Rome. If you want to.

Italians have no time for you. I’ve overheard at least fifty non-Italian people say, “You go to a store or a café and they act like you should feel lucky they’re serving you!” And I understand where they’re coming from but once you get the rhythm of things, you see how it works. Even though that person is paid by the hour to stand on the other side of the counter and hand you the thing you ask for and take your money for said thing, they have better things to do than their job and you’re interrupting said things.

Italians don’t line up for anything; they consider it humiliating and tedious. Instead, they cram. They angle ahead of one another, each person more important that the last, like the first people that get in at a festival seating concert angle and edge one another out at the front of the stage. It’s fascinating and – if it’s your first time in Italy – really bewildering. Several times I thought to myself, ‘is Black Box happening?’ ‘Have I finally found people ruder than Cincinnatians?’

You start to question your very existence. Instead of waiting in line, on line, or queuing, they walk in and shout their order. The barista, without looking up, goes about making the order. I stood at the back of the room wondering when it would be my turn. It was never my turn, I was part of the scenery like a napkin dispenser or jug of half-and-half, which they don’t have. Italians don’t have time for your bullshit. They have to hurry somewhere and not do anything.

No one on the planet can do nothing like an Italian. I was told Italians on average get something like 50-weeks of paid vacation per year. Is your average Italian athletically thin and good looking? Yes. “How,” you may ask, “can an entire people lounge for a living and be physically fit?” My answer to you after much observation is “olive oil.” Italian people are 80% extra virgin olive oil, 10% leather goods and 10% walking – a combination which guarantees you an enviable figure.

Rome is, without a doubt, the shadiest city I’ve ever been to. And I’ve lived in West Chicago and driven through Idaho. Fifty-percent of the people you’ll encounter in Rome are Italian, the EVOO original type. The rest are there to steal from you and have plastic surgery. I haven’t seen such outward materialism and vanity since the ‘80s in Dallas — or Orange County always. A strong majority of the women I saw had brand new heads. More power to you, if that’s your thing, I’m more of a grow old gracefully kind of guy – as long as there’s whiskey around.

[I’m 100% sure Naples is shadier than Rome but I didn’t go to Naples. Also, that Rome-Jersey Shore fashion connection might be a “chicken or the egg” type deal.]

Italian music videos are pornographic and tend to play round the clock on the same ubiquitous channel in every establishment in the country. And no matter the establishment, they gave you a small bowl of nuts or a plate of chips with ridges and looked at you like you had ten heads if you ordered a third beer. The beer is never cold, as you’d expect if you’d ever heard anyone talk about Europe. If you’re like me and like to sip on a small whiskey and chase it with a cold beer, good luck communicating that to an Italian (or French, or Greek, or Bulgarian, or Romanian) bartender. One person ordering two drinks for one person is a bit more than some tenders of bar can handle.

There are more NY Yankees hats in Italy than there are collectively anywhere else on the planet. And it’s still wildly popular for young Italians to mimic the fashion sense of the kids from Jersey Shore. From the plucked brows to the wacky hair to out-of-control tattoo situation, you could easily WTF yourself to death at neck-breaking speed.

Not one Starbucks. My trip to Italy took place in August of 2018 and at that time there were zero (0) Starbucks in the country. Now there are three in Milan and the chain plans to open at least fifteen stores per year in Italy. Why can’t we have nice things? Or in this case, “Why can’t we keep the nice things we have and not have crappy things?” Because of greed. If one thing kills our species, it will be the fact that one person somewhere feels very, very deeply that they don’t have as much of something as someone else. In this small, unrelated case, it’s that someone felt Italy didn’t have enough shitty coffee. 

I’m not kidding, this is a big deal. Italy takes coffee seriously. That’s just about the biggest understatement imaginable. It’s all about the small porcelain cup on a saucer. There’s no need to ask for a latte, in Italy that just means milk. What you mean is a macchiato – and please – get in there and order it quickly. Don’t bother asking for a “to-go” cup, they don’t have them. Your entire coffee-drinking experience shouldn’t take more than 30-seconds, what in the hell would you need a to-go cup for?

Be a Good Guest

The angriest gay man in Rome (mostly my fault) lives near the central train station and runs a boutique hotel I won’t tell you the name of (but it’s lovely). Without intending to have no cell service my first night in Italy, I had no cell service. At 11:30 p.m., this doesn’t sit well when your AirBnB host was expecting you at 10 p.m. Gianni was not pleased. We had a nice shouting match which I realized was more tradition than anything. The rules of Italian culture dictate that you damn well let someone know when they’ve done something unacceptable. The rules of Texas culture dictate that you damn well let someone know when you don’t appreciate their tone. We’d come to a place of mutual respect and I was allowed in.

