Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bellagio

Warning: This post may make you hate me.

My opportunity to stay in Italy was facilitated by a workshop in higher education policy in Bellagio, a fancy town on the edge of Lake Como. I am working on a project about higher education policy in developing countries, and our final meeting was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, which owns a villa here. Villa isn’t quite the word for it, it is an incredible expanse of hillside alongside the lake. The Foundation sponsors meetings here with scholars and policymakers who are somehow supposed to get work done in one of the most spectacular settings in Europe.

We were doubly lucky to get space right along the lake. My room is on the top floor of the tower, built in 1590, which has an incredible view of the entire lake and towns on the other side. Last night, the moonlight shone directly on the lake and it was almost magical. I could literally dive out of my window into the water. (Well, not me, but Alexandre Despatie could…. mmm, Despatie.)

We get three lavish meals per day, not including the fresh pastries in the afternoon and bottles of champagne in the evening. After five weeks of pizza and sandwiches, it is a nice change of pace. We have had fresh polentas and cold risottos and other delightful things.

There are rules: no partners or spouses, for example. Our rooms are very nice, but the beds are intentionally quite narrow to ensure compliance. We have no Italian television to distract us, which is certainly no loss. We are also ordered to arrive to meals on time, also truly horrible.

Yesterday we toured the lake for a few hours by boat, looking at all the little towns along the way. We tried to get them to stop at George Clooney’s villa, but no luck there. Then we had champagne on the veranda. Enjoy this picture of me, totally paying attention.

On Friday, my Italian fantasy comes to an abrupt end with a 5am departure for the airport. I pray only that Tina remain in Sicily.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Florence

After my not-so-wonderful experience with Venice – which I’ve now learned is not so unusual, among both Italians and Americans – I happily moved on to Florence. Getting there was quite an experience. To get around, I have been showing up at train stations empty handed and buying tickets from an electronic kiosk a few minutes before the train departs. It’s not as risky as it sounds. Trains are big and in August they have been quite empty. It turns out you can buy them in advance on the internet and have the reservation number sent to you by sms, something I will do in the future.

So I pull my ticket out of the kiosk, and see that it has me leaving from Mestre station across the bridge, not Santa Lucia, where I am standing. But I have no ticket to get from Santa Lucia to Mestre, and I have no idea which train will get me there. The departures list gives no indication which trains will stop in Mestre and which will simply pass it up. Did I mention that my train departs in 9 minutes? And that if I miss my train, my $100 “standard” ticket becomes completely worthless?

I run to the info desk line, which has a certain Soviet-bread-line quality. I look desperately for anyone who looks remotely official – conductors, janitors, the new machine-gun-carrying military police needlessly dispatched by Berlusconi – and of course, there is nothing but 800 guys smoking. I realize that there is only one possibility for success, because there is only one train leaving the station that will get me anywhere in 9 minutes. I run to that track – the farthest away, natch – and see a conductor standing outside the front of the train, the good part of a quarter-mile away. I run toward him screaming “Mestre? MESTRE?” as he waves me onto the train, closes the door behind us, and drops me off with two minutes to find my connection. The chic Italians seem quite amused when my disheveled self arrives at my seat dripping sweat on the fabric.

Florence itself turns out to be a great little town packed with artistic treasures. Sadly, at this point I am ready to gag if I have to see another 14th century Virgin Mary painting or majolica vase shoved in the corner of some magnificent Renaissance palazzo. I am proud to say that I climbed to the top of the famous Duomo, hiking up (and down!) over 400 stairs to see the amazing view of Florence from Bruneleschi’s dome. Once you start, you can’t exactly give up – the staircases are strictly medieval single-file affairs, so everybody’s in the same boat, moving at the pace of the slowest person. (Shockingly, not me.) The Duomo itself is strikingly beautiful, the gorgeously painted exterior drawing your attention from any angle.

