Mexico...in small bytes

TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE

Mexico...in small bytes ranges far afield from its home turf once again, this time traveling to Rome.

The month-long trip generates some musings on an Italy perhaps few people see and some tips for potential travelers.

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The famous statue of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus suckled by a she-wolf, is found throughout the city. This emblem can be found everywhere, even as a logo for a gas station chain.

Perhaps more than Remus and Romulus, pasta is the trademark of Italy. And there is no place on the globe where you'll find it prepared better.

 

There is a reason the tourist industry calls late November to mid March the low season. The stagione bassa in Italy means lower airfares, some really good deals on hotels, shorter lines for everything except maybe the Vatican and less tourists.

But the low prices do tend to coincide with low temps. Sometimes rain. Even snow. But who ever said there was a free lunch?

 

 

 

One thing about the cold, if you're wearing all the clothes you brought with you for the trip, layer upon layer, your luggage gets pretty light.

Later that day, it snowed.

Unless you have a fat wallet or a string of sugar daddies behind you, going in low season might be the only way the average tourist or retiree working under the disadvantage of paying with U.S. or Canadian dollars can manage places like Rome nowadays.

At the time of our month long visit (mid January to mid February) the dollar was hovering around 1.3 to the euro give or take a few percentage points making the exchange rate definitely demoralizing. If Italians were complaining about prices and believe me they do, try paying for stuff with dollars or even worse Mexican pesos (15 to the euro). See how far your pesos go if you spend 60 of them for a small tap beer in an average bar in Rome.

Yet if you don't travel about too much, eat in small family establishments where normal people eat, stay at B&B's (if you're not doing a house exchange or staying with friends) and find your amusement in just being in the country, a stay in Rome doesn't have to be exorbitant. Still for us it was a good idea to go during the off season.

In 2003 Pablo made a spur of the moment visit to the Eternal City while I stayed in Urbania, happily toiling away at a language class. He had to change his hotel every day because of almost full occupancy and spent a good deal of time each day cruising the area for another place to crash. For the week he was there, a very basic single room, sometimes with the bathroom down the hall, ran an average of 100 euros. And what is really mind-boggling, they were hard to find!

Using www.laterooms.com and Italian, it was easy in late January to mid February to find doubles in Rome's B&B's for 50 euros. There were all large rooms, very clean, quiet, had nice soft beds and spiffy in-room bathrooms, all items lacking in the rooms during Pablo's stay. Except for working out one really good deal, enough people speak enough English that Italian really isn't a necessity. If you wanted to stay a week you could negotiate a lower rate. Even in the off season, every place we stayed was filled during the weekend but they were all singularly vacant during the week. This fact allowed for some leeway in bargaining.

If you stay more than a week, it's probably worth investigating short-term apartment rentals. They may or may not be a better deal but worth looking into.

Digs under 50 euros are certainly possible, or at least one likes to think they are possible, but at age 60, we're not as into Spartan as we were in our 20's. Once the bulk of the tourists start to arrive, however, all bets are off and prices soar.

On a lark, I looked up a hotel mentioned in TRAVELERS' TALES: ITALY that overlooked the Partheon. It was listed as going for 260 to 350+ euros a night. I then read the comments made by a number of travelers who stayed there. Although one couple raved, the rest were really bummed out by the experience. Lukewarm water; an aloof and unfriendly management; small, hot, dark rooms; noise from inside the hotel and ants in the bathroom were all mentioned. That would turn me off too if I was paying over 300 euros a night.

The main tourist office close to the Termini train station has a complete list of B&B's in Rome. No matter which one you pick it will invariably be cheaper and less impersonal than a hotel. And it probably comes without the ants.

That takes care of lodging. Eating in Rome can be tricky. Discount the fancy restaurants right off the bat. The more you pay, the worse you eat is my theory.

If you're looking for real basic, check out the small stores with a salumaria or the bars for ready-made sandwiches. I'm highly partial to the rucula and stracchini sandwiches sold at Mr. Panini to the right of McDonalds at Termini. Almost worth a trip to Rome. Add fruit from the local vendors and local wine from a small shop and you're in business.

Pizzas are invariably tasty and generally quite reasonable. Another bet is the Menu Turistico which is a full meal at a set price. In can run 10-15 euros and be adequate to rather good.

One reason many Italians and tourists alike eat on the hoof or go for take out is that the minute you sit down at a table you almost invariably incur the copertura (the charge for bread, tablecloth, dishes and silverware) that can range from a hefty charge to only one euro per person.