I was reluctantly given a short tour in a beautiful combination of Italian and English – led to my room and told breakfast would be at 8 a.m. I made sure he knew I was sorry for not communicating with him when I found out the train to Rome was an hour late. He didn’t much care about my apology. I may have imagined the “mutual” respect. Wouldn’t matter anyway, any affection he may have felt was gone when I locked myself in the courtyard the following evening while he was at dinner with friends.

The first night in Rome was a Friday so I settled in a bit and walked around the corner to The Bee Bar. Midnight isn’t an unheard of time to arrive at a bar in Italy, or anywhere if you’re 23-years-old, which I’m not. A big guy named Fabrizio was extremely welcoming despite the hour and did his best to communicate with me while I butchered his beloved mother tongue. One of the fist things I would learn about Italy, maybe Rome in particular was that – you’re expected to pay for a table on the patio. It’s only €2.50 but I just wasn’t getting it and he lost interest in expressing the concept for a fourth time so I got away with it the first night.

My love affair with the Italian version of pizza soon began. Never in a million years would I order a white pizza with spinach on purpose and I wasn’t about to start in the most important setting imaginable so, without cell service to cheat with Google Translate, that’s exactly what I ordered. And it was a masterpiece. Each bite better than the last. I’m not a big eater but – at 1am on a patio in Rome – I cleaned that sonsabitchin’ plate.

I bought a pack of Lucky Strike Blues and a lighter and enjoyed the memory of the pizza with a nice digestif, a Holy Grail of Black Sambuca with a couple coffee beans floating around. Heaven in a snifter. Finally being able to relax after the long ferry ride and the rough evening that followed, I drew from the blazing Lucky Strike and sipped on the snifter like you think you would if given one chance to suckle on the teat of Venus. While that may be overstating the moment, it’s pretty damn close. Only partially ruining a perfect moment was the incessant club music coming from whatever channel that is they play everywhere.

Hordes form quickly in Rome, which I guess has always been the case. On that Saturday morning I walked from the central train station area to the Colosseum. I’d heard about it from the TV and thought it would be a quiet place to contemplate Italian things on what turned out to be a nice, hot, sunny day. First off, I was thinking to myself, ‘…the balls on that guy,’ when I saw there was an Eataly in Rome. Turns out, Mario what’s-his-name didn’t found Eataly, an Italian dude did. Second, once you turn onto certain out-of-the-way streets in Rome, you can probably get yourself mugged or killed. Which was what I’d done because I was still angry at Mario what’s-his-name.

After I made it to the Colosseum area unscathed, mugged or killed, I stopped at the café stand in a random park littered with 2,000-year-old columns. Once again, I took a seat and sipped the espresso and the proprietor came over to explain that seats at tables cost extra. This guy also forgave my debt and I was 2-for-2 after only 12-hours in the big city. Now good and dehydrated, it was time to climb over to the main attraction, an old stadium.

The Colosseum was my introduction to how most things are run in Italy; all tours are advertised and led by Indian guys claiming they can “Skip the Line.” It’s nonsense, order reserved tickets online and print them out, you get right in. I didn’t. Then again, twenty-yards way was as close as I planned on getting to any tourist trap. Or just close enough to snap a picture. Of the many, many interesting items about the structure’s rich history, the most memorable thing I read about the Colosseum was about a Pope in the 16th Century who wanted to turn it into a wool factory where prostitutes would work. He then died “unexpectedly,” nothing to do I’m sure with his ridiculous ideas.

It’s rare to have the opportunity to step foot inside a country within a country or city for that matter and I wasn’t going to pass it up. It’s an easy trip on the Metropolitana from Colosseo to the Red Line at the central train station to the “San Pietro” stop. Then follow anyone with a fanny pack to Vatican City. I sure hope you like selfie sticks, because they’re going to come at you from every direction and angle. The user blissfully unaware of their actions or the repercussions. Let’s just say, I owed the Holy See a couple hundred Hail Marys when I got there for indiscretions cast upon selfie stick users.

European countries include the distance to the closest McDonald’s with their official street signs but often omit helpful signage for public transportation. I could tell you within meters how close the nearest Mickey D’s was, but I’d be damned if I could locate a Metro or bus sign I actually needed. This seems unfair and if I were a Roman citizen, I’d likely write my Congressperson. Just sayin, that phone service stuff comes in handy.

Frank’s a wildly popular Pontiff and his delegates, coworkers and congregants of all shapes and sizes descend upon his small country in droves. I’m talking droves. If you’ve ever been to Disney World on a Fourth of July weekend or Times Square at any given time, you’ve seen the same type of unacceptable masses of humanity witnessed everywhere in Vatican City. Lines a mile long? Check. Indian dudes promising line skipping? Check. International jorts? Oh, yes. Tacky religious trinkets? Double check with special sauce.

