(Long Overdue) Italy Observations

I wrote the original outline for this post over the Atlantic, but I didn’t find the time to actually complete it until now. Two months later. This is just a bunch of assorted things I found interesting, intriguing, or just plain weird about Italy.

  • Cats. Cats were very much fed and cared for by the community. The Lago Argentina in the middle of Rome was a cat sanctuary that contained a large amount of what we might call street cats. Here large felines, scarred by countless battles, lived amongst ancient temple ruins. They are cared for by a non-profit organization. Early Sunday morning in Perugia we looked over a railing to see a middle aged man feeding around 8 very grateful cats, and he seemed familiar with each one, yet they did not appear to be “his” pets. Even in a little town on the Amalfi Coast, where the only access was thousands of stairs and no cars existed, there was a single cat hanging out in the little area outside the church.
  • Dogs. Much like their feline companions, dogs were independent minded. Well fed dogs could be seen in the ruins and throughout Rome, but were rare as pets. The canines I did notice which seemed to be family pets roamed freely throughout the streets, only occasionally bothering to check on their owner. Leashes seem to be an unknown item!
  • National Military Police Force. In a concept foreign to many Americans, Italy is primarly policed by a single national arm of the military known as the Carabineri. They are a heavily armed force with an omnipresent deployment strategy. Every town, from Rome to remote mountain villages, have local Carabineri posts. This highly mechanized force uses equipment ranging from Land Rovers, transport trucks, to attack helicopters in enforcing Italian law. The soldiers (police?) themselves are armed with submachine guns, rifles, and full battle armor.
  • Emergency Vehicles. Sirens are much different. Instead of the whooooooOOOOOOOooooooo style of police, fire, and medical emergency services in the states, they have a tone that is more of a low noise with a two tone warble. It’s almost like a siren version of bagpipes. This noise is very effective at getting your attention, because it’s unnatural, but is not that particularly loud, whereas stateside vehicles  require much louder noise levels. Furthermore, sirens are more of recommendations for drivers, who usually attempt to get out of the way, and don’t pull over to the side of the road. Finally, you see “lights on” emergency responders much less often, for whatever reason.
  • Children and Playgrounds. Our Italian teacher said that Italy has a negative birthrate, and that Italians, while usually not having children in the city, do very much enjoy the presence of children. Not many children were present in Rome proper, but it’s still a sight to see there is a family with kids. They’re the most popular thing around. And playgrounds? Well, they don’t exist.
  • Parks. As one would expect for a city that predates the year zero, urban planning and green spaces are basically non-existent. Finding a tree or spot of grass at street level is a rare find in most parts of Rome. Most of the vegetation  is on the outskirts of town or on the rooftops.
  • Toilets. The bathroom situation is a lot better than many may imply. Most toilets in restrooms that you would find in hotels, restruants, and pay public stalls are of the typical sit-down type of which we are so familiar with. The only major difference is that the water levels are extremely low, only a few inches from the bottom of the bowl. Finding out the flushing mechanism, however, is a different story. They can be found at foot level, on the toilet itself (rare), or somewhere else in the restroom. And usually there are a few buttons that will send out different amounts of water. The infamous “holes” we encountered only once, at the train station in Perugia.
  • Police Party Puntos. In case you weren’t familiar with the model, a Fiat Punto is a very small and compact automobile. They are not particulary notable, except for the often sight of seeing a Carabineri driving one around with lights and sirens. I’ve seen five military police heading off to some disturbance in these tiny cars… it was quite similar to a clown car as far as fitting them all in was concerned. On another occasion I saw one Carabineri driving around what appeared to be his friends around town. Hmmmm…
  • Car Size. Speaking of cars, the size of cars was extremely small. You did not see trucks or SUVs, but instead lots of Smart Cars, Puntos, and other autos of similar dimensions. Once glance at the city streets made the reason for this abundantly clear–there was simply no room for larger cars to park, drive through, or even move.
  • Italian Urban Planning. Is not a phrase commonly used or thought, I suspect. As with most older cities, there is no coherent plan for streets, thoroughfares, or any sort of sense in getting people from one place to another with any particular efficiency. Winding cobblestone streets will suddenly open up and intersect with a 6 lane artery throughout town.
