ROME — There is about this ancient city an air of nonchalance that is, among other things, bewildering. While the tourists — and they are easily identified no matter what their country of origins — are incessantly agog, the natives seem almost oblivious to the significance of their surroundings.
I mentioned this to a shopkeeper, who at first seemed puzzled by my observation. Then, after a brief pause, broke into a smile.
“How do you react to something that’s always been a part of your life?” he asked. “Do lifelong New Yorkers stop and shake their heads each time they look up at the Statue of Liberty?”
Probably not. But I do every time I go to New York. But the Buddy Holly statue — did I read that it’s been moved? — I seldom give a second glance.
Among the other things the Italians take for granted are tourists. While October is the beginning of the off-season, foreigners are everywhere. Germans, French, Americans, South Africans, Australians and Asians are all in great evidence.
But I did learn one thing that bubbled my state pride.
At first, when a native asked where I was from I would proudly respond, “The United States.”
That never drew a reaction, either positive or otherwise. It certainly sparked nobody’s curiosity.
Then I changed my answer to “Texas.”
Wow! What a difference — every time.
“Ah, Texaaas! Do you ride a horse and shoot a gun?”
That was not the response I’d get every time, but “Texas” always drew a comment or question. And it was much the same when speaking with other foreign tourists. A German couple we were seated near on a tour bus asked me all about the state, about Houston and Dallas and San Antonio and “the Lone Prairie,” as if it were a city unto itself.
BEING NOSEY by nature as well as a life-long newspaperman (is there a redundancy there somewhere?), I took every opportunity to ask storekeepers, waiters, tour guides — everybody I could get into a conversation — about politics.
Amazingly, the majority of Italians seemed disinterested — in theirs or ours. But those who did respond all had definite ideas, and a few even had considerable knowledge of what’s going on in the U.S.
Unlike the Dixie Chicks, I wasn’t about to criticize our president while standing on foreign soil; and, unlike our president, I wasn’t about to criticize our country while visiting abroad. So, after posing a question I mainly listened.
I asked a number of people — mostly tour guides and shop keepers whose command of English was essential to their duties — about their health care. Most, who had nothing to compare it to, didn’t offer a lot of commentary.
“It’s free,” said a hotel clerk, giving the question a mental shrug. “The government pays for it.”
A tour guide, whom I was able to engage in a lengthy conversation being as our hotel was farthest from the Colosseum and my wife and I were the only passengers for those several miles.
“I don’t have to pay for it, and that part’s good — unless I need surgery or want to see a specialist. Then it is not so good. I would have to wait, often months, to get in to see either. And, if I need one quicker and go on my own, I have to pay. Then it is expensive.”
Even the routine visits have a drawback that he considers significant.
“I may never see the same doctor that has treated me before, so he is not familiar with my history. I had rather buy insurance, as you do in America, and see whoever I please.”
He had a point of reference, having relatives living in Pennsylvania.
“I would worry (if I were you) that our system is where Obama wants yours to be.”
AMERICAN POLITICS were not a big item among the Italians I conversed with. In fact, even Italian politics were not at the front of their minds, either. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the occupations of the people I encountered, most of whom made their living either hauling, feeding or serving tourists.
The people who ran the upscale shops were much more likely to have opinions. I asked several of them what they thought of the American president and the reviews were mainly nonchalant.
One man said he really liked Obama: “He loves the poor and hates the rich.”
Another saw him as “a very kind man, not mean like Bush.”
The most interesting conversation came when I became bored while watching my wife look at women’s shoes and purses in a store that sold nothing else. I walked over to the owner and asked him about the exchange rate, euro vs. dollar.
To my amazement, he pulled out a little electronic device the size of an I-Phone (which it may indeed have been), made a few clicks and was soon showing me the value of every monetary system in the world. I noticed that they all were measured against the dollar.
I asked him why — when the dollar was not the most valuable — it was the standard.
“That’s because it is not based on the strength of the currency,” he said, showing undeserved patience with my ignorance of how the worldwide monetary system works, “but on the strength of the nation. America is the strongest country in the world for two reasons: It has a very strong military and it knows how to use it.”
Then he issued a note of caution:
“That could change,” he said. “If your president applies his social agenda at the expense of the military, that (benchmark) eventually will lose its base.”
OUR HOTEL, APTLY named the “Michelangelo,” had a special aristocratic charm that reminded me of some of the hostelries that anchored the downtown America of another generation.
The lobby carried an air of dignity characterized by its dcor, and oversized chairs and divans seemed to solicit the sort of calm relaxation that may still be a part of the European culture.
From our balcony, the view was overwhelming. The Vatican dome, just two blocks up our street, dominated the surroundings which included a quaint shopping center that complemented an area that for centuries has successfully avoided commercial compromise.
Despite the casual nature of its everyday citizens, I find Rome to be overwhelming. I cannot avoid being awed by the very thought of Roman soldiers and chariots and storied sculptors who have trod the very paths we walked today.
I stood in the very area where St. Peter was brought in chains; where Nero had a structure removed simply because it had been erected by his predecessor; where Michelangelo complained about having to interrupt what would become a priceless sculpting because his boss had another chore for him to attend.
Tonight I’ll fall asleep in the midst of thoughts about how events in this exact area — perhaps even this very block — influenced culture, shaped history and cemented religion. As I brush my teeth and don my pajamas it will occur to me that, less than a half-mile away, the Pope himself may be engaged in the same nightly ritual.
Rome is indeed a city resplendent in bounty and beauty that both awe and overwhelm.
Unless, that is, you happen to live here.
I wonder what these folks would think of a prairie dog town ...
BURLE PETTIT is editor emeritus of The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “column” in the subject line.