The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 3, 2000

Ah, to roam in Rome...
By Amar Chandel

WHEN in Rome do as the Romans do! This phrase has been ringing in my ears since time immemorial. The exact words coming from St Ambrose are "When in Rome, live as we Romans do …" but nobody really remembers them. So when I actually got a chance to go to Rome,the million-lira question number one was: exactly what do the Romans love to do? It was dutifully put to several pucca Rome-vaasis. There was a time when Rome and romance came under synonyms. But the women residents of the eternal city lamented that the Romans of today no longer live up to the image of being passionate lovers (what a pity!). Men confirmed this decline, attributing it to the difficulties of eking out a living in the modern world. A veteran recalled that not too long ago, the most flattering compliment that an exceptionally pretty girl could get while moving about was a pinch on the bottom. The custom, it appears, is no longer very prevalent, tsk, tsk!

St Peter’s SquareThe question remained unanswered: What was their driving passion? The unintentional cue made the face of several veterans light up. Yes, that is what the Romans of today love to do: drive. The consensus among the people we got to speak was: "Today’s Romans relish two things: Driving like maniacs and treating red lights as red rags". During my three days in the dream city, I found the analysis remarkably accurate. Every speed maniac will find himself very much at home in the Italian capital. Rome was not built for motorised transport but that does not stop anyone from treating its streets as a grand prix course. Mercifully, large cars are few. Two-seater cars are all the rage in the city, home to more than four million people. One comes across the occasional Matiz as well, but the average Italian rides scooterettes, called Motorina.


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Traffic confusion is compounded by the fact that Rome is a city of hills, while the rest of the shoe-shaped country is quite flat. So cycling is not very practical. Fuel prices in Italy are the highest in Europe. Public transport does not work too well. "Smoke scooters" rule the roads, vrooming past you from every conceivable direction, adding merrily to the pollution. "Give a Roman an inch and he will park a scooter there," goes one local saying. And no one seems very keen to keep his car or scooter very clean.

Our interpreter, Romalio, apologises for the chaotic traffic. When we jocularly tell him not to bother because we have been through worse in Delhi, and survived to tell the tale, he refuses to believe that any other capital can be one up on Rome, but facts are facts.

In fact, the Roman capital has quite a few similarities with its Indian counterpart. Extremely ancient buildings stand cheek by jowl with modern monstrosities. There are very few high-rise ones; just rows upon rows of drab double or triple-storeyed.When they are not flying their "smoke scooters", Romans seem to be occupied with defacing their buildings with graffiti. It is impossible to find even a single one which has not been covered with slogans. Our hosts were too embarrassed to tell us what all was written but vulgarity has an international sign language. And these are no ordinary paint and brush jobs. Modern "artists" use indelible, multicoloured spray paints. The astonishing thing is that only modern buildings are chosen for this pastime. Ancient buildings are by and large unaffected by this national obsession. Either the night raiders have an acute sense of patriotism or the clean-up department is remarkably efficient.

Ancient ColosseumBut make no mistake about it. Romans as individuals are exceptionally warm-hearted, affable, merry-go-lucky and helpful. They know how to live well. Compliment them on this and they politely attribute it to the weather. The warm, sunny days are reflected in our disposition, they say. Even a few Germans we met there confirmed this. People living up North tend to be self-centred and cold. But here, everybody knows everybody, or at least wants to, and is ever ready to lend a helping hand.

It may not be widely known but in general, families in Italy are not pared down to the nuclear husband-wife-minor children size. Quite a few adult boys and girls are living with their parents. It has nothing to do with the re-discovery of family ties. It is just that unemployment is very high and even when boys and girls come of age, they are hardly in a position to set up a separate household.

If that is a positive outcome, the negative fallout is that petty crime is rampant. The first warning you get on reaching Leonardo de Vinci airport is never ever to put your purse or important documents in your backpocket. Years of practice has given the pickpockets nimble fingers and there are quite a few of them at every public place. The first Italian word you must learn to shout is "policia" (any resemblance with a slang used in India for the hated policeman is purely coincidental). That is another one of "when in Rome …" advice.

Like in India, the hate figures are the politicians. Every social problem can be directly traced to their faults. When we praised a few Italians for the huge garden in the centre of the city called Villa Borges, we were told that this was one of the heritage gardens belonging to one of the many erstwhile noble families. It is only thanks to such families of taste that Rome is one of the greenest cities in Europe, otherwise the administration has not added any new green areas, we were told. "Environmental issues do not garner votes." How true!

