Since I’ve been in Rome, something has seemed different. I mean, other than 2,000-year-old buildings and heaps of pasta sitting on tables two feet from the street and everyone talking with accents distinctly not Okie.
And I finally figured it out. Rome has no skyline.
New York has a skyline. Chicago has a skyline. Even Los Angeles has a skyline, albeit puny, skyline. London has a skyline. Paris has a skyline. Berlin has a skyline. Fifty Chinese cities you’ve never heard of have five million residents and skylines.
But Rome has no skyline. No skyscrapers to speak of. Rome has a couple of business districts, from what I’m told, away from the city center. Looking at photos, I’d guess a few 20-story, maybe 30-story buildings. But nothing to rival even the Devon Tower.
Of course, who needs a skyline when your downtown includes the Coliseum and the Forum and the Pantheon? Actually, it’s kind of funny to call Rome’s city center “downtown.” Downtown sounds like Petula Clark and Kress’ Drugstore. Not where Caesars staged their triumphant processions.
But forget the 2,000-year-old landmarks that draw people like me from all over the world. Rome’s city center is comprised of thousands of old and cool buildings. I don’t mean old as in First National Center (built in 1931) old. Not as in Colcord Building (1909) old.
Old as in 1660 old. 1747 old. 1549 old.
Think of it this way. Think of the coolest old building in your hometown. Or on your favorite campus. Think of a great old church, like Norman’s McFarlin Methodist or Tulsa’s Boston Avenue Methodist or Our Lady’s Cathedral on Shartel in Oklahoma City.
There are buildings more ornate, more stately and much, much older, every 50 yards or so in Rome, street after street, for what seems like miles. You can’t even really keep up. Or you can’t stop to photograph them all, else you’d be stopping every 30 seconds.
We went back to the Spanish Steps on Saturday and just stopped and gawked at the buildings we could see. Opulent buildings, simple buildings, gorgeous buildings. It’s amazing.
Sunday, we’re going to tour some of the ancient landmarks. But really, the whole dang city is ancient. And unbelievably cool.
WATER, WATER, MY KINGDOM FOR A WATER
My biggest complaint with Rome is the lack of water. Will somebody serve me a glass of water?
I drink a lot of water, especially during meals. If I sit down for a Mexican, or Italian, or Chinese, meal, I’ll drink 5-6-7 glasses of water.
But in Rome, they don’t bring you glasses of water. You have to order water, and they bring it to the table by the liter. Still or sparkling. I had some sparkling the other day, and while I’m not too crazy about it, I’d drink it out of a horse trough, I’ve been so thirsty during this trip.
They say you need to stay hydrated in Rome, because you do so much walking. But hydration’s a problem if you have to ration out the water. You go to dinner with other people, you don’t want to hog the water. I’d gulp that entire liter of water in about 10 minutes. I don’t know what it costs. Seems like anywhere from 3-6 Euros per bottle. So it can get pricey.
I bought a Gatorade off the street Saturday and kept the bottle. I’m going to take it out Sunday for our tour. Julie Sluss, whose husband, remember, is the senior associate dean of OU’s College of Engineering, has been over here many times and told us that there are natural fountains throughout the city that spew good drinking water. She’s a nurse and fairly determined to keep everyone healthy on the trip. So I’ll look for those fountains and replenish.
And don’t even think about ice. The Dish the first night wondered where was our ice bucket. I laughed. No ice bucket, no ice machine (this isn’t the Courtyard by Marriott in Los Colinas), no ice in your drinks, although I suppose most places have some in the back if you really must. They serve wine out of bottles and sodas out of cans and water out of liter bottles. It’s all chilled in coolers. The ice men don’t cometh.
Of course, maybe all this water deprivation is a good thing. I got to thinking. I’ve been out twice for extensive walks through Rome. Haven’t seen a public bathroom. I know people are going to the bathroom. I just don’t know where they’re going. We haven’t used a bathroom outside our hotel.
