“Are you a teacher?”

My cab driver had already covered politics (do you like Obama or Republicans?) and religion (Are you Catholic or Protestant?) in our short cab ride from the central train station to my room in Trestevere, a neighborhood on the opposite side of the Tiber river from Central Rome.  I had learned in-between outbursts and emphatic hand gestures at traffic (this seems standard procedure in Roman driving) that he was Pagano (pagan).

“No”, I answer, “but I work with teachers and education.”

He nods … “there are many teachers who visit here.  It is because they are more … cultured?.”  He searches for the right word in English.

I say, “Well of course! Rome is an ancient center of culture, so of course the educated are curious want to come visit.”.  I can tell this answer pleases him.

And it’s true.  Rome today still has a gritty, rough feel to it that I can imagine being the same as in ancient times … a surliness that must have sprung from when its residents wore togas and Rome was the center of a global empire of trade and slaves and competing gods and power-struggles between wealthy families.  Wandering around the city and ancient columns and remnants of temples hide between modern buildings and medieval church towers.  They all share the same sky.  Sometimes they share the same footprint … the Christian church has always built over previous religion’s monuments … literally co-opting the sacred ground and grandeur for themselves.  I was again struck by this today looking at Trajan’s ornately carved column from  topped by a bronze statue of St. Peter.

I’ve also been struck by the dirt and trash and graffiti everywhere … clearly the economic downturn has hit Rome – and Italy – hard.  There are people who look poor and hungry.  I don’t remember this from my visit before.  Both my host and my cab driver comment on this – that Rome has slipped and is not what it used to be.

I spent my day sleeping off jetlag in the morning, and then headed out to the ancient Republic this afternoon – the Colosseum, the Palentine and the Roman Forum – the heart of ancient Rome.  During my first visit here years ago the Colosseum was closed for renovations.  I have always wanted to come back.

And that was no easy matter today, Holy Thursday of Easter week in Rome – the Papal City.  Pasqua in Rome is always one of the busiest weeks of the year even with a dull Pope.  This year, with a Pope who inspires for his first Easter, this city is packed with pilgrims coming to celebrate Pasqua … and catch a few sites while they are here.

There were thousands of people at the Colosseum.  Luckily, there were several ways to officially jump to the front of the line.  I was not organized enough to book ahead online or buy a pass, but I did pay an extra 5 euros for an English speaking tour which basically got  you to a short line for tickets and then inside immediately.  Totally worth it, even though I’m not a fan of tours.  And I even learned a few things … for example gladiators only fought 2 or 3 times a year and had the same average life expectancy of an average Roman citizen (all of 35 years old).  Now that’s not the impression you get watching Russell Crowe killing hundreds an hour … but then gladiators were expensive to train so they didn’t want to kill them too quickly and the Colessuem was all about money and power.

I wandered through the Palentine – the ancient Palace of the Emporers – and the forum – the old city of Rome and then made my way back across the bridge to Trestevare.  I chose to stay in this neighborhood because it is a center for food and an old, authentic neighborhood in Rome.  It has narrow streets and shops that you don’t even realize are behind the closed doors until they open.  There are fresh pasta shops, fruit markets, cheese shops and confectioneries all sporting elaborate chocolates for Easter.  And it’s known for its restaurants and quality food.  It’s been a good choice to stay here – out of the tourist hustle of the city center.

But even here the main pedestrian street is lined with people selling cheap scarves and  buskers entertaining for extra coins trying to entice the tourists who have come here for food and drink.  There is graffiti on the narrow ally walls, and people begging in front of the churches.  It as if the city can’t quite keep up with the stress of the last few years, and it a bit of a mess because of it.

But I don’t doubt the tenacity and grit that Romans have cultivated for thousands of years will keep Rome as one of the world’s most interesting and cultured cities, regardless of its struggles to keep up appearances now.  The educated and curious will always find Rome amazing.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA