Monday, January 28, 2008

My Roman Holiday

Rome at the surface is just like any other capital city in the world - The best directions for getting around the city are provided by policemen (maps by the way come a distinct 17th ... ), People on two wheelers think their grandparents built the roads they ride on and the best bet for fast food options is Italian Pizza.

Strike the surface and you have a city that is charming in its own way - a city with a great deal of character waiting to burst out of its seams. When the coins stop finding the floor of Fonata Di Trevi and the Colosseum closes at Sun set, when St Peter's closes it's doors and the Spanish Steps (and the boat fountain at it's foot) bear a deserted look, all we have left is impressions of the people we ran into. I can say, rather emphatically, that Rome gave me some rather vivid memories of the people I bumped into. I've decided to call some of these the defining moments of my Roman Holiday.

Defining Moment #1: The Sisters of Trastevere

As I walked aimlessly around Rome I entered Trastevere a hip, bohemian section of Rome that is never written about in any of the guide books but something most visitors must make as a part of their itineraries. Hungry and wanting to get something to eat at about 10:30 in the night I entered McDonald's (why ?). Out of the handful of times I've entered McDonald's all my life (Delhi, Bangalore, Atlanta, Milan, Paris, Dusseldorf and Zurich prior to this one in Rome) I've always tried being faithful to the Mac Salad.

As I concentrated on my Salad I noticed a table-ful of nuns (for a lack of a better collective noun for nuns) sitting and enjoying burgers and fries. I was tempted to ask if it was a daily ritual after a hard day's work or was it one of those special Friday night treats. Too embarrassed to ask for permission and too greedy to miss out on a possible Pulitzer (yeah . . I aim big), I acted as if I was taking a picture of this rather nondescript canvas on the wall as I shot them. As they talked animatedly, laughed and enjoyed the meal, I realised that I needed a visit to Rome, to help bring back a perspective on the Christian Clergy. At the end of it - all of us are humans first and then everything else we're made out to be ...

Defining Moments #2: The Indian Immigration Story

I was spending 3 nights in Rome and I decided I'd do the 3 nights in 3 different places: Night #1 would be in this posh place where I'd have to wince when I swished my card out to pay; Night #2 would be in a dump which would be less expensive than a meal at a reasonable restaurant and Night #3 would be in between - a place I would be most comfortable spending a night. After spending a night at a 110 Euros a night place, I decided to look for home (read dump). As I walked past Castello Saint Angelo I saw a Punjabi (Sardar) selling souvenirs on a road side stall. I hesitated, turned back and as our eyes met we greeted each other silently from a distance with "Mera bharat mahaan". Using my heavily accented Hindi I asked if he knew of a place I could stay at. To make it absolutely clear I drilled the word cheap in as a many 4 different languages. 2 Phone calls later I was talking to Deepu, who was into arranging cheap places to stay for cheap people like me.

We had an appointment at 7:00 PM - "The 4th stop when u board # 714 from Termini" was his idea of a rendezvous and we had fixed it at 25 Euros. By 7:30 we were ringing the bell of a Punjabi family from Ludhiana - "Singh" was the name on the calling bell. The place was no dump, it was basic, but clean and most importantly this was so much better than the best scenario that I had conjured up in my head for Night #2.

They had been in Italy for 10 years; He worked as a baker, she did odd jobs. They had children. This was their way of earning the extra bit. They had people from all over - England, Germany, India. People from embassies and people on business and most of them had come to know of them through word of mouth - like me. The Singhs were doing pretty well for themselves in the hospitality business.

The next day not sure if the No. 64 was going to the Vatican, I asked this Indian looking guy in my heavily accented Hindi (nobody expects accents to change after spending one night with a Punjabi family). He replied in English. As we sat on the last seat of the bus (which surprisingly was the place most of the immigrants always sat on the bus and bizarrely reminded me of Rosa Parks and her Alabama protest) we started to talk. Laiju was mallu and an illegal immigrant who had come to France 4 years earlier on a Schengen visa that expired within 3 months of entry. He moved to Italy as it was easier to survive as an illegal imigrant and was working in a workshop to support his mother back home in Thrissur. Laiju had just applied for a Residence Permit and was hoping that it would come through so that he could meet his folks back at home.

Defining Moment #3: A small step for entrepreneurship ... a giant leap for Globalisation

300 Meters from St. Peter's Basilica, a Chinese lady had set-up a stall on the side. She was charging 1 Euro for people who wanted their names written in Chinese. Audacity.Chutzpah.Guts. 300 metres from the Vatican. A German pontiff at the pulpit. An Italian city where the largest Asian tourist population is Japanese. This women is selling people a piece of paper with their names written in Chinese.

It reminded me of the old lady in Friedman's book, The world is Flat, who'd be sitting in a park in Shanghai every morning with a weighing machine charging people who wished to weigh themselves. Friedman endearingly decided to indulge the lady. That was his ode to globalisation and his way to bring her into the web of globalisation. I decided against indulging the lady at the Vatican. The unwritten yet simplest rule of capitalism and hence globalization is that people buy services/goods that are useful. I want her to win, but I want her to win by the rules.


Divya said...

"Venkat, you write like shit" ;)

Divya said...

well, your blog makes an interesting read.....makes one want to turn pages, so to speak, and look for more!!!! keep going!!!! would like to read more abt ur 'defining moments' in Rome

popsie said...

The "Defining Moments" were really defining. Great post! Very interesting read!:-)

shilpa said...

First time i read, i guess i did not read it completely. This time i read it complete and i could get a glimpse of how Rome is. Your blog has added one more place to my interest. Thanks :)!!