Sometimes Rome gets things right.
After living here more than six months, I’ve found a touch of cynicism creeping into my blissful retirement consciousness. Maybe I’m being influenced by many of my Roman friends’ hangdog looks. Maybe getting stood up at bus stops from lines that just didn’t work that day has affected me. Inflation keeps rising and salaries never do. The latest tax hike took it to 50 percent, rivaling Scandinavia’s while paying Third World wages. The city is broke, it’s dirtier than ever and the lax immigration laws has Rome creeping uneasily toward a possible race war.
But this summer, the City of Rome gave the populace a gift. Just as the ancient Roman Emperors gave the mob gladiator battles in the Colosseum (what better way to cheer yourself up than watching half-starved wild animals eat terrified Christians?), Rome gave its citizens a nightly festival. It’s called Lungo il Tevere (Along the Tiber).
Of all the places Rome is celebrating summer, it chooses one of the dirtiest places in the city. The Tiber River (Tevere in Italian) is to Rome what an armpit is to a homeless vagrant. It’s so filthy, fish were once found on the banks after throwing themselves out of the water, choosing suicide by drowning on land over suffocating in the filthy water. I read it hasn’t been cleaned up since 2008 and, according to RiverWatch/Tevere, a local environmental group, the Tiber has 40 times the acceptable fecal and industrial pollution. “Fecal pollution”? The word “fecal” just sounds filthy. It sounds like it comes from the part of your body from which you don’t even want to see an x-ray.
However, Rome has cleaned up the Tiber in one regard. With Lungo il Tevere, for the 12th straight summer, the city has placed temporary bars, restaurants, exhibits, boutiques and novelty stores all along the west bank of the Tiber and all over Isola Tiburina. From Ponte Sublicio, just down the street from my apartment, to Ponte Sisto in Trastevere, a distance of about 800 meters, you can do everything from smoke a hookah to buy an 1960s rock album to listen to rock bands to just sit in overstuffed couches with a loved one and stare out at a river you never saw look better. From June 12-Aug. 31, the Tiber looks like the class ugly duckling with ratty clothes getting a total makeover. Suddenly, all of Rome wants to be with her.
I do. My apartment overlooks the Tiber and on my end of town it’s only slightly filthy. I often wander down the street and cross Ponte Fabricio, Rome’s oldest standing bridge dating to 62 B.C., over to Tiburina. This island in the middle of the Tiber has housed the sick and feeble since the 3rd century B.C. The hospital that dominates the island plays second fiddle in summer. In its place are a long line of hip bars with beautiful waitresses and comfy love seats a few feet up from the Tiber’s only rapids. The whole island, 270 meters long x 67 wide, is lined with lights. From Lungotevere, the street that snakes up the side of the river, Tiburina looks more like a cruise ship than an island full of patients.
I saw Germany beat the mortal piss out of Brazil on a big screen set up for the World Cup on Tiburina. I saw a fashion show where Rome’s best beauties trotted out in their shortest outfits to an attentive, applauding, somewhat panting male audience. I had many drinks with people from Jordan to Jersey at my Expats Living in Rome Meetup aperitivos.
Monday night I took a long cruise up the river which, a year ago, could only be done along the banks as the Tiber River boat cruise was cancelled. The reason? Pollution. I started at River Tandem, one of the many social groups that organize summer aperitivos here. Every table was packed with Italians, expats and tourists with cute, blonde waitresses in glittery silver headbands serving them. For 10 euros you get the buffet and a drink. Buffets in Lungo il Tevere vary wildly depending on where you stop. They range from fancy finger food to cold macaroni you swore you had once in your freshman dorm cafeteria. River Tandem had what I’d rate as a B-minus: prosciutto, a leafy shrimp salad, indistinguishable mini paninis and watermelon slices.
With no place to sit and tiring of the waitresses asking me to move, I walked upriver. I passed a small stage where a short curly haired woman and a guitarist with long hair and beard from the ‘80s played a mix of Italian and American hits. When they butchered Anne Murray’s country song, “Walk Right Back” featuring the lyric, “Why’d you walk out on me?” I walked out on them.
Remember the old Foosball games that were so popular in the 1970s? They still are in Lungo il Tevere. At nearly every tent or bar Italians were pounding little plastic balls up and down the portable soccer field. It took a particular Italian bent at the World Cup display where large boards illustrated Italy’s three World Cup triumphs. Shockingly, none of the boards were destroyed earlier this month after Italy didn’t get out of the first round for the second straight time.
One good thing about Lungo il Tevere: It has thankfully added to Rome’s wanton ethnic food scene. If you come to Rome, you’d better like Italian food because there’s not much else. There are some Indian and Ethiopian places and I used to live near a new Vietnamese restaurant in Centro Storico. Sushi has become popular and a chain of American-style steakhouses has emerged called T-Bone Station. Chinese restaurants have been here for a long time. But that’s about it. On Lungo il Tevere, the Middle Eastern food looked fabulous at Taverna Mediterranea where nearly every table had people and a hookah pipe. A big TV screen showed a video of a beautiful belly dancer. Suddenly, the Tiber had the appearance of Istanbul and the Straits of Bosphorus.
That image quickly shattered when I smelled stale tequila and overly sweet salsa while walking by Taqueria El Paso. I have a rule about Mexican food. Never eat it east of the Texas state line. Rome is 5,000 miles east of the Texas State Line.
I finally passed this calm bar called Nanni with small tables and padded chairs and families and tourists. I took a seat next to a couple with two young daughters watching Italian reality TV while Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” played over the loudspeaker. I drank my fifth beer of the evening and my lack of drinking shape after 6 ½ months in teetotaling Rome was obviously showing.
I had to go home. As I walked back to my apartment on the other side of the Tiber, I heard the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” drift up from a loudspeaker on Isola Tiburina. The whitewater from the Tiber’s rapids framed the tiny island as if it was shepherding it toward the sea. The Tiber’s image has taken a beating over the course of two millennium. But on a warm summer night in Rome, with lights illuminating its best features, the Tiber isn’t the tired garbage dump it has been called over the years.
Actually, the old lady cleans up pretty good.