Rome and the fountain of youth


There’s always a church bell ringing somewhere in Rome, even at 3.45 on a Monday morning when you’re slinking furtively down the Corso carrying a bath towel and wearing your cap pulled low over your eyes. I had to pull the cap low – there were security cameras, see? And attached to the cameras were Italian carabinieri in some subterranean surveillance headquarters, leaning closer to the monitor, narrowing their eyes and making Womble shapes with their lips to sip their espressos, stroking their moustaches suspiciously at the sight of this doofus tourist casually sauntering through the city towards the Trevi Fountain.

I’d been there in the afternoon to case the joint. It was a hot, sticky Roman summer that stuck the shirt to my skin and turned my hair bouffant, but the sheets of clean water falling from white marble freshened the air in the square and made it hum like electricity. The place was filled with people taking snaps or sitting dazed at the thought of how much Rome there was still to see before supper, but I was looking for policemen. They were there. They were everywhere.

The Italian police save lots of energy by not enforcing traffic laws, and spend it instead on policing the Trevi. Ever since Anita Ekberg jumped into the fountain in her ballgown in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and emerged all blonde and skintight and pretending she didn’t know what the fuss was about, people have visited Rome thinking they could too. Now it’s one thing to have Anita Ekberg sloshing around your water feature, but quite another to have herds of Americans in Bermuda shorts galumphing about like wildebeest crossing the Grumeti. Plus, each day people throw between 1000 and 3000 euros in the fountain to make a wish, so the cops have to make sure no one goes about scooping up coins with their toes.

If I was going to swim the Trevi Fountain – and by God, I was! – I’d have to return when there were no tourists and no cops. At 11pm and 1am the place was still heaving with human beings, but no matter where you are in the world, 4am is always an optimal time for secretive shenanigans. The square was empty, but the cameras were still there.

I wondered nervously what an Italian prison would be like. If they run their jails the way they run their airport, it’ll be all elbows and yelling and I’ll spend the whole time having fist fights with old ladies trying to jump the queue for the showers. But if I don’t swim the Trevi now, then when? And if not me, then who?

I waded gingerly into the middle. A seagull watched me from the head of a Triton. The cool water came to my thighs. I went under: it was a pale blue in the floodlights and clear as gin. I restrained myself from scooping up some euros from the bottom, although they might come in handy for paying bail.

I waded back, grabbed my things and fled like an Italian war hero. I turned a corner near the Pantheon and there on an empty street was a policeman. I stopped. He stopped. He looked me up and down, this dripping half-naked man clutching shoes in one hand, a towel in the other, a trail of wet footprints leading back to the scene of the crime.

I trembled. My comeuppance was at hand. Why must I always play the fool on foreign trips? Why can’t I act my age? When will I grow up? The cop looked at my wet hair. He knew exactly what I’d been doing. Slowly, thoughtfully, he winked and said, ‘Buona notte, signore,’ and went on his way.

Getaway, 28 June 2016