A Taste of Rome - Do As The Romans Do
© Copyright 2023 by Li Ruan
Photo by Davey Gravy on Unsplash
There was no script, no plan – just an unfolding drama on a beautiful blooming day beneath a crystal blue sky dotted with pearl-white clouds.
Accompanied by my two American travel companions, I walked out of our quaint hotel tucked away in a semi-residential district, just a leisurely saunter away from the Colosseum. Three Italian acquaintances who had recently become locals after relocating to the capital, joined our group. They graciously led us to a highly acclaimed restaurant for a middy repast. My ravenous stomach, guided by its own impulses, reached our designation well ahead of the rest of our party.
Opting for alfresco dining felt like a harmonious marriage of the pleasant weather and our hearty appetites. As the first customers through the door, we naturally secured the prime seating – two adjacent tables in a relaxing corner surrounded with fresh flowers and greenery. While waiting for our orders, our Italian friends regaled us with colorful stories of culture, life, and work in the great metropolis, all filling the air with more talks and amusement. Their tales fueled our anticipation for an extraordinary meal.
Boisterous laughter and lively chatter drew our attention to a quartet of Italians who were dancing their hands in the air. Their smart suits and sleek shoes exuded Roman flair. Much like us, they possessed a knack for outdoor seating, positioning themselves diagonally across from our tables. Their expressive, operatic voices traveled to our ears at ease. The restaurant manager and waiter attended to them with broad smiles, meticulous care, and the utmost respect. All these gestures confirmed the distinguished status of the gentlemen – esteemed regular patrons. Our Italian comrades leaned in and whispered, “They are politicians from the nearby government ministries.”
This revelation excited me, brimming with a profound sense of privilege. I puffed up with pride over our astute culinary choice – dining at an eatery favored by the city’s powerful figures. To say the food exceeded our wildest expectations would be an understatement. Each mouthwatering dish rendered us utterly speechless. All members of our party, except for me, gleefully indulged in fine wine, both red and white. It was a clear indication to assert our taste buds were on par with the high-class neighbors. We even joked about what more we might expect from a supreme lunch on a crisp spring day in this magnificent city, now rubbing shoulders with the high-profile men.
As the check landed at our table, a collective gasp swept through the entire group. A clear "50% off" handwritten in screaming red ink at the bottom of the printed bill caught us all off guard. We were taken aback by the restaurant’s generosity toward a bunch of strangers. In disbelief, we dissected the bill line by line. Soon after, we discovered curious disparities between what we had ordered and what was listed on the bill. That’s when our sharp, quick-witted Italian friends broke the riddle. They leaned in once more and slyly whispered, “It’s for the politicians.”
I could not help but voice my perplexity: “Why on earth is the restaurant willing to give away half of its earnings?” My American travelers echoed a blunter sentiment: "We are witnesses to corruption.”
The Italian companions maintained their composure, approaching the situation with a touch of sophistication that left us envious. They explained that these occurrences were commonplace in the country, particularly in the capital. With a hint of humor, they added that missing out on such stories would be out of the ordinary.
In the midst of our bafflement, we were suddenly confronted with a pressing question: “How much should we pay?” This confusion unleashed busy rounds of debates.
“Should we let the waiter know of his mistake?”
“Should we pay the incorrect amount?”
“This isn’t our fault, is it?”
“Why should we have to care about the wrong price anyway?”
“Why can’t we just pay the amount on the bill?”
“Let’s not waste time on this…”
Our agreements and disagreements danced around us like confetti in a lively breeze everywhere. Among the debates, we agreed upon on one thing. That was we outnumbered the politicians, and our actual bill should have been grander than theirs. Eventually, a united verdict merged: “Now is the perfect time to ‘do as the Romans do’.”
The resolution sparked a surge of exhilaration. The lavish feast carried an air of secrecy and playfulness – a taste of the high life at a heavily discounted rate. In that moment, the high-powered Romans and we, humble outsiders, shared an unspoken bond of equality once again. Yet, our pride and pleasure evaporated in the blink of an eye. As we settled the bill, an uncomfortable sensation rushed over us, urging us to make a swift exit. We retreated from the scenic scene in haste, avoiding a backward glance, leaving the rest of the show with the influential group.
What had started as a pleasant stroll back to the hotel abruptly morphed into a challenging journey. The brilliant Mediterranean sun turned into an unmerciful spotlight, magnifying every step we took and our “crime.” The once-scintillating VIP meal transformed into a haunt, annoyingly and persistently nagging at my conscience.
Upon returning to my room, I briskly closed the double-locked door. My heart raced in tandem with my clouded mind and mounting anxiety. Everything had happened too fast, weighing me down with guilt, nervousness, and a tangled mess of sour, frightening feelings that defied words. It was an eerie experience in a foreign land with a history steeped in command and domination.
The curtain fell on that play nearly a decade ago; the memory of that accidental lunch in Rome remains unscratched. The ancient capital offered me a wealth of glorious past, delightful present, and quirky secrets that were unlike anywhere else. I appreciate the gift it gave me to “do as Romans do.” For a brief and brave moment, I was a Roman once, savoring the flavor of a “corrupt politician.”
Li Ruan, born and raised in Beijing, China, is a Manhattan-based educational consultant and an emerging immigrant writer. She felt a special calling to compose late in life during the COVID pandemic. Writing in English has deepened her intimate connection to the language and empowered her to promote cultural understanding. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared online in literary journals including Flora Fiction, Restless Books, Purple Pegasus Publishing’s “Humans in Pandemic,” Assignment Literary Magazine, and Persimmon Tree.