I did manage to see the Museo Archeologico, because I can never resist. My guidebook didn’t seem so enthusiastic, but it was actually quite profound. It seeks to answer a simple question: what if you decided to have a museum and fill it with nothing? You walk through long corridors with empty display cases, gaze at empty walls with lights shining on nothing. It’s the world’s most existential museum. In most countries, you would simply close the museum until the restorations or whatnot were completed. But in Italy, there is nothing unusual about charging people 4 euros to walk around an empty building.

In the middle of my three-day stay, I hit a double whammy. Not only was it a public holiday, due to the Feast of the Assumption (Mary never gets a rest around here), it was also raining like a dickens. Everything was closed, from museums to supermarkets. This turned out to be an excellent opportunity to sit on my ass, enjoy the wonders of the American-style ice machine at the Sheraton, and watch 10 hours of Olympics coverage (in English!) on Eurosport. It was delightful. Even fencing matches and rowing competitions turned out to be surprisingly good.

My absolute favorite thing from this trip, though, wasn’t in Florence at all. A local Italian guy, Carlo, offered to take me to San Gimignano, a medieval fortress town at the top of a Tuscan hill. We left after 8pm, when it was getting dark and still raining quite heavily. After a few missed turns – Italian roundabouts are hilariously difficult to get right – we arrived somewhat late. Literally as soon as we opened our car doors, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the stars twinkled. San Gimignano is an beautiful little treasure. We stopped at a trattoria for real Tuscan food, eating rabbit with lemon and capers and a pappardelle with venison ragout. Delicious.

Then we walked over the whole town, which has entirely preserved its medieval character, covered in high towers and twisty alleys and treacherous stone sidewalks. At the top of the hill, there is a park with a panoramic view of virtually all of Tuscany. Sadly, I have virtually no pictures because it was all in the dark. But I’ll never forget it.

On the way back, we stopped for gelato at a place that won the Italian national competition for 2008. I got peach, passion fruit, and orange chocolate, all delicious and perhaps even better than San Crispino in Rome. There’s a lot of crap gelato around Italy; it is worth holding out for the good stuff. Italians themselves mostly don’t, you can see them downing those horrible convenience-store cornettos from the UK in front of the best gelatterias in the country. Carlo explained that Italians are cheap. Nonetheless, if you have a chance to visit San Gimignano, and I highly recommend that you do, stop off for some gelato on the way down.

Next up is Bellagio, a tiny town on Lake Como, where I’m participating in a workshop on higher education policy before I return home.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Flipping the Channels

video

I’ve heard from a loyal reader asking why I haven’t talked about Italian TV. Well, Italian TV is so horrible that making fun of it was almost too obvious. I have never even gone past channel 20, and I have satellite. But just for you, by request, a flip through the channels at midnight on a Saturday. Please let me emphasize now that I did not make any of these up, and that I haven’t skipped anything that would give you a better impression of my options. Anything from a foreign country is dubbed into Italian unless otherwise noted. This effort ends up taking over three hours, and I have to stop at channel 650.