The problem with Rome is that even the Romans complain about the food. The area has the rep for being the lowest rung on the food chain in all of Italy. Considering the caliber of vittles found in this country, this is not really hitting rock bottom but is a bit of a disappointment for two who have sampled the culinary joys of Liguria, LeMarche and, ah, Puglia.

Look closely and you will find the history of one Roman civilazation or another carved on the stone but no where will you find the important info on how to find a really good restaurant.
 

We did manage to snag a few really good places purely by chance and luck. The secret is to look for osterias or trattorias where Italians eat and put your fate in the hands of the waiter or owner as the case may be. This was one time I was truly glad to have Italian since at those memorable spots, we never once saw a menu.

Another trick to keeping the cost and the weight down is to share the primer piatto and the secondo between two people. Italians can have a huge capacity for food and a meal with a heaping platter of antipasto, followed by pasta and then by a meat course, various side dishes and dessert all washed down with wine and later a coffee and a liquor (euphemistically called un digestivo) is not uncommon. It's a pretty staggering enterprise for those not in training so it seems best to order piecemeal.

This practice allows one to taste a greater variety of food and insures that the poorly chosen item does not represent a substantial part of the meal or the bill. I do recall with great fondness, though, a long and ample repast two years ago with friends in one of those 'no name' trattorias that are the gems of the Italian culinary scene. I made my way through each and every exquisite course and left without feeling stuffed…to me a miracle if there ever was one especially at a price of 20 euros per person!

This would not happen in Rome so the restrained approach, however, is easier on the exchequer and the waistline.

If you know and appreciate good food and transmit this knowledge to the people in the establishment you have an edge. Fashion and high style may be the passion of Italians but eating is a sacred right. Those that know how to cook like those that can appreciate their talents. Once you find a place you enjoy, it's not a bad idea to stick to it. And plan on two or more hours at a sitting to truly relish that meal.

There are certainly lots of choices in establishments, it's true but equally as many opportunities for disappointment. Your stay in a place will invariably be shorter than the gastronomical possibilities of the kitchen. Plus as a return customer you are remembered and treated especially well.

 
The pedestrian bridge crossing the Tiber to go to Trastevere.

The welcome of 'Chef Juan Carlos', the jovial waiter in Trastevere who danced between the tables, occasionally bursting into song, his bald head encircled by a folded red and white checkered napkin and a serving fork mysteriously peeking out of his back pocket made each meal special. He cajoled us into ordering certain items and appeared rhapsodically pleased when we evidently enjoyed his suggestions.

Our sit-down meals ran from 20-40 euros total for the two of us with wine and beer included.

Keep in mind that breakfasts as Americans and Canadians are accustomed to are not a happening thing in Italy and eating establishments are open from 12:00-3:00 PM and from 8:00 PM to fairly late and that's it. Eating between these times can mean a sandwich in a bar in a city or scrounging around in your purse or luggage for the candy bar or the crushed package of crackers.

Once the basics are out of the way, the only other expense is transportation and entertainment. We've talked to lots of people who rent cars and we rather cringe at the expense and the traffic but each to his/her own. As train buffs, we wouldn't think of using anything else. In the city, Pablo favors the bus and metro over the sidewalk whereas I prefer to hoof it.

He once asked a friend why he seemed to be the only one punching his ticket (the same ticket is good for 75 minutes and can be used on tram, bus or metro) wondering if it was the likes of tourists like him that were supporting Rome's transportation system. She laughed saying it's the Roman view that tourists are the only ones getting a free ride. Everyone else has purchased a monthly or more likely a yearly pass.

No, it can't be Rome. What happened to the tram, the buses, the cars, the people?

Is it a transportation strike, a pollution alert that prohibits traffic from the inner city, a shot taken at 5:00 AM or just a fluke?

Vote for the latter.

 

Three-day and week long tickets are also available and are a good deal if one has a modicum of organizational skill and doesn't lose them like we did.

There are naturally those of any nationality who try to zip on and off without paying but if you are unlucky enough to try this when the inspectors do their random check (one blocking each door), you have to shell out 50 euros on the spot for the fine. If you can't, you must appear at some office or other and pay out 100 euros.

Given my devious mind I thought, heck, as a tourist you could just disappear and that would be that but then it dawned on me the fact that in Italy you need to have your papers on you at all times (as in Mexico, we only carry copies). Once the authorities have your papers, you pay the fine or learn more than you want to of the inner workings of Italian bureaucracy.

Like transportation, entertainment is up to the individual's preference and wallet. Personally, as impressive as the Vatican Museum is and it is truly overwhelming, I have to say I was just as happy standing at the guard rail and looking down at the ruins and the cats of Largo Argentina.

