Popes, Piazzas and Parenthood in the Eternal City

Photo of Anthony Doerr

hide captionWriter Anthony Doerr spent a year in Rome reading Pliny, visiting the sites, attending the vigil of Pope John Paul II and raising twin boys.

Jerry Bauer

When writer Anthony Doerr moved to Rome with his family for a year, his most vivid images of the Eternal City came straight from a childhood coloring book.

He remembered two babies slurping milk from a wolf's udders, a grinning Caesar in a leafy crown and a slinky, big-pupiled maiden posed with a jug beside a fountain.

But during his stay in Rome on a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Doerr gained new perspective as a writer, researcher and perhaps most importantly, a father of six-month-old twins. He recounts his time abroad in a new book, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World.

Doerr's twins, Owen and Henry, provide the initial connection to Italians and their culture. When they arrive in the fall, Doerr and his wife discover they can barely walk a few feet before friendly Italians stop to admire their babies. But like most newborns, the boys also push their parents to exhaustion and take time away from Doerr's main task — writing a novel.

In the spring, Doerr covers the vigil for the dying Pope John Paul II, providing insight into the man and his death. Each season brings new discoveries as he celebrates the joys of parenthood, the frustrations of cultural barricades and the riches of Roman life.

Excerpt: 'Four Seasons in Rome'

Book cover

Fall

Italy looms. We make checklists — diapers, crib bedding, a book light. Baby formula. Two dozen Nutri-Grain bars. We have never eaten Nutri-Grain bars in our lives, but now, suddenly, it seems important to have some.

I stare at our new Italian-to-English pocket dictionary and worry. Is "Here is my passport" in there? Is "Where for God's sake can I buy some baby wipes?"

We pretend to be calm. Neither of us is willing to consider that tomorrow we'll pile onto an Airbus with six-month-old twins and climb to thirty-seven thousand feet and stay there for fourteen hours. Instead we zip and unzip our duffels, take the wheels off the stroller, and study small, grainy photos of St. Peter's on ricksteves.com.

Rain in Boise; wind in Denver. The airplane hurtles through the troposphere at six hundred miles per hour. Owen sleeps in a mound of blankets between our feet. Henry sleeps in my arms. All the way across the Atlantic, there is turbulence; bulkheads shake, glasses tinkle, galley latches open and close.

We are moving from Boise, Idaho, to Rome, Italy, a place I've never been. When I think of Italy, I imagine decadence, dark brown oil paintings, emperors in sandals. I see a cross-section of a school-project Colosseum, fashioned from glue and sugar cubes; I see a navy-blue-and-white soap dish, bought in Florence, chipped on one corner, that my mother kept beside her bathroom sink for thirty years.

More clearly than anything else, I see a coloring book I once got for Christmas entitled Ancient Rome. Two babies slurped milk from the udders of a wolf. A Caesar grinned in his leafy crown. A slinky, big-pupiled maiden posed with a jug beside a fountain. Whatever Rome was to me then — seven years old, Christmas night, snowflakes dashing against the windows, a lighted spruce blinking on and off downstairs, crayons strewn across the carpet — it's hardly clearer now: outlines of elephants and gladiators, cartoonish palaces in the backgrounds, a sense that I had chosen all the wrong colors, aquamarine for chariots, goldenrod for skies.

On the television screen planted in the seat-back in front of me, our little airplane icon streaks past Marseilles, Nice. A bottle of baby formula, lying sideways in the seat pocket, soaks through the fabric and drips onto my carry-on, but I don't reach down to straighten it for fear I will wake Henry. We have crossed from North America to Europe in the time it takes to show a Lindsay Lohan movie and two episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. The outside temperature is minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit.

A taxi drops us in front of a palace: stucco and travertine, a five-bay façade, a staircase framed by topiaries. The gatekeeper stubs his cigarette on a shoe sole and says, in English, "You're the ones with the twins?" He shakes our hands, gives us a set of keys.

Our apartment is in a building next to the palace. The front gate is nine feet tall and iron and scratched in a thousand places; it looks as if wild dogs have been trying to break into the courtyard. A key unlocks it; we find the entrance around the side. The boys stare up from their car seats with huge eyes. We load them into a cage elevator with wooden doors that swing inward. Two floors rattle past. I hear finches, truck brakes. Neighbors clomp through the stairwell; a door slams. There are the voices of children. The gate, three stories down, clangs hugely.

Our door opens into a narrow hallway. I fill it slowly with bags. Shauna, my wife, carries the babies inside. The apartment is larger than we could have hoped: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, new cabinets, twelve-foot ceilings, tile floors that carry noise. There's an old desk, a navy blue couch. The refrigerator is hidden inside a cupboard. There's a single piece of art: a poster of seven or eight gondolas crossing a harbor, a hazy piazza in the background.

The apartment's jewel is a terrace, which we reach through a narrow door in the corner of the kitchen, as if the architect recognized the need for a doorway only at the last moment. It squats over the building's entrance, thirty feet across, fifty feet up. From it we can look between treetops at jigsaw pieces of Rome: terra-cotta roofs, three or four domes, a double-decker campanile, the scattered green of terrace gardens, everything hazed and strange and impossible.

The air is moist and warm. If anything, it smells vaguely of cabbage.

"This is ours?" Shauna asks. "The whole terrace?" It is. Except for our door, there is no other entrance onto it.

We lower the babies into mismatched cribs that don't look especially safe. A mosquito floats through the kitchen. We share a Nutri-Grain bar. We eat five packages of saltines. We have moved to Italy.

Excerpted from Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Doerr. Reprinted by permission from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Four Seasons in Rome
Four Seasons in Rome

On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

by Anthony Doerr

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