Rome and home again

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    Rome is spectacular and so are Romans. It’s incredible when you walk through a city that’s clearly more than 2,000 years old in many places. And it still works; the plazas of the Middle Ages are as full and bustling as they were when they were built. St. Peter’s is filled with clerics and tourists as it has been from the beginning. And with a wee bit of a touch up, you probably could run a World Cup in the coliseum where 2,000 years ago they were producing other kinds of spectacular events. The strange part is, even though this is our first trip to Rome, it’s all very familiar-perhaps a Disney/I Claudius/Russell Crowe kind of familiar, but still kind of something you know even if you’ve never been here before.

    We were lunching on the Via Veneto when suddenly I was in “La Dolce Vita” calling Marcello, Marcello-or was it Aldo? I can’t quite remember. Visiting the Trevi Fountain seemed incomplete without Anita Ekberg wading around in a low-cut dress, freezing I’m sure, because I think they shot that scene in December. And the world of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn buzzing around Rome on a little Vespa hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, one of the breathtaking adventures of Rome was barreling around in a taxi, with those little scooters buzzing around you like mosquitoes defying common sense and, often, gravity.

    We found a couple of spectacular restaurants, one in Rome and one in Florence. In Rome it was Il Matriciano on Via Dei Gracchi, located near the Vatican. It’s been around for 80-plus years, and in the same Colasanti family. They know what they’re doing, and according to my Malibu standards, they’re a hell of a bargain.

    In Italy you generally can’t go wrong ordering the house wine anywhere, but even if you order from the wine list, they’re still wonderful buys because they don’t mark up the wines the way we do in America.

    In Florence we ate lunch at an old restaurant called Paoli on Via Dei Tavolini, located near the American Express office in the center of town where it’s been serving diners for perhaps a century or two.

    They’ve got it down pat. The restaurant was so good we asked the captain, who was in his late 50s, to recommend a restaurant in Rome. He just shrugged his shoulders and said he couldn’t help us because he had never been to Rome. We were shocked and asked him why. He just shrugged again and said he was from Firenze (Florence) and just had no need to go to Rome. It’s an attitude you see in Italy. Italians seem less restless than Americans, and more contented. They see themselves as citizens of a city-such as Rome, Florence, or even a little mountain town in Tuscany, like San Casciano dei Bagni, near where we stayed-and also see themselves in a strata of society, which was probably the same one as their father’s. The Italians seemed comfortable staying in that place, or that stratum. Of course, maybe the restless ones came to America.

    Their feelings about Americans are all over the place. The Italians are a friendly hospitable people, and don’t seem to carry any particular baggage about Americans other than the sense I got from the papers CNN Europe and Sky News, which are about the only English language stations, that old George W. Bush is not too popular in Italy, and probably in most of Europe. That seems to be an opinion shared by both the media and the general public. If part of what we felt about Italy came from movies, I suspect the Italians weren’t any different. Several told us they saw Bush as a cowboy out of Texas. In fact, they called him “Bang Bang Bush.” There is a definite media slant that is anti-the-use-of-force in Iraq, which they tend to view as a battle over oil, and also a distinctly pro-Palestinian slant in its view of the Middle East. There are far fewer newspapers in Italy than you see in the United States, and we couldn’t find any small Italian local daily newspapers, or any local weekly newspapers. I’m not sure why.

    On a whole, most of the Italians we came in contact with spoke some English, except in the small towns, and appeared to like Americans as a people, and respect the American people as a success.

    It doesn’t take long in Europe before you begin to feel really deficient in languages. European kids backpack all over, and many people speak more than one language fluently. You can’t help but feel that traveling would be a lot more interesting if you could speak a few languages.

    The only downside is that Italy is so far away, and post Sept. 11 flying has become an ordeal. Most international airlines want you at the airport two hours before departure, so you spend a lot of time waiting in airports. Between the flying time, transit times and the security time, it’s an easy 24 hours before your get home. But it’s worth it.