A few years ago, my wife and I decided to relocate to Italy after a long period of time spent in the UK. After two months of job hunting, an opportunity for working at the EMBL-Monterotondo, now EMBL-Rome, presented itself. After my interview, I was offered a position in the group of prof. Avner, a world leader in the field of X inactivation, the very same subject I have been working on for all my time in the UK. The science prospect was very good, the location good, the weather and the food fantastic. At least as far as I remembered, after almost 10 years in the UK. I decided to accept this job offer and move with my wife to Italy.
The next decision to take was: Are we going to live in Rome or in the countryside nearby Monterotondo? As my wife did not speak any Italian at that time and had some time off, Rome looked a better choice. In her free time she can attend Italian classes and explore Rome, visiting museums and historical buildings. Rome then – decided! But where about in Rome? As Monterotondo lies about 20 Km North-East of Rome, we decided that a Northern Rome location, just inside the ring road (the infamous GRA), at walking distance from the metro and the train to Monterotondo, was the best choice for us.
I started to work at the EMBL in January 2014 and to commute to work by public transport. Train service was not great but OK and very cheap. In summer, unfortunately, the trains become very unreliable, I had often to wait for hours (yes, we had the hottest summer ever in Italy that year!). Very frustrated, I decided to buy a car. And from this point on, my daily struggle in the Roman traffic started.
When I started to commute by car, by the end of July-beginning of August, my first impression was: traffic problems in Rome are over-rated! This is not too bad at all! Unfortunately, I had soon to discover myself that IT IS THAT BAD!
The usual traffic on the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA), the ringroad that goes all around Rome (image from Google).
It was shocking at first, then I slowly started to get used to it and assuming the same despicable driving style as the Romans: it was a bit like me against the whole world. You are like a modern gladiator in the traffic of the so-called “Citta’ Eterna”, the Eternal City. There are rules, but not many respect them. If you are stuck at cross road that it is not regulated by traffic lights, at certain point you have to make a life decision: wait there forever, or throw yourself in the street hoping that the approaching cars will stop. However, no one ever stops, unless you force them to stop… so you quickly switch to the same strategy of the much-hated Taxi drivers: slow down just enough to slowly-but-surely invade the right space. I really hate them when they do this manoeuvre in front of me! But it does work, and my aggressive driving went from mild to bad and finally worse very quickly. Soon enough, I learnt how to jump queues and position myself in front of other complaining cars. As the Latins said: “Mors tua, vita mea” that translated literally means “Your death is my life”. Quickly I learnt all the shortcuts to cut through traffic when it is at its worse (e.g. in peak times). On my way to work, I regularly cut through some private property alleys, the backyard of a church and do whatever (almost) it takes me faster to work. Including the despicable Taxi’s manoeuvre.
Driving the streets of Rome all year around you realize that the traffic is usually unpredictable except one specific circumstance: if it rains, expect very heavy traffic. As my wife used to tell me: “Italians must be made of sugar, they are worried to melt away if they are hit by a dew drops of rain”. I must agree. When it rains and you have to drive, unless you are a Tibetan monk or had very strong Buddhist training, you are going to swear – a lot.
Another big problem of the Roman traffic is schools. Italians are known to be mummy-boys and mummy-girls. And this is true at all ages: Italian parents take their precious kids to school by car almost until they are teenagers!!!!… and thus clog the streets when a 15-20 minutes walk would be much better for the health of the poor little “babies”.
But your worse enemy in the Rome traffic are the scooters. They will pass you in every possible way, from every possible direction, from every possible angle – no matter what. Roman two-wheels traffic is nearly as bad as Bangkok’s.
Traffic in Romegkok (image from ROMA Today).
Romans joke that if you drive on a straight line you must be drunk. And that is true! Streets in Rome are devastated, full of potholes and any sort of debris – with only the expensive highways being a noticeable exception. A German colleague was used to say that streets in Rome are water-soluble: the poor construction standards and the nature of its soil mean that new potholes appear every time it pours down dogs and cats on the “eternal” streets. Promptly patched up, never smoothed down and ready to reopen at the next rain.
For me it is important to go to work early. As the Latins said, “Aurora habet aurum in ore”. Which, trying to translate it, quite-literally means that the “Morning had gold in its mouth”. To speed up my journey in the morning I started to take the toll street (Autostrada) every day, costing me 90 cents per one-way journey. This saves me about 15 min everyday in the morning. Then I bought the Telepass, a system that electronically collects the toll charges and you don’t have to stop at the collection point. Now on average, I save 17-18 min of my life a day, everyday. It sounds not too much and perhaps not worth it. But in a week, it adds up to about 90 extra minute of work. I really value time in the early morning in the lab when no one is around and I can focus on reading, thinking and writing.
But it is not all bad: my daily car commute gave me the chance to listen to the music. A lot of music. I don’t particularly like Italian radio as the DJs speak way too much for me. So I started to buy or burn a lot of CDs. From 90′ Dance music to Nirvana, Guns n’ Roses, U2, Battisti, The Beatles, Queen, Ligabue, Ramazzotti, R.E.M., OneRepublic, James Blunt, Green Day, etc. Mostly the music that I used to listen as a teenager, and surely the best music ever! This is my little consolation in the Roman traffic ordeal: driving with my favourite singers!.