Why do Romans do as they do?
October 6, 2006 2:17 AM   Subscribe

So my husband and I just flew back from a vacation in Rome yesterday, where we had a wonderful time. Now it's four in the morning and I'm wide awake. So while I'm sitting here pondering the stinky laundry I must tackle later today, I'm wondering if some of you can answer some of our random questions about things we saw and experienced, stuff that wasn't addressed in the guide books. Here goes:

1. Where do those guys who sell fake designer sunglasses and purses all over the place on the street come from? Is there some huge fake purse and sunglasses warehouse they report to every morning? Can they actually make a living selling that stuff, since I ever only saw a few tourists taking time to stop and take a look? I think if I were in the street vending business, I'd sell something that others weren't offering and that people on the street would actually want, like ten-minute foot rubs. Maybe one of those Massage Company places should open some streetside booths there...

2. Are there a huge amount of traffic accidents in Rome? It seemed like all the people on their scooters and little mini-cars had things pretty much under control, even with all the pedestrian tourists who weren't quite sure what to do at the crosswalks. We only saw the aftermath of one accident, and it appeared it was a guy on a scooter who got clipped by a car. I assume there are helmet laws for the scooters and cycles, since everybody seemed to wear those? Are there cell phone laws for scooters and bikes? (We saw some talking on their cells and steering with one hand, a seemingly impossible feat) How old do you have to be to drive a car or cycle/scooter?

3. Do some of the more well-known and specialty gelato places actually make their gelato on the spot? I assume the gelato sold at the corner store-type places come from a manufacturer. Anyone have some awesome gelato recipes I can try out in my ice cream maker? I am proud to say I ate gelato every day and ohmygod it was incredible.

4. Do people just generally not validate their bus tickets when they get on the bus? We tried to do the right thing by buying our tickets at the metro station and then validating them when we boarded a bus, if the validator happened to work. We only saw a few other random folks actually validate their own tickets. I didn't see them flashing bus passes or anything to the drivers. So do people just not buy tickets and risk getting caught?

5. Why, exactly, do cashiers give you your change on a little dish instead of putting it directly in your hand? Is it a germ thing? Is it a this-is-how-its-always-been-done thing? I tried hard not to automatically put up my hand to accept the change right away myself. My husband actually kind of liked the system--it kind of allowed you to collect your change on your own terms, instead of fiddling with your wallet and the stuff you bought and everything else.

6. How sick of tourists do Romans actually get? Okay, I know tourists pour a zillion dollars into the city every year, and September/October are busy months. I just know that it was hard for us to navigate around the streets and the sights while trying not to get in the way of everybody's digital photo ops or dodging tour group herds of old German men and women (who eerily looked like my all great aunts and uncles--I come from good midwestern German stock). I just know I would get sick of it, and we only had to deal with it for the time we were there. If there are any Romans on this board, thank you very much for putting up with us. You have a fascinating city.

I'll try to post some tips and suggestions of my own on some of the other Rome threads. If I come up with some more questions, I'll post them here. Thank you!
posted by printchick to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
How sick of tourists do Romans actually get?

Being from an area that is slightly prone to tourists (I know, it surprises me too.) I can tell you it just tends to be obnoxious, and then you get used to it. It gets funny when you see people coming in and wanting to see pretty much the same things.

The rule of thumb I always use when travelling is that typically tourist attractions are never usually frequented by locals, and typically they'll just giggle at you when you talk about being so excited to see "Tourist Attraction B." Because this is a place that they live, so they're probably pretty uninterested in it, unless they have a personal connection to it.

Most people aren't going to judge you for being a tourist, and mostly will probably just get annoyed at the traffic. I know that when I have to spend an hour and a half getting to work because of traffic, I get pretty edgy. Especially since it only takes 5 minutes for me to get there normally.

As far as the change thing goes, I know some people can take it badly if someone puts change in their hand or puts change on a table. Having the dish takes away the question of how it is supposed to be done. That's probably the social reason, I really doubt its a hygenic thing.
posted by gregschoen at 2:36 AM on October 6, 2006

I lived in Rome for a couple of years in the mid-to-late '90s, and can chip in on a couple of these.