1. An Italian variety show from the 1950s in black & white.
2. A TV movie from the U.S., I think, from the 1970s.
3. An Italian movie from the late 1960s.
4. A movie about kids taking drugs.
5. A Canadian? cop show.
6. A 24-hour news channel currently reading off the headlines from today’s newspapers, which the anchor has hand selected with a yellow highlighter.
7. Euronews, in English, which is pretty good. I think it’s from France.
8. BBC World News, which is useful but incredibly repetitive. Now it’s HARDtalk with an interviewer who thinks very highly of himself. The ad for his show is heavy animals grappling each other against drum beats.
9. 6 more Italian news channels, one weather channel. One of them is also reading newspapers.
10. A documentary about bicycle racing in the 1970s.
11. A Russian boxing match, in Russian.
12. The pope’s speech during World Youth Day in Australia, which was at least two weeks ago.
13. The Italian Senate channel.
14. A show that teaches English to young kids, who must have their eyes propped open with toothpicks at this hour. Two guys are pretending to be Siamese twins in the kitchen. “I like eating! He likes eating! We like eating!”
15. Another Italian variety show from the 1950s. Yes, it is different from the first one.
16. OK, this is a French movie from approximately 1984, if I’m guessing right from the two men wearing red shirts and leopard-print vests. They seem to work at some sort of strip club, and oh! lady nipples! It’s French soft-core porn.
17. Music videos, currently Hoobastank. I didn’t know they were still together.
18. Real estate infomercial.
19. More music videos, a girl group from the UK. “I kissed a girl and I liked it/Her kiss just traps me.” Hmm.
20. A naked woman moans in Arabic. Sex line.
21. Naked woman moans in Czech.
22. Polish music videos.
23. Russian music videos.
24. Fashion TV, women on the catwalk too sexy for their outfits. Apparently it is “couture weekend.” Honey, it’s always couture weekend!
25. “F Men Hot” a channel about fashion and men. Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s a bunch of models walking the catwalk, but some of them are now men. They’re advertising a calendar called “The Greek Gods” from – not making this up! -- 2004. Don’t pay full price people.
26. A picture slideshow of animals. Now it’s an Eastern European lady in pigtails and a cheap bikini dancing awkwardly behind a bunch of toll-free phone numbers. Ugh, this is about as unsexy as heterosexuality gets.
27. A concert by low-rent Jonas Brothers types.
28. A panel discussion of some kind, but the sound quality is so bad you can’t hear it even if you turn the volume all the way up to maximum.
29. A blond lady is wearing a mini dress made of green saran wrap. Her panties are halfway down her thigh, and she is taking calls from her many admirers, often one on each ear. I have to admit, she’s a lot sexier than that chick in pigtails.
30. Oh boy. OK, I promised to be thorough. This is an informercial for “Mondo Penis” brought to you by your friends at Mondo Medical, a division of Vaxotron. You can probably guess what this is for. Let’s just say it comes in four sizes, because you’ll soon outgrow the smaller ones. A naked man, his junk blurred out, actually demonstrates how to use the device, which he emphasizes is very simple. Truly horrifying for only 199 euros.
31. An infomercial for the Edelweiss Park Hotel. When’s the yodeling class?
32. A couple is … I have no idea, I have nothing for you. They are just talking, it looks like Italian cable access. Now they’re taking calls.
33. The “Lady Channel.” A show about Italian black people in the 1970s. Who knew?
34. A black & white Italian movie from - you guessed it! - the 1950s.
35. Beachfront time-share infomercial, discounts up to 70%. Sadly, time shares are financial death in any country.
36. American movie with James Spader from the 1980s. He’s being chased by greasers, very scary.
37. The Nostradamus Channel! Bah, I don’t get that one. I really could use some puzzling predictions right now.
38. A man absolutely screaming at me to buy mattresses.
39. C-Span reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
40. Completely naked lady plays with a whip. When they’re giving this much away, I’m not sure why you need to call. I wonder if Good Charlotte knows their music is being used for this.
41. Oriental rug hour on a home shopping network.
42. Pretty blond woman in a pink bikini and matching feather boa. See, they know how to get people calling.
43. Live infomercial for a “Sexy Shop.” A woman spontaneously presses her bare breast against the camera and there are “man on the street” interviews. Surreal.
44. A Sunday church service from the Faith Fellowship Church of Micaville, North Carolina. The production quality may be low – I’m guessing $150 camcorder – but I could use a spiritual cleansing after this exercise.
45. Amateur boxing. Amateur like “ring in my backyard” amateur.
46. A commercial for a cell phone ring tone where a kitten says Ciao in a baby girl voice. Whoa.
47. ACM, the Architecture Construction Materials channel. Bummer, no sound. Nothing says Saturday night par-tay like materials science.
48. Al Jazeera International, which is actually quite good. It is clearly well financed and managed. I also get CCTV 9, mainland Chinese news in English.
49. The Pentagon Channel for US troops stationed overseas. There’s a lot of boring Army propaganda, military documentaries, etc. But my absolute favorite show is “The Grill Sargeants” with SPC Brad, his sidekick Ranger Bob, and their smooth jazz band, the Taste Buds. There are a lot of bad cooking-military puns, and Brad likes to point out that the food they are eating is only possible due to American freedom. This week they’re cooking muffalettas and po’ boys.
50. Naked black-haired lady dressed like a cat, dances to Beyonce.
51. Sexy Arab line, Arab Lesbian line, Kurdistan TV, The Eternal Word Network with Sister Mary Catherine… ack!

