Moving from Sicily to Rome is quite a shock. I’m struggling to come up with the best metaphor. If Sicily is an old Fiat 500, Rome is a Maserati. No, that’s not right. Maybe Rome is Sicily’s more accomplished sibling. In Noto they charge 2 euros to look at some random ceiling. In Rome, you go to the Pantheon. Anything you can do, I can do better.
Except relax. We started our tour in Sicily to decompress, and we did that. Sicily was a charming, sunny (mostly), and yummy (usually) way to ease into our world tour.
Anyway, the metaphor doesn’t matter. But after spending almost three weeks in what we might charitably call a laid back atmosphere, we are now in the midst of the thrum of one of the world’s great cities. On our first night, we wandered about Trastevere, which is one of those Rome neighborhoods with windy streets, like Forza d’Agro or Ortigia, except it has people in it. And not just people, but hip people, wearing fashionable fashions and soul patches and shoes that cost more than twenty bucks. And street jazz. What passed for a crowd in Forza was a bus full of Dutch people.
We arrived on a Saturday night, and even though it was All Saint’s Day, a holy day of obligation, in Trastevere the people seemed obligated to get a drink. The bars and restaurants were jammed, which meant that they were open. This was good, because we were ready for human contact and we were hungry.
Our first stop was Pizzeria Ai Marmi. This felt like the Katz’s Deli of pizzerias. It was jammed full of people tucking into pizza and platters of beans and sausage and other homey stuff, and it was staffed by an army of guys who looked like they’ve been doing this very intricate dance for decades. Now I know, I know, pizza is a Naples thing, but Romans are entitled to pizza too. I also assume that there is no shortage of other excellent pizzerias in Rome, but our host recommended this one as his favorite and that was good enough for us. We were lucky enough to be seated just across from the pizza making operation, and it was like watching Nijinsky, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev dance a pas de trois. Or baseball’s famous double play combination, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, turn two. One guy rips little pieces from a huge mound of pizza dough and forms balls with them and then uses a rolling pin to turn them into disks thin enough to read the paper through.
He then arranges about thirty of them ever so nicely onto a big marble counter. At that point, his partner applies the toppings based on the orders arranged on pieces of paper on a pegboard on the wall.
Then the oven guy, who has been stoking a blazing wood fire, transfers the thirty or so pies to the oven using the longest pizza peel I’ve ever seen. By the time he gets the last one in, the ones that went in first are ready to come out. They go right onto plates and onto the counter.
Sitting ten or so feet away, the smell of the pile of steaming pizzas made me quite emotional, but you know how I am. By this point, the waiters had lined up, ready to get the pizzas to their tables within seconds. We watched this process repeat about every ten minutes. That’s three pizzas a minute. And how was the pizza? Perfect. The sauce was tangy, the cheese was creamy, and the crust was thin, chewy, and crunchy all at once. We also had a bowl of beans and sausage in a very spicy tomato sauce. Damn. Dinner and a show.
On our way home, we strolled through the piazzas and alleys of Trastevere, and Janine paused every two or three feet to regard the arts and crafts on offer from various sellers. She was taken by one jewelry stand, and we struck up a conversation with a fascinating fellow who was turning out bracelets and necklaces in front of our eyes. Was it my imagination or was he speaking Italian with a Mexican accent? Sure enough, he was from Monterrey, Mexico, so we switched from my hideous Italian to my merely lousy Spanish. What a fantastic and fascinating guy. Ivan is only thirty, but he’s been in Rome for six years, and he makes a point of traveling throughout the continent to buy materials and learn about other places. He talked about how the poor education system and failed political institutions in Mexico has made it impossible for him to succeed there. His travels have taken him to Turkey, Morocco, Serbia, and even Afghanistan, among other places. He’d love to visit New York or Japan, but he can’t get a visa to either place. It’s too bad – they could use his ingenuity and creativity. We exchanged notes on places we’ve visited and he gave us some suggestions that now has us rethinking how we’ll spend time in Turkey. We must have talked for twenty or thirty minutes and we had his undivided attention, which might have cost him a few sales. Janine bought a necklace and a bracelet (we are for the most part limited to purchases that are very portable), and of course she now has a story to go with them. Good luck, Ivan. It was really great to meet you.
Thanks to all for your excellent suggestions for things to do in Rome. We are doing our best to get to as many as possible, although we were stupid and only allowed for five nights. What were we thinking?
In the next month or so, we have Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, and either Marrakech or Fez in our sights. It’s too many places and not enough time, but we just can’t help ourselves. Seven months isn’t nearly enough time to see the world. If you have suggestions or thoughts about any of these places, please feel free to weigh in. The crowd is a dandy travel agent.