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Ruined in Rome...

"Italians are very conservative," our friend reminds me, when I express surprise at a hard-line Catholic march, and the high incidence of men shopping with their wives.
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I swear, the minute I get back to L.A., I'm taking a sledgehammer to the walls in our house. Rome's got it going on in the ruins department. No words can describe the magnificence and preservation of old Roma. I'm still trying to scrape my jaw off the ground. I was there as a 16-year-old on one of those whirlwind tours by bus -- 17 cities in 21 days! Just like every other city on that trip, Rome remained a blur in my mind, even though I thoroughly appreciated that eye-opening journey where, among other things, I came away with the realization that there's nothing like the United States in the homogeneous and health-conscious department. Thirty (ahem) plus years later, it's still true. I dare you to find one restroom offering those handy toilet seat covers in Rome. And judging by the lack of toilet seats in general -- even in some of the most respectable restaurants -- I've come to the conclusion that Americans must be germ-a-phobic. And while I'm on the subject of toilets, I've lost count of all the ways you can flush a toilet in Europe. Like I said, uniformity is not their thing. How did I get on the subject of toilets, anyway? I offered to report on Los Angeles vs. Cities I Visit in Europe, and I just left Rome with a schoolgirl's crush still fresh and visible on my smiling face, so here goes:

Like L.A., Rome is a one-industry town: there are as many priests, nuns and monks walking the streets as there are actors in Hollywood. The Church is tantamount to, say, Disney or Universal Studios. Where it's writers and the like who go on strike in L.A., we witnessed firsthand a very large march called "Family Day" by hard-line Catholics in protest over not just gay unions but also non-married heterosexuals living together. The organizers feel this leads to perversion and molestation (by men of women who are not their legal spouses) and pedophilia (by men of children who are not their legal offspring). I kid you not. It was only 10 years ago that divorce became available to Italians. In the unintended consequences department, this has led to a curious decline in infidelity since Italian men now realize that their wives will leave their asses, with their children, if they don't behave.

"Italians are very conservative," our friend reminds me, when I express surprise at the march, and the high incidence of men shopping with their wives. My French husband would rather eat Wonder Bread than shop with me -- which is fine since I prefer to shop alone; but that has also meant practically NO SHOPPING AT ALL IN ROME, a crime punishable by repeated viewings of The Godfather, Part III, without benefit of I or II. Anyway, on a typical Saturday afternoon in Rome, men shop with their wives, who come out of dressing rooms to model the outfit in question for their husbands, who decide whether she should buy it or not. Even though that's not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Italians, I guess they are conservative -- after all, they kept Berlusconi in power longer than any other leader since 1945. Our friend explains in the same way the high incidence of people who hang their laundry to dry in the sun outside their apartments instead of using dryers, including her, even though I know she can afford to buy one. "Italians are very old-fashioned," she says.

Our friend is a fluent-in-Italian woman who comes from L.A. She moved back to Rome several years ago, back to an apartment she has owned since the early 90s. "My place is very small," she warned us several times when inviting us to stay. But like in L.A., as opposed to New York, Paris or San Francisco, her beautiful old world apartment with high ceilings, balconies and wood shutters was quite spacious for the price she paid -- although I understand this is not the norm, as apartments in coveted neighborhoods (like anywhere in old Rome) get tinier and more exorbitant, price-wise, as time goes on. Sound familiar?

In L.A., when tourists flock to Mann's Chinese Theatre, they are as likely to see Superman as Marilyn Monroe posing for pictures or walking the streets (in character) at the end of their shift. In Rome, expect to find Roman guards in character when you visit the Coliseum. With all the blood that place has seen, I made sure to steer clear of them and their steely swords, just like I do any cop in L.A.

Unlike L.A., Rome is bursting at the seams with romantic fountains and parks; everybody smokes; oftentimes, guys greet each other by kissing on both cheeks. There are parasol-shaped pine trees in Rome, which I've never seen before, as well as two-toned crows -- black and grey, as opposed to all black. Speaking of which, I didn't see too many blacks in Rome, either, just like in Barcelona (for my report from Barcelona, click here).

No matter how much we complain about traffic in L.A., California drivers are a zillion times more polite than their Roman counterparts. Call me a wimp, but I would never drive in Rome. The honk-honk chaos on the streets was hinted at by the chaos that greeted us at the airport, where people, 3-deep, waited at one conveyor belt delivering luggage from ten flights!

"Welcome to Rome!" my husband said after waiting obediently with the throngs while I sat comfortably with a bad shoulder, waiting for him to heft the heavy stuff. At that point, he was just making an interim report before going back to wait some more, but he had a smile on his face. And a week later, when we left for Greece, I asked him where he would live if he had the choice: Rome or Paris?

"Rome," he said after giving it some thought.

"Why?" I said.

"They're nicer, here," he said.

The ruins had cast their spell completely.