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Appreciating Trastevere: Shut Up And Watch

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February 1, 2010 Cultural Musings, Culture & People No Comments

This is a response to the previous post (“False Promises of a Romanticised Trastevere?“). As the article says, Trastevere is full of foreigners (and that includes Romans and Italians who just aren’t locals). And they are there to get a feel for the local delights.

But you need to look deeper. In most places around the world you look deeper and just find nothing or worse. The falseness or absurdity of it all. But not in Trastevere.


l trastevere bologna night ro Appreciating Trastevere: Shut Up And Watch

Vicolo del Bologna at night


The delights are subtle. Full of tourists, it is reminiscent of Brick Lane and surrounding streets in London. At times, full of English people and foreigners trying to get a taste of authenticity (let us not go down the track of not authentic England, but Authentic Bangladesh). But amongst all the bustle there is a second level of life going on regardless of the day trippers. That second level is the living soul of Trastevere.

Are the locals leaving in droves? This is a good test. Many of the people or families who have been in the area so long also complain about how it has changed and they want to get away from the noise, the bustle, the dirt, and the volumes of people. But
hardly anyone does leave. And those that do seem to scamper back in a short time complaining of the boredom and soulnessness of the place they escaped to. All the things that people complain about are the reasons why it is so attractive. Trastevere is a living suburb.

Many cities and suburbs are designed by planners. Planners, I believe, are soulless, dour, engineers who can make great models. Nobody ever built a model of a city or suburb or housing estate and filled it with old cars, sprinkled dust everywhere, add noisy motorinos and rubbish on the streets. There are no models that show old people leaning out their windows hanging washing on the line and arguing loudly with the neighbour out her window about the rubbish she just put on the street. The day I walk into the town hall of a city and see a model of a new suburb with tiny dog poo and beggars in the street, I will know the planner is human and understands a little about humanity.


p lady door trastevere rome Appreciating Trastevere: Shut Up And Watch

Lady quietly watching in Trastevere


Trastevere (and similar but rare areas in other cities) is like the human brain – you can marvel at what it is and you can understand parts of it and its reactions, but you cannot “know” it. You never quite feel as though you do, even if you know parts of it very well.

No planner could ever design a place like Trastevere. It is evolution at its finest. (Evolution didn’t just result in the Golden Eagle or the Orca, it also spewed out the Dodo and the cockroach.)

But this is what Trastevere still is amongst the rubber necking of visitors. It is a bit like the street vendors and beggars in big cities in a big square or street. All the wealth and decency goes on around them with which they are not connected. But stop and watch the complex, intense and sometimes wonderful communication that goes on between these people at all
times. Monitoring who is doing what, indicating when one is pushing into another’s area, gesturing in some quite secret or at least un-recognised way to another about ethics and morals of what they are doing.

It takes me again back to Brick Lane. Sitting and watching all day as deliveries happen, repairs are done, restaurants are prepared and all unseen by the tourist. Then, the tourists pile in and there are a myriad of unwritten rules and agreements between the restaurants as to what each will serve, at what prices, how much to “entice” clients from the street etc. All
with the tourist believing they are all competing with each other in a very civil way, but in reality, they have an unwritten code that swings between unrelenting competition, and intense comradery.

So, to really appreciate Trastevere, look not at the glittery garbage for sale, or the restaurant menus and don’t “chat” to the waiters… Just sit quietly and watch.

What is your experience? Let us know – in the comments.

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