February 6, 2013
Sometimes I feel like the tallest person in this city. Last night I rode a crowded bus out to Testaccio; on the way there, a man’s well-coiffed head was wedged squarely into my armpit as I clung to the overhead bar. On the way back, I towered over a tiny nun whose head barely reached my waist.
I tell people that I don’t wear high-heeled shoes because I’m afraid of getting stuck in the cobblestones and killing myself, but that’s only half the truth – I don’t wear high-heeled shoes because I’d tower over ninety percent of the population here. Next to me, the average Roman appears almost pocket-sized.
Rome’s weather is constantly proving itself to be every bit as dramatic as the Romans themselves, oscillating between torrential downpours and incredibly blue skies at a rate that seems almost scientifically implausible. When I woke up this morning, it was to the sound of rain pelting furiously down on the tile rooftops across the courtyard from my bedroom window and hitting the little roof over the kitchen balcony with massive, deafening splashes. It seemed darker than usual, in a fairly ominous way, and I could see the television aerials on nearby buildings swaying in the wind.
I ventured out of the apartment in a pair of tall rubber rain boots, a heavy coat and my coziest scarf, gigantic umbrella held low over my head. Twenty minutes later, the rain slowed to a dribble, then stopped. Clouds shifted to reveal blue. The wind lightened itself into a stiff breeze. Soon I was clomping down nearly-dry streets in my rain boots, a damp umbrella dangling limply at my side.
This morning I watched as an elderly lady with unnaturally dark eyebrows and a heavy fur coat marched into the bar and pushed her way through a tangle of people in order to position herself at the counter, wedged right in between two businessmen sipping cappuccinos. Catching the barista’s attention, she demanded “un caffè ristretto al vetro, molto caldo” – an extra strong, extra-hot espresso served in glass rather than a ceramic cup. A few moments later, a profusely steaming shot glass with maybe a centimetre of inky coffee lurking in the bottom was slid onto the counter; she grabbed it, and without adding any of the sugar that Italians are so fond of dumping into their coffee, drained it in one quick, decisive motion. The businessmen beside her were still placidly swirling their cappuccinos around in their cups.
January 21, 2013
When you’re living on your own, it’s easy to forget just how much a social situation can call out and underline cultural differences, the kind of differences that tend to slide into the background during day-to-day life and then rear up conspicuously in group settings. Generally, it’s the little things that tend to shout the loudest – subtleties, slight confusions; a mountain of tiny misunderstandings. And the best way to put these differences on show? Clearly, dinner at a restaurant with a large group of Italians.
Let’s start with the kisses. Nothing presents an environment more rife with opportunities for extreme social blunders than the exchange of multiple kisses with an assortment of people ranging from good friends to near strangers, especially for someone who’s grown up in a culture with a healthy appreciation for the concept of personal space and the belief that a good firm handshake is one of the best ways to greet people who don’t yet fall inside the boundaries of the friend zone.
When I arrived in Italy, the kisses terrified me. The first few people who attempted to greet me this way likely saw a flash of bewilderment and panic flood across my face as they leaned in towards me; second nature for them was unnatural for me. I honed my kissing technique over the next few months, surreptitiously watching and taking mental notes as people all around me exchanged effortless baci without a shred of hesitation, and eventually I started to think that I had made some solid, measurable improvements. I was more fluid, less likely to get confused over which side of the face I was supposed to move towards first, better at concealing those little flashes of panic. But this weekend, while meeting up with a group outside of a restaurant in Testaccio before a dinner together, I exchanged kisses with a friend, and then a friend of a friend – someone I had only met once before – which prompted an astute observer in the group to comment on how stiff and awkward I looked: “I guess you don’t greet with kisses in Canada, do you?”
Of course, hearing this did nothing to take away my remaining anxiety over the kisses, which have a plethora of factors to stress over and then subsequently screw up. Consider the variables: Do you press your cheeks together? Peck the air beside the cheek with no facial contact whatsoever? Or do you settle for something in the middle; the briefest of cheek-to-cheek glances, the slightest suggestion of contact? And then there’s the kiss itself – are you expected to actually make a small smooching sound into the air, or should the kisses be silent, implied only by the cheek-to-cheek motion? Months of observation and somewhat hesitant participation indicates that any of these situations could happen: One person might make a nearly-deafening smacking noise directly in front of your ear, while the next might silently graze their cheek against yours in an almost disinterested way. As far as I can tell, there is an unwritten code of kissing, and the only way to know this code is to actually be Italian, or to learn it very slowly, through trial and error – and really, mostly error.