A street scene in RomeThe instability of governments is legion. At last count, Italy has had 58 governments since World War II. On seeing us with Prime Minister Giuliano Amato at a social function, one well-meaning Italian quipped: "Get yourself photographed with him quick. He may not remain Prime Minister for long. (Mr Amato has come to power on April 26 this year and, hopefully, will remain in saddle at least till this article is published. Amen!)

Colourful jokes about politicians abound. We had quite a lengthy cultural exchange with our hosts on the subject. How we wish the Prime Minister’s official entourage, with which we mediamen travelled, had an equally candid interaction with the hosts. The relations between the two countries would have become for more cordial and warm.

With power remaining in the hands of a small group of political elite, there has been a phenomenal growth of corruption, terrorism and political instability. (Giulio Andreotti became Prime Minister seven times and Alcide De Gasperi eight times). The ongoing Operation Clean Hands has looked into cases of political corruption, bribery, extortion and illegal funding of political parties. So far, more than 3,000 persons, including about 160 MPs, top civil servants and 1,000 businessmen have been implicated or are under investigation. The drive against crime seems to have the support of the whole country. Everyone laments that it has started floundering after spectacular results under the autonomous judiciary, with the constitutional court at the apex. Politicians, specially of the Forze Italia and Lega Nord, have launched counter-attacks and accuse the magistrates of carrying out a politically motivated campaign.

It is an impolite thing to say but beyond official circles, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit was treated as a non-event. The top newspapers of Rome barely mentioned it. A senior member of the PMO concurred that the Third World countries receive a cold shoulder. He narrated an incident from World War II days to illustrate the point. A European diplomat complimented a Japanese dignitary on his country’s ancient culture, art and history. In an aside, the latter muttered that Europe discovered it only when Japan put 18-inch guns on its warships! Apparently things have not changed much since then.

But interest about things Indian is considerable. Most questions are about yoga and its healing powers. Even the man on the street seems quite knowledgeable about transcendental meditation and karma theory. A bandhgala earns you stares and even the occasional question: "Are you a maharaja?"

Fontana de TreviCan there be a world capital without illegal immigrants from India? Rome is no exception. You can find quite a few of them at every tourist spot selling trinkets. We found two Punjabis hawking T-shirts near Spanish Steps. One of them told us his name was Sarwan Singh but the moment he came to know we were journalists, he clammed shut. But to show their happiness at meeting fellow Indians, they sold their wares to us "at very special prices". That the T-shirts started resembling dusting rags after the very first wash on returning home is another matter. We would have been better off doing our modest shopping at Porta Portese, a Sunday all-items road market where you can pick everything from a pin to an elephant. (Remember Delhi’s Kabari Bazar?)

If you think the shortage of public conveniences is a typically Indian problem, think again. There were not too many to be found in Rome either. That created quite a situation when we were visiting a tourist spot. One of us said he just had to go. The interpreter said there was no toilet in the vicinity. But there was that large bush across the road. "Can you?" he quizzed our friend in need. "What do you mean I can? I am an expert," he said and dashed across. Talk of adopting the Roman ways in a hurry!

It is said that to see Rome, a lifetime is not enough. Here we were trying to soak it all in three days. So, after a touch-click-and go whistlestop tour, we concentrated on The Vatican, the City State. While in the papal residence, a trip to the Vatican Museum, a labyrinth of about 8 km of corridors, is not to be missed at any cost. It is impossible to find such priceless antiques under one roof anywhere else. But the queue for entering the famed museum can be two to three km long even on weekdays. Be there before 8 am. Even the "secondary exhibits" in this treasure trove are better than most of the top ones in other museums. Actually, it is an assembly of two dozen collections, ranging from a superb Etruscan Museum to the Modern Religious Art, Apostolic Library (containing 150,000 ancient texts), Raphael Stanze (rooms), and the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. Nearly four million people visit it every year. So don’t dream of an unhurried private view of the ceiling that Michaelangelo painted. Superlatives fall far too short of describing the chapel frescos, despite the fact that Michaelangelo was a sculptor and not a painter. The glory has multiplied manifold after the restoration.

The breathtaking quality of the exhibits, be they sculptures, buildings, paintings or wallhangings, in Italy overwhelm you and after exclaiming "Oh My God" a few hundred times like zombies, you simply stop reacting and move about as if in a stupor.

Such a flying visit makes you an addict and you pine to come again. That is what I wished for while throwing coins in the famous Fontana Di Trevi, the place in the film, "Three Coins in the Fountain".

Oh, another thing. You get about 1800 liras to a dollar. That means that if you happen to have more than a thousand dollars on you, you are a millionaire in Italian terms, so what if even an ordinary pizza sets you back by some 36,000 liras? The jingle (OK, the rustle) of a million liras is a heady feeling, isn’t it?