Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sabbatical year in Rome. 1980-81

Sabbatical in Italy.
My second sabbatical was spent half in Israel at the Weizmann Institute and half in Rome at the Institute of Virology, a department of Sapienza University, the University of Rome. I decided to spend time in Italy,  because of scientific interest with one of the faculty in the department of virology and Mimi wanted to spend some time in the country visiting museums. I had previously been invited to a meeting on picornaviruses by Dr Raul Perez-Bercoff held in the Hotel Villa del Mare in Acquafredda di Maratea , in the South of Italy.  Maratea is an ancient, white-washed  town climbing up the mountain side of the Bay of Policastro. It is situated  on the Tyrrhanian sea in the province of Italy known as Basilicata..  This was a NATO International Advanced Study Institute on the biology of picornaviruses and took place from  the 8th -18th September 1978. .As a result of the meeting a monograph was published on the molecular biology of picornaviruses. The meetings were financed by NATO and was attended by top scientists in this field.  It was through these meetings that I met many of the researchers working with this group of viruses, including Ekhardt Wimmer who was one of the world’s experts on poliovirus , Fred Brown and his group working in Pirbright , Surrey, on Foot and Mouth Disease virus ( FMDV) as well as American scientist from Plum Island, the only place in the USA where research on FMDV can take place., also Roland Ruekert who worked  on picornavirus structure and maturation, an area I was particularly interested in . I occasionally meet some of the other attendees here in Bloomington when they are invited to give seminars.  This was a 10 day meeting very much like a Gordon conference, all of us being confined in a small space, eating and drinking together and getting to know one another and each other’s research. Such meetings are invaluable.
Raul and I became good friends after the meeting and kept contact, since our scientific interests and even political interests overlapped.  He was an ardent Zionist and in his old age volunteers once a year to serve in the Israeli army. The Sabbatical must have been in 1980 or 1981. He was a wonderful organizer of the meeting, and continued to organize such meetings on an annual basis. He discovered Maratea, and made it a center for such NATO conferences. It is a beautiful area, and does not get the hordes of tourists who flock to the Amalfi peninsula just a few hundred KM up the coast.
 I initially came to Italy on my own, Mimi had gone back to the States after our six months in Israel to be with Jonathan, who wanted to quit college and I set out to find housing. I had previously visited the Institute so knew more or less its location in Rome, and I wanted to be quite close by.  I found an apartment not too far away  (not in a particular nice part of the city). This apartment belonged to a professor going on Sabbatical to Belgrade from Sapienza University. He was a bachelor and obviously did not care very much for the condition of his apartment. The apartment was absolutely filthy and I started cleaning, I think I must have cleaned for five days; I even scrubbed the walls, but could not get them clean enough. I was afraid that I would do more damage than good since the walls came out very streaky and the wallpaper began to peel. When Mimi arrived, it still was not sufficiently clean, and the location above a coffee –pizza bar was not the most desirable. It was noisy and the area run down. Apparently I did not do too much damage since I never heard from the landlord, and in fact had never met him. I had heard of the apartment through a mutual colleague. We thus decided to look for something else. We did discover a newspaper aimed at English speaking foreigners in Rome and eventually found through an advert a small apartment not far from the via Nomentana, close to the Villa Torlonia. This Villa was rented to Mussolini by the Torlonia family from 1924 until 1944. For those who know Rome this is close to the Piazza Bologna and considered a very affluent part of the city.  It was within walking distance of the Virology Laboratories, quite a long walk, and  I did do it occasionally. I found walking in the city fascinating, past small stores, villas, interesting statues and fountains. Parking both near the apartment and near the institute was always a problem.  In fact I am usually a very calm person, but I became very agitated when trying to find a parking spot in Rome. It was a case of “ playing chicken” as to whom got into the space first. I ended up behaving like an Italian, screaming and shouting, although I never gave anyone the finger, a common practice in Rome.
The apartment was a small section of a larger apartment, possibly built for elderly parents, consisting of a bedroom, living room, and kitchen. It was owned by a Signor Fornercari, whom I think worked in the Italian Senate and we shared the apartment entrance. Once inside we went to the left to another door opening into our apartment. This was on Via Giovanni Batista de Rossi with three and four storied apartment buildings, probably built in the 1920s or 1930s, and considered one of the better sections of the city. The apartments were painted a sort of yellow ochre or burnt Sienna on the outside, the streets quite wide and tree lined.

