Rome’s historic water shortage plugging the noses of some of city’s famed cisterns

Me at one of the "nasoni" in steaming Rome. The city has 2,500 of them but the water shortage has closed 400. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at one of the “nasoni” in steaming Rome. The city has 2,500 of them but the water shortage has closed 400. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I have a weird confession to make. I never drank water until I moved to Rome.

I’m serious. Water was too boring. It had no flavor. Why drink water when you can drink Gatorade? For 45 years, all through my years playing sports as a kid and traveling the globe as an adult, I lived on soft drinks, citrus fruit and artificial thirst quenchers with more synthetics than polyester pants. Back home in the West, I always had a gallon jug of Gatorade in my refrigerator. I drank milk as a thirst quencher. Water? Why bother?

In 2001 I moved here to Rome on a budget. Gatorade is hard to find here. If I drank milk to quench my thirst in the steaming Rome summer I’d be broke by soccer season. I considered living on nothing but wine. Nope. You can’t earn street cred in Rome when you pass out in a piazza at 3 in the afternoon.

The nasone in Piazza Testaccio.

The nasone in Piazza Testaccio.


Then I discovered something. All around Rome were these fascinating, cast-iron fountains with curved nozzles that poured out a continual stream of cold water. Each nozzle had a little hole on top. You closed the spout with your finger and the water shot out of the hole like a normal drinking fountain.

And the water was fantastic. Clean and cold, very cold, even in the middle of July.

I never went thirsty in Rome and I saved a fortune. Everywhere I went I could see the constant gurgle of these cisterns, known here as nasoni, from the Italian word “naso” for “nose,” as the cisterns look like great big schnozzes.

Then I read somewhere that Rome’s water had been rated No. 1 among urban centers in the world. I filled a water bottle with tap water, put it in the refrigerator and waited four hours. What came out was the best water of my life. I’d stand at the refrigerator and chug half a liter bottle of the glorious, ice-cold fluid, much to the disgust of my then girlfriend.

I finally became hooked on what has kept the rest of mankind alive since history’s first drop of sweat. When I returned to Rome for my second stint 3 ½ years ago, I immediately bought two liter glass bottles, one to chill while I drank the other. I drink two liters a day, three in the summer. The nasoni satiates me when out of the house.

Now as Rome melts into its cobblestones and my water intake skyrockets, everyone in Rome is facing a crisis: water shortage. More than 400 of our beloved nasoni have been turned off. The city has about 2,500 nasoni, meaning 16 percent of these cute, ingenious, thirst-quenching little piles or iron are now dry. We barely avoided water rationing which would’ve turned off water for eight hours a day all over the city. The Vatican turned off 100 of its fountains, including the famous Bernini fountain in the middle of St. Peter’s Square.

A dry nasone near the Jewish Ghetto.

A dry nasone near the Jewish Ghetto.


Excuse all 1.5 million of us Rome residents if we’re sweating this summer for more reasons than one.

Hey, Republicans. You think climate change is a hoax? Italy had its second hottest spring and its driest in 60 years. It hasn’t rained in Rome in more than two months. From last year rainfall has dropped 80-85 percent. Rivers in the industrial Po Valley around Turin are parched. Italy, the world’s leading exporter of tomato products, has seen a 90-percent drop in production. Olive oil and (GASP!) wine production has dropped 15-30 percent. Agriculture officials say the damage to crops around Italy has totalled 2 billion euros.

Hospital admissions in Italy are up 15-20 percent for heat-related illnesses and at least three people have died from the heat. Florence’s Uffizi Museum closed Friday when the air-conditioner broke down due to the lack of water in the dried-up River Arno.

Vittorio Marletto, an agricultural meteorologist for the Regional Environment and Energy Agency of the Emilia-Romagna region in Central Italy, was quoted as saying, “For years we have seen progressively diminished precipitation and rising temperatures due to the changing climate. The lack of snowpack in the Apennine mountains to recharge the aqueducts is particularly dramatic.”

Scientists say that the death toll in Europe from heat will go from 3,000 a year to 152,000 by the end of the century.

Not that it’s hot now, but I walked by the famous statue of Julius Caesar near the Forum and in his outstretched hand toward the masses he’s now holding a Red Bull. It’s so hot, the pope indeed walked on water. He walked across the Trevi Fountain — in shorts and flipflops. Actually, I made that up. You can’t get in — or on — the water in Rome fountains anymore. Two tourists were recently fined 900 euros for washing their feet in a fountain; an Italian was arrested for swimming in Trevi — nude.

By the numbers, Rome is nothing like St. Louis, Orlando or Houston. Last week it topped out at 104 although there were forecasts of 106. The humidity didn’t go over 45 percent. But it feels hotter than the numbers. Romans hate air-conditioning. I don’t remember ever being in a home with AC. My girlfriend will turn on a portable electric fan when I start panting more than her cat. My penthouse apartment has three sets of windows on opposite sides. Opening them on my top floor brings in a nice breeze off the Tiber River below. But some apartments feel more appropriate for African violets or prisons in Central American jungles. It is steaming.

This is one time of the year here when water is more important than wine. Limiting its use had the city on the edge of a sweaty revolt.

The embattled mayor, 39-year-old Virginia Raggi, just slightly more popular than Nero, curbed a probable palace coup last week when she killed the idea of water rationing. Yet that still doesn’t solve a problem that could linger for years. The source of this situation isn’t climate change. It’s Rome’s general bureaucratic incompetence. (I write that line so often I should put it on a save/get key.)

Of the 7,000 kilometers of water pipes in the metro area, 2,000 are under repair. The city was wasting 44 percent of its water or 100 liters of water per second. To combat it, they started draining beautiful nearby Lago Bracciano, dropping the water level an astonishing five feet.

Keep in mind that of all of Rome’s great accomplishments — the most powerful civilization in history, more art than any city in the world, pasta amatriciana on a cool fall evening — one of its most underrated is water. The Ancient Romans built aqueducts to carry in water from the hills of Central Italy. About 800 kilometers of aqueducts were built, all with a downhill gradient for the water to flow into the city. They were reconstructed during the 17th and 18th century. Today about half of them are still in use after 2,000 years and they still produce spectacular drinking water. Iceland is said to have the best public water in the world. I spent two weeks in Iceland in May. Its water is no better. Rome’s should be fabulous. Acea, Rome’s water agency, tests 250,000 samplings a year.