[“Jorts” are hemmed denim shorts and they’re ridiculous on anyone. Yes, even that person you just thought up in retort. If you own a pair, don’t give them to Goodwill, burn them. I’m telling you this as a friend.]

What interested me most were the Chinese, Japanese and other Clearly-Not-Christian-Let-Alone-Catholic peoples forming lines by the thousands at every corner of the Vatican. Then again, even non-Catholics can appreciate something like the Sistine Chapel and the opportunity to step inside a tiny country within a city. I’m not judging. It’s just hard for me to justify traveling halfway around the world to stand in a hot, funky line for four hours to see anything. However, when he’s in town, Frank has Sunday Mass out in the pavilion thing and a lot of folks were in town for that. A lot of them. And Vatican City, the entire country, is around the size of your local Community College campus.

Second most interesting had to be the absolute lack of intimidation emanating from each of the small men in Swiss Guard garb. I’ve decided they’re merely decorative human beings, not used for warring purposes. It’s very easy to imagine one Navy Seal or Mossad Agent taking out the entire Swiss Guard population with a bag of marbles and a feather duster. Perhaps I’m wrong, go check out their wacky costumes and decide for yourself. Due to the next day’s scheduled Mass, security was ridiculous and – behind the circus clown uniformed Swiss Guard – you could see the guys with sharper eyes and real weapons in the shadows.

There was a foreboding sense of Big Brother within the confines of Vatican City and things felt strange, as if the Mormons ran an amusement park. I thought back to the Da Vinci Code, laughed at myself for buying it, reading it and seeing the movie and all was right with the world.

Pope Frank’s Hood

The Vatican is lousy with beggars some of whom look like they’re from Central Casting; bent old ladies from story books. Since you’re within the walls of one of the world’s more religious settings, you feel you have to at least give them a European nickel or they’ll morph into Saint Peter himself and condemn you to Hell. I knew she was probably full of it and left every day in a Maserati but man, the thought of beggars existing in the smallest (and maybe richest per capita) country in the world pissed me off.

If you live in a town that has a new, shiny nonsensical shopping district with residential high rises on top of the stores, don’t feel alone in your hatred of them. It’s even happening at the Vatican. Walking the grounds of this holy place, it’s easy to see they bring in a lot of coin and have way too much pull. It was time to leave. I exited toward the Tiber and walked the river over to Castel Sant’Angelo, a massive structure and park near the world’s third or fourth dirtiest river. I don’t know, I’ve yet to visit India and haven’t spent much time in Flint.

After walking around admiring the blowing garbage for what seemed like an hour, it was hungry time. A small Sicilian restaurant with no tables was located by my nose and I entered eagerly. A large slice of Sicilian pizza was ordered and devoured and all was once again calm. It was now time to find the Metropolitana station that brought me here – to no avail, again. A very skeptical American couple showed me their map to help me out and I thanked them as they backed away, waiting for me to rob them. Still not sure why; then again, a lot of my interactions are inexplicable, despite my best attempts.

Back in the hood, Fabrizio greeted me at the Bee and fed me beer and cigarettes. He’s truly a kind guy and the type of establishment operator who seems to know everyone who steps into his world. He’s quick with a smile and a double kiss for his patrons and anticipates their needs like an elite, classically trained British butler. He also looks like he could handle himself if it came to blows.

Could I have pizza again after eating it for lunch and the night before? You bet your sweet ass.

This time it was the mozzarella and prosciutto with rosso basil ragu. I’d punch your grandmother in the face for another one of those. That’s too far. It’s a figure of speech. The pizza was delicious. Tonight it was the post-heavenly meal Black Sambuca again and an espresso and some sort of chocolate cannoli diabetes delivery vessel covered with pistachios. So far, way up there on the list of best meals enjoyed in Europe. I grabbed a sandwich from the cold counter for my adventures the following day.

Pope Frank was delivering Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica so I wasn’t going within a mile of that place. Instead I thought it was a good idea to hunt down Trevi Fountain for my Mom and get a picture of it for her. She’s loved it forever after seeing some old movie and I thought it would be nice to write a note and hold it in front of the fountain for her. There are several reasons I was wrong. One, I followed my own written directions and exited the Metropolitana to head directly to Triton Fountain, not Trevi. After arriving back in the hood, I realized my mistake and went right back out to take a heart-warming note-to-your-Mom picture of the right damn fountain.

What I didn’t know at the time was – the day before – a riot had broken out at Trevi fountain between groups of people trying to take a selfie in the best spot. This is what I was dealing with. Only today, there was a lot more security. I’d identified where I’d made my previous mistake in navigation and it’s easy to do, sans the fact there are small signs everywhere pointing to Trevi Fountain. At least I was headed the right direction this time.

