Journey to Rome

Facts and Fantasy

Many years ago, mum used to go to Rome every week for work. She would leave Paris each Monday morning at dawn and return home on Friday evening. This went on for three years, and  our big sister Chloe was sad not to see her for the whole week. Dad looked after her, but Chloe loved mum above all. You know, mum had saved Chloe – she had fetched her just one day before she had been scheduled to cross the rainbow bridge. Since none of us were there to play with her yet, Chloe was bored and just slept and ate. She became very fat; a real sumo cat, said mum.

Mum likes to go back to Rome from time to time and never forgets to visit the cats. Actually, I guess she goes mostly for them. The monuments? Oh, you know, Roman ruins never change whereas cats are much more interesting, aren’t they?

But which cats am I talking about, you may ask? Street cats, of course. There are over 120,000 feral cats in Rome! They mostly gather in historic areas; they have selected their places of residence among the ruins and make themselves at home in the exact places where their ancestors once lived. For centuries, generation after generation, they have settled in the remains of once luxurious villas on the Palatine Hill, basked in the Forum, caught the sun on the steps of the mighty Colosseum, strolled in the baths of Caracalla, and lingered in Torre Argentina.

The city of Rome takes great care of its street cats: they are registered, organized in colonies and protected by law. It’s forbidden to harm a cat or to remove it from the colony, the place where she or he has settled down.

Groups of friendly gattare ladies attend to each colony. If you hang around the historical monuments in the evenings when dusk starts to fall, you will see one or even several ladies loaded to the gills with bags, bringing food, water and milk. As soon as the cats see them, they flock towards them from everywhere, gather in small groups and start eating with gusto. The ladies watch them carefully – are they all fit and in good health? Do any need a visit to the vet? Any newcomers that has to be registered and checked? The ladies take care of the cats like a mum would do, even though there are several hundred of them in each colony. This is the life of a stray cat in Rome: she or he is fed and cared for yet completely free.

Friends, if you don’t have a family, a mum or a dad to look after you, who loves you, my advice is to move to Rome!

Whenever my mum arrives in Rome, she quickly drops off her luggage at her usual hotel just above the Spanish Steps, then runs down to Caffè Greco via dei Condotti.

Invariably, the old waiter will ask, “Signora, are you back?” and bring her a cappuccino with a lot of cream. Not that he particularly appreciates mum, but he expects a large tip.

One day, I’ll go there myself as, according to mum, the cappuccinos are outstanding. I will sit at a table, maybe the same one where my buddies Dickens, Wagner, Liszt and Goethe sat. They say Casanova also frequented the place. I won’t say anything about my pal Marcello who used to go there to get his evening Martini Bianco when he wasn’t shooting at Cine Citta. Princess Diana went there, too!

Now when I go inside, of course everyone will recognize me.

“Here is Freddy, mum’s son!” they will shout. And again, “Viva Freddy! The famous author of Freddy Stories!”

A crowd of admirers will surround me, asking for my autograph. Some will whisper, “You know, he has millions of followers on Twitter!”

“You don’t say! Just incredible!” will marvel others. And all will want to shake hands with me – oh sorry, paws – and congratulate me on my wonderful stories.

Very flattered yet a bit embarrassed to have written only three (bad) stories so far, I will try to put on a brave face, nod and smile at everyone. Then I’ll slip away as quickly as I can lest they ask me about the book that I haven’t yet started.

I’ll run down Via dei Condotti, turn the corner to continue on Via dei Corso towards the historic centre. In front of the Trevi Fountain sign, I’ll stop – should I go? Mum says you can hardly approach it nowadays. Back in the old times, mum used to go there for her lunch break, sit on the steps in the sun and enjoy her panini while listening to the falling water. It is rather loud, and in fact, once in the Centro Storico, you can find the fountain just by following the sound of the waterfall. The legend goes that if you fling a coin into the fountain while your back is turned to it, you’ll return to Rome and find love. I don’t know about you, but if I had a penny to lose, I’d rather buy one of those delicious Italian ice creams! Pfff, but to fall in love? Daddy cat Uddy fell in love once, and look what he got! Eight furry little creatures, not to mention the adopted ones! Follow my advice, dear reader: avoid falling in love; it does strange things to your brain. My daddy now believes he’s one of the kids and dances and sings with us all day long.

To avoid temptation, I’d rather turn right, towards the Pantheon and go to Piazza della Rotonda. Masses are celebrated on Sunday mornings inside the Pantheon, and they need me there to help with the singing. I sing so beautifully – even better than the stories I tell. Mum enjoys listening to me, especially when I sing at night! By the way, at home, my concerts begin a little after two in the morning, if you’re in the area and interested to join.

When at the Pantheon, I won’t forget to pop into the nearby tiny coffee shop, Tazza d’Oro, a charming old boutique with friendly staff. Whenever a street cat shows up, she or he gets a full saucer of milk with a lot of cream! As for the coffee, the place is said to offer the best in Italy. You can also buy ground coffee to take home. Mum always brings a pack of it, and we love the smell when she makes the coffee on Sunday mornings. Well, only if she doesn’t sip it for hours and then forget to go to the market to buy us roast chicken and tuna.  Yes, this has actually happened!

