All roads lead to chaos, but Sarah Daniell takes a right turn and finds a haven in the bohemian district of Rome.
I wish I could take a photo but the problem is, I am frozen with fear. As we enter the city of Rome, new rules apply. The main rule, over-riding all others is, there are no rules. The driver is capable and calm. We barely hit 50km, so these things are not compounding factors to my anxiety pile-on. But as I clench, holding my hands in the 10 to 2 position on the edges of my seat, it occurs to me that the only time you ever see this kind of sanctioned absurdity - driving through ancient alleyways, negotiating cafe tables, waiters with pasta plates aloft, motor scooters, motorbikes, cyclists - is in the movies. Scaffolding is just millimetres from our wing mirrors. Pedestrians wander, blissfully unaware. As we drive through the shabby beauty of Trastavere, we attract barely a glance.
In the essay Sex and the Italian Driver, Jackson Burgess writes: "Every Italian's dearest desire is to be an exception to the rule — any rule. The only place he [or she] can do it regularly is in his [or her] car."
Italian director Umberto Lenzi once said that in his film, Violent Rome (1975), the car chases were often done without permission. So the sirens that can be heard are real police giving chase.
Weeks earlier, in an even more ludicrously inappropriate setting (with regards to driving norms based on the New Zealand experience): the Tuscan town of Cortona. It's set on a hill so steep and sovereign, it reminds me of a pā site. Perfectly placed to anticipate the arrival of the enemy, removed from and aloof to the neuroses or insecurities of tourists. Cortona requires nerves of steel to navigate. In a classic cluster f***, Google Maps defaults to the most difficult route, taking us right up through the centre of the village. In Rome, no one cares. In Cortona, they holler in outrage, wave their hands. And then they laugh and move on, as though nohting ever happened and you are just another in a long line of clueless tourists.
We'd driven four hours from Pisa. The motorway is fine. A breeze, with weird and brilliant sideshows. We pull up at a truckstop that sells to-order pizza and cold beer. It has a paddling pool with a slide and a fake grass playground where there are plastic tables and chairs. There are no children but there are a couple of hardcore truckies sitting around, smoking. As we get closer to Rome, it gets more surreal. We pass a bronzed woman wearing a bikini, reclined on a lounger set up on the shoulder of the A1 Autrostrada. Did you see that ....? But she's gone in a blur and we are nearing the city limits and we need to focus.
Google Maps in Trastavere tells us we are 150m and three minutes away from our apartment. We have arrived! No we haven't! A text exchange from our booking.com host Patrick reveals we took a wrong turn and must drive back out to the link road, past the ancient stone walls into the traffic and take another right turn (more cafe tables, chairs, narrow streets, chilled Romans.
"So close! So close!" says Patrick in a text, as though he is encouraging a small child to the finish line in a running race.
We finally arrive outside Vicolo del Cedro, Trastavere. Our home for our last two nights in Roma.
The notes on booking.com for Cedro Terrace Loft say "this property will not accommodate hen, stag or similar parties". Our party consists of three children and two adults, so prego, Patrick. Anyway, the party in Trastavere is out on the streets, people. Our loft apartment is right among nightclubs where mostly the student crowd spills out on to the piazzas and vicoli (alleyways), kissing, drinking, swaying. But the apartment, will be our sanctuary.
Ciao Patrick! We are here!
Ciao, Sarah! Patrick replies. Thank you for choosing my apartment! I will be there in two minutes!
For the record, I never use exclamation marks. Only for irony, or to my children ("How did your exam go!!!!!!" or "I love you!!!!!") The entire time Patrick and I text, we use exclamation marks as if possessed. We are in Rome, and when in Rome you must shout, passionately, even in written sentences and in the most apparently ordinary situations. Like choosing a sandwich filling.
And especially when you find your way to your apartment in one of the trickiest cities in the world to navigate.
Patrick is kind, and beyond helpful. He hugs us all and welcomes us inside. As we step over the ancient threshold, Patrick explains his apartment was a stable in the 15th century. I run my hand over the cool stone walls. The bones may be old beyond our frame of reference, but inside is like an 80s nightclub. There are mirrors on the walls, observe the kids. There are mirrors on the ceiling.
There are four levels. Upstairs is a tranquil terrace garden, filled with flowers and plants, including a giant basil plant. Help yourself! says Patrick.
He lists key attractions - best aperitif, best expensive restaurant, best family restaurant, best nightclub, best wine shop, best taxi company. Patrick works in Milan, so he has to leave in a couple of hours and catch the train. But he will be there any time, for anything we want. Nothing is a problem! His mother will look after us if we have a problem. No problem. Even when it's a problem (he has left but returns - the door needs a little boot with a foot to open). It's our haven, within the haven of Trastavere.
Trastavere is just down the Tiber from the Vatican. It's described as a city within a city. In ancient Rome, it was a place of violence. The slaves lived here - 300,000 of them - andit was the working class district. Then came writers, activists, artists. Now locals dress up to passeggiata (promenade) until late. They are not "put-together", just breathtakingly stylish. They eat when they like and they make an artform of hanging out.
All day we walk and walk and get lost many times. It's late, around midnight, as we head back to our apartment. Along the way there are cafes, still serving on a Monday night. There is a crowd, spilling out from a club, swaying, and drinking. No one is pushing or shoving. There is no aggression or tension or a sense it will change into something hard and ugly.
The next morning we walk past the same club to find coffee. It's early, but the streets are clean. The sun is shining hard already.
The Basilica di Santa Maria, which dates back to the third century, is heaving with tourists. If you keep to the back streets, away from the souvenir stands and the cheesy themed restaurants, it's possible to get a sense of the place, the pulse, the romance. A place where the centuries-old pathways and buildings - and people - seem resistant to gentrification, to commercialisation. I hope that prevails.
We pass a man, sitting on his own, under an umbrella in a cafe. He is wearing a crisp, pale linen suit and sunglasses. He is eating pasta and drinking a glass of red wine. It is 11am. We order gelato for breakfast.
We wander aimlessly in the heat, not hell-bent on a destination or a schedule. We sit, we think, we watch, we complain about the heat and order another gelato.
Later that night, we sit up on the terrace, listening to music on our phones, drinking the good wine we brought from the local store. We talk until 2am, kissing, swaying. Exclamation mark.