Sunday, we’re going to the Forum and the Coliseum with the OU students who now are in town. We’ll be gone for several hours. Someone will have to go to the bathroom. I’ll give you an update.
And by the way, I think I’ve figured out the elevated bathroom in our room at the Hotel Nord. It’s got a drain right in the middle of the bathroom. I guess they figure bathrooms are easier to clean if you can get rid of certain stuff by sending it down the pipes.
The students have arrived. Remember, we’re in Italy with an OU expedition. Twenty-two OU engineering students are headed to OU’s satellite campus in Arezzo for a summer of studying abroad. They meet in Rome for a few days, then head to Venice for more sight-seeing before getting to Arezzo on Thursday.
We had orientation and dinner Saturday night. These are bright students. First, you’ve got to be sharp to be in the Engineering College in the first place, then you have to qualify to study in Italy. I don’t think behavior is going to be a problem. This shouldn’t be Animal House meets Tuscany.
But Jim Sluss and Theresa Marks did remind the students that while they are adults and can make their own decisions, they are subject to the OU Student Code, even in a foreign country. Wonder if Bob Stoops drops the Student Code line on his ballteam during a bowl trip? Jim Sluss reminded everyone (good advice for adults, too) that the Italian justice system can hold you for three days before charging you with a crime. Stay out of the Italian justice system, he suggested.
I chatted with a few of the students. Jake and Curt are from Fort Worth and went to Arlington Heights together. We sat with Kylie and Nate at dinner. Kylie is from the Dallas suburb of Allen; she plays flute in the Pride of Oklahoma. Nate is from the Cleveland suburb of Medina, Ohio; he’s a National Merit Scholar. And I talked some Thunder hoops with Blake, who graduated from Enid and has transferred to OU from SMU. I’ve gotten to know a bunch of Engineering administrators and professors and alumni over the years. I think it’ll be fun getting to know some of the product on the other end.
We had dinner at a place just around the corner from the hotel, la Gallina Bianca. It was a banquet-style format, with everyone getting the same thing, so naturally that’s not going to be as good as ordering off the menu. But it still was enjoyable. We had a pesto pasta salad that was majors. And a dessert of some kind of white custard with currants, which I had never heard of but are sort of small blueberries. Very good. The entrée was straight out of Oklahoma Sunday dinners — potatoes with slices of meat and light gravy. The potatoes were excellent; cut into cubes and somehow crunchy on the outside but still soft on the inside. The meat was fine, but I didn’t know what it was. I guessed roast beef, but that was a bad guess. The Dish and Julie Sluss thought turkey, but Jim Sluss said pork. It was good, just not what I expect in Italy. I assume the students know it’s going to get a lot better and fast.
After dinner, Darrell Bull, the OU grad who now is a vice president at Crestwood Midstream in Houston, asked to speak to the group. Darrell gave a great quick speech about the opportunity these students had and how important it is to stay connected to your alma mater. Theresa Marks had said something similar during orientation, talking about how they would make bonds this summer that would last forever. Darrell told the group his rule is that an OU student never pays when he’s in the room; he’ll be in Arezzo for a few days, and if anyone sees him in a restaurant, pop in and join him. A few of the students had wine, which was not included with their dinner; Darrell picked up the tab.
A ROMAN AFTERNOON
We slept late Saturday — way late; I don’t want to tell you how late — to counter jet lag, and we had to be back at the hotel by 5 p.m. to meet the students, so the Dish and I didn’t have a ton of time on our own. We just headed back to the city center to see what we could find. This is it:
* Right in the middle of a block, hard to even see, was an ornamental yard art shop. “Shop” really isn’t the right word. It was outdoors, sort of a courtyard cut into a block of buildings. But there were hundreds of miniature statues and busts, all of a Roman nature. We’d have been tempted to buy something, but I don’t know how we’d have gotten it back to Oklahoma. Shipping something breakable doesn’t seem wise.
