First time in Rome – 6 things you might not expect

Last week we had a group of 25 young students arrive in Rome from Briarcliff University.  They had booked 7 apartments all around the city and I had arranged to meet them on their day of arrival to help coordinate the drop-offs and get them all where they needed to go.

photo by Jessica Stewart

Some of these kids were clearly shell-shocked.  Tired and jetlagged too, of course, but apparently, for many of them, this was the first time they had ever been abroad.  I could see it on their faces too – sometimes they would chuckle about something and sometimes they would just get very quiet and say nothing.  I could tell that there was a lot of new stuff they were processing and it reminded me that I too once saw “old Europe” the same way.  I come from a small town — first in Connecticut and then Colorado, and wasn’t particularly city-smart or worldly.  Looking into the faces of these kids, all around 20 years old, I remember that so much of what I consider typical and normal now, is very foreign, and sometimes off-putting, to others.

For those of you who are planning your first trip to Rome – or to Europe in general – here are 6 things that jumped out at me that are just plain different from what you might be used to and that you probably won’t read about in the guide books:

1.  Elevators.  They are small, old, and often rickety.  Most buildings in Rome were built before elevators, so they were added in later, with significant space limitations.  Some are more modern and some are even automatic (or semi), but most have inside doors and an outside gate that must be closed manually or the elevator will be stuck on whatever floor it’s on where the doors are left open.  The first apartment we went to had about 5 girls, each with normal-sized suitcases, looking at the elevator and wondering if it was a joke.  Of course, it’s important to take turns and not try and shove too many people or heavy bags into one of these.  Visitors have been known to get stuck in elevators from doing this and a visit from the fire department is not exactly in most people’s travel plans.

typical elevator in Rome

2.  Keys.  One would think that keys are pretty much a universal tool — but this simply isn’t true.  Not only do the styles and lengths vary greatly, but also which way you turn them, whether you have to push in while turning, etc.  Also, in some cases, if you have a key on one side of the door, you can’t put one in on the other – and if you close the door, forgetting that the second set is in the inside lock, you’ll never get the door open again.  I strongly recommend that when renting an apartment (through us or otherwise), ask the owners to go over the keys with you thoroughly, and try yourself in their presence.  For an owner, it might never register to them that their keys are any different than yours back home.  A little bit of extra attention could save you from being locked out, or locked in, or faced with a bill for a locksmith who had to come on an emergency call (yes, it happens).

3.  Old / dirty buildings.  In many towns in the US that don’t have historic buildings, if a building is old and dirty with paint falling off the walls in the entrance, it’s usually a bad, rundown neighborhood, right?  In Rome, this is not the case.  It’s totally normal to have an ultra-luxurious, expensive apartment in a building that is totally falling to pieces.  The reason is because in Italy, most people own their apartments in a building which is run by a completely useless assembly of the owners who can never agree on the maintenance (nor how to pay for that maintenance) of their building.  In many very old buildings (a few hundred years old, for example), no formal assembly exists.  The result is that you can be in Trastevere, a very sought-after neighborhood, and see a graffiti-covered building that enters into a dark, smelly stairway that you have to pass in order to get to an apartment that is worth 2 million euro with stunning views from a private terrace.  This is normal – you just have to learn not to judge the content by the cover.

Photo by Jessica Stewart

4.  Gas stoves.  I guess electric is the norm elsewhere, because when I was showing how to light the various stoves, the kids in this group exchanged worried glances and looked like I had just showed them how to use the cauldron in a fireplace.

5.  Poo.  Look down when you walk.  Yes, it is not acceptable, but most Romans don’t pick up their dog poo.  Many Parisians don’t either.  You have to always keep one eye down or you’re going to get “lucky” and stick your foot in some nasty poop and track it back with you later.

6.  Toilets / bidets.  Speaking of nr. 2, a friend told us recently that when she first came to Italy at 15, she couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilets so she only used public bathrooms for days because she was afraid to leave a big you-know-what in the toilet and was too embarrassed to ask for help from her host family.  I know it’s silly, but it can take some getting used to.  Toilets come in different varieties:  those that flush by pushing up a little button under the water tank; those that flush by pushing a button (or an entire panel) on the wall; those that flush on the side; some with a chain you pull, etc.

As for the “second toilet” in there (the bidet!) – it’s not exactly a spare.  To be blunt, that’s for washing your backside (works good for dirty feet too).  You can sit forward on it too to wash other areas down yonder.   After you’ve finished your business, you may be accosted with sinks that come with electric sensors, buttons that are pushed on the faucet handle or a foot pump on the floor.  A bit of patience and a sense of humor and you’ll have the makings of a unique coffee table book about all the different types of plumbing you’ll encounter here in Italy.

by Steven Brenner

6 thoughts on “First time in Rome – 6 things you might not expect

  1. I love it!

    It is so true that you’re sometimes thrown off by differences of a new place and as seasoned travelers, we “forget” the initial shock of it to “newbies”.

    Its all part of the fun!

  2. All good well written points, which are true most places in Europe.

    North Americans need to accept the fact that in Rome, or Venice or Paris – they are the foreigners. Expect it to be different. As the old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

  3. when I first came to the US in 1983 I thought that US was very different..many thinga are different from Europe and not always for the best..be used to a different WORLD. Out of the US there is A WORLD

  4. The towels and tiny, tiny showers were just something I could never get used to. Showers so small and narrow that it was impossible to wash hair without banging my elbows on the walls. Towels are not usually Terry cloth or fluffy like in the US…more like a flat old fashioned sack cloth like your grandmother used for dishes. Nearly non-absorbent. I guess when bathing is so challenging I can understand why Europeans have a reputation of not bathing regularly. I don’t know if that’s actually true, though.

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