Greetings aside, there’s the issue of conversation: As the only outsider, the sole foreigner invited to join a group of friends capable of talking incomprehensible, rapid-fire Italian circles around you, do you follow the smile-and-nod routine, in which you latch yourself onto one of the conversations taking place around the table, desperately attempting to follow what’s being said and laugh in all the right places while not being at all sure if you actually have even a remotely correct sense of the conversation’s true meaning, or do you try to actually contribute, thereby subjecting the entire table to the linguistic equivalent of a toddler attempting to join an adult’s conversation? Alternately, should you feel bad when the others switch to English – at the expense of their own enjoyment, I’m sure – to make sure you’re properly included? As enjoyable as the dinner inevitably is, the whole situation is draped in a thin veil of unease.
Even the food itself jumps at the opportunity to underline and embolden those little cultural differences. Everybody else will known what to order, how much wine to drink, when to suggest sharing and how many courses to eat – and they will, without a doubt, know how to eat everything properly without appearing to be uncultured or completely lacking in hand-eye coordination and basic fork-usage skills.
I made the mistake of assuming that a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana would be an appropriate first course – after all, everybody else was ordering pasta dishes – but I had failed to consider something critical: The ease with which it can be eaten while simultaneously trying to converse in two different languages. To begin with, tomato sauce is a lethal weapon in the hands of a non-expert. If it’s not staining clothes, it’s probably flecking the white tablecloth, colourfully announcing the presence of a beginner. And then there’s the issue of noodle twirl-ability: Spaghettini might be doable, spaghetti poses some serious challenges, and bucatini… Well, bucatini is nearly impossible, at least for someone who hasn’t grown up twirling noodles on a near-daily basis. The thick, stiff strands of pasta will stubbornly refuse of curl around the fork, unwrapping themselves from the tines and sliding messily back down onto the plate just before reaching the mouth, landing in a little pile of defeat and flicking sauce everywhere in the process while the conversation comes grinding to a halt. Spoons (a beginner’s tool, apparently) will be proffered and lessons in pasta twirling will be offered up, but by that point my face has turned as red as the tomato sauce on the plate in front of me. It’s too late. Just like the kisses – something so effortless for the Italians – a simple plate of pasta has turned into a demonstration of tiny cultural contrasts.
As far as I can tell, there are only two solutions to this issue. The first involves hiding in the apartment under strict isolation, which is the only failsafe guarantee against cultural blunders. The other involves putting on dark-coloured clothes and then ordering the challenging pasta, laughing over misunderstandings in a conversation even as you feel the blush creeping up your cheeks, and kissing prolifically – kissing hello, kissing goodbye – until you’ve exchanged so many baci that you begin to understand that elusive unwritten code of kissing conduct.
January 16, 2013
During my first couple of months in Rome, I was convinced that there was a special courier service designed specifically to deliver coffee beans to the city’s bars and restaurants.
I arrived at this conclusion after spotting several bright red trucks with “Corriere Espresso” emblazoned on their sides in bold white letters – I knew that corriere meant “courier”, and I assumed, foolishly, in the way that people do when they’re just taking their first tentative steps into a new language, that espresso could only mean one thing: Coffee.
It made sense, considering that it’s impossible to walk more than a few metres in this city without stumbling on yet another bar serving up cup after cup of coffee all day long. And my belief was only strengthened when I saw one of the trucks screech to a stop outside of a bar – obviously, it was delivering the week’s supply of coffee to one of its clients.
One day, while walking across Piazza Farnese with an Italian friend, I watched a delivery guy hauling several large boxes out of the back of one of those red trucks. I made an offhand comment, something to the effect of “wow, I can’t believe how much coffee Italians go through – it’s a good thing they’ve got a special delivery network to keep everyone supplied”, and watched, a little puzzled, as a confused expression slid across her face. Surely she knew about her own city’s espresso courier?
And then, a few days later, I happened across one of the other definitions for espresso: Express. Fast.
The kind of courier that was much, much more likely to be delivering business documents and packages ordered online than darting around from bar to bar, keeping the city’s caffeine habit amply supplied.