Paris or Rome?

A reader asks:

I have been reading your blogs after doing a search for travel advice.  They are definitely interesting and it sounds like a good time.  I’m traveling to Finland for business the last week of October but want to layover in either Rome or Paris for two days to check out the sights of one of these historic cities before I head back to the States.  Any recommendation as to which is the better city to visit for just two days.  I’m sure it’s a personal preference thing, but I’m curious what your opinion is if you have the time.

It’s a tough choice — both are world class cities. It depends on your interests. I would say Rome, since in a couple days you can hit some major sites (Vatican, Coliseum, etc) and taste some excellent food. I feel like Paris is less favorable to a quick drop in — it’s more a city where you settle in for a week and experience Parisian culture.

How the Italians Resolve Awkward Endings to Phone Conversations

“Ciao” is such a versatile word in Italian — it can mean hello and goodbye.

I noticed that Italians end phone conversations with several “Ciaos.” In other words, “blah blah blah Ciaooo, Ciao Ciao Ciao Ciao” then hang-up. The Ciaos are uttered with increasing speed and decreasing volume, one right after the other.

I have no idea how this mode of conversation evolved, but I would guess it’s a resolution to that awkwardness we all experience at the end of telephone calls. The conversation is finished. How the hell can we hang up? My go-to is, “Ok, I’ll talk to you soon.” Others throw in a few “take-cares.” The Italians have it down: one side starts saying Ciao, then the other starts saying it, and when they’re both repeating “Ciao” over and over again, they both hang up.

Final Two Days in Rome

Having knocked off the major attractions my first two days in Rome, I had the luxury of taking it slow my final two days. The weather has cooled a bit which makes it more pleasant and conducive for meandering. I focused on villa Bourghese in Friday, a huge park in Rome (the biggest?) which has a variety of trails and benches and fountains. It was a great escape from the noises of city life. It was also surprisingly empty — still lots of tourists, of course, but far less than I expected. I ended up spending a good three hours in the park. Had lunch. Read a book for an hour. Watched some babies run around. The park also houses a few key Roman art museums, but I’ve had my filling of art on this trip, so I passed on Caravaggio. I then went for a great run along the River Temepre which divides the northern part of Rome. There’s a bike/running path along the street along the river but every couple miles there’s a small entrance to shoot down right next to the river. Some trash and rubble still lie along the river, but it’s still a nice, short job from near my apartment to the end of the trail. For dinner I went back to the pizzeria across the street where I went the first night — I suppose I should be “exploring” more, but thunderstorms were on their way (they came and went) and I didn’t want to risk getting lost. I was the only person dining alone in the restaurant. Maybe I was at too nice of a restaurant or maybe the solo-book-reading dinner is just more common in the cafes I frequent in San Francisco. Given the centrality of good food and conversation in Italian culture, or so says stereotypes, I suspect it’s the latter.

My final day in Rome — a quiet Saturday as citizens rested for the big game Sunday — entailed a visit to Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Trevi Fountain is where you’re supposed to face away from the huge fountain and throw a coin over your shoulder and it gives good luck in your romance life (or something like that). The fountain is impressive and worth a visit, if only to get a laugh out of all the people trying to throw their coin in the right way. My guidebook tells me more than 1,000 euro is thrown into the fountain each day and that it goes to charity…at least it does now. For the past year a guy has been scooping out coins each night and was actually able to support himself. That’s entrepreneurship.

The Spanish Steps — or Piazza di Spagna — are also impressive, but only if you’re a big people watcher. The views at the top of the steps are nice. It’s not Tuscany Hilltops, but still provides some geographic lay of the land. I strolled down via Corso afterwards, a short way from di Spagna, and it was here when I got stopped by the cops. When the police approached me my heart started racing. “Sdflkjasdflj” the cop said. “Sorry, English,” I responded. “Do you have a license for those guns?” he asked again in pretty good English. I immediately started kicking myself. Why did I wear my sleeveless Nike shirt today? “You know the rule officer, Sun’s Out, Guns Out,” I responded.

Joking aside, the stroll was nice and amazingly I bumped into a bus line that took me right home when I had enough for the day. I did the run along the river again and now am resting, packing, and thinking about the tough few days ahead of me.

I had the best dinner of my stay in Rome at a restaurant five minutes away from my apartment off Piazza Mazzini. Mozzarella bufala (sp), which I’m now addicted to and wonder what I’m going to do post-Italy, as an appetizer, six fluffy pieces of bread doused in olive oil, a half liter of mineral water, and fried turkey breast with spinach. Big portion, pleasant atmosphere with my companion the Financial Times, and only 16 euros all in! Who knew I would get such a deal when my only criterion was a restaurant that would serve dinner at 6:45 PM. I got lost on the way home, of course, but only for a few minutes. Call it divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I amazingly ended up at a gelatto place, so I had to get some ice cream, too.

Rome is a world-class city which I recommend to everyone. It didn’t quite “charm me to death and leave me gaping for more” as one guidebook suggested — to me it seemed like another big city with everything and more — but it certainly can withstand several days of intense tourism without feeling too small or too big.

A Hotdog and Burger in Rome

That’s how I celebrated July 4th, by myself, in a hole in the wall place in Rome. Two observations.

1. The burger and hotdog were really sophisticated. Good bread, a piece of tomato, and lettuce around both. When the guy delivered the burger he said, “Your hamBOOgur” (that’s how they pronounce it).

2. The only bad thing about the dinner was the ketchup and mustard dispensers! I hate when restaurants in the States provide ketchup in glass bottles instead of plastic squeeze ones. In this Rome restaurant, they provided them in plastic mini packages that requires a knife to tear open. After spending literally 10 minutes trying to tear open the ketchup, I then picked up the yellow packets which were right next to the red ketchup. I got that open too, and squirted it onto my hotdog. Wait! It’s white! I looked at the label: mayonnaise!? I forgot that Europeans love dipping their stuff in mayonnaise. But why the yellow label!!

Want to Kill Yourself? Be a Pedestrian in Rome

When I was in Dublin, Ireland I had the most difficult street-crossing as a pedestrian of my life. It was a massive six way intersection, one of which led into the Microsoft campus. Cars streamed in all directions and there were few islands to stand on while making the crossing. I spent about 5 full minutes studying the situation (think of George in the Seinfeld “Frogger” episode). Then had about three false starts, where I started to cross but then deemed it too dangerous. When I finally crossed safely 10 minutes later, I knew I had made history.

That Dublin incident still reigns, but in Ireland it was an anomaly. Here in Rome, being a pedestrian on any street is dangerous. Hey — I may be spoiled, since in Switzerland any car that seems even the faint outlines of a pedestrian must stop. There are big fines for any car that does not yield to the pedestrian at every single street. Nonetheless, what goes on in Rome is totally absurd. You can be halfway through the crosswalk and cars will still whiz by. The circular intersections don’t help.

It took one full day in Rome observing the locals to figure out how to cross a street safely. What works for me is to use a lot of hand gestures. It also helps if you’ve just eaten pasta — the energy boost is key. Seriously…hand gestures do seem to work. Try to attract the attention of the driver. Be assertive. Step onto the street. Try to time the lights.

The odds are stacked against you. You only have to be wrong once. Godspeed.