November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:24:34+01:00April 22nd, 2007|Area 51|
The three cars she’s pointing to, each tented over and battened down, haven’t been moved in at least two decades. Maybe longer.

What are those?” She points to a row of parked cars. “Cars,” I say. “No,” she wiggles her head. “The umbrellas.” The sun shines. The air is warm and breezy. I see no umbrellas. I do see three cars covered by filthy tarps. We are walking toward the zoo, at the foot of a wide boulevard bossed around by trams.

“Those are cars that the owners have covered with plastic sheets so they don’t get dirty underneath.”

I am satisfied with this.

But she immediately undoes me. “How long have they been that way?”

Other people’s children confound my glibness. They ask questions they know I can’t answer. They get to the heart of the past, unblinking.

“Um, a while,” I answer.

“Looks like longer,” she says.


“Like with the dinosaurs?”

“Not quite that long.”

Without knowing it she’s onto to a uniquely Roman mystery, one I’ve wondered about but chosen not to enter, as if finding the answer might diminish a question that’s lingered long enough to morph into folklore. The three cars she’s pointing to, each tented over and battened down, haven’t been moved in at least two decades. Maybe longer.

One is a Lancia, another an Alfa Romeo, a third what looks like a Land Rover. They are all 1960s models. The Lancia has RC plates: Reggio Calabria (I peeked). The plates themselves are dated — most city designations, to fit dully uniform EU style, were dropped a decade ago. Together, the three cars occupy non-demarcated public parking spaces across the street from Rome’s American Embassy residence. The spaces beside the aging cars are the subject of daily contests — fists waved, insults spitted — in a neighborhood where parking is scarce (a city, in fact). On many blocks, sedans and SUVs are piled up three and four deep, water bugs without conscience made annoying by desperate owners.

So much for the Roman Holiday.

More than any other modern European capital, Rome puts its parts to sleep and forgets them.

There are apartments that haven’t been lived in for 40 years, victims of family feuds, lawsuits, or the vicissitudes of indolence. There are weedy courtyards, half-a-century old, untended to since the complexes that frame them were first erected. There are peeling facades goaded into half-life by creepers and geckos.

And yes, there are cars that haven’t been started for 20 years.

In 1988, after my mother died, I paused by the Reggio Calabria Lancia and wondered what to say at her memorial Mass at the church in the nearby piazza. I can’t remember if the same stubborn car was concealed there in 1973, when I came for my father. He had terminal cancer.

In Rome, you surrender nothing you’ve conquered. You yield nothing that’s yours or (more to the point) that you think is yours. There’s too little space, too much bad luck. I once asked the owner of the travel agency next door to the cars if he knew who owned them. He laughed. “Some baron I think, and he has a good thing going.” What was that? “He’s dead but he still has parking.”

I’d forgotten about that ancient conversation because the owner of the travel agency also died, in the mid-1990s. But the dirty-sock cars haven’t budged. After the September 11 attacks barricades went up around the American Embassy complex in the center and parking restrictions were enforced near the leafy residence. Passionate police flicked colored discs and waved off traffic; unmarked police cars roared hysterically up and down the boulevard. In 2003, one ran down a dog and sped on. In 2004, George W. Bush spent two nights at the residence. The neighborhood was sealed off. But the three cars, 150 feet from the gate, remained untouched.

“Are the lions sleeping?” she asks.

Smart kid, I think.

“Sometimes people just leave things and forget about them,” I say. “People are funny that way. Most people like knowing where things are. It’s in the back of their head.”

She gets a curious look, her smile crinkling, and I realize she’s moved from the parked cars to imagining the real lions up ahead, growling in their cages, also under wraps but wholly visible.

“People forget about lions?”

“No, no. The lions are right this way.” And I growl. She giggles.

I wonder if someday, walking to the zoo with children of her own, she’ll recall this Sunday and pause where we did, aware unexpectedly of the passage of time. Those cars, she’ll say. I know them. The umbrella cars. The dinosaurs. The ones that never move.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.