 
 
Two of the pampered kitties in the Ruderi di Lago Argentina (from the calendar 'Gatti di Roma').

The tales of legions of felines roaming the ruins of Rome are far from rumor. Thousands of gattos have found refuge amongst the remnants of ancient Roman civilization. Due to the dedicated efforts of individuals from a couple organizations with official permits to enter the closed off sites, these cats have water and food. Indeed they are quite fat and indolent, a present reminder of the past residents within those walls.

 
 
Cats and bridal couples alike all find the Coliseum appealing.
 
The Forum, another hangout for cats and tourists. It's debatable which group outnumbers the other.

Well aware that most tourists could fit a month of my sightseeing into a three-day schedule with room to spare, I continue to be content to muddle about the country in my fashion. As I meander about, I am often jostled by a couple on a power walk, map in hand and check list in the other. They will see more sites in an afternoon than I have in four visits but that's cool. The crazed almost manic determination to SEE IT ALL is probably as insane as my willingness to spend thousands of dollars and cross an ocean in order to walk a few streets and sit on a park bench.

Everyone has their own traveling style and Italy accepts them all. What I can't understand is how Italians can accept us. We were a definite minority in winter but that last week, I could already see an upsurge in the tourist numbers. I'm told that at some point in March, bam, the streets are filled to overflowing. I can only imagine what it's like during the full onslaught.

How do the locals manage to support it? For one, I can't fathom how a motorist manages to move more than a block or more. One of the reasons I had held off going to Rome was hearing all the horror stories of traffic. As a confirmed walker, I figured that all I could do was circle the same block endlessly since the present day chariot drivers would prevent my crossing any and all intersections.

Something must have happened in recent years because the zebra stripe on the pavement appears to serve as more than just urban folk art. Walking in Mexico City and Sao Paolo and Cochabamba has taught me to be highly cautious of anything that moves faster and weighs more than me. Imagine my surprise when a tentative foot set out into the street to ready myself for a break in traffic caused cars to come to a standstill.

I even saw people cheerfully crossing safely against lights while brakes were pumped all around them. Very nice indeed but what happens when the tourist season opens in force and there are more walkers than cars? The city must be one massive traffic gridlock while map holding visitors wander about willy-nilly.

Maybe this invasion explains the gruff, indifferent or downright rude behavior that some visitors and even Romans themselves attribute to the denizens of this city. Perhaps an off-season visit explains the invariable graciousness of those we encountered.

A few random tips for travelers:

You might see a sign with W.C. and an arrow pointing in some nebulous direction but don't count on following it with success. Romans told me to use the 'toilette' in a bar. If you feel obligated or are ready for a caffeine fix, order a coffee. Otherwise, as opposed to places like Germany, it's acceptable to bop in and out without leaving any currency behind.

In Rome most of these toilet facilities are normal in appearance. The days of the 'Turkish bath' (a hole in the floor with indentations for your feet) are no more.

If you are traveling in the rainy season and enter an establishment, do remember to place your umbrella in the stand situated at the entrance. Aside from drippy floors, it is considered decidedly unlucky to open an umbrella inside a room.

Coming from Mexico where phone rates are some of the highest in the world, we always travel to Italy with phone numbers of friends. Go to the phone centers with one immigrant group or another milling about out front and you will be truly pleased with the cost. These centers usually have the cheapest sites for Internet as well.

 

Most museums (the Vatican excepted) and barber shops and hair salons are closed on Monday.

New, original CD's are exorbitantly pricey. We've seen a number in shops listed at over 30 euros or 39 bucks a pop. Black market pirates are sold on the street laid out next to imitation Louis Vouitron purses but my favorite source is the stand or kiosk selling used or dated items. Really good prices, nice selection and sellers knowledgeable about the music.

If you are a shopper, it makes sense to head to Italy in January/February since clothing stores slash prices to get ready for the next season. Unfortunately, there is never a special on the kitchen ware and semolina flour I always bring back.

It's been said and written about umpteen times before but it never hurts to drive the point home. The less luggage you have, the happier you'll be. Even in Rome, who's going to notice you've alternated between two changes of clothes during the whole trip?

Plus put anything you don't want to lose in your carry-on. Just be glad the airline gets you from Point A to Point B safely. The rest is icing on the cake.

Rather like the monument to Victorio Emmanuel, often called Rome's Wedding Cake.

