A day in Rome: My morning commute.
A golden beam of light cuts through the darkness in my small apartment. All the Italian sun needed was a narrow gap between the drapes to fill the room, where I lay half awake. It’s time to get up. The sounds from the street five floors below are becoming more and more intense, and would make falling back asleep a challenge anyway. Italians sure are some aggressive drivers and seem to really like hooting their cars’ horns. Chances are high that the random stranger you just had a friendly chat with the other day tells you to go f*** yourself while he cuts you off in the dense morning traffic. Vaffanculo! God forbid it rains, as it did the day before, then the chaos on the streets really breaks out. People storm the buses as if they were trying to imitate the rush-hour in Beijing. Thank God I was willing to pay a little extra for my accommodation in a more elegant residential area, only a short walk from my workplace. But hold your horses; I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.
Not exactly a morning person, it takes me a while to make my way to the bathroom, only a few steps from my bed. If I wanted, I could touch all four walls at the same time, although right now I still need my arms to support me on the sink. It takes a while to rub the sleep out of my eyes and getting my hair all pretty. This might take longer than you think, so let’s fast forward to me standing in front of a tightly packed wardrobe. I choose a light blue suit, dotted dress shirt and no tie. The dress code at the embassy is very relaxed, probably due to the hot weather in the city. I throw a matching tie in my briefcase anyway, you never know.
Instead of taking the shaky elevator I always risk my life walking down the slippery stairs, polished in decades of people using them. The moment I set foot in the bar, which conveniently finds itself in the same building, the owner gives me a friendly smile. “Il solito?” he asks. Si, grazie, il solito. He has grown accustomed to me taking a hot chocolate in the morning, unlike most other Italians. I just don’t like coffee that much, even though this might feel like treason in Italy. But I am addicted to the cioccolata calda, which is not the watery abomination you get in most other countries, but rather a dense and rich cup of deliciousness. As I bite into my usual cornetto alla crema, filled to the bursting point with the famous vanilla cream only Italian pastry chefs can create, I realise how unreal the whole situation feels to me. Although I’ve been here in Rome only for a few weeks, I’ve become a regular at the bar where I have breakfast with the locals. Suited up as I am, I might exchange a few words with a garbage collector in his dirty orange attire, a retiree starting a quiet day or some other people heading for work, always impeccably dressed. Leaning on the same counter, we are all equal.
As a dual citizen having grown up in Austria, I could only really identify with my Italian “half” while on short visits to my motherland. Sure, I grew up with the language and culture, but it really hits you only when you get the chance to live here. Here I am the Italian living all’estero, not the other way around. Sometimes people have a hard time pinpointing my accent, but usually get the northern origin right. Alto Adige?, they ask. Venezia-Giulia, I answer. My mother comes from a city that was Austrian for a very long time, Trieste, my family’s origins, however, lie near Turin, in Piemont.
Italy is a very young country, having been unified only a little more than 150 years ago. Although you can find a square or monument dedicated to Garibaldi, Cavour or Vittorio Emanuele II in practically every Italian city, it is still a country very much fragmented. Apart from the well-known divide between the generally rich north and the sometimes dirt-poor south, travelling in Italy often feels like crossing former borders. Every region, every town, even small villages have their very own culture and history, which they display with pride. A big part of that is the local vernacular, which never fails to give away an Italian’s origins. Television has unified the Italian language, which is spoken throughout the country. But send a Milanese to buy some fruits on a market in Napoli, and he might feel as lost as if he were in a Bazaar in the Middle East.
But this historical fragmentation is the main reason for the country’s immense cultural richness. Many local delicacies have spread out throughout the whole peninsula, and of course, the whole world. Still, only in Lazio you can get the real spaghetti alla carbonara, a dish so simple yet sophisticated only very few can master its preparation. Everybody knows the penne all’amatriciana, alas only few knew that they were a gift from Amatrice, one of the charming Apennine towns so dreadfully devastated by the recent earthquake.
With my mind starting to wander I forget to check my watch. Cazzo, I’m running late for work. I throw some coins on the counter, leaving the barkeeper a few cents as a tip. This unusual practice elicits a cheerful “Grazie, ricco! Buon lavoro!”, involuntarily reminding me that in Austria on average we really are much more wealthy in comparison. In fact, as compared to European standards, Italy also ranks very low in its share of academics, which increases the pressure on the already economically struggling country. Furthermore, those who actually manage to graduate from the overburdened universities literally flee abroad. No wonder has the average income for career starters dropped to around 1.000 euros, coining the infamous term of the generazione mille euro.
I reflect over my luck while I step over yesterday’s puddles of rainwater and dodge another businessman on a Vespa. I was lucky in the regard that I not only could, thanks to my parents, study without a care in the world but also had managed to find a job as soon as I had gotten my diploma. I think about my job as a research assistant at an Austrian university, where I am able to enjoy an office and a salary which in Italy would both be shared by at least four young graduates. Beyond that, it is a job that not only fulfils me at home but gives me the possibility to travel a lot, be it for research or teaching. And that I got the chance to go on a leave in order to gain some experience abroad.
