Monday, 10 October 2016

Rain in Rome

I love Rome. I even find it relaxing. I treat the city as if its whole point were lunch. This attitude is relaxing for Benedict Ambrose because in Rome I don't care what we do or where we go just as long as we are in a tried-tested-and-true trattoria by 1 PM. In fairness to B.A. and history, I should admit that this wifely equilibrium was some years in the making. I have been to Rome eight times now, nine if you count just waiting in the railway station.

Even the trips into and out of Rome have improved. We fly to Ciampino, and we take the shuttle bus (4.50 euros each) to Roma Termini railway/bus station: no problem. When it is time to go back to Termini, we find a cab and ask the driver, "Trenta euro?" Thirty euros is the set price for Ciampino, so if the driver argues, we leave. We have learned to ask BEFORE we get into the cab.

On one memorable occasion, I got out of the cab shouting and made the crook take the luggage out of the trunk. This was at Termini, so the crowd of other cab drivers watched the drama with interest and one immediately offered us his services. When in Rome, do as Romans do: shout, refuse to be taken advantage of and embarrass the poor British onlooker with your opera diva antics. Meanwhile, the risk of an argument with a rip off artist is worth the avoidance of the bus back to Ciampino. The timetable confusion and the crowds of anxious tourists is insupportable.

Last Wednesday we arrived in Rome on the bullet train from Florence and had the new challenge of going straight into the city without buying a two-week rail pass. (Normally we stay in a seaside town and commute.) Fortunately, I remembered that you can always buy bus tickets at tobacconists' stands, so I led B.A. to one in Termini. After the signora had finished selling a whole roll of lottery tickets to the elderly person in front of me, I explained that we wanted bus tickets, but only for one trip. (For the first time in ten days, no Polish slipped out.)

The signora understood exactly what we wanted, and they cost only 3 euros the pair. We joyfully sped towards the buses and took the 64 towards S Andrea delle Valle. (We would have taken the 40, but while we hesitated, a million people all crammed into it at once. ) There was some marital comedy as I watched for landmarks and B.A. offered erroneous information as to our whereabouts. In about eight more years, he will finally believe that not only do I know the 64 route, I know the way to the Ponte Sisto and, therefore, Trastevere.

Anyway, after more marital comedy involving a map and the drizzle, we turned up at the door of our two-night rental flat, pushed the buzzer and had no reply. The aged building in which the flat has been carved faced a bakery on one side and other aged flats on the other. The streets were narrow, wet and cobble-stoned. They shone under the streetlamps. It had grown dark, and it was all very romantic except that my phone wouldn't make real calls in Italy, and I was furious at the landlord's agent's no-show.

I began to text a message while facing the stubbornly locked door, and while we were helplessly standing there, along came an African street vendor. He began immediately to chat up B.A. with the opening "Where are you from? Are you from Africa?"

B.A., being Scottish, took this as good-humoured banter. B.A. will banter with anyone. He is a kindly person and hates to appear rude or stand-offish. Also, the ability to banter back is good defense against drunken and/or class-chippy Scottish drunks. I have seen him win over a gang of the latter by bantering with the former. I, having an "American" accent, kept my mouth shut and merely admired.

"No," said non-African B.A to the African vendor last week in Trastevere. "Ha ha ha."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from Scotland. Ha ha ha."

I have never enjoyed seeing Ecuadorian pan-pipers in the streets of Edinburgh or Africans selling fake designer handbags in Rome. Both have become fixtures, and no doubt someone thinks the Ecuadorians are as Scottish as bacon butties and the Africans as Italian as fear of air-conditioning. I, however, think they are a pain in the tuchus.

"Where are you from?" asked the pain in the tuchus of me--at least, I think he did. His questioning was accompanied by violent poking of my upper arm, which made me see and hear red.

"Non mi toccare!" I snarled without a moment's hesitation or trace of Polish, and to my surprise, the PITT stopped at once.

"Scusa, scusa!" he said and walked swiftly away. I looked after him with rancour.

