How to Cross the Street in Rome
How To: Walking across a busy street in Italy's capital is no easy feat. It's an art, and as David Farley explains, you need some serious sprezzatura.
03.06.08 | 12:57 PM ET
The situation: There’s a specter haunting the Eternal City. Italian prime minister Romano Prodi called it “diabolical” and the Vatican said it was “collective madness.” German families stand curbside, clutching one another’s hands like they’re about to take a collective plunge off a precipice; lumpy American tourists, frowning as they clench their Rick Steves guidebooks to their chests, keep their new white tennis shoes firmly planted on terra firma. Hop off the train at Termini station and wander into Rome’s historical center and you’ll know why so many tourists are stuck on the side of the street: traffic. More specifically, an endless, erratic stream of clunky Fiats, buzzing Vespas, and sleek Smart Cars, their drivers honking and swerving and gesturing and carrying on miles-long arguments with one another (or are they discussing last night’s Rome vs. Lazio game?).
The American assumption that pedestrians have the right of way and drivers will kindly stop when they see someone waiting at the crosswalk doesn’t apply here. There are 2.4 million cars to 2.5 million people in Rome, giving this beast of a city the highest per capita percentage of car ownership of any European capital. Until recently, the only requirement to driving a scooter was being 15 years old. No license needed. So, save for standing on the curb all day waiting for a break in the action—or for a miracle in the form of an always-traffic-stopping nun to materialize—the only thing to do is put your best foot forward. But there’s a technique to doing it.
Basic street crossing: It’s not like it is in others cities: New Yorkers wander off the curb with impunity, unconcerned about crosswalks or disgruntled cab drivers; Berliners wait until the little green crosswalk man tells them it’s okay to cross; and in Prague, where the speeding drivers don’t stop for anything save for a short skirt, stepping out in the street is about as smart as drinking the local absinthe.
For all its counterintuitive sense, crossing the street like a Roman can be summed up in one sentence: Step off the curb with a confident stride and the traffic will stop. But for the amateur street crosser, wait for a native to cross and then follow. Watch as they step off the curb with what appears to be reckless but suave abandon and, like Moses parting the Red Sea, the traffic magically stops. The best place to practice is the narrow, two-laned Via del Corso, which stretches through the historical center from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo.
Advanced street crossing: After following a local across the street several times, try going for it alone. In order to do it like a Roman (or to cross more “challenging” intersections), you’ve got to have one thing: sprezzatura. This hard-to-translate word pervades the Italian being. It’s the ability to make something hard look easy (who else but the Italians can make drinking coffee out of a tiny cup look cool?). In the case of crossing the street, it’s maintaining a cool composure as a swarm of scooters fly toward you. It’s your slow pace across the road as an army of automobiles come barreling forth at full speed. So, drape your jacket over your shoulders and step off the curb. Once you’ve successfully crossed the Via del Corso a few times, graduate up to the perpetually traffic-snarled Piazza Venezia. If you can get across this miasma of fast-moving metal amid the cacophony of loud honks, you can get anywhere in Rome. And if this doesn’t work, you can always pray for a nun.
What not to do: Crossing Frogger-style or darting like an antelope from one curb to the other doesn’t go down well in Rome. The first time I was in the city, faced with a never-ending stream of fast-moving traffic, I made a habit of sprinting across busy streets whenever there was a brief window of open pavement. Don’t do this. Besides confusing drivers, who time their trajectory to your stroll, running across the road is about as uncool and sprezzatura-rejecting as ordering “expresso” instead of espresso or wearing beaming white tennis shoes you bought just for your vacation. Romans don’t run. You shouldn’t either.