So there I was in Rome. The eternal city; the city of echoes; the city of illusions; the city of yearning; the city overwhelmed by its own greatness. Hm, a lot of people have said a lot of stuff about Rome.
But what should I be doing while I was there? Ah, of course: “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
I simply had to find out what the Romans do, then copy it. Clearly there was a need for some close observation of the Romans. During my three-day stay I reached some obvious conclusions about what Romans do, then gave careful consideration as to whether I would be able to do this do too – or, indeed, whether I would want to.
Observation #1: Romans abandon Rome during the month of August.
Arriving on a Saturday and anticipating crowds, I was somewhat alarmed to find the city looking deserted. I recalled that in an earlier age the abandonment of Rome had brought about the start of the dark ages and I was a bit worried that another era of darkness might be beginning. But no: I was informed that Rome is horribly hot in August and full of tourists, so sensible Romans go somewhere quieter with at least a bit of shade.
Could I abandon Rome too?
Not really. I was only there for three days anyway, so I felt far more inclined to stay and make the most of it while I could. Besides, as a whiter-than-white English tourist I felt morally obliged and probably genetically programmed to drag myself around in the heat.
Observation #2 Romans talk very loudly in public places.
This is partly excusable in, say, a restaurant where you think they may need to raise their voices to be heard over the “Opera’s Greatest Hits” CD which is playing loudly in the background (well, foreground really). However, the loud talking is not confined to drowning out “O Sole Mio”; it also happens outside your hotel room door at midnight and when you’re in a very small lift, where it can be quite deafening.
Could I also talk loudly in public places?
I thought I’d give it a go so I tried turning up the volume of my voice when I asked my companion if he knew where the map was. He looked mortified and said “Sssssssshhh! Do you know everyone can hear you? Why are you shouting?” He was right that everyone could hear me, but no-one took any notice. And why was I shouting? To the English, the whereabouts of the map is a purely personal matter which would only be discussed very quietly. It’s probably because you need to look as though everything’s under control and the loss of a map suggests that it isn’t. And obviously, if things are not under control, you don’t want other people to know that: you should just be smiling politely and displaying a look of calm concentration. Not only that but if you talk too loudly, other people might hear YOUR BUSINESS and that’s clearly NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS. Just not the British way.
Observation #3 Romans make a big fuss about food and take a long time to eat their dinner.
When you ask a Roman waiter about a dish on the menu, he explains at great length exactly what it contains, not just politely but with a look of real love in his eyes. He really cares about exactly what herbs have been teamed with the salmon and pasta – and which locality the herbs grew in. In restaurants there are long gaps between courses and, after you’ve finished eating, before the bill is served up (just as lovingly as the food).
Could I also raise eating to pedestal-status and take hours to eat a meal?
In the UK we tend to treat eating as an unfortunate necessity. Lunch is eaten unthinkingly while we work, and dinner on our laps as we focus not on the food but on who’s rowing with who in Eastenders. From a theoretical point of view, I can see that it’s rather nice to treat eating a meal as a leisurely and rewarding use of time and I really did try to approach meals in Rome from this standpoint. The trouble is, though, after a bit of polite chit-chat and even a few glasses of Italian red, I start to wriggle and moan that they’re taking a bloody long time and my bum aches on this chair and why are they ignoring us? Mentally I’m moving on to what I want to do next – which defeats the object of treating the food and the companionship with the respect it deserves.
Observation #4 Romans really don’t do queues.
Of course, instances of this abound anywhere in Italy where there are large numbers of people. But if you really want to witness the Romans’ complete antipathy to queues, you could do no better that visit the Colosseum where a perfect example of this takes place day after day. When I was there, by Sunday, Rome miraculously seemed far more crowded and a huge number of people were, like us, making their way to this famous, captivating and ancient monument. A long snaky line of people was winding its way around the outside of the building, surprisingly giving every appearance that the situation was under control. Once inside, however, the reverse was true. A young man divided the one queue quite arbitrarily into two queues as if to make it appear that each was leading to one of two ticket booths. However, it transpired that there were four ticket booths and one queue was leading to three of them, while the other queue only led to one. This turned out not to matter, though, because as people got nearer elbows were sharpened and there was a general scrummage with everyone in no particular order going to any booth they. The effect of this was enhanced by the fact that, once people had bought their tickets, they were too squashed to be able to escape the crowd of people still waiting to pay. Marvellously incompetent.
Could I survive without queues?
The fact that the queuing (or, rather, non-queuing) situation described above is allowed to exist at the country’s most popular tourist destination is a sure sign that the Romans are more than happy to showcase their love of the free-for-all when it comes to deciding who’s got priority. As a tourist, I was relaxed enough to be able to enjoy it as a display and all part of the Italian experience. But if you asked me to accept this state of affairs at bus stops, in banks and at supermarket check-outs I would be simply aghast. It just isn’t fair, is it? And you would have a hard job to persuade me that it doesn’t matter, even if that’s probably true.
Observation #5 Romans like walking very, very, very slowly.
They usually walk three abreast in narrow streets, chatting and window-shopping. They don’t seem to go in shops very much: rather, they enjoy walking slowly past them. The more of a hurry you’re in, the narrower the street and the more slowly they walk. The Romans’ strolling gait seems to be a direct result of their enjoyment of being in that place with those people at that time.
Could I learn to walk this slowly?
This is akin to the eating situation( See #3 above). It’s all a question of being aware of what you’re doing, whether it’s eating or walking and using your senses to appreciate the situation you’re in at that moment. “Mindfulness” is the word for it, I understand. That’s undoubtedly admirable, but it’s hard of you come from a culture like ours where everyone’s in a hurry to get on to doing something else, where eating’s just a way of staying alive and walking just a way of getting from A to B. Even if it’s the weekend, there’s probably something good on the telly that I want to get home for. I might miss it if I walk this slowly. Ah, but I’m in Rome – surely I ought to take in the ambiance? Well, it’s usually very hot in Rome and that’s probably another reason why the Romans have learnt to take their time. But for me, the faster I walk the sooner I can get back to my hotel room and turn the air conditioning on.
Observation #6 Romans are not good at puddings.
The restaurants in Rome do a pretty damn nice pizza and some outstanding pasta, but they usually just have the following desserts on the menu: a little creamy, yoghurty thing (panna cotta), sponge soaked in coffee with cream (tiramisu) and the ubiquitous vanilla ice cream.
Could I survive on this choice of puddings?
It’s a well-known fact that when you go out for a meal, basically you are there for the pudding. In the UK the selection is probably something like: apple pie, sticky toffee pudding, lemon meringue pie, bread and butter pudding, Eton mess, spotted dick, rhubarb crumble and custard, chocolate fudge brownie, sherry trifle, honey crunch cheesecake, banoffee pie, Bakewell tart, blackberry cobbler, creamy rice pudding, treacle tart, jam roly poly.
So could I survive on Roman desserts? Don’t be silly!