The first in a series of blog posts about how Italy lied to me
When you’re in Italy, you must eat pasta, drink wine, get fat, relax, enjoy life to its fullest. That’s what they say at Olive Garden, at least. The colors are brighter, the food more natural and delicious, and the people so warm and approachable that one day you’re an intern, next, you’re running a prostitution ring from the Prime Minister’s office.
Outside of Italy, we’ve been getting Italian cultural hype for hundreds of years. Sir Walter Scott wrote anxiously in the early 19th century, “Methinks I will not die quite happy without having seen something of that Rome of which I have read so much.” **
This is because Italy has been luring gawkers continuously. Forster. Gogol. Twain. Lawrence. at Pray Love chick. Everyone and their mom has been to Italy. Certainly, Mr. B and his mom had, ten or so years ago, in an unfortunate Russian bus trip Mr. B would rather forget because the tour guide, a Teutonized Russian Jew living in Germany, refused to stop for most meals and old people.
The complete proliferation of la dolce vita in both American culture, caused by the strong dynastic pride of Italian Americans and among Russians, who all secretly want to be Italian, left me with high hopes and firm expectations for our trip a couple weeks ago.
For Mr. B, it was a redo, a chance to wipe out memories of traumatizing vacations past. For me, it was a chance to fill in my travel knowledge, like Sir Walter Scott. Most importantly, it was a chance to be lazy. I spent all winter and spring working, writing, and studying, and I didn’t have it in me to plan an extravagant itinerary. Since Italy is the fifth-most visited country in the world, I knew there had to be tons already out there that I could easily take from. And even if we didn’t end up seeing anything, no big deal. We were going to do a couple days in Rome, one in Naples, and the rest of the time relaxing on the Amalfi Coast, low-key, Italian-style.
In last year’s funny and cute To Rome With Love, Woody Allen is on a Alitalia flight to meet his daughter’s new Italian fiance when turbulence occurs. As is typical of Woody Allen, he starts panicking, and his wife, played by pragmatic Judy Davis, suggests he “unclench.” “I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence,” Woody replies, “You know I’m an atheist.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t unclench in Italy, either, and the trip turned out differently than I had anticipated. The first reason was that I’m an 80-year-old Jewish man. The second is that everyone that, because there are so many blog posts, books, movies, and third-rate American restaurant chains about Italy, I came into the country with extremely high expectations, which were immediately busted by a combination of my Russian pessimism and the fact that Italy is not what it seems.
The rest of this blog posts will be spent exploring how anal-retentive I am and all of the ways the Western literary canon lied to me about Italy. Ciao!
Mr. B and I arrived at Fiumicino on a Friday morning on U.S. Airways. Flying this airline is a great way to punish your worst enemies, especially if they hate legroom and wine that comes in cardboard juice containers. By the time we arrived at the gate, our hair was matted to our heads, or maybe falling out slowly from plane-food related stress, we were going on three hours of sleep, and our necks didn’t turn the whole way.
This is how Italian travel is supposed to be:
This is how Italian travel really is:
We were staying at someone’s apartment through AirBnB, so I needed to call him and tell him we were on our way so he could meet us there. We had rented a cell phone through the same company I’d used in Israel.
Unfortunately, the cell phone thought it was still in its ancestral homeland, and refused to work. As Jack Donaghy notes, there are no rules in Italian airports, so we spent half an hour jostling through crowds of Russians in sweatsuits trying to look like crowds of Italians in sweat suits yelling at Americans in yoga pantsp,trying to get some information out of anyone about how we could get a SIM card or a phone. We finally bought an Italy-compatible phone and I connected with the host.
“Ciao, Vick-i. Where are you,” he asked.
“At the airport,” I said. “We’re about to get a taxi…we should be there in 30 minutes.”
“Okay. See you in an hour.” We got in a shared taxi, filled with vaguely European tourists and other Americans going to hotels. The driver blasted Radio Deejay, whose motto is, “One Nation, One Station” (sic.) Macklemore announced that he was pumped because he just bought some shit from the thrift shop.
I looked around the landscape. Central Italy is almost virtually indistinguishable from the States, except that there are hundreds of umbrella pines dotting the landscape, like so:
and, also, it doesn’t censor American rap music. The taxi driver’s phone rang. His ringtone was Get Lucky. It is impossible to escape American culture.
Twenty minutes later, we were standing still in Roman traffic. The driver turned apologetically to us. “There’s a strike,” he said. “On the public transportation.” “Also everyone leaves the city, the Friday,” he explained further. Italy’s public transportation services have strikes so often that Trenitalia has a helpful tab on its home page labeled ‘In Case of Strike.’ “Some services will still be operating maybe,” it says reassuringly.
