Rome–Maybe it’s because we’re from New York?
It’s been another warm, sun-filled day in the Eternal City, something I’ve come to expect at almost any time of the year when I’m here. And the fruit is lusciously sweet, the vegetables fresh and firm, the meats tender and tasty, the wine delicious and, shockingly, reasonably priced.
All of this–as wonderful a treat as it is each time I encounter it–is by now completely expected.
But what has been unexpected on this visit began months ago with reports emanating from back home; specifically, news reports that Rome has become the site of a garbage armageddon, a city with an ever-greater expanse of potholes and semi-completed public works, a chaotic mess that has overwhelmed its latest government and left its population in deep despair.
The reports we had read, from no less than the authoritative New York Times, as well as other media outlets, painted a near-apocalyptic portrait of a city rapidly descending into a heap of refuse, a situation more like what you would expect to find in a failed developing nation than in a world capital. The accounts were varied and grim: of uncollected garbage piling higher and higher and fouling the air as the temperatures rose and the new government of reformers got schooled by the mob-controlled sanitation union; of nearly unpassable roads and sidewalks as infrastructure projects were neglected or halted mid-work; of sidewalks littered with cigarette butts; of traffic congestion and parking chaos that surpassed anything seen before in this car-crazed country.
An ugly picture, and one that had my wife and I bracing for a less-than-ideal stay.
One week into our month-long visit, we have not been able to confirm those dire accounts. In fact, as we have traveled around various parts of the city–starting with our own rental apartment that is not in the tourist mecca of il centro–the reality of everything from the garbage piles in public places, to the condition of the sidewalks and streets , to the flow of traffic, to the state of public transportation has, if anything, compared favorably with what we experience on a daily basis back home (save for the cigarette butts, everywhere and a sign that the country has yet to kick that disgusting habit).
We’ve talked to locals, and they’ve complained about the state of affairs in Rome, something I have heard for as long as I’ve come here and history has shown is just about as old as the Roman Empire. When pressed gently, they will acknowledge that it may be clean where they are and where we’ve been, but that it “depends on the neighborhood.” Exactly which neighborhoods those are we still haven’t learned.
And while I have no doubt there are neighborhoods where the neglect matches the complaints, it’s apparent that the conditions in many areas of this town are way better than what news accounts or resident complaints claim it is.
Which brings me back to our hometown, New York. We live in an area of Manhattan that is a major destinations for tourists, both domestic and international, who are seeking a bit of what Old New York must have been like. Yet I could very easily write a report about the sorry state of cleanliness and garbage collection all around us.
I could use almost any morning as an example, with me stepping out of our building’s front door, turning right to go buy our daily bread. What do I see? A tsunami of pizza boxes, paper plates, flying napkins, beverage bottles–whole and shattered–and other detritus that has overwhelmed the few meager public waste baskets provided by the city. I could cite repeated complaints with the city government we and our neighbors have made, the result of which has been zero improvement in collection and a not-so-subtle suggestion that we remedy the situation ourselves (as in giving us green garbage bags) rather than improving the Sanitation Department’s pickup schedule and/or fining delinquent businesses, like the oh-so-popular (with tourists) pizza shop, that are the font of the mess.
Our street in Manhattan has recently been repaved and it’s nice, save for the one corner a block away that the city has never quite figured out how to grade in order to prevent the lake that appears every time the rain is more than a sprinkle. Rome’s streets, by contrast, have been pretty good to ride on and cross over. We haven’t encountered the infamous Manhattan streets that threaten imminent injury to both pedestrian ankles and car axles.
And the regularly maligned Roman driver? Let’s just say that in New York City we would never, ever, under any circumstance day or night walk onto a marked crossway when there was even a single car in motion and approaching us for fear of being flattened by it and its thoughtless pilot. In Rome, what we have experienced without exception are drivers, whether they be in cars or the ubiquitous motor bike, who stop in both directions to let pedestrians cross. Way lower stress.
The Metropolitana–Rome’s version of the New York City subway–is nothing like the rail network in New York. The Apple’s system moves millions of people a day, every day, along what would be, untangled, hundreds of miles of track. But the Rome trains, contrary to popular legend (and an undeniable history of labor strife that can shut it down at a moment’s notice), seems to run smoothly, with frequent arrivals, electronic billboards announcing train locations, and clean cars. Anyone who has auditioned as a sardine or sweltered on a platform on the New York’s system would quickly recognize the differences.
Yes, Rome is a much smaller city than New York. Yet the point here isn’t that Rome is “better” than New York. Rather, it is that the recent (and not so recent) reporting by American journalists strikes me as shoddy work built on easy stereotyping. They, and their editors, should know better.
Then again, as I’ve already noted, maybe conditions in Rome don’t seem so bad to us because we’re from New York…