"Non mi toccare," I said again, rather aggressively.

"Scusa, scusa!" he repeated and quickened his pace.

A South-Asian shopkeeper chatting with neighbours in the street asked us if  he could help, and then did so by shouting "Ingrid! Ingrid!" to an open window across from us, ringing her doorbell, and calling her on his mobile. After some delay, a Far East Asian head appeared in the window, and I shouted at it that we were us. The head disappeared again, and after a suspiciously long delay, a youngish Far East Asian lady appeared. I was livid that we had been left in the street to be poked by a street vendor, so B.A. did the talking (in English), being polite and "paying the taxes", going downstairs with Ingrid to the South-Asian's shop to change our 20 Euro note, the hapless Ingrid having no change.

It was a nice little flat with VIEWS, a big white bed and the latest British Instyle magazine. The rooms were scrupulously clean, with a tiny-but-adequate kitchenette up one step, and a tiny-but-adequate bathroom three steps up from that. Contemplation of its perfections restored my equilibrium, and I was amused by the very Roman shouting up at windows.

B.A. and I soon went out to meet a friend on the Ponte Sisto and be taken by him to some joint back across the Tiber where we had supper. On the way we spied a Scots College seminarian we know eating supper outdoors with two Scots College chaps, one in a collar, and he looked extremely surprised to see us. There were introductions, attempts at plans, regrets regarding busyness, and then we continued on, with waiters shouting "Eat here, Father," at our non-clerical pal.

We had a good bottle of wine, aubergine (eggplant) parmesan and an absolutely delicious amaretto semi-freddo. Then we went back to the Ponte Sisto, said good-bye to our friend, and went directly to bed.

The next day was our one full day in Rome, and we made it count by sleeping in and lying in bed reading. Eventually we got it together and went to the bakery across the street for croissants and to the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere for cappuccino and a visit to its world-famous Chiesa. Next we went to the less famous Chiesa di Santa Dorothea so I could have a chat with my patron saint, whose bones are in a little box under the high altar. Then we marched along the Tiber towards Vatican City to have coffee with a curial pal and his wife.

While we were having coffee, the heavens opened and the Mediterranean fell on Rome. Rain in Edinburgh is a half-hearted, drizzly affair. Rain in Rome is vertical machine gun fire. After coffee, B.A. and I took refuge in S. Spiritu in Sasso, the Divine Mercy church, which has a ginormous photograph of St. JP2, and then--when the church closed for lunch--hid in the colonnade of an 18th century ospedale. When the rain let up a little, I marched us straight to our favourite restaurant--in the Piazza Pasquino--and hoped B.A. was thoroughly impressed with my unerring sense of direction.

Lunch was divine.

After lunch we discovered our old internet-printing stand-by across from S. Andrea delle Valle was SHUT (horrors), so after a fruitless search for another, we went back to our flat for a nap. When we emerged, we found the neighbourhood internet joint, printed off our airline tickets with help from the Filipino manager, and went in search of the Tempietto, a bit of High Renaissance perfection over the spot where St. Peter was crucified. We found it, but the gates to the courtyard were already locked, so we admired the structure through the bars before turning around and finding our way to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at Santissima Trinitá.

After Mass we picked up a few groceries and had a small dinner back at our flat and, being old, did not rush out into the wet darkness to partake of the noisy Trasteveran nightlife, but stayed in and read magazines until we went to sleep.  On the way back, I had noticed an largish young American man who was sitting in bar speaking rapid, fluent Italian to a young Italian man, and I contemplated how many people from different countries now make their home in Rome (especially Trastevere), which is a return--I imagine--to the days of the ancient Empire.

The next day, we got up at 7. I washed the dishes and tidied up, and then we hiked through the pouring rain to the taxi stand near the Teatro Argentina. ("Trenta euro?") The driver, a friendly young chap, drove us down the Old Appian Way towards Ciampino, The traffic was nevertheless so terrible, we tipped him 5 euros.

