Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pantheon

From a pedestrian’s perspective, Rome’s legendary traffic is sorely overrated. The city was designed before cars, but not before carriages; while the grid is confusing, it does have nice, wide thoroughfares connecting most areas. Then again the streets do get remarkably narrow; this is by far the biggest market for Smart cars – because you can park them nose-in in an EU standard parking space. The Italian and French automakers have never developed a passenger car larger than the E-class-equivalent; there is simply no point, not in these cities.

From inside a vehicle, it is very different. I’d thought that it wasn’t that bad; I’ve driven in Riga, so presumably I could handle this. A ride in the passenger seat cured my misconception: the problem with Italian drivers is that they have no concept of lanes whatsoever. This is not the lawlessness of post-Soviet or Third World countries, where the right of way belongs to the more expensive or larger car; Italians seem to observe streetlights and no-entry signs well enough (certainly better than a lot of Estonian drivers). The problem is that they move without structure. Roads are shared by scooters, Smart cars, Golf-class cars (what the European nomenclature dubs a “small family car”), and posh Lancias, as well as the odd SUV or German luxobarge; maneuvering is done entirely by improvisation and consensus. You see an opening, you dash for it. Where Riga is congested because there are too many cars and too few bridges, and London is just an amalgamation of village roads entirely unsuitable for metropolis traffic, Romans seem to drive badly consciously. Mind you, somehow it all does work; for all the jostling and banging about, the average speed of traffic in central Rome is far beyond any comparable city.

The town I most compare Rome with is Jerusalem; this is obviously because of the bounds of my own experience, but the two great cities are very much contemporaries. Jerusalem is more distinctive, with its uniform facades, and feels just that little bit more exotic, but it has the same ethereal vibration of history about it; the sort of subdued confidence that comes from having been there for millennia. Rome has almost no modernity about it, certainly not in the center; the thing that stands out as recent is the “wedding cake”, the Vittoriano monument (my guidebook says that Vittorio Emmanuele II himself would have most likely disapproved of the exuberance, but it certainly is impressive). This was constructed in the early 20th century. There’s an area of Fascist architecture on the outskirts that I’ll probably go out and visit at some point; as I’ve mentioned before, totalitarian architecture is semiotically fascinating.

Rome has visible pollution; a faint layer of smog hanging over the city under absolutely clear skies, and I only notice it because my sunglasses (169eek at Prisma) have turned out to be really good; they eliminate the glare from the smog, so it’s apparent when I take them off. The glasses are too good, actually – I intentionally got the narrowest model I could find, but after two days walking around Rome, I now look like a raccoon.

2 comments:

Kristopher said...

Gabariiditunnetus -- knowing if your car will fit through that opening -- seems to define driving in the Third World (I guess Rome is not Third World, but Naples might be). We don't have it (or we're so paranoid we're going our paint job is going to get ruined), the Third World does.

My biggest problem with driving in Estonia is lanes -- they're marked, they're marked, then, at the crucial palce, they're unmarked, and you're in danger of getting sideswiped.

Flasher T said...

No, I'm fairly sure Romans don't have it either, judging by the number of cars with dents on them. :)

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