“Parla Inglese?”

St Peter's Square, Rome
St Peter's Square, Rome

Italian customer service is legendary. Everyone who’s experienced this wondrous, infuriating and frankly astounding phenomenon has their own story. Well, here’s mine.

We were in the bustling Termini station in Rome, the great city’s main rail hub, on a busy Saturday afternoon. We wanted to ask about tickets to Florence for a possible trip the following day, and whether there were any special deals. Noticing the ‘Customer Service’ desk adjacent to the crammed ticket office, we join a small queue. A simple quest in most other countries, but not here.

Within 15 minutes we’ve moved four inches, and behind us stand at least 20 impatient travellers. Every so often someone tries to sweet-talk their way to the front, before a gruff Roman in front of us sends them packing to the back of the line. At one point an elderly priest is even given his marching orders in no uncertain terms. Remarkably, one young Scandinavian woman succeeds where others have failed. But her sincerity is written across her face as she begs each queuer in turn to let her through – her train is leaving in five minutes and she’s genuinely frantic.

After parting us like the Red Sea, the woman reaches the threshold of the counter. But there are two customers occupying the attention of both advisers, and judging by their litany of questions it seems like they’re trying to get to Milan via Moscow. Finally, the girl gets her chance and bounds forward. The stony faced middle-aged madam (there are two of them and they’re practically inseparable in my memory) looks her up and down, impervious to her panic, and sends her, distraught, in the direction of the ticket office with a wave of the hand that is contempt expressed in a single flourish.

Now it’s our turn. Or is it? Our adviser, oblivious to the baying mob that is now around 50-strong, walks away from the counter, shuffles some paper absent-mindedly by the printer, exchanges some words with her colleague, then, her nose aimed firmly at the ceiling, returns to her seat and deigns to call us forward.

I offer my usual “parla inglese?”

“Nil,” she replies, curtly.

Undeterred, we manage to express our question about prices. She interrupts us mid-flow with the set price, which apparently never changes, no matter the time or train. Having made it clear that she is in no mood to offer any more “customer service”, she looks straight over our shoulders and calls the next person, and we have no choice but to trudge away, knowing nothing more than we did half an hour ago, apart from the fact that there’s some truth in the Italian stereotype.

But that’s just one story. There was also the bartender who spoke fluent English and suggested I try his recommended beer, the old pizzeria owner who spent the whole evening loudly greeting each and every diner, and the courteous woman who rented out her apartment to us and was a pleasant, if rarely seen, host.

Actually, I don’t want to complain too much about the way Italians treat tourists, because it’s part of who they are. On the flip side of the coin, what would Rome be like if you couldn’t sit at a café and watch the couples exploding in rage one minute and embracing the next, the old men who know everyone in the neighbourhood, or the manicured women strutting imperiously along on their four-inch heels? They’re hard-wired for confrontation, for the kind of heightened fits of passion that would entail either  fistfights or official complaints were they to take place in Britain.

Ah yes, but there’s still the 2,500 years of history lurking in the crumbling remnants of the Empire, the Renaissance glories of the Sistine Chapel, the ornate sculpted fountains of Bernini, the winding, trattoria-filled streets of Trastevere or the bustling markets that crowd the piazzas.

It can be frustrating when you need to do something or go somewhere that involves seeking the aid of the locals, but that’s Rome. It was born on an arrogant belief in its own superiority, and it’s not going to change that for all the camera-clutching tourists in the world.

A few tips if you’re going…

  • While I wasn’t as impressed with the pizzas as I thought I’d be, Pizzeria da Gildo in Trastevere gets my nod for its generously topped capricciosa.
  • If you have a day spare, take a trip to Ossia Antica, a virtually complete Roman port town, and the seaside resort of Lido. While the beach isn’t the best, you can take in both these destinations with your Metro ticket.
  • The Vatican Museums, which house the Sistine Chapel, are a must-see, but I’m not alone in that view. So you need to get there before it opens at 8.45am if you don’t want to spend half your day in a queue.
  • Fed up with the overpriced drinks? Stop by Il Baccanale in Trastevere. It’s a cosy place with good quality beer at near UK prices, cheap cocktails, and friendly staff.
  • At the Colosseum it’s worth paying the five euros extra to skip the queue and get the guided tour. I learned that ‘arena’ means sand in Latin. You can’t put a price on nuggets like that. And remember, the ticket also gets you into the Forum and Palatine Hill.

There are more photos from my holiday on my Flickr page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s