 The Istituto di Virologia was on the Viale Porta de Tiburtina not far from the Main railway station, and main campus, and had seen better days. It had been a villa and was converted into a laboratory.  From the outside it had the appearance of a turn of the 19th-20th century villa, painted yellow surrounded by a small well-kept garden. It stilled looked like a villa inside, since most of the rooms remained intact, and had been fitted with extra sinks, lab benches etc. It stood quite independent of the rest of the university in a side street; about 10 minutes walk from the main campus.  Again for those of you who know Rome it was not too far from the main railway station, an area of run down hotels and well known for prostitution and theft. Nearby was a very working class area, I think called San Lornenzo with small restaurants with wonderful fare, including the most wonderful fish restaurants serving every kind of sea food imaginable (calamari, squib, mussels) followed by fried fish, all served on paper table cloths or newspaper. It was very cheap and the lab would go there for lunch periodically.

I was introduced to the staff of the Bercoff lab, as it was known.  There was Paolo, who was everyone’s technician.  He was a very gentle quiet, unassuming person but with a great sense of humor.  Aldo Venuti, who a few years later worked in my lab for a short period, and was training to be an MD. Aldo always looked unshaven, hair never combed, and smoked non-stop. You could smell the cigarette smoke from a few yards away. Anna Degener, a research associate was Rauls’ right hand. An attractive blonde, half German, but more Italian than German in looks, with whom we became good friends, and Nicoletta SanTuzzi, who was a sort of post-doc, quite independent. I never really established her status.  Nicoletta was tiny, but very attractive. This was a very friendly group and we would enjoy our espresso breaks together. At every opportunity we would run to the local bar a few blocks away for our espresso. My stomach must have changed color, and I could taste the burnt coffee all day long. There were also one or two students (undergraduates) always in the lab.  This included Raniero De Stasio, who later became one of my graduate students, and today lives in London, and although trained as a virologist works for the cosmetic company L’Oreal , an expert on hair dyes.  While in my lab he worked on herpes virus, and now he lectures ladies on hair care on English TV.
 Raul ran the lab to my surprise with a tight hand, controlling everything. This reflected a constant lack of funds, quite different from my own experience in the States, during that period.  He also had a personal problem, in that he did not get along with the chairman, Fernando Dianzani, accusing him of being a poor scientist and an anti-Semite. I think Raul worried constantly about anti-Semitism, and this caused him lots of problems in dealing with other people.  He was born in the Argentine, and I think there suffered during the military dictatorship, although he never talked about it.  His relationship with Giovanna his wife was also not a happy one. She was a very intelligent and interesting person teaching Slavic languages and commuting once a week to Urbino where she had an academic position. They lived not far from St Paulo outside the wall, a ‘suburb” of Rome, however still within the subway line. We would go to visit them quite often for dinner, and meet their two young daughters, Daniela and Ruth. Superficially it seemed a happy family, and Raul and Giovanna were great hosts, but underneath there must have been tensions since they divorced a few years later.

 I myself was not very accommodating, wanting to work on my own project, and not the one being pursued in the lab, which was on attempting to grow hepatitis A in culture. Hepatitis A (jaundice) is a major problem in Italy. This is a difficult virus to grow and no one had succeeded in growing it to high titer. It  is classified as a picornavirus and I should have been interested. Perhaps I was but I was kept away from that project, and I really cannot remember what I was working on, although I believe it was a continuation of work on mengo virus, double stranded RNA  and interferon. Raul was against this interest in interferon , and I found out later that  it was because half the virology section, headed by Dianzani was working on interferon. Dianzani in fact had been head of the International Interferon society at one time, and I was not aware of this nor that he was in the department, and in the same building. In fact I did not meet him until the last few days of my stay in Rome when I met him accidently and found that we had a lot of common scientific interests . In fact we have become quite friendly, and meet often at international meetings.  I have also reviewed papers for his staff. Luckily I was not aware or involved in all the intrigues occurring in the department.  However as I was to learn intrigue is part of academic life in Italy.

