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"When We Were Romans"

A 9-year-old tells of life on the lam in Rome.

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Nine-year-old Lawrence, it must be said, is a bit of a mama’s boy. But since his dad has been lurking around their London neighborhood and telling lies to the neighbors, Hannah needs somebody on which to lean.

So “I will help mum” he vows. A trip, he thinks, is just the answer. They’ll go away until his dad leaves town and it’s safe to go back to school.

After remembering how happy she was living in Rome right after college, Hannah decides that an Italian vacation is the solution to their family’s woes. (And besides, Italians understand about mamas and their boys.)

And so, Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans begins as Lawrence, his mom, 3-year-old Jemima, and Hermann the hamster pack up the Renault (or renno, as Lawrence spells it) and are off to live the “ ‘dolchay veeter’ which mum said means having a lovely time.”

Once in Rome, Lawrence enlightens readers with excerpts from his Horrible Histories (oh please, tell me that these marvelous books really exist) as the family crashes with Hannah’s old friends and she tries to find a job before their money runs out. (“A Room With a View,” this isn’t.)

Lawrence also picks up a bit of the language. “On the bus going back mum started teaching us italian, she pointed at things out of the window and I learned ‘keyazer’ which means ‘church’ and ‘makiner’ which means ‘car’ and ‘pizza’ which means ‘pizza’ so I thought ‘this is quite easy, actually, perhaps I can learn italian after all.’

Lawrence’s skewed recitals of history alone would be worth the price of a plane ticket to Rome.

Emperor Nero was quite fat, he had a beard and a really thick neck, so it was like his head was just stuck into his body like a tube,” Lawrence explains. “When he became emperor he decided ‘I know what I want to do now, this is what I always really wanted, I will become a famous singer.’ ”

(His take on Nero’s mother, Agrippina, is brilliant.)


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