Last week, on my second day as a citizen of Rome, I saw a local in an SUV back into a busy avenue. Steering with one hand and holding his cell-phone with the other, he glanced over his shoulder, mildly curious to see whether anyone might be headed his way.
A few minutes later on the same street, the driver behind me grew frustrated because I was exceeding the speed limit by only 20 miles per hour. Naturally he took action. It didn’t matter that we were already in the left-hand lane, and that we could see traffic coming from the opposite direction. He swerved onto the wrong side of the street and cut back in front of me just in time. I’m sure I was the only one who noticed.
There are plenty of places with worse traffic than Rome: Tehran, Manila, Bogotá, and lots of other Third World cities. But you might have thought that the capital of the world’s eighth-largest economy would run a little more smoothly than this.
The only thing worse than the driving in Rome is the parking, though the two are often hard to tell apart. The basic distinction is that stalled traffic sits in the middle of the street, whereas parked cars sit along the edges, in double or even triple rows.
Every possible space is taken, right up to the corner, so that you might have to go many yards past the theoretical crosswalk to find enough space between two bumpers for you to wedge through. If you happen be to pushing a stroller, you might have to go half way up the block.
For years, Romans have been talking about reducing the number of cars and improving public transportation. There is a subway, but its two lines miss many important places, such as the Vatican. Most here blame this on the archeological richness of the ground, which makes digging anywhere a slow and delicate process. But it’s hard to believe that a city so disorganized in every other way would be efficient in this one if it simply weren’t for all those catacombs and temple foundations.
One result of the congestion is that no one leaves his neighborhood unless he has to, which means that the city remains a collection of urban villages. This can be charming, if you don’t have to commute far to work.
Another result of the traffic problem is pollution. Italy outlawed leaded-gas vehicles only last year, and like much of the rest of Europe, is far behind the U.S. when it comes to emissions controls. Walking along a major thoroughfare in any Italian city is unpleasant, and in Rome it’s lung-scorching. I feel guilty for exposing my one-year-old son’s respiratory system to this. Luckily, our apartment building is practically surrounded by a large and leafy park. It could be my imagination, but all those trees seem to filter out a good bit of the soot.
There is one part of Rome where the traffic is slow and orderly, the noise level low, and the air relatively clean. That’s the Vatican, which is officially not part of Italy but its own sovereign territory. The areas off-limits to tourists seem preternaturally quiet compared to the hub-bub on the other side of the gate.
After a while, the quiet gets spooky. The sense of being watched — if not by the eye of God, then by the Swiss Guards — becomes oppressive. I find myself longing for Roman chaos. For all the indignities it inflicts, it’s also generous. The same driver who cuts you off without warning is unlikely to make a fuss if you do the same to him. That’s not the stuff of sainthood, maybe, but it is a kind of civic virtue.
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