Along with seeing the sights, one of the lovely things about Rome was meeting new people. I stayed in the Casa Internazionale delle Donne, which is a women’s hostel. Being women, of course we got to chatting, and I found myself going out for dinner in the evenings with Jan, an American, and Kaisa, a Finn. Jan’s history with Italy went back an awfully long way. She had first come to the country nearly 40 years previously, when she was a student on an exchange scheme. At the time, she had vowed to come back, but hadn’t actually managed to make good her promise for another 36 years. Having visited last summer on holiday, she was now in Rome for 5 months on a language course, and determined to get her Italian up to fluency level. Kaisa, on the other hand, was a regular visitor to Rome in the winter months, escaping from the Finnish winters. Quiet at first, she became more forthcoming with a couple of glasses of wine, and turned out to be a demon for amaro. We therefore bonded over our Northern European love of alcohol, which so upsets the Italians. I don’t really understand why a country which makes wine in such quantities doesn’t want to drink it but, as they say down here, boh …
On the first night, we wandered out into the streets of Trastevere, in search of somewhere good to eat. What we had failed to take into account was the fact that it was a bank holiday weekend, and therefore Rome was absolutely packed with people making the most of their time off. We tried a few restaurants, being turned away from a couple and dismissing a few others for being too expensive or only having space outside. Italian winters may be mild, but sitting outside in December in a miniskirt is still not the ideal. Finally, however, we rounded a corner and saw Zi’mberto’s. It looked cheap and cheerful, but there were spaces at the tables, so we decided to give it a go. The owner, at the point we arrived, was sitting outside playing cards, and waved us in enthusiastically, placing us next to a heater and singing the praises of his fried zucchini flowers. So far so good. We perused the menu happily, pooling our various knowledge to work out what was in each dish. We’d all decided on different starters, but when the owner arrived to take our order, he described his fiori in such glowing terms that we changed our minds and went for those instead. Last minute decisions are the things that good meals are made of. We also ordered a large carafe of wine, and settled in happily to get to know a bit more about each other.
When the fiori arrived they were, indeed good. The batter was light as a feather, and the flowers were large enough to have a good filling of anchovies and cheese, perfect for a greedy being such as myself. Annoyingly, our wine still hadn’t arrived, so we hailed the owner and gently reminded him of our order. He threw his hands up in the air and stomped off inside. I assumed that the annoyance was aimed at the waitress for failing to bring the wine, and carried on chatting to Kaisa and Jan. The conversation by this point had turned to languages and the way in which we learn them, which was fascinating stuff. Is it easier to learn languages as a child or as an adult? My TEFL training had taught me that, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not any easier for a child to learn – it’s just that they are given the ideal environment in which to do so. Jan wasn’t so sure, and we debated happily back and forth as the meal went on.
Our pasta dishes arrived, and the conversation carried on flowing. By this time we had moved onto accents, and, after delighting Jan with my Texan and Brummie accents, I revealed that I used to be an actor. In full flow, I barely noticed that we had all finished eating until the waiter arrived, asking if we wanted anything else. I was full, and said as much, as were Kaisa and Jan, so we refused anything more, but there was still half a carafe of wine to be drunk, and much more conversation to be had, so we settled down to do those things. As we talked, the bill was placed on the table in front of us. This is unheard of in Italy – usually the bill doesn’t arrive until you request it. We didn’t take all that much notice, and carried on chatting. Suddenly, the owner appeared at the table, slapped the flat of his hand onto the bill and shouted ‘fatto!’ at us. Apparently we were no longer welcome. Jan attempted to protest, saying that we were still drinking, but the owner was having none of it. I don’t think I’ve ever been treated quite so rudely – and I’ve eaten in Chinatown. Jan and Kaisa didn’t go easily, though, asking first for the receipt (which they are obliged, by law, to give in Italy, but which they had neglected to produce), and then the exact change we were due. It made for a rather sour end to the evening, but I suppose it’s all grist for the mill in terms of travel stories.
Image by Kate Bailward