When in Rome
October 8th, 2023
“I learned a great life lesson in Rome. Giving isn’t always “charity.”
Not Rome, Iowa, that little hamlet on the Skunk River West of Mt. Pleasant. I am referring to Rome, Italy, on the Tiber. Rome, the Eternal City.
The center of the greatest empire ever seen… that is literally true. In the old, ruined Julian Forum you can actually see the exact mid-point of everything… the “Urbis Umbilicus,” the belly button of the world where all roads lead. The navel of the city, like many things in that ancient metroplex, is clearly labeled with an engraved stone tablet and is easy to find if you paid attention in Latin class.
Latin, as it turns out, is more useful than algebra. Though, it should be noted that the inverse is true if you are visiting the Giza plateau in Egypt.
Certainly, it goes without saying that when “in Rome,” you should act as the Romans do, though it must also be said that there are a few exceptions to this maxim.
First: Don’t dress like the Romans do. For one thing, Roman shoes are very stylish, expensive, and ill-suited to walking miles and miles over ancient cobblestone pavements, and only experienced supermodels or Roman women should even consider wearing spiky high heels while hurrying past the Pantheon, or operating speeding Vespas across crowded piazzas. Sensible footwear is recommended.
Second: Don’t cross the street like a Roman. They are professionals and know how to carry themselves. They know how to act like they belong in the swirling current of tiny cars, motor scooters, taxis, and minivans full of sun-dried tomatoes, vestments, and recycled relics. They survive the crossing. You will not.
Third: Don’t vote like Romans vote. They have a propensity to elect extremely stupid, extremely rich, and extremely misogynistic, ego-driven, media-centric guys who run the country into one mess or another based on whatever impulse they wake up with.
But, other than those exceptions… When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
For instance, if you see a long line, be a Roman…just walk on by. I followed that principle one day walking by the entrance to the Vatican Museum. Sure, seeing the amazing items that are there and the Sistine Chapel, which I have heard is decorated by some pretty fair artwork, might be worthwhile, but there was a line and I needed coffee—real Italian coffee.
I went on by and proceeded up Valle Vaticano to a little caffe, ordered a latte macchiato, and as I sipped I spied a young woman getting out of a van at the curb outside the shop. As I watched she unfurled a long, black cape and wrapped it around her shoulders. She then raised a hood over her beautiful raven hair flecked with silvered ends and transformed herself. She slowly shrunk in height becoming an old crone of under 5 feet right in front of my eyes. Her right leg and foot twisted beneath her, so that when she walked the side of that foot was flattened on the pavement. She took a silver tray from the van driver and began limping her way back towards the museum entrance.
I had to follow. I watched her approach the folks waiting for admission and marveled as she offered them her tray, which I could now see was covered with Holy Cards. The young woman had become a beggar. She proceeded to exchange those cards for Euros as people, seeing her obvious age and affliction gave her their alms. It was a very Christian thing to do, in one of the most Christian places on Earth. Her performance was flawless. Her face mostly hidden by the black hood, her tall body shrunken under the cape; her arm, hand, leg, and foot twisted as she worked the crowd.
She came to me.
I never hesitated as I reached into my wallet.
Charity or applause?
Because… When in Rome.
Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 6-10 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.