Are there a huge amount of traffic accidents in Rome?

Not as many as a first glance would lead you to think, but still, I was led to understand that the accident stats are worse in Italy as a whole than in Northern Europe... I'm not sure about your other traffic questions, but the lowish incidence of motorino helmet-wearing seemed to me to correlate with a correspondingly highish rate of surgical-collar-wearing 'survivors'...

Do people just generally not validate their bus tickets when they get on the bus?

I found that it cost almost the same in the long term to scrupulously buy & validate tickets as it did to pay the occasional penalty when I was caught out without them... I'm sure more practised and wary commuters could do better than that, however!

How sick of tourists do Romans actually get?

The Romans I knew tended to just accept it as one of several occasionally-annoying facts of living there.
posted by misteraitch at 3:10 AM on October 6, 2006

Where do those guys who sell fake designer sunglasses and purses all over the place on the street come from? Is there some huge fake purse and sunglasses warehouse they report to every morning? Can they actually make a living selling that stuff, since I ever only saw a few tourists taking time to stop and take a look?

Well, my girlfriend could easily spend in the range of 100-200 euro on fake bags and belts and sunglasses whenever we go to Italy (not just for her, she always buys shit for her sister and often for friends as well). Believe me, people buy that stuff. As for where they come from? When I was in Lido di Jesolo a few months back, these African dudes were wandering the beach selling their various faux wares. One day, I saw all of them going down one alley together at the end of the day. They came out of the alley with none of their stuff. So I presume that they were storing it all somewhere down that alley (a garage or storage space of some kind). As to who runs these guys, I have no idea, but it'd be fascinating to find out.
posted by antifuse at 4:05 AM on October 6, 2006

1. The majority are not-so-legal immigrants. The illegal knock-off wares fell off the back of a truck somewhere in China and float up to shore in Bari. There's a new law that isn't very tourist friendly: fines of up to 5,000 for buying from a vedor who doesn't have a license IIRC. Which means pretty much all of them. The story when the law first came out was two Danish tourists who knew nothing about the law getting fined 2,000 euros for buying a 10 dollar purse.

Pity really, as I prefer buying my Dior sunglass knock offs from them; they tend to fit my small head better and, well, I don't have to worry about losing a 200 euro pair of sunnies.

I'd bet dollars to donuts they don't make a whole lot of money, must report and fork over the majority of the dough to some shady boss.

2. No. Romans drive offensively (and you may take that pun anyway you wish). Crossing the street (sans zebra corssing, Roman style) involves not deviating your speed; drivers will aim either in front of you or behind you based on said speed. Freeze or start sprinting in terror and you'll get hit ;). There are certain small interesections here where an accident will happen at least once a week, but on a whole I don't see accidents on a daily basis on major thouroughfares.

There are helmet and cell phone laws; the former was introduced erm, 4-5 years ago? Stricter penalties for cell phone use while driving were introduced around 3-4 years ago with the licence point system.
Car licences are for 18+ y.o., scooters (under 50cc) for 15y.o. require the new patentino or 'little licence'

The above may not be completely accurate - I don't drive here as of yet.

3. Yes. The theory here is that the gelato is homemade if the banana flavour is grey and not bright (artificially flavoured) yellow. Recipes I'll have to Google for you.

4. Depends. Bus passes usually only get flashed when going on the metro or when a controllers hop on the bus to check everyone's tickets (most frequent occurances of this are at the begining & end of the month, when the monthly passes expire). While I've risked not buying a ticket a few times, I try not to do it. It's a 100 euro fine (or 50 if you pay it to the controllers right then & there).

5. Yes, it's a germ thing. As far as I know, it's always been like this.

6. Well, it depends on the time of the year. And as I work/ed/have many friends who work in tourism, I have had my periods of "jesus christ I'm gonna shove that Rick Steves guide up your bum" but I'd say that would have more to do with having to point out the how to get to the colosseo minimum 5 times a day for the past 8 years.

