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Published: March 12th 2014
We were sitting in the midst of the ruins of the ancient Trajan Market in downtown Rome on a recent sunny day, when a young lady approached us and asked us if we spoke English. She looked a little frazzled and seemed to be nervous about talking to us. We assumed she needed directions and noticed that we were kindly old people who probably spoke English and knew our way around town.
When we told her that we indeed did speak English, she began to tell us of a new tour company she had started that specialized in “seeing Rome like a local”. The tour involved taking a bus out into the country and tasting olive oil and sharing a pasta lunch and wine with a local family on their farm. The price, while probably fair, was far above our budget. We got a brochure and shook hands and said perhaps we might be interested later in our visit.
After she left, we began to think about what had just happened. We had gone from thinking that we appeared to be wily veteran travelers who knew their way around to tourists who might be interested
In the Ghetto neighborhood on a rainy day
in getting off of the normal tourist route in the central city and actually meeting a “real” Italian. In some way it kind of hurt our feelings and made us feel as if we had been demoted to nothing more than a “normal” tourist.
I know that I can’t be the only one who has contemplated their rank amongst fellow travelers. At one end of the spectrum are the package tour folks, usually seen in groups of 40, anxiously following a fast talking guide with a 5 foot stick with some sort flag or pom-pom attached to the top so they can be easily spotted in a crowd of other tourist groups. They seem more worried about getting lost than actually learning or understanding anything about what they are being shown. They take pictures of things because everyone else is taking a picture and don’t want to think they won’t be able to show their friends at home something important. You see these groups mostly near large churches, squares and well-advertised landmarks (think Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps in Rome).
At the other end of spectrum are the independent travelers, usually travelling in
pairs, dressed in some sort of odd looking attire (pajama pants, excessive scarves and some form of odd shaped straw hat) that seem to be abnormally obsessed with fruit markets and music from strange instruments not found in other countries. We usually see them walking down the other side of the street in countries where we haven’t seen a English speaking person (think El Salvador or Myanmar) for a week and would really like to speak English for a couple of minutes. We see them notice us and then look away as if they didn’t. Perhaps admitting that there are others travelers around might ruin their ability to brag to their friends at home that they only encountered locals and really “pushed the limits” this time. I don’t know why they look away, but I do know they saw me.
Anyway, I guess we are really all just tourists of one sort or the other. Most of the locals I have met are usually just about like we are. They all work, spend time with their family, and struggle to make ends meet. They mostly shop in regular markets and watch lots of TV when they aren’t
Rome ruled the world from here
working or raising their families. They like sports and don’t care for their politicians. The biggest difference between “us” and “them” is language and that is what keeps us from knowing more about them.
Meeting the young lady made me think about how well we were seeing the “real” Rome. We live in a normal apartment building with only Italian neighbors. There are old people and couples with small children. No one speaks English. We shop in local grocery stores, wash our own clothes and cook most of our meals in the house. We cook and eat mostly Italian food (it’s cheap and delicious!). We take public transportation or walk everywhere. Basically with the exception of language, I guess we pretty much live like locals.
We saw a good portion of the “must see” sights in our first 10 days in Rome. We began to think of things uniquely Italian that we could visit. Everyone here has a favorite deli, gelateria, or local pizza place. We had an opportunity to finally ride the Metro (very nice!) as we spent a long afternoon visiting the top ranked favorites according to Yelp. We first traveled to
have Pizza al Taglio (by the slice) at a place called Pizzarium. It was ranked high on Yelp and was recommended by Tony Bourdain on his visit. We each ordered a slice that looked good and then shared bites. Pizza is in two types here, Roman style and Naples style. Surprisingly most people seem to prefer the Naples variety. Yum!
Then it was off to have a gelato. A highly recommended place was a metro ride away at Gelateria dei Gracchi near the Vatican. Made in house with no additives and featuring many unique, seasonal flavors. We enjoyed classic Pistachio and a more special Creamy Pear. Both excellent and we could see why it was popular. Don't forget the dollop of cream on top!
Our last gourmet day stop was Volpetti’s Deli in the Testaccio neighborhood south of town. There is a story of a young man who returns to Italy after some time and stops at Volpetti’s before home because that is what he misses the most while out of the country. I don’t know if the story is true, but it IS that good. We had slices of ham that were the
most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It actually melted in your mouth. We made a few purchases and had a picnic in a nearby small park. Delicious.
We have also been watching quite a few old Italian films. La Strada, Bicycle Thief, Rome-Open City and La Dolce Vita are all famous and fun to watch. Most were shot on the streets of Rome long ago and it is fun to see Rome as it was generations ago. We spent one day touring some of the locations of La Dolce Vita which was mostly filmed along Via Veneto. Via Veneto is a large boulevard that was once the most popular location in Europe for the rich and famous. It was daytime and the famous have probably moved on to new locations, but the hotels and restaurants were still beautiful and VERY expensive.
In the opening scene of La Dolce Vita, a helicopter carries a giant statue past the famous aqueducts south of town toward the Vatican. The movie inspired us to spend a day visiting the aqueducts and the beautiful, non-touristy park called Parco degli Acquedotti where many of the best ruins are. The
park was huge and full of families having picnics and playing sports. The aqueducts are enormous and as impressive as any ancient sites and remind us of what great engineering feats were accomplished by the ancient Romans. Unfortunately the weather turned and got quite stormy, but the park still made for an enjoyable day.
We spent another day visiting a couple of less visited neighborhoods of Testaccio and the old Jewish Ghetto located near the river. Testaccio is a working class neighborhood full of interesting graffiti and the old Protestant Cemetery where many famous non-Catholics are buried. We saw famous poets Keats, Goethe and Shelley’s graves, all overlooked by the strange Egyptian pyramid located nearby. The old Jewish Ghetto had a fascinating history and is located just across the Tiber River from the more famous Trastevere area. It is artichoke season and a huge tradition in Rome to make your way to the Ghetto and enjoy one of their unique preparations. It was certainly different than my idea of a ghetto. It did not seem bad to live there anymore and certainly wasn’t the poor area of town.
We have enjoyed our time of
Parco degli Acquedotti
“living like locals”. I suppose in reality, like all of us, we are now and always will be just a couple of tourists. Indeed for a short period of time it’s been fun to pretend we were local. Rome is beautiful whether you are a local or a tourist and is best appreciated any way you choose.
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