Rome certainly does have something for everyone and nothing for some as evidenced by the number of beggars and panhandlers you see. Some could be recent immigrants down on their luck; others the current remakes of the BoxCar Bertha and Hobo Village era and others members of organized groups where begging is a way of life.

Paul watched one group of Gypsy's operating by Termini and was impressed by the choreographed aspect of their work. A recent crackdown has made the group more circuitous. There were only a couple women, each with the inevitable baby in tow, hitting up the tourists.

They must have an inner sense for who's a good touch or not because we've never been hassled. However, Pablo noticed some serious and persistent confrontations during the time he observed the action. The two women managed to extract any number of bills and when confronted with small change, fists were raised and Romani curses hurled out at large and at the offenders in particular.

There was one woman acting as lookout for the carabinieri and generally directing the show and another who discretely acted as the bank so that if confronted the women could deny begging since they would have no money on them.

To me the fact that there were so few seemed to indicate a high degree of organization where turf is allotted and protected much the same way it is for the youths who jump out at most Mexican intersections to wash windshields.

If the Vatican were in Mexico, there certainly would be more than the two old crones we saw prostrating themselves with identical messages in front of their outstretched hands during the four blocks our line snaked to the museum entrance.

 
The line for the Vatican Museum during high season can only be imagined if during a drizzly Monday in February, we waited over an hour and a half. Even most of the beggars stayed home.

But whatever their background these beggars represent a sizeable, and according to Italians, growing number on the streets of even smaller more provincial cities.

I have to say it was the musicians and the Kerouac counterparts who garnered my change. In a city singularly lacking in random music, it was refreshing to hear something other than traffic noise as I walked.

One drizzly day walking along Viale dell'Arco in Trastevere, a street favored by immigrants selling any number of rip-off brand name articles, by fashionably dressed Italians and by map-clutching tourists, we noticed an old indigent fellow resting on the church steps as a young woman on a snazzy moto turned the corner. A nasty scrapping sound followed and we turned back.

As we rounded the corner, we saw one of the immigrant vendors and the old man trying to right the moto that had skidded and tipped, pinning the driver underneath. Pablo gave a hand. The woman was visibly shaken but apparently unhurt. The helmet that had saved her from hospitalization had given her a nasty knock on the head.

A passing vagrant, pack on his back and dogs obediently trotting alongside, also stopped to help. The girl's hands were shaking so badly the proffered Kleenex fell one after the other to the wet cobblestone. It somehow seemed like a tableau for Italy's future…the old guy, the immigrant, the bum, the tourist and the Italian.

 

Another of the bridges leading into Trastevere. This one was home to quite a colony of vagrants and their dogs.

 

A couple days later making the tail end of a transfer between lodgings with luggage in tow, I passed the same vagrant and his dogs on Via Trastevere. He was fingering the few small coins in the dish in front of him. Setting down the bag and fishing around in my purse, I extracted an euro to add to his small collection.

'Grazie,' he said totally surprised.

'And thank you for helping the young woman that skidded on her moto the other day,' I said. 'It's good to see that people still care.'

Either my Italian made ragazza sound like ragazzo or he was having some difficulty connecting the neurons as he answered, 'That was only natural. He is a friend of mine.'

'No, the young girl that fell by the church Saturday during the rain,' I said feeling I had started a conversation that had no business getting going at all.

'Oh, her,' synapses now working, he added. 'I see so many accidents around here I loose count. She really did take a tumble, didn't she?'

'That's for sure. It was kind of you to be concerned.'

'Hey, it's only right.'

'Well, how many did you see stopping?'

'Yeah, that's the way it is nowadays. Unfortunately………………………… unfortunately.' His voice drifted off but then he noticed my luggage. 'You have a good trip.'

The Trastevere neighborhood, with its laundry flapping in the wind, was a favorite haunt and a place with a real sense of community.

I left feeling I would indeed have a good trip and kicking myself for not using the opportunity to ask him for dog-training tricks that guaranteed such obedient behavior from his two canines.

The Travelers' Law: always leave something undone to assure you have a reason to return. I figure it works better than tossing a coin over your left shoulder at the Trevi Fountain, especially since I noticed most of the tourists were going through the motions for their camera-toting companions minus the coin. It might not be the kind of thing that would draw many back to the Eternal City but it works for me. That and those killer Italian haircuts.

The famous Trevi Fountain sans the tourists with their backs to the water hamming it up for their camera toting friends.

Coming in mid-March: A comparison between the Italy we visit and the Mexico where we live.

 
 

The Road of Peace, a path one wishes more would follow. Then we could perhaps avoid another sign of the times...the image of the Italian journalist kidnapped this year in Iraq.

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