Mission Statement

So there is no misunderstanding, this blog isn't just another ex-pat site full of information and miscellaneous advice (unless you consider learning through my mistakes and observations a type of advice). My vision for this blog is to let people in on the truth of what it means to live in this crazy and lovable country. If you want to continue glorifying and romanticizing Italy, then some of what I have to say may be hard for you to hear. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August Hush

       There is an eerie calm in Rome. The streets are silent save for the occasional ring of a tram's bell or the whine of a distant ambulance. Entire stretches of store fronts are shuttered and barred with iron gates while children play soccer in the middle of wide, deserted intersections. One could half expect to find two cowboys (or shall we say gladiators) facing off at opposite ends of Piazza Navona, as a hot, lonely breeze scatters discarded newspapers across their path. First-time tourists look around themselves at the empty metropolis, sweaty and baffled.

      Unless you're Italian or have previously visited Rome in August, you may be one of these baffled tourists and begin to suspect that a plague of epidemic proportions has annihilated half the population and sent almost everyone else to Las Vegas with Randall Flagg... or perhaps something less apocalyptic. Wherever your imagination takes you, you will certainly get the sense that you are seriously out of the loop. But don't worry. It's just August. Rome is away on vacation.

      In August you cannot take for granted that any of your favorite stores or restaurants will be open for business. If there's road or track work to be done, it will be done at this time, so you also cannot take for granted that public modes of transportation will be functioning in any reliable way. What you can take for granted is that it will be about 97°F and humid under the blazing sun and that the rare bus that finally passes will most likely be un-airconditioned and crowded with smelly tourists. So you may be surprised to hear me say that despite how unappealing that sounds, now that I've lived here for a few years and have gotten to experience the full spectrum of seasons, I actually find it to be one of the most enchanting periods to be in Rome.

      Not counting the totally unmemorable first three years of my life, until the age of 28 I had only been in Rome during or around this time of year and therefore lacked a proper comparison. To me the eternal city was eternally hot, hazy, and just about empty. “Chiuso per ferie” (closed for vacation) is and was the common hand written sign taped to the portcullis of most of the privately owned businesses in the city, making me wonder whether everyone leaves because everything is closed or if everything is closed because everyone leaves. But who cares? All I know is that when the cloud of chaos lifts, the drone of the city turns off in a rather spectacular way and makes life audible again; the wind in the leaves, the squawk of seagulls over the river, the pitter patter of individual sandals on the sidewalk... People even seem to talk in hushed tones so as not to disrupt the unexpected tranquility.

      Where is everyone, you ask? Well, clearly there's another and, if you think about it for a moment, obvious side to this scenario... When the residents of Rome pack up their cars and their RVs and hit the road like one giant organism, they all seem to go where almost everyone else has gone: to the seashore, where one square meter of sand-space is at a major premium and where you're guaranteed to get elbowed and kicked by children in the water. As much as I love the Mediterranean beaches, you might have to actually pay me a substantial sum to convince me to go there during these last two weeks of August because my idea of a relaxing day does not include listening to other people's screaming kids and getting sprayed with sand every time my neighbor, mere inches away, adjusts his towel. Luckily, for most of the summer this is the situation only on weekends, so if I want some beach time I make sure to go between Monday and Friday. But, as of yesterday, the beach is off-limits to me everyday until September.

      Yesterday was August 15th, Ferragosto, the summer holiday of holidays and the peak of the exodus. No other country that I know of has such a clear-cut national vacation time. Yes, in the US we have Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend to help us define the start and end of summer, but apart from those two crowded weekends, the rest of the summer is spread out pretty evenly. In Italy, however, everything gets condensed into the two and a half weeks between August 15th and September 1st, so what would otherwise be a slow trickle in and out over the course of a few months, becomes instead a tidal wave of humanity crashing upon the coastlines, leaving behind it a barren calm and the best parking spots ever.

      In all honestly, it shocks me that I've become someone who so shuns the hustle and bustle of city life. Of course I still appreciate the cultural gifts that a city like Rome has to offer, but after ten years in New York City and another two in Rome I now have a highly soluble, rice-paper-thin layer of tolerance for traffic, smog, litter, and general human behavior and can only be submerged in the whole mess for several hours at a time before starting to totally lose my mind. August is just...different.

      Of course it's not like the entire city is completely devoid of human life. Just stroll past the Colosseum or the Vatican and you'll see the vibrant fannypack-wearing, trinket-buying throngs, blissfully unaware that they're being shown a highly censored version of Rome. In fact if you're looking for a real slice of life, then absolutely do not come in August. If you want to experience the adventure of trying to cross a busy Roman intersection while motorbikes swarm the streets like flies, or if you want to go shopping on Via Dei Giubbonari for some unique Made In Italy fashions, or if you want to go barhopping and people-watching in the crooked streets of Trastevere, then, I repeat, this is not the right time for you. For you there are eleven other months to choose from that should suit you just fine. Leave this one to the misanthropes like myself.

*If you are the copyright holder of one of the photos used in this post please contact me if you wish for it to be removed.

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