I can’t take this anymore, not even for you. It goes on and on, 650+ channels of sex lines, infomercials, cable access shows, the Pentagon… it’s exhausting. A man can only take so much.

Note: I can watch Iranian music videos, German news in English, and a woman throw all her clothes onto a chess set, but I still don’t know what’s going on with So You Think You Can Dance. It’s a unfair world. However, do enjoy this clip of Il Simpsons.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Merchants of Venice

I never know how far to go with this blog. Is it ungrateful to say Venice is like the Mall of America, with a church plaza instead of an amusement park? Is it petty to grumble how big Italian families like to congregate obliviously in intersections, making it literally impossible for anyone else to pass? Or that compared to Rome, the churches are crap? OK, that one might send me straight to hell.

It would be simpler to just convey that Venice is not my favorite city. If I was a three-year-old child, I would love stumbling through the alleys, spilling tiny little slurpees onto passersby. Or if I was old, I’d have a grandfatherly appreciation for how lucky I am to be here, and how delightful it is to witness so much family togetherness. Or if I was in a relationship, it would feel impossibly romantic to make out on a canal in front of hundreds of onlookers. But sadly, I am a precociously middle-aged grump, and Venice strikes me as a rather cheesy tourist trap.

It doesn’t help that I came here from Rome, a city that is nothing if not authentic. Yes, there are tourist areas, although only one of them could be called cheesy (the Trevi Fountain). But Rome is a real operating city, and there is a tangible city culture that is entirely separate from tourists. And people need to be places; there are, for example, cars. And Rome’s historical monuments are breathtaking; if you can’t imagine Roman senators walking across the Forum in togas, you just aren’t trying hard enough. The city lives and breathes its history.

Venice treats its history more as an aesthetic that can be exploited for commercial gain. It takes its rather few monuments, like St. Mark’s Square (which I admit, is quite nice), and surrounds them with an inescapable labyrinth of shops and restaurants. A single bus ticket costs $10 each way, $20 if you have a suitcase. My God, even the churches charge you to walk around, or even better, convert themselves into for-profit “museums” dedicated to, say, photocopies of the work of Leonardo da Vinci. It doesn’t take too much effort to realize that the tail is wagging the dog around here. Actually, lots of people bring their dogs along, because Venice isn’t so much a city as a concrete water park for pets and kids.

And must the tourists be so concentrated with one another? At every moment, you are being jostled and touched and bumped. There is almost nobody here who is not a tourist, or works at a place that serves tourists. In Rome at least I could pretend not to be a tourist. I don’t like being a tourist, because I find tourists almost unfailingly irritating, and I don’t want to be lumped in with them by locals. But here, there is no escaping my inferior status.

Fellow travelers don’t have my ridiculous issues with tourism. Indeed, they have realized that they own the place, and they like it. In Rome, you can often see tourists stumbling over their pitiful Italian phrasebook, but here few attempts are made beyond grazie. Tourists do not try to stay out of the way of the locals on the street, because they intuitively feel that the city exists only to serve them. Even their fashion choices have changed, falling from respectable summer wear to horrible printed t-shirts like “PROPERTY OF ALCATRAZ ISLAND, PSYCHO WARD” and my personal favorite, “ONE MAN’S JUNK IS ANOTHER WOMAN’S TREASURE.” Oh yes, this is a man who knows women very well.

I can hear the complaints now. “Are you crazy? Venice is so pretty.” I have to concede that the canals and twisty alleyways are almost unfailingly beautiful. And they are all doing an excellent job of ensuring that tourists part with all the money in their wallets. The Mall of America is pretty too, and they have a roller coaster. And they don’t have the cojones to sell a toddler t-shirt for $45, or Ferrari cologne for $60. (Come to think of it, what else is going to satisfy your need to smell like metal and gasoline?)