Buying bottled water in Rome isn’t illegal. But it should be. Yet when word of the water rationing arose, Romans bought bottled water as if they were boarding an ark.

Filling water bottles in Piazza Venezia.

Filling water bottles in Piazza Venezia.


The nasoni are simply the arrival points of water from the aqueducts. Trevi Fountain, basically, is one big cistern. The nasoni were installed in 1874 to help public merchants water their fruits and vegetables, and they became mass produced in the 1920s onward. The water is never wasted. What doesn’t go in your mouth — or all over your face if you’re not careful — carries into reservoirs that water the parks and gardens or is recycled into fountains. Because of the constant flow, the water never stagnates and gets warm. It’s always cold. Tourists and locals alike stand in line to fill their empty water bottles.
The original design from 1874 is still in use on Via delle Tre Cannelle.

The original design from 1874 is still in use on Via delle Tre Cannelle.


The nasoni are as much a part of Rome’s landscape as churches. Shelley, the great 19th century British poet, wrote, “The fountains are enough to justify a trip to Rome.” Some are famous. One on Via delle Tre Cannelle off fashionable Via Nazionale is taken from the original 1874 design and has three nozzles, not one. A nasone in gritty Pigneto, just east of the Termini train station, is painted in A.S. Roma’s red and yellow colors. In 2005, the city considered getting rid of the nasoni and a massive public outcry quickly killed the discussion.

Rome needs so much: Cleaner streets. Better public transportation. More efficient government. Now it needs something more, something the screams of 1.5 million thirsty souls can’t make happen.

Rain.

Dumb tourist tricks: Things never to do in Rome

Tourists stand in line for ever to put their arm in the Bocca della Verita'.

Tourists stand in line for ever to put their arm in the Bocca della Verita’.


My problem living in Italy is I’ll never blend in. I have a face so American I look like an extra in a Chevrolet commercial. I couldn’t pass for Italian if I was fluent and a gondola pilot.

However, there are ways to look less like a tourist. Living in Rome where more than 10 million of them pound the cobblestones every year, I’ve observed their nasty habits, kind of like “Animal Planet” filmmakers watching migrating wildebeests. Many of them do everything in their power to stand out, as if they just stepped off an American Express bus. Yes, you can tour the Colosseum without wearing a neon sign reading “NAIVE TOURIST WITH WALLET IN BACK RIGHT POCKET” to resident pickpockets. Remember, Rome has the second most pickpockets in the world behind Barcelona.

Pay attention.

As a public service to anyone planning a Rome vacation, I am providing a valuable guide to what not to do as a tourist here. Don’t feel bad if you’ve visited Rome and read yourself below. You have plenty of company. So clip it, save it, slip it in your money belt you must wear inside the waistline of your pants and I promise you’ll look less like a complete geek.

You can thank me later. So, for future reference, do not:

Wear a ballcap instead.

Wear a ballcap instead.


* WEAR A FEDORA. Do they hand these out at the airport? Seemingly half the tourists in Rome wear these white or straw-colored fedoras with little brims. The tourists in Piazza Venezia look like they all share the same closet. If you need to protect your face from the sun, wear a ball cap. Italians wear those, particularly Adidas or Nike. But in winter? You have no excuse.
Tourists eating in Campo de'Fiori.

Tourists eating in Campo de’Fiori.


* EAT IN A MAJOR PIAZZA. Think about it. The restaurants around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon and others cater to thousands of unsavvy tourists a day. They must mass produce their food. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. The pasta isn’t likely handmade and the ingredients aren’t nearly as fresh. The pizzas are often frozen. Go ahead and take a table and gaze at Bernini’s fountain or the Pantheon’s 2,000-year-old church. But just order a coffee. The sit-down fee will cost you about 5 euro but you can save your money for the fine, family cooked meal just around the corner down one of the adjacent alleys. One exception: I do recommend Obika’ in Campo de’Fiori. It’s an antipasti restaurant specializing in bufala mozzarella. It’s delivered fresh every day from the Campania region and is the best I’ve ever had. Try the smoked version.

* GO TO BOCCA DELLA VERITA’. This is the biggest tourist trap in Rome (see photo top). It’s as moronic as anything you can do in the world. It’s Rome’s equivalent of posing in a photo pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Basically, the Bocca della Verita’ (Mouth of the Truth) is a big, round piece of marble shaped like a face, complete with openings for the eyes and mouth. It was once part of an ancient fountain — or maybe a manhole cover — and is in the 8th century Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, just down the street from Piazza Venezia. According to legend, if you put your arm in the mouth and tell a lie, it’ll bite your arm off. People line up for a hundred yards waiting to pose with their arm in the mouth. Some husbands inevitably say something stupid to their cell-toting wife, like, “I won’t sleep with your hot sister.” Now they charge you 2 euros for one photo. It’s not worth it.

* COMPLAIN ABOUT SLOW WAIT SERVICE. It’s different here. Dining in Rome is an experience; it’s not a fuel stop. People linger over lunch, dinner, an aperitivo. Waiters leave you alone. They don’t intrude. They give you privacy. In America, you could be proposing to your girlfriend or discuss what position you’ll do that night and a waiter will come and refill your water glass. I’ve written that Rome has the best wait service in the world. But some Americans eat here thinking they’re in a short-order diner in Queens. They must wolf down that pizza before their Forum tour. Shut the hell up. If you want a waiter, raise your hand. They hover and will come when motioned. They just won’t come up after five minutes asking if your food is OK. You’re in Rome. Of course it’s OK.

