Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rome III


It’s a bit of a miracle that I managed to rent an apartment, without knowing anything at all about Rome, that is within walking distance of most major tourist attractions, located in a charming neighborhood of its own, and located steps, mere steps—not that we plan to avail ourselves of this service—of one of the best spots in Rome to score marijuana.

We are on a tiny alley named Vicolo del piede. It's the sort of neighborhood where people hang their laundry on lines that sometimes stretch right across the street. There’s a parking garage across the street, but it’s not what you think. All you see is an ivy covered wall with a car-sized opening in it. The three parking attendants, Bruno, Roberto, and Cosimo, sit at the entrance all day, discussing soccer and doing crossword puzzles. The street is barely wider than a car, and there are no front stoops or lawns. When you step out your door, you are in the street.

The elegant photos that the rental agency posted of our apartment led me to believe our landlady would be equally as elegant. Indeed, I half worried she would refuse to rent to us, since a family with four children is bound to be somewhat grubby after fourteen hours of travel. I need not have worried. Rosella, the landlady, is dressed perpetually in jeans and old tee shirts. She speaks almost no English and smokes like a chimney. She lives next-door and also owns a shoe shop down the street, and she spends her days sitting in a chair in the street in front of her shop. She has two dogs, Annio and Margarita. About five times a day the quiet of our little street will be disrupted thus: There will be the buzzing of a fast-approaching scooter, or the jingling of an approaching dog collar, then the sound of mad barking, and finally Rosella will screech, in her cigarette-roughened voice, “ANNIO!! A QUI!!!” One day, she sat in front of her shop, shaving her legs and dipping her razor into a white plastic bucket. I was so perplexed by the etiquette of how to address an acquaintance who is shaving her legs in public that I walked a good way in the wrong direction so that I wouldn't have to pass her. So much for the feared, elegant landlady.

A ten-second walk down our street takes you to the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is the classic Italian piazza, right down to the guy playing an accordion by the seventeenth century fountain. Every time I step into it, I expect to see Romeo dueling Tibault. The piazza is dominated by the Church, Santa Maria di Trastevere. It’s fairly important, since it is the oldest official Christian church in Rome, and famous for its mosaics. The church is like the good fairy for the entire neighborhood. Its bells chime the hour every fifteen minutes, and five minutes before mass starts, the bells will play a lively tune. The churches here look so different from the churches in the US, that at first I did not recognize them as such. There are no pointy steeples, but instead a friendly rotund façade not unlike a Swedish grandfather clock, and even the most venerable churches, such as our Santa Maria, have apartment buildings built right against them.

Every single night is like mardi gras. Around 8:00pm, the crowds gather, street performers of all types begin their acts and the restaurants and bars are busy far into the night. There is apparently no open container law in Italy because everybody buys bottles of beer and takes them to the fountain to sit on the steps and drink and watch the entertainment. Our first night here, we were exhausted, but could hardly sleep due to the loud voices in the street and the scooters buzzing past. Now, I hardly notice the noise. In the morning, the piazza is buried under a mountain of litter, but the garbage men come every day. The garbage trucks here are tiny—they look like toys, with old-fashioned brooms on the back of the sort you’d expect a witch to fly about on.

We have settled into life in Rome. We noticed that we eat less here than we do at home. Not because the food is bad, but because it is so much effort to obtain it. You could be dropped, blindfolded, into any spot in Rome, walk in a straight line for thirty seconds, and you would stumble into a restaurant of some type. I have never seen a city that is more devoted to eating and drinking. But we can’t eat all our meals out, so every morning I make my perambulation of the neighborhood to buy food. When you consider that I have to walk to the markets, and carry everything I buy—which has to be enough for six people—all the way home, you can see why we never seem to have enough to eat in our apartment. Luckily, we have our favorite bar around the corner, where the owner is nice and we can get coffee and pastries.

Trastevere is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. The streets are so narrow, that not even Romans can drive fast down them. There are no sidewalks and the streets are paved with tiny, ancient cobbles. Cars, scooters, and pedestrians claim equal ownership of the roads, and for the most part, everybody gets along. My children can go out and walk about, and I feel confident that they are safe and I’m proud that they have learned to find their way among the maze of tiny streets. But that is in Trastevere only. The rest of Rome can be difficult for pedestrians, as I’ve already discussed. I’m trying to emulate the Romans as they cross the street. When you are at a crosswalk with no light, the thing to do is to step calmly into the street, look straight ahead and just walk. I have seen Romans step straight into the most appalling traffic, and get across the street unscathed. Indeed, once I was stuck behind an old man who actually paused in the middle of the street to light a cigarette as a line of cars approached while I danced around behind him like Rumpelstiltskin.

As for what we’ve been up to so far: The day after we visited the Colosseum, Drama Queen came down with a virus and spent the morning throwing up. Mad Scientist, Jon, and Miss G quickly succumbed as well. Still, that night everybody had perked up enough for us to walk to the Trevi Fountain. We’d heard it is less crowded at night, and perhaps it is, at, say 2:00am, but at 10:00pm, when we visited, it was packed with people. Still, I liked seeing it at night because it is pretty all lit up. Thursday was spent recovering from illness. Friday we walked to the Pantheon which is probably my favorite site so far. We explored the area around the Pantheon and saw the stunning St. Ignatius church, as well as Gesu, the first official Jesuit church. Friday evening Jon and I walked to St. Peter’s Square, just to see if we could, which we can. Today, June 20th is Jon’s birthday.

Roman men carry purses

View from our apartment

Another view from our appartment

Santa Maria di Trastevere


  1. That's it -- I'm moving to Rome. Just as soon as I get over my fear of flying. I love your descriptions and any place where I can shave my legs in the street is gold.

    I think it's not a real vacation unless someone vomits. Isn't that usual for youse guys?

  2. hey, buon compleanno, Jonny!! Cento di questi giorni!

    Keep on having lots of fun, friends!


  3. I'm enjoying your descriptions so much.

    Santa Maria di T. DOESN'T look like a church! You could have said "hotel" and I'd have believed it.