There it was, looking exactly the way it always does in history books, on postcards and on television. Rome. Beautiful. Ancient. Imposing. Grand. The most romantic city in my book. Forget Paris. Rome does it for me. I am, after all, a history graduate so when I go to Rome it’s like visiting a familiar old place.
Once upon a time I could recite all the emperors and popes. I lost the ability with age. After Mussolini everything is a blank and I fast forward to Berlusconi. My colleague Beatrice (pronounced Bi-ah-tri-che) reckons that is accurate anyway as all governments after Mussolini didn’t last long and Berlusconi now “owns” most of the country, so really …
But I wasn’t in Rome to ponder on its politics. I had come for a conference at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, or more accurately “foul”. How else can one characterise a body that produces a pamphlet advising poor people to catch rats and make them spicy as a way to cope with the food price crisis? This is the world body that is meant to care about our food rights and food security. After many decades of failure, and with rising hunger statistics, it is no wonder the FAO has run out of ideas and telling us to hunt rats, wasps and other creepy-crawlies is probably the best it can do.
I had a speaking engagement for all of 15 minutes — after a 24-hour voyage. Like all UN conferences, one does get lost in the rhetoric, the diplomatic niceties and, of course, the reams of paper that get produced at the end in the form of lofty “commitments”.
After 15 years of this sort of thing I have devised coping mechanisms.
People-watching is first. UN conferences are a fantastic place to sit back and watch. Not listen, listening is exhausting, unless you have your sights set on a lifetime sitting next to men in black suits. As I have chosen to hang out with the jeans and cheap sandal variety — aka civil society — I don’t pay much attention to what is said. After all, the real decisions are not made in UN plenary sessions but by a smaller group of dark-suited men, and sometimes two women, in a small room somewhere on the seventh or 10th floor. It took me three conferences to figure this out.
So, you can stay all day on the ground floor, in plenary, and simply enjoy the parade: the French representative, looking fabulous in a designer number, the Nigerian and Senegalese men, elegant as ever in their linen shirts and, you can spot them three miles off, the Southern Africans (pick any country), with boring suits for the men and two-piece somethings on the women. We can never decide what not to wear! I now know what someone from Azerbaijan or Tajikistan looks like, thanks to the UN.
The second coping mechanism is eating. What better place to eat than Italy and, even better, the FAO cafeteria. No cheap workplace fare here. This is the home of good food. It is really hard to think of your compatriots starving when you are in Rome. From the pasta to the salads to the desserts … yummmmm. Every day there is a different pasta with a different sauce.
Out on the streets every café beckons. The first time I visited Rome I didn’t know how the courses — primi, secondi — worked. We were treated to a fancy 10-course dinner, and the dishes just kept coming. The villager from Shurugwi in me gobbled up as much as I could and by course three I was full. Nobody had warned me and my Zambian sister. I have learned my lesson. I stay awake till the last cup of coffee.
But like all foreign countries and their food, one does tire of it after three days. The stress of trying to translate the names of the dishes and imagining how each will look takes its toll. So day four’s coping mechanism is EAT MCDONALD’S. Yes, that vile, greasy fare, symbol of globalisation gone mad, is my comfort food of choice. Before you puke on your shirt, let me explain. The beauty of MacD is that you know exactly what you will get. A big Mac is a big Mac in Beijing, Madrid, Rio or Johannesburg. The shape and size is the same. The taste is the same. The fries are cut the same and you get no more, no less. Hey, even the accents of the waiters sound the same.
I asked the concierge at my hotel where to find a McDonald’s. The fellow narrowed his eyes, crossed his chest and I could see he was peeved on behalf of all self-respecting descendants of Julius Caesar. Suddenly he couldn’t speak or understand my English: “Sorry, madam. I no understan’.” He turned his back on me. I headed out on Via Nazionale. I knew I had seen the big M sign once. After 15 minutes there it was in front of me. I ran into Ronald’s familiar bosom. Priceless.
The third coping mechanism is shopping. Shoes, glorious shoes! And divine handbags. But here’s the bizarre thing: this was my fourth trip to Rome, and I still returned empty-handed. I walked the length and breadth of the city. I took taxis and the metro to all the shopping districts. I even went to the markets. Nothing. I can’t figure out what my problem is. It’s me, not the Italians. Maybe it’s the “dhlozi” of civil society. No appreciation of the finer things in life?
Having given up on shopping, the best thing to do in Rome is look and see. And there is plenty to look at. The sites that were once just names in my history books come to life. I am spoilt for choice. Ancient Rome. Christian Rome. Just good, old Rome. Everything is a marvel. The statues, the marble and the grand structures took my breath away. You can imagine the emperors on their chariots riding the cobbled streets and you can picture those Roman soldiers striding about. I made a day of it.
The trick to enjoying a tour of Rome is to avoid the organised tour buses with Americans, particularly the ones who come from small towns. Every stereotype you have ever had of Americans is acted out in front of you. From the loud talking — about nothing in particular, really — to the basic questions they ask, it’s just too much to bear. This time I did Christian Rome. I felt the need to reconnect to my Catholicism, which I abandoned in my teens. Too much genuflecting put me off. And I thought that just maybe if I went and offered up prayers in my so-called president’s church, God might pay slightly better attention.
There is something overwhelming about standing in the Vatican — and it’s not “the Rottweiler’s” aura, trust me. It’s probably that saintly testosterone silently pulsating all over the place. As you stand there transfixed by the statues and the paintings on the ceiling, listening to the voice of the tour guide, you get this feeling that you are so close to God and heaven. That is the only way to describe it. And then you hear it, that annoyingly loud, screechy, nasal tone. It’s Tricia from somewhere in Nebraska: “You mean St Peter as in the actual Saint Peeetrrrrr in mah Bible? Get outtta here! Really? That’s awesome!”
Then you know it’s time to leave.
Everjoice J Win is a freelance journalist from Zimbabwe