Tag Archives: cars


Italians have a great passion for coffee, for food (notably offal in Rome), smoking (basta!), football (you should have heard the horns honking after the 2-0 Italy-Rep. Ireland match last night) and cars. It’s fundamentally evident in the language: la macchina means the machine, but it’s most commonly used to mean the car. The machine is the car. The car is the machine

They love their cars. I did read somewhere that around the turn of the millennium, Italian per capita car ownership exceeded that of the USA. I can’t find that stat now. This list on Wikipedia (of vehicles per capita, not specifically cars) has them at 10th in the league table of vehicle-crazy nations. Monaco is first (surely Monaco is small enough to just walk everywhere? Crazy). The US is second. The UK, perhaps surprisingly, is 30th – good for the UK. That’s a sanity point in the UK’s favour.

Anyway. So Italy is still up there. 690 cars per 1000 population.

This car obsession was re-iterated to me this morning not by an encounter with Rome’s daft traffic but by an exchange I overheard between a thirty-ish mother and a three-ish daughter.

“Mummy – what kind of car is that?”
“That’s a Chrysler dear.”

This child was certainly starting young. And a girl to boot. Would you ever hear a three-year-old British girl ask that? Maybe, but the cultures I’m a little more familiar with – British, New Zealand, even US via the old remote viewing of movies and TV – it’s the males who grow up to be petrol-heads.

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Old geezers with the horn

One of our Sunday routines in Roma is going to theEx-Mattatoio – the old abattoir in Testaccio – to the producers’ market. Wandering home yesterday, laden with veg, cheese, eggs, walnuts, chestnut flour and cose, we headed off Viale di Trastevere, up a snicket we’ve discovered, under looming apartment blocks, towards to our hilltop neighbourhood, Monteverde Vecchio.

Further up, through the labyrinth of looming walls liberally decorated with graffiti (extremist politics and/or football mostly), navigating the perennial Roman pavement adornments c/o sundry cani and their inconsiderate owners (seriously, it’s worse than Paris), we passed along Via Giambattista Marino, behind an ecclesiastical establishment. There are many in the neighbourhood, but this one’s particularly grand. Not sure what it is – a school? A monastery? Anyway, both Fran and I assumed there was some sort of event going on, as music appeared to be emerging from within burly stonework. Except that when we turned the corner at the top of the street, the acoustics changed radically and the music was revealed to be a brass rendition of ‘Strangers in the Night’. Not part of the Church’s typical Sunday program.

Heading up our street, the sound got louder, and clearer until we spotted due vecchi, two old geezers, seemingly serenading an apartment. If serenading is the right word. It looked like they had a small amp and backing track, and while one was giving it his all with a battered old French horn, the other was clutching a trumpet. This chap, a decidedly lively little chap, was so digging the tune, he kept stopping playing to dance, among the giant wheelie bins and closely packed parked cars.

We wandered past, and further up, two other, very different old geezers, were packing their rifles and gear into their car, presumably for a spot of hunting in the hills of Abruzzo.

The day before this scene, we’d watched Fellini’s Roma, a 1972 film that, via a series of loose sketches, recounts some autobiography. We see the young Fellini arriving in 1930s Rome from his native Rimini, and immediately becoming embroiled in a vigorously communal way of life, getting a room in a sprawling apartment full of large woman, squalling kids, a sunburned mammone (mother’s boy) and a selection of eccentric tenants. Going out to dinner, meanwhile, the local community (is it supposed to be Testaccio?) convenes to eat at long tables outside a restaurant, joking, arguing, critiquing the food. This includes, I believe, pajata, a delightful, typically Roman dish of veal intestines, which congeal somewhat on cooking, much like rennet from cows’ cuts is used to curdle milk for cheese-making; and snails, which prompt a few saucy comments about how mastering the art of eating them can educate a young man in how to please a woman.

A little kid sings a dirty song about how the new young man, Fellini, is going to have sex with, well, basically everyone. A young man abusively beckons his haughty sister down from where she’s posing on a balcony. Middle-aged women vie for Fellini’s attentions.

The film cuts between such scenes and scenes of contempory Rome, which is now dominated by traffic. It seems to be suggesting the exuberant, social street life of the 1930s has been destroyed, disappeared. Certainly it’s true that the streets are now overwhelmed by Rome’s very tangible car problem* – not just a traffic problem, but a problem with the sheer scale of ownership. Streets are packed with parked cars, and the character of innumerable venerable piazze and piazzale is utterly compromised by them simply having become car parks. Old neighbourhoods didn’t evolve with car-parking in mind.

These days it’s frequently hard to even walk along the pavement as it’s often appropriated for parking. Not ideal for wheelchair users or people with kids in buggies. Our personal favourite is when cop cars from the station up the road block the zebra crossing.

Anyway, so, yes, of course the modern world has quashed the traditional world of street life, but not completely. Summers in Rome are still defined by al fresco dining into the night; restaurants generally have walls of planters to prevent their spots being used for parking. And, well – the two old geezers with their feisty miniature brass section wouldn’t have looked out of place Fellini’s Roma. Their musical endeavours went on long after we’d got home, the brass still echoing down the street for at least an hour. Quite who they were serenading, I don’t know, but from the duration, she never emerged.

* something I’ve written about before:
Moto city
“Death on the Highway”

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“Death on the highway”

72,000 people were killed on Italy’s roads during the 1990s. 72,000. More than were killed in the Vietnam war, according to Tobias Jones.