* GET DRUNK. The biggest social faux pas you can commit in Rome is public drunkenness. Romans are the ultimate teetotalers. They’ve been drinking wine at the family table since they were 15. Getting hammered and throwing up in a Renaissance fountain is not a passage to manhood. I’ve lived here twice for nearly five years and I’ve seen one Italian get drunk. He was a student in a dive pizzeria. His embarrassed friends herded him out. Except for some discos for kids’, bars don’t have bouncers. I’ve cut my drinking here in half. This tip is mostly for college backpackers. An infamous bar in Campo de’Fiori is named The Drunken Ship. It’s 80 percent North American students and 20 percent Italian men waiting outside for the North American women inside to get too drunk to walk home. Then they come up and say in their practiced, syrupy Italian accent, “Oh, senora, let me help you.”

Leave these at home, folks.

Leave these at home, folks.


* WEAR COLLEGE T-SHIRTS. Italians don’t know Penn State from State Pen. Nor do they care. They think March Madness is a shoe sale. When I lived in Denver I had a college T-shirt collection that numbered more than 100. When I returned to Denver in October to clear out my Public Storage space, I painfully gave that collection to Goodwill. I knew I could never wear them in Rome. I have a fellow University of Oregon graduate whom I scolded for wearing an Oregon shirt in a photo from Salzburg. He said he gets many “GO DUCKS!” comments in cities and airports. No. Your aim is to leave an impression with the locals, not other tourists. I have one Oregon T-shirt, and I only wear it to water my plants. It never leaves my apartment. This is Rome. It’s not a frat party. If you want to fit in, buy a T-shirt of AS Roma, the local soccer team. Romans wear those. Just don’t buy one from Lazio. You won’t look like a tourist. You’ll look like a fascist. That’s worse.
ONLY in the morning!

ONLY in the morning!


*ORDER CAPPUCCINO AFTER NOON. Italy has a coffee culture. It doesn’t have as many coffee choices as Starbucks but the etiquette is longer. Cappuccino is for breakfast. Espresso or macchiato or schiumato is for lunch or afternoon or dinner. Most bars are used to these requests from tourists. They’ll serve you. But try it in a working-class bar off the beaten path and they’ll throw you out on your Yankees cap.

*STAND IN LINE FOR TICKETS AT MAJOR SITES: This is courtesy of Caron Guillo, an American friend who designs itineraries around Italy with her Caron Guillo Travel company (CaronGuilloTravel.com): “The idea of walking back in time 2,000 years to visit the Roman Colosseum should in no way be construed as a ticket purchase wait time. Unprepared tourists can wait for hours in line to reach the ticket windows of major sites like the Vatican or Colosseum. Instead, buy tickets online at the site’s official webpage, and for something like a 4-euro surcharge, you’ve got a reserved entry time or skip-the-line ticket. Don’t know how to find the official website of the site? Try Googling ‘Vatican official website.’ It’s not rocket science.”

* SAY “THANK YOU” INSTEAD OF “GRAZIE.” This is a personal pet peeve. The best way to respect a culture is through language. You’re in Italy. They speak Italian in Italy. Speak Italian, just a little bit, enough to know you’re trying and care. When in Rome just learn a few phrases like “Thank you,” “Where is …” “How much?” and “I want to father your child.” With those phrases, you can get through almost any situation. Seriously, saying “Grazie” instead of “Thank you” or “Grazie mille” (Thank you a thousand — instead of a million. The economy here is smaller.) goes a long way with locals. They won’t scold you for saying “Thank you.” This isn’t France. But they will appreciate you.

* ASK FOR BUTTER OR PARMESAN. Italian cooks take pride in perfectly seasoning their dishes. Asking for parmesan is like saying, “This has no flavor. I’m going to bury it in the one Italian condiment I know.” Don’t do it. And don’t even think about asking for butter with your bread basket. Italians don’t eat butter. They eat olive oil. Look around you. How many fat Italians do you see? Case closed.

* TRY PAYING WITH DOLLARS. This is also courtesy of Guillo. This one surprised me. I’ve never seen it. I couldn’t imagine it. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But she says she sees it all the time. “My job is to lead travelers through Italy, and even though they’ve been told not to, they bring USD and expect to either exchange it easily (banks often won’t, by the way) or pay/tip with it. They ALWAYS think I’m wrong when I tell them that USD will not be accepted or well received. Italians do not want USD. Good grief.” Here’s another reason why not to bring dollars: Seen the dollar’s exchange rate with the euro lately?

Rome Mysteries tour reveals city’s strangest secrets

The English, giving its people a place to buy English goods, helped Italy build the Sciarra Palace after Italian unification in 1861. It was Rome's first shopping center.

The English, giving its people a place to buy English goods, helped Italy build the Sciarra Palace after Italian unification in 1861. It was Rome’s first shopping center.


Rome should change its handle. It’s not just The Eternal City. It’s also The City of Eternal Knowledge. Every day I learn something new. Whether it’s a new trattoria I want to try or a new Romanaccio word I shouldn’t use in public, living in Rome is like grad school without cramming for exams.

I’m starting to get more heavily into guided tours. Many aren’t very good. A good guidebook is a cheaper substitute and you don’t feel like a geek following someone holding up a flag. But one guide I always follow is Massimiliano Francia (guideromax@virgilio.it). Rome Explorers, an excellent Meetup group that does everything from urban tours to mountain hikes, hires “Max” out for English-speaking tours. He’s a Rome native with a library of history books that could fill one side of the Pantheon.

What sets apart Francia is his voluminous knowledge of historical tidbits, oddities you won’t find in any guidebook or mainstream tour. You’ll think different about the glories of Ancient Rome when you hear his tales of gangs, violence, arson and poverty. He’s a proud Roman who reveals all its ugly sins and skeletons along with its beauty and fame.

He uncovered more on a recent tour through the heart of the city. It was billed as Mysteries of Rome and is right in Francia’s wheelhouse. Meeting at the fountain next to the jammed-packed Spanish Steps, in the height of tourist season, he took us through Rome’s main sites and back alleys, giving us all kinds of factoids and oddities about Rome’s fascinating history. Starting from Piazza Spagna, we went toward Campo Marzio to Piazza Colonna, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and finishing in Campo de’ Fiori. It sounds like a standard tour of Rome.

