Stone Barbers and Boorish Yanks

My outside-the-guide travels in Rome.

By Steve Burgess 17 Jul 2007 |

Steve Burgess's European vacation ended last week. He is now back reviewing films for The Tyee.

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Hepburn and Peck in Roman Holiday.

Ah, Rome -- the city where a group of women dressed like nuns is probably not a gag. Yet Rome is also a city that doesn't worry much about venial sins. In Vienna, a pedestrian barked German at me when I crossed a street against the light. Near the Vatican, I jaywalked beside a holy sister.

Other transgressions are more annoying. The Roman papers are full of the antics of drunken tourist louts passing out in the squares of Trastevere and the Campo di Fiore, not to mention the naked swimmer recently arrested in the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna.


I believe the bathing nude was a 22-year-old American. And while the rest of the ne'er do wells probably come from everywhere, there's certainly a perception that Americans are guilty of most misbehaviour, a perception that often comes from Americans themselves.

At my hotel for instance, I finally came across a legendary creature -- the Yank-with-a-Maple-Leaf. I was beginning to think he was mythical, invented by annoying smug Canadians who claim we are globally loved (not by me, anyway--I happen to know the country has plenty of assholes). But there he was in the breakfast room at Hotel Orlanda, a Tacoma guy with a big maple leaf t-shirt and another on his backpack. Identity theft is the sincerest form of flattery.

Then there was the message left with Pasquino. Pasquino is a favourite Roman character, a talkative barber who has offered opinions freely for centuries now. The late barber is one of Rome's "talking statues," figures that are said to offer social commentary and political critique courtesy of the messages posted on them by anonymous locals. The actual statue, a rather desiccated, noseless old figure, was supposed to be of the Greek hero Menelaus. But the statue was long ago renamed for a chatty barber who had lived in the area. With a little help from his friends, Pasquino has been chatting ever since.

The stone barber

Pasquino and other talking statues are the forerunners of the web posting, a chance to offer opinions cloaked in anonymity. (The difference, perhaps, is that Pasquino posters generally strive to be clever.) Tradition requires each statement be written as though coming from Pasquino himself. But there was one message I saw posted that clearly did not come from the old barber. It read:

An Apology

Dear Citizens of Rome,

We are so sorry for the loud, ignorant, obnoxious, poorly dressed American tourists. Thank you for your history, hospitality, culture and tolerance. Hopefully you will not judge us all by the few you have seen.


Sincere Americans

The boorish Yank portrayed in the letter is certainly a familiar caricature. The thing is, I don't recall meeting any of them on this trip, or any recent trips, for that matter. These days most Americans, well aware that their president is a global pariah, go out of their way to be extra nice. And most Europeans seem perfectly capable of distinguishing between the Bush administration and individual Americans. (Many of whom are doing everything but shouting 'Democrats! We're Democrats!')

54 years in the Eternal City

Boorish tourists or not, Rome is the place to be. Check out the ultimate Roman movie, Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. More than 50 years after its release, Roman souvenir vendors still sell posters and calendars from the film -- a tribute not paid to the likes of Seven Hills of Rome with Mario Lanza. More tellingly, the on-location scenery from Roman Holiday works just as well today as it did in 1953. There are a couple of differences -- the floating restaurants on the Tiber are gone now -- but give or take a few Vespas, modern Rome is unchanged. What's 54 years in the life of the Eternal City?

The movie is relevant in another way, too. As a princess bound by a strict regimen, Audrey Hepburn's character yearns to kick over the traces and escape to a life of spontaneity. Tourists should take note. With so many famous landmarks to take in, a trip to Rome can become a prescribed set of must-see stops. It's great to see the Coliseum. But Rome gets better once you get that stuff out of the way and simply start exploring. It's the only way to meet fascinating Romans like Pasquino. Maybe Princess Audrey too -- I'll let you know.

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