When in Rome, Leave Your American Eye Glasses at Home

Rome, in English. In Italian, Roma. No four letters in either language more dramatically stir the emotions of the western mind. Not one city but three at least: ancient Rome of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, Renaissance Rome of the popes, Raphael, the Medici, and today’s Rome of Vespas, employee strikes and designer shops. Each Rome sharing a love relationship with the other two that is mystical, magical and mysterious.

As the center of the Western World for 1,700 years, the amassed history and art in Rome entices millions of visitors each year. In the hopeless effort to see and do it all, the biggest mistake many travelers make is to attack Rome. Try to cram the Colosseum, the Vatican, St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, the Borghese Gallery, the Catacombs, in addition to the countless art masterpieces, into a few days and Rome will defeat you at every turn. Rather than set yourself up for certain defeat, the best way to approach Rome is softly, with humility, with deference to her 2,000-year existence, letting her nuzzle you a little here, coax you a little there, ease you gently from one day to the next, one century to the next. The experience is one of surfaces at first: the mezzogiorno sun against your face like a warm cheek; the silk of gelato on your tongue; the music of water tumbling, cascading, playing always in your ears from Rome’s hundreds of fountains that thread throughout the city like a river. Only after you have surrendered your senses do you begin to appreciate the mystery and magic of this amazing city.

We had claimed our bags, passed through Customs and located our pre-arranged driver. In moments we were off through the streets of the city to the apartment we had rented for two weeks. I’ve said you can’t attack Rome, but Rome can attack you. Roman auto traffic is like being surrounded by a hostile enemy. If you hadn’t known it from previous trips you need barely one minute in the eye of this storm to understand that this is like nothing you have ever experienced before.

The unwritten rule of the road in Italy is that traffic laws are discretionary and nowhere more so than in Rome. Cars and Vespas weave in and out of each other’s paths with wild abandon, darting in all directions like fireworks exploding around you, ignoring traffic signals and signs and making u-turns at will. I quickly realized that I had only two options: sit there white-knuckled and wait to become a Roman traffic statistic or immediately surrender to what is a reality of daily Roman life. Adopting the latter position, the secret of Roman drivers suddenly dawned on me: each driver knows exactly what every other driver is going to do at any given moment. The result is that each driver’s individual madness anticipates and cancels out the madness of every other driver. The proof of this is their ability to follow the car in front of them on the autostrada at 90-kilometers-per-hour barely four feet behind it yet never hit it. Or to make a sudden u-turn into oncoming traffic and never even disrupt the flow of vehicles.

As our driver guided his Mercedes skillfully through narrow streets, zipping past fragments of Roman antiquities blended into eighteenth-and nineteenth-century building facades, Baroque churches and the incongruous McDonald’s restaurant, I realized that there was no need for me to worry. He did this very thing every day, several times a day. My visible nervousness was having no other effect on the situation than to provide him some mild amusement as he darted in, out and around the traffic like a soccer player making fools of the defense. Once I accepted this fact I was able to sit back and surrender to that magical co-existence of past and present that envelops all visitors to Rome and that travelers have been writing about for centuries.

We had booked our apartment in a section of the city called Monte del Gallo on a street of the same name. The area is a small corner of Rome bounded on one side by the working-class section of Trastevere and on the other by Vatican City. As we moved farther into the heart of Monte del Gallo, I could see that we were in an everyday Roman neighborhood. Real people lived here, carpenters, nurses, plumbers, store clerks, not purple-clad emperors or Renaissance princes. We passed men carrying briefcases, most of them probably on their way to their government job in the vast Italian bureaucracy, young women pushing babies in strollers and housewives carrying newly purchased vegetables destined for that day’s dinner. For our two-week stay we wanted to be one of them. We hated the thought of being held hostage by hotel schedules for meals, laundry service and other amenities designed to make travelers feel that, even though they’re away from home, they’re not really. We wanted to buy our food in local markets, cook it on Italian stoves and deal with the mysteries of Italian plumbing on our own, all when and how we chose to do it. It was quite literally a question of “when in Rome….”

But the more we threaded our way through the maze of twisting streets the more a strange feeling began to overtake me. This was not quite what I had expected. Yes, we wanted to live like natives, but everything we were passing had a forlorn appearance without even the semblance of old world charm. The apartment buildings that were everywhere were not much more than big boxes painted the yellowish cream color that is so prevalent on the Roman landscape. The longer we drove, the more I began to have serious doubts that we had made the right decision about our accommodations for the next two weeks.

As I sat silently next to the driver, he angled his car down a last street and stopped in front of a building that looked depressingly like a combination office building and factory. I stepped out of the car onto the sidewalk. In that moment a miracle occurred that I had no right to expect anywhere but in Rome. In a split second I realized that, up to this very moment, I had been viewing everything since we had left the airport, all through the streets of Rome and into Monte del Gallo, though my “American eyeglasses,” those same ones we had promised ourselves to leave at home in favor of “living Italian.” 

Passing through the large iron gate that fronted the building we came into a small entrance area of dull grayish marble that looked as if it had not changed in at least fifty years.

A middle-aged woman greeted us, welcomed us to the apartment and led us up the wide marble staircase, the steps of which were worn and uneven from generations of previous footsteps. She inserted what looked like a medieval jailer’s key into a heavy wooden door, the lock clanked open and she ushered us inside.

The apartment was plain, clean and furnished with an eclectic mix of well-worn tables and chairs. There was nothing hotel-ish about anything in the rooms, and it was perfect. At one end of the room was a wooden dining table scarred from decades of use, across from which sliding glass doors opened to a tiny balcony no more than five by seven feet. A half mile in the distance and fully visible from our balcony was what made it all worthwhile: an unobstructed view of Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. There it was, the single most recognizable symbol of Western Christendom, bold and magnificent against the bluest sky that seems to belong to Italy alone. When night came we saw that a ring of lights illuminated the base of the dome, giving it an even more ethereal quality.

Even if the reality of where we were had not fully dawned on us up to that point, the view of St. Peter’s was the clincher. We were in the city that had seen Caesar meet his fate, heard Cicero speak his orations, witnessed Michelangelo transform the Sistine Chapel ceiling into one of the world’s greatest artistic masterpieces and served as the setting for Federico Fellini’s iconic film La Dolce Vita.

Looking out at St. Peter’s dome, I was struck anew by something I had known and felt all along, that not just Rome but Italy itself is not so much a place or a culture as it is a dream, a memory, an affirmation of life. Among the hundreds of quotes by travelers who have been streaming to Italy for centuries I had never read a better description of Italy’s effect on a person than what the British author D.H. Lawrence had written, that going to Italy is an act of self-discovery, a reawakening of “wonderful chords” after hundreds of years of forgetfulness. If I had forgotten those chords for a moment they were back again, as clear and beautiful and melodic as a Puccini melody.