December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Once upon a footpath

By |2023-06-17T07:27:19+02:00April 26th, 2023|Area 51|
And all because of a footpath...

ust over a decade ago, when the planet was more obsessed with terrorism than war, pestilence, or inflation, a short man with thinning hair bought a ground floor apartment in my gated complex in Rome. By gated complex, I mean residential buildings that flank an alleyway lorded over by two lines of linden trees. Some sections of this complex, including mine, have small inner piazzas for parking that are in turn sealed off, since parking is at premium in this chariot-inspired city.

The apartment the man bought was literally level with the ground and had an underground space, akin to a large den area. To reach its front door meant walking along a stubby, sometimes disheveled, path — not exactly an inviting introduction to a home. For that reason, the place had remained owned but unoccupied for years.

Rightly enough, the man immediately set to work building a small brick-laden path, no wider than an average human, to allow his visitors to get to his front door. He also installed a few stocky poles with lighting. All this, accomplished by swarthy workers, he did over the course of a sleepy summer. He knew that residents returning from lengthy summer holidays would see the fruit of his efforts, and assumed, or hoped, they would find them not only unobtrusive but pleasant, an addition to a previously stark reality.

Ah, but this is Rome, where condo lawsuits are both a sport and an obligation. The common good rarely stands a chance, perhaps because the species is suited to preserving the status quo with an outrage born of envy, at anyone who might impose a different method, even a better one. Whole bureaucracies exist to allow, permit, or thwart those who would dare make improvements, and in Rome, those who try to do so officially often must wait years — and just as often, after the wait — are turned down. Some die before their plans are even examined. But humanity lives for such occasions and the absurd dramas they bring to life.

Ah, but this is Rome, where condo lawsuits are both a sport and an obligation. The common good rarely stands a chance.

My preamble done, this is what happened:

When the pretty path was seen by the longtime residents, they revolted, calling an emergency meeting of the condominium overlords and their chief, an infamous figure known in Italy as the administrator, an external figure who polices the rights and wrongs of condo owners, often haplessly and to little effect, though much shouting is always involved.

The assembled owners met, absent the path-builder, who sent his lawyer, and they agreed to a resolution calling the building alterations a blatant abuse of power that broke all laws known to enlightened man — this because the bricks were on “common” property and thus did not belong to the owner. He had, in effect, invaded Ukraine, if not the whole of Italy.

Lawyers were called upon by both sides and extensive briefs deposited in civil courts.  One suggested even the bricks themselves were arrogant, since they disturbed the (nonexistent) wildlife nearby. If wildlife was present, it consisted of a few bored shrubs and an alley cat, who may or may not have seen these bricks as terrible arrivals.

This fight did not go on for one year. No. Such timing would be seen as swift, and swiftness in Rome is a separate offense. A preliminary ruling in favor of the man and his path-building achievement came in 2015. He was quite polite in a letter to the administrator, in which he said he had meant no harm to anyone but now considered his efforts vindicated. But the word is anathema to lovers of drama, so a new meeting was called, this time to spend more thousands on an appeal. The man’s arrogance must be punished and the complex reimbursed for all its legal expenses and assorted untold suffering. A brick path, after all, only grows more cruel and usurping over time. No doubt the cat was added to the list of plaintiffs on this latest legal try.

Yet again, years passed.

In 2020, in the hollowed-out months of a plague year, the path-builder retired and moved to a village by the sea. He rented out his flat but the new occupants had little affection for the path, or perhaps objected to its unwillingness to wear a mask, a sentiment shared by the lamps.

And then it happened, now, nearly a decade after it all began, and the happening was in two ways remarkable.

The first way is that an appeals court, not content to let the matter sit, sent the case, or aspects of the case, to Italy’s highest court, normally aloof from matters of condos and paths. Perhaps because the condo complex was created in the early 1920s, built intentionally to house Italy’s (and Mussolini’s) retired ambassadors, the court felt an obligation to weigh in on this holy or unholy land. That was, by itself, startling, all these years later.

He rented out his flat but the new occupants had little affection for the path, or perhaps objected to its unwillingness to wear a mask.

And the verdict?

The brick man was in fact vindicated wholly and absolutely. He had stolen no common property and his effort was benign if not noble.

Of course, an emergency meeting was called, but now, after all the intervening years, little was said. To many of the progeny of the once-infuriated owners, the whole thing seemed just a little bit silly. But how often does it take humans a decade to acknowledge their collective silliness? The answer is very often, and this holds true in love, business, politics, and the building of footpaths.

The notice of the verdict apparently came to the terrible offender on the eve of his eightieth birthday.

He chose to write all his critics a message, not through lawyers but of his own hand, via email. “What should have occurred is over, but never mind,” he wrote. “No doubt some of you are celebrating birthdays soon, so let me simply send you greetings from the sea, as well as thanks on behalf of my little footpath, which never intended to harm a soul, and on which all of you are welcome to trod.”

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.