It wasn’t. It was different than anything I’ve experienced. Instead of weaving a tale of the tour, I’ll just list some of the interesting stories, in chronological order, Francia spun about a city that never ceases to amaze me:

John Keats lived in a flat next to the Spanish Steps before his death.

John Keats lived in a flat next to the Spanish Steps before his death.


KEATS WAS IN ROME ALMOST IN NAME ONLY. Piazza Spagna was once an English ghetto. A lot of people know Rome was a draw to English writers in the 19th century. Keats. Shelley. Sir Walter Scott. They all came to Rome and lived close to each other near the Spanish Steps. In fact, Keats’ grave is five minutes walk from my apartment in the Protestant Cemetery.

Few, however, know Keats didn’t last very long in Rome. He arrived in November 1820 with tuberculosis. He was dead in three months. Still, there’s a plaque outside his old apartment on the corner of Piazza Spagna.

TERRORIST’S FAMILY HAS STAKE IN ITALIAN MARBLE TRADE. We passed the Column of Immaculate Conception not far from the Spanish Steps. It’s the obelisk built in 1858 depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary on top. Every year, Roma firemen ascend to the top of the 38-foot obelisk and put a new crown on her head.

The column is made from cipollino (onion) marble from Greece. The basement is a mixture of many types of marbles from Italy, including the notorious “Carrara” from Tuscany. While the quarries in Tuscany were opened by Julius Caesar, Osama bin Laden’s family bought property from Italian businessmen and that included 50 percent of these quarries. In fact, most toilets in the world are made from Tuscan marble and the U.S. is the No. 1 importer.

Fill in your own one-liner.

The Aqueducts were built 2,000 years ago but many are still in use today.

The Aqueducts were built 2,000 years ago but many are still in use today.


CALIGULA DESTROYED THE AQUEDUCTS. The aqueducts that supplied Ancient Rome with water put forth 3 million cubic meters of water per second. Emperor Caligula, whose more noteworthy claims to fame were allegedly watching young people have sex and making his horse a member of the senate, also destroyed part of the aqueduct of the Virgin Water. Why? He wanted to recycle the limestone and build a colosseum.

However, after a theater performance in 41 AD, a pretorian stabbed him to death. The Flavians built the Colosseum 39 years later and Claudius (41-54 AD) restored the aqueducts, about 50 percent of which are still in use today.

This bell on Trevi Fountain has historical significance.

This bell on Trevi Fountain has historical significance.


GIANT CUP ON TREVI FOUNTAIN HAD HIDDEN PURPOSE. We could barely walk around the Trevi Fountain because of the crowds. I nearly got brained by two selfie sticks. Francia, however, stopped us at an odd part of Trevi. It’s a huge marble cup built on the right side, if you’re facing the fountain.

Francia said when Nicola Salvi built one of the world’s most famous fountains in 1732, a barber shop stood on the right side of the construction site. The barber, who was never named, spent much of his day without customers telling Salvi how to build the thing.

What did Salvi do? He built a giant cup standing two meters above the ground in front of the barber shop to block the barber’s view.

Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi

Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi


POPES’ HEARTS AND LIVERS IN CHURCH. For 300 years, the popes’ summer home was the Quirinale Palace, where the Italian president currently lives. The popes liked it because it was one of the few places in Rome that was mosquito free. If a pope died in that palace, his organs were pulled out of his body and placed in the basement of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi, a church in front of Trevi Fountain. Those organs remain there today. Feel free to gag.

HANDLING THE DEAD WAS DANGEROUS BUSINESS BACK THEN. The church often put corpses on a chair with a hole in the middle. Liquids were slowly exhumed from the body. Many nuns who touched the bodies without gloves wound up dying, too.

ROME’S HIDDEN COURTYARD. I’ve walked past the tall, square building on tony Via del Corso many times but I never knew I was walking past Rome’s first shopping center. It’s called the Sciarra Palace. Courtyard frescoes line the tall walls in one of the havens for English tourists to feel at home when they visited during the late 19th century. After Italy was united in 1861, the British masonry invested a lot of money. Rome turned the money into this shopping center where visiting Brits could buy hats, clothes and shoes, all in English style.

PANTHEON STILL HAS POPE FRANCIS’ FAVORITE SALAMI SHOP. The Antica Salumeria sits on the right side of Piazza della Rotonda, facing the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. When Pope Francis was a cardinal, he went to the restaurant next door every week for his antipasti. When he became pope in 2013, he called the owner and said, according to Francia, “Excuse me but from today onwards I won’t be able to be your client anymore because now I am a pope.”

As a sidelight, Francia said the ingredients in Italian sausage have often been a mystery. It was said Roman citizens during the 2nd century AD were told not to eat pork during the Colosseum season when hundreds of gladiators died.

Santi Apostoli

Santi Apostoli


MICHELANGELO DIED A RICH MAN. Michelangelo had a reputation of being a poor genius. But when he died in Rome in 1564, he was buried in the Santi Apostoli just east of the Pantheon. They found under his mattress a box containing $5 million. He set the money aside for his nephew, Leonardo, who built a palace in Michelangelo’s native Florence with his uncle’s portrait above the door.

BODY SNATCHING WAS COMMON. Corpses weren’t safe. Many Catholic Romans believed bones of famous people served as relics to ward off fires, plagues and misfortune. When Julius Caesar was cremated in the Roman Forum, his body was decomposing before cremation. People attacked the corpse to take bones as holy relics.

When the Crusaders moved to Jerusalem, they stopped in Constantinople to steal corpses of saints. One was St. Nicholas, now known as Santa Claus.

D'Artagnan

D’Artagnan


TREVI FOUNTAIN COINS ONCE WENT TO GANGS. Every visitor to Rome has thrown a coin in Trevi, allegedly assuring themselves they’ll return to Rome some day. Today those coins are collected for charity. But in the 1970s, a gang lived in the area and was led by a mysterious thief named D’Artagnan. He had his gang members collect the coins for him while some local cops turned a blind eye.

