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My Ethnographic Moment: in Rome

Rome, San Lorenzo

Lunch alone in a trattoria in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome, which is neither fashionable nor touristic. Noisy with students and young people at night, local places to hangout, some occupied spaces.

What struck me, in contrast to the U.S, Germany, even France, where I have recently been is that Italy, and specifically Rome, is a deep culture that works for its working and middle classes, or put less structurally, for ‘ordinary people.’

Of course, this is an impression, but for me a rather convincing one, and harmonious with a morning cappuccino and croissant at a vibrant bar around the corner from a friend’s apartment where we are staying for a couple of days. At the trattoria there were about ten tables in the dining area. At one nearby, two men were playing a card game for small amounts of money with classical Italian faces, aged maybe 60 or 65, and singing and laughing intermittently.

At a table by the entrance five men were seated, joking, passing time, enjoying their time together immensely, and also singing with those a deep tonic expressiveness that is exhibited to the world in the form of Italian opera, the La Scala, Maria Callas, Pavarotti brand. What was clear that there was an earthy sense of pleasure in each other company, with lots of good natured teasing. When a new customer entered, almost always he would exchange a kiss with the main waiter before either joining one of the tables or eating with whoever he came with.

While I was enjoying my fettuccine fungi, four attractive blonde Italian girls in their late 20s entered, and the men rose to embrace them one by one, and even the card players declared a recess long enough for a hug. The girls were feminine and full of self-confidence, giving the scene a neighborhood dolce vita feeling. They sat at their own table interacting from time to time with one of the men who came over to flirt or just exchange a pleasantry or two.

It was all so natural, pagan, and yet what the 21st century in the West seems to have forgotten, an ambience I have not found elsewhere, although some of the tea houses in Turkey come close, although the mood is more somber, and there is less conviviality maybe because backgammon is generally the game of choice, especially among older men. In our laid back neighborhood swimming and eating place in Yalikavak, called Kwanch, there is a warm ambience, but it is more inhibited, perhaps more middle class, than what I found here in Rome.

I am almost sophisticated enough to realize that one local restaurant experience does not qualify as ‘social science,’ let alone ‘knowledge,’ yet I trust these impressions as confirming a Roman spirit yet to be quelled by all the mishaps of modernity, many of which have led this eternal city to earn the recent, probably undeserved, reputation of being run down, not nearly as dynamic, modern, fashionable, and prosperous as its northern always more commercial cousin, Milan.

Maybe this sense of contentment is being paid for by high unemployment, apathetic politics, defunct Marxism, even dimming memories of Gramsci, and a growing resentment of migrants, and maybe non-Italians in general. Surely, Italy does count for much these days in the wider European landscape, compared to Germany or France, when it comes to EU economic policy or relations, whether good or bad, with that unruly patron on the other side of the Atlantic. It is hard to say what the future will bestow upon Italy, and this is not part of my ethnographic foray at lunchtime, which only makes claims to report what is observed.


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