Monday, November 06, 2006

Reflections of Rome

I’ll always remember my first time. In a European city, that is. I was a nineteen-year old college sophomore traveling with a couple of friends for the winter holiday break. The city was Rome.

Typical students, we didn’t have a lot of money. Meager means paid for a shared hotel room, meals, and visiting some of the city’s most famous sites known only through art classes and dry ancient history textbooks. Other than that, time was spent wandering the labyrinthine streets, window-shopping designer-name stores, and sipping cappuccino at street-side café tables. For us, it was enough just to feel the energy of a city that was still the center of the civilized world for many people. As a young woman, I also enjoyed the attention from Rome’s notoriously forward men!

Not everyone finds Rome so mesmerizing. After all, it is huge, confusing, and even intimidating. Toursits can expect to find long lines, crowded museums, expensive food, and greetings from people ready to either rip you off or pick your pocket. I personally experienced the art of the pickpocket during my college-years trip. Though the actual dollar amount lost was meager, the occurrence was monumentally unnerving. The incident also served to reinforce some of those invaluable life lessons all parents hope their children will learn on the road to adulthood. Things like being prepared, taking precautions, trusting one’s instinct, and knowing that even when bad things happen, which they will, life goes on. So when it came time for me to toss a coin in Trevi Fountain, thus ensuring my eventual return to this beautiful city, I did so with gusto.

Twenty plus years later, I am the first of my friends to travel the road back to Rome. This time I am with my husband of nineteen years and our three sons. Money is still tight, seeing that college expenses are looming ahead for our children’s educations. But living temporarily in Italy as we do for my husband’s job affords us the opportunity to enrich our kids’ lives with experiences not learned in the usual classroom setting. As such, seeing the sights is as much a priority on this trip as it was with my college friends. The boys, however, are not content with aimless wandering and window-shopping, nor do they need the added fuel of caffeine. With such an entourage, and the passing of years, I now give little thought to receiving attention from the men of Rome!

Reflecting on the dissimilarity between these two trips to Rome, I realize there is one other aspect of my life that succinctly separates the years into the “then” and “now.” Namely, this time I am in Rome as a person with celiac disease, and thus not able to eat cheaply, Italian-style, as I had to in my college days. Then, in the days of my carefree undiagnosed celiac youth (I thought my symptoms were normal), I survived on a roll for breakfast, a panini sandwich for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Now, as a responsible adult, I feel like I’ve been robbed. Not of my youth, but of present day opportunities to taste all that Rome has to offer. Subsequently, it’s very easy to tell myself that having celiac disease is one of those “bad” things that have happened to me. Yet, life has gone on, and so I heed the lessons I learned those many years ago - prepare for the journey, take precautions, and trust my instincts.

Preparing for a gluten free trip to Rome is much like preparing for any other trip I take. I pack a meal for the six-hour train ride from my home in northern Italy, and a few snacks to get me by at other times. For the non-celiac family members, pre-made sandwiches, snacks, and drinks are available for purchase on the train. My travel preparation also entails checking the Italian Celiac Association website for a list of restaurants in Rome that serve gluten free meals, though ultimately I do not patronize any of these restaurants on this particular trip.

Rome’s main train station, the Termini, is located in the heart of the city. A shopping mall is located beneath the station, complete with a grocery store and a pharmacy, or farmacia. In Italy, gluten free food is sold at the farmacia, with some grocery stores also selling a few products. Even though I don’t need anything as I arrive in Rome, I can’t resist the urge to slip into the train station farmacia for a quick inventory. Just knowing where to get gluten free food if the need arises gives me peace of mind. Though the selection is meager, the shop has pasta, crackers, and cookies.

Preparing for a trip to Rome also involves taking precautions against non-celiac issues, notably the problem of theft. From my experience, I know the reality of pickpockets. Cab drivers also are quite willing to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. In the course of our short excursion from the train station to the hotel, we encounter both scenarios. In the first, we are approached by a gypsy woman with outstretched hands and a few children attached to her skirt. While distressing, this situation is a common set-up, with the children employed to do the actual pocket-picking. At the taxi stand, being noted as Americans, we are quoted a price about four times what we know the normal rate should be. So we opt instead to test our luck on Rome’s cheap and easy-to-use, two-line subway. We ride a mere two stops to our exit without incident.