Our driver swore, navigated, and gestured his way around the Vespas, Fiat Puntos, and endless crowds of Asians wearing fanny packs. Every lane merge was a personal affront to him, every Do Not Enter a suggestion, to the point where I’d begun to wonder if he was playing up being Italian just for us.
We had promised the apartment owner we’d be there in thirty minutes. We were pushing an hour and a half. Another half hour later, we arrived on a narrow, charming street in Trastevere, and I called our host, feeling terrible that we were late.
“We’re here,” I said.
“Okay, I park the car. I’ll be there soon! ” We waited outside for another twenty minutes, watching women in impossibly tall high heels walk impossibly small dogs down the street, smoking (the women, not the dogs,) and older couples holding bags full of groceries, before he came to let us into his beautiful , modern apartment. The apartment was up four flights of stairs
This incident began my understanding of Italian Italian time. Italian time is different from American time. Every culture I know has the joke that they’re on X Standard Time, but I have yet to meet a culture that treats time with such elasticity as Italians. Most that deal with anal-retentive Americans are on time. Everyone else is, come se dice, suggerimento. Cafes open around 8 or 9, maybe, farmers’ markets, also, maybe 10, or whenever they feel like it. Everyone closes down around 1:30 for lunch and doesn’t reopen until dinner, which can be at 7:30 or 10, depending on how you feel and if Gli Azzuri won their match. If you have a heart attack between 12 and 1, well, try to have it later.
Breakfast at 9. Or 10. Ish.
If you’re late to something you signed up for, you might get a frown or a shrug or nothing, depending. Asking for directions could mean you’re driving “around 30 minutes” or “a couple streets.” Sitting down for a tiny cappuccino can mean 45 minutes, or however long you want to sit.
On the outside, this is charming. It means Italians have resisted the pull of modernity that keeps us all glued to the screen and at the grindstone. To someone with an absolute view of time, Italy is extremely stressful. I’m punctual and view anyone who isn’t as a child-eating monster. If you ask me to be somewhere at 2:34, I will do everything in my power to be there at 2:33:50, because it’s important to you.
I am a list-maker, a horological stickler, and unbearable pedant. Mr. B has more flexible views about time, and the first three years or our relationship consisted of me writing tearful emails to him saying that I was breaking up with him because he didn’t respect my time and to please give back the mix CD I made him. But even for him, to be in a country where some people took time very literally, but most didn’t, and it really depended on the situation and the weather, was hugely annoying.
But Italy has nowhere to hurry, and this was obvious from the very beginning in Rome. In a recent essay about Italian soccer racism, Wright Thompson wrote, about Liga Nord, the Northern Italian political racist party that popped up in the 80s and wants to split Northern Italy from the South and send everyone south of Rome back to Africa, that, “Yesterday is familiar. Everything else makes them afraid.”
This is all of Italy. It’s accomplished enormous amounts of creative throughput in the last couple centuries. Dante. Fermi. Garibaldi. Nero. Caesar. Vivaldi. Machiavelli. Augustus. Benigni. It’s in no hurry to prove itself like America is. Italy’s done with the marathon and relaxing with a coffee and a cigarette on the sideline. America is still young and uppity, trying to constantly prove itself, failing, tripping over its shoes, getting back up and at it. America’s still only (I hope) on mile 3 of 26.”That’s fine, kid,” Italy says. “I’ve done it all. I’ve done the 12 gods thing and the monotheism thing. I’ve made the most famous penis sculpture in marble. I’ve combined tomatoes and cheese. I’ve given hipsters centurion sandals. You can take it from here. I’m on strike. ”
For the next three days, we started to understand more about this culture as we walked Rome ragged. Russian vacations are never-say-die vacations, as I’ve written about before, and despite the fact that even up to two days before we left I didn’t have an itinerary, we walked the entire city.
We walked an average of 7 miles a day, and we walked ceaselessly, trying to get into every nook and cranny.
Too many people have written about Rome for me to write anything meaningful. People have been writing about Rome for centuries. Mark Twain wrote, in the second half of the 19th century in Innocents Abroad,
What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? — Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here.
There is nothing we saw in Rome that’s any different than millions of people have over the centuries. We walked around the Forum, down the Spanish Steps to the gelato shop next door, down Via Cavour, across the Tiber, near the Castel Santangelo, ate at a tourist trap restaurant the first day, then got better at finding local places in Trastevere where the waiter plied us with wine and grappa. Holy shit is grappa terrible. But great for being drunk. And Rome is a great city to be drunk in.
