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Rome Survival Guide: CULTURE SHOCK


Crossing the Street l Public Transportation l Taxis l Telephone l Ordering Coffee l Restaurant Etiquette l Shopping l Buskers

trafficCrossing the Street We're sure that your mother taught you how to cross the street: wait for the green light, look both ways, that sort of thing. This course of instruction will prove perilously inadequate in the center of Rome. Let’s say you are standing at the crosswalk on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II at eleven o’clock on a weekday morning. You look both ways. (If you're British or otherwise accustomed to steering wheels on the right side, remember to look right-left-right rather than the familiar left-right-left.) At eleven o’clock on a weekday morning, the traffic flows heavily on the Corso from both directions. So you wait for a break in the traffic. At eleven o’clock on that same weekday evening, you may find yourself still standing at the same crosswalk, hoping that the traffic will eventually break.
For the novice Rome pedestrian, a better course of action is to wait for a native. Natives cross the street without waiting, and often without looking either right-left-right or left-right-left to see what’s about to smash them. They enter the crosswalk in the firm belief that the drivers of the approaching vehicles are in no mood to commit manslaughter. Miraculously, the Red Sea of traffic parts and the native pedestrian almost always makes it safely to the opposite curb. Protect yourself with such a pedestrian. Cross right along with him or her, preferably to his or her right so that the odd murderous driver will hit him or her first, thus buffering the impact on your own body. Should you be fortunate enough to come across a traffic light, do not rely on the green walk signal. This generally is timed to last two seconds or less, followed by a longer amber warning signal. Cross on amber or you may never cross at all.

trams and busesPublic Transportation Complaining about the public transportation system is a favorite Roman pastime, usually indulged in over an espresso or a glass of wine. It’s true that certain buses are always crowded, that others arrive at unpredictable intervals and that the whole system may go on strike almost without warning. Most of time, it’s really not that bad, and you will find that you can get from any point in the greater Roman area to any other on bus, subway or tram, cheaply and efficiently.
To pay for your trip you will need a ticket. Single ride, day passes, weekly, monthly and yearly passes are available. All but the yearly pass are sold at most tobacco stores and at some vending machines, notably at the main train station (Termini) and at the bus depots in Largo Argentina and Piazza San Silvestro. These machines, cannot, of course, be relied upon to function on any given day. Once you have succeeded in obtaining a
ticket, you will need to have it stamped on board the bus or tram. Place it in the machine and it will be returned to you properly validated and recorded. Periodically, inspectors board the trams and buses. On these occasions you may observe many of your fellow travelers madly rushing to the validations machines. The fine can be hefty if you get caught riding illicitly — not to mention the unspeakable humiliation of being hustled off the vehicle like a common criminal.
In addition to many, many bus lines there are several tram lines and two subway lines. The same ticket works on all of them, but you will have to pass it through a turnstile to get into the subway station. There is also a non-turnstile entrance for long term pass holders manned by inspectors in a booth, who rarely show an interest in inspecting anything.
The public transportation system in Rome is called ATAC, an anagram standing for Agenzia per i trasporti autoferrotranviari del Comune di Roma. They maintain an excellent website: www.atac.roma.it, where you can find travel instructions from any municipal point A to municipal point B simply by typing in the two addresses.
ATAC services have recently been updated. If you buy a yearly pass, you can get all sorts of information sent directly to your cell phone. You can calculate your route, find out about how long it's likely to take to get from point A to B and how soon the next bus will arrive. All this to encourage people to actually buy bus passes, instead of taking their chances and hopping on without a ticket. Many buses and trams now have coin operated ticket machines, allowing passengers to drop in a Euro and get a ticket, so that excuse is gone. And they've cracked down a bit on the metro turnstiles, so that so that even holders of “Abbonamento,” monthly passes, are required to pass their ticket through.  Annual pass holders can “bip & go,” quickly scanning their cards at the yellow validation machines.

