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Panic in Rome – A Travel Essay

October 22, 2012

The world capital has many dark sides and I found one of them at Trevi Fountain

Detail of Trevi Fountain

He was a nice-looking young man, about mid-20s, well-coifed, shortish hair, wearing a dark blue blazer, newish, over a pair of trendy jeans with those purposely faded areas at the knees. He might have been wearing a bright-coloured ascot; I can’t remember. I didn’t see his shoes for the crowds were pressing in on us at Rome’s Trevi Fountain as they always do.

Even in late September, the fountain attracted sizeable groups of people, several hundred of them, all pushing and shoving to get closer to the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and possibly the most beautiful in the world. Tradition has it that tossing a coin into the bubbling waters ensures a return to the Eternal City.  Two coins mean you’ll fall in love with an Italian and three will see you married to one.

The fountain, made of Travertine stone from Tivoli, was created by Nicola Salvi in 1732 as a moving and at times fiercely intense depiction of Neptune riding his chariot. The three main statues are magnificent stone images representing Ocean, Abundance and Health and these are surrounded by other smaller statues that give the scene a mesmerizing complexity.

Most of the tourists gathered around the famous structure, the centrepiece of Piazza di Trevi that once formed the exit point of an ancient aqueduct, won’t bother to ponder the meaning of the statuary. They are there because the guide book told them to go and throw a coin into the water. Some will also be there because they remember Anita Ekberg’s famous plunge in La Dolce Vita or the coin-tossing scenes filmed in Three Coins in the Fountain.

Indeed, that is why we had descended our double-decker tour bus to squeeze ourselves into the cauldron of human bodies admiring the immoveable and yet somehow almost animate set of stone ones.  We pressed past the Peroni beer stand, past the ubiquitous scarf sellers and portrait painters. We said no for the umpteenth time to one of the endless stream of usually black men selling knockoff Gucci leather bags.

Colisseum and horse-drawn buggies

We also declined offers to buy what seemed the season’s rage: a pastel-coloured plastic jelly that more black men where splatting on the hot pavement where it flattened and then reconstituted itself. I had no idea what the appeal of such a thing might be – possibly to keep bored children momentarily occupied – and no better a notion of why anyone would buy one of the little dancing dolls that could also be seen near the fountain.

The man in the blue blazer did not carry a camera, but like many visitors he held a mobile phone that was doing triple-duty, first texting, then telephoning and finally photographing. He seemed to be doing two of the three with amazing dexterity but was not interested in the photo function.

He slipped past me and moved behind another entranced tourist waiting for the crowds nearest the stone barrier to stand slightly apart from his wife so that he could snap her photo without having a dozen strangers in the image with her. The man was playing a mug’s game, for the masses would not be shifted to please him. Soon I was playing the same mug’s game.

Italians, Greeks, Turks, Brits, North Americans, Japanese, Eastern Europeans were all keen to take the same photo of their loved ones at this special Roman place. An audible Tower of Babel surrounded us and merged with the burble of the fountain’s waters. The cacophony was distracting, but created a circus-like atmosphere that lulled me into complacency.

Packsacks secured and Nikons swinging from our necks, we waded closer to the fountain with euro coins in hand. I waited, trying to make my camera focus on both the coin toss and the formidable statuary. Alas, several shots later I managed to get a passable keepsake of our visit and we shuffled back through the throng in an attempt to escape to yet another Roman tourist trap.

St. Peter’s with its pilgrims and curious onlookers

We had already strolled through the Forum and visited the Coliseum, quintessential symbols of ancient Rome, and had used up a goodly portion of our photo cards on both. We had also stopped at the Spanish Steps near where poet John Keats had once lived, and fought the religious and purely curious multitudes at St. Peter’s perhaps hoping or praying for a glimpse of Pope Benedict.

Trevi was almost our last stop on a whirlwind two-day tour of one of the most intriguing and romantic capitals of the world.  As we made our escape, we pushed and jostled with the other Trevi admirers, tired but still excited to move on to the next sight-seeing pleasure. The young man reappeared, now right beside me. I turned to look for my wife and he bumped me. “Excuse me,” he said quickly, adding “Are you okay?” He spoke passable English but with a strong Italian accent.

“No, I’m fine,” I said to this total stranger at which point he smiled and blended into the crowd once again. I stumbled up the remaining steps to the piazza and we walked toward our tour bus. Both thirsty, we stopped at a temporary drink stand to buy a beer and a Coke. I reached for my wallet, which I thought was safely stored in the front pocket of my short pants.

Mild panic. Check other pockets. Panic increasing. Check packsack and camera case. Panic peaking. Sit down in middle of sidewalk and weep. Race back the way we came. Pointless: new crowds had despoiled any chance of finding the wallet if it was accidentally dropped.  I had been pick pocketed. Check nearby garbage cans. Turn in circles to see if we could spot the young man in the blue blazer. Sit down and weep again.

Bernini fountain at Spanish Steps

It was gone. Nothing to do. Wait. Report it to the Roman carbinieri. Surely they would help. Think again. After walking many blocks to the nearest police station, the officer at the front desk expressed disinterest in my situation and simply offered me a pitying look. “Come back in 40 minutes,” he said. “I’m busy with the Dutch.” I frowned, he said 15 minutes, I said good-bye.

I suddenly remembered that great Italian film The Bicycle Thief. A man who depends on his bike for transportation to his job has it stolen. He too panics. But in his case he had lost his livelihood. I had lost some credit cards, easily cancelled, and a few bucks. Still, I went back to Trevi once more hoping to find the young man, grab him and accuse him of theft just as the man had done in the film. Unlike the man in the movie, however, I couldn’t see any sign of my pick pocket.

More than feeling the financial loss, I was embarrassed at being tricked. I’d thought of myself as a somewhat seasoned traveller, but this incident seemed to prove that assumption a lie. Now I had been duped, probably by a young kid who was laughing in some taverna as he spent my euros and dollars. Nothing pricks the ego quite so much as being pick-pocketed.

Disheartened and weary, we again boarded the tour bus, then picked up our bags at the hotel and cancelled the cards. During the long cross-town journey to another hotel on the Mediterranean coast, I sulked, hoping that my coin in the fountain would not work to bring me back to a city where pick pockets run as free as the feral cats.

The feeling didn’t last very long. The charms of the Eternal City eventually win everyone over and I was no exception. How could I hate Rome? But when I do return, I’ll be wearing a money belt and will no doubt toss another coin in Trevi Fountain.

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