Letter from Italy #4 – Roman Musings

Today is our last day in Rome. Tomorrow we head out bright and early for Venice. I have loved every minute of our visit here and hate to say arrivederci. But I am excited to see what else Italy has in store for us. Our week has been full of surprises, moments of awe, lots of laughter. I don’t want to forget any of them.


We deliberately chose accommodation in a neighbourhood outside the centre of Rome. The Trastevere has been a wonderful experience. The district sits on the west bank of the Tiber River. It’s home to two of the oldest churches in Rome and once held a villa belonging to Julius Caesar. These days, it attracts students, artists, expats and even a few famous folks. It’s a maze of narrow, cobble-stoned streets. Too narrow for most North Americans to drive comfortably but Romans zip in and out, around the pedestrians who wander down the middle of the streets and seem to have a sixth sense when to hustle to the side of the road. We got lost numerous times and went in circles more than once until we finally began to get the hang of things. Not every street is on a map. And not every street has a name. At least that we could see. They also change names without warning. One minute you think you know exactly where you are; the next you are hopelessly lost. We have been told to expect to get lost in Venice. We have been practicing in Rome.


Romans are especially proud of the fresh drinking water available at little spigots all around the city. The water runs freely from an open tap and people line up to fill water bottles, splash faces, sometimes even feet. Many drink directly. We were shown how to do it like the Romans do. There’s a little hole on the top of the tap. You place your finger over the spigot and water shoots straight up through the hole. Then you lean over and drink. It’s harder than it looks. Good thing it’s just water.


Romans are also proud of their cobble stoned streets, so much so that when the city attempted to replace them with something more easily maintained, there was an outcry. So the stones remain and are carefully replaced as they break down. The city even tries to maintain the patterns the stones make. Still, it’s easy to drop into a hole. More than once, we saw a young woman trying to navigate the stones in high heels. Even in our flats, they make for hard walking. We must have looked a little tipsy more than once as we literally staggered our way home after a day of cobblestone walking.


I have always had a pretty good ear for languages. After a week, I can manage basic survival. Ordering a meal, getting directions, etc. I suspect after a month, I would be able to carry on a basic conversation. For Sweetie, this does not come naturally. He struggles. More than once, he’s greeted people in French and thanked them in Spanish. He thinks he’s speaking Italian. It’s the only time I have seen this very confident man tentative. It touches me and reminds me that even the strongest among us have their insecurities.


A friend of mine is a professional foodie. Don Genova writes a regular blog, has recently published a book on food artisans in British Columbia, and even spent a year in cooking school in Italy. A few weeks before our trip, Don and I had a long conversation about Rome, particularly where to eat. He hasn’t steered us wrong. In the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, there is a café that serves the most wonderful fresh orange juice. You can have it with or without alcohol. Either way, it’s delicious. He also told us how to find a grocery store just over the river and recommended the Campo de’ Fiori for fresh produce. He even told me how to order sliced meat. And most importantly, how to indicate the number two. Not a peace sign as we would at home. In Italy, one uses the thumb and index finger. Apparently the peace sign is something rude. We used the thumb and index finger method. So far, so good.


When I still worked for national radio news at the CBC, we came to expect a story every six months or so about the fall of the Italian government. Italy has long been plagued with too many political parties and widespread political corruption and economic disaster. The latest prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is a young progressive leftie. Our kind of guy. He’s attempting to clean things up but it won’t be easy. We learned during a walking tour that included the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain that a member of Parliament here earns 18,000 euros a month and after only a single term in office, has a rich pension for life. One of the first things Renzi did after taking office was sell off the expensive cars MP’s were entitled to. Don’t know what happened to the drivers. Renzi promised a reform a month when first elected but he’s had to scale back his ambitious plans. He also wants to shift the elected Senate to an appointed one. Interesting to us when Canadians talk of either abolishing the Senate all together or shifting from appointed to elected. Our guide was sorry she raised the subject.


Our day at the Coliseum and Palatine Hill was extraordinary. Thousands of years of history still standing. We discovered that the Coliseum was built to hold 75,000 people and could be evacuated in less than 13 minutes. It’s a design that’s still used by modern stadiums. We wandered around the ruins, tried to imagine gladiators in the arena, the stands filled with people. Ancient Rome filled our imaginations. Until we were distracted by a man dressed in full centurion costume. Talking wildly on a cell phone. Et tu, Riccardo?


There are four hundred churches, four hundred fountains and four hundred gelato shops in Rome. The only connection I could make is that the gelato is heavenly. No idea where the fountains fit in. Other than they tend to be near churches. And they’re cool too.


In a moment of madness, we decided to climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. First you have a choice of 180 stairs or an elevator. Naturally, for a few euros more, we took the elevator. The view at that level was impressive. And we could have left it there. But then Sweetie discovered the door to the stairs that take you all the way to the cupola. 370 stairs. In a very narrow, winding, claustrophobic climb. It’s a one-way climb. Once you start, you can’t go back. As you near the top, the stairway becomes so narrow that both the inner and outer walls slant in and you have to climb leaning against the wall. The only way you should ever do this is if you are stout of heart, strong of lungs and have really good leg muscles. We should not have done this. Just 20 stairs from the top, Sweetie had to stop. Rest. Sweat pouring down his face. People stepped over and around us and kept asking if he was okay. We were out of our minds. But the view was pretty good. And he is fine.


As we were leaving the Vatican museums, we walked through several long hallways with elaborately painted and locked cupboards lining both walls. Some were made to look like marble, others gilded and painted with cherubs and angels. I was curious. What could possibly be in all those cupboards? Sweetie, not missing a beat, said, “Pope pourri.”


Ciao, Roma. We will return. The Trevi Fountain says so.


About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
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4 Responses to Letter from Italy #4 – Roman Musings

  1. Don Genova says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Barb. Have been enjoying your photos on Facebook but now am reading through all your blog entries and your words are worth more than the pictures, if you know what I mean. Thrilled that you have been having a great trip so far!

  2. Lynn C. says:

    Great postings Barb! Captures your adventures so well. Thanks for doing them.

  3. Kai says:

    Love your letters from Rome. So, off to Venice tomorrow. What a contrast it will be, and, hopefully with it being September, the tourist crowds will have thinned out. As for getting lost, you will for sure. However, it’s the way to discover Venice. There’s so much to experience and see in the back canals and each different region of Venice. For an incredible experience, make sure you but a vaporetto ticket that takes you to all the islands, up and down the Grand Canal, even if you do it once (unless you want to spring for a gondola, and they only paddle small distances). Enjoy Venice. It’s one of my favourite all-time places. Have fantasies of getting an apartment for two weeks on the Lido so I have to take the vaporetto everyday, write something or other (fiction? Advanced Leadership?). My schedule would be: rise 8.00 cappucino, biscotti and read the Guardian and International Herald Tribune until 10.00 Write 10 – 1.00. Vaporetto to Venice to buy groceries, wine, etc. Nap 2.30 – 5.00. Have a ciggie(s) secretly. Go back to Venice for dinner, walk around, take pics, romantasize about life, feel melancholy, return to the Lido by 10.00, read a book (no netflix or anything like that), lights out 11.30.

    • Lynn C. says:

      Let’s go Kai – I’m with you! – One of my fave movies is Summertime with Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi – fabulous shots of Venice and one of the very few shot there.

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