SEWERS WERE OPEN AIR. Ancient Rome not only had a huge discrepancy between rich and poor, but it also smelled. The sewers were not covered. Among the bullying tactics of young men were shoving people into the sewers. “This was also the favorite hobby of Emperor Nero,” Francia said. Nero passed a law that the emperor could confiscate the property of anyone who committed suicide. So, Francia said, Nero would shove rich senators into the sewer. The senator would then insult Nero who would then say, “Did you call me a name? Now you must die. But I feel merciful. I won’t kill you. But you must kill yourself.”

Francia added, “A lot of them committed suicide. He killed his wife and mother. Had 100 Christians burned alive. Apart from this he was a nice guy.”

Seriously, Nero also threw massive parties for the poor when he confiscated from the rich. It’s why as many people attended his funeral after his suicide as attended Julius Caesar’s.

Flood damange on the Colonna di Marco Aurelio

Flood damange on the Colonna di Marco Aurelio


FLOOD DAMAGED COLONNA OF MARCO AURELIO. Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s most successful emperors, winning battles in Persia, Armenia and Germany. But in Persia his men contracted smallpox which spread through the Roman Empire and killed 5 million people, including him. A 97-foot victory column was built in 193 AD in what is now Piazza Colonna. His ashes were buried in the basement of the column. But look closely at the bottom part of the column. Much of the artwork has been rubbed off. That’s due to the Tiber River flooding about every other year for nearly 1,000 years. Embankments were finally built to stop the flooding in 1876.

Growing old and blind in Rome: My venture into Italy’s No. 2-ranked public health care system

My new look. For the first time in my life, at 61 years of age, I'm wearing glasses. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new look. For the first time in my life, at 61 years of age, I’m wearing glasses. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As the United States free falls into Donald Trump’s Let-Them-Eat-Cake health care plan, I am learning first hand the benefits of the health care American progressives dream about. It’s not by choice. It’s not by journalistic research. Instead, for the past two months I have had an inside look at Italy’s public health care through my own misfortune.

I am now half blind.

My right eye has gone from near 20-20 to non functioning. If I close my left eye, it’s like a steel door covers my right eye with slits to let in some light. I’m a prisoner in my own skull. My depth perception is shot. Most everything is blurry as if scuba diving without a mask. This didn’t happen gradually. It happened nearly overnight. And it’s frightening.

It’s frightening, at 61 years old, for the first time in my life, to feel old.

The bad news is my Indianapolis-based insurance company doesn’t cover vision; the good news is I live in what is ranked as the healthiest country in the world with public health care ranked No. 2 in the world. That has allowed me to get excellent treatment at a low cost. If this had happened in the U.S. without insurance, I’d be homeless.

It all began the first week in May. I went to a sports event and couldn’t tell the players’ numbers apart. I was a sportswriter for 40 years. I’ve been in stadium press boxes stuck so high seagulls looked up at me. I only needed binoculars to see coaches’ facial expressions during crunch time.

I figured I had an eyebrow hair in my eye. I’ve been accused of having bushier eyebrows than Groucho Marx. I went home and washed my face. Nope. The upper half of my right eye remained blurry.

I didn’t panic. I could still see well enough. But curiosity hit me. What the hell happened? I told Marina, my angelic Roman girlfriend, who directed me to Ospedale Monospecialistico Oftalmico, a public clinic in Prati, my old neighborhood near the Vatican. They quickly saw me, examined my eyes and ruled out the dangerous detached retina. They diagnosed it as a disease of the optic nerve and that it wouldn’t get worse. I asked the clinic how much the visit and exam would cost. I braced for the answer.

“Nothing,” the doctor said with a chuckle. “This is Italy.”

Just to make sure the diagnosis was correct, they sent me to a neurologist at Azienda Ospedaliera San Camillo Forlanini, a massive public hospital across the Tiber River from me. San Camillo was built in 1929 and shows every year inside its yellow walls. Its hallways are dark. Its lower floors are dingy. Plastic chairs line the long hallway where I waited in its optic center with a crowd of people wearing eye patches, carrying canes, rolling in wheelchairs. We were all seen within 30 minutes. They put me through a series of tests. I read an eye chart. They dilated my eyes. I looked into a machine where I hit a clicker every time I saw a light flash.

They also diagnosed it as an optic nerve problem and handed me a prescription for some medicine. They did not hand me a bill. I was in and out of there in less than an hour. Total cost: zero. In the U.S., I’d have a sign reading, “I’LL WRITE FOR FOOD.”

I took the medicine and went on with my life. They were right. My eye didn’t get worse. My sight adjusted. After a couple weeks, I forgot I had the problem. I flew to Iceland and drove around the country for eight days, negotiating some uphill gravel roads in the rain and mud that required steel nerves not to mention keen eyesight. The only problem I had with my eyesight was I saw Iceland’s larcenous prices all too well.

After returning, I took Marina to Berlin for her birthday early last month and the following weekend we went to Paris on assignment. I woke up that Sunday in our lovely room in the Latin Quarter with the four-poster bed and the croissants waiting for us at our corner cafe. One problem.

I couldn’t see out of my right eye.

The lower half of my eye had joined the protest. My whole eye was blurry. It did get worse. What is happening? I’m going blind. This can’t be happening. I haven’t seen the Maldives Islands yet.

Marina laid out a few options for me and we completed our assignment without problem then enjoyed Paris the rest of the day. My good left eye allowed me to negotiate the streets without getting hit by a cab.

After returning to Rome that night, I returned to San Camillo the next day. I gave the neurologist an update. She threw up her hands and said, “I don’t know what happened. Somehow it got worse.”

Gee. Thanks.

I walked out thinking, Well, maybe in public health care you get what you pay for.

Clearly, I needed help. I couldn’t see and my depth perception had become problematic. In the gym, I totally whiffed at the weight rack and dropped a 26-kilo dumbbell on the floor. I tried putting a scoop of protein powder in my blender and poured it on my wrist instead.

I can’t live like this.

I called my dentist, a U.S.-trained Italian with connections in Rome’s medical scene. He hooked me up with a learned optometrist who works with expats at the Food & Agricultural Organization. He told me to go to Policlinico, another citadel-like public hospital associated with the University of Sapienza Roma. After one eye test, the doctor had a new diagnosis.