Now that I'm slightly more removed from said tourism industry, tourists only get on my nerves when I overhear them saying some snotty comment about Italians/Rome/etc and they think people can't understand them. Few and far between, though.

Romans on a whole, though, I'd say just deal with it as misteraitch said.


the americana a Roma :D
posted by romakimmy at 4:31 AM on October 6, 2006

I've seen the change dish thing done in NYC as well. Very practical. It is easier to scoop it out of a dish, than pick it up off the counter.

If you thought Rome was insane, you need to visit Naples. It puts Rome in perspective! (Sorry Romans, if you've just spewed your espresso all over your keyboards/monitors)
posted by Goofyy at 4:31 AM on October 6, 2006

Here's a list of gelato recipes; this site also looks promising, but you have to register to access the recipes. (Both sites in Italian, I'm afraid.)

Goofyy is dead on about Naples, but Cairo puts Naples into perspective!
posted by romakimmy at 4:56 AM on October 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

Venice needs to axe the illegal vending, no room to walk & they harass everyone.

Barcelona has plenty of illegal venders too, but they only sell where there is space to walk, and they don't harass you. And they come out in the rain to sell you umbrellas for 3 euros!
posted by jeffburdges at 5:29 AM on October 6, 2006

>Crossing the street (sans zebra corssing, Roman style) >involves not deviating your speed; drivers will aim either in >front of you or behind you based on said speed. Freeze or >start sprinting in terror and you'll get hit ;).

Interesting. I experienced the same thing in Saigon - except there most people are on bikes. At crossroads two steams of traffic would weave through each other by the same method.

I would love to know whether change bowls actually do any good at minimising germ transmission.
posted by rongorongo at 6:05 AM on October 6, 2006

My cousin spends a lot of time in Italy. The story she was told about the knockoff purses is that they are made in the same factory as the real [designer name] purses, but at night after the factory has closed. I think the China story is a little more plausible.
posted by bink at 6:46 AM on October 6, 2006

kimmy's quite the bocca della verità.

2. the traffic has a flow to it, and you try to go with that. accidents aren't over-frequent, but there are very few pristine/unscratched cars left in town. underneath the flow, unfortunately, romans are not civil drivers - as opposed to neapolitans. the latter, though prone to chaos, honk constantly to warn each other. romans will honk only to complain.

5. many romans/italians will ask for their coffee al vetro (in a little glass, rather than in the customary little espresso cup), convinced it's more hygienic. origin of the the change thing? not so sure. (nostalgic fact: back with the lira, you'd sometimes get stamps or candy instead of change.)

6. seems to me venice and florence have a lot more of a bone to pick with their tourists than rome. in part, it comes less spontaneous to resent pilgrims (always presumed to be a large percentage), for the rest romans tend towards magnanimity.

ps: all generalisations are false. ;-)
posted by progosk at 7:11 AM on October 6, 2006

My cousin spends a lot of time in Italy. The story she was told about the knockoff purses is that they are made in the same factory as the real [designer name] purses, but at night after the factory has closed. I think the China story is a little more plausible.

bink -- there was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about that exact thing happening, though this article was about shoes and clothes, not purses.

A lot of Chinese factories have a "third shift." During the first two shifts, workers are paid by Nike (or whoever) and use materials that meet Nike's strict specifications to construct shoes according to Nike's patterns. During the third shift, the workers are paid by the plant owner and use cheaper materials but still build shoes that follow Nike's patterns exactly.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:41 AM on October 6, 2006

4...So do people just not buy tickets and risk getting caught?

FWIW, my friend in Munich says he witnesses the same thing on the subway there - checking for tickets is sporadic at best. I'm guessing it's cheaper to hire fewer public servants and charge heavy fines than to hire more people to collect on a bunch of smaller tickets.
posted by muddgirl at 8:05 AM on October 6, 2006

While travelling in Italy I wondered the same thing. They're not just in Rome, but also in Venice, Pisa, Florence, and just about every other tourist center.

