Sunday, April 3, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 4: We Are Who We Thought We Were

Sometimes you just have to strip yourself of all illusions, confront the bare truth about yourself, and, no matter how much you might wish things were otherwise, claim the identity that is rightfully yours, with all of its virtues and flaws.

We were Tourists in Rome, and by all that is true, sacred, and vetted by appropriate authorities, we were going to do Tourist Stuff.

Because that’s what we went there to do, after all. Yes we’d try to get off the beaten track and do things that the locals do, and yes we were happy to stay in an area where we tourists were a distinct minority and eat at places where everyone spoke Italian but us. But in the end we knew who we were, and we were going to own it and enjoy it.

And we saw a lot.

Mostly we did this on our own. Kim is a planner and we had a whole pile of things already on the itinerary before we even set foot on the airplane. Once we got there, we had one of those “how to walk around Rome and see things” books that came with a large pull-out map that we could take with us as we explored or, more often, spread out on the table back at the apartment to plan for the next day’s adventures (only some of which had been set in advance) and which described all sorts of interesting things for us to see. We had a few things that were Definitely On The Itinerary, all of which we got to see (sometimes more than once!). And we did a lot of just walking around the city to see what we stumbled across – the entire city is an open air museum of three thousand years of human history plus a carnival of urban life, from shops and restaurants to beautiful spaces and fascinating people. You could do a lot worse than just wander randomly for a week in Rome.

But sometimes we decided that we’d like a bit of outside guidance. We tried this twice. Once was interesting if something of a wash, but the other time was well worth it.

The wash came when we decided we’d try one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours that you get in tourist cities. There are several to choose from in Rome and they all make more or less the same loop. You just go to one of the stops and pay for the ticket when you get on. We ended up on the pink one (there is also a green one and an orange one, and probably others I didn’t notice). We took the city bus from our neighborhood over to the Circus Maximus (which, for all of its historical glory, is just a bus stop in Rome) and waited for a while until it came, all the while staring idly at the statue in front of us and the Palatine Hill behind us while trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we were actually in Rome. This was made somewhat easier by the fact that it was our third day there.

They give you free ear buds so you can plug into the sound system and listen to the tour, which is great if you’re the sort of person who can stand using ear buds. Kim enjoyed them, at least. Apparently it was very informative and I probably would have enjoyed it as well except that ear buds make my skin crawl, so I just settled in for the ride.

You pay for the whole day, but we ended getting on only twice.

The first time it was to go most of the way around the city to see things quickly, things that we’d probably not get to on our own given the limited time we had. These buses are good for that, really – you zip through a lot of neighborhoods in quick succession, and if there is something you want to see more of you can just get off.

The second time was toward the end of the day when we were tired and just wanted another quick tour. We’d walked quite a bit that day and we eventually made our way over to the stop near the Colosseum where we hung out and watched the traffic and street cars go by. It was a very long wait, and in the end it dropped us off at the main bus terminal of Rome and we had to get a city bus from there back to the apartment, which had its own entertainment value. We waited there a long while too, and my main memory of that is watching two lost German tourists try to figure out if they were waiting for the correct bus for long enough that a young Italian woman came over and straightened things out for them. They were in fact waiting for the correct bus (and, since it was clear that they were heading to about where we were going, so were we, so thank you twice to that kind young woman!).

It has to be said, though, that we did see a lot once we managed to get up onto the second story of the bus.

There were a great many Historical Things that were no doubt explained in the audio guide but which I just enjoyed looking at. I have no idea what most of them were. I could look them up, I suppose – I have the entire internet at my disposal and I still have the book with the walking tours, which has a lot of such information in it – but I really kind of like the fact that they’re mysterious to me.

As usual with me, though, I enjoyed the street scenes.

If I had packed more than a carry-on, perhaps I’d have been tempted to stop there at that last one. Although I suspect that most of these books would be in Italian. Still, you never know.

There are fountains pretty much everywhere in Rome. This one may not even be notable, but we drove completely around it and it was interesting, so I took pictures.

