December 7, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Brutta figura

By |2018-03-21T18:40:50+01:00June 9th, 2010|Features Archive|
We were getting along so well...

ome, you and I were getting along so well. I know, I know. You’ll say it was the “honeymoon stage.” But (and look, I know this can sound hurtful, but I hope you’ll understand) I never felt dappled-eyed and dew-dropped in your presence. I never skipped through your cobblestone streets as “You’re Just Too Good To Be True” ran through my head. I didn’t find charm in your potholes, or your post offices. From the start, I was pretty clear-eyed about the challenges I’d face with you. And you were reliable in delivering them.

Still, we were getting along so well. I put the effort in, and you responded: friends, job, an apartment of my own. I was starting to figure you out in other ways, too. It’s embarrassing, but you and I both know I’d needed a map for a long time. I hardly ever do now.

And then the visitors came.

Now, I know you were probably jealous. Here you thought you had me all to yourself. But you forgot that you had yet to be judged by the people from my old life, friends and relatives who love me, and know me, and can — at first glance — know if our relationship is working. Or if it’s not.

And, Rome, I’m not going to lie. On more than one occasion, you let me down.

I mean, what was up with that time I went into a tabacchaio with my father, both of us sandpaper-dry from thirst, and I went up to the counter with two bottles of water, and the clerk said, “Sei euro?”

Really? Six euros? You should know better than that. Talk about a brutta figura — to charge somebody three euros for a bottle of water when you know it should be a euro or less. And shame on you for forcing me to argue with you, especially in front of my father. (“Dai, non é possibile che é sei euro…”). Arguing in front of the parents is not classy, Rome. Do you know how bad it made our new relationship look?

Or what about when my father and I were walking to San Giovanni in Laterano — you know, one of your holiest basilicas, the pope’s own church, for goodness’ sakes — and there, on the sidewalk, sat a man with his pants around his ankles? No underwear on. Enjoying himself in an especially un-holy way. As pilgrims and tourists passed. As a policeman with his arms crossed, a bored expression on his face, looked on.


And then there was the time I was walking with Mara, one of my best friends from the States, through Porta Portese, your biggest and most famous flea market. There we were, two petite 20-somethings, happily poking through Tunisian pottery and €5 euro sandals, when one of your male spawn came up and slapped me. On the bottom. And took off so quickly, laughing with his two friends, that I didn’t even have time to react. Or summon the proper Italian swearwords to yell after him.

Do I have to tell you how appalling that kind of behavior is? How much it rankled both my friend and I? I am still fuming. So is she.

Now, look. I can be objective about this. See, I know you’re chauvinistic, Rome. I know you’re unkempt. Unreliable. Temperamental. (Okay, sorry. I’ll stop there. But I can’t have been the first to tell you these things… right?) In turn, I know I get overly frustrated with you. We both have to work on this relationship. But here’s the thing:

Overall, we get along so well. When we’re good, we’re great. And when I had guests here, I expected you to at least try to make a good impression. I know you know how to behave. After all, sometimes you were wonderful. You came to dinner, sat down, and ate politely, making civilized conversation all the while. The problem was between courses, when you bared your teeth at my guests and burped loudly (and, on your way out, groped one of them). Was any of that really necessary?

But here’s what kills me the most: You got away with it. Specific incidents aside, somehow — somewhere between supple sculptures by Bernini and flowers growing in the Forum, between crisp pizzas and imposing Pantheon, frescoes and Frascati — you charmed them. My guests weren’t sure why I’d ever leave you. As we clambered through the 2,000-year-old ruins of emperors’ homes on Palatine Hill, marveling about history and art and the ancients, Mara suddenly turned to me.

“It just occurred to me that this whole city is your playground,” she said.

Looking out over cars as they swirled madcap around where chariots once raced, I realized she was right. That’s how you get away with it, isn’t it? For a historian, for an author, and for so many other individuals besides, you’re a perfect fit.

Yes, all of those rough edges make you awkward to bring home to the parents. But they’re also how you accumulated the wild history you did, why you’ve inspired writers from Keats to Dickens, why traveler after traveler finds you so exciting, alluring. Even beautiful.

So I’ll forgive you this time, Rome. (And, well, I know if I leave you, hundreds of others are lined up to take my place.)

But do yourself a favor and zip up your pants, okay? It’s not that I don’t love you, but some flaws should be kept to yourself.

About the Author:

Amanda Ruggeri's column "La Straniera" ran from 2010 through mid-2014.