On my way to work

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!.




Author: andrea-cerase

Andrea Cerase is an EMBL-fellow, he is currently an associate editor for Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences and The Journal of Translational Genetics and Genomics (OAE). He is actively involved in Science divulgation and meeting organization since his time at the University of Oxford. He works as a referee for several journals and as ad hoc guest editor (Elsevier). Andrea regularly writes for the EMBL-Etc magazine.

7 thoughts on “On my way to work”

  1. Well said Andrea. Bravo. I too have witnessed all of this. I feel like saying, #metoo but I think that hashtag has been taking for more important purposes.

  2. you described our every day torture Andrea… we can’t afford the autostrada every day- imagine getting stuck behind some truck going 30km/h on via salaria. The number of men-hours wasted in the traffic- I’m pretty sure you can double Rome’s GDP if you solve this problem…

    1. LOL..On my way home, I often drive via Salaria. Following a heavy truck or an old lady driving at 30km/hr on via Salaria is one of my worse nightmare..not mentioning the usual accident that happens on the one-lane portion of Salaria and the never-ending queues…

  3. Everybody who leaves in Rome have a love-hate relationship with this city.
    Hate, when they remain stuck in the traffic with other hundreds of cars, love, for example, when on a sunny Sunday they can enjoy the invaluable beauty of their city, the history, the colorful markets and the restaurants and bars disseminated in every district.
    On average, 50 thousand people choose to move to Rome every year, even though they are aware of all the troubles regarding the traffic and the transports they will face . No one try to hide these problems, actually romans usually stress them to much (Italians are known to complain a lot).
    Maybe I’m lucky, but I commute by car every day from the west of Rome, 40 km in on average 40 min (without taking the highway). It’s not that bad! 🙂

  4. I was born in Rome, but grew up on the south-eastern hills (Castelli Romani), studied in a much smaller medieval town (Bologna), lived in London without car for a few years… so when I came back to Rome making the same choice as Andrea and went to live in the centre of Rome I had a similar shock, although at the time, some 15-10 years ago, it wasn’t as bad as it seems to be nowadays. And I still don’t favour driving in Rome when I come back to visit my parents. Still, living in Germany did teach me that often things look so beautiful from a distance, but as you get closer and closer all the details show up and they are not so beautiful any more… Looks like an immunofluorescence staining, doesn’t it? 😉
    German drivers are normally valued as the best in the world, so respectful, so ordered, so by-the-book… that they manage to create 10 km of line on a three-lane highway because a car is changing a tire on the emergency lane… or block the circulation in a town because a light is out of order (and Bonn is a relatively small town!)… or leave you without parking because they need the space of two cars to avoid any risk of even touching the other parked cars…
    But no other city in the world is an open air museum as Rome, able to thrust you through 2500 years of history in the space of a few kilometres. I guess everything in life has a trade-off… when you are given the chance, take it or leave it, depending on your priorities…

  5. Rome is a fantastic city..no doubts about that..but my post is only about traffic and streets.
    I am sorry if some locals felt offended by my post, that was not my intention.

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