The feel in Rome on the eve of the Jubilee of Mercy

This weekend I did something I haven’t done for a shamefully long time: I walked and then drove through the streets of Rome.

I wanted to gauge for myself the feel in the city on the eve of Pope Francis’ special Jubilee of Mercy, which begins with the opening of the Holy Door at St Peter’s basilica on Tuesday.

Security plans have been ratcheted up in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris and so I was not surprised to find a heavy security presence with large numbers of police and military personnel at so-called sensitive sites: at the entrance to St Peter’s Square, outside the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, outside Termini station (where a large group of carabinieri police were chatting idly amongst themselves), at the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi (the so-called ‘French church’), to name a few.

Two heavily armed soldiers outside the Supreme Court of Cassation prompted some difficult questions from my daughter (it is not easy to explain to a five-year-old that we live in a world where people with guns are supposedly needed to keep us safe from people with guns).

However, away from the main tourist and pilgrim areas it seemed to be business as usual; if anything, the apparent concentration of security forces at specific sites in and around the city centre left other areas feeling abandoned to themselves and more vulnerable.

I had heard from various sources that Rome was empty and indeed on Saturday morning it did feel that way: the road running along the south bank of the Tiber from the Olympic stadium to Trastevere was empty of both traffic and parked cars.

However by lunchtime central areas were beginning to fill up, mostly with Italian and foreign tourists (many Romans will have taken advantage of the long holiday weekend – which for many in fact began on Friday due to a combined public transport strike and ban on circulation for cars with odd-numbered licence plates – to get out of town or rest up at home), and by mid-afternoon the Vatican area was busy (not teeming) with visitors; the queue to enter St Peter’s ran the whole way round Bernini’s colonnade as far as the junction with Via della Conciliazione.

The general impression was that, after a brief period in which fear of terrorism effectively stopped many Romans from going out and kept some would-be visitors away, things are now returning to normal; that, over and above the heightened security, most people probably now consider a terrorist attack to be only a remote possibility and certainly not one that is going to get in the way of daily life.

I suspect that for many Rome residents the general disorderliness and lack of decorum, the dirt, the holes (and sometimes even genuine chasms) in the road, the ubiquitous micro-road works that cause terrible snarl-ups at rush hour and the shocking level of poverty that I noticed on my rounds are of much more immediate concern.


Aung San Suu Kyi and the ‘politics of kindness’

I don’t want to give prime minister Matteo Renzi any more coverage than he already gets, but I was struck by his comments earlier today on the performance of veteran Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party National League for Democracy in landmark parliamentary elections on Sunday.

“It swells the heart,” he is reported to have said of the still provisional results that look set to give NLD a majority in parliament, ending decades of military and then semi-civilian rule.

He then recalled the “beautiful words” on the “politics of kindness” spoken by Suu Kyi during her Nobel Lecture in Oslo in June 2012, 21 years after she had been awarded the prize.

“Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people,” he quoted her as saying.

In a world visibly suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ – in Europe with respect to the refugee tragedy playing out on our borders – how good we have become at forgetting this fundamental truth.

Thank you Matteo Renzi for drawing my attention to these words and to Suu Kyi’s broader speech.

I hadn’t read it before and it moved me to tears.