ROME – In 1979, an up-and-coming Irish rock band called The Boomtown Rats released their biggest hit, which was titled “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Here in Rome, if you were to poll restaurant and coffee bar owners around the Vatican, you’d find a similar sentiment but a different day of the week.
Here it’s Wednesdays that tend to leave a bad taste, because it’s the day of the weekly papal audience in St. Peter’s Square.
Yesterday, the co-owner of a favorite morning haunt on the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri, across the street from one of the principal entrances to the Vatican, actually tried to talk me into moonlighting on Wednesdays as her bouncer, blocking access to the hordes of tourists who show up wanting only to use the bathroom, beg a free cup of water or ask directions.
This may seem a counter-intuitive reaction, since shopkeepers generally rejoice when major events bring unusually large numbers of potential customers into their neighborhoods.
Herein, however, lies one of the major fault lines among Roman entrepreneurs. Owners of religious goods stores, for instance, will tell you that being close to the flame is usually great for business, as will the hustling class of people (usually foreign-born) who run small mini-marts around the Vatican, as they often do a brisk trade in bottled water and ice-based refreshments on days when the pope draws a crowd.
Restauranteurs and the proprietors of coffee bars (especially slightly nicer ones) generally have a different take, as do cab drivers and hotel owners. If you’re ever in the mood to hear an Italian-inflected rant, just ask a Roman cabbie what he or she thinks of big papal events.
What you’re likely to hear is some version of the following: “These pilgrims come to town on big buses, so they don’t take cabs and they make a terrible traffic situation even worse. They bring sack lunches so they don’t eat in restaurants, and they either stay in convents or go home at night so they don’t stay in hotels. They add nothing to the economy, and they clog things up for everyone else.”
Naturally those are generalizations, but they’re true often enough as to make the cabbie’s lament comprehensible.
Further, the audience day crowd has a reputation locally for ranging from daft to just outright rude.
My friend who wants me to be her bouncer, for instance, tells of one woman recently who came into the café and asked, “Have you seen my group walk past here? They’re wearing red hats,” and actually seemed annoyed when the answer was, “Lots of people come by here, so I have no idea.” Just last week, she said, a group of teenagers from Portugal along with their teacher occupied her outdoor seats for some time, even though they’re reserved for customers, and got nasty when she asked them to leave.
(She said she wanted to point to the cupola of St. Peter’s, which looms large across the street, and say, “Remember where you just were! You’re supposed to be better than this.” Even though she’s a native Roman and ought to know better, you have to find her residual faith in the power of a papal audience to induce better manners touching.)
Fortunately for her, she’ll have a break from the Wednesday madness for a month. As is his custom, Francis will suspend his audiences during July to provide a summer mini-break, resuming the Wednesday routine in August.
If you’re planning on hitting a papal audience once they’re back up and running, herewith five “rules of the road” to ensure that you don’t inadvertently contribute to the infamy of the papal crowd in his own backyard.
- If you insist on doing a papal audience on the cheap, at least don’t expect something for nothing. Don’t walk into coffee bars or restaurants just to ask to use the bathroom, for instance, and don’t treat waiters at places you’re not eating like they’re your hotel concierge, expecting them to give you directions, tell you how to use the bus, etc. If you must, ask a cop.
- If at all possible, don’t do it entirely on the cheap. Some fine eating can be found near the Vatican, so try to plan to have lunch after you wrap the audience. (If you want recommendations, I’m your man. To paraphrase Animal Farm, all restaurants near the Vatican are equal, but some are more equal than others.) You’ll be satisfied, and you’ll have earned the gratitude of locals at the same time.
- If you’re coming from far away you’re going to stay in a hotel anyway, so make it someplace close to the Vatican to support the establishments that service your fellow pilgrims. One of my personal favorites is the Crowne Plaza – St. Peter’s, which is the closest thing in Rome to what most Americans expect of a hotel, i.e., spacious and comfortable rooms at reasonable prices where the wifi and a/c both work reliably. For bonus points, one of the best restaurants in town, Arturo’s, is right around the corner.
- Don’t succumb to the notion that there’s some romance to riding the bus or the subway in Rome – there really, really isn’t – and take a cab once in a while. I confess, this is partly naked self-interest: It can be tough to hail cabs near the Vatican, because drivers assume it’s not a good pond in which to fish. If you download the “MyTaxi” app, you can track your spending and avoid any (well, most) unpleasantness with overcharging.
- In general, try to be kind to the service industry people you meet. Not only will they be nicer to you, they’ll be more inclined to be generous with future pilgrims, which can be your small gift to all those who come to Rome seeking proximity to the pope.
In the meantime, if you drop by “Homebaked” just outside St. Peter’s Square after your audience and happen to see an older guy in a Key West ballcap near the door scrutinizing people trying to enter, drop in and say hello – as long, that is, as you plan to buy something while you’re there.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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