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Passages to Italy: Sidewalk Rage

Everyone who spends time in Italy comes away with a story that captures the essence of the culture. Here, four American writers share their quintessential Italian experiences.

One thing i do not miss about living in Rome is walking down the street. Don’t get me wrong—the streets of Rome are, of course, beautiful; it’s just the pedestrians who made me insane during my four-month stay there. Romans shamelessly dawdle and stall and hinder as they “walk” their streets. Which means that, as you rush to your metro stop, you may well find yourself held up by three Roman women who have colonized the sidewalk to discuss one another’s sunglasses. Oh, they will see you standing there, and they will hear your polite “Scusi,” but they will not budge.

I have never experienced road rage, but in Italy, I suffered seriously from sidewalk rage. And I never understood what it was all about until one afternoon, when I was sitting in an outdoor café with my very Italian friend Giulio eating carciofi alla giudea, a classic fried artichoke dish that Romans take very seriously. Giulio pulled his chair out into the sidewalk in order to enjoy more sun during his meal, thus becoming a heedless and absolute one-man pedestrian obstacle. Most people painstakingly detoured around him, but one German tourist stopped in her tracks and posed the perfectly reasonable question, “Why don’t you move out of the way?”

He fired back at her, “Why don’t you go around me?”

After she’d stalked off, he asked me, appalled: “What’s wrong with you people? Why do you always need to find the shortest distance between two points?”

As an American, I was little bit miffed to be bunched with a German into the category of “you people,” but he was right; that lady and I share a Cartesian mind, a grid, an unbending efficiency machine. The classical Italian mind is different—it meanders, pauses, stretches out its legs in the sun and takes the long route.

And this, simply put, is the difference that explains why Italian food, wine and culture are so much more wonderful than anything “we people” have created over the centuries. Because pure pleasure has never been found between point A and point B, but only in the unhurried mazes on the periphery. Which is to say that, when it’s time for artichokes, by Jove, everyone should respect that it’s time for artichokes, and they should uncomplainingly rearrange their goals, routes and itineraries around one who is enjoying said artichokes smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. Is that so hard to understand? And so it is that I will never forget Giulio—unmoved and unperturbed—holding his place in the sun, slowly peeling one leaf after another from his delicate feast, and then ordering up another bottle of wine. And why not? We had all day, and nobody was going anywhere.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.

Published September 2007
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