Michael Burns, a 31-year-old Irishman from Belfast, confessed why he now had more Italian friends than fellow-foreigners. To be honest, I now realise people of my own tongue will inevitably move on at some time. The Italians stay put.
Burns belongs to the few who one fine day, instead of facing yet another removal, opted to stay behind in Rome. He also belongs to the even fewer who have managed to turn Rome into a personal success story, who have found in it a crucible in which to pound out a little miracle.
Burns came to Rome penniless, degree-less and jobless ten years ago. Today, he is the only Irish owner of an Irish pub in a capital that abounds in fake ones.
The pub is Finnegan, close to the Cavour metro stop. In pre-Burns days, it was a cheerless, cold place with no atmosphere and a dangerously shrinking clientele. Today it is a thriving hostelry with around 120 fast-spending customers a day, the prospering haunt of mainly Irish, Scottish, English and Americans, though crucially leavened with a sprinkling of Italian regulars as well. They get along famously together. In summer, the Italians take friends theyve made to Fregene and the beach. In winter, they drag them off to a trattoria or something. The expats love it.
Why is Finnegan proving such a magnet then? Burns thinks one draw is its live satellite coverage of football and sport around the planet. He also thinks the beer has something to do with it. Though I say it myself, we do pull a good pint. Other places dont seem to know how to keep it properly. He also reckons it is now a comfortable place. When he took over four years ago, he threw everything out, replacing folksy dirges with new foot-tapping CDs, the hard and loose seating with snug corners of upholstered benches.
Typically, he left the main factor off the list of drawing points: himself. Burns has discovered himself to be a master of the tricky art of charming the hell out of you. He doesnt like being asked what it is about him that connects with people so easily, to define his elusive knack. I suppose Im fair, was all he would venture. He never plays the bluff and hearty publican. His is the quieter way, a good-natured, eye-to-eye openness. He has a quick eye too. He breaks off talking to his friends and spots new arrivals the moment they push open the door, with a savvy smile of welcome for each one.
The talent first began to show through in a pub in Monti. He was a barman there at first, one more in the endless turnover of foreign drifters, hard-up students and English teachers behind the pumps in Rome. But, catching the owners eye, he was soon the pubs paid manager, with five years of what he called pub culture in Ireland behind him, which he came to see as an asset that might fructify.
It was as if he had waved a magic wand over the place; soon it was humming like a top, with a full house every night, and the merry takings spilling out of the till like spaghetti. I liked it. It was fun, he recalled.
Five years on, the desperate owners of Finnegan were facing impending collapse and saw Burnss social artistry as the only hope of rescuing their establishment. They came seeking me out, he recalled, begging me to buy it.
But how could I? I hadnt a bean. My friends had no money either. The banks would lend me nothing. I had no credit. My parents could only put up a fraction of the asking price
So what happened? Such was the faith of the pubs owners in their would-be saviour that they offered to loan him the whole of the rest of the money themselves. A crisis of decision was upon him, a make-or-break turning point. He took a gulp and accepted.
God, what a bet it was. I could hardly sleep at night. What if the pub wont work? I kept thinking. How the hell will I pay them back? Will I end up in jail or something?
He moved in and new-broomed the sad place. One of the former owners, 39-year-old Fabio, is now a junior partner, tending the books and fighting the bureaucracy. I simply couldnt have made it without him, especially dealing with the city council, Burns confessed. He found his first enemy, in fact, was the municipal police. They hassled him, finding every fault they could. Were they after bribes then? No, I dont think they liked the idea of a foreigner being here and doing well.
Eventually, they relented, and with a new hand-picked staff of five, Finnegan began to take off too. For Burns it was an unconscious dream turned real. In Belfast as a kid, I kept pestering my parents to take me to Sorrento where I had an aunt, Una, married to an Italian. I never believed I would one day be actually living here.
Thus Burns became a voluntary exile in Italy. The troubles back home figured in his talk and he acknowledged what an edge they had lent to his appreciation of Rome. He saw Italy as a non-violent, safe and civilised society, and home, by contrast, as a forever more aggressive and drunken community. I dont appreciate that a bit.
That is why people always got the same response when they asked him if he was ever tempted to sell up in Rome and start a pub in Ireland: No. In no way, never.