But I will not be fooled. It nearly killed me, but I found a real supermarket that serves the tastiest little sandwich, with mushrooms and cream cheese and something called speck, for 1.20. And peach iced tea for 67 cents. There’s a pizza place that serves big slices with prosciutto and mushrooms for 2.50, and Diet Coke for 1.50. Yeah, I can afford to spend more. I expected to, actually, and was looking forward to the risottos of northern Italy promised in my guidebook. But the dinner choices at restaurants are incredibly pedestrian, designed to be simple enough to appeal to even the pickiest tourist. I can’t believe how many Roman leftovers are served here, and quite literally; to my abject horror, one restaurant reheated my spaghetti alla vongole in a microwave oven. Yum!

So I’m not so unhappy to decamp for Florence tomorrow morning. They say it’s wonderful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Did You Know...

Ketchup here is manufactured by McDonald’s. It has big multicolored letters and is clearly marketed only to children, the only Italians gauche enough to want ketchup. Also, there is now a McDonald’s just across the square from the Pantheon. Literally, you look at the Pantheon, turn around, and look at McDonald’s. That might be considered an ethnic slur.

The BBC now warns you if there is flash photography during a story, presumably to prevent epileptic fits.

Batman still isn’t here yet. I thought it was a worldwide premiere, people. Please don’t make me watch The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. Then again, it must be magic for America Ferrara to get into Alexis Bledel’s jeans.

[Editor’s Note: Batman just arrived. At the one theater showing in English: “THERE IS SOME PROBLEM WITH AIR CONDITIONED. IT DOESN’T WORK.”]

Incredible blackberry jam costs only $2, but a tiny jar of peanut butter is a whopping $9. Now if only I could find decent bread. My toaster has you put the bread into metal inserts with plastic butterfly handles, so you don’t burn yourself pulling out the toast. Nice innovation, Italy.

All foreign TV in Italy is dubbed, badly dubbed at that. (An oxymoron, I know.) I don’t get Euro Sport either. I’m really getting worried about feeding my obsessed Olympic fanaticism.

The Italian Senate passed a law that any crimes committed by illegal immigrants will carry an additional one-third penalty. Today Berlusconi is walking around Naples picking up trash from the street and pontificating about the mafia.

Speaking of the mafia, apparently a bigwig was picked up here this week, part of the feud between the two big Mafia families in Naples. The feud was caused – if my translation is correct – by “an egg-throwing incident at a festival in 1991.”

The meteorologists on Italian news are all uniformed military officers.

Another visiting professor had similar problems with Ms. Candy Aquamatic 3. (Thanks Daryl). Now she has postings from other visitors pleading for help. Call your priest.

Swiss and French keyboards have different letter layouts. About 8 of the letters are different, just enough to cause chaos and confusion. Also at the top, the numbers are above the symbols. Italian keyboards are only different for the symbols.

The most popular t-shirt on American tourists here, especially teenagers, has the word Hollister on it. I have no idea what Hollister is. If you know the answer, please post in the comments, it is driving me nuts.

Friday, August 08, 2008

My Too-Short Trip to Switzerland


After nearly a month on my own in Italy, I have a chance to enjoy Swizerland with a friend, Gaele, who I met during my Fulbright program. She is a researcher at the university in Lausanne on Lake Geneva. The first thing I learn is that the name Lake Geneva is simply propaganda by the city; the real name is Lake Leman, which I have never heard in my life. So good work, Geneva.

I take easyJet, because it is very cheap, about 100 euros round-trip. It is basically the Southwest of Europe. You're hauled onto the plane like cattle, but they are pretty nice once you find a seat. They sell you food and duty-free junk during the flight. I chuckle as the carts pass by, knowing that when they try this on American flights, nobody buys anything. Here people go to town. The woman next to me spent more on Armani perfume and some junky necklace than I spent on the flight.


