“Prepare to be scusi’ed,” I told my husband as we readied for our trip to Rome.
“What do you mean scusi’ed?” he said.
The last time I was in Rome, I was a kid with a backpack, staying in the cheapest places and counting how much money I had to get through the week. I was also relentlessly scusi’ed. One man after another followed me on the streets, extolling my great teenage beauty and asking to have dinner – NO? OK, then drinks, then lunch, and finally just a coffee before politely excusing themselves and wishing me a good day after all requests were rejected. In the United States, I would have been called a stuck-up bitch after I declined the first invitation. That was not the kind of scusi I meant, though. I meant the kind where children would swarm us, pieces of cardboard covering their untrained hands, as they shouted “Scusi! Scusi!” and asked for money while groping to get their fingers on a wallet.
The cardboard was like training wheels for pickpockets and could be used to sit on in between marks. The Romans warned me nonstop about beggars and pickpockets. They showed me how to threaten the approaching children by shaking an umbrella or fist when surrounded and avoid engaging with them in any way. I saw men threaten the children with raised fists on the street, and they would scatter before getting their hands in any pockets. When I held my umbrella like a bully stick, the children would fall away, and their voices dropped from high-pitched pleading to a normal conversational tone, like they were standing around the water cooler while they waited for the next mark.
At tourist sites, I saw women breastfeeding babies, calling out in a chanting singsong for alms, and then trading the baby off for the next shift, a new woman plugging her teat into the baby’s mouth while the other went to have a cigarette. Once, on a late train, an eight-year-old child traveling alone sat across from me, waiting for me to fall asleep, smiling and smoking a cigarette. I wrapped my luggage strap around my arm and smiled back, remaining awake until he got off the train.
“Scusi” was the first thing you heard right before you were ripped off. We watched a video about the beggar children of Rome to illustrate what I meant for my husband.
“Shit, I don’t want to get scusi’ed,” he said.
“Nobody does,” I said.
“Why do we even have to go to Rome?” he said.
We were meeting some friends in Tuscany later that week and had to fly into Italy somewhere. Rome was a reasonable choice, and since he had never been there, I felt it was essential for him to see the historical sites.
Whenever I use the word historical, I think of my father who refers to the local historical society as the Hysterical Society.
We arrived in Rome in late May, the temperature already climbing well into the 90’s with the crowd numbers. One drastically different thing from when I was a kid was the teeming masses of humans. Piles and piles of tourists. Sweaty, tired, and reddened by the sun and heat. It was going to be a hysterical few days in Rome.
We took a cab to the city center where we would be staying at the U-Visionary Roma Hotel. There we had a quiet, blacked-out, tomb-like room lined with beautiful, chocolate and cream veined marble and cursed with insufficient lighting. I tried to dress by the window’s light without anyone in the building across the way seeing. At the front desk, we asked for directions, and the clerk asked how everything was. “Dark,” I said. “I know,” he said, frowning. “Everyone says so.”
Rome is dense, complex, flavorful, and crowded. A cacophony of history and convergence of international tourism crowds. It is a must-see for any traveler and stressful if you do not plan accordingly for swarms of people and heat. My last time there as a teenager was wonderful and sufficiently stressful that it had been decades since I returned.
We set out from our room, looking for an excellent place for lunch. We quickly discovered we were just a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain, which was packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder to try and get a glimpse or sufficient space for an Instagrammable selfie. Security guards wait to holler at anyone who dips a toe. We often had to squeeze past this bottleneck to explore the city. One day I stepped into a Bennetton there to look for a shirt. When I went to try it on, the dressing room was blocked by a collapsed, red-faced American on the floor, her equally reddened friends fanning her for support. I put the shirt back and stepped outside.
“Did you find anything?” my husband asked.
“I didn’t want to shoulder past a woman in physical distress to try on a shirt,” I said. “It just wasn’t that amazing of a shirt.”
From our central location, we explored the twisting streets and then the broad avenues along the river, taking in the immense history of the place. Whenever I am in an ancient city such as Rome, I scan the faces of the people we pass on the street, looking for evidence of the past. The same faces in the statues, the profiles on coins. In their veins courses the blood of emperors, of conquerors, and the inventors of linguini and gelato. We owe much to the Italian people and to their history. As an English major, these great, ancient cities resonate with the stories and plays of the past. Even if you aren’t a big reader you have seen countless films set in this beautiful city. Like seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar place, each corner you turn may bring a tinge of recognition if not outright delighted surprise. You KNOW what you are there to see but actually seeing it in person, even for the first time, has layers of deja vu.
One thing missing from this visit was the beggar children and pleading women, trading off nursing babies. Although it was a relief not to be scusi’d relentlessly, or have to physically threaten children to keep them from rifling through your pockets, I found their absence unsettling. “What did they DO with them?” I wondered aloud to my husband.
To be continued in Rome: II…
- Prepare yourself mentally for the crowds. This can help navigate the crush of humanity and press of sweaty bodies against yours if you, like me, tend to avoid crowds normally.
- Secure your belongings carefully, especially in crowds. Don’t wear small backpacks accessible via zipper or clasp; ensure your purse closes firmly. Wear it crossbody and in front. Do not put wallets in any open pocket where a hand could slip.
- Break up your day with a cool respite. A nap in a cold hotel room, a gelato in an out-of-the-way spot. Any place where you can find some peace and relief from the heat.