Editor’s note: This article was first published in Nov 2019, but under some duress we are dusting it off for a second run. Novack is the future of journalism, apparently.
Please observe that I have not disappeared down some foreign alley with the AMG credit card. Also, be impressed by the clarity of my accounting methods, scanned receipts to legitimate transactions from legitimate enterprises. Nothing shady.
Brace yourself reader for the next vital chapter, an exploration of the eternal city.
Ryanair – a picture of budget airline efficiency. All passengers are checked-in prior to their airport arrival and herded swiftly aboard the aircraft like docile cattle. The captain’s address – “My name-a Johnny. I fly you to Roma, grazia.” Once in the sky the real business manifests – selling duty-free perfume to a very captive audience. The flight is mercifully brief and we land without incident.
My Airbnb, situated in the very chic suburb of Trastevere, contains a rickety, homemade ladder to a mezzanine bedroom that might collapse under the weight of a heftier individual. I will not attempt its ascent while inebriated. The WIFI connection is very poor, the air-conditioned loud, but ineffectual. A mixed rating awaits.
Rome is swarming with Abercrombie-t-shirt-wearing American tourists. The never-ending horde is obsessed with gorging on pizza and gelato like a corpulent, ravenous, machine. All landmarks are jam-packed from dawn, wives and girlfriends jostling for position while the men shoot endless happy snaps. The meandering queue to enter the Colosseum is a big, fat American heart-attack waiting to happen. Ambulances expectantly await the heat-struck and arterially compromised. The Trevi Fountain is policed by officers with whistles to keep wanna-be Instagram models moving right along. Everyone must get their turn.
While the Greeks have outsourced their security to boys in fake bullet-proof vests, the Italian state is still very much in charge of this function, and it is not messing about. Machine gun toting soldiers are stationed throughout the capital. An impressive convoy assembled at the back of a museum to transport the Mozambican ambassador – AK47 flags adorned his vehicle – and his local counterpart to their next appointment. The dignitaries were whisked aboard a black Mercedes sedan while 4 police motorbikes, 4 Mercedes vans, and 8 other Mercedes sedans formed a protective phalanx that then hurtled through the narrow laneways at breakneck speeds with sirens flashing. These people mean business.
Every morning teams of cleaners go to work, scrubbing the black, shiny, timeless cobblestones of American vomit and litter. Men dressed in high-vis and armed with straw brooms coordinate with street-sweeping vehicles to prepare the city for another day of relentless commerce.
Italians don’t eat breakfast. Dinner is a late-night, carb-laden affair. The morning is greeted with espresso and perhaps a croissant, consumed while leaning against a café bar to avoid the dreaded seating charge. Scrambled eggs and avocado on toast is not available anywhere.
Unlike the Greeks who seem tired and defeated, the Romans appear proud and industrious, resolutely believing in the power of pasta, Zegna suits, Prada handbags and Ferrari sports cars to change the world. Well-dressed men gather to plot, scheme and gesticulate.
The Romans also seem more willing and able to maintain their historic structures than their Athenian neighbours. The city doesn’t feel like it’s immediately going to fall in a glorious heap of rubble. Teams of construction workers mix cement at ground level, before it is hoisted via ropes and utilised above. Many buildings are covered in graffiti, and showing decades of wear and tear, but their ongoing preservation is of ongoing state priority. Eternal city indeed.
Food and coffee are uniformly good, if not wildly expensive. Excellent pasta, pizza, salad, bread and wine is satisfyingly consumed. Insistent waiters politely demand 5 star ratings be applied to Trip Advisor accounts before patrons are permitted to leave. “Do it now, while waiting for your credit card payment to go through. Yes. Now. Here, I show you how.”
Several street-level scams are evident, one involving African males and ‘free’ friendship bands that are quickly tied around unsuspecting tourists’ wrists before the duped are compelled to make financial restitution. Other, an anti-drug petition that requires a signature is followed by friendly conversation that morphs into persistent requests for charitable donation to save a generation of addicts, from themselves. Another sells bogus entry tickets to monuments such as the Colosseum. Beggars and rough-sleepers all appear foreign, mainly North African.
Public transport is adequate without running to Mussolini standards of promptness.
Vatican City is avoided entirely. The Roman Catholic Church, the English Royal Family, Dyncorp, Monsanto, Pfizer – some institutions can never be forgiven. Life is too short.
In closing. Rome is a chaotic, magnificent, breath-taking artefact, well preserved, relatively competently governed wonder. It is unfortunately spoilt by a swarm of George Carlin-like caricatures – corpulent, gormless, fanny-pack and Ray-Ban-wearing American tourists. The travellers are tolerated because they pump in sufficient greenbacks to keep the city afloat while the majority of the Euro Zone flounders.
Share my work reader. This time I mean it.
Keep paying the bills boss. I’m mining a rich vein here.
G G Novack – Travel Writer, Critic