Yes, I’ve finally got round to reading The Dark Heart of Italy. It was recommended to me after it was first published in 2003, but without any tangible connection with Italy, I didn’t bother. Now I’m living here, it makes sense to read it. And a thoroughly engaging read it is too, though the user-critics on Amazon make some interesting , albeit arguably misguided, points about its credentials. Jones lived in Italy for four years, with an Italian girlfriend, and presumably wrote the book as he went along, as he learned Italian. The Amazon critics abuse him for getting things wrong. But it’s not written as the ultimate fact-based portrait of Italy (c2001-2002), but more like a series of observational opinion pieces, many published previously as magazine stories. Indeed, they’re not unlike blog entries, in many ways.

Writing a blog, or doing any kind of online publishing, there’s a strong sense that you should really be re-visiting each piece, and revising it as you learn more, as your ignorance or understanding shifts (something that’s harder to do with print media).

So for example, when I wrote this about Rome’s traffic, it was early September and I’d only been living in the city for a few weeks. I was naive and ignorant (I still am of course). In early September, a lot of Rome’s residents were still on holiday, avoiding the summer heat. When they came back, the number of SUV-type vehicles on the roads increased markedly. So that’s one comment from that earlier blog piece that’s inaccurate.

(As an aside – seriously, what the hell are these people thinking? Fossil fuels are a tangible and ongoing environmental catastrophe, oil itself is getting increasingly pricey, AND Rome is a city with a core of old neighbourhoods with tiny streets. Status symbolism really is so much more important than common sense to our moronic species.)

Another comment from that earlier blog that’s inaccurate is about cycling in Rome. I do see a certain amount of cyclists in Rome now. I even see people using the cycle track along the Tiber. Presumably, again, people who’ve come back from their holidays. I even sometimes see people wearing helmets, though not often. Though the cycling population is still tiny compared to that of London. In London, a dedicated riverside cycle track would be chocka.

Anyway, the point is that essays, blog entries, or even books like The Dark Heart of Italy aren’t about facts, they’re about opinions, and a certain amount of ignorance goes along with that.  Opinions are an essential part of writing, they’re dynamic, lively. There’s a clear difference between a news story and an opinion piece, but unfortunately in an era of immediate, easy reactions to anything that’s published, many people forget or ignore the distinction and are all too ready to troll.

That said, I wish Jones’ book that included a note giving the source for the “72,000” killed figure.

So anyway, I’m going to publish this now. In a week I might disagree with myself, but I doubt I’ll re-write this completely at any point.

(Oh, and quick quiz – name that tune.)





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Moto city

Found a little bike shop in Rome today, near the Campo de’ Fioro, selling various hipster bikes (fixies, old-fashioned town bikes etc) and Bromptons. I’m not convinced they can be doing a roaring trade though, as Rome is very much a city of roaring motor traffic.

The only places I’ve seen cyclists pootling about is in the older, more maze-like areas of Trastevere, round Campo de’ Fioro, in the Centro Storico, as well as people in lycra doing circuits of the magnificent Villa Doria Pamphilj, a park we’re lucky enough to live near. There are some fine looking, two-lane cycle tracks along the Tiber, but I’ve never seen a single cyclist using them. Not a one. Rome just isn’t a bike city.

If cycling in a city like London can be intimidating, cycling in Rome doesn’t bear thinking about. One persistent element of the city’s auditory landscape is the distinctive uh-eeh-uh-eeh-uh of ambulance sirens. I hear them all the time. Some of them may be hallucinations; I can’t tell. Stop and strain your ears at any moment, it seems, and you’ll hear those sirens. And every time I do, I wonder – splatted pedestrian? Cyclist? Motorino-rider? Or just plain old traffic accident?

New arrivals in Rome – like us – can be easily identified standing perturbed on the pavement, trying to work out how to cross the road. Even at things that resemble zebra crossings it can be a baffling, frightening proposition. In fact, even when you’re wandering the cobbled streets and alleys of the above-mentioned antico parts of town, you have to keep a weather ear out for motos, even vans squeezing between the buildings.

Time Out’s Shortlist Rome 2008 provides some statistics that feed that perturbation. It quotes a 2004 study that says Rome is the most dangerous EU capital, with 8.37 dead per 1000; second in the list is Copenhagen, with a mere 1.47 per 1000. It attributes this to the sheer number of vehicles: “around 950 per 1000 population, three times that of London.”

Ironically, this all means travelling on Rome’s (admittedly meagre, two-line) metro, for example, is fairly civilised compared to the London Tube or New York Subway. Natives just don’t seem to want to use the public transport.  In their defence, at least you don’t see as many people who absurdly choose to use the descendants of military/agricultural vehicles as town cars, like those odious denizens of Chelsea, for example, with their notorious SUV “tractors”. Rome is a city still largely dominated by scooters and sensibly proportioned vehicles like Smart cars and Cinquecenti. Though it’s amusing when you see a vintage Cinquecento parked beside its modern namesake, or likewise with Minis. Not so Mini now.

So, yes, as much as I miss cycling, I don’t think I’ll be riding the streets of Rome any time soon. Though I would very much like to score a mountain bike to hit the paths of Doria Pamphilij.

Update. Unprompted, my Italian teacher gave us this expression today:
“Roma è uno citta molto caotica.”

Quick addendum
Two years later, Sept 2013. I’ve been cycling in Rome about six months now and although I’m still nervous, I’m not dead. In fact, just packed my Brompton up to send it home and I’m missing it already.

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