Zara of Monti

“Magic” said Sophia, the morning after Zara’s birthday party in Monti.

“She was magic; the African DJ was magic; the homosexual farmer was magic…”

“I know!” I agreed, still buzzing from the atmosphere of it all.

“D’you reckon we’ll be like that when we’re thirty?” asked Sophia. (i.e. a bit mad. With lots of international friends. Without a lot of security or children; but very wise and very cool.)

I didn’t know; balancing the two visions of stable family and nomadic spiritual creativity. “Aaa maybe!”

“I want to be like Zara” I decided.

Zara, along with her Sicilian architect boyfriend, were Sophia’s flatmates from September to December of last year.  They live on Via Panisperna, a sloping street with beautiful vistas in the sought-after (for those in the know) residential area of Monti – Rome’s cobbled “village”; a scramble of pretty piazzas, vintage boutiques and old-school butchers wedged in between the busy thoroughfares of Via Cavour and Via Nazionale.

Born of a Tunisian father and French mother, she grew up in Tunisia (though has been known to tell new acquaintances that she is from Bavaria); a self-confessed “geek” who eeked out her identity in a large family as the clever one.

After five years at university though, she had a change of heart and told her professor to stuff the thesis on cinema esthetics and went to art school instead.

The chaos of the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Rome was difficult to bear after the hyper-order of student life in Paris. She fought with the teachers and rarely went to class, getting her lawyer-friend to write an explanation of why her artistic philosophy demanded she worked from home.

In search of a more liberating environment, (one less concerned with the power-play of professors and ancient families), Zara’s next move was to Barcelona. However, after a year of trying and failing to forget Rome, she was inevitably drawn back. Not least for the sake of romance.

This time she arrived by boat, carting a huge container of art work she had completed to submit along with her application to enter into fourth year at the Accademia. 

Only, when she disembarked, exhausted, she left it to her boy to deal with the luggage and he left the container behind. So she had to try and convince the Accademia to accept her with the story.

“It’s not believable” said the professor. “You will have to think of something else”. Luckily a trip to the comissariato got her a certificate validating that she really had lost everything, and her plea was accepted.

She could no longer get away with working from home though. Her professor wanted to collaborate on a final project more in line with his modernist school of thought – a “provocation” for his classical colleagues.

From her previous work on “loss of identity” they devised a scheme on the theory of perception. Surmounted on a classical wooden base were presented three identical transparent glasses. A three-line explanation of her theory was carefully engraved on a plaque screwed onto the base. The idea expressed was that everything can moderate your vision – any physical object, the wind.

Zara invited the professors to pick up a glass and participate in her theory of visual experience. “They were not impressed” she recalls. “It was a provocation” she explained. They asked, “where is your painting?” and I replied, “at home”.

These days she divides her time between working as a freelance journalist – reporting on the Tunisian uprising; writing screenplays and painting abstractly, re-arranging canvases and encouraging visitors to read them whilst eating couscous.

“Do you like Monti?” I ventured.

“No! eugh, I hate it” she spat. “Have you heard the prostitutes fighting downstairs?!”

“I’d rather live in Monteverde. Or Prati” she declared. (Though there is no indication that she will re-locate any time in the near future.)

The “piazzetta” della Santa Maria del Monte, is the zona’s hub: children, grandparents, well-dressed youth and the homeless assemble around to eat ice cream, take water from the fountain or smoke a cigarette. You might spot Zara racing through on her motorbike, curls flying, carrying flowers and cackling to herself.

Bordered by two cafes, it’s my favourite place in Rome. As the setting of several fateful encounters at the beginning of my year abroad, it has given me memories which make me feel like I have some roots here.

“Why have you stayed?” I enquired, trying to picture myself doing the same thing.

“Rome is the only place to fall in love – where art still exists.”

I nodded, captivated.

“So you’ll remain?”

“No, I want to leave. I will go to London” she laughed, eyes twinkling, not giving anything away.

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