Taxis inhabit stands throughout central Rome, or can be summoned by calling 06.3570, which has by far the most cars on the streets. You might also try 06. 4257, 06.66 45, 06.55 51 or 06.49 94. Whatever number you call, be prepared to be placed on hold, often for a very long time.Try to ignore the annoying music and do not strain to understand the friendly messages while you wait. Eventually, an operator, who will not speak English, will come on the line. Say “Volevo un tassi a (fill in the address here). “ The operator, or a computer facsimile thereof, will then say something to you in Italian, which you will find incomprehensible. Ignore this and stay on the line. After some further irrelevant announcements, another operator or computer-generated voice will inform you in rapid, barely intelligible Italian, that Napoli ventidue will be there in three minutes. (Taxis in Rome are identified by the name of an Italian city, followed by a number.) They are miraculously prompt about showing up as promised, usually in under ten minutes. You can now order a taxi the night before if you need to have a morning pickup. You'll get an SMS message on your cell phone ten minutes before the cab is likely to arrive.

The Telephone The telefonino, or cell phone, has become such a ubiquitous addition to the Roman anatomy you may feel almost deformed without one in hand. This has resulted in a public so independent of pay phones as to cause their near extinction. You may still need to use one, however, especially if you are too new in town to have acquired the requisite cellular. Do not attempt to use coins in a pay phone. You will need, instead, a pre-paid card, which can be purchased at most tobacco (tabacchi) stores for a few euro. If you are calling Rome from Rome, alas, you will still be required to use the area code. All Rome telephone numbers now begin with the prefix 06. If you are calling Rome from outside Italy, you will also need the country code, 39 so the phone number itself will be preceded by 3906.

Italian pay phone cards won't work if you are calling someplace outside Italy. If you plan to make international calls, it's a good idea to buy a phone card, such as the Edy card or a Europa Card with which you can speak to Europe or the US for 600 minutes at a cost of ten euro, which comes down to less than three centesimi per minute. The cards are also available for calls to Asia, Africa, etc. at varying rates. They are good for 90 days, you so you can spread out your calls over the course of nearly three months. Ask for these cards at tobacco shops. To call the states, use the prefix 001 plus area code and phone number.

Ordering Coffee

caffe di marzioIf you are a Starbuck’s habitué you will find yourself at a disadvantage in Rome. Coffee does not come in sizes here. An espresso is a thimbleful of rich, black liquid. A cappuccino fits into a smallish cup. Only a few places serve fancy flavors, which are frowned-upon by serious coffee drinkers. The legitimate varieties of Italian coffee are these:
Café ristretto: For those who like their espresso extra strong.
Café lungo: The opposite of a ristretto. Basically, it’s watered-down espresso. The barista gives an extra long pull on the lever to achieve this effect.
Café Americano: Really watered-down espresso, a single shot with 6-8 ounces of water added.
Café macchiato: A regular shot of espresso topped with a spoonful of milk foam
Café corretto: A personal favorite, this literally means "corrected coffee". The stimulating effect of the caffeine is “corrected” by the soporific effect of an additive such as brandy or grappa.
Café latte: This is coffee with lots of milk, no foam. Do not shorten the term to “latte” unless you want a glass of milk. Latte is the Italian word for milk with no coffee implied.
Cappuccino normale: The genuine article.
Café or cappuccino ben caldo or bollente: Ask for this if you want your drink boiling hot. Traditional cappuccino is merely warm.
Café or cappuccino Hag: Hag is actually a brand name (the "h" is silent), but it’s a sure way of guaranteeing that you will get your brew decaffeinated. Decaffinato, isn’t always understood.
Cappuccino drinkers note: You can order it senza schiuma if you don’t want foam. You may be asked if you want ciccolata over your foam. Say "si". It's a lovely dusting of chocolate.
Caffè marocchino: it has nothing to do with Morocco and every barista has his own recipe, so it will always bea surprise. Basically it's coffee on top of a taste of dark bitter chocolate, then whipped cream or milk foam and chocolate powder on top.

