Romeward Bound: A Pinoy Geek’s Experience in Italy’s Eternal City

Let us take you through the smells, flavors and sights.

 Feels Like Quiapo If You Air-Conditioned It

After a fifteen-hour flight from Abu Dhabi, we finally arrived in Rome. My wife and I were stretching our atrophied limbs in the Fiumicino Airport.

It’s funny how our brains are so used to the English language. Everything felt weird after seeing all things in Italian. It turns out Italian words are nice to the eyeballs. All those double Z’s and T’s. The R’s, and the O’s. The -esco’s and the esca’s. The –oso’s and the –osa’s.

It brought back sense memories of kindergarten, to mornings when I ate up murmur diphthongs from the blackboard. Not quite Latin, not quite Spanish, but if you have a keen sense for context clues, you’d easily know what the words mean.

Benvenuti a Roma!

As we had our US dollars changed to crispy euro bills, the sights in the airport reminded me that I wasn’t in Manila anymore: priests dressed in black, touting leather Bibles; the Carabinieri with their Armalites and attack dogs; hairy-chested hipsters lugging around motorcycle helmets.

We followed our chauffeur towards the parking lot. The September chill kissed the back of my neck. The air was thick with diesel fumes, e-cigarette juice, and Lavazza coffee. Yep, that’s Rome in a lungful.

“Please, eh, I’m, eh, sorry. The traffico, is, eh, terrible at this time,” our chauffeur said in broken English.

“Oh, don’t worry, we have worse,” I said, as any Manileño with a sense of humor would.

We were on our way to our Airbnb in San Lorenzo — a hipster neighborhood a short distance from La Sapienza University.

The coming of twilight was gorgeous. Sunbeams painted ancient structures gold. Cypress trees, coniferous and mythical, stood tall among roadside parks. Advertisements peddling toothpaste and pasta and opera tickets tickled our brain folds in the dying light.

But yes, Rome, like the two-faced god Janus, favored duality — it was grisly as it was beautiful. Gas-guzzling scooters buzzed around our van like bumblebees. Cigarette butts and broken bottles sullied the pavements. Horrendous graffiti tags, like pox come to claim the city, covered every square inch of wall.

It was a metropolis, alright — one more crowded than Tokyo and Manila, one that roused fears of being crushed in a sea of armpits and hot breaths.

“This kind of feels like Quiapo if you air-conditioned it,” I had to quip. My observation elicited a chuckle from the wife.

Pizza, Potato, Pasta, Gelato (Repeat Again)

It was quite refreshing to the senses that unlike Manila, there were no big-name fast food chain stores around. You’re lucky if you stumble upon a McDonald’s. We were in Italy, after all, where people shunned big business in favor of the family-owned trattoria. Just beside our Airbnb was a pizzeria. Nothing fancy. Fluorescent lights. A Coke-sponsored refrigerator. Paper plates. Napkins.

Mind you, the flavors there were so alien to a Pinoy like me. Hence, I had to stop myself from using words like Manager’s Choice and Super Supreme, lest I wanted to embarrass myself.

I was famished so I had to pick one fast. Funghi margherita with anchovies and capers. That sounded right up my alley.

It was love at first bite. The bread packed an audible crunch. The cheese had the texture of chewing gum. The anchovies were a mite too salty, though, and the capers a bit too pungent to the taste buds. Nonetheless, the food trip that followed in our days around the city was quite the experience — provided that your stomach doesn’t mind too much dairy and carbohydrates.

My digestive tract had developed a liking for Crochette di patate — potato croquettes, with a molten cheese center. You dunk these babies in pureed tomato. Filling enough to power up a swimmer’s body, yes, but kind of redundant if you pair them off with pizza.

Afternoons wouldn’t be complete without an order of my favorite pasta dish ever: the Aglio Olio. I go for the basics when it comes to my spaghetti. Just great noodles, virgin olive oil, bulbs of garlic, and a Salt Bae’s drizzle of pepper, and you’d have me singing like Pavarotti in the morning.

I also learned to appreciate the more obscure flavors of gelato, after ordering one too many cioccolato scoops after the other. Yes, folks, there are adventures to be had with frutti di bosco (wild berries) and limoncello (lemon liqueur from Naples).

But as they say, even a good thing can get old if it’s too often. After seven days of ingesting Italian food, I had to ask my wife if we could go swing by for a Whopper in a Burger King nearby!

Yep, true story.

How To Save Your Brain From All The Roman Splendor

Here’s a tip if you’re traveling to Rome: Prepare lots of free storage in your brain. If you can stay in a sensory deprivation tank for a while, I’d say go for it. There’s just too much for the mind to absorb. Doing the rounds in the city can feel like you just studied for the entrance exams!

It seems like Italians took the phrase “the devil in the details” to heart that they left no stone untouched. Oy! Talk about horror vacui!

I kid you not. Every church is packed to the rafters with sculptures and paintings. Every museum is bursting at the seams with all things baroque, even the door handles have flowers in them.

But once you’ve given your eyeballs a good night’s rest, Rome is a city that will charm you.

Once you’ve mentally pushed aside all the tacky touristy things, you’ll appreciate every wonder this side of the world — from the ruins of the Coloseo to the marble statues in the Capitoline Museums to the pagliaccio performers on the streets.

You’ll get the goose bumps in Via Venetto, when you’ll see crypts made from the bones of Capuchin monks. You’ll smile at the people in the city’s many piazzas, where they spend mornings with family and friends, enjoying the sunshine on their faces. You’ll see how, despite the buzz of the metropolis, people like lazing about during the afternoon in the city’s many parks, lighting up a cigarette or two, or playing a game of chess.

You’ll start noticing even the littlest of things, such as how Romans like having oregano plants inside their kitchens. You’ll wonder about the great many things in the Eternal City that you can only fold up your selfie stick, keep your phone in your pocket, and experience it with your own eyes.

About the Author

Wincy Aquino Ong

Like a butterfly testing out flowers, Wincy Aquino Ong flits from one career to another. In his twenties, he played in bands, directed music videos and movies, and wrote commercial jingles. Nowadays, at 33, he is a copywriter for Stratworks and is married to the painter Cj de Silva. His next dream destination is Florence, Italy, the heart of the Renaissance.