Some places have stock sayings or proverbs associated with then that immediately spring to mind. ‘If you are tired of London, you are tired of life’, or ‘See Naples and die’. Rome has perhaps more than most. It wasn’t built in a day; all roads lead to it; when in Rome... In fact, all of these have turned up in song titles- by Morcheeba, the Stranglers and Phil Ochs respectively.
It is also one of those places that writers have waxed lyrical about over the centuries. ‘A poem pressed into service as a city’; or ‘The city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.’ Like Athens, tourists flock to see its antiquities, the Coliseum, the Catacombs and Pantheon. But, like Paris, it has also had an added dimension of chic cool, with its bars and boutiques, coffee bars, the scooters and leather jackets. Think of some of the iconic cinematic images of Rome: the Trevi Fountain scene with Anita Ekburg in La Dolce Vita or Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzing round the streets on a Vespa in Roman Holiday.
Songs about Rome have tended to the romantic. Three Coins in the Fountain set the tone back in 1954, with the song and film actually adding to one of the city’s legends . Since then the story has been that throwing 3 coins in the Trevi fountain is lucky, overlooking the fact that 3 coins were thrown in the film/song because there were 3 characters. By such trivialities are some myths made. (A similar one might be the famous Zorba’s dance by Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, copied by sozzled diners in countless Greek restaurants ever since. According to Quinn it wasn’t a traditional Cretan dance: he made up the shuffling dance steps at the time because he had injured his foot.). A string of other songs took forward the notion of a city of romance. Petula Clark sang of Romance in Rome; Perry Como of Arrivaderci Rome; Elvis Presley promised that he would ’make a wish in every fountain’ in Heart of Rome (unlikely given his lack of travel outside the USA). It took Bob Dylan and When I Paint My Masterpiece to put Rome in a different light.
The song here, Week-end a Rome, goes more for the chic bohemian image. The song has a complicated history. It first appeared in 1984 on the electro pop album La Notte, La Notte by French singer Etienne Daho. In 1995, it turned up - remixed and with totally new English lyrics - as the St Etienne hit, He’s on the Phone. In 2010 Vanessa Paradis went back to the original and slowed it down with a gentle bossa-nova rhythm , with Daho popping up to provide the spoken Italian segments. Daho is only known in the UK, if at all, for his work with St Etienne in the 90’s. Vanessa Paradis, however, first appeared in the UK charts in 1988 at the age of 15 with Joe Le Taxi, becoming one of a small number of artists to have scored a hit there with a foreign language song – joining the Birkin/Gainsbourg collaboration, of course ,as well as the Singing Nun ( Dominique), Kyu Sakomoto ( Sukiyaki,) Plastique Bertrand ( Ca Plane pour Moi), Yolanda Be Cool (We Speak No Americano), and Los Lobos ( La Bamba) amongst others.
With lyrics in French and Italian, some of it slang, it is the general feel of the song that hits an English listener first, making Rome sound the epitome of stylish cool. The general gist of the lyrics seem clear. It is raining in Paris and the song’s narrator suggests that a weekend for two in Rome-perhaps Florence and Milan too - would give a taste of the good life : imagine driving with the wind in your hair and the radio playing. ‘Because we are young, Italian weekend’. In the video accompanying the Daho version, he is seen sitting in a cafe under a poster for the Antonioni film, La Notte (La Nuit), suggesting the ‘La notte, la notte’ refrain has a cultural reference as well.
So far so good, There are, however, some tricky bits. Take these lines:
"Afin de coincer la bulle dans ta bulle, D'poser mon coeur bancal dans ton bocal, ton aquarium."
A literal translation suggests the intriguing statement:
"To jam the bubble in your bubble ,to put my wobbly heart in your jar, your aquarium"
It may well be that it reads differently in French. Or they could be lines left over from a Serge Gainsbourg song.
My own experience of Rome was a day rather than a weekend, during a family holiday in Terracina an hour or two to the south. The Italian couple who managed the apartment in Terracina spoke no English so conversation was comfortingly predictable, with variations on a fixed set of questions. Stanco? (tired). Fame? (hungry). Caldo? (hot). Freddo? (cold). Early one morning the husband dropped us at the local station to get the train to Rome, where we spent a hectic tourist day seeing the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, and Vatican and having gelato and coffee. When we returned late in the evening he was waiting for us at Terracina station and asked us about the day in Rome. Stanco? Fame? Freddo? What he meant was ‘Rome, Pour la douceur de vivre, et pour le fun’
Link to Etienne Daho song
Link to Vanessa Paradis song