In Florence I bought some bread and cheese for lunch and sat down on a street corner to eat (I was doing the hostel thing). One of the bag vendors decided to set up shop right beside me while I was eating. I again wondered how these guys make any money - but within five minutes four blond American girls came over and bought a purse. And the girls were *ruthless* bargainers, by the way, and paid 30 Euro, when his original price was 65! The girl took forever counting out Euro coins because she wanted to get rid of her change. After they left we both sort of rolled our eyes at her and grinned at each other in a 'do you believe that' kind of way. I took that as my cue that I could talk to this guy.

I asked him where he was from and he said 'Africa'. I asked where in Africa and he said 'Senegal. Do you know Senegal'? I said yes, and he seemed quite surprised I had heard of it. Where was I from, he asked. I said Canada. He smiled. "Canada. Canada very very good!"

I tried to ask him where the bags came from but he didn't understand. His English was very poor. That's about all I got out of him. Still it was pretty cool.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:15 AM on October 6, 2006

Venice needs to axe the illegal vending, no room to walk & they harass everyone.

I was just there this summer, and didn't really notice many vendors at ALL. There were a few here and there, but nothing like Rome was. Perhaps they've already started cracking down there?
posted by antifuse at 8:16 AM on October 6, 2006

Italians (Romans) have a different concept of "Right of Way".

This is obvious by watching traffic flow, as cars that don't have the (traditional) right of way cut in front of cars that do.

Right of Way for Italians is, you are right to cut in front of people if it gets you to your destination quicker. Simple.

I think that's why you don't see many accidents. "Of course that guy cut me off. That's how it's done around here, and I expect that constantly. He was right to get in front of me and make me slam on my brakes, because now, he's closer to where he wants to go. Duh!"
posted by duncantuna at 8:17 AM on October 6, 2006

Re: bus tickets

When I lived there about 5 years ago, I probably validated tickets about half the time. I was poor, though, and generally depended on how much money I had and how much of a risk I felt like taking. I got caught probably at least 5 times over the course of a year. I don't think I ever paid the entire fine. Sometimes I got away without paying anything. Everything's negotiable.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 8:30 AM on October 6, 2006

I tried to ask him where the bags came from but he didn't understand. His English was very poor. That's about all I got out of him.

He'll go far in life, your Senegalese friend.
posted by Phred182 at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

On the topic of the bags-- I was once waiting for a train in Naples, and went for a long walk around the train station which included looking for a bag for some family members. In a fairly ...um.. interesting basement bag specialty place off a side street there were a number bag vendors buying in bulk (e.g. 2-3 garbage bags full at a time). My very poor italian didn't allow for me to really discern what was going on as I was trying to casually look around-- they had a large selection of very nice legitimate leather bags etc. About 5 minutes after the vendors left a couple police officers came around asking questions, which is probably what makes me remember the whole incident.

So my guess is that there is an illegal bag trade which probably goes through similar channels, at least partly, as the legitimate one.
posted by ThinkNut at 8:54 AM on October 6, 2006

1. Where do those guys who sell fake designer sunglasses and purses all over the place on the street come from? Is there some huge fake purse and sunglasses warehouse they report to every morning? Can they actually make a living selling that stuff, since I ever only saw a few tourists taking time to stop and take a look?

As mentioned, almost all of them are illegal immigrants. The stereotype, at least in Venice when I lived there, was that the Senegalese husbands sold the bags while their wives worked as prostitutes in Mestre. I heard a lot of stories about really dark-skinned American women getting harassed in the city because of the assumption that any dark-skinned woman was a prostitute.

They're also sparking all sorts of immigration and social structure issues throughout Europe. Given the general openess of Italy's borders -- it's hard to patrol that much coastline, plus Italy's bureaucracy is not exactly known for being hard-nosed and organized -- many immigrants are coming in through Italy, managing to get working papers (fake or real), and then moving (semi-legally) into other EU countries. There was a lot of grumbling about how the health care system, for example, was not designed to take care of those people, why don't they go back where they came from, etc.

2. Are there a huge amount of traffic accidents in Rome?

I don't know about Rome specifically, but Italian drivers in general were some of the most focused drivers I have ever been in a car with. I don't know that I'd want to be with an American driver on Italian roads, but the Italians were all much more aware of what was going on around them then even some of the good American drivers I've ridden with.