* At the top of the Spanish Steps are a bunch of vendors. Painters selling their wares, sketch artists doing portraits. We looked through some oil paintings and found one guy we really liked. The Dish has several Italian landscape prints hanging in our house — our neighborhood is called The Vineyard — and the thought of buying an original Italian work of art from an Italian in Italy, well, that seems like the best kind of souvenir. The guy’s prices weren’t bad at all. About 150 Euros for a big, lovely oil painting of a Rome setting. He has tubes that enable you to roll up the painting and carry it back to the States. We’d have to have it framed, of course, and that will cost more than the painting, but it would be a great keepsake for this trip. I think we’ll probably do it.
* As we talked to the painter, he asked where we were from. “California?” he said. Uh, Americans must all sound alike if someone thinks I’m from California. Come to think about it, I don’t even know what a Californian sounds like.
* We stopped in at some little café for a quick lunch. We each had a Panini — salami and mozzarella, though the Dish had spinach on hers — and it was very good. And we shared a liter of water. I forget the name of the place, but just like our dinner spot Friday night, it had olive oil and Balsamic vinegar on every table. Some Italian places back home will have olive oil on the table, and some will bring you Balsamic, too. But to have them on the table as a staple, well, it doesn’t get much better than that. The Dish says the olive oil over here is better than what we’re used to. Seems the say to me. But I’d dip anything into Balsamic vinegar. Bread. Sandwich. Roast beef. Turkey. Pork. Doesn’t matter to me. They say salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s most common condiment. I’m ready for Balsamic vinegar to rout out salsa.
* Lots of Italians smoke. The sidewalks are crowded, and you get a cloud of smoke in your face before you know it. Seems to me that Europeans smoke much more than do Americans. Hey, I thought Europeans were supposed to be the cool people?
* Lots of motorcycles in Rome. All over the streets. Parked all over. We had three interesting cycle sightings Saturday.
1. We actually were walking on a fairly wide sidewalk, which is hard to find, along a fairly wide street, which is hard to find, which was not very crowded, which is hard to find. And up at the corner, a decent-sized motorcycle turns coming our way — on the sidewalk. Just zipped right past us. Made me think of the Andy Griffith Show. Andy didn’t let the kids ride their bikes on the sidewalks of Mayberry. They belonged in the streets, he said. Rome could use a Sheriff Andy Taylor. Every city in the world could use a Sheriff Andy Taylor.
2. We were headed up some steps next to the outdoor patio of a restaurant. Fairly large patio area, next to some very side steps. All of a sudden, here came a motorcycle around the corner of the steps — coming from the café seating. I looked over the edge. It was all tables and chairs and two walls. I don’t know where the cyclist came from, unless it was the restaurant itself, or how he navigated through and around the tables. But he did.
3. We went to the Piazza di Spagna, which is the base of the Spanish Steps. The Dish had been told about this leather glove shop, where they actually fit the gloves to your hands. It was a tiny, but interesting place. The Dish decided to pass on any gloves. But we went walking along the plaza when came about six motorized scooters, each with a nattily-dressed man riding solo. Think Beatles, circa 1965. Then a rickshaw with two guys obviously in their group, too. They were blasting their scooter horns and grinning ear to ear. I had no idea what was going on. We walked on another 50 yards or so and came upon a church, with the remnants of a wedding party standing outside. My guess: the groom was in the rickshaw, along with his captor, and the groomsmen were having a jolly good time.
* The Roman streets are interesting in the city center. More than half are some kind of cobblestone. Reminds me of the brick streets which used to be in places like Pauls Valley and Winfield, Kan., and maybe still are.
* I saw a pay phone that appeared to be in operation. Swear.
* I wore my Thunder cap. Didn’t draw a bite. Maybe tomorrow.
* I’ve got to get up to speed on Italian peace officers. Since I’ve been in town, I’ve seen about four different kinds of uniforms. Some guys at the airport with cool green berets. And others in all kinds of different uniforms. I’ll try to let you know.