Gaele has a modern apartment in Lausanne that she shares with her partner, Phillippe, and their 6-year-old daughter, who is staying with her grandmother in Brittany. We're also joined by Claire, Gaele's goddaughter from Brittany, and Claire's boyfriend, Olivier. They have just completed their exams for admission to the elite higher education institutions in France, the grande ecoles. To pass the exams, you need to spend two to three years after high school graduation studying just for the tests. Then the undergraduate degree is three more years, which just blows my mind. In six years, I had my undergrad degree, two master's degrees, and was halfway finished with my doctorate. Claire and Olivier turn out to be just about the nicest 20-year-olds you'll ever meet.

Due to the effects of my tenure-addled mind, I bought a ticket that had me staying less than two days in Switzerland, which I immediately regret. Switzerland is incredibly beautiful. The lake appears to be everywhere, surrounded by the French Alps in a sort of blurry haze. The effect is ethereal and mesmerizing. The weather is great for my entire visit with highs in the mid-20s and quite dry.

The first night Phillippe cooks a great dinner with sausage and chicken and perfectly grilled vegetables. Clearly, Phillippe and Gaele have mastered seemingly-effortless hospitality. Breakfast is earl grey tea, cappuccino, freshly baked bread and homemade berry jams, which are amazingly delicious. I picture myself at home, pulling old coffee out of the freezer, babbling to guess as I try to remember how to use the machine. I feel like a redneck as I down half a loaf of jam-slathered bread.

Gaele and I spend most of my only full day walking through town and talking about everything along the way. Then we drive to see more cities along the lake, get lost in the mountains, and take a very steep hike to a lookout point. All very beautiful. In the evening, Gaele and Phillippe treat all of us to a traditional cheese fondue. If you've never had it, the cheese is melted and combined with wine and spices, and you dip potatoes and pieces of bread in the cheese. I was a little apprehensive, because my father had a Swiss partner who cooked it for us as a kid, and I really hated it. But this was delicious, and the view of the lake was amazing from our seats on the terrace. I must have drunk about half a bottle of wine.


I learned a lot about Switzerland during my trip, because I knew almost nothing to begin with. Switzerland is not a member of the EU and has not adopted the euro, which is a pain. But after awhile, you get it Ð Switzerland is such a bourgeois paradise that they are not eager to let some vague notion of European integration ruin the party. Unemployment is virtually nonexistent, everyone seems to be at least middle-class if not better, and the schools are very strong. I find out that their daughter, Orane, has field trips with her class that last a week or longer. When she is older, her class will go on government-paid skiing trips. Because it is August, most of the families have taken off for holiday, although I canÕt imagine why since August seems pretty damn nice to me. But if a family can't afford a holiday, there is a free camp all day in the town so children can enjoy a proper staycation with sports and theater.

This is a great comparison with the U.S. The Swiss pay a lot in taxes, but actually feel good about them, because they get a lot of tangible benefits. The problem in the U.S. is that we pay lower taxes but feel like we get nothing in return, because we pay for a lot of things that are essentially invisible to us. We end up in a vicious cycle, where we try to pay less and less because we keep getting less and less for what we pay. You would like the government if you got free ski trips too.

We spend my last morning in town at the Olympic Museum, the big attraction in Lausanne, which Gaele has managed to skip during her three years in town. Amy, Counselor to the Stars, has gone on and on about how great it is since she visited in the 1990s. Well, either something has changed or Amy was high, because we were bored out of our mind. It does have a nice view. Everything seems to have a nice view in Switzerland.

I have only three days left in Rome, which seems crazy. I had almost convinced myself that I live here now. I leave Monday morning for Venice, then mid-week I go to Florence, and I end the week in Milan in preparation for the workshop in Bellagio. It is going to be a heavy travel week, but I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of Italy.

For now I'll watch the Opening Ceremonies. Couldn't that last singer find something nicer to wear than a t-shirt and backward baseball cap? And why does every Opening Ceremony have to be produced by Cirque d'Soleil?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Roma Notte

When people come back from Italy, bragging about their wonderful vacations, remember this: a good number of them are lying. Every day, I see American tourists dragging their sad butts around Rome in the burning sun, desperately swigging water from overpriced bottles. They look pretty good around 9:30am, but by noon they are frantically flipping through their guidebooks looking for a decent place to eat. By 1:30 they are back out in the ruins, baking in the afternoon sun, stumbling from broken column to broken arch. They are looking, let’s face it: Very, very bored. In late afternoon, they are staring vacantly in the distance on the steps of a church or an obelisk; by 6pm, they are lazily eating dinner, staring vacantly into space while they wonder why they have nothing to talk about. By 7:30 they are scrambling into their hotels, never to be seen again. They do not look too happy to me.

