When we got off the bus at Rome’s Termini Stazion, the first thing we saw was an Istanbul Kebab Shop.
My girlfriend Ozge laughed at the irony, snapped a photo and sent it to her Turkish friends back home in Istanbul.
Later that evening, after we checked into our bed-and-breakfast, we realized we’d forgotten to print our reservations for the Villa Borghese. We searched the streets near the Emmanuel Vittorio metro station until we found an Internet café. The café was owned and operated by southeast Asians, mostly likely from India.
And then we found ourselves, don’t ask me why, having pints of Guinness at the Druid, an Irish pub not far from our hotel. The bar man was half English, half Italian.
Our first evening in the Eternal City, and with the exception of our patroness, Francesca, at the hostel, we’d yet to meet an Italian. Over dinner at a small café near the hostel, we had our first taste of Italian food – pizza, of course.
“So,” Ozge remarked, surmising our first few hours, “we saw an Istanbul kebab restaurant, went to an Indian Internet Café, had Irish Guinness – and some Italian pizza, just to compensate.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s important, when in Rome, to have some balance.”
As we were soon to realize, the district where we were staying is notably multi-ethnic, with a strong influx of immigrants. Being from Istanbul, one of the great emerging 21st century cities, we were no strangers to the cosmopolitan feeling. Hell, I’ve been a foreigner myself the past decade, so who was I to comment?
Besides, on this trip to Rome, we were to see many other things that were new, balanced against all of the ancient glories of the city.
We would even see a man levitate.
We were lucky. Arriving in late November, we had anticipated cold weather, just as it was when we left Istanbul. With the exception of a rainy first evening, we had great weather all week long. Also, since it was the off season, we found the streets and tourist sites surprisingly calm and accommodating. Being veterans of Istanbul noise and traffic, we found a measure of peace here, and the streets were easy to cross. (But always keep a look out for the motorcyclists that are everywhere in Rome: Once, we almost got run over; the cyclists skidded to a halt, shouted “Bastardo!” at us, and went on. Somehow, it was glorious, to be cursed at in Italian…)
Perhaps because it was the off season, the proprietors and waitstaff in the shops and cafes were all very polite and helpful (everybody in Rome, it seems, speaks excellent English).
It would be easy to recount here all of the sites…from the Colosseum (five minutes from our hostel), to the Spanish Steps (where one evening we unexpectedly joined a crowd of Romans being serenaded by the Caraberini Orchestra to kick off the Christmas season), to the Trevi Fountain (under renovation at the moment), but somehow I feel that these are things that readers know all too well. They have been described, captured, memorialized countless times over the ages. Even if, for example, the Trevi Fountain had been operating, how could one hope to outdo the splendid Anita Ekberg splashing about in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita? As we walked into the celestial atmosphere of the Sistine Chapel – the climax of an exhausting two-hour tour of the Vatican – Ozge caught me straining my nostrils to get a smell. “You were thinking of that scene in Good Will Hunting,” she teased me later. And, of course, I was.
What does the inside of the Sistine Chapel smell like then? I won’t tell. But what I will say is that I think there is a better question, for those occasions when you run across some know-it-all bore. Instead of asking them what it smells like inside the Sistine Chapel, ask them: What are you supposed to say when entering the Sistine Chapel? (The answer, just between us, is nothing because you are not supposed to speak when entering the chapel. P.S. Remember to take your hat off. Also, don’t try to venture out onto the balcony just outside, or else a surly security guard – who might suspect you of plotting to assassinate the Pope – will bark your head off.).
After leaving the Vatican, we looked around for a place to eat. Ozge was set on having Chinese (she loves cheap Chinese take-away, but the ones in Istanbul are crap, she says). I figured why not? Everything we had eaten so far in Rome was good, so why not Chinese?
So we found a restaurant in the Ponti area, where we split a plate of duck with orange, rice and egg rolls, and I had my first taste of Chinese beer.
Ozge’s verdict: “It was crap Chinese. When in Rome, let’s stick to Italian.”
The “selfie” stick. How many of you have seen or heard of these things? It was a first for us, but then we don’t get out very often apparently.
We stopped at the Colosseum, and were using Ozge’s phone to snap a selfie, with the famous structure in the background, when a man approached us. “Selfie? Selfie?” he asked. He was holding these sticks that you attach to your phone so that you can get a wider view. We declined, even though he only wanted 5 euros. Over the next few days, the sight of these selfie-stick sellers became obligatory at every site. Most of them were young men, and were immigrants of various nationalities.
