolation. Basically, jostle you out of your existential boredom

In the moonlight, the centuries of spectres hovered over the fairy lights and candle flames dotting the smallish tables lining the narrow streets sprawling forth from the Piazza Di Santa Maria, the central square of the district. The two of us loitered in the square, one calling out to the other in French and the other responding in Mandarin, not even English or Urdu, that came naturally at all other times. Such was the allure of the jhankar in the air (jhankar is an Urdu/Sanskrit word for the playful tender beats of delicate instruments). A captivating trio of street performers, draped in all black from head to toe, sporting bowler hats of the same dark blackness, flaunted their craft with the tools for an awestruck crowd, for it was not simply a juggling show, but a form of some dark arts where the juggled items were on fire and black cats prowled around the well-built, lean acrobats.  Us two, stood alongside the crowd, gaping at the muscular but agile men swiftly moving across the small but sufficient space they occupied. The unearthly music that filled the night air as the show came to an end left the whole lot present, silent. Slowly, the witnesses to this seemingly random act, began to come out of their reverie and the pitter patter of gentle claps turned into a thunderous applause.

Silently, we took each other’s hands and agreed upon the next destination, communicating only with the eyes, unwillingly to cast off the spell that bound us both with the soul that inhabited Trastevere. No words were needed.

There was so much in the air around us: laughter and giggles of the throng of teens, the spring in the step of the young women accompanied by their lovers, the slurping of the ice-cream cones by the toddlers as they held their fathers’ hands and sat on their shoulders, the swish of the elegant dresses worn by slightly older women, accompanied by friends and partners, the deep gurgling of gentlemen’s voice who had their chess boards sprawled before them and their wine glasses and beer mugs sprouting midst the chequered tables lining the edges of the streets, outside the restaurants that filled the market place, the flickering of the candle flames, ensconced in the different coloured glass holders, taking their royal place in the centre of the tiny tables.

The merriment and the glistening sadness in the goddess’s eyes as she sipped her wine and looked askance at the man sitting next to him, engaged in hearty conversation with the man sitting across him, warmth resonating from the edges of his angled chin, but cold steeliness in his eyes when he looked at her. Embers of coals from a raging fire earlier were glowing and dying inside her.

The ghosts of the slaves that laboured in lining the streets with pebbles and stones, characteristic of European towns and grounded in the Roman tradition. The wispy wails, so faint, audible only to the grieving heart.

The crunchy sound made by the slightly yellow leaves, on the ivy plants blanketing the ancient walls with life, when the cool breeze slithered through them in the night: echoing sounds of gentle kisses of amorous couples in the nooks and cranies of the old roman town.

The helpless agitation in the step of that cello player, who stood under the towering clock in the Piazza, smack in the middle of all the commotion and bustle, with not even a wandering dog paying attention to his craft. His foot tapping restlessly all the while his slender fingers touched all the sweet spots on the assortment of strings in his arms, for all the heavenly sounds that followed were a testament to his agility.

The tapping stopped as the gong in the clock tower began to resound loud and clear, drowning all the chatter and the heartbeats. The spell remained unbroken. The teens and the toddlers were now nowhere to be seen. Elegant dresses still flowed. There were no Cinderellas in the 21st century. The chortling and the clinking of forks and knifes had dimmed down. The only lurking ones in the square were couples and trios, nibbling in cheese, sipping wine and hurtling rings of smoke from the slender pipes in their hands.

The blood in our beings decided to settle in our feet and the two of us took our place on the steps of the Piazza’s basilica. The night sky was clear, tiny twinkling entities, confidently taking their usual place in the constellation. Phone batteries dying and a drowsiness taking over the mind and body were all signals that Testaccio must soon be sought out, but an unwillingness in the legs was overpowering.

Partly it was Trastevere’s captivating energy, and partly it was the hesitation to face one’s own skeletons in the closet, that chained our feet to the steps of the Piazza. For as soon as we would step out of the square’s boundary where the moonlight and the music had cast the spell of silence between us, but had impregnated the air with other potent frequencies, the façade will be gone. We would return to that grinding repulsion that comes with the un-proclaimed passion. The spectres of cruel words and weary soul would return to haunt the silence between us. Perfunctory conversation on the sorting the route towards our bed for the night in Testaccio, remaining data allowance on cell phones to enable Google maps, a brief cost benefit analysis on taking a cab to the destination; failed to remove the cobwebs from the connection that never needed words before. Some quick negotiations were done in the interest of keeping the lid in the kettle, lest the steam turns into a geyser that blows off the top. No cab, no google map and a walk along the Tiber were agreed upon.

For a good twenty minutes the Tiber and its Island, in the middle of the old town, kept some remnant of Trastevere’s magic. But soon the lul began to wear off and only exhaustion remained. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) its retirement for the day, soon after dinner had reached the belly. Upon some pleading from the amygdala, a flexible arrangement was made. A temporary sabbatical was permitted, for a complete retirement at this hour, in a stranger’s cradle was not the best of strategies. PFC is a reasonable guy and so while the Tiber soothed rocked it to a light slumber, the entorhinal cortex was out to work. The plan was to head towards the south of Tiber, while walking along its sides, and then cross over to the residential districts upon sight of the Piramides palm tree haven. And like all plans made with an exhausted PFC, this plan was doomed from its conception. Tiber’s sides had run out of walking space, but there was no sign of palm trees. There were some gloriously haunting trees surrounding some old church. Numerous nameless monuments after monuments lined our path. Another kind of trance came upon me, being one with the spirits of those before us, who walked the same paths, whose flesh was part of the ground beneath our feet, whose wails and cries were lost in the silence of the night sky that seems tranquil today but was rapturous in the days before our times. A heaviness overtook my heart, a sorrow came over. Mr. amygdala had decided to go cart-wheeling. However, I could sense the exhaustion in my companion’s voice, an indication of the near collapse state of the body. The unique mind in that exhausted body could talk to the PFC in the system and keep it awake while mine recuperated snuggly in her powernap, while the amygdala steered the course. The tension between a PFC and amygdala is always intense, but between those residing in two different bodies is paramount to biological warfare. I learnt it the hard way.

My entorhinal cortex (EHC)had decreed a cross over at a point on Tiber’s side, a bit too early. Walking westwards in search of the landmark pyramids near our BnB in Testaccio, we came across the museum of Cestius instead. Visibly distressed and running sort of patience, my companion was on the verge of a breakdown. However, careful not to disrupt the arrangement of our cohabiting skeletons, restraint was exercised. While the barometer for patience was going down, there was no remarkable different in the measurement of my EHC. It was certain that we were moving in the right direction and that slight detour was a necessary distraction. Demonstrations of restraint were generously dished out, as vocalization of my amygdala’s engagement with the heavy history soaking each and every brick in the city managed to engage my companion’s PFC. But an hour of walking and dallying with each other’s PFC began to dampen the resolve to maintain amicability. Just as the last bit of restraint was dissolving, my confident EC announced sight of familiar territory. As we strolled along the streets of the Testaccio district, walked past the bistro that had served us lunch earlier in the day, smiled past the large families taking their place in the long tables lining by the roadside, toasting and cheering, clinking their wine glasses and rolling the dice on the board games, the patience reservoir was replenished slightly. Alas, that damned wrong turn, just one street away from the BnB brought the house down. All the skeletons came crashing down. Stern voices, pierced the silent streets of Rome that night. Tears flowed, and walls sprung up. Higher than the walls of the Colosseum. Hopes sank, pulled down by the heavy specters of history haunting Rome’s corridors. All had gone haywire, before the moon could shine out all its milky brightness.


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