I spent most of my time socializing with other members of the lab, going out for espresso, and exploring Italy. We had acquired an old “ jalopy”. This had been a car abandoned in the grounds near the math department at the university of Florence. Somehow during a casual conversation, back in Bloomington I found out about the car from a math professor who had been on sabbatical there. He sold me the car for $200, with the instructions to pick it up in Florence at the math department.  Thus I bought the car unseen, but reckoned I could not lose much money.  This was known as the sabbatical car since it had passed many hands. A day or so after our arrival in Rome we took the train to  Florence to pick up the car. We arrived at the Math department and were told that the caretaker would take us to the car. It was abandoned under a sycamore tree, and the leaves covered it, and had stained the body so that it really looked in terrible shape. It was all blotchy.  I really felt sorry for this tarnished green fiat. It was completely spotted, and the stains could not be removed. It looked like some weird animal, or probably an abandoned piece of junk. The caretaker was against our possessing the car, since he did not believe we could possibly drive it, certainly not all the way to Rome. However we eventually got it out of the mud, did get it started and took it into a nearby garage, where they fixed up the electrical components and anything else that was wrong. We then started on our trip to Rome, against everyone’s advice. It was pouring, rain coming down in sheets. We did not get very far before we realized that the car leaked from all its seams. However undaunted we continued our drive and after 6 or 8 hours, rather wet, we reached Rome. This car lasted us my entire sabbatical. It was an old green Fiat. It did get me into trouble on some occasions since it was similar to the get away car of members of the “ Red Brigade’ who had assassinated a professor at the university, and I was stopped by the police a number of times , since the car looked suspicious. However we got the car fixed up, and drove all over Italy, from extreme north to Sicily in the south.  We were often followed and stopped by the police. In fact this happened in driving in Northern Italy. A police car kept following us for no apparent reason. We were going the speed limit, I suppose something unheard of in Italy. They eventually overtook us and passed us by. We continued to drive quite happily. Rounding a corner there they were again, and flagging us down. They wanted to know what we were doing in such a car and to whom did it belong. I explained in my bad Italian that the car  belonged to a friend, Senora De-Stasio and that satisfied them. They could not believe that Americans would drive such a jalopy.  I am surprised we made it over the Italian Alps,  to Lake Como and other high spots of Northern Italy.  In fact we even made it to Sicily in this car.
 When we first picked up the car we did not realize that non-Italians were not allowed to own a car. When I went to get a title, I had to substitute the name of one of the mother’s of a graduate student as owner, Signora de Stasio. Thus the car was in her name until we left. On leaving we graciously gave the car to her for her younger son to use, and within a few days it had been totaled.  Thus the end of the Sabbatical car.

Being in Italy after Israel was quite an experience. The work ethic was quite different, very laid back, and the system in general very bureaucratic. For example in order to obtain material from my lab in Bloomington, I had to appear personally at the customs to claim these as “ tools of work”. We had to drink the eternal espresso with the custom official, and Raul suggested I send him a small gift of appreciation, which I balked at. There seemed to be a lot of intrigue, both within the institute as well as among scientists in general. Politics played a large role in appointments to chairmanship and other positions. This was particularly true in the Sanita, the Italian equivalent of the NIH. I found another group at the Sanita interested in interferon, and I became good friends with the professor in charge, Giovanni Rossi.  His group was working on many of the same projects I was working on, and was interested in gene therapy using interferon. Later on one of Giovanni’s student came to my lab, (as did a number of Raul’s students), and many years later, after the premature death of Giovanni, I did spend some time with one of his assistants, Philipo Bellardelli. This was seven or eight years later during a second sabbatical in Italy, a more productive one scientifically, but less interesting socially.  Giovanni Rossi was a great person, well liked by all who knew him. He also was a good scientist and built up a top notch group despite all the political intrigue and jockeying for positions around him. I think he just ignored it. He had spend time in the States and  decided to run his group the “ American way “.