  • Pedestrians. In the narrow streets, cars and pedestrians will be sharing the same space, as sidewalks are not found on these roads. Pedestrians are expected to move out of the way when a car moves, and are expected to clear the road quite quickly, as the car is often careening down the narrow streets. When crossing a busy 6 lane road, pedestrians should not rely on traffic lights, as they usually don’t exist. I learned to be fearless and just start walking out into traffic, since this is the only way Italian drivers will stop for people crossing the street.
  • Water. Rome is the city of water, and it is a celebrated resource. Fountains are plentiful, and water is continually running from spigots and faucets. Once you have a water bottle, you won’t need to buy any more water, as the water flowing from the fountains in any city or town is drinkable and wonderfully refreshing.
  • Exact Change, Please. At the market where we usually shopped, there was this one clerk who always expected us to have exact change ready immediately upon ringing up the total. I actually think she expected us to add everything up in advance an just be ready to produce the change. Whenever we didn’t have exact change, which was often, she would often scowl and reluctantly accept our inexact amount.
  • Ruins, Ruins everywhere. I don’t think I was prepared for the amount of ruins that Rome contained. It was quite literally filled with them. An old structure thousands of years that would be a national treasure in most parts of the world were almost neglected and ignored in many situations. You would often just turn the corner into some old excavation site.
  • Tourist Season. We arrived during the end of tourist season, and got to watch as the city turned back into a place for Romans. The natives were returning from their holidays at the coast, and souvenir stands, vendors, and entire attractions such as the Trastevere party along the river just disappeared. As the tourists left, it was an interesting exercise seeing as the quality of food went up, they cared more about the presentation, and the souvenir carts thankfully bid their farewell until the next spring!
  • Fruit Quality. The fruit is generally not as fresh as in the United States, but the tomatoes and basil were the exception. Both were outstandingly fresh and good, which is not entirely a surprise.
  • McDonalds. Yes, they do exist.
  • Mexican Food. Does not exist.
  • Trains. The train network is one that I’m very jealous of. Their “milk trains” were well over 100mph, quite well furnished, and very reasonably priced. Trains left often, towns were well connected, and choices plentiful. Seats were not reserved for the slow trains, but for the other two classes of trains, Innercity and Eurostar, seats were reserved and the compartments comfortable. The extra bump in price is well worth it after a long weekend of exploring and you just want a place to settle down in some comfortable seats and cruise to Rome in style.
  • Campo Characters. Since our apartment was on the 1st floor overlooking the Campo, and because as a result of this we spent much of our free time around the Campo, we became quite acquainted with some of the local characters. Every morning we would awake to That Goddamned Prego Guy, who had a cart every morning right in front of our apartment selling lemonchello. His trademark was the very loud and annoying “PREGO FREE TASTE HELLOOOO” every 14 seconds, beginning at 6am. He became an object of hate amongst the Campo dewllers, and we secretly wished he would explode or something. One of our fellow residents said that he got the sense that the other vendors nearby were beginning to become hostile to his loud and annoying ways. Another Campo denizen was The Mime. The Mime would appear at night when the vendors left and the campo opened up for evening relaxation. He would appear with his little speaker on a cart, and would always lay out a piece of carpet before beginning this oddly soothing musical trance/yoga CD. The only problem is that we had no idea what he was miming, despite viewing his routine approximately 40 times. This annoyed us, but we found his music soothing and his very poor miming easily ignored. Late at night the Creepy Mouse Dude would creep out of the shadows. He would walk around with a fake mouse on a stick and a whistle in his mouth, and generally act creepy towards females a third of his age. One day we heard this wonderful rhythmic drumming and flutes playing, and the Fun Cultists showed up! They wore the cult clothing so often stereotyped, passed out little pieces of paper, and generally looked like they were having way too much fun.

That’s about it for my thoughts and observations that I didn’t really mention in my previous posts. If you have anything you might be curious about, feel free ask in the comment section.

In other news, I uploaded my edited pictures from the trip, you can view them at the link below.

Italy Photo Album

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