Friday, January 10, 2014

A Field Guide to Rome

I lived and taught in Rome this year.  Bellissimo!  But, for an American, the city can be overwhelming at first.  Traffic, both foot and wheeled, hurtles at you; language pulses around you, a living thing; multi-colored laundry flutters like flags over every alley and balcony. To make the situation even more overwhelming, you are surrounded by ghosts; the shadows of ancient emperors and fearsome gladiators lurk on every corner.

For those of you planning to live (or just meander) in the Eternal City, here are ten tips to help you acclimate.

·      Life in Italy is lived loud.  Shouted phone conversations take place beneath your window.  Old men stop in the middle of the sidewalk to argue, gesticulating all the while.  Randomly and for no particular reason, men will burst into song.  Young Romans opt for PDA (public displays of affection) on trains, buses and street corners.  Miniscule cars honk and laughter always occurs at belly-up volume.

·      The modern Roman chariot is the scooter (Vespa is a brand name). The winding streets of the most ancient Roman neighborhoods, such as Trastevere, were designed for two chariots to pass side by side.  However, you don’t need a scooter to get around in Rome  - or around Italy for that matter.  Italy has a world-class mass transport system.  Inexpensive trains will take you efficiently from city to city, while in Rome, the bus and metro system can take you anywhere in the city and to most locations in the Roman suburbs.  You can buy a Metro pass for one day, one week or one month and it will cover all city trains, all buses and all metro stations. 

·      In warm weather, trattorias blossom on every street in Rome.  Romans set up an awning and some collapsible tables, choose delightful checkered tablecloths, enlist the best cook in their family and voila! una ristorante is born, complete with pasta specialties, fine wines and water “naturale”  - uncarbonated - or  “acqua gassata,” bubbly water.  Romans swear by the bubbly, saying that it contains more vitamins and minerals.

·      Should you not want to order water at all, however, Roma provides you with another option.  All over the city are open spigots that bring in water from the ancient Roman aqueducts.  This water spills onto the ground in cold abundance and Romans refill their water bottles from that source or simply tip their heads under the icy stream.  For most Americans, it takes a while to get accustomed to this idea, but the water, when the visitor works up the courage to try it, tastes icy cold and clean.

·      Cats and dogs have the life in Rome.  Most Romans own dogs and the dogs accompany them everywhere  -  into the grocery story, onto the train, seated beside them at the restaurant.  From blue tick hounds to purse-sized Yorkies, il cane  - the dog - is a well-respected friend.  Cats, feral but open to affection, abound.  They sleep on the saddles of scooters when the owners are away and curl up in flower pots beside your door. In the ancient Roman ruins of Torre Argentina, hundreds of feral cats are fed and given shelter.

·      Romans listen to American music.  Everywhere.  All the time.  Even a Roman who cannot speak a word of English will opt for American music.  Ask them why and they will answer with a philosophical shrug, “Perché è bello,” “Because it is beautiful.”  In general, Romans are friendly and very open to American travelers.  Give them a “Grazie,” or reply to their thanks with a quick “Prego” and Romans will work hard to give you their best English. 

·      Street performers are the order of the day in gathering places like Trastevere, but these buskers are rarely amateurs.  A middle-aged woman plays classical cello by the fountain of Piazza Santa Maria.  Two tap dancers in full costume and make-up hoof their way across the cobblestones.  Meanwhile, beggars and priests pass by while young people cuddle up to watch from the fountain steps.  The whole experience has the flavor of a medieval street festival.

·      Many sites in Rome are free.  The Vatican, for example, home of Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s marble statues, is free.  If you are willing to stand in a long queue in the hot sun, you can spend as much free time as you wish with dead popes and the great artists of the Renaissance.  Churches in Rome are often cheek by jowl with ruins from the first or second century B.C. and the visitor is simply welcome to wander.  Climb the Janiculum hill (site of American University of Rome) and walk along ancient sycamore paths in golden light.  Wild green parakeets will sweep and dance above your head.  At the top of the hill, all of Rome, ancient and modern, will spread before you like a golden buffet.  None of that will cost so much as a Euro.

·      Renowned ruins (like the Colosseum) will cost the visitor an entrance fee, but once inside, surprises abound.  Leave the Colosseum for the Forum and you will see the precise spot where Mark Antony delivered his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.  Down a side road, you can find the entrance to the Cloaca Maxima, the oldest sewage system in the world. Or climb to the top of the Palatine hill and you will have the park-like summit to yourself as you wander through the ruins of the massive palace of Domitian. Wild purple flowers bloom in what was once the emperor’s fountain and invaluable ancient marble statues stand beside an ancient wall, abandoned in the high grass.

·      In Rome you will walk  - and you should.  The historical center of ancient Rome is compact and very calpestabile - walkable. Turn a corner and you will encounter a baroque church, turn another and a gelato stand will catch your interest, turn again and a chariot driven by a winged angel will arise from the roof of the Capitoline Museum.  On average you will put four to five miles a day on your walking shoes, absolutely necessary when you consider all the pasta you will eat.

When in Rome is the order of the day for the visitor to the Eternal City.  Immerse yourself in food and culture, hoof it through history, allow yourself to be dazzled and delighted by the sights and sounds of this surprising city of la dolce vita. Rome is a literal, visual and historical feast.

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