Italy, Part Two: Rome

A long time ago I wrote a poem that I liked perfectly well because I was young and full of poetry, and I liked how it started: “Who am I to talk?” Turned out I was the only fan of my poem; everyone else who read it thought that if I weren’t the one to talk, I should just shut up.

To say anything about Rome seems squarely in that category: Who am I to talk about that great, ancient city? However, if unsurpassable predecessors closed down topics, pretty much all conversation would cease. Maybe the best we can do is bring our own true words to the subject at hand.
First of all, I have never before been one of those people who arrives down in baggage claim to look for someone holding a sign with my name on it. Arriving in a busy airport, a little woozy from lack of sleep but nothing too bad (did I mention you can count on Rick Steves to tell you what to do about things like jet lag?); but completely overwhelmed. Millions of people, evidently; half of them pick-pocketers and scam artists if the World Wide Web is to be believed, and 90% of them smoking cigarettes – I’m not used to this kind of thing!
But we found the person who was there to find us, and somehow off we went.
My first impressions of Rome? I was glad we hadn’t rented a car. Although over the next two weeks I would be able to switch off most of my reactions to Italian city traffic, I’m afraid my spouse will never recover from watching people on scooters zip around and between cars with no apparent regard for traffic rules or the laws of physics. Zoom past a line of cars in heavy traffic to claim a place at the head of the line? No problem. Pass on a curve? No problem. Propel yourself and your passenger (who may well be a small child) up through the left lane to bypass sluggish automobiles? No problem!
The first time Floyd watched a scooter slip between a bus and a truck with maybe four inches on either side of the handlebars, he was astonished. This amazement is with him still.
We were about to spend two weeks in a world of laughably narrow roads, cobblestone streets, and “sidewalks” that consist of stripes of white paint and pedestrian optimism. We couldn’t decide if we were better off walking on the left-hand side, facing traffic; or on the right-hand side with traffic coming up from behind. I guess it all depends on how you want to meet your death: barreling toward you, or a quick surprise.
In America we’re taught (at least some of us were) that if there is no sidewalk, you walk on the left-hand side, facing traffic. One Sunday Floyd and I found ourselves in exactly that position, walking a very curvy road, clinging like shadows to the stone wall beside us. I was blathering on about a scene in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” where Jim Carrey inches himself along with his back pressed to a wall in an effort to be invisible – ha ha! – when a scooter traveling at suicidal speed came around the turn and nearly sliced my dear husband in half.
But here we were, narrow cobbled passageways and all; and at some impossible point we climbed out of the back seat of the van and stepped into a world going back over two thousand years. Rome is like that.

I am a very weak student of history. Whenever I try to read something about the past, my eyes glaze over and the words slip like jelly across my brain and straight out my ears. So the idea of a hotel near the Pantheon could only seem cool because I thought that it ought to be pretty cool. I had to look up “The Pantheon” a number of times, and still had no idea. Wow! We’ll be right across from a building that’s two thousand years old! (With history, I am an eternal teenager.)

More about that later. First, la piazza:

The Pantheon stands in a piazza, of course. The Piazza della Rotonda, in this case. Being a city girl at heart it was easy for me to fall in love with piazze of all shapes and sizes: busy, lively, criss-crossed with traffic, residents, tourists, dogs, carabinieri, beggars, (yes it’s true) pickpocketers, small shops, fancy boutiques, fruit stands, gelato places; the smells of cooking, cigarette smoke, two-stroke fuel fumes, cologne; people talking, laughing, arguing, making a fuss over every single baby; bow-tied ristorante staff encouraging you to sit, have a drink, eat, check out the menu – I love le piazze and regret that our suburban life censors them in all their richness.

Una piazza is a wonderful place to sit on a spring evening and share a bottle of wine and talk, or not talk. I’d learned from my extensive daydream excursions that in Italy a restaurant table belongs to you until you don’t want it any more. Waitstaff, paid a living wage, have no need to turn tables quickly to reap more tips.

Now sometimes, as happened here, one restaurant isn’t interested in seating you because all you want is a glass of wine and they are all into dinner. Non te preoccupe! There is una caffe right across la piazza where they will be happy to seat you and let you sit undisturbed until you wave a hand and say, Il conto, per favore – even though you are very shy and your accent causes the smiling waiter to reply in inglese.

Piazza life goes on well into the evening, in part because businesses have largely closed down for a couple of hours in the afternoon; but also because the Italians (at least as we observed) thoroughly enjoy meeting up with each other at the end of the work day. As superannuated Americans, we stretched ourselves to eat at 7:30 p.m. – which is when many restaurants begin serving dinner. The Italians would start to arrive an hour or so later, greeting one another with great happiness.

I began to think that in le piazze resides a sense of community – no matter how many tourists may be present. People from all over the world may find themselves here, but so do Italian friends and families who have been gathering in this place for generations. We would see much more of this in the smaller towns we visited later in our trip.

For the moment, still in Rome, we began to marvel at a city that functions with such narrow two-way streets. It was amazing how seldom we observed traffic backing up to make room for other vehicles. Suddenly “Smart Cars” began to make sense. And where a small section of a parking lot in Texas might accommodate a dozen of what we call cars, in Italy that small section would be adequate space for twenty cars and at least an equal number of scooters. Nobody says you can’t park with a wheel or two on the curb, after all!

But what am I really wanting to say about Roma? That I could photograph its windows and doors all day long?
It would be wonderful if I could convey some of the smells that issue from the houses as Romans prepare to eat the best food  in the city, but that would make us all hungry and I am just starting the process of re-losing the pounds I lost just so I could go on this trip. I resolved in advance that I was going to eat and drink every single thing I wanted, and I am proud to report that I lived up to that resolution. How can you miss, when you visit a country that offers so many desserts at breakfast?
Do I want to make a point of what it feels like every day to step on slabs of marble that bears the impressions of – yes – thousands of years of footsteps?
I can say that Floyd and I walked quite a bit during our brief stay: from the Pantheon to the Vatican and back; from the Pantheon to the Colosseum to the Spanish Steps to the Borghese to the Trevi Fountain and back. And before I forget, I want to mention a few things I loved: how in May there are flowers even on tile roofs and stone walls:
Or how you can just be walking along a busy sidewalk lining an insanely busy metropolitan street and out of nowhere an antiquity appears, inspiring you to cross said street with no regard for the life-and-death implications:
The astonishing juxtaposition of the very new and the very old:
And how, even if your hotel bathroom is so tiny you pretty much have to turn sideways to get from the toilet to the teeny shower (which is too small to be a shower stall: it is only a space in the bathroom with a drain in the floor), you might be able to look out the wee window in that shower and see something like this.
Oh, and the fact that you can be wandering the city with no particular aim in mind, just wandering, and find yourself in a little piazza with a little piece designed by Bernini:
Now, that must have been an interesting family.

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