ongenial is an appropriate word to describe Paul Hoffmann’s gracious if occasionally melancholy account of a year spent in Rome between September 1994 and August 1995. Hoffmann moved to the capital in 1938 as a penniless Viennese Jew following the Nazi invasion of Austria. He left Rome only in death, in early 2009, along the way spending some 30 years as The New York Times‘ Italy correspondent.
But long before that he worked at the reception desk of a hotel near the Termini railroad station whose owner,”a genial Sicilian,” touched his crotch superstitiously when the young Hoffmann ill-advisedly mentioned the name of exiled Spanish King Alfonso XIII, who once lived in the capital’s Grand Hotel and was considered by the city’s wary populace as “afflicted with the evil eye.”
What the opera-loving Hoffmann brings to his Rome (he lived in the Trionfale neighborhood) is a lifetime in an adopted city and a journalist’s personable like of anecdote and wit. Of the importance of soccer: “If you ask a native male Roman to define himself in one word, the chances are he will say laziale or romanista rather than ‘Italian’ or ‘Physician’ or ‘Catholic’ or ‘optimist’.” Of the word paparazzo, which Fellini coined: “Maybe the director of ‘La Dolce Vita’ … thought it suited his movie character, sounding as it does like a blend of bancarozzo, the Roman dialect word for cockroach, and papaceo, denoting a big mosquito.” Of “Roman Holiday”-like moments: “I once saw President Truman step out of the Hassler one early morning, stop briefly at the parapet of the Spanish Stairs to take in the panorama of the Spanish Stairs below and of the Roman roofscape, and then briskly set out on his constitutional.”
Along the year’s winding way, Hoffman muses about popes, agitated starlings, “the deluxe urinal” (Giovanni Papini’s description of the Victor Emmanuel monument), Roman boredom at government crisis “choreography,” the silliness of tombola (“which gives me the creeps…”), “trattoria transparency,” tea at Babington’s, “anarchic scooterists,” art thieves (a prescient section), and the city’s enduring propensity for complaint. The only thing that truly annoys him is the pope’s insistence — it was John Paul II at the time — on issuing holiday greetings in a gaggle of languages (“something of an embarrassment.”)
Though Hoffmann was in his seventies when he wrote this travelogue-cum-memoir, his astute affection makes him a kid in a candy shop called Rome. For expat residents, one sentence resounds: “I should have preferred to be grilled in a four-hour income-tax audit rather than be forced to sit through last night’s meeting of our condominium, but there was no way out.” All too true.