Thursday, October 10, 2013

One thing I didn't expect in Rome was totally incompetence. I assumed that since 99% of the country's income came from tourism, navigating would be a piece of cake. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my hotel didn't have any tourist maps, and I couldn't find any in the streets. No maps in the subway, none at bus stops. Every street sign pointed to the Vatican and zero pointed anywhere else.

MAXXI, the provocative modern art museum? Good luck finding it. The controversial Renzo Piano towers? It's like they didn't exist. EUR, the suburb infamous for its colossal fascist architecture? From the total absence of information it could have been in Africa for all I knew.

I took the subway to the EUR stop anyway, with my fingers crossed. Instead I found nothing. Vast, wide open horizons with no clue where to find the interesting stuff. Where was the "square Colosseum" Mussolini built? Where was the culture museum, a ridiculously overblown piece of propaganda the fascists hadn't had time to finish? Where was the stadium encircled by marble statues of half-naked Aryan muscleman? I zigzagged for a mile or two but didn't run into anything. Finally, exhausted and mad, I hopped the subway back.

I tried to keep my spirits up. Rome still had a lot of attractions. Giorgio Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, Donatella Versace: the place definitely had the market cornered in one department. Unfortunately arm hair doesn't have the cultural cachet that it used to.

Men in Italy are very stylish. Some have sport coats that very nearly match their pants, and a few go quite well with their tennis shoes. They wear mesh t-shirts that look like fishing nets strung between their shoulders. Sometimes if you get close you can smell the mackerel. It's easy to remember that Italy gave birth to drama when a somebody casually takes off their shirt and all of a sudden you're in "Streetcar Named Desire."

Italian women also have their own special style. This year it's bare shoulders. They're sexy, they're sassy, and they're the only body part that can't get fat.

Both sexes chain-smoke. It's part of their allure. It's illegal to smoke indoors, so now in the middle of the day Roman streets look like the moors in Wuthering Heights. Imagine the synergy when two grand Italian passions, smoking and style, collide:

As a whole, Italians are a very expressive people. Just look at the faces you see on the subway. Love, rage, frustration, peace. And that's just the folks who are picking their zits. They're also refreshingly unpretentious: In America the only place you'd find this model is on

Still, I was a bit startled by the sexism. Men still harangued attractive women with leers, whistles and catcalls. Even the advertisements clearly delineated the gender roles.

"Like women, catching men," the billboard says. The good news is, with all the cigarettes and jewelry, the women can't get up to six miles per hour in a week and a half.

The streets were full of American tourists clutching maps and grimacing, seemingly close to their limits frustration-wise. You don't want to get within fifty feet of them, because they're dying to share their stories. They can't wait to tell somebody about their lunch, their hotel, their flight here. After days of talking to Italians, they yearn to once again speak English without having to yell.

Mere seconds after taking a seat at Ivo, a sidewalk cafe in Trastevere, an American couple started nattering away at me. I ate my pizza and drank my wine and eventually the woman stumbled upon an intelligent thought. "I was touring the Sistine Chapel with my parish priest and he told me how the Vatican works. Any time there's evidence of something embarrassing -- a sculpture of a saint who's been discredited, a painting of a pope with eighteen mistresses -- it's hidden in a corner of some hard-to-find room and all the lightbulbs around it just happen to burn out."

That explained everything, I thought. I paid my bill and hit the road. All in all I liked Rome: the food was great, the streets were alive, and there were still some cool people around. So what if they wanted to control what people saw or didn't see? What was wrong with that? I followed the road to the top of the hill and snapped one last photo just in case I forgot.

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