I was divested of my big bottle of Felice Azzuro talcum powder at security by a tutting guard. "But it's not a liquid," I wailed, but only half-heartedly. I was once caught with a 200 mL of sun lotion, and the lady guard looked at me as if I had murdered a child.

And that was our short and rather leisurely visit to Rome.

In light of Europe's migration crisis, some further observations may be pertinent. Although certainly multiracial, I would not say that Rome is as yet obviously multicultural--at least not when you leave the area around Termini.  There I saw a tall African chap in full Islamic garb--white prayer cap, white thob. I also saw a very ragged looking African man sitting on the pavement with his pipe-cleaner legs stuffed into boots. He had an open box of biscuits to his left and a quarter-full bottle of some orange liquid to his right, so at least he had food--of a sort. Meanwhile, although it was over 80 F the man was wearing a winter coat. His head was huddled over his knees, and I thought that whatever he had expected when he left for Europe, it surely was not this.


  1. My first trip to Rome, we had a connection with a group of people renting flats to tourists, and we were fortunate enough to have a flat that overlooked Piazza di San Callisto, the next piazza over from Santa Maria in Trastevere. It was SO charming, and while a little off the beaten path, I will never forget eating dinner in the dining area with the windows open, and the accordion music from the restaurant below wafting up to serenade us. Also, Santa Maria in Trastevere may be the most beautiful church in the world, second only to St. Peter's.

    1. I think SMT is B.A.'s favourite. Yes, I very much liked Trastevere, and I hope we will stay there longer next time. In my experience "little off the beaten path" is the BEST.

  2. I'm really enjoying these posts about Florence and Rome! It's taking me back to when I visited both in 2007 with my sisters.
    We took the train to Florence for the day from Lucca - my sister fell in love with Il Duomo (pink marble!) and we found San Miniato Al Monte with its beautiful cemetery.

    1. Thank you! B.A.'s "favourite thing" (I asked) was the Duomo. What were you doing in Lucca? I haven't been there.

  3. My Maternal Great Grandfather was from Lucca, so while in the country we made sure we stopped there! Did a lot of bike riding, stayed in a little apartment above an amazing cheese shop, 'saw' St Zita and St Gemma Galgani's house, and got laughed at (in good nature though) for marching/almost running from one end of the town to the other on Sunday Morning after finding out Mass was at another church and not the cathedral.
    I also have great memories from waiting at the laundromat for our washing and overhearing a couple of American parties meeting and swapping holiday tales!

    1. Oh very cool. What a neat experience! I bet any money the weather is better than the hometowns of MY maternal great-grandparents (one being Edinburgh)!

  4. Really Dorothy? The mere sight of Africans and Ecuadorians on Italian streets bothers you? Do you realize how nasty and racist you come off as? And why do you continually racialize non-white people? African, South Asian, Far East Asian, as though they had no right to be there, but you do. Why? why do you think you have more right to be a tourist tramping about Italy looking at churches than people who choose to live, work and make their lives there? All you can remember about a nice man who helped you locate your landlady is that he was south-asian; and all you can remember about her is that she was far east asian, and how fortunate that she was spared your snarls. I usually enjoy your writing a lot but sometimes I feel quite shocked by how casually you talk about people from the rest of the world.

    1. I doubt the dislike is directed at race, but rather at behavior. I don't know what your experience of Rome is, but street vendors there are startlingly aggressive and manipulative (maybe the Romans are used to it, but as an American I felt pretty taken advantage of by them), and sometimes the best defense is a good offense. And I don't think noting someone's race is wrong--one can be intrigued by race without being a racist, you know.

    2. Aarti, I think the inference you are drawing is very unfair and unjustified. Mrs McLean is not in any way a racist - she is a writer, deeply interested in people and places, and so naturally is observant of where people come from and how they have adapted (or been unable to adapt) to life in Europe. Her descriptions of people's ethnic backgrounds are relevant as they give us a more accurate picture of what Rome is like. The make-up of Rome's population is a perfectly reasonable thing to observe and comment upon. And I would think a person very heartless if they could visit Rome and not notice the tragic signs of the migration crisis. I was very moved by her description of and empathy for the poor African man whose dreams have died on the pavement outside Termini station.