Our hotel, the Residence Barberini, is located one block away from the subway stop, and is also conveniently positioned near a bus stop, the electric tram, a corner coffee bar, and a farmacia with more gluten free food. The hotel room itself is actually a three-room apartment consisting of one bedroom, a living room with fold-out beds for the boys, and a kitchen. I unpack my bag of gluten free snacks, keeping cookies in my purse to enjoy later with a sweet cup of cappuccino, and we set off for an exploratory walk.

Heading towards Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, we poke into souvenir shops here and there, and glance at restaurant menus in anticipation of dinner later in the evening. We don’t walk for long when the owner of the restaurant La Tavernetta engages us in conversation, touting the typical dishes that appeal to many American tourists, namely pasta. When I tell him I have celiachia, though, he immediately replies with, “so you can’t eat pasta and bread, no problem, we have lots of other things I can cook for you.” After discussing a few meal options, we promise to consider returning that night, and continue down the street.

The Spanish Steps are a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. But on this cool and misty afternoon, the steps are near empty save for a handful of sightseers photographing each other, Bernini’s aqueduct-powered fountain, and the Gladiator-clad entrepreneurs who gladly pose in exchange for a few Euros. The high-end fashion shopping area begins near the Spanish Steps, along Via del Corso and Via Condotti, but the boys can tolerate only a few of my daydreaming stops in front of shop windows. Comments such as, “Those shoes are ugly,” and, “How much does that cost?!” keep me moving.

In the evening, we return to La Tavernetta for dinner, and are ushered past tables of diners, most of them tourists, already concluding their meal at the early hour of 7:00 p.m. Italians generally don’t head out to dinner until around 7:30 p.m. at the earliest. As we’ve been living in Italy for a few months, we’ve adapted to the later dining hour, and find that the lull between 7:00-7:30 is usually a good time for me to get the attention I need for a gluten free meal.

Our server is the owner’s daughter. She is young, enthusiastic, and speaks English with a beautiful Italian accent and endearingly imperfect grammar. Being one of three children in her own family, and in a country that now considers a family with more than one child “large,” she is taken with our three boys. She guides us through the menu, proudly noting the dishes with the fresh pasta made by her mother, and checking on the preparation of non-pasta dishes for me. I choose one of the daily specials, grilled lamb chops, oven potatoes, and an immense multi-colored garden salad. At the end the meal, my husband and I are served tiny cups of bitterly thick espresso, along with a bottle of grappa from which we are given permission to freely flavor the coffee. Distilled from the leftover pressed grape seeds and skins of winemaking, grappa is potent, and gluten free. Our waitress spoils the boys with a plate of cookies and a parting kiss.

The following two days of our Roman holiday flow nearly as flawlessly. Each morning we pop down to the corner bar for a morning cappuccino, and then purchase pastries and juice to take back to the room for breakfast. For my breakfasts, I purchase yogurt at the bar, gluten free muffins from the farmacia, and supplement with nuts and dried fruit I brought from home. Seeing that an Italian bar is as much a neighborhood meeting place as it is a place that sells coffee, drinks, and quick snacks, by the second day we are already recognized and welcomed with a genuine, “Buon Giorno!”

The bar near our hotel also sells subway and bus tickets, and gladly advises us which bus to take to Vatican City for our day of sightseeing. Once there, we begin with a self-guided tour of the Vatican Museum, where the wait to enter is over an hour long, and the four miles of art inside painfully endless for our youngest son. To view Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel, however, is worth every, “Are we done yet?” remark. The last time I gazed at the ceiling, over twenty years ago, it was dark, dingy, and even dreary. Now it is bright and brilliant in all the colors that Michelangelo intended them to be. I ponder the analogy and wonder if being gluten free has made my life, and my health, more bright and brilliant.