But wait, with all my errands in Rome, it will be getting late, and the bells of the church St Louis of the French nearby will be ringing five times to remind me of my appointment.

You see, I’ll be in Rome to meet Maestro Caruso, the chief cat of the Torre Argentina colony. He says his grand-grand-grandpa talked to Julius Caesar in person!

I wonder why then he didn’t stop Julius from being killed? He was murdered in the very place where Caruso’s ancestor lived, in Torre Argentina.

From the Pantheon, it’s only a few steps down to the famous cat colony of Torre Argentina, the largest one in Rome. Torre Argentina itself is a large archaeological site, and the cats of Rome cherish it. Several hundred have elected to make the place their home. A refuge has also been created there. It’s called Largo Argentina Cat Sanctuary, and it’s the oldest shelter in Rome. Cats who are disabled, ill, in need of treatment or simply too old to cope alone are hosted in the shelter, for their lifetime if needed. Nobody will ever push them out, or worse, euthanise them. When they are healed or fit again, they can come and go as they want, but if they need – or want – to stay, they can just make themselves at home and lounge in baskets or on cosy beds. Maestro Caruso promised to introduce me to some of them; I want to tell their stories, too.

As soon as I get near Torre Argentina and am still standing on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I’ll look down to the ruins and call “Caruso! Maestro! It’s me, Freddy, mum’s son!” First, he won’t even look at me; he’ll pretend he doesn’t see me. But just when I’ll start getting annoyed, something will happen.

A hundred thousand cats will jump from behind the ruins, all brushed and pampered and wearing their best finery to welcome me, to surprise me! Each of them will be holding a red balloon, my preferred colour. Some will even sport a French flag around their necks! They will launch their balloons into the air and give me a thundering ovation. The clamour will come from everywhere and reach the skies: “Freddy! Viva Freddy! The great Freddy, world famous storyteller! Welcome, friend! What an honour to see you here!”
Maestro Caruso himself will come to me and lead me down to the ruins. And there, my friends, they will all rush towards me, asking for a nose smooch, a paw brush, or at least a friendly purr.

They will all want to talk to me: “You write such interesting stories, Mr. Freddy! We love reading them. When will you publish the next one? We can’t wait!”

And I’ll blossom with pleasure, believing everything they say, happier than I’ve ever been. Just imagine! A hundred and twenty thousand fans! So many readers! When Dickens learns about this, he will be dead with jealousy. What? Dickens is already dead? Well, that’s just it! Ha!

Afterwards, we will attend a dinner – you see, they’ll have prepared a big feast with all my favourite foods – mum would have told them what I like. But before the dinner, we will visit the cats in the sanctuary.

The shelter is located in the north corner of Torre Argentina. If you enter from the street side, you’ll have to go down the iron steps leading to it. Pay attention to the steps because they can be slippery on rainy days! But the effort will be worth it.

As I’ll already be among the ruins, I’ll just walk into the shelter, and my friend Caruso will introduce me to the disabled but charming lady Sirena, who moved to the shelter from the countryside. I’ll also meet the mighty Cimabue whose ears were destroyed by ear mites and the beautiful but ever-so-shy black kitty called Marilla.

And of course, the timid little Minaretto, who miraculously escaped mistreatment and hunger and is now so happy and so spoilt! The mighty Faraone, who will hiss and spit at me, will also be there. He doesn’t like anyone – he might remember that I’m the famous Freddy from Freddy’s Newsletter! Next, I’ll talk to Penguin, a senior as old as Rome itself – at least according to him. He has so many stories to tell! Beautiful Mozart will sing a song for me and introduce me to his mighty tiger with spots. And the adventurous Vandrous, who comes and goes to and from the shelter, will want to show me the secrets of Rome, but I’ll need to decline the invitation even though I’d be very interested . There will be just so many other kitties to meet and listen to! Their stories will be so interesting, touching and heart breaking, but also funny and full of hope and expectations of better days to come. I’ll listen and listen and assure them that I’ll write about their adventures. They will be so happy! Naturally, when the Great Freddy talks about you, you’re on top of the world, you walk on air and fly over the moon.

Not really? You would rather avoid me writing your story? Oooh!

What mum, are you calling me? I should stop daydreaming and come to dinner? Friends, here ends my fantasy journey to Rome. Mum is calling me, and dinner smells good.

Oh, but wait, I forgot to tell you about the black and white kitty who lives in the Palatine Hill colony! Mum adores her. The kitty looks like me, so mum feels the same way about her. Whenever she goes to Rome, and of course after having stopped at Caffè Greco, mum raids the cat shops, stuffs as many toys and as much food as she can into her backpack and heads off to Palatine Hill. She says that this little cat recognises her year after year. That’s normal, isn’t it? I myself recognize mum every morning!

See you soon, friends! Just one thing before you go: do you think my reception in Rome will be different from what I imagined? Oh, please don’t say “And how!”