JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
On the day in 2004 that author Anthony Doerr and his wife brought their newborn twin boys home from the hospital, a letter arrived in the mail. It informed Doerr that he'd been chosen by the America Academy in Rome to spend a year in that fabled city as the academy's writer in residence.
Six months later, he packed up his family and moved to a city he'd never visited before. The result is an exquisite little book titled, "Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World." His visit coincided with the death of Pope John Paul II.
Anthony Doerr joins us from Boise State Radio in Idaho. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ANTHONY DOERR (Author, "Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World"): Thanks, John.
YDSTIE: When you went to Rome, you brought along the beginnings of a World War II novel you were working on, but you got distracted. Tell us what happened?
Mr. DOERR: Yes, or overwhelmed perhaps is the better word. I came there with about 50 pages in notes on this novel thinking that that would be my next project. I had just published my second book, a novel, and was trying to get a new project off the ground. And usually, I think I learned there that I prefer a very insulated environment where everything is pretty familiar for me to be able to enter and imagine this space and start writing fiction.
And Rome invaded me on all sides, even from the first day. You know, I wasn't sleeping because we had these new babies. And Rome was so interesting that I began to pay more attention to real life and less attention to the fictional world that I was creating.
YDSTIE: And you were in an extraordinary neighborhood?
Mr. DOERR: Yes. Yes. We lived on the Janiculum, which is above a very old neighborhood called Trastevere so we had gorgeous views. It's a very green neighborhood. There's a lot of embassies around and very grand palazzos.
And we're only about a half-mile from the Vatican. And you know, we could walk to get everything like everybody in Rome. You know, you walk to the bakery. You walk to buy your diapers. You walk to get milk. And you know, growing up in quite different rural environment, you know, not only was I moving overseas and learning to become a parent, but I was also moving from a rural area to a city. And there's a lot to deal with.
YDSTIE: Well, why don't you read a passage from those early days in Rome to give us an idea of what that experience was like?
Mr. DOERR: (Reading) Trastevere is full of medieval houses and clotheslines and drinking fountains that appear to be permanently turned on. Julius Caesar lived in this neighborhood, so did Cleopatra. Every Roman we passed smiles that the boys, geminini(ph), they say - little twins. And something like pichinini(ph) or porchelini(ph) - small pigs. Grown men in suits stop and crouch over the stroller and croon. Older men in particular - che carini, che belli - what cuties, what beauties? The stroller could be loaded with braying zebras and it would not attract any more attention.
In a pasta shop, a glass counter piles of tortellini, yards of fettuccini, I managed to buy a kilogram of orange ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta, the pasta dusty with flour. I sui bambini, the shopkeeper tells me, watching my eyes to see if I'm following. Sono belli - your babies, they are beautiful.
I carried the package into the street feeling victorious, a breeze heaves(ph) in some locust trees at the head of the alley, and their little leaves fly past us, a blizzard of gold. Through a doorway I can see a dim kitchen, copper pans hanging against whitewash. A woman stares into a sink and its constant steam, her hair stacked in a complicated tower.
Sixty hours ago, I was buying Pampers at an Albertson Supermarket in Boise.
YDSTIE: That's really lovely, really lovely. Now, you managed to buy your pasta that day, but you didn't really speak the language and that got in the way.
Mr. DOERR: Yeah. Yeah, you know, you can get by with English quite well but in our neighborhood in Monteverdi, it's a little less frequented by tourists than some others. And yeah, at the bakery, I struck out our first couple of times. And at the hardware store, I just wanted to buy key rings.
But you know, so many businesses there the owners are present in the store, and they want to help you. And so they would just come stand in front of you. You know there's - you quickly had to learn the phrase for, I'm just looking, because I would never know the vocabulary for the things that I'd like to buy.
There's a lot of pointing. And, you know, I never became fluent. I could order food and ask people directions and by the end, I could give people directions but I could never ask somebody how they felt about God or you know, the friends that I did make that couldn't speak English but we were always - there were always three or four gates between us.
YDSTIE: In the days just before you're ended, you had this magnificent experience at the gate of the Knights of Malta compound in Rome. Would you read a passage describing that?
Mr. DOERR: Okay.
(Reading) A locked green door prevents entry into the gardens behind the priory of the Knights of Malta. The paint is weathered, the bronze hardware tarnished at the edges anchored by four screws. I pressed my eye to the keyhole. Framed in the oval are two parallel lines of hedges interwoven at the top. Between is one of the most wonderful views in the world - the gates soars over the circus maximus skirts the geniculum and flies through a mile of space. It comes to rest dead center on the dome of St. Peter's.
From here through this keyhole, the vast church, which struck Henry James from the first as the hugest thing conceivable is nothing but a toy, a vaporous dollhouse, its little pillars balanced the top of campanile in the foreground, the lower half of the church obscured, behind the stand of pines like tiny flowers.
If I could only slip in the key and swing open the gate, I could pluck up St. Peter's and balance the church in the palm of my hand. To be framed in hedges is the right thing. They framed the cathedral in the way the countryside frames Rome - Alban Hills on one side, Sabine's on the other, fields and apartment blocks and ruins spreading outside the walls, the amber and purple and green of the distances, the blues of dusk, the swale of aqueducts and vineyards and olive groves that hem in Rome, girdling it, burying it. Kingdom and time, architecture and weeds(ph), Rome is huge; Rome is tiny.
YDSTIE: That's wonderful. Anthony Doerr's new book is titled "Four Seasons in Rome." He joined us from Boise State Radio. Thanks a lot for being with us today.
Mr. DOERR: Thank you, John. I appreciate it.
YDSTIE: You can read an excerpt of how Anthony Doerr prepared himself and his family for their yearlong Roman sojourn at npr.org/books.