Monday, September 9, 2013

My Two New Favorite Places in Rome

Ah, Rome -- so full of surprises! You never know where you're going to end up here. (Unless you're going by foot, without the benefit of a map. Then you're almost guaranteed to end up at Colosseo -- again!)

Last Friday night when I met up with a friend for dinner on my favorite street in Rome (Via Panisperna) at what is now my new favorite restaurant in Rome (Ai Tre Scalini - Bottiglieria dal 1895, the one with the hanging vines out front), I was expecting great pasta (the meat lasagna was the best I've ever had, thanks to the gorgonzola surprise in the middle), cheap but delicious wine (4 euros for a quarter liter of the house white), excellent conversation, and a quiet walk home, not much more.

Incidentally, this particular friend, a fellow American, was the one who convinced me to give Berlin a second chance when we met up in Bangkok last December, but she has since become fed up with her adopted Berlin base -- for many of the same reasons why I've never quite taken to the city (the people, the weather, the people) -- and is trading it for one in Rome. When she invited me to go to a party with her and her boyfriend, who'd be picking us up in his car (in front of Colosseo -- natch), I figured I'd have an after-dinner beer or two and then a quiet ride home, not much more.

But as Woody Allen once said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. I hope to God He was looking away from me on Friday night because things went from mellow to mad as the evening progressed. I immediately fell in love with Circolo degli Artisti from the minute my friend's boyfriend paid the 5-euro cover for all of us, and we walked past the entrance, which looked like something you'd find at an amusement park, with a table set up for the people taking the money and security on hand to enforce crowd control. We were soon walking through a packed, wide-open outdoor space with a festive atmosphere and several handsome guys enhancing the natural and human scenery. Unfortunately, they were all straight -- or so I initially presumed.

Halfway through the first of two beers, my girlfriend pointed out several guys who she knew had to be gay, and by the time I made my way to the bar to buy another round of beers, I agreed. The place seemed to be slowly transforming into one of those sexual free-for-alls (sort of like Temple Bar in Siem Reap and Amerika in Buenos Aires) where everyone, gay or straight, male or female, has an equal chance of having a happy ending to a night of debauchery.

By the time my friend and her boyfriend, who both had to leave early because they were recovering from colds, took me to Muccassassina, a Friday-night Roman gay party, and then back to Circolo because Muccassassina was apparently still closed for the summer, the place had grown about three times in size and had become the epitome of Dionysian excess (with an indoor dance club that I hadn't noticed before), where gays and straights not only had an equal chance of hooking up but an equal shot at being hit on by a guy or a girl.

That's not the only reason why I loved the place. Sure it was nice -- and flattering -- to be able to choose between a tall, blond and handsome Italian guy and a fashionable Roman girl who demanded that I kiss her on the spot as he was dragging me away. What I loved most about Circolo on Friday night, though, was one of the things I love most about Rome in general: It was everything I wanted without trying too hard to be anything.

That's a welcome change after years spent in cities where the strain of the effort to be one thing or another always showed. In nearly every bar and club I went to in Berlin (aside from Chantal's House of Shame on Thursday night, which lived up to its titular billing, with no noticeable attitude), there was always the unmistakable whiff of cigarette smoke and "Aren't we cool?" haughtiness in the air, courtesy of both locals and expats alike.

Everyone seemed to be trying so hard to perfect a pose of blithe insouciance, which couldn't conceal their obvious awareness that they were living in the greatest city on earth (their opinion, not mine). The hipsters and bohemians that I kept stumbling over among the east side's tourists all appeared to be playing dress-up, desperately attempting to recapture the artsy cool of the city circa 1977, when David Bowie was helping to put it on the rock & roll map with his "Berlin trilogy." Had any of them ever actually listened to Low or Heroes or Lodger, though? And while I can appreciate any DJ with the good taste to play "Re-Make/Re-Model," I had a feeling that he and I were the only ones in that bar on Alte Schönhauser Straße who had even heard of Roxy Music.

Buenos Aires is known as "the Paris of South America," so a bit of an identity crisis might be expected. But instead of aspiring to the Parisian model, too many bars and clubs there wanted to be New York City. The ones with NYC-style guest lists and VIP sections and low-quality local booze for too many pesos just came across as cheap and tacky imitations. Human and Rheo wouldn't last a month in Manhattan!

Melbourne, meanwhile, looked inward while looking outward. People there could be so self-consciously Australian that at times I felt as if I was living in a parody. And Bangkok? Among the city's hip and happening locals, Western rules. The whiter, the better -- and you can purchase whitening creams at any drugstore to help get you there!

Here in Rome, though, it feels different. Although it's entirely possible that I've been looking at the locals through rose-colored lens with images of the city's historical artifacts etched into them, and it would be hard to miss the national pride among Italians, I don't get the distinct impression that the Romans I've encountered are suffering from delusions of grandeur or aspiring to be something they're not. I can't think of anything more impressive that a stranger can say to me than "I live in Rome," but those who do don't give off the vibe that they couldn't agree more. Sometimes I wonder if they even realize where they are.

Or maybe it just matters less to them than it does to me. "Rome, New York, wherever -- who cares where we are," they seem to be thinking. "As long as the food is filling, the wine is flowing, and we're having a great time." Circolo degli Artisti ticked all three boxes, so apparently, there was nothing left to prove or aspire to.

Unlike so many places in Rome that practically scream "ROMAN EMPIRE CIRCA 80 AD!!!", Circolo didn't seem to belong to any specific time or place. It was the kind of party that could conceivably be set in any city, in any country, in any decade. And as a "gay-friendly" hotspot that wasn't exclusively any one thing, it lacked the typical aura of a gay bar/club (twinks sashaying down that tightrope between flirting and tossing around attitude) or of a straight one (macho guys on the prowl and gaggles of giggly girls playing coy with them).

It was just a bunch of people gathered in one spot, hanging out with friends, hoping to get lucky. It's a pity that the DJ didn't play the Daft Punk hit because its lyrics ("We're up all night for good fun/We're up all night to get lucky") perfectly express the Circolo spirit, which around 1am was not for the fainthearted, or those who might object to being propositioned by a beautiful stranger to join him in a bathroom that I would have been reluctant to go into for its intended use.

I, for one, didn't get lucky in the Daft Punk sense (nor did that beautiful stranger -- at least not with me), and misfortune tried his best to leave with me: It took me about an hour to walk home because I refused to consult my map, ask for directions or take a taxi. But by the time I finally arrived there with a blister on my middle left toe (and night still covering the city, thank God, who I pray still wasn't looking), I felt luckier to be in Rome than I have at any point in the two and a half weeks since I arrived here for the third time.

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