Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chaos Thy Name is Rome

After just a few days in Rome, we recognized that rules, regulations and directive signage mean little. There are the police barriers that no one observes; double-parked vehicles that line almost every street – the owners of the trapped cars leaning on their horns until the double-parkers appear and move the offending vehicles; motorini, the omnipresent motorbikes, zip up onto sidewalks when convenient; and signs in banks and theaters that attempt to direct how lines should be formed are simply ignored. A simple “scusi” or “permiso” appears to be a license to cut in line, especially if one is an elder. The senior generation is a brave lot here in Rome, commandeering your seat on the bus even before you have a chance to offer it, jay walking across busy streets as traffic obediently halts in response to an outstretched arm and making their way with a permiso to the front of the pack that passes for a line at a retailer. Many of the women are clad in fur (the animal rights movement has clearly not yet reached the elder generation in Rome, nor, as a matter of fact has it gotten through to the younger set either) and the men are always dressed properly in a long wool coat and hat.

Walking amidst the helter-skelter of Roman traffic can be an interesting and often dangerous undertaking. The blas√© attitude of pedestrians makes matters even worse as they weave in, out and around the obstacles, seemingly oblivious to the potential perils. They also tend to stop when and where they want, mid-sidewalk, and always on a cell phone, even if they block a tight sidewalk as other pedestrians attempt to pass by. “The oblivious Romans,” we like to call them. We’ve found that it takes a fierce level of concentration to make our way around the streets, especially during the evening rush hour when every square centimeter of space is clogged with traffic -- it engorges the streets and chokes every intersection, both large and small. It can be nearly impossible to simply cross the street as cars are parked as tightly as sardines along every curb, even through the crosswalks, with no wiggle room between them. Squat smart cars are parked sideways along the street, their rear tires snug against the curb and their bumpers extending over the sidewalk, squeezed into impossibly tiny spaces. We once had the privilege of being passengers on a bus that got stuck across an intersection, unable to make a left because cars parked illegally and all askew on every corner just wouldn’t allow the geometry of the turning vehicle to work. We sat on the bus for fifteen minutes, chuckling at the craziness and listening to the blaring horns of the cars piling up behind us until the driver of one of the cars on the far corner finally materialized, sped away with no visible sign of remorse and allowed us to pass on through.

Roman retailers’ opening hours are flexible and subject to interpretation no matter what the signs indicate, but closing times are sacrosanct. Come 1pm, for example, the appointed time for the daily lunch hour, the door will be barred, shut in your face, and you’ll be told to come back later, per favore, the risk of losing a sale much less important than the imminent enjoyment of a meal. I headed for the Poste Italiane to mail some postcards last week and arrived at 1:37pm. Much to my surprise, a big yellow sign on the door said Chiuso – 1:35PM. Who closes at one thirty-five? Apparently this particular, very-busy branch of the Poste Italiane, whose normal daily hours are limited to 9am to 1:35pm. The following day, I left our studio at 12:30pm, in plenty of time to reach the post office on what I thought would be a routine errand. However, en route, a renegade motorino whizzed by me so closely that it drove me into the ever-present bright orange plastic netting that ropes off so much of the Roman sidewalk (although no repairs ever seem to be in progress behind it). The netting grabbed the button at the end of my sleeve and proceeded to snap it off as I walked forward, which in turn tore the sleeve of my raincoat. I watched my black button spiral behind the netting, roll along the pavement and drop through a grate. My tattered sleeve hanging, I pushed through the throng of smoking teens shrouded in a noxious cloud of smoke during their lunch break outside their high school next to the Poste.

When I finally arrived at my destination, the place was mobbed with no hint of anything resembling a line. There were six cashiers operating and it took me some time to get my bearings, negotiate the melee and realize that I had to grab a number from the dispenser in order to be served. At the far end of the room, a big screen TV mounted on the wall but tilted such that it was close to facing the floor indicated which cashiers were serving which numbers. I jostled for a position right under the screen in order to actually be able to read it and after 15 minutes my number finally came up at cassa #4. I obediently approached the designated cashier but he continued to serve another customer and waved me away: “Go to the next cassa and he’ll help you.” My ear has become attuned to basic Italian and so, although puzzled at why my number had come up if my cashier wasn’t ready for me, I followed his directions and patiently waited in front of cassa #3 to my left while he finished taking care of his current patron. It was at long last my turn but as I approached the clerk, an elderly woman appeared from nowhere and slipped in front of me, shoulders draped and head covered in mink and forcefully asserted, “scusi, permiso.” “Where’s your number, Signora?” I wanted to bark at Ms. Entitled, but held myself in check. After another ten minutes and just before the 1:35pm closing, I finally had my long-awaited audience with a postal clerk. I headed back to our apartment, smelling of smoke and clutching my ragged sleeve. Who knew mailing four postcards would take two trips to the Poste and be such a drawn out, treacherous mission?

On a sunny but brisk Saturday morning, we decided to escape the craziness of the Roman streets and head out of town. We settled on Frascati, home of the eponymous white wine we learned to appreciate on a backpacking trip to Rome with our kids in 1999 and located in the Castelli Romani, the hilly wine-producing area about 15 miles to the southeast. Arriving at the Termini with plenty of time to spare, we were happy to see that our train was already in the station waiting on the track and so we climbed aboard. We settled in but were curious about why no one else was in the car: we had understood that Frascati was a popular weekend get-away, but then again, we were early. Finally two teenagers joined us and we relaxed, enjoying the sounds of their enthusiastic chatter. Five minutes before departure time, a friend of our fellow passengers jumped aboard and excitedly exclaimed in Italian, “It’s not this train, it’s the one ahead of this.” Along with the teens, we grabbed our coats and backpacks and joined the others flying down the platform past about six cars to reach the train that would actually be heading to Frascati. There had been no indication anywhere that there were actually two trains on the track and not just one long one and that it was the second train that was heading to our destination and not the first one that was parked all the way in the station. We hopped onto the train just before it departed, astonished that we’d actually made it aboard in time. Had we actually been naive enough to think that taking the train out of the city would allow us to dodge the chaos that is Rome?

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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