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An American says `Buon giorno!'

IN the ordinary course of events, the gesture -- for that was all it was, a quick handshake and a murmured ``Buon giorno'' on the steep cobbled hillside of the Via Dandolo -- would have passed unnoticed. But there was nothing ordinary about that day -- unless it was that the absorbing of the rich play of one culture upon another is always, in a kind of Henry Jamesian way, the ordinary response of an American come suddenly to Rome. For one does not, I suspect, ever come gradually, poco a poco and piece by piece, to Rome. One plunges into its contradictions, immersed instantly in a world that ranges within single blocks from the crumbled stillness of ancient porticos to the plate-glass dazzle of high-fashion boutiques, from the vegetal odors of shuttered courtyards to the acrid haze of gridlocked intersections, from gypsies begging in doorways to the silk-and-leathered elegance of a people born (or so it would seem) to exhale a sense of design. It is an exhilarating plunge, made all the more so as the odd shards and fragments of ordinary life piece themselves together in the great mental archaeology of discovering a city one has never seen.

Or so it was for me. That I should not yet have discovered Rome -- after all those years of Latin, all those slides of Raphael and Caravaggio and the Palazzo Farnese, all those poems and letters from Shelley and Keats -- had long since ceased to surprise me. I had simply harbored a certain patient expectation (which my wife, in time, had come to call an impatient urgency) at the thought of seeing and breathing in not just a place but an entire people, a whole habit of mind so different from my own.

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It was with that difference in mind, one warm autumn afternoon recently, that I boarded the No. 75 bus at the Piazza Venezia. I had done that day's business -- had kept my appointments, bought a pair of shoes, eaten a slab of pizza with a friend. And everywhere the glow of a culture lived richly on the surface had shown forth -- of a people gracious but unreserved, refined yet animated, intensely conscious of tradition and at the same time thoroughly alive.

The bus itself was filled nearly to bursting with a gaggle of schoolchildren just let out for the day. We plied the Via del Plebiscito, passed the broken columns of the ancient temples in the Largo Argentina, and crossed the Tiber on the Ponte Garibaldi. At each stop, as the modern doors hissed open at the curb, the crowd thickened. Yet there was no sense of pressure, neither a sense (so common among bus riders elsewhere) of a steeled and silent endurance. Above the roar of the bus floated the babble and patter of the children. As we turned from the Viale Trastevere up the steep flank of the Gianicolo, their sound broke upward and spilled over the other passengers like water from the fountains for which Rome is so justly famous.

And it was there, as I stood clinging to a bar behind the driver, that I saw the gesture. Approaching us down the narrow street came another 75 bus, a line of cars strung out like careful ducklings behind it. As it drew opposite us, it stopped, and so did we. Each driver slid back his side window. And there, in the midst of the Via Dandolo, they reached across the few feet between them and shook hands. It was brief, yet it was unhurried -- as though cars, passengers, and all of life up and down the Gianicolo could be expected to wait upon the simple amenities of friendship.

There are, I'm sure, better atmospheres for philosophical introspection than that of the stand-up bus ride. Yet I could not help thinking, as we climbed that hill, about priorities, values, and the ultimate ends of social discourse -- and how different they are on either side of the Atlantic. It is not strictly true, of course, that I had set out to get somewhere while the driver had intended instead to be someone. Nor that he had gone out of his way to maintain a friendship which an American would simply have taken for granted. Nor, even, that he had taken charge of time where a Yankee would have let time take charge of him.

The truth, it seemed, was at once simpler, and far more profound. To him -- to his countrymen as well, perhaps -- it was a question of space. Space, however small, seemed the precious thing, something to be cherished, worked with, and delighted in. The tiniest leather belt, the slightest garden, the oddest corner of a block -- they all seemed to bear a relation to the whole, to be part of a grand design. So, too, the spaces of a day and the friendships that filled them.

Convenience? Speed? Single-mindedness? They had their place under the Roman sun. But they were not overriding values. The bus, to be sure, paused at its appointed stops by virtue of its municipally ordered design. Just as surely, however, it had stopped in midcourse on that narrow street by virtue of a grander, more intuitive, and ultimately more compelling design.

I disembarked at one of those stops, high on the hill near the old Roman wall. Ponderous and impassive, the wall sent its small neighboring streets squirming around its massive stillness. I walked home slowly along twisted sidewalks, stepping at intervals around the portly trunks of the curb-grown sycamores and pausing now and then to let the oncomers squeeze past.

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Inconvenient? Indeed. Speedy? Not at all. Yet the vision of that handshake remained. And if I did not actually say ``Buon giorno'' and reach out to embrace the passers-by, it was not far from my heart -- my crazy, tamed, and very American heart -- to do so.

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