    3. That may be because you are--if I remember correctly--a graduate student at an American university, where codes of speech are highly policed. I found this aspect of American university life highly oppressive, one reason why I couldn't stick it out. Also the "anti-racist" policies I encountered were incredibly racist and paternalist, and as someone from one of the most multicultural cities on earth, I found them highly embarrassing.

      I am not an academic but a writer, and my job is to describe things and people as they are. It is also my privilege to surprise readers with the realities of European life. For example, American readers might assume that the the staff in Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport is white and French. But as a matter of fact, most of the staff I saw in Charles de Gaulle airport were black and African (or African-French).

      Certainly a South-Asian shopkeeper and a Far-East Asian key-holder have as much right to be in Rome as an American museum guide or a Belgian seminarian--if they all have the correct visas, of course. One might not expect them, but there they are.

      The point about the South-Asian shopkeeper yelling up at the window, and the Far-East Asian Ingrid not having change--beyond the fact that these were true events--is that they were extremely Roman in these aspects.

      White Americans at Boston College seemed absolutely terrified of being mistaken for racists. I have not taken such worries seriously since I was chastized, as a teenager, by Caribbean-Canadian girls for dating a "white guy." The white guy I was sitting beside was my blond brother. Although my skin was the same shade as his, they assumed from my hair that I was black.

      My dear old hair, plus neighbourhood, has also led people to assume that I am Jewish. It's all really quite funny. Living in a climate of fear, however, is not funny at all.

  5. By the way, thank you, Cordi and Mary, it is indeed the activities, not the colours, I find annoying. Both the vendors and the musicians are exploiting the tourist trade, in direct competition with the local people (of whatever origin), and of course the "designer handbags" of the bridges and underpasses are illegal knock-offs. Meanwhile, I don't like Ecuadorian music, which hopefully is not a shining sign of racism. I also don't much care for Polish mountain music, which saddens Polish friends, who love the yelling, and think I ought to too, but there it is. And now I must go back to making a vocabulary list for a memoir about the Warsaw Uprising. The Germans are actually shelling the houses, and Polish children are being killed.

    1. Is Ecuadorian music part of Scottish culture? No. (Only a fatuous idiot would say it was as Scottish as a bacon buttie.) There is no Ecuadorian settlement in Scotland. The Ecuadorians turn up briefly in the summer to capitalize on the crowds of tourists who come to Edinburgh for the Festival. No doubt many of the English and German tourists enjoy the "exotic" sound and the fake "First Nations" trinkets for sale. However, I dislike both the sound and the trinkets because they are part of the problem of tourism as unthinking consumerist spectacle divorced from the actual history and culture of the place in which the tourists find themselves. I assume, of course, that they have visas and therefore have a legal right to tootle away for the masses.

      Their very short stay in Edinburgh is quite different from the long-term sojourn of the African trinket-sellers in Rome, of course. I remember African bag-sellers cross-legged on the bridges in 1998 and African sculpture for sale on blankets near the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This surprised me and my fellow Contiki tourists (many of them Italian-Americans) very much. We couldn't see what the African sculptures had to do with Pisa, and indeed when a policeman came by, the sculptures were hurriedly packed up. Of course, by now African trinket-sellers are at least an 18 year old institution in Italian cities. I wonder what they make of the new migrants.

      No doubt I should mention for the sake of completeness that not all black people in Rome are trinket-sellers or migrants. For example, one occasionally sees black children in Italian school groups, and very often in Rome black nuns and priests. (There are nuns and priests of several ethnicities in Rome.) A Far East Asian nun was dozing inside the doors of the Adoration chapel within S. Maria Maggiore.) I certainly wish I had seen Cardinal Sarah!