Congenital cataracts.

The good news is they can be corrected with laser surgery, and it’s free in Italy; the bad news is the wait can be up to eight months. I can’t wait that long. If I go to a private clinic, I can do it earlier but it’ll cost about 1,000 euros. I called my insurance company in Indianapolis, International Medical Group, if they cover laser surgery.

Sorry, they said. We don’t cover visual or dental.

“What? I’m half blind!”

“Sorry.”

“Well, what do you cover for the $1,800 a year I pay? Partial decapitation and Stage 5 cancer?”

He didn’t laugh. Then again, neither did I.

I took the Policlinico report back to San Camillo and that’s when I saw a flaw in more than just the Italian public health care’s decor. One arm doesn’t know what the other arm is doing. Either that or doctors enjoy finding folly in others’ analyses. Another neurologist looked at the report about cataracts and laughed.

“Yes, you have cataracts,” he said, shaking his head. “But he didn’t mention the optic nerve problem. That’s your big problem.”

He explained that cataract surgery will only help a little, not enough to make much of a difference. We did new tests and I flunked everything. He covered my good left eye and asked me to read the top line of the eye chart, the line with letters the size you see on STOP signs.

“What chart?” I said.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.

“I can’t even see your arm.”

They eventually told me I had something called Anterior Ischemic Optic Neuropathy (AION). It’s congenital. It’s irreversible. It’s incurable. I went home and read up on the Internet. It’s all true.

I’m blind in my right eye for life.

However, I had one hope left. During my many tests, they once placed a lens in front of my “good” left eye. I say “good” only in relative terms. The last time I had it checked about 10 years ago it was about 20-100. However, with the lens, I saw much better. I not only could I read the top line of the eye chart, I could read the line second from the bottom. I could practically read the fine print on a pill bottle from across the room. I saw an optometrist at San Camillo who gave me a prescription for — God forbid — glasses.

So on July 1, 2017, at 61 years of age, I put on glasses for the first time. I barely recognized myself. The lens I carefully chose made me look like the geeky dad in “American Pie.” Marina said I look more distinguished. She wins. I read somewhere that women like “a hot guy reading a book.” Unfortunately, I’ve only got the glasses and the book.

Marina, with me on Lago Albano Sunday, says I look more distinguished.

Marina, with me on Lago Albano Sunday, says I look more distinguished.


Still, the glasses re-opened my world. Most of my depth perception is back. I can drive. I can hike. I can see faces clearly. However, they’re designed for distances. Everything up close is blurrier than before. Thus, I have a black string on the back so I can take them on and off without misplacing them. It just ratcheted me up on the nerd meter.

Thanks to Marina, I still may have another chance. She did some research and found a private hospital that specializes in optic nerve disease research. She scheduled an appointment at Universita’ Campus Bio-Medico. Built in 1993, it’s what a private hospital in the U.S. would look like. Big glass windows,, huge lobbies, modern stairwells, comfy furniture. Stepping off the public dole, I had to pay 132 euros for the visit, still a bargain for an educated second opinion from a research hospital.

The doctor looked at my paperwork and was astonished that no one gave me a magnetic resonance imagery test. He gave me a prescription for something called Neukron Ofta Fiace which he says “should” help my right eye.

So I’m scheduling an MRI. I’m scheduling cataract surgery. I’m taking the medicine.

And I’m spending little. After two months of hospital visits, here is my cost list:

7 eye tests and hospital/clinic visits: 223.06 euros
Medicine: 102.26
Glasses: 99.00
TOTAL: 424.32 euros

Based on average prices found on medical websites, here are the projected costs if done in the U.S:

7 eye tests: $1,908
Medicine: $306
Glasses: $60
TOTAL: $2,274

I also just recently scheduled an MRI at San Raffaele Pisana, another public hospital, for Monday. Cost: 227 euros. The current cost of an MRI in the U.S., according to VOX Media, is $1,119. While I pay nothing for cataract surgery in Rome, it costs a staggering $3,530 in the U.S.

It all points to the absurdity of the American medical system. According to the World Health Organization, Italy has the No. 2 public health care in the world behind France. The U.S. is ranked 37th. According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, which takes in life expectancy, causes of death, health risks and clean water, Italy is the healthiest country in the world, just ahead of Iceland. The U.S. is 34th. This is despite the U.S., through Obamacare, spending 17 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on health care, by far the most in the industrialized world.

Italy does have private insurance, which cuts wait time on surgeries and includes other benefits. However, only a minority of the population has it as the public health care is so good. Prescriptions are heavily subsidized and many consultations and exams, as I saw first hand, are free.

The million-dollar question, however, is something I can’t answer. Has Italy’s public health care helped me more than medical care in the U.S. would? I’m still blind in my right eye. I have no idea if it’ll get better. With the current medicine and future procedures, I’m told my eyesight will improve.

I don’t know if U.S. doctors would’ve diagnosed anything different. Despite the high costs, American medical care isn’t always what Hippocrates had in mind when he wrote that oath under the tree in Greece. At Kaiser, the huge hospital chain where I went with my company’s insurance in Denver, they twice mid-diagnosed injuries. Doctors said I needed knee surgery after hurting it jogging and surgery to repair a hernia after too much stress in the gym. I went out to get second opinions. Two physical therapy sessions with Mark Plaatjes, the former South African world marathon champion in Boulder, made my knee 100 percent. A surgeon, also at Kaiser, said my hernia wasn’t big enough to require surgery and it will work its way out. Which it did.

(A funny side note. When the surgeon, a female, examined my hernia, I dropped my pants. She looked at it and said, “Too small.” I said, “I BEG your pardon?” She said, “Your hernia. IT’S too small.” She wasn’t laughing, either. People in the medical field never do.)

From afar I’m watching my home country fight over the seemingly obvious dilemma of helping people who can’t help themselves. The rest of the world looks at Donald Trump, who is calling health care a product and not a basic right, whose proposal will eliminate health insurance for 20 million people, and rightfully see us as the most selfish country on the planet. The U.S. is a nation with the world’s strongest economy yet we can’t help our sick. It’s a shameful legacy and no one should be proud of it.

