Engineering Rome

2019 Thoughts on Rome

by Steve Muench, program director

First, let me start by saying I have no authority in writing this beyond my own direct observations in odd years since 2011 (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019) of the historical central part of Rome only (mostly Centro Storico) during the late-August to mid-September time frame. That’s pretty limited, but as an outsider with this experience, here are some things I have noticed:

  • In some aspects, Rome is getting better. That may not sit well with anyone who lives here, but let me explain myself and my really small observation window and shallow sense of what matters:
    1. Generally, there are fewer cars in piazzas and parked willy-nilly in the city. In 2011, we could go nowhere without worrying that a car would whip around a corner or start up and run our two small kids off the road/walkway. Now, you can feel comfortable in a few (just a few) places more.
    2. The monuments are generally cleaner now. Several of the major ones (Trevi, Colosseo, Barcaccia and the Spanish Steps) are the most obvious. But there are more. Some paid for by private entities (like Fendi, the owner of Tod’s Shoes, etc.) and some by the city. Regardless of the reason, efficiency, or cost…they are noticeably cleaner.
    3. The food options (especially fast food – or street food) are more varied and available. It’s easier to get a smoothie, eat organic, get good beef tongue (okay, I’ve no idea how to grade tongue) wherever you are in the middle of the historic center. And good takeaway places are more abundant compared to the usual touristico pizza/tramezzini/pasta places.
  • Biking still seems difficult, if not impossible. Very few bikes in Rome. I hear the city started well before bikes. I hear there were a few bike share programs but all are essentially dead now.
  • Sitting is a privilege in the historic center. If you want to sit, you must pay. Usually in the form of buying food/drink. You cannot sit on/near the fountains, on the ground, on a wall, on those weird retractable traffic posts, a cafe seat when not ordering, you can’t even sit too long in a cafe seat after ordering. And public benches are not a priority. Until you get to a park like Villa Borghese or Villa Doria Pamphili or even the old moat around Castel Sant’Angelo. Even at a bar (cafe), you pay extra for your espresso if you want to sit at the table (instead of stand at the bar). Maybe not sitting is a good thing on average? What is the Italian phrase for deep vein thrombosis?
  • People love to give round numbers in change. This happens, to a degree, everywhere (if something is $5.05 and you give the merchant $10 they may ask if you have 5 cents so they can give you a $5 bill as change) but it’s a sport here. I enjoy it as I try and keep my collection of 1 cent, 2 cent, and 5 cent Euro coins to a minimum. Also, if you can give them an inventive amount of cash so they can minimize the change they give back, it’s appreciated.
  • Cash machines: stop giving me 50 Euro notes. They are cumbersome. Invariably, I want a 60-cent aqua frizzante and all I have is a 50. But for whatever reason, I can work with 20s. Is that some sort of cultural biased I have? I’m not sure.
  • Customer service is different and, as an introvert, I like it in the right circumstances. They don’t fawn all over you when you enter a shop (the usual Eddie Bauer over-the-top stuff: can I help you? Did you know about our sale on shirts? Are you a card-holder? The men’s pants are a deal, If you buy two shirts you get 40% off flashlights). That makes me afraid to look at anything and less likely to enter the shop. Here, they will acknowledge your existence (“buongiorno”) and then carry on. I take too long to decide on most purchases so I appreciate the space.
  • There are still lots of rules that nobody has any intention of following. For instance, at the AS Roma game last night they checked and asked everyone if they were bringing in cigarettes. A concerted effort to get rid of smoking it seems. However, there were still many people smoking inside. Alongside the ushers too. That doesn’t upset me, just an observation. Same for parking (maybe slightly better now as mentioned above) and, I’m sure, other things.
  • Garbage and recycling is approaching impossible. Separating your waste into 5 different categories seems excessive. Especially when I know that lots of the plastics are not really recyclable. Anything but a 1 or 2 is difficult. Where do you put straws? And where do the bus tickets go? They are paper, but they have a hologram strip on them. Sometimes I think about 5% of GNP goes towards the effort of keeping your garbage sorted and taken out on the right day.
  • I LOVE the Roma, Roma, Roma singing before an AS Roma game. The song is, overall, kind of sappy, but to hear everyone sing in unison is great and the a capella “Roma, Roma, Roma!” in the last verse still gives me goosebumps. How are you NOT fired up for the game after that?
Wonderful. I think you can hear me singing at a few points and it’s not pretty. I’m more of a spoken word guy, like William Shatner.

See William Shatner’s best spoken word effort here.

Okay, what is that near post zone defender doing? Dude, that is what you are there for. This kind of kick. How does Roma send, really, just one person into the box and he beats 3 defenders?
  • Riding on an overcrowed ATAC bus is a right of passage. I know how those clowns in the VW Bug feel.
On the way to the AS Roma game. Sweaty hot box #628 bus. Less than SRO.
  • It can be hard to make meaningful connections, but even small ones are rewarding. We study in the tourist area of Rome during high tourist season. We tend to experience lots of Rome as a classic tourist (tours of the Colosseo, see the Pantheon, etc.) so it’s hard to meet an actual Roman person and connect personally. Every now and then it happens and even the very small moments are rewarding. Last week I happened to be shopping for fruits/vegetables in the Campo de’Fiori market while wearing a Roma shirt. The older woman at one stand spotted my shirt and it was “Forza Roma!” all around. She pointed out here earrings, the Roma sticker on her scale, and the receipt came back with a special “Forza Roma” on it. We have warmly greeted each other every day since.
Her fruit is excellent. And her orecchini (earrings) match my shirt.
  • There are gorgeous views EVERYWHERE. Between buildings you can see the Pantheon in the distance, the evening sun hits the side of a regular building and it’s “bella!”, there’s an ancient foot in the street for no apparent reason, the fountains even sound beautiful (especially on a hot day), it’s like someone put the city together such that there wasn’t a single place you could be (at least in the historic center) and not be able to find beauty by just turning around. It’s kind of like how Starbucks works in Seattle.
My favorite kind of views. Those serendipitous views of something spectacular. Taken from a place not expected to have a view. But here, hey, just a sneak peak at the most prolific building in the world.
A serendipitous view of one monument from another. That’s cool.
Built as worker’s housing back in the day. Gorgeous color at this time of day with that sun. Roman late afternoon sunlight is 20% better than anywhere else I’ve seen.
A serendipitous view of the Colosseum from a construction site. That’s a pretty good working backdrop each day.
A serendipitous view from the window on the 3rd floor in the Palazzo Pio, where the UW Rome Center is. Look at that light!
A manufactured view, but a pretty cool one of ancient Roman artifacts in the San Giovanni metro station.
Even if Clara were not in it, this one’s pretty too. Just in the decay of the entire scene. The walls, splashed ground, missing sampietrini, the rustic door, etc.
  • Fountains are beautiful. It is the city of water – La Citta’ dell’Acqua. When here in August, you realize why they are so vital beyond just drinking water in the day.
Fontana delle Naiadi – a new fountain. Built in 1901.
Okay, this one is just a picture of a dead fountain. This is in the Jewish quarter and shows where the fountain once was. It’s like a police outline drawing of where a dead body once was on the ground. But Rome does it for fountains…in travertine.
2019. The same fountain at which I photographed these two in 2011.
2011. Same fountain. We’ll come back and do it again in 2027.
Yup, threw a coin into Trevi in 2011. Of course we were coming back.

1 comment

  • Such a lovely perspective on the stunning, surprising, chaotic, dirty, complicated and oh-so-fascinating city of Rome. I couldn’t agree more.

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