Exchange Diaries: From Paris To Italy

By David Kong (Comm ’14)

Italy is the direct product of the greatest civilization in history that led the world into the modern era via the Renaissance. From these notabilities, Italy derives an unequalled history and culture that makes it an international hotspot for tourism. It’s easy to think of a handful of cities that the discerning traveller must visit. Venice, Milan, Florence, Verona and Rome; each has its own peculiarity and merits a visit. Milan is the economic centre and capital of fashion and design in the world. Rome is the inheritor of the wonders left behind by an ancient civilization.

In many ways, Italy resembles Spain; buildings have similar features and are coloured and pieced together in comparable ways. But although Spanish architecture is rarely adorned, the Italian equivalents have motifs and ornamentation. This can be traced to Italy’s excessive wealth in the past. Today, much has changed. Although Italy has a manageable deficit, it’s losing its competitiveness. Its GDP per capita has declined since it joined the Eurozone, and it’s extremely corrupt (comparable to Greece), boasting a failing infrastructure.

Rome is probably the most important tourist destination in the world. On the right side of the Tiber, such must-sees such as the coliseum and Trevi fountain remind visitors of Rome’s plentiful history. The scale of the sights can’t be exaggerated for there’s no comparison in the modern world. For travelers not yet graced by Rome’s splendours, they can’t imagine the extensiveness.

Across the Tiber River sits the smallest country in the world. Inside Vatican City, rests St. Peter’s Basilica, another gargantuan structure that allows for a buffet of praying opportunities. Behind the evangelists and nuns on their knees are foreign-tongued picture snappers. Another must-see is the Vatican museum. In one corridor, you find an unending line of busts and sculptures, so numerous that it looks like cheap inventory at an antique store until you take a closer look.

Young Italians congregate at night in the old village of Trastevere, where it has a bustling line of bars and restaurants to fit any mood. For something more adventurous, leave the comfort of touristy Rome and venture to the outskirts. I dined at Betto e Mary, an unnoticeable folk restaurant with an open-fire oven that serves a sextet of ox parts. The food is mediocre but the atmosphere isn’t. Betto himself, wearing a sports jacket and track pants, sits down beside guests to construct a suitable menu impromptu. His sons with similar sartorial prowess serve the food.

The trip to the outskirts reveals the tattered country we hear from overseas. A metro train takes 20 minutes to arrive. A bus with 10-minute cycles comes swamped with smelly commuters 30 minutes after the fact. No wall is safe from graffiti. Cracks can be seen as soon as you leave touristy areas; sketchiness and fear for safety is the pervasive feeling. Life is difficult for residents. The metro seems to have been built for tourists; it stops at every major attraction but walks to residential areas are lengthy. This is the most backwards city I have visited, including any that I have seen in the ‘Third World’. Cell service is often weak or non-existent. Transit directions aren’t linked to Google Maps. Credit cards are often unaccepted.

The most impressive food in Rome are the small quick-serve places that put a fresh spin on Italian classics. Gelateria Dei Gracchi is the city’s most acclaimed Gelateria and has no less than five variations on dark chocolate alone. One dubbed as ‘Cuban’ was flavoured with rum and went well with the almond variety (€2.5). For flawless porchetta, I Porchettoni der Pigneto has a suckling pig in the window and indoor picnic tables to eat from. The owner can only speak Italian, but it isn’t difficult to order when you can just point at the pig. It’s a delightful treat to go with antipasto (zucchini, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes) and a pint of beer.

Best is Pizzarium, run by a bumbling celebrity chef called Bonci, affectionately caricaturized at the front of the store as a big-bellied epicure. His pizzas speak for themselves; the crust is no doubt thin but has volume reminiscent of well-baked bread. The result is an explosion in the mouth where ever taste bud and nerve is touched.

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