Even I can see that.

Paris vs. Rome: Which is better? Here’s some pizza and escargot for thought — then weigh in


PARIS — Rome and Paris are the two loveliest ladies of all the world’s capitals. Rome has my heart. I’ve lived there twice for nearly five years. But Paris is my mistress. Every so often, I must steal away to the banks of the Seine and have a weekend fling. I’ve been to Paris more than any other world capital. I always return to Rome, but my days in Paris always leave a lusty smile on my face.

Many ask which city I prefer. It’s like asking which Caravaggio I prefer. It’s a valid question. I just can’t decide. So when I went to Paris on assignment last weekend with my true love of my life, photographer Marina Pascucci, I did a comparison.

Every city has strengths. Paris and Rome just have more than others. Every city has weaknesses. Rome has some doozies. When you’re there, just look down. But placed side by side you get a feel for what each city has to offer a person like me.

And you.

So read my below lists of the 10 best things Paris and Rome have on each other. Feel free to write me and add your own points or your own rebuttal, preferably not one like the reader in Colorado during my sportswriting days when he wrote, “You suck the great big green one.” I don’t know what meant, but it sounded pretty negative.

10 WAYS PARIS IS BETTER THAN ROME

African restaurants are one of Paris' specialties.

African restaurants are one of Paris’ specialties.


1. ETHNIC FOOD. France’s colonial empire stretched from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. It makes sense that its restaurants reflect its cultural melting pot. Vietnamese. Togoan. West Indies. Tibetan. Moroccan. You can eat your way around the world just walking through the Latin Quarter. Italy’s colonial empire stretched to, like, one neighborhood in Ethiopia. Immigration has ramped up in recent years but it hasn’t resulted in culinary diversity in Rome. A Roman’s idea of eating ethnic is Sicilian.
Paris' Metro has 16 lines and 303 stations.

Paris’ Metro has 16 lines and 303 stations.


2. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. Paris’ subway, the Metro, is fantastic. It costs only 1.80 euro and has 303 stations and 16 lines. It’s clean, efficient and user friendly. The buses all have well-marked routes at the bus stops and are modern, clean and air-conditioned. Even in June, we always had a seat. Rome’s subway, also called Metro, sucks the great big green one. It has only three lines, one of which — recently completed Line C — goes to places I’ve never heard of. The other two lines are packed and a training ground for pickpockets, making the interchange at Termini look like a fire drill for terrorist attacks.
Trash outside Il Vittoriano in Rome.

Trash outside Il Vittoriano in Rome.


3. CLEANLINESS. For a city the size of Paris that gets more than 20 million tourists a year, the city is really clean. On this trip, Marina and I spotted some garbage that missed the bins but the sidewalks, streets, parks, subway stations and side streets are clean enough for postcards. Meanwhile, a popular website chronicling the filth problem in Rome is called Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks). It’s the dirtiest capital in Europe. Mountains of trash sitting along major thoroughfares make the outskirts of Rome look like rural India. Cigarette butts form baby logjams in gutters. The garbage bins in front of my apartment house are often surrounded by trash from gypsies rifling through them in the morning. The Library of Congress has fewer words than Rome’s graffiti-covered walls.
Jardin du Luxembourg. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Jardin du Luxembourg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. PARKS. Jardin du Luxembourg. Parc de la Villette. Jardin du Tuileries. A Paris map is littered with green spaces. There are few simple pleasures in world travel than a picnic in Parc du Champ de Mars looking up at the Eiffel Tower. Rome has three very good parks in Villa Borghese, Villa Doria Pamphili and the underrated Villa Ada. It just doesn’t have as many as Paris. Few cities do.
Me in Ernest Hemingway's old barstool in La Closerie des Lilas where he penned much of "The Sun Also Rises."

Me in Ernest Hemingway’s old barstool in La Closerie des Lilas where he penned much of “The Sun Also Rises.”


5. CAFES. Rome has a coffee culture; Paris has a cafe culture. In every neighborhood I stayed at in Paris, I staked out the local cafe. I went every morning for a cup of coffee and every afternoon for a glass of French wine. By the end of my stay I’d be on friendly terms with the staff. Marina and I do the same at Cafe Lea in the Latin Quarter. Cafes are where the likes of Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald hung out and wrote. I go to my Linari cafe in Rome. But Romans stand for an espresso and leave. In Paris, you learn the word “s’attarder,” French for “linger.”
Seine River. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Seine River. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


6. EIFFEL TOWER. I love the Colosseum. I love St. Peter’s. I love Castel Sant’Angelo. But the Eiffel Tower is the most beautiful man-made structure in the world outside the Taj Mahal. It also fits Paris so well. It’s long, perfectly curved and feminine, standing tall in the flat landscape of western Paris. When it comes out at night, no star in the sky is brighter. No monument in the world makes me stand in awe after so many visits.
7. SEINE. Comparing the Seine to Rome’s Tiber is like comparing your hot cousin to your dead aunt. They’re on the same continent but not in the same conversation. The Seine is wide, well lit and lined with Paris’ most famous monuments. A moonlight cruise of the Seine was one of the most Romantic hours of my life — and I went alone. The Tiber is so filthy, people who’ve fallen in have died just from the diseases carried from rat urine.
A bakery in Paris.

A bakery in Paris.


8. BREAD. In Rome, these are fighting words. Italians love their bread and pooh-pooh the wimpy French version, all soft and squishy and made for butter and weird cheese. It’s just personal preference but I like a warm baguette with butter in the morning. Fill a soft french roll with Brie and you have one of the world’s great sandwiches. Italian bread is harder and made more for mopping up pasta sauce than sandwiches. Great for dinner, bad for picnics. Or you wait four hours, paint it black and use it in a hockey game.
Paris is sprinkled with jazz clubs.

Paris is sprinkled with jazz clubs.