Good thing that I took practically my whole wardrobe with me, I think as I pass one person of business after the other, all of them dressed to perfection. The women stride along in high heels as if they were wearing sneakers. And despite the heat, no one seems to sweat, while I already take off my suit jacket. There is a word for making elegance seem so effortless: sprezzatura. Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “studied carelessness”, it was best described by Baldassare Castiglione. His “Book of the Courtier” explains it as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it“. I think about how embarrassingly long it took me in the morning to match my suit to my shirt to my pocket square to my socks, not to speak of shoes, belt and watch. Yet now, as I parade my outfit to work, I try to display a “courtier’s easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hide the conscious effort that went into them”.
As I make my way to the embassy, I have to take care of where to place my steps. Not only are there quite a few piles of, well, dog shit on the way, but the sidewalks are generally in the same condition as the streets. The former problem becomes more apparent in rich neighbourhoods, such as the one where most of the embassies are located in, as dog owners apparently are not only more common but also seem reluctant to lower themselves to clean up after their hairy companions. The latter problem, the poor condition of streets and sidewalks, is a more general one in Rome. Anywhere you look you see potholes, wobbly or missing cobblestones, loose kerbstones and unexpected bumps. For an able-bodied person navigating the streets on foot, this is something you have and quickly get used to. Those riding scooters, cars or the occasional bicycle try to dodge them to avoid damaging their suspension or spine. But the unlucky ones who have to rely on walking aids or wheelchairs face serious problems in this city. I can’t think of anyplace else so hostile towards invalid persons, and I’m not the only one. On occasion of the recent Paralympics, the newspaper La Repubblica accompanied the 35-year old quadriplegic rugby player Stefano Asaro through a typical day in Rome. At times, he was blocked even before he could reach the nearest place to buy groceries. Nearly every street in Rome is full of double-parked cars, many of them blocking the rare wheelchair ramps on sidewalks. If he managed to not get stuck in a fissure on the pavement, he often literally put his life to risk trying to make his way on the street itself, trying his best to avoid the speeding cars and scooters. Parking spaces for handicapped drivers are not only scarce, but alarmingly often intentionally obstructed by restaurant owners filling them with tables.
The streets are characterised by a certain anarchy, but in most cases, the Romans are hard to blame. Apart from the two metro lines, public transport is unreliable, unpredictable and overcrowded. No wonder the Romans like to take matters into their own hands instead, even if it involves participating at the daily lottery for a parking space. For a car enthusiast like me, owning a car in this city seems an act of masochism. Most of the vehicles on the street feature all kinds of dents and scratches, as the act of parking one’s car is characterised by an inconceivable amount of indifference towards the value of someone else’s property. Driving is pure chaos and the locals seem to lay on their horns most of the time. The noisy result is a daily concerto alla romana, as some call it.
Immensely glad to be healthy and acknowledging that most of us tend to take our wholesomeness for granted, I make my way to work. The pavement is lined with trees that seem to blossom all year round, their white flowers hanging so low I have to duck beneath them. I ask myself if it really is a sort of hibiscus flower, as I assume, and promise myself to look it up later. To be safe, I take a picture, which I forward to some contacts on my phone. Let those poor bastards stuck in much colder regions have a sunny start into the day as well, I reason. Also, it will help me remind to look up the type of tree, which I forget to do anyway.
The last building I pass before reaching my place of work is the Saudi Arabian embassy. It finds itself right next to the Austrian, where I can see it from my desk. A tad bigger than, and just as beautiful as our embassy, it was surely built by a rich Roman citizen some 100 years ago. But what strikes the most is not the neoclassical building, but rather what can be found on the opposite side of the road. Two Italian soldiers in full combat gear and armed with their high-end Beretta ARX 160 assault rifles stand next to an armoured vehicle. For about a year now, this has become a familiar sight in Rome, as the devastating terrorist attacks all over Europe led the government to decide to take this precautionary measure. All over the city, especially right next to the innumerable tourist hot-spots and governmental buildings of all sorts, including the embassies, pairs of heavily armed soldiers hold guard around the clock. Furthermore, two soldiers each are dispatched to every single metro station, where they patrol the corridors and platforms.
As someone visiting Rome you soon get used to seeing the identical setup all over town. A badass-looking armoured truck, a white tent where the soldiers can seek shelter from sun or rain, and two young men, or – more often than you would expect – women in full-on combat gear, minus helmet. I always make a conscious effort to greet them, as my own experience from the military service indicates that they must be bored to hell. On a walk through the famous Trastevere quarter I once came across a pair of Alpini soldiers, a young man and a woman. Easily distinguishable by their distinctive headdress – a grey felt hat with a black raven feather – the soldiers of the Penne Nere, as they are nicknamed, form the Italian Army’s elite mountain warfare corps. Both the man and woman guarding la Basilica di Santa Maria were of stunning beauty, which is why I asked them if I could take their portrait. They had to regretfully deny me this request, as it is forbidden to photograph them.
The two guys guarding this much less lively street corner nod their head as I wave to them from the other side. A few last steps in the already scorching heat lead me to the second building in the street, another beautiful villa once belonging to a Roman senator. As I open the electronically bolted door to my workplace, I can’t wait to reach its air-conditioned entrails. Good thing that I – back when I was “serving” my country – never really considered my commanding officer’s plea to enrol at the national military academy.