Thanks to the smart phone, it seems there has been yet another street industry born overnight; a source of income for those with the pluck, desperation and resourcefulness to venture to the streets of Europe in search of the Great Dream. (The irony, for me anyway, is that these days I’m not quite so sure that Europe is any better off than where they came from. This is, after all, the “Asian Century,” or so they say).
Anyway, as I watched these street sellers hawking these selfie sticks – and they sold quite a few, from what I could see – I couldn’t help but marvel at the simplicity of the idea. Once again, a very simple idea that you or I or anybody could have thought of, but didn’t.
“Actually, I wish now we had bought one,” Ozge said, at one point.
There you go, folks.
Speaking of industry, think of the rickshaw driver – yes, a rickshaw! – who drove us to the Pantheon. By this point, like most tourists, we were exhausted by the endless walking, at our wits’ end from the constant consulting of the map. Resting near the impressive Ministry of Culture building, we noticed some young men (where the fuck where they from? They told me, I don’t remember) operating these rickshaws. On impulse, we asked the price to take us to the Pantheon. 15 euros, one of them said. Done!
So there we were, the man pedaling his young ass off through the streets. We passed groups of Roman schoolchildren, who jeered at us, but also looked with some curiosity and envy, as we bounced through the streets. (Piece of advice: Don’t try taking selfies on a rickshaw, they only end in tears.)
The writer in me was leaping for titles as we rode along: ROME IN A RICKSHAW! ROME BY RICKSHAW! RICKSHAW ROME! WHILE CAESAR SLEPT…A RICKSHAW!
(Another word of advice: Never take a rickshaw with a writer.)
And finally, the Piazza Navona… Here, according to our guidebook, it is “popular for young Romans to go in the afternoons and early evenings for an aperitif.” Well, we weren’t young Romans and we weren’t in the mood for an aperitif. We were just tired. The fine, forgiving clear weather we’d enjoyed all day long was finally warning that it was time to put the day away. But we wanted to relax for a few minutes here on the piazza.
It was not crowded on the square. A guitarist seated on a bench nearby began to strum “Moon River,” and he played it beautifully, the wistful melody blending perfectly with the grey sky overheard.
“Look!” Ozge cried. She was taking a picture of something with her phone. I looked just over to the right. A man, clad in some sort of religious or spiritual dress – bright orange – seemed to be floating, levitating in the air! Three feet off the ground!
How does he do that? we wondered.
We watched the levitating man, as “Moon River” played in the background, and tourists passed taking photos of the fountain and the nearby basilica.
The song ended, and it began to rain. The guitarist put away his guitar, and left. We looked again for the levitating man. He too had vanished: Some assistants had covered him entirely with a piece of black cloth.
He has to keep the secret of his trade away from potential competitors, we guessed.
“How about that?” I asked Ozge. “Someone asks him, ‘So how do you make a living?’”
“He answers, ‘I float in the air,’” Ozge enjoined.
“Well, we all have to make a living,” I said.
I thought about the levitating man, and the selfie sellers, and the many other people we were to encounter over the extent of our stay. They all were outsiders, stranieros, just as I was a yabancı back in Istanbul. In Rome, Ozge was a foreigner too. But then, I suppose even in ancient times, Rome was always so – all roads lead to Rome. But is it really true, as the axiom goes, that when in Rome, one should do as the Romans do?
Take our afternoon espresso. We’d just had a fine lunch, including the roast Veal Romana and risotto with prawns, along with a half liter of house red.
“Espresso?” the woman asked, taking our plates.
“Can I have mine with a little milk?” Ozge asked.
“You mean cappuccino,” the woman corrected.
“No,” Ozge said. “I mean, I would like an espresso but with a small bit of milk added.”
The waitress looked askance, and her eyes even turned toward me, as if waiting for me to confirm that that is not how a Roman takes an afternoon espresso.
How could I get in the middle? I stayed out of it.
Getting no help from me, the woman returned to Ozge, hesitated for a long moment, then, conferring a great concession: “OK. For you.”
“You know, babe,” I said. “When in Rome…”
“I don’t care,” Ozge said obstinately, after the woman left. “Trust me, they will try it my way some time and see that I am right.”
Who was I to argue?
So on balance, I would say: When in Rome, do whatever you have to do…even levitate.
James Tressler is a writer and teacher whose books include “Conversations in Prague,” “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1.” He lives in Istanbul.