While of course not everyone will give you the same answer, if you ask a Roman about the “young American student” reputation there is a standard reply. We like to drink a lot…
I recently took a walk through the city’s nightlife scene and that reputation is going strong. I want to avoid stereotypes but it does seem that Americans have this thing where they like to get blacked out drunk wherever they go. It’s like “well… hell we’re at the colosseum, this seems like a great reason to down a few shots.” Or… “what the heck, we’re living in a city renowned and globally prized for its beauty… let’s get hammered.” And I’m sure we’re not the only people who engage in this behavior and I know Americans don’t ONLY get drunk (there is also plenty of time devoted to sober sightseeing) but dang… Italian bars are making some serious money off of us.
Now personally, this isn’t for me. I’m happy to just walk the streets, meet nice people, and eat lots of food. I’m a simple guy. I find a strange kind of pleasure in taking in the city and the people from the drunken American to the sickly beggar to the hurried business women. I’m from a small town in California so here in Rome there’s diversity like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. There’s suffering and poverty the likes of which I’m not used to on so frequent a scale and I cant help but notice that this contributes to the rise of an industry targeting expats with money. Restaurant owners enthusiastically invite you into their dens without reminding you that you pay for that enthusiasm, men with flowers and trinkets offer you illegal merchandise for a cheap price, and thieves on public transport or at local markets who are so good you’ll never know you were robbed until long after they’ve divided up the contents of your wallet. This is the only Rome you might discover if you’ve simply come here to party with your friends and brag about traveling on facebook. It is not the Rome that I have begun to love.
I prefer the quiet of the city and the loneliness of its alleyways. I feel more comfortable sitting next to the starving musician who passionately sings of Rome’s glory and I prefer to get to know the city as it represents what humans have been able to build. If this is the experience you are after, it’s not a hard formula: stay away from what the tourists do.
Wanderings along the streets, you’ll begin to notice a distinct uniqueness to each part of the city once you escape the touristy city center. Rome is a city of diversity and its many cultures and ethnicities reside in varying neighborhoods, molding each into their own. The EUR district, for example, is one of my favorites. It used to be a fascist neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome that is now a quiet and peaceful community of imposing architecture and gargantuan statues. The Testaccio neighborhood is a frequent late night-hangout for younger local kids and Piazza Bologna is the place to go for ethnic food with a high-concentration of immigrants working restaurants in the area. If you take the H bus for an hour outside of the city, you will find a neighborhood that reeks of fish and looks nothing like the Rome in postcards. The point is I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t looked and I wouldn’t have begun to have some understanding of the real Rome that so many people call home.
When you come to Rome I don’t recommend the tourist trap restaurants by Piazza Navona or the guided bus tours. If you really want to make the most of your time here, I only recommend getting absolutely, hopelessly lost.