Perhaps the most confounding thing I saw were the advertisements, most of which were in Italian so I didn’t understand them, but even the ones in English were beyond me sometimes.

I have no idea what this is trying to sell me. I suspect it’s expensive.

As near as I can tell this one is for some kind of cigarette lighter – I saw more people smoking in a week in Rome than I have in the last decade combined in the US, where smoking in public is seen as roughly on par with washing your feet in a drinking fountain. Maybe it’s battery operated so it works like an old car lighter? Or a taser? No clue. I do know that the company that makes it would probably have been better served if it had had an English-speaking person on its creative team when they chose their name.

So we got some good things out of the bus ride, though I don’t know if I’d do it again.

The tour that was very much worth it was with Andi, whom Kim found on the Air B&B site, oddly enough. Andi’s a native Roman who gives tiny tours in the early evenings – it was just the three of us on our tour, which lasted from 5pm to about 7:30 or so. After work but before dinner, in other words, on Roman time.

Andi used to work in the tourism industry but got frustrated with how much of a numbers game it is – how many bodies can you stuff onto a tour, that sort of thing – so when the pandemic forced a reset in his industry, he struck out on his own with these small evening tours. You meet him at the Victor Emmanuel II Monument and he walks you all over the city for a while.

What makes his tours a lot of fun is that he doesn’t spend all of his time telling you about the site you’re looking at. He tells you things, of course, but he also goes into how the site is viewed by modern Romans and how it fits into the larger context of the city.

The Victor Emmanuel II Monument, for example, is “the most hated building in Rome” because it represents what Romans saw and in some ways apparently continue to see as foreign influence trampling their city. Italy was only united as a country in 1861 and Rome didn’t become part of it until a decade later when Italian forces finally overcame the resistance of the pope, who had ruled over this part of Italy since the 8th century CE. When Italy was finally united the ruling monarchy came from the Piedmont in the northern part of the country and – for reasons that probably made sense to him but which have confused generations of students ever since – the new king took power as the first ruler of united Italy under the name Victor Emmanuel II.

At least James VI of Scotland had the grace to renumber himself as James I when he became king of England in 1603. Victor? Not so on the ball.

Furthermore, said Andi, in addition to representing what to Romans was a foreign monarchy, the memorial sits where a number of much beloved older buildings had stood, some of them dating back to ancient Rome and others to the medieval period, all of which were torn down to make room for this rather grandiose edifice.

People remember that kind of thing.

We ended up going back to almost all of the sites that Andi showed us, because the tour was brief and he was interesting enough to make us want to go back for a second look at them all, and I’ll get to those in a later post when I do them separately. The one place we didn’t go back to was something I later discovered is called the Largo di Torre Argentina but which we all called “the square of the four temples” because, well, it was square and there were the ruins of four temples there and we’re creative that way.

There are also cats. Apparently Rome is full of feral cats who, frankly, have better things to do than be photographed by tourists so none of my attempted pictures of the cats here among the temples came out. Oh well.

This site sparked a long conversation with Andi about how hard it is to get things preserved and promoted in a city as full of historical ruins and sites as Rome – a sad tale of bureaucracy, corruption, bankruptcies, and general inertia. It really is a fascinating site, though. If there is one story from ancient Rome that most people have heard these days it is the assassination of Julius Caesar, which is supposed to have happened here – on the left side of that photo, in fact. So perhaps someday they’ll get this to be more of a site than it is now.

Mostly, though, we just enjoyed talking with Andi and seeing the sites. We had a long conversation about whether preserving statues counted as remembering things or celebrating things – something that we in the US have to deal with when confronted by all those monuments to Confederate traitors in town squares across the south – and he was absolutely floored to discover that American university professors get regularly evaluated by their students.

Eventually, though, the tour ended and as it had been a very long day by then we took the bus back to the apartment and, after resting a bit, we went out to dinner on Roman time because while we were indeed tourists sometimes it was nice to pretend otherwise.

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