 It is difficult to describe the atmosphere in an Italian university. There seemed a lot of intrigue and  competition for limited resources. Success was to a large extent dependent on whom you knew. I think the Italians found me unusual in that I was very open with my feelings and did not hide my likes and dislikes.  However we certainly formed lasting friendships with the members of the laboratory.
We did a lot of sight seeing, spending every weekend on the road. Orvieto, the hill towns north of Rome, Siena, Lucca, Urbino, San Giminiano, and of course Florence. We also took a break from work and went to the Italian Riviera, Portofino and Santa Margarita. Our old car took us everywhere, although occasionally we did go by train.  Raul was our guide to many of the churches, palaces, and museums in Rome. Mimi and I wandered around the Forum and the Coliseum and got to know the old city of Rome very well. From where we lived we could get into the center of the city very easily by bus. We walked along the Tiber past the Castel de Sant Angelo, actually the mausoleum of Hadrian but also where the story of the opera Tosca takes place, close to the old Jewish quarter and Ghetto, with its restaurants serving Artichokes Jewish style “Carciofi alla giud├Ča”.  We saw quite a number of operas at the Rome Opera. I remember one in particular which shocked my host, Raul, this was La Perichole by Offenbach, and he did not expect nudity in the Rome Opera house.

Socially we had a great time. Shortly after arriving (it must have been in late January) the lab started preparations for Carnival. This is a Catholic festival celebrated all over Italy (of course it is also well known in other countries). It is a time for dressing up, wearing masks, and being utterly free of inhibitions. Everyone in the lab discussed the costumes, and spent quite a bit of time preparing them. Mrs. De Stasio, a mother of student, Raniero de Stasio, and the “ owner” of our car took it upon herself to prepare a costume of an American Indian for me (I do not where the head dress with feathers came from) and for Mimi who had not yet arrived, but was due to come soon, a costume of a Dutch girl.  The highlight however was the costumes of Aldo and Paolo, they were Bacchus and Cupid. They were dressed (or undressed) in toga like costumes, and had grapes and laurel wreaths decorating their head. The party was quite lavish at the parental home of Anna Degener. They had a beautiful house in the country about 10 miles outside of Rome.  Mr. and Mrs. Degener (senior) acted as hosts. It was like a large family affair with everyone’s aunt and niece and cousin being present.  We drank, laughed and ate a lot of delicious food.  Although my Italian was very rudimentary I somehow managed with smiles, nodding my head and grimaces. Perhaps being drunk helped.
Through Anna Degener we got to know others in her circle of friends.  These were mostly middle-class or even upper class Romans associated with various professions such as lawyers and judges. We also continued a friendship that started in Bloomington many years before with Franco Merli and his wife, Franco had been a post-doc in the chemistry department with Milos Novotny.  We had met him many years previous to this in Bloomington at a party. He was a very handsome guy, and we joked around, particularly since all the girls in Bloomington wanted to go to bed with him, and he did not quite understand, was there a shortage of beds in Bloomington?  He was now back in Rome, married to Alicia , and had a small child. He worked at the Sanita, in the department of environmental studies.  From him we learned to cook rugetta with spaghetti  and many other pasta dishes.
 This had been an enjoyable year. We know Italy very well. It’s people are on the whole very friendly, although often puzzling and to some extent given to xenophobia. The Italians are not very law abiding (Mimi had  her purse snatched and stolen in Palermo, another story for another time)  and this could be seen in driving habits. It was an interesting year, with many contacts that have persisted for the rest of our lives.