Store windows in Rome in August (closed for vacation)

The Italian expression that I learned this week is chiusa per ferie (closed for vacation).

If you’ve ever thought about visiting Rome in August, please take my advice: there is not a worse time to visit this city. I don’t think I would have understood how uncharacteristic it is at this time of year before living here. Other than tourists, everyone is gone.

The irony of this situation is that I have been wondering how I was going to cope with the city’s crowds, especially in our neighborhood. But the change that we have seen this week, since returning from Copenhagen, makes me cautious of what I wish for. Now I miss the throngs of people blocking my sidewalks and want them all back!

August is the BIG vacation month for the Romani. We are told that Christmas and Easter don’t even come close. I’ve read a lot about the August evacuation in Rome, in both fiction and nonfiction. But still, I didn’t expect the magnitude of it—especially because Italians have been telling us that it isn’t like “the old days” and Rome “doesn’t really shut down anymore.” Really? I guess now only most (rather than all) of the businesses, offices, restaurants, and shops close. Even newspaper kiosks are boarded up. To be fair, not all shops close for the entire month as they used to: many only close from mid August until the end of the month. And I guess a nice aspect about this is that because everyone is taking vacation, there is little reason for anyone to keep work going. Business competitors, co-workers, customers— everyone leaves to escape the oppressive heat of the city and heads for the water to spend time with their families. People’s cell phones are turned off- you don’t even get voice mail.

More scenes from the city. . . (you get the idea)

 I went to the dry cleaner—but he made clear to me that if I didn’t come the next day before noon (mattina or morning, he wrote, then circled on my receipt), they would be closed until September. The pharmacy? By my count for every three that are closed, you can find one open (as we did. . .but it was so crowded we asked the children to wait for us outside). Shopping? Nada. Yes, you can still get a glamorous “I ♥ Rome” t-shirt outside the Colosseum or buy a pair of coveted Dolce & Gabbana socks for $4,000 on via Venato. But all of the independent boutiques and places where real people shop are closed.

We have been schlepping around the city looking for decent places to eat. And Jenny is determined to find good restaurants that will be open when her aunt and uncle visit at the end of the month. “Aperto in agosto?” (open in August?) she’ll tentatively ask, never quite managing a complete sentence because she is so anxious not to hear what she knows will be the answer: first week in September.  The good news is that the touristy places are alive and well. Only English and French seem to be spoken on the streets this week and any restaurant that is open in August WILL gladly accept American Express cards. We found what looked to be a pleasant restaurant for lunch the other day with an outdoor terrace. But we ended up with our first mediocre meal here. Eli’s now discerning palate resulted in a priceless blend of disgust and disappointment as he took a bite of his $22 steak, and Nell uttered one of her ever optimistic evaluations when we asked about her pasta: cosi-cosi (so-so). That’s a far cry from the typical reception she has been giving any Italian carbohydrate. We discovered that the folks at the next table were from Milwaukee (both parents are University of Wisconsin alumni, and the daughter is a UW Junior. . .biology major. . .cute, but I wasn’t in the mood for a mid-western reunion). In a few months we will laugh at our folly as we walk past the cafe we tried yesterday– despite a menu printed in English, French, Spanish, German, and Japanese, we still somehow managed to be surprised to find ourselves charged $10 for a small iced coffee. The authentic restaurants are dark as their owners and staff head to the ocean.

Even the buses and metros are on some weird modified schedule. Our analysis, based upon extensive research trying to discern the signs and placards at the metro stations and our experience at bus stops, suggests that the August “holiday” schedule means that the buses will come whenever the heck the driver feels like it. This afternoon we waited endlessly for a bus that usually comes regularly. The real winners were the kids, who wisely brought books along and nearly finished them before the bus arrived. Our anticipation rose as we heard bus after bus approach, but we found that no less than nine packed-to-the-gills-double-decker-open-on-top-see-the-city-without-having-to-move-a-muscle tour buses passed for every regular bus. And when our bus finally arrived—and we boarded hot, thirsty, and a bit irritated—the driver shut down the engine and walked off to take a break. We were the only ones on the bus and Nell cheerfully offered: “Well, at least there are a lot of seats,” which, admittedly, is not the situation that we usually encounter.

Eli and Nell get a lot of reading done while we wait (and wait) for a bus to arrive

So Rome in August is very strange. Can you imagine our reaction to awakening this morning to find the electricity in our apartment out? Maybe you can anticipate where this story is heading. The electrician we know— gone on vacation. The caretaker for our apartment- away until the end of the month. The realtor who handled our lease. . .you guessed it: buon viaggio. Maybe the pleasant English-speaking manager of the hotel beneath us? No luck, but back in two weeks. In fact, every person that we know in the city was off at a beach. We had no phone book, no internet, and no Italian vocabulary to deal with the situation. We finally managed to send a text message to our relocation agent, who had just arrived with her family at a seaside villa in Calabria. (I felt both guilty to interrupt the very beginning her vacation, but immensely relieved to have caught her before she powered down her cell phone). I can’t complain too much. . .the electric company had someone out here in a few hours, hence my current internet access. Maybe we were fortunate that no one else in the city is around to call and request service from them this week.

So how are we going to handle August in Rome?

We are going native . . . and leaving.

This afternoon we fly off to Corsica and, like the rest of the Eternal (except August) City, will be back on line in September — dopo le feste (after the holidays). I’ll feel so Italian.

–Seth

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