Buildings are literally falling apart and there is an entire city department dedicated to swiftly cordoning off the area and cleaning up the mess. After I heard about tourists being killed by falling debris on Roman streets and near Italian landmarks in general, I began walking down the middle of the streets and avoiding famous sites over 30-years-old. Starting after this damn fountain. Trevi Fountain was… just… just don’t. No. It was mayhem, unabashed mayhem. But I took the damn picture. (Mom, if you read this, the story above is nonsense and finding and taking a picture in front of Trevi Fountain is and was an absolute treat and a piece of cake).

Determined to brush the sweaty day off and enjoy my last night in Rome, I sought out a new environment.

Side note: Don’t drive in Italy. In fact, walking’s kind of iffy. They’re card-carrying lunatics who shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel. OR, they’re the most incredible drivers in the world, I’ve not made up my mind. Scooters are even more prevalent than they are in Paris, not sure that’s accurate but – the manner in which they’re operated makes me believe it. Just sayin’, look both ways a couple hundred times before crossing.

That night was spent in San Lorenzo, Quartiere VI Tiburtino near the Piazza dell’Immacolata, Italian for “another place in front of a cool old cathedral.” The neighborhood provided a decent dive bar and an astonishing brick oven joint. Dalhù Pub was just what the doctor ordered for about 90-minutes until the young and hip invaded and the throbbing music started, though I actually hung out with them for a bit and Silvio, the bartender, was cool. But, the main attraction was Farinè la Pizza. The block itself looked like nothing had been done to improve the façade, streets, sidewalks or infrastructure since bread was invented but the inside of Farinè la Pizza was fresh and exciting, save the 200-300-year-old brick oven, an exquisite piece of work.

[“Quartiere VI Tiburtino” and “Piazza dell’Immacolata” are unimportant Italian places used to make me sound smarter and more worldly.]

The presumed owner had a look on his face that told me he needed every last dollar in my pocket. His, also presumed, wife was in the back taking care of business. Out he came with my delicious Sicilian soda, something called Polara Antica Ricetta, much needed after a couple whiskeys with Silvio across the street. Waiting on the “Media Agreste” I made notes about the day’s events and here it came in all its glory. I’d say “there are no words” for how delicious this pizza was but that’s unacceptable given what’s going on here so, here goes. 

Imagine the best crust you’ve ever experienced, succulent, buttery but not greasy. Then think about your perfect combination of cheeses, Asiago and Mozzarella, browned well, no sauce and ample spinach. Baked perfectly. Yes, for the second time, I’d on purpose ordered my least favorite pizza and it was sensational. A dear friend of mine in Austin, Texas would be on Cloud Nine.

Of course there are 1,000 places to get exquisite pizza in Rome, I felt lucky to find three that didn’t come close to disappointing.

PS – a jug of wine at Farinè la Pizza was $6.

It was time to say goodbye to Fabrizio at the Bee and get on the train to Florence. But that morning I’d noticed something pretty strange. The following words are absolutely true and I thought about not telling anyone because it sounds ludicrous. While accidentally taking pictures of the wrong statue fountain thing, I looked down and saw a small leather pouch, an expensive looking one. Its only contents, a thumb drive. I scooped it up, looked around and figured I’d take it back, see if I could find its rightful owner by looking through its files. The following morning, the door I locked was unlocked, the pouch was still on the desk and the thumb drive was gone. That’s not made up or embellished, just thought I’d mention it in case I have some sort of “accident” sometime soon. But this isn’t a cloak and dagger tome so let’s move on.

You’re constantly told to “get there early” if boarding a plane or train. When in Rome, don’t. The Rome Central Terminal is the last place you want to be hanging around. An interesting observation about the city as a whole is — there seem to be fifteen different types of police. And nowhere is this more apparent than the Rome Central Terminal. I’m pretty sure some are there to help people, some are there to protect against nastiness and some are there to help the thieves and pickpockets. These are the guys smoking while driving around in a golf cart. 

Thieves and pickpockets abound in the Terminal and it’s fascinating to watch. Some work in groups, triangulating their victims while others find bustling herds of people to get lost in, grabbing what they can. It’s best to congregate near a wall where you and your tribe can keep an eye on the periphery and the entirely of the madness. Actually, it’s best to time your arrival at most major train stations to get there about 10-minutes before your scheduled departure if you can.

I’m a huge fan of out-of-the-way-places Rome, not touristy Rome – then again, that’s most towns and countries. Tommy Lee Jones said it best (Ed Solomon wrote it best) in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”  Fact.