This post will be a running post of all the things I’ve learned as an American in Rome
4/11/2023- We’ve been here for five days and it’s been very different than the last time we visited. Last time, we packed our schedule full of all the main things to see and barely took the time to actually enjoy being in Roma.
This time, we have no agenda, no plans. Good thing, because the jet lag hit us hard this time. Day four was the first time we woke up before 1 pm, and today we woke up at a reasonable time, despite going to bed late.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Roma has two speeds: hyper fast or leisurely slow. Vehicles, including motorbikes and scooters, go hyper fast. It doesn’t matter if it’s a main road or a tiny side street not much bigger than a sidewalk, if it’s not pedestrian-only, be ready for something with wheels to go flying by. Even the bicyclists go so fast. I’m amazed at how brave the Romans are.
The ristoranti are very different here. This is where the Italians really slow down and take their time, and they eat dinner late. Many restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 7-9 pm. Nothing is rushed. It’s not so much about eating as it is about the experience. Service will be slow, but that’s just how it is here. Unless you go to a touristy restaurant, tips are not expected and sometimes seen as offensive. But if you go to dinner at a landmark, such as the Pantheon or Colosseum, do not be surprised if you see an option for a tip, or are even asked for one in cash by the waiter. They also denote on the menu if something was previously frozen, so you know if you are ordering something fresh.
The way you get service is also very different here. Some places, you just take an empty seat and they will serve you. Some places require reservations and are very strict about it. Some places you have to wait in line for. And the tourist places will have someone out front asking you if you are ready for a meal.
Things that we are used to being free with a meal are not. Water is offered in both still and sparkling, and rarely free. And forget about ice, even at touristy places. The bread is also rarely free. You don’t have to accept either when eating a meal. At dinner, we order a bottle of wine and skip the water. The tap water is delicious so we drink it mainly at home. There are also tons of adorable and drinkable fountains around Roma.
The majority of people smoke here, cigarettes, cigars, and vapes. If you sit outside at a ristorante, accept someone will set next to you, no more than a foot away, and smoke. If you chose to sit outside, know that you will be smelling cigarettes while you eat.
Credit cards are much more widely accepted than the last time we came. Cash is still always preferred, but it isn’t a big deal to pay with a carta at a store or ristorante.
The Italian people here are so welcoming and inviting. If you attempt Italian, they will correct you if needed, while encouraging you and sometimes even thank you for trying. One cameriere (waiter) told me tutti tourists come here but I’m the only one who tried to speak Italian.
You may find many shops and restaurants closed for around three hours in the afternoon. This is so the workers can go home, rest (riposo), and spend time with their families.
Grocery shopping is also much different. There are grocery stores, but they are nothing like Wegmans or Publix. They are small, local shops that have a little of most things. You won’t find aisle after aisle, and the frozen section is very small. A lot of your groceries will come from the market. Campo de’ fiori is the market closest to us. It is touristy and the people asking you to buy limoncello and spices gets annoying, but the produce is fresh and so freaking good.
My favorite part about Roma is how beautiful it is, everywhere you look (except sometimes down, it is kinda dirty). We love just randomly walking around the city and discovering new places and seeing all the hidden little alleyways and piazzas that make Roma so great.
It’s now been one month since we arrived in Rome. The tourist season has definitely started early, and there are people everywhere. To beat the tourists, get up early and head out to places like Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. We went to the Trevi Fountain just before 9 am, and it was busy but manageable. In a few hours, it will be so packed that it’s almost impossible to move. The Pantheon opens at 9 am, and there was a huge line, almost around the whole block. They let people in promptly at 9, and the line moved quick. By 9:15, there wasn’t a line at all and we could walk right in. Like the Trevi, in a few hours it will be impossible to get anywhere near the Pantheon.
I’ve also learned a lot about crosswalks. There are two kinds here: the kind with lights that tell you when to cross, and the kind without lights. The kind with lights will stop traffic and allow you to cross. These are popular at busy intersections. Be aware of cyclists, and sometimes even motorbikes and cars, ignoring the light and going anyway. The ones without a light are at smaller intersections and various crosswalks throughout the city. These ones require either a bit of bravery, or waiting for an Italian to go first. Unlike the US, where traffic will generally stop when you are waiting to cross at a crosswalk, they do not here. They will keep going while you stand and wait, finally crossing when an Italian goes across. If you start crossing in the crosswalk, the cars will generally stop, or at least slow down, to let you cross. But if you aren’t in the crosswalk, they will keep going.
Places labeled bar are actually cafes, but many serve alcohol too. They are a great place to grab a morning pastry and cappuccino (don’t order a cappuccino after noon or they’ll look at you funny), as well as a great spot for an afternoon Aperol. They often have great outdoor seating and are perfect for people watching, or just soaking up your time in Rome.
And if you stop somewhere for just a drink, don’t be surprised when they bring you a snack, too. Most places will give you a small bowl of plain chips or some nuts. The fancier ones may give you little sandwiches, olives, or pastries. The more expensive the drinks, the fancier the snacks.
A service charge is a normal addition to your conto (bill) at a restaurant. It’s essentially their version of tipping, but usually just a few Euros. If a place tells you they don’t charge a service charge and asks if you want to tip, congrats, you just ate at a touristy spot. This will happen to everyone and some are actually quite delicious.
You will look like a tourist, no matter how hard you try. But if you want to blend in a bit, most Italian women I’ve met so far wear either Doc Martens or white sneakers, with either black pants or floral skirts. I’ve been noticing more plain linen shirts as the weather gets warmer, but Italians still seem to wear heavy coats and scarves, even when it’s 70 out.
I’ve felt very safe everywhere we’ve been, although we haven’t been to the train station yet, which is where most of the pickpockets are. But still be smart. Don’t give money to beggars, even if the look like sad, very old people. A sign on one of the churches said they are sent by the mafia and I’m inclined to believe them. Also don’t leave your stuff sitting around. A girl left her purse on the table at an outside seat while she went inside, and it could have easily been stolen. In the words of the waiter, it’s safe but don’t be an idiot. I have a fancy watch that I almost didn’t bring because I read about people trying to steal jewelry right off of you, but I haven’t been nervous once yet.
We have two more weeks here before we head to Lake Como!