Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I've been preparing for this trip for a while, partly through reading some more-or-less classic guide works, and partly through pouring over travel discussion board on the Internet. I wasn't too worried about the trip, but I did have a few concerns...crime, etc. Well, here's my report on that score.
1) Don't touch the merchandise! I had read some lengthy threads on how Italian shopkeepers don't want you touching their goods. Well, I guess the shops we went into weren't that high class, because almost no one seemed to mind at all. Katie got rushed by a saleswoman at a shop near Campo di Fiore, who snatched a shirt she was fingering right out of her hand, but I chalk that one up to aggressive saleswomanship more than anything else. Katie also got called out by a newstand proprieter. As she was waiting for me to buy bus passes, she made the mistake of thumbing through a copy of People, and was loudly corrected by the guy, who yelled, "No, no, it is not possible, it is not a library..." or something. Chastened, she put the magazine back, but was able to laugh about it.
(BTW, I was intrigued by the Italian useage of what we would translate as "possible" and "impossible" - for them it means "permitted" or not. That gave me some grammar trivia to meditate on...)
Other than those mishaps...we were fine.
2) Chaos, dirt, and other horrors.
To some, anyway. Most internet posters I read loved Rome, but there were some loud dissenters, who claimed they found the city just too chaotic, filthy and exhausting. Those people must be from Noclueburg, USA, population: 23; stoplights: 0.
First, off, Rome is not dirty - at least the central parts. I understand there was a massive and concerted clean-up effort for the Jubilee in 2000, and it's stuck, for the most part. I've never been to places like Vienna, which I understand are Teutonically-spotless, but Rome, I'd say, is far cleaner than Chicago. Honestly. I'd also say that Rome also gives far less of a chaotic impression than Chicago or New York, to me, at least. It's obvious why - the traffic in Rome is certainly interesting and somewhat frenetic, but the presence of so very many small streets that are heavily pedestrian breaks up that chaos in a big way.
I actually found Rome to be rather relaxing, except for the can we please get somewhere where we can sit down so we can get this baby off our back part which was obviously not Rome's fault. I'm suspecting that the people who find Rome to be off-putting in that way are those who are rushed through in 3 days or so, and experience Rome through the heavy tourist sites, and that's it.
For example, if someone's primary experience of Rome was centered around the mobs at the Vatican Museum, the crowds at the Coliseum (which were not bad at all for us, but which I imagine get bad during the spring and summer) and the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps mob scenes...they would definitely come away which an impression of nothing but crowds and chaos. For me, I found our brief excursion to the Spanish Steps and down Via Condotti to be the most dispensible of our trip. Katie, the boys and I had been dropped at the Trevi Fountain (another story), where I'd been filmed for some B-roll shots for a television documentary being done by Rome Reports. I told them to just leave us there, and we'd wander.
We made our way up to the Spanish Steps (with, I confess, a stop at Burger King for a desperate little boy), which were surrounded by scaffolding and construction of some sort on both ends, top and on the plaza/street in front. Not quite like Roman Holiday . We then made our way down the famous shopping street Via Condotti - the Park Avenue/Magnificent Mile/Rodeo Drive of Rome.
WHAT A SCENE! By that time we had been through much of central Rome and generally pleased with the lack of crowds. I guess they were all on VIa Condotti, shopping at Gucci, Hermes and the Disney Store (almost had meltdown at that point. Even Burger King wore off...). Lots and lots of Japanese tourists, and on the side streets, I noticed a lot of signs in both Italian and Japanese. It was wall to wall people, and I just thought...who cares? What's the appeal?
So I suppose my point is that if all you'd experienced was this, the really terrible crush at the Vatican Museums (I wish they could do something about that, but short of limiting admissions as they do at some other museums, I guess they can't. More on that later), and what I mentioned before, you wouldn't find Rome very pleasant, especially if there were three or four more times as many people there, which there would be if you were there in June, I suppose.
But none of that was the core of the Roman experience for us, even though we do have the obligatory Trevi fountain shot:
(Click on photo for larger, slightly clearer version)
(The Trevi fountain is certainly impressive - enormous and gorgeous and powerful. It's also mobbed, and, I was surprised to find out, not in a big piazza as I had expected. The space it inhabits is actually rather confined, which makes the discovery of it as you turn the corner rather startling and impressive, but also makes the crowds quite intense.)
3. Crime: Perhaps I am stupid, but I never felt threatened at all. Heard horror stories about the Termini station (the Grand Central Station of Rome), but found the place quite clean and modern, and just..normal. There were signs about warning about pickpockets, but I never felt under pressure or siege, not even on a couple of quite crowded Metro trains or buses we took. But then, I wasn't carrying a purse, and was carrying hardly anything at all, period. Except that baby on my back sometimes. I have to confess that I really went to Rome expecting to feel unsafe...but I didn't.
4. Beggars. Yes, Rome was full of them - they actually became a handy way to gauge whether or not a church was open - no beggar at the door, church was closed. Some times we gave, some times we didn't. I had explained all of this to Katie before we left, utilizing the advice some of you gave, and even after a day, she could see clearly for herself that this wasn't desperation we were talking about...it was a chosen means of employment.
We were sitting in PIazza Navona one afternoon and were approached by a young woman carrying a (fat) baby, holding her cup out. She turned away briefly, showing, in the process her Prada purse, which, even if obviously fake, was not a good advertisement for her plight. HOwever, Joseph's comment to me was even better. He said, "Mommy, why don't you get a cup and carry baby and ask for money? Then we could get more money!"
Good thinking, there, son. See you in Roma!
So, yes, we gave at times, and no, we didn't ignore those stationed at the churches, in particular...but those swarms of Gypsy children I expected to see? They must have had the week off.
Actually, our favorite street supplicants were on the Metro. We encountered them several times on Saturday, on our way down to St. Paul Outside the Walls and back. Two different groups - men with two boys - musicians. The train stops, the doors open, the group rushes on, and within seconds, sets up the combo - two boys on violin, adult on drums of some sort, even complete with a synthesizing backbeat on a tape player or Mp3. Play for 30 seconds, vigorously and well, then send the boys down the seats with a cup. You know what? They're working. I didn't mind giving them a donation for their (probably illegal, judging from their rushed and almost furtive leaping on and off the trains) entertainment....
5. Aggressive street vendors.
I knew what to look out for - don't let them put anything in your hands. We did see street vendors all over the place, of course - purses were big items, mostly, it seems, from African men, as were umbrellas the minute a sprinkle hits the cobblestones. Asian women carrying big handfuls of scarves in the Vatican area. For some reason, the vendors on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo, were always selling camera tripods. But none of them, with the exception of the scarf women, were aggressive. They were just doing their jobs - creatively, at times.
The only place I really encountered aggression was, again, around the Trevi Fountain. Young men were selling little squirty, squishy toys - they actually tried to shove them in Joseph's hands, and I had to push their hands away. I saw a flower vendor attempt to slip a flower in a woman's hands, and these gun-shaped bubble makers were very big. But that was the only pushy stuff I saw.
So yeah, you might enounter all of those semi-mythical terrors of Rome. But, looking at our 367th Baroque church of the week....we didn't.
(Note: See the second comment below for the explanation of the scarf-sellers near the Vatican. But of course!)