Rome is a city of images, vivid and unforgettable. One of the most striking is dawn from Janiculum Hill as the city's silhouette, with its bell towers and cupolas, comes gradually into view.
Rome is also a city of sounds, beginning early in the morning, with the peal of church bells calling the faithful to Mass. As the city awakens and comes to life, the sounds multiply and merge into a kind of sinfonia urbana. The streets fill with cars, taxis, and motor scooters, blaring their horns as they weave in and out of traffic; the sidewalks become overrun with bleary-eyed office workers rushing off to their desks, but not before stealing into crowded cafes for their first cappuccino of the day. The shops lining the streets open for business by raising their protective metal grilles as loudly as possible, seeming to delight in their contribution to the general din. And before long the many fruit-and-vegetable stands are abuzz with activity, as housewives, maids, widowers, cooks, and others arrive to purchase their day's supply of fresh produce, haggling over price and caviling over quality.
By 10am the tourists are on the street, battling the crowds and traffic as they wind their way from Renaissance palaces and baroque buildings to the famous ruins of antiquity. Indeed, Rome often appears to have two populations: one of Romans and one of visitors. During the summer months especially, Rome seems to become one big host for the countless sightseers who converge upon it, guidebook and camera in hand. To all of them -- Americans, Europeans, Japanese -- Rome extends a warm and friendly welcome, wining them, dining them, and entertaining them in its inimitable fashion. Of course, if you visit in August, you may see only tourists -- not Romans, as the locals flee at that time. Or as one Roman woman once told us, "Even if we're too poor to go on vacation, we close the shutters and pretend we're away so neighbors won't find out we couldn't afford to leave the city."
The traffic, unfortunately, is worse than ever, restoration programs seem to drag on forever, and as the capital, Rome remains at the center of the major political scandals and corruption known as tangentopoli ("bribe city"), which sends hundreds of government bureaucrats to jail each year.
Political chaos remains part of everyday life on the Roman landscape. It is often assumed that anyone entering politics was doing so for personal gain. And as in many Western democracies, politics in Italy is experiencing a period of turbulence. (For the cynics out there: When is Italian politics ever anything but turbulent?) Populism has swapped the online fringe for the mainstream. A left-leaning, “anti-establishment” party formed by activist comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S)—polled around a third of the vote in the 2018 election and leads a governing coalition with the provocative, anti-immigrant Lega (League), whose origins are as a separatist movement for Italy’s richer North. If that sounds complicated and somewhat uneasy, that’s because it is. The center-left Democratic Party—led by former Florence mayor and former prime minister, Matteo Renzi—came third. At 39, Renzi himself had been Italy’s youngest prime minister but resigned in 2016 after defeat in a referendum on wide-ranging electoral reform. Opinion polling suggests support for traditional, “free market” center-right parties is collapsing.
The government has a formidable task. Recovery from the global financial crisis has been painfully slow. The Crisi had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt grew to alarming levels—as high as 1,900 trillion€—and is still around 130 percent of GDP. Italy only just survived a European banking crisis which almost brought down the euro currency, and discontent over unemployment, wages, and pensions is widespread. Italy has, in effect, experienced almost no GDP growth in well over a decade.
Immigration is another persistent national issue, and there is impatience with the European Union over a collective inability to control illegal immigration on Europe’s southern (mostly sea) borders. Italy’s population is aging and the youth vacuum is being filled by immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, notably Romania and Albania. The plight of migrant refugees from Syria through 2019 added yet another layer of complexity to Italy’s relationship with stranieri (foreigners). Italy had scant colonial experience, and does not have a “melting pot” history. Tensions were inevitable, and discrimination is a daily fact of life for many minorities (though you are very unlikely to experience it as a visitor). Change is coming: In 2013, Cécile Kyenge became Italy's first government minister of African descent. But it is coming too slowly for many.
While others arrive, a “brain drain” continues to push young Italians abroad to seek opportunity. The problem is especially ingrained in rural communities and on the islands, where the old maxim, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” applies more strongly than ever.
M5S and its young leader, Luigi Di Maio, had been on a roll. Yet, as Rome’s first female mayor, M5S’s Virginia Raggi discovered: Winning power can be easier than wielding it. She has said she will not run for reelection in 2021. Di Maio’s popularity is waning. Prospects for everyone will improve if and when Italy puts its economic turmoil behind it. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed that the good times are coming around again. What happens next? It’s impossible to say. This is Italy, after all.
Rome, too, remains a city of contradictions. This simultaneously strident, romantic, and sensual city has forever altered the Western world's religion, art, and government. And despite all the confusion of their city, Romans still manage to live a relatively relaxed way of life. Along with their southern cousins in Naples, they are specialists in arte di arrangiarsi, the ability to cope and survive with style. The Romans have humanity and humor, a 2,000-year-old sense of cynicism, and a strong feeling of belonging to a particular place. The city's attractions seem as old as time itself, and despite the frustrations of daily life, Rome will continue to lure new visitors every year, including both vacationers wanting to see what's left of the glory that was Rome and immigrants seeking la dolce vita.
After you've done your "duty" to culture, wandered through the Colosseum, been awed that the Pantheon is still there, after you've traipsed through St. Peter's Basilica and thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you can pause in the early evening to experience the charm of Rome at sunset. Find a cafe at summer twilight and watch the shades of pink turn to gold and copper, until night finally falls. That's when a new Rome comes alive, and when its restaurants and cafes grow more animated and more fun, especially if you've found one on an antique piazza or along a narrow alley deep in Trastevere. After dinner you can stroll by the fountains, or through Piazza Navona, have a gelato (or an espresso in winter), and the night is yours.
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