When in Rome... eat lots and drive where you want

21:49 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Marcella and I began our trip to Rome at the Parco degli Acquedotti. It is a large park with the ruins of a Roman aqueduct and it was a peaceful start to our time in the supposedly chaotic 'Eternal City'. We were surrounded by ancient ruins while passenger jets flew overhead and I couldn't help but contemplate the unavoidable passage of time. Big thoughts, especially as I'd been in the country for just 45 minutes.

We had lunch at a Neapolitan restaurant (I'm a bit of a pizza snob now, none of that crispy Roman base for me thanks) and then went on a private tour of Rome's famous fountains. Architecture, city exploration, history - I was having a great time. The tour was timed perfectly and we got to watch the colours of the sky change as the autumnal sun began to set.
Fountains! Architecture! Beautiful light!
Then, at 11.30pm, we went to meet Marcella's friends in an area called Trastevere. The area was full of bars and people drinking in the street; the only time the chilled out vibe was ruined was when a typically Italian car driver tried to drive their car down a street packed with hundreds of people. The staff in the bars were rude, and I was feeling quite British and alarmed at the lack of a proper queue. The Italians just don't care. We ended the night with a typical post-pub Italian snack - a croissant. Being a chips and gravy man I was dubious, but it was actually delicious.

For me, the trip was as much about the food and the culture as it was about the sightseeing. We began our first proper day in Rome with a lovely breakfast with Marcella's friends, Mena and Arcangelo. If its meal time in Italy, its serious business. The tabled was dressed in cloth and there were place mats and fancy cutlery, even for breakfast. The Italians were a bit surprised that I didn't even own a tablecloth. We had bread, home-made peach preserve, espresso and biscuits dunked in warm milk. It was a lovely balance of the new and the familiar.

We spent the day visiting the sights and then went to an Italian street food festival. I'm happy to report that all the food was absolutely bloody lovely. We spent the evening at a dinner party with more friends. Everybody was warm and welcoming and we all had a laugh. Then it was onto a techno club. It seemed identical to what I'm familiar with in the UK - banging bass and a gritty urban setting - the only difference was the unusually civilised bidet in the nightclub toilet. And there was also no fighting or vomiting or litter.

At the end of the night it was time to say goodbye and in Italy, that means two kisses on the cheek for the girls AND boys. Somewhere in my head my 'British Uncomfortableness Warning Alarm' was in overdrive. I kissed everyone goodbye and I felt embarrassed - not because of the Italian affection but because we British can be so habitually cold to each other.

We spent the next day in Tivoli and explored Villa D'este, a typical countryside villa. My mind wondered to a book I had been reading about Italy. Italian language is undoubtedly pleasing to the ear and when you can understand those sounds, you began to hear the attractive meanings too. The book explained that nothing is 'alright' or 'not bad', everything is 'great' and 'beautiful' in Italy. Italians have a wonderfully idiomatic habit of describing things as wordily and beautifully as possible.

Back in Rome that evening, Marcella and I hired a scooter. I was excited. However, I was a little nervous about driving a petrol powered scooter and I was feeling tired from all the socialising. I had ridden an electric scooter in China a few months ago, where they too ride on the wrong right side of the road, but my wrist control on the throttle was feeling a bit rusty. I had a little ride on the bike on my own while Marcella waited with the bike hire guy. This was Rome after all, and I needed some practise. I could see the junction ahead was deserted, so I made a wide arc to get used to the turning circle of the bike. Unfortunately, all Marcella and bike hire guy saw was me driving on the wrong side of the road and then disappearing round a corner.

"Quello me' Muore" he said to Marcella, "Quello me' fa un incidente mortale!"
"He's going to die" he said "He's going to have a fatal accident!"

Marcella swore that she saw him sweating. In November, at night. Much to their relief, I was back with them after completing my little test ride. Roman roads are infamously chaotic, but we were fortunate because much of the city had been closed to cars that weekend (transport planning bonus point!!). It was time to hit the road.

After a few tourist sights and a lovely meal, we decided to head off home. Marcella, my tour guide in Rome, has a Masters in Engineering and was a resident of Rome for over three years. Despite this, she was utterly terrible at giving directions. I explained that I needed simple, clear instructions before I reached the junction. To be fair, she tried her best. "Turn left" she'd shout over my shoulder. I'd commit to the manoeuvre and then she'd shout "Right, I meant right!" and I'd have to dive back across the traffic. We carried on like this for a long time, as we slowly made our way back to the apartment on the edge of the city.

Eventually the residential buildings disappeared and planes began flying very low overhead. We'd made a wrong turn. And the petrol was running out. We turned around and managed to find a petrol station. We were both feeling tired and maybe a little anxious about my driving and her navigating. So, as I began to fill the petrol tank, I started making some jokes. Marcella has a wonderful sense of humour and a beautiful smile, so I love to make her laugh. Although that beautiful  smile soon fell to the floor when she shouted "Paul, look out!" I looked down at the bike to see petrol overflowing from the tank all over the bike. What. An. Idiot! Maybe the bike hire guy was right, I was going to have a mortal accident. He just probably didn't picture it happening in an explosion at a petrol station.
Where the f@*k are we??
I cleaned up the bike and we set off homeward. I knew we had a turn coming up at some point soon. I needed instruction. Marcella consulted the map on my phone. We were gunning along this dual carriageway at a good 50 kph when I heard my lovely Italian companion try to direct me;

"In a bit," she began "there will be the possibility, that the road will turn to the left or to the right."

That was it. Basta. No useful information but lots of pretty words. I tried to open my mouth to ask what the bloody hell she meant, but all that came out was the biggest, heartiest laugh I've ever known. I couldn't stop laughing. Eventually I explained and we both were in fits of laughter all the way home.

The next day began with another tourist attraction and Marcella's favourite church, the San Giovanni. I had got used to the Roman traffic, as best as a British guy could. I was loving the ride, cruising around a beautiful city with a beautiful girl, but always slightly cautious of the crazy traffic. Marcella told me to turn left to a side road, but for the life of me I couldn't see a safe way across the three lanes of oncoming traffic;

"I don't want to turn left" I said, putting safety first as I turned to the right. I wanted to just park the bike and walk across to the church, but the streets were full of parked bikes and I couldn't find a space.

"can we park here?" I asked. It was Marcella's turn to laugh at me. As far as she was concerned I was uselessly driving away from our destination. Where British people see danger and illegal manoeuvres, Italian people see an simple left turn. Where British see a street full of bikes, Italians see spaces next to bins, between cars and little gaps on the pavement. Italians just don't care.

"What's the point of having a scooter if we still have to get a taxi to where we are going?" she joked. And she had a point. "We can go anywhere with the bike".

I turned round and eventually made the left turn that we needed. I was lucky to follow another bike making the same move. We held up three lanes of traffic but nobody cared. Nobody even beeped. In England, the tutting would have been deafening.

So then, What did I make of Italy? The food was amazing. The architecture; magnificent. The roads were a bit scary. Strangers were indifferent, yet friends were incredibily warm. They honestly just don't care about some of the little things, like queuing. But the other little things, like meal times and greeting friends - they care a lot.

I've got to be honest, they get the important things right in Italy.

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