4. Do people just generally not validate their bus tickets when they get on the bus? ...So do people just not buy tickets and risk getting caught?

The police don't tend to harass locals as much as tourists about this. Plus, it's a country where no one has much faith in government institutions and where being clever enough to evade the authorities is considered a plus.

The Italian parliament passes five times as many laws per year as the British parliament, and from what I understand there has never been any sort of "clear language" movement for govt. documents, and the Italians looooove pomposity in official writing. So you've got thousands of unclear laws being passed all the time, and repeals to those laws, and repeals to the repeals, and after a while you just start assuming that whatever you're doing is probably illegal and so you stop worrying about following all the little rules. The number-one eye-rolling complaint my Italian friends had about Americans was that "You follow all the laws and rules," as if that was hopelessly naive. And I think, in Italy, it may be.

6. How sick of tourists do Romans actually get?

In Venice, I loved May and June, when the tourists started to arrive and everyone was in a good mood about getting foreign money in. I hated August, when everyone was sick of the influx. September was OK, by October everyone was happy again.
posted by occhiblu at 9:48 AM on October 6, 2006

Unfortunately, buying a fake designer bag is inadvertently buying into a whole host of other problems, like terrorism, drug trafficking, child labor, and sweatshops. I'm as cheap (and broke) as anybody, but counterfeiting designer merchandise really is a tragic market causing more harm than good. And we're talking all the bags you see, from Venice, CA to Venice, Italy.
posted by changeling at 11:16 AM on October 6, 2006

5. Previously (about the little dish for change; it's not just in Rome).
posted by Rash at 12:19 PM on October 6, 2006

For gelato, check out the recipes in Nick Malgieri's Great Italian Desserts. I've had mixed results with fruit-based gelato, but his chocolate/hazelnut variation is pure gold. Easily the best frozen dessert I've made at home.
posted by Vervain at 12:39 PM on October 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Original poster here--thanks for all the responses so far...very interesting, so keep them coming. Another observation on the bag guys...we spent a couple days in Florence and the vendors were all over there. The authorities had put this big sign in one of the squares (maybe there were signs all over, I didn't notice) which said, in English, that buying counterfeit merchandise was a crime and was punishable by a fine (I don't remember if it said prison or not.) We also wondered why we'd sometimes see these guys just walking with their big bundles of purses all at the same time in little groups...it turned out that when somebody would spot a police car coming their way, they would all somehow warn each other, pick up the corners of the sheets where they had placed their purses on the sidewalks, heave the bundles over their shoulders and move on. The police drove by, and the guys were strolling there kind of like, "Bags? We're not selling bags. We're just carrying these huge bundles which happen to have a purse-shaped lumpiness to them." So it looks like they're on a constant watch for the police. I watched another guy, an Asian man selling little animals made out of palm fronds, do the same thing. He was sitting there making his animals before his little display and he spotted a police officer. The man picked up his stuff and started to move on, and then he casually moved back to his spot on the curb when he saw the officer move on. It looks like this constant slow game of cat and mouse, but it seems like the police obviously had to know what was going on. I just wonder: why advertise that they're going after the tourist? Why not concentrate on going after the sellers, if they aren't already?
posted by printchick at 2:52 PM on October 6, 2006

they go after the sellers with roughly the same frequency that teh bus/subway ticket controllers go after the unticketed. it's a pretty stupid intimidation tactic.
a few months ago technicians started installing cameras on both ends of the ponte degli angeli here: for a good week after that, the vùcumprà - the category's italo-pidgin moniker, from vuoi comprare? = wanna buy? - avoided the bridge, suspicious they were being filmed. after another week, things were back to normal.

if anybody were truly interested in stopping pirated merchandise (and this holds true for the florid trade in cd's and dvd's that the same people engage in at a great number of italian streetcorners) they'd need to 1. go after the bosses, 2. create socio-economic conditions for vùcumprà to have an alternative choice of profession.
posted by progosk at 12:41 AM on October 7, 2006

Why not concentrate on going after the sellers, if they aren't already?

