My Ethnographic Moment: in Rome 

25 Sep



Lunch alone in a trattoria in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome, which is neither fashionable nor touristic. Noisy with students and young people at night, local places to hangout, some occupied spaces.


What struck me, in contrast to the U.S, Germany, even France, where I have recently been is that Italy, and specifically Rome, is a deep culture that works for its working and middle classes, or put less structurally, for ‘ordinary people.’


Of course, this is an impression, but for me a rather convincing one, and harmonious with a morning cappuccino and croissant at a vibrant bar around the corner from a friend’s apartment where we are staying for a couple of days. At the trattoria there were about ten tables in the dining area. At one nearby, two men were playing a card game for small amounts of money with classical Italian faces, aged maybe 60 or 65, and singing and laughing intermittently. At a table by the entrance five men were seated, joking, passing time, enjoying their time together immensely, and also singing with those a deep tonic expressiveness that is exhibited to the world in the form of Italian opera, the La Scala, Maria Callas, Pavarotti brand. What was clear that there was an earthy sense of pleasure in each other company, with lots of good natured teasing. When a new customer entered, almost always he would exchange a kiss with the main waiter before either joining one of the tables or eating with whoever he came with.


While I was enjoying my fettuccine fungi, four attractive blonde Italian girls in their late 20s entered, and the men rose to embrace them one by one, and even the card players declared a recess long enough for a hug. The girls were feminine and full of self-confidence, giving the scene a neighborhood dolce vita feeling. They sat at their own table interacting from time to time with one of the men who came over to flirt or just exchange a pleasantry or two.


It was all so natural, pagan, and yet what the 21st century in the West seems to have forgotten, an ambience I have not found elsewhere, although some of the tea houses in Turkey come close, although the mood is more somber, and there is less conviviality maybe because backgammon is generally the game of choice, especially among older men. In our laid back neighborhood swimming and eating place in Yalikavak, called Kwanch, there is a warm ambience, but it is more inhibited, perhaps more middle class, than what I found here in Rome.


I am almost sophisticated enough to realize that one local restaurant experience does not qualify as ‘social science,’ let alone ‘knowledge,’ yet I trust these impressions as confirming a Roman spirit yet to be quelled by all the mishaps of modernity, many of which have led this eternal city to earn the recent, probably undeserved, reputation of being run down, not nearly as dynamic, modern, fashionable, and prosperous as its northern always more commercial cousin, Milan.


Maybe this sense of contentment is being paid for by high unemployment, apathetic politics, defunct Marxism, even dimming memories of Gramsci, and a growing resentment of migrants, and maybe non-Italians in general. Surely, Italy does not count for much these days in the wider European landscape, compared to Germany or France, when it comes to EU economic policy or relations, whether good or bad, with that unruly patron on the other side of the Atlantic. It is hard to say what the future will bestow upon Italy, and this is not part of my ethnographic foray at lunchtime, which only makes claims to report what is observed.

8 Responses to “My Ethnographic Moment: in Rome ”

  1. Marshall September 25, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    Sounds like what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “The Great Good Place,” a place “…where people can gather, put asides the concerns of work and home,and hang out simply for the pleasure of good company and lively conversations.” For me, a child of the 50’s growing up in the Bronx, it was the neighborhood corner candystore. Coffee shops, bars, barber shops, beer gardens are other examples. In U.S., sprawling development patterns have led to the loss of great good places. Enjoy the experience.

  2. Don E. Scheid September 25, 2017 at 10:13 am #

    Richard, your Rome experience is the opposite of the experience when I go to the local gym in a small city (Northfield, MN). There, everyone has ear buds in and is listening to music or something; between each exercise he or she is checking the cell phone studiously–no one talks to anyone. Each person is in his or her own bubble!
    Cheers for Roma
    –Don E. Scheid

  3. loeklist September 25, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    You bring that lovely meal across so well, Richard, I wish I were there. But you also put your finger on one of the determining factors that gives Romans that feeling of belonging with and to each other. It isn’t so much antagonism toward non-Italians as that the Italian economy and society is geared for Italians alone. Foreigners are very welcome and liked, as long as they take their place in the colonies for foreigners that have been there in Rome for 2,500 years. I wouldn’t want to rob them of what we call in Dutch the we-feeling, but it’s well to keep in mind that it comes at a steep cost. Warmest greetings to you and Hilal.

  4. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka September 26, 2017 at 1:37 am #

    A superb vignette, with a Walter Benjaminian trace. More reflections like this, please, Richard.

  5. Mark Hamilton September 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm #


    I enjoyed you casual commentary very much. You have an insight that makes the experience real, especially to those of us who have traveled and gone to local cafes where we found the local culture and enjoyed being among the real life of the place. Thanks. Take care, Mark

  6. Paul Wapner September 26, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Sweet post. I keep imagining the scene: Romans talking, hugging, smiling, eating… and the American academic ‘working.’ (Can almost taste the fettuccine fungi.)

  7. Beau Oolayforos September 27, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    The Romans might smile & say they had their Ovid, Vergil, Tacitus, when the rest of Europe was still living in mud hovels, and the first glimmerings of Renaissance were 15 or so centuries away. As for ambience, I’m surprised our Dutch correspondent didn’t remind us of ‘gezelligheid’, of which they are justly proud. Your piece is much more nuanced, of course, but I can’t help hearing “An Evening in Roma” in the background:)

  8. Laurie Knightly September 29, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    Some model of an informal space where one can drop in/out at will, but still belong, fills a void in human existence that is unrivaled. I had this at one time during my few years in Berkeley. However happenstance it began, our table in a coffee house attracted nearby UC professors and an assortment of intelligent witty folk of middle age with enough commonalities and differences to keep the conversation lively and stimulating. One could show up on any day in the late afternoon and there would be a rotating group of familiar faces, intellectual challenge, and a spontaneous, albeit somewhat raucous, conviviality.
    It felt really good, took very little effort, and required no advanced planning to participate.

    After moving to NYC, I heard that the group fell apart as the management became annoyed at the low financial profits that ensued from people who hang around for hours, laugh and talk at a decibel level unappreciated around them, and get very possessive about the one large table available. They replaced the table and rearranged the space to discourage this sort of thing. It appears that business needs more than kisses to survive.

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