Few Romans list one of their work contact numbers in the Arctic Circle but Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is in the unusual position of having his office in the eternal city and his centre of operations on an island populated by polar bears.
The UN-affiliated Trust protects crop biodiversity by collecting duplicates of seeds around the world. As the potential guarantee of the world’s food supply, the seeds are a precious genetic resource. To safeguard it the Trust holds the duplicates in a vault tunnelled into the permafrost beneath the Norwegian island of Svalbard.
Svalbard is 1,000km north of the Norwegian mainland, which makes a testing commute for the 63-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee. “My flight from Rome to Oslo lands at 7pm. There’s one flight a day from Oslo to Svalbard. It leaves at 10am, so I have to go to Oslo the day before. Ditto on the way back. Four days, just to get there and back.”
It is an unusual route but Fowler has been following his own path for a long time. As a middle class, white teenager he outraged opinion in his native south by joining Dr Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches in the 1960s. A former director of research at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Aas, Fowler first lived in Rome in the mid-1990s, when he worked for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. When he returned in 2005, his Italian was less than fluent. “It was terrible,” he says. “But I did understand the restaurant menus!”
The Trust’s offices are in the FAO headquarters on Viale delle Terme di Caracalla in central Rome. Fowler and his 15-year-old son Thomas (another, 19-year-old Martin, is at college in the US) live in the historic San Saba quarter. “This area is expensive so I just rent. On one side it looks out over the old city walls, and a monastery vegetable garden on the other,” he says. “People visit and expect to see at least great looking plants on the terrace, given my profession. But I travel so much that the only things that can live in my apartment are cacti and succulents that don’t need much care.”
Such a prime location attracts the wealthy and expat communities but, as Fowler discovered, the same rules – or lack of them – apply to everyone. “There is a fair amount of inefficiency,” he says. “Getting a telephone, internet, utilities or bank account takes more time than elsewhere. Repair people never come when they say they will. But people are pleasant and I admire the fact that they can take it easy – even when it doesn’t particularly serve my interests, it’s part of the charm.”
Among the area’s other charms is the opportunity for walks past the cypress trees of the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero acattolico). Fowler invariably heads for the tomb of a fellow American, 19th-century sculptor William Wetmore Story, who is buried beside his wife Emelyn. “It’s an exquisite, emotional, evocative piece, deeply sad. The last statue he made, for his wife. It’s called the ‘Angel of Grief’. I find it very moving, a remarkable tribute to love.”
Fowler has just returned from a meeting with the Gates Foundation in Seattle, which he persuaded to commit $109m to the Trust and other seed banks over the next five years. Few of us measure our work by such grand achievements but Fowler also takes pleasure in the smaller delights of San Saba. “There’s a great little coffee bar that plays old rock ’n’ roll, blues and jazz all day and an open-air vegetable market in the small piazza near the apartment. I am always there on Saturday morning, I love to go vegetable shopping and concoct the weekend’s meals around what is fresh.”
However, the cuisine fails in one essential for any self-respecting son of the south: “I don’t miss the US that much,” he says. “But fried chicken! It’s the one thing I make better than perhaps any one else, at least to my taste. And you would think I could just cook it in Rome, but I can’t get all the ingredients and thus it’s just not the same. The first day I am back in the States visiting my parents, I always cook fried chicken.”
● Rome is home to hundreds of excellent restaurants and the city’s food culture is second to none
● Unlike London or New York the natives are very friendly. In Rome, you’ll find strangers don’t stay that way for long
● Rome’s polluted and jammed streets remain madly frustrating and a health hazard
● Whether arranging a meeting or a plumber, things tend to be done in Roman time
What you can buy for ...
€100,000: Nothing in central Rome.
€110,000: will get a garage or, if you are lucky, a 15 sq m basement flat
€1m: A 120 sq m apartment in a post-second world war building – perhaps with parking but not an attic with a terrace – or 100 sq m in an antique building