Ah, printchick, you've raised a very troublesome question there! It's been debated a lot after those laws punishing the purchase of the goods were passed (and it's not just tourist buying them).

Of course there is no good reason they shouldn't go after the sellers and even better after the suppliers of the merchandise, at the source, except for these problems:

- the illegal merchandise comes from the same sources and channels that other less visible illegal merchandise supplied on the streets comes from, and tackling big networks of organised crime isn't exactly Italy's forte
- the sellers also largely come from the same channels, they're treated as human merchandise by those criminal networks who also specialise in the 'smuggling in' of illegal immigrants, and this is even harder to tackle than other organised crime, for practical reasons already mentioned - the coastline is hard to patrol, indeed - and political reasons - the immigration policy is a mess and law enforcement there is even more of a mess.

On paper, like in any other country, illegals are supposed to be arrested and then deported (I'm not going to get in the wider political debate on that, just saying, that's what the laws require); in practice, this is done very inconsistently, more often when they're caught right after landing from the boats, less often when they've been living in the country for a while, you need to know where they should be deported and if they have no papers then it's a catch 22, and also, there are so many illegals constantly coming in it becomes a fruitless effort, so the police often turn an eye.

Also, in terms of political debate, on the one extreme you have those who'd want to kick out even legal immigrants as long as they're Muslims, on the other extreme those who believe enforcing any laws - nevermind deportation, even just tackling the street vendor problem - on illegals is tantamount to intolerable racism, and the 'illegal' immigrant category should be abolished anyway - something that has in part been done through several amnesties... In the middle, there are those who complain but have got used to it and expect nothing to change, or those who complain but then rush to defend any illegality, by illegals and citizens alike, even when it's actual criminality and not just selling fakes... This summer there was a case involving a young American tourist in Napoli who got his camera stolen in the street, he went after the two guys - two old style regular Neapolitan muggers - there was a fight and guess what, the people in the neighbourhood rushed out to help... the muggers! You can read about it here or here, and more in depth here. Other recent cases involving tourists here (in Italian).

So yeah the laws targeting the tourists are ridiculous, a cop out and a patch on the failures of politics and law enforcement, and for tourists they add insult to injury. I don't get any kick out of confirming some of the worst stereotypes about my country, I love it very much but it drives me insane. It's such a shame because even a city with so many problems like Naples is a great place to see...

One thing regarding the ticket validating though - not everyone who fails to punch their ticket in the machine is trying to get a free ride! I know I often forget to do it, doesn't mean I didn't actually buy the ticket, you know. I got called on it a couple of times on the train by the controller, didn't get fined as the ticket did have a date on it already so it's clear I wasn't trying to use the same ticket over and over without validating it, just a stern reminder to remember the next time...
posted by funambulist at 4:24 AM on October 7, 2006

And on a lighter note, though others already answered -

3 - yes and usually there is a sign saying 'lavorazione artigianale', but pretty much every decently-sized gelateria with the stuff in trays makes its own, you can sometimes see when they refill the trays straight from the machine's bowls

5 - I'm with your husband there, I find it more practical to pick up the change myself after I've put away the stuff I bought, while the shop person has already started to move on to the person behind me. The little tray for change in smaller shops is found in many other European countries, whatever its origins I really don't think it has anything to do with germs (it wouldnt' make much sense either, right? after all the money still gets touched), so yeah, I guess it's just one of those things that's always been so.
posted by funambulist at 4:31 AM on October 7, 2006

And the girls were *ruthless* bargainers, by the way, and paid 30 Euro, when his original price was 65!


I jest, but the vedors hear non-Italian being spoke and inital prices double. Ye olde Americanos = Rich fallacy, I'd guess.
posted by romakimmy at 5:58 AM on October 7, 2006

I remembered this question from ages ago (because I, too, had just seen the sidewalk purse-sellers in Florence and was curious about them) and today some info on them popped up via the Foreign Policy blog with a link to an Economist story. A good read for anyone still interested in the question.
posted by marylynn at 3:24 PM on December 20, 2006

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