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Flash floods and Rome – two things one would not normally associate, but as I remind those envious of my seven years here for the Financial Times, annual rainfall in the Italian capital is far greater than in London.
Only that, rather like monsoons in Asia, the deluge comes in the space of a few months, and those thoughts rushed through my mind as I tried in vain to prevent our ceiling collapsing under the weight of the torrent pouring from the flat above on one occasion during our second year in Rome.
My upstairs neighbour – incidentally living under house detention with a police guard as he awaited trial on criminal charges – welcomed my arrival armed with buckets. My teenage son, meanwhile, was wading out of a flooded underpass, his motorino (moped) submerged. Nearby, an entire roof of a school collapsed, but luckily on a day when the students were away.
The torrential rains also tear up the roads, leaving chains of dangerous potholes that remain for months, triggering bouts of anguished debate over Rome’s deteriorating infrastructure and its incompetent mayors, seemingly incapable of arresting what almost all its nearly 3m inhabitants would sum up as the city’s relentless decline and degradation. Not just under water, the capital is sinking under debt, whole blocks often blacked out at night as street lights get switched off.
Conferences are held and earnest pledges to clean up the city are made, usually during election campaigns which, given Italy’s enduring political instability, come around frequently. Little happens.
It is a city of contradictions. In June, Rome invited the international community to discuss the economic fallout of Italy’s mass counterfeit industry, much of it mafia-run. Yet nearby Piazza Navona was filled as usual with hawkers, many of them illegal immigrants who have turned one of Rome’s great squares into a tawdry bazaar.
Police, complaining about budget cuts, have long given up doing anything about it, just as gangs of beggars and thieves roam freely around the city, exploiting their own children. In his desperation, or critics would say ineptitude, mayor Ignazio Marino – a former liver transplant surgeon – recently held out the begging bowl, appealing to assembled foreign ambassadors to get their governments to fund the restoration of Rome’s crumbling monuments.
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), which won best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars, portrayed a city of decadent languor. One television presenter instead spoke of a “city of barbarians, its citizens becoming more like wild animals abandoned to themselves. Instead of the great beauty, the capital of Italy seems like the great disgrace”.
Such gloomy sentiments reflect a wider national sense of despair and frustration, compounded by a brutal economic recession. It has all been summed up in the polemics and recriminations – alas also quite racist – surrounding the early return from Brazil of its defeated football team, exposed as the slow-to-change and dysfunctional Italy rather than the dynamic and creative force that we hoped for. Disgrace or not, Rome retains its mesmerising beauty. With patience and experience, the expat can navigate its pitfalls. A perplexing bureaucracy is getting more manageable but the punitive tax regime is the price of living in one of the world’s most magical cities where wandering around the ancient Forum in an early summer sunset, when the tourist hordes have gone, has little equal.
Leave behind the eyesore bedlam of Piazza Navona and stroll peacefully at night through traffic-free Via dei Coronari, an ancient route for pilgrims heading to the Vatican and named after the rosary-bead sellers who used to work there, now lined with a dwindling number of antiquaries competing with the expanding trash of Chinese-made souvenirs.
It takes some nerve, but a motorbike is the way to beat the frustrations of Rome’s sometimes horrendous traffic, even with bone-rattling cobblestones. Like wasps we buzz in and out of the jams, remembering where those potholes lie and that red traffic lights are seen as more of an invitation rather than a command to stop. (My closest brush with death was being inches away from a speeding car that had “burnt” the lights.)
L’arte di arrangiarsi – hard to translate but something like the art of figuring out how to get tricky things done – could be applied not just to working around a byzantine bureaucracy but also to discovering how to enjoy Rome to the full.
Although I urge my Italian friends not to take this as an insult, life and social mores in Rome, and even more so in the country’s poorer south, have more in common with the Balkans and Middle East than Europe to the north. As I learnt from past experience in Belgrade and Tehran, it is not just bearing pastries or flowers when invited to dinner, or even greeting strangers in a lift. Getting around daily obstacles and doing your job depends on introductions and fostering contacts – from finding a decent doctor and a tax accountant to arranging an interview with a reclusive chief executive. The Vatican, a web of power of its own, has a more defined hierarchy than Iran’s Shia theocracy but goodwill, patience and connections can open doors there too.
Thankfully the expat bubble does not really exist in Rome (and yes there are a few places that sell Colman’s mustard powder, and growing numbers of Asian groceries). Even the international schools – not all attaining the greatest academic standards but, as we found at American Overseas School of Rome, still fostering a welcoming and secure atmosphere – have as many Italian students as foreign ones. Rents have fallen to more realistic levels since pre-crisis peaks six years ago. (Get a lawyer to look at that contract.) Even if that legendary Italian zest for enjoying life is taking a beating in grim economic times, the beach can still be less than an hour’s drive away if you rise early, and a passion for sport prevails.
As a fan of Roma, a club now under US ownership and better for it, there has been both heartbreak and joy on frequent trips to the Stadio Olimpico for late evening matches where I became part of a tribe that lives in implacable rivalry with local adversaries Lazio.
Football is still the occasion for a traditional fun family outing, but, sadly here too of late, the city has displayed its criminal underpinnings.
As I write this last dispatch before returning to the UK, the news has come in of the tragic death of 29-year-old Ciro Esposito, a Napoli fan who had come to Rome for the Italian cup final against Fiorentina seven weeks earlier. He was shot in the chest while trying to intervene to help children caught in the middle of clashes outside the stadium. A Roma fan who allegedly fired four shots with a pistol has been charged with his death.
A chaotic and spellbinding city, Rome has its darker side.
Guy Dinmore is the outgoing FT correspondent in Rome
Photographs: Giovanni Cocco; 4Corners; Getty; Alamy; AFP
Dinmore’s verdict . . .
● Rome is overflowing with history
● Wonderful food
● A welcoming environment beyond the usual cheats targeting tourists
● The city is never dull
● High taxes
● Traffic and poor public transport
● Awful bureaucracy for investors
Jogging/cycling From Ponte Milvio along the river Tiber
Sant’Andrea delle Fratte A church with tranquil cloisters and a pond
The Albert An Italian-Scottish pub with plenty of stories
Raspberry ice cream at Giolitti A gelateria near the Pantheon that is something of an institution
What you can buy for . . .
€100,000 A studio flat with a balcony on the outskirts of the city
€1m A penthouse overlooking St Peter’s dome, or a two-floor villa with a garden in southern Rome
€2m A 180 sq metre loft in an early 17th-century palace just steps away from the Trevi Fountain, or a four-bedroom villa with a pool and olive grove on the Appia Antica, an ancient Roman consular road