There is most definitely an order to things in the apparent chaos of Rome and, indeed, Italy. It takes a trained eye and patient soul to recognize and acknowledge that order – particularly when in the midst of the chaos. Such training, in my current field, is pretentiously and- some may argue – incorrectly referred to as “cultural competency”. So, to gain insights into a context not your own, to learn to read cues from use of language, timbre and cadence or from body language, trends and counter-trends and to deal with those new insights in such a way as to refrain from judgement but, rather, deepen one’s knowledge of one’s self, one’s own background and position in relation to this new and foreign context all add up to “cultural competency” (sic). Personally, I liked it better when from closed- or narrow-minded one became open-minded; from provincial, one became worldly; from anxious around the new and different, one became confident, comfortable and empowered.
Now that I am nearly30yearsitalian, I can safely say I’ve got insights. I’ve got those kinds of insights that come to those of us who straddle two continents, absorbing and adapting that with which we choose to identify from each to our everyday existence.
Quick examples: when my daughter was little, I refused to allow her to stay up until all hours and, instead, fed her her dinner at what would be considered afternoon in Italy. She was in bed by the Italian equivalent to dinnertime. Clearly, she was happier, more clear-minded and rested compared to her sometimes sluggish peers in school but her naps were much shorter than theirs!
I also insisted my daughter drink milk at the table when growing up, convinced that Americans knew better and that milk with the meal was a wholesome, integral, healthy part of child rearing. Why I neglected to acknowledge the difference between the female girth between women raised on US wholesome and those on the Mediterranean diet, I don’t know. While I have no tangible proof that ties dairy to the midsection of most American women, it seems to me that it’s certainly a likely culprit. I am not so ‘culturally competent’ as not to admit that in the case of milk-with-meals I may have done without that one aspect of my home “rearing”.
On the other hand (or side of the pond), I’ve never embraced the concept of “politically correct” from my old world (commonly known as the New World) and rather stick with the truth the way I see it in respectful (even if respectfully raised) tones. My passion flows with the Med and I am often trapped in a linguistic battle where I inevitably stack among those who interrupt incessantly, have to have the last word and cannot refrain from expressing their own opinion, whether warranted, savvy or not.
So, like an anthropologist without the pedigree, I float through painful episodes of regular citydom and observe. My greatest joy comes from staying one step ahead of an unpleasant situation, gauging and planning my moves as dictated by the index cards of data and observation stored in the overflowing, imaginary Rolodex in my mind. (My mind is in constant disarray but, like Rome and my daughter’s bedroom, it’s an ordered kind of chaos.)
Today was one of those times. A Mass Transportation strike had been announced on Friday slated for Monday, today. The strike was to hit (pun intended) at 8:30 am and run through 5:30 pm. Sometimes clemency is allowed for school children and workers to get home for lunch. Sometimes not. Sometimes strikes are planned and then cancelled. Sometimes they are not planned and strike unexpectedly. I am often heard saying to those whose ‘cultural competency’ is yet-to-be-developed and who, therefore, hyperventilate at the mere sound of the word “strike”: “no self-respecting strike doesn’t raise havoc”. I say it almost in reverence to the strike and the striking(I prefer to call them ‘striking’ rather than ‘strikers’). I say it purposefully off-the-cuff so that my comfort with the unexpected and unplanned might roll of my tongue and into their panicked, little hearts.
Today, the Monday of the strike, I had to: get my daughter to school by 8:30, get two visitors to Termini train station by 8:40, get back to work by 10:00 am. The number of kilometres to all of this was minimal. The number of metro stops, 5. The number of ordinarily-left-at-home cars on the road, tripled. So, we, too, took the car and dropped the first passenger off at school after about 6 minutes, a bit of weaving in and out of traffic and having left two of the five metro stops behind. We were early enough to find a parking space immediately in front of the UN’s FAO building and just above the entrance to the metro. Intuitively, I chose not to pay for said space, another quick check of the cultural cue Rolodex: strike day, massive traffic and crowds to control, timed conveniently between the cappuccino and brioche and the second coffee (espresso) with meandering colleagues, the parking police would not hit the pavement much before 11, long after I’d be back. So, by rapid deductive reasoning, this space was free (see more on “creative, free parking in Rome” on this blog soon)! Slipping down the stairs of the metro, just 10 minutes before the supposed strike was to hit, we bought our tickets and boarded the subway. Not surprisingly, given the announced strike, it was pleasantly empty for that time of the morning. No need to push, prod or hold your breath. At Termini, we alighted and headed towards the train tracks, arriving a full fifteen minutes before the train was meant to leave. From where I stand, that means with time for coffee; in the US visitor’s book, not so much. Task number two: check.
Believing that the strike had begun, I, like many others, waited in line outside for a taxi. I never even thought to slip downstairs to see if it’d been revoked; my bad. But I was way ahead of schedule and it was a glorious day. People behind me, next to me, in front of me grumbled as they waited. They complained aloud and looked to each other (and me) for support. If no one joined into their collective whining, they called boyfriends and mothers at home or on their own way to work, to describe the casino indescrivibile outside of Termini (if the mess is ‘indescribable’, how do they describe it so well?). The fila interminabile (the never-ending line), in actual fact, flowed quite nicely for a morning of chaos. I’ve stood in that halting line on non-strike days for much longer. I, too, made my requisite call from line to a friend in Naples. While we chatted about mayoral candidates and the day’s elections, I effortlessly reached the head of the line, stepped off the sidewalk towards the next available taxi, gave the man the address and glanced behind me at the one or two (or three or more) people I’d slipped past entirely unawares as they exchanged knowing glances and hand gestures in my direction. It was clear to me what they were saying. Whoops, I’d slipped right by them, in my comfortable oblivion. I confessed my sins to my Neapolitan friend who accused me of being worst than the Romans themselves. Actually, no, I was simply oblivious; the Romans cut with cattiveria. Always an answer, always the last word.
The taxi driver was chatty and made the usual comments about the strikers (he doesn’t find them striking). “They always want something – too much work, no work, too little work” He suggested they just get on with it and go to work. I thought it best not to mention the several times the taxi drivers of Rome have united to virtually paralyze the city’s traffic and leave residents and visitors without service for large blocks of hours at a time. We took a few detours, darted through traffic and made it back to my car by passing through via di San Teodoro, one of my favourites, cobbling behind the Palatine.
I then hopped into my ticketless car, headed towards work only to find that the strike, in fact, had been revoked. So, there we were in majestic Viale di Piramide Cestia with three times the ordinary number of cars plus all the ordinary busses (empty or nearly) and the result was a cacophony of insults with accompanying gestures and the time to take amateur videos with my Blackberry out the window. I knew it was just a question of getting around the Piramide itself, a convergence of roads which call to mind amusement park rides on a good day. Once that was done, I’d be home free. In fact, by just 10:00 am, I was back where I’d begun two hours prior. Hardly a victory in some books; a triumph in mine!