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Letter from Rome: January 10, 2020

In the Roman dialect, Damo pane ar pane e vino ar vino — “Let us give bread to bread and wine to wine” — means, “Let us speak plainly.” It is a virtue of the Romans, more often admired than practiced.

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Pane ar pane, e vino ar vino: Literally, “Bread to bread, and wine to wine.” It’s the Romans’ way of saying: “Call a spade a spade.” In the Roman dialect, Damo pane ar pane e vino ar vino — “Let us give bread to bread and wine to wine” — means, “Let us speak plainly.” It is a virtue of the Romans, more often admired than practiced.

I remember when I started at Vatican Radio, way back in the aughts. Colleagues would ask me factual questions, often admitting of one word answers: Yes, no. If I didn’t know the answer, I would say so. Often I’d be pressed (ipsa vox): “Well, could it be this thing, or that thing? This way, or that way?” I would respond with a yes, or a no, or an I don’t know, and this would go on for several rounds of back-and-forth.

At some point — after many years of this occurring regularly — I began to observe that, when I was asking the question of a colleague, I rarely got a simple, straightforward answer: Y/N/IDK. There would almost always be engaged consideration of the various possible answers, attempts to rule out certain lines of answer on the basis of what we do know, follow-up queries (the answers often supplied), etc.

I thought these were unsolicited — though often welcome — interpolations, enjoyable even when what I really needed to know was where to go to get the answer.

Then, it dawned on me — sometime around 2009 — that my simple, straightforward answers to similar lines of inquiry must have seemed implausibly laconic and even stand-offish to my Roman interlocutors, for whom a query of the sort would have been made so much in solicitation of a mere factual answer, but offered as an invitation to discuss an issue and perhaps to get to know each other’s minds more fully.

I began to notice the thing happening everywhere: at the hardware store, the fruit stand, the ticket window at the train station; but, also at my in-laws’ table of a Sunday, while visiting friends in their salotti, or at the local coffee bar.

Seeing all the possibilities in every situation, without too much care for what state of affairs actually obtains, makes for a remarkable flexibility that can serve admirably the frequent moments of evident absurdity that do not so much punctuate, as constitute the through-line of Roman life.

This is somehow related to another quintessentially Roman attitude, the arte di arrangiarsi (pron. arrangiasse in the Roman dialect) — a complex and nuanced expression that conveys at once the sense of the English “setting oneself up [for success]” and “muddling through” — that literally says: “The art of arranging oneself” and is part of the general Italian modus vivendi, familiarity with which is indispensable to the denizen of the Eternal City.

If one says, “I’ve arranged matters,” in English, one is conveying the idea that one has resolved some business correctly and with a fair degree of precision. Me so’ dovuto arrangia’— “I needed to arrange myself” — is a Roman’s way of saying something between, “I had to improvise,” and, “I jury-rigged it.” At Rome, arranging matters can often require deep knowledge of people and systems. It is often time-consuming, and labor-intensive, especially when one is at a disadvantage with respect to the powers that be over any given situation.

Everything in Roman life is potentially subject to “arrangement” in the foregoing sense, though sometimes, arrangements just happen: S’arrangia is a Roman way of saying something between, “It’ll be sorted,” and, “It’ll work itself out,” (note the passive voice in the former and the middle voice in the latter) and it usually does, if one ignores a problem carefully enough. The trick then, while waiting for things to arrange themselves, is never too precisely to know anything about the business.

(L’arte di arrangiarsi is also the title of a postwar film starring the great Roman actor, Alberto Sordi, as a young bureaucrat with boundless ambition, very few principles, and practically no restraint. The frame story, in which his life unfolds, takes the viewer through forty years of tragically eventful Italian history. The title is Englished as The Art of Getting Along, which really isn’t bad, as far as these things go. The whole film is on Youtube, if you’re interested: it’s worth watching, even if you don’t understand the language.)

I try to keep this all in mind, as I consider the great ecclesiastical machinations and movements constantly taking place under the rubric of Romanitas — What It Is To Be Roman, or The Roman Way — and I often consider (as I did the other day in a cab, when my driver decided to execute a maneuver that was technically an infraction, but traffic was heavy and we were in a hurry and the traffic-cams were apparently deactivated and there seemed to be no traffic policemen about), that Romans, if they could come together and arrange things together, rather than individually — and if they could decide at least what state of affairs they would like to see obtain — would be formidable players on the world stage.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

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