Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Caper Caper

Last summer, after a glorious trip through Spain, with pit stops in France and England, we ended our journey on a friend's terrace in Rome. These were people we'd met a few years before when we swapped our house in New York for a medieval tower they own outside of Florence. They'd become our friends and, when they learned we'd be flying home via Rome, invited us to spend the night.

It was one of those hot Roman nights, the first of August, and they prepared dinner on their terrace. We loved the terrace from the moment we set foot on it. It was filled with plants and had a view of one of the most historic neighborhoods of Rome. Over cocktails, Giancarlo and Sophia told us that they loved our terrace too. We have a deck in Brooklyn that sits beneath the branches of a huge oak tree and we eat our breakfast and all our dinners out here in the summer. And we all joked that for our next exchange we will swap only our terraces. As we savored our first course, a vermicelli al pesto, served with an outstanding Friuli wine, they shared with us the story of their terrace - a story that might have been funny if it hadn't led to criminal charges.

Sophia and Giancarlo (I am changing their names here) live in a landmarked section of Rome and, when they tried to restore a small structure on the terrace and build a shower in the maid's room (a self-contained room at the top of the apartment where we slept), a disgruntled neighbor accused them of making architectural changes with in the historic district. The punishment for this in Rome is four years in prison. Their lawyer told them that perhaps, if they did various things (i.e. bribe the right people), they could get off in two. Thus insued a four year legal battle, right out of Dickens, but it had us laughing our heads off, particularly as Sophia described crawling under police tape in the dark of night to water her plants.

As the wine kept flowing, a dish of veal with tuna arrived. It was delicious and, as I was complimenting it, Giancarlo pointed to the caper bush from which they had picked their own capers. As he showed us their caper bush, he said that the thing about caper bushes is they are almost impossible to kill. At his wife's urging, Giancarlo began to regale us the story of the presidential palace and the caper shrub. A story I have come to refer to as "The Caper Caper."

It seems that the presidential palace was to be repainted entirely white and some general spiffing up was going on and, as a result, a caper bush which grew in the front against the wall of the palace had to be removed, which is was. The palace was painted a shimmering white and everything met with the approval from the highest echelons of the government, but soon after a matter of weeks, the caper bush began to reappear, its tentacles reaching out from beneath new plaster and paint. This time a presidential order was issue to remove the plant and a crew was brought in who dug it up and carted it away. The damage on the front of the palace was forgotten until a month or so later when the plant reappeared.

No one could believe it had survived its uprooting so now a crew of botanists and exterminators and who knows what arrived and they poisoned the plant and everything around it. The damage on the palace was repaired and the matter was forgotten. Until three months later at the end of summer when, yes, once again the caper bush - that Rasputin of a shrub - began to send its branches out.

It was at this time, I believe, that efforts to destroy this resilient creature ceased and the plant itself seemed to become some kind of metaphor for all of Italy (I am not clear about what the metaphor means exactly...)but at any rate the plant has been left in peace and it grows and bloom quite contendedly in front of the presidential palace where it has always been.

Giancarlo said we could go visit it if we wished and we would have but time was short and we had finished the eggplant in tomato sauce and drunk an amazing Marsala dessert wine as we ate chocolate and peaches and we were all tired, though now the night was cooler and we just settled back on our friends's terrace as the cool breezes rustled the branches of the trees and there were even stars that night all over Rome.


  1. Ah, the caper. Now every time I eat one, I'll think of historic preservation and Rasputin. And that incredible meal you had on the terrace in Roma! Cin cin, Mary.
    - Paul

  2. Ah, Paul, I forgot to make the Rasputin reference! May I do so now with your blessing??? Yes, that meal. That terrace. And that hardy caper plant!

  3. ah the caper! it's till there on the presidential palace's wall. I'll send a picture of it.
    it's a very good metaphor of Italy's present situation, that a former president of the judicial branch resumed very appropriately in a few words some years ago: "hold, out, hold out, HOLD OUT!"