Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big fish, little fish

When I first arrived in Rome I was almost scared to leave the house. Not only because my Italian language skills were sorely wanting, but also because of the chaos on the streets that made my poor English rule-conditioned heart bound with panic every time I had to cross a road. And I don't even drive! Even facing a simple zebra crossing as a pedestrian had the power to inspire sweaty palms and a burst of terrified adrenaline as I finally took the plunge and stepped off the kerb, motorinos and cars either stopping just centimetres before me or swerving round me as I walked.

Needless to say I soon got used to it and I now step regally off the kerb, the power of my glance halting all but the most insistent motorinos. Those who dare to swerve past can skim my ankles and I won't even deign to turn my head.

When travelling as a passenger in a car I try to embrace a state of zen-like calm that helps me cope with the crazy traffic, parking arguments and contant near-crashes. My boyfriend E deals manfully with all this hassle, and indeed it doesn't seem to bother him. Just yesterday in fact he was waiting for somebody to vacate a parking space (spaces are notoriously difficult to find in Rome) when a woman pulled in front of him and put on her indicator, waiting for the same space. After a fair bit of swearing and some Italian-style gestures that I took to mean "bugger off and let me take my rightful space" the woman still didn't move on. At this point E got out the car, walked over and told the woman in as many words to bugger off becuase he was there first, thank you very much. During this episode I was slouched down in my seat dying of mortification. "Just give her the space" I begged "we'll find another one".
But it turned out the woman was playing dirty, and insisted that as she had "asked" (through gestures) the man who was leaving the space if she could have it, the space was hers. In the end she left, we parked, all was fine.

The moral of the story? You gotta learn the rules of the jungle. Or, more aptly, when in Rome, play as dirty as the Romans do.

But it's not necessarily always foreigners who are the fish out of water. Last week we went on a jolly to Naples. That is me, E and two friends Giorgio and Maria. The guys, who are both hardened illegal-hazard-light-using, parking-space-argument Roman driving pros, took turns behind the wheel.

As soon as we came off the motorway and drove into the city of Naples a change came over them. They were no longer the agressive, sweary, multi-taksing drivers I knew but nervous, attentive and careful strangers in a new city. We got a bit lost needed to ask for directions but every time the he'd rolled the window down halfway Giorgio lost courage and hastily rolled it back up, fearing every second person to be a Camorrista who might take against us. E turned on to a roundabout and needed to exit, but couldn't get off it. "Why won't anyone let me out?" he whimpered as cars seemed to come straight for us and close in on us from all angles. We parked the car and promtly a parcheggiatore (a guy who "helps" you park in the city centre then expects a fee) showed up and we organised a furtive and fearful whiparound of our loose change in the backseat of the car. In the end we gave two euros, twice what we'd give in Rome.

It was funny seeing these mouthy Romans when faced with Naples' mean streets turning into the equivalent of a pale English girl trying to cross the road in Rome. Maybe when the next time in Rome I close my eyes and pray when Giorgio overtakes on a corner or cringe as the 10-ton bus I'm travelling on screeches to a stop centimetres from the car in front I can remember our day in Naples and feel a little better.


  1. Yes, that is true! I kinda lived the same while living in Pescara, but soon i learned to act just like them and i was fine. It's fun to see when they go somewhere else other than their place... they act like they don't belong to that country! I saw that a couple of times of south-italians in Milan!

  2. Hi Manu. Yep, that's become my greatest trick. Pretend you're confident and that you belong and you magically (almost) forget your fear!