The thing is, Rome during the day is not just broilingly hot, it is also horrifically educational. Not that I’m against education, mind you. Some people think I actually teach it, and I have done my time. If Claudius sneezed somewhere, I have touched the brick his snot sprayed upon, and gazed at the wall his slaves built to memorialize the imperial cold. I have seen every gorgeous church mosaic, philosopher statue and twisty medieval walkway this city has to offer. But let’s face it, Americans aren’t so big on history, and everything here is Pope Pius this and the Vice-Consul’s Third Burial Assistant that. Even for a history/archeology buff like myself, it gets to be a bit much. And it’s not like afterwards you can just go bowling or watch TV or something. They don’t have bowling, and almost everything entertaining is in Italian.

The key is to see Rome at night. Rome at night is gorgeous, full of pleasant breezes and well-lighted piazzas. Europeans have figured this out, the city is overflowing with them walking around with their backpacks and strollers until the wee hours of the morning. And the Italians themselves love coming out in the evening, with their nightly paseggiatas at the pace of a newly-walking toddler. During the day, Roman neighborhoods are for the heat-loving old people, who are always getting in the way on narrow sidewalks. It’s all “Out of my way, Sophia Petrillo!” But Rome at night is full of people in their 20s and 30s, who spent the entire morning asleep and the afternoon watching their mother wash their clothes and cook them dinner.

At night, the Pantheon is perfectly lit, spectacular, almost otherworldly. The Colosseum positively glows, the arches creating amazing juxtapositions of light and shadow against the walls. Santa Maria Maggiore, otherwise kind of a dull-looking, Renaissance city-government building during the day, lights one of the inside frescoes at night. Even the VE II monument in Piazza Venezia, hideous and overbearing and fake during the day, is quite lovely at night, V-Eman lit up in royal blue, looking far less fascist and artificial. And by the way, all the churches are open until 7pm, and the ruins and museums until sunset.

During the day, Campo d’ Fiori has a pretty market, it’s true. But at night, it is absolutely packed with young people, partying and drinking and having fun. Piazza del Popolo has a night market, and the Villa Celimontana plays jazz music every evening. Right now, along the Tiber, you can join about 25,000 of your closest friends packed cheek to jowl in one long open-air bar and flea market. The Castel sant’Angelo has some sort of games festival going on this week, with old people playing chess and free ping-pong tables. Rome has amazing, vibrant public spaces that people actually use. It is one of the best things about European cities.

Guidebooks have all these warnings about walking around Rome at night, with their gypsy boy gangs and their tentacles of fury probing every orifice for cash faster than hummingbird wings. I have to say, Rome is one of the safest cities I have seen. Even the bums don't bother to ask you for money, although the lady bums can be surprisingly feisty and spry.

I am always amazed at the random things I find walking around at night. Tourists tend to congregate around the Spanish Steps – hey tourists, it’s just a bunch of stairs – but if you walk up and hang a left for a quarter mile, you can get a gorgeous panoramic view of the entire city. (It is even a bit better if you walk up the old staircase on the right side of the street.) If you walk a bit farther, you are overlooking the Piazza del Popolo; last night they had an astronomy festival where you could look at the stars through telescopes. Near Largo Argentina, a teenage marching band was bopping along outside an English pub. The Pantheon had a mime doing vaudeville for a huge crowd. On my way home, I walked through the Circo Massimo, a long dirt oval where they used to run chariot races. People sit there in the middle at night, surrounded by colored votive candles. I find myself going out for an hour or two, and getting back home six hours later.

So sleep in, American tourists. The best stuff’s after dark.