9. NIGHTLIFE. In my 20s, I would’ve listed this higher. But I’m 61. I can no longer go drinking all night. However, in Paris you can if you want. Parisians know how to party more than Romans who can nurse a glass of wine like 16-year-old at her first Cotillion. Rome is a restaurant town. It’s not a bar town. I don’t like music, but Paris is crawling with jazz clubs. Some of them are after hours where long-standing musicians drop in to try new material on unsuspecting but very grateful guests.
Cycling is a major mode of transportation in Paris. AFP photo

Cycling is a major mode of transportation in Paris. AFP photo


10. CYCLING. Paris has 430 miles of bike lanes, all built since the late 1990s. The Velib’ bike share has 1,800 stations with 20-70 bikes each. Parisians ride their bikes to work, to eat, to exercise. Rome’s cobblestone streets, potholed roads and narrow sidewalks are about as conducive to cycling as surfing in Des Moines. Plus, I once rented a bike near my apartment and the shop clerk had no clue how to ride to the beach.

10 WAYS ROME IS BETTER THAN PARIS

Me in Piazza Farnese.

Me in Piazza Farnese.


1. PIAZZAS. Both cities are immensely walkable. Sure, in Paris you can walk from the 4th arrondissement to the 1st to the 2nd. But no matter which way you go, you’ll eventually walk down a huge boulevard, stopping at street lights and dodging taxis. When the ancient Romans designed Rome, the grid system was a millennium away from being invented. They set up the city around piazzas, with narrow roads pinwheeling off toward their villas in the countryside. Today, that system still exists. Quiet piazzas, void of traffic and noise, are never more than a short walk away. Living in Rome is like living in a big city with a small town right across the street.
The Nordica pizza at 72 Ore.

The Nordica pizza at 72 Ore.


2. PIZZA. Let’s face it. It’s mankind’s favorite food. From athletes to diplomats to terrorists, pizza is the ultimate comfort food. It’s Italy’s signature dish. Sure, France has a signature dish but how many people see comfort in snails? With apologies to Da Michele in Naples, no city in Italy makes better pizza than Rome where the thin crust reins supreme. Pizza in Rome is almost like health food.
Pantheon

Pantheon


3. ARCHITECTURE. I’ll give Paris the Eiffel. I’ll take Rome for depth. You don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to stand slack-jawed before St. Peter’s at night. Have a drink across the street from the Colosseum after the tourists have long returned to their hotels. Have an early morning cappuccino in the piazza while staring at the Pantheon. Rome has so many beautiful monuments, so perfectly back lit, no wonder they call it the world’s biggest outdoor museum.
Rome is a restaurant town, not a bar town.

Rome is a restaurant town, not a bar town.


4. LIFESTYLE. It’s why I retired here. The rest of the western world works so much to get ahead while never having enough time to spend the money they make. Even in a capital, Romans put more value in spare time, family and friends, food and wine, travel and relaxation. Yes, they’re in the country’s biggest recession since World War II. But talk to a Roman on his day off and he still sounds on top of the world. They don’t worry about things they can’t control. Besides, there’s a bowl of the world’s greatest pasta waiting for them that night. Paris is Northern Europe. It’s New York with better cheese.

5. PRICES. Rome is cheaper than Paris across the board. Wednesday night Marina and I went to Ferro e Ghisa, a modern restaurant near her home in the northwest neighborhood of Battistini. For one of the best prosciutto and mozzarella pizzas of my life, her big salad and a half a carafe of wine I paid only 22 euros. A meal for two in Paris for 22 euros is almost impossible. Buses are cheaper in Rome. Food in markets is cheaper. Museums are cheaper. Except for rent, Rome is probably the cheapest capital in the old Western Europe.

I've learned a lot of Italian from my friendly Rome language partners.

I’ve learned a lot of Italian from my friendly Rome language partners.


6. LANGUAGE TOLERANCE. I once asked an Italian bartender why Italians don’t get upset when tourists never bother learning the word “Grazie.” He shrugged and said, “Italian is a little language spoken in only one country.” So you can get away with being a total xenophobe and say “Thank you” without getting yelled at. If you’re conversational as I am, Italians are even nicer. The French have a reputation of putting tourists butchering the language in the Guillotine. I’ve never had a problem with the French. I don’t speak French. However, I try. They understand that. But if you speak French and make mistakes in what the French rightfully believe is the most beautiful language in the world, they’ll let you know. Every time.
7. GELATO. If pizza is mankind’s favorite food, ice cream is a close second. Gelato is the world’s best ice cream. So cold. So creamy. So good. It’s even natural. It has a third fewer calories than typical American ice cream. France has no dessert equivalent. They try with the chocolate crepe. But as a Rome gelateria owner once told me, “When you walk through a dimly lit piazza at night, with a gelato in one hand and your lover in the other, and you lick, and you Lick and you LICK, THAT is love!”
Sunset at Sabaudia, just south of Rome.

Sunset at Sabaudia, just south of Rome.


8. SEA. Few know this but Rome has beaches. The neighborhood of Ostia is on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Ostia isn’t Bora Bora but it’s functional, the water is reasonably clean and the beaches get more beautiful the farther south you go. The closest beach to Paris is Normandy. Enough said.
You can't go wrong with Italian wine.

You can’t go wrong with Italian wine.


9. WINE. I’m splitting corks here. French wine is superb from the Cote d’Rhones in Provence to the champagne around Troyes in the north. But Rome gets the nod merely because its Lazio region produces very underrated wine and the champagne region 100 miles away is the closest wine region to Paris. Next time in Rome, order a Vermentino or for a picnic, buy a bottle of Frascati, a crisp white wine from the town of the same name. Better yet, you may even get them as house wines at a cheap trattoria.
My terrace in Rome is the perfect sunbathing station.

My terrace in Rome is the perfect sunbathing station.


10. WEATHER. I’m putting this last because I don’t care about weather. It has no effect on my mood. Ever. However, I know 99 percent of the population disagrees with me. Thus, 99 percent of the people will prefer Rome. Average temperature in July is 78 and January it’s 46. In Paris it’s 68 and 41, respectively. However, Rome surprisingly gets more annual rainfall, 33 inches to 25. If nothing else it means I can eat outside on my terrace three months longer than I could in Paris.

OK, who agrees or disagrees and why? Let the debate begin …