June 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Heavy water

By |2018-03-21T18:58:25+01:00December 15th, 2013|Area 51|
Rome water is rich in calcium and can clog pipes. Nasone, or "fat nose," fountains are manna for the thirsty.

nstead of focusing on unrest in Ukraine, protests in Thailand, Nelson Mandela’s death show and the ascent of an ambitious Florence mayor, I’m contemplating the density of Rome tap water. It’s thicker now than ever. Showers have a lushness their American counterparts can’t match. Pasta dishes and coffee are more assertive than ever. And the reason is the water.

I don’t know why and I don’t really want to. I bypass busybody, get-to-the-bottom-of-things culture in the same way I ignore the obligatory actor and director commentary that come with rental films. I don’t want to know how actors feel about their characters. I just want the fiction. Similarly, all I want, and need, is the water, which I happen to know is rich is calcium. The rest is liquid mystery.

These days, quick answers make curiosity mope. Questions don’t last long enough to ponder. How many miles to the moon? What’s the speed of light? Google them (how rude!) Not me. I remember both from grade school (and the space program). Boyhood was a protracted exercise in wondering about things, with a side order of baseball cards.

But getting from daydreaming to the heart of thing was hard work. Knowledge required a conversation with an elder, an encyclopedia set, a history book. At your fingertips was exactly nothing, a rich recipe for fantasy and dreamy days.

When I first tasted Rome’s water decades ago I knew immediately it had a character different from the filtered and disinfected home version. It loitered on the palate, made waves with the tongue. But its real homemaking skills came in the reptilian passageways of hot water heaters and pipes, where its hangover calcium molted into layers.

While my mother ordered mineral water (once considered a digestive aid), I of course refused to drink it and instead proudly demanded acqua di roma, my first Italian phrase. Waiters smiled and nodded. Bravo! they exclaimed, extolling the goodness of their local liquid in way likely to frighten today’s bottled-water acolytes.

Rome’s water gave heft to wheat and meat and flour, adding calcium’s inimitable enthusiasm. Even now, in this golden age of branding, the city refuses to capitulate to the marked-up liquids that addicted tourists buy from shrewd and greedy vendors. Unlike any other capital in Europe, Rome has corner fountains. And unlike other city devices, they don’t break.

Some don’t even call it acqua di roma, preferring acqua del sindaco, the mayor’s water, deference to democracy and due process, albeit ironic, since water — though undrinkable until a century ago — was all that the mayor and his religious accomplices offered up for free. All else was bulled or taxed. Then again, naming it the mayor’s water made it handy to know who the mayor was, so I did, and can still list a few by surname: Argan, Vetere, Petroselli, Rutelli, Veltroni.

The last two were considered Young Turks destined to become Italy’s next best thing. They were hawked the way another mayor, Florence’s Matteo Renzi, the newest leftist leader, is sold now — as bottled elixir sure to cleanse an ailing, calcified country. The first two failed.

In both meaning and metaphor, calcium always possessed a sinister side. It lingered. It stuck. It blocked. Pipes narrowed. Intake and outflow was relative to age (in Rome mostly either old and very old), driving plumbers to shake their exasperated heads. But water’s caprices also guaranteed their living, the other side of calcium’s clever metaphysics and a useful piece of economic symbolism.

Moral of the story: don’t underestimate city water. Hydraulic laments foretold, it still charts a steady, stalwart course, perhaps emboldened by its tasty endurance. All know how it behaves, with no one inclined to change a thing. To do so would mean altering the texture of the known, to which Rome owes the older half of its density.

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.