il ficoRestaurant Etiquette If you are from New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney or any other city where good service is defined by promptness, you will need to make a severe attitude adjustment in Rome. Roman restaurant etiquette dictates that the worst thing you can do to a diner is to rush him. Rush is a four-letter word. We do not rush over meals, we relax, we converse, we take time. This means that you may not get a menu until you ask for it. You will almost certainly have to wait a significant period of time between courses. Nothing could be worse for the Roman digestion than to have an antipasto plate whisked away to make room for the immediate delivery of the pasta course.
On the matter of
ordering, many foreigners find themselves cowed by the assumption that the antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce routine is de rigeur. There was a time when Roman waiters made little effort to conceal their disappointment, nay their disgust, at the uncultured tourist who just wanted a plate of spaghetti. Nowadays, however, you will find you can order a minimal one-dish meal without enduring sneers. No need to be intimidated into ordering more than you care to eat. Getting the check can be an exercise in determination. What could be ruder than to present a check unsummoned? You will have to be quite clear in your communication with the waiter when you are ready to pay up and leave. The correct Italian verbiage is il conto, per favore. Failing that, you can resort to gesture, miming the writing of a pen on paper in midair. This is usually well understood. The check will not instantly appear, however. It will first need to be totaled out at the convenience of the waiter, often in consultation with the proprietor. Try to remain calm during this interval.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to have dinner before eight o’clock in the evening or lunch before one in the afternoon. The restaurants will all be closed and you will be forced to resort to pizza by the slice, probably eaten standing up. Lunch is rarely served after three in the afternoon. Dinner hours are more flexible. Occasionally, but not often, you may find a restaurant that stays open after eleven or even twelve. But since most restaurants, hating to rush anyone, have only one seating per table, habitual meal times are observed. Should you try to call a restaurant at four in the afternoon in the hope of making a reservation for that evening, you may well find there is no answer. Restaurants actually close between lunch and dinner. Everybody goes home for a couple of hours, returning at six in the evening to prepare for an eight o'clock re-opening. Best time to call for reservations is around noon, while they're setting up for lunch.
Tips are generally lower here than they are in the USA where 15 percent is considered polite and 20 percent is common. Many places will list an item called coperta or servizio on the bill. It's a built-in tip. Look for it and then leave a little bit extra depending on how well you liked the service. If there's no indication that the service is included, 10 to 15 percent is a respectable gratuity.

Shopping Get ready for sticker shock. If you were a size small in America, you may very well be a size large in Rome. Don't take it personally.It has nothing to do with all that pasta and gelato. I know a very slender American man who is forced to buy size large shirts here. An Italian women's size 44 is about an American size 8 or a British women's size 10. But that's not small! Sizes begin at 36 or 38. Imagine! Don't trust the hang tags or charts that tell you a size 48 is an American 14. It may very well be more like a 12. Get help from the sales staff and don't buy anything without trying it on.
More bad news: Outside of the most touristy areas, shops close for three hours in the middle of the day (usually from one to three-thirty or four). So don't expect to be able to shop on your lunch hour. On the bright side, many shops stay open until eight in the evening.


Buskers Busker is a common name for street musicians, who are as common in Rome as stray cats. You cannot escape them, and their repertoire is generally limited to “My Way,” “Arrivederci Roma,” and “Those Were the Days My Friend.” Some buskers are also famiiar with the popular standard “Autumn Leaves.” Whenever you decide to sit at an outside table, they will soon make their presence known, and having assaulted your ears, they will then accost you for payment. The most common instrument for busking is the Italian accordian or fisarmonica, an instrument few buskers have mastered. But sometimes you get lucky and find yourself serenaded by a group who really know how to play. Throw a euro or two into the hat. They deserve it.

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In Rome Now Travel Guide: Rome, Italy Culture Shock