After the museum, pre-packed energy bars fortify us to climb the more than 500 steps to the top of Michelangelo’s Dome inside St. Peter’s Basilica (if you pay for the elevator to the roof, it’s only 323 steps from the roof to the top of the dome). Afterwards, we walk through the Basilica itself, admiring more great works of art by Raphael, Bernini, and Michelangelo. Lunch is a light snack at an over-priced restaurant near the Vatican, consisting of only grilled vegetables for me. Dinner at Ristorante alla Rampa, near the Spanish Steps, is more filling, with the waiter understanding of my dietary restrictions. He is too harried, though, to notice the breadcrumb topped grilled tomatoes that accompany my Bisteccca (grilled beef steak, seasoned with olive oil and herbs). When I point them out, however, he is mortified, and whisks my plate away, returning with what I need.

As we prepare for sightseeing on our next and final full day in Rome, my youngest son, age nine, proclaims he has seen enough art in his lifetime and refuses to see any more. So instead of art, we dedicate the day to ancient Roman ruins, beginning at the 2000-year old Colosseum, the circular amphitheater where gladiators fought. Having made a model of it for a school project, my eleven-year old middle-son declares the Colosseum the highlight of the trip. My fifteen-year old son’s attention is riveted by the sight of a neo-Nazi rally we observe (from a safe distance) in front of the Colosseum, leading to an impromptu discussion about history, governments, and politics.

From the Colosseum, we follow a string of visitors past the Arch of Constantine, which commemorates the battle that legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire, and on through the Roman Forum, which was the political, religious, and commercial center of ancient Rome. Then it is on to Capital Hill, present-day Rome’s government center, and the Victor Emmanuel Monument, built in honor of unified Italy’s first king. Here also is Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we observe the changing of the guard.

Next, we head in the direction of the Pantheon, the Roman “temple of all the gods.” Along the way, we turn down a street that is barely wide enough for a European Smart Car, and find Miscellanea, a crowded hole-in-the wall restaurant that serves cheap pasta, sandwiches, and salads. Of course, it’s the long list of salads that appeals to me, made with various combinations of colorful lettuces, crunchy vegetables, tasty legumes, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and other gluten free ingredients. Accompanied by a complimentary glass of Prosecco wine (thanks to Rick Steve's Italy 2005 guidebook), and followed by a dish of vanilla gelato, our meals are healthy and filling.

Rain begins to fall after our visit to the Pantheon. Undaunted, we pop open cheap umbrellas acquired from one of the countless street vendors, and navigate the narrow streets towards the final stop on our Roman adventure, Trevi Fountain. Legend holds that the simple act of tossing a coin into the fountain guarantees one’s return to the city of Rome. As I am living proof that the magic really works, we each take a turn lobbing a coin over our shoulder.

Our final dinner is at Giulio’s Osteria del Crispi, a few blocks from our hotel. We made a reservation the day before, so they are aware of my requirement for a gluten free meal. I select a salad as my appetizer, and a creamy risotto made with artichokes as my primo, or first course. I pass on the secondo, or second course, which is usually chicken, fish, or meat, and the contorno, or side dish, which is also a separate course.

On the morning of our departure, my husband and I visit the corner bar one last time. We are again greeted with warm recognition, and are promptly served our daily cappuccino. As the young man places the steaming cups before us, though, he quickly tells my husband not to get jealous. I look at him quizzically, and then notice that the milky foam in my cup is in the shape of heart. I guess some things never change. (November 2005)

Need to Know Information

Residence Barberini, Via Delle Quattro Fontane 171-171. Tel. 06-4203341.

For apartment rentals in Rome:

LaTavernetta di Pepi Claudio, Via Sistina 147. Tel. 06-4741939.

Ristorante alla Rampa, Piazza Mignanelli 18. Tel. 06-6782621.

Miscellanea, Via Della Paste 110 (a block toward Via del Corso from the Pantheon).

Giulio’s Osteria del Crispi, Via Francesco Crispi 19. Tel. 06-6785904.

Italian Celiac Association Click on Ristorazioni.

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