WHEN YOU GO, EXPECT A
MASS OF CONTRADICTIONS
I’m not sure this is altogether true. It may suggest too much about the impact of mere tourism on one’s character or one’s view of the world.
But going to new places definitely provides glimpses of how life is experienced in different settings. And those impressions, no matter how shallow and fleeting, at the very least raise questions worth pondering.
My wife, Kathy, and I have just returned from Rome.
Such an excursion had topped the “bucket list” we’ve maintained over the years. Our 50th wedding anniversary seemed a good occasion for bringing this ambition to fulfillment. After all, that other famous cliché, “We ain’t gettin’ any younger,” is increasingly applicable.
Visiting the cultural and religious heart of Western Civilization surely made some impressions on me. The first was rather disconcerting…
Rome, that most unique repository of art, history, faith, and human achievement, is a startlingly messy place!
On the drive in from Fiumicino Airport, the eye is assaulted by graffiti covering pretty much every accessible surface in the city (and quite a few not so accessible). The universal greeting, “F**k You” (in English, no less), was one of the first messages I spotted.
Now, I realize that attitudes differ on the subject of graffiti. Some people consider it folk art. My view is more nuanced…
When a message has been etched in stone for a couple thousand years — examples of which abound in Rome — it becomes an invaluable anthropological artifact. Anything short of that is vandalism.
Second, along with the graffiti, which is nearly everywhere you look, most Roman streets are strewn with trash.
I don’t mean the occasional gum wrapper or cigarette pack we see on sidewalks in America, where littering has been largely shamed into a disreputable aberration (“Don’t be a litterbug!”). I’m talkin’ piles of refuse. And this situation prevails in all but the most prominent public squares and upscale commercial streets (the Via Veneto and other chichi districts, for instance).
Third, the physical appearance of many buildings is seriously degraded.
Perhaps the abundance of historic ruins has inured Romans to living with dilapidation. But many structures — everyday buildings, not ancient edifices — suffer from what might kindly be called “deferred maintenance.” It’s not at all unusual to see large gaps in masonry surfaces or missing structural elements.
All of which highlights some unexpected contradictions.
In the U.S., unsightliness correlates with social decay. When he was mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani reduced street crime considerably by insisting on strict enforcement of sanitation and maintenance regulations. Once neighborhoods began to look more orderly, people felt more confident going outdoors in them. Greater public participation suppressed criminality. New Yorkers essentially took back their city from the punks and thugs.
In Rome, unsightliness is rather beside the point. A vibrant street life exists amid the debris and disorder. Our tour group went about in all kinds of neighborhoods day and night, feeling perfectly at ease among masses of people enjoying Rome’s social amenities and good cheer.
We had been warned about the cleverness and agility of Roman pickpockets, of course. And you must be alert to the countless motorbikes and tiny cars darting about with scant distinction between street and sidewalk (anything you’ve ever heard about Rome’s traffic falls short of the reality).
Other than that — and granting that there are probably some questionable sections of town — this city of 3 million souls appears remarkably safe.
That impression is buttressed by a heavy security presence. Three police agencies, the Polizia di Stato (state police), Arma dei Carabinieri (a semi-military national gendarmerie), and the local Rome municipal police make themselves ostentatiously visible, comforting the tourists who are so essential to the national economy.
On top of that, sites of historical and religious significance are guarded by Italian military decked out in smartly pressed camouflage uniforms and automatic weapons. At one government building there were naval guards with bayonetted rifles.
Despite such signs of watchful authority, the so-called “homeless” are ubiquitous, and begging is a common occupation. One’s heart may be touched by the pathetic old women hunched in church entrances, but you can’t be certain of their authenticity.
A sharp-eyed lady in our tour group observed that the dye job on the hair of one aged crone must have set her back a goodly portion of a day’s take.
With such contrasts and conditions, it occurred to me early in our sojourn that Rome is a place you have to accept on its own terms.
Where else would you find masterpieces that fill the pages of art history texts hanging in out-of-the-way niches of local churches? Where do you find 3,000-year-old Egyptian obelisks, Renaissance fountains, and gelato stands?
Where are you accosted by waiters running into the streets with menus to tempt you into their restaurants — while African peddlers troll your tour group for blocks selling laser devices that project clusters of stars onto the sides of buildings?
Where would you find yourself pinned against a row of taxis as a hundred or so beautiful young women troupe by? (This actually happened to me. I don’t know who they were or where they were headed, but they looked like a class of aspiring fashion models.)
Indeed, such variety, such contradiction abounds in the Eternal City, and I expect I’ll be some time processing the experience. (Perhaps I can share further details in future posts.)
Meanwhile, if you have the opportunity to go, do it. Rome is a panorama. An event. An essential, bountiful, fascinating component of the ongoing story of human aspiration.
Open your mind, and let yourself be broadened, if only a little.
Accept Rome on its own terms.
Dave, a member of our tour group, sent me an image he shot, to document Rome’s graffiti situation. It speaks to a reality of Roman parking as well.
Rome’s trash problem has become severe. I experienced it in the cool of November. But in warm weather all the rotting garbage produces smalls that offend humans and attract rodents and other scavenging animals. It’s raising serious health concerns, and is a political issue. According to the news service, Science X, the “Eternal City” is also the “Stinky City” that…
“…lacks infrastructure: of its three main landfills, one has closed and the others were ravaged by fire in recent months.
“And two biological treatment sites have reduced their activities for maintenance work.
“Some residents make matters worse by simply dumping their old mattresses, fridges and sofas next to garbage bins.”
It’s true. I saw it. Check the details at…