Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rome 2nd Dirtiest City: Laments, and a Solution

We were disappointed--one might say devastated if it didn't seem hyperbolic--to learn that Rome had been named the second dirtiest big city in the world, after Athens. How to deal with this terrible news, this reminder, however deserved, of our failure as a city, as a people?

How could this have happened? We thought we had done everything possible: our big public trash bins--the "casonette"--are too few and too seldom emptied, guaranteeing that each will be surrounded by, and buried in, mounds of garbage most of the time. The skeletal remains of scooters, their bodies still chained to sign posts or trees, line the curbs. Because most cars once parked never have to move, a layer of unreachable debris accumulates underneath.

Rome's citizens have been doing their part, too. Last year the voters elected a right-wing mayor, whom they trusted to be appropriately disengaged from such mundane matters as "sporcizia" (filthiness), and they haven't been disappointed at his non-efforts. They have also cultivated and defended the right--it is close to a duty here--to throw all manner of stuff--cigarette butts, gum, candy wrappers, advertising circulars, plastic bags (a local favorite), unpaid bills, love notes, bits of food--on the ground, where they belong. The city's dogs have been trained to avoid public parks and use the neighborhood sidewalks, knowing that their owners will leave their doings where they fall. Bravi!

Our public authorities and workers are also to be congratulated, especially for ignoring mounds of trash on Metro stairs and along rail lines at stations, where litter contributes notes of sparkle and color to an otherwise drab view from the platform.

We're aware that in other countries, and other cities, volunteers (we're not aware of any Italian equivalent of this word) will now and then organize to clean up a neighborhood, a street, or a stream bed; or merchants or condominum owners will take action to insure that the sidewalks where they work and live are washed and swept. Fortunately, no such bizarre ideas have taken root in the Roman mind. Borrowing from the thoughtful, socially advanced, residents of the state of New Hampshire, we can only add, "Live Free or Die!"

Yes, despite our best efforts, we've failed. To be sure, Rome has easily defeated such priggish cities as London and Genoa, where they use machines to sweep the streets and--you won't believe this--lawnmowers in the parks. Beneath contempt. And we have overcome the odds to finish ahead of Palermo and Naples, where the garbage is never picked up, as well as New Delhi, Mexico City, and Chernobyl. But second to Athens? Humiliating!

Cosa c'e' da fare? What's to be done? How can we get over the hump, or "over the dump" (ha, ha). It's a tough order, because Athens is no slouch at filth, and we can imagine our Greek counterparts hard at work hatching new ways to make their city dirtier.

Still, we have one suggestion that can't help but intrigue our readers, and that may just do the trick: bring back public urination. The great advantage, need we say, would be to add a new level of odor to the city--a pungent reminder, for the history buffs, of Rome's medieval period. Yes, this solution might result in the elimination of restrooms, public and private, and with them, no doubt, would go some of the "points" the city earned in the recent competition for "most disgusting and nauseating toilets"--a strong point in our application. But the city's 20 million tourists would be grateful that they could now pee anywhere; they'd be sure to come back, again and again, just to experience the return of this delightful custom.


Mick P said...

While I have to agree with most of your points, there's no need to use hyperbole, the plain facts being quite enough. I'm thinking, in particular, of "merchants or condominum owners will [not] take action to insure that the sidewalks where they work and live are washed and swept".

I often see shop owners sweeping the area of pavement outside their shop, and equally, it's not uncommon to see the cleaning staff in condominiums sweeping the pavement outside the main entrance, but that is - to borrow from one of your later points - pissing in the wind. (And in my experience, public urination is already not uncommon and I often feel overwhelmed by the smell of stale urine, especially in the summer months when there's little rain to wash it away, and even in very central areas such as Largo Torre d'Argentina.)

The general lack of communal spirit on behalf of Rome's citizens, and the lack of pride in their work on behalf of many of Rome's public servants, or the private companies charged with public work, is what makes this place far tattier than it ought to be. I still find it hard to understand how the area to the front of the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura can so continually look disgracefully bad. Litter everywhere, poorly maintained green spaces, rotten and broken benches. What a marvellous message that sends out to all the tourists who visit that place. I could go on...

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Hi Mick... I pretty much agree with everything you say. My piece was a polemic - that is, an argument - and as such doesn't require the same level of precision. For example, you're right that some condominium owners hire people to clean up the front of their properties; but, it's the "exception that proves the rule." Thanks so much for your comment. Keep writing! Bill