The air in the spring is warm and Mediterranean and salty and full of umbrella pines, and no one goes to bed until 12, even on school nights. We stumbled across a tiny street where a kids’ birthday party was still going on at 9 PM on a Sunday. There were a couple kids running around with balloons. But it was mostly more adults, standing, smoking, discussing the meaning of life, and how to get their kids to smoke, probably.
We watched Il Grande Gatsby with Italian subtitles in a theater full of locals.
We watched hordes of Russian tourists go right past the historical sites and to the Prada and Gucci stores with signs strategically in Russian. We ate bruschetta every night. We went to creepy-ass ossuaries and crypts. We went far, far below the city, to a darkened room that was probably a highway in Roman times, and somewhere deep in the room, a spring trickled ceaslessly, like it had for millennia, and it made us shiver.
This probably all sounds super-glamorous. But it was not.
It probably reads like this:
But it was more like this:
Because by the time we were done walking, we got home, limping, having skipped lunch, and ate salami straight from the supermarket packaging, Italian cookies with tea, olives, and fresh bread, and waited for dinner. We skipped lunch most days because we didn’t have time. We were sight-seeing. By the time we limped back to the apartment, I was ready to die at the doorstep. The other fun part was that the apartment was four flights of stairs up.
There was an elevator, but since it was an old, charming Roman building, the elevator was built into the architecture, meaning it was the side and height of a middle school locker. Just myself in the elevator was fine. Just Mr. B in the elevator was also fine. But having both of us in there was a potential safety hazard. You also had to get in, close the elevator door from the outside, then close the inside one, before it would go anywhere.
So we crawled up the stairs.
We took embarrassing pictures with gladiators. These pictures cost 5 euros and 5 dollars.
We saw too much large marble genetalia. Some of us were immature enough to take pictures.
In all of that, in all the constant walking and the monument-seeing and the gelato-eating, we were never sure whether we were having genuine experiences, whether we understood the real Rome. Rome is a city that has been washed over for hundreds of years, and, as such, is designed to put on a show. It has a thin veneer that it coats for tourists, near the bridges, near the castle, near the Typewriter, and near everything that makes tourists want to visit.
We were never sure if Rome was merely putting on a show for us, or if it was working the way it always did, the way it always had, and we were merely viewers. Did the waitress who said ‘Mamma mia!’ in exclamation as she swept of a dirty table cloth really mean it, or was she playing up to a stereotype? Was the waiter that gave us grappa just hoping for an extra tip? Nothing felt sacred or genuine in Rome .Everything felt worked over by groups of tourists and people who were trying to make money off of them. None of the churches had a soul anymore. Everything was optimized for people who have minimal time to see the city, as we did. Pre-packaged is the right word.
There was one glimpse of the real Rome. We went to the Jewish Quarter, to the synagogue, that was the most beautiful synagogue I’ve ever seen, aside from the Spanish Synagogue in Prague. An older woman named Laura, one of the members of the Jewish community, gave a very thorough tour, talking about living in the city during Fascist rule, about how the Jewish community in Rome went back, back before Sfaradim and Ashkenazi rites, back in time, moving with the vagaries of the city, and I felt something, a piece of the truth. But then we were outside the gates of the Jewish Museum and it vanished as quickly as it appeared.
Trying to see the true Rome is like looking in a thousand mirrors for the true reflection, and I’m sad to say we didn’t find it, no matter how far we walked. And we walked really, really far. We were exhausted and overloaded with ancient stuff and Roman stereotypes.
Somehow I knew that the Amalfi Coast held the truth, the true vacation, the true relaxation, if only I could live until then.
The reward for the fact that my blisters had blisters was that the next morning, we got on the train to Ostia, Rome’s ancient port city, to pick up our rental car and drive to Naples. This was my first glimpse of the real Rome, the city beneath the dazzling facades, at real Italians. The train was dirty and looked like it hadn’t been washed for several Berlusconi administrations.
Foreign workers held onto grimy Nokia phones and slept on the way to work. Women with shopping bags full of bread talked loudly. People read the paper. The day became hot. I sat and watched stations go by, trying to reconcile this mundane scene with the Rome of yesterday.
At Ostia, a very helpful man in a tiny un-air-conditioned office gave us the keys and asked us twice if we wanted insurance. We had seen Roman driving. We said yes, yes, and again, yes, per piacere.
The car was conveniently parked in a roundabout. Mr. B had to back up into oncoming traffic while an older Italian woman impatiently motioned for him to move from the space, lightly hitting our car with her palm at to guide the way. Vespas and Puntos zoomed by within inches of the bumper. Baptized by fire, Mr. B entered the ranks of Italian drivers and my feet entered a previously-unknown rest state.