When in Rome

Nine summers ago, my husband Brett and I traveled through Italy with my brother and some friends. For the second and third weeks of this 3-week trip, my friend Lisa and her husband, Jon, joined us. They arrived, unpacked, and promptly slept off their jetlag. Then they slept some more.

By the third morning of what we viewed as our friends’ complete lack of get-up-and-go-ness, Brett and I started to get anxious. We sipped our cappuccinos and examined our watches from the courtyard below their room. Time was a-wasting, and there were ruins to see! According to Frommer’s, there were at least 17 churches to visit, several important, historical walking tours to amble, and a whole lot of pasta to consume. There was no time to vacation on this vacation…didn’t they understand that?

“Holy Ceasar, get the heck out of bed!” We would groan under our breaths. And then we would scribble a note for them and slink off to do our own touring.

On day four, we made a group decision to rally en masse, and we headed toward the Vatican. The pope was addressing the public; we could watch him glide by in his Popemobile and bless us in several languages. It didn’t seem to matter that we were Jewish in the face of so much Catholicism. When in Rome, Brett and I decided, best to just go with it and meet the Pope. After all, the guidebook recommended it highly, rating the activity with a full star!

As the group of us stood in St Peter’s Square that morning, Lisa and Jon made a decision. They were blowing off the Papal address. Nor were not going to see the Sistine Chapel with us afterwards.

“But…what are you going to do, then?” We asked, guidebooks in hand, mouths agape.

“Live among the Romans, I guess,” they shrugged. And then they disappeared behind some columns, Michelangelo-less.

Lisa and Jon returned to our villa that evening with stories of cafes and bicycle rides, markets and more markets. I had images of them cruising down stone alleyways, honking the horns on their bikes a la Life is Beautiful, or splashing each other with water from the Trevi Fountain in Dolce Vita-filled bliss.

Then they cooked a glorious dinner with fresh, local ingredients. Several bottles of Chianti were consumed.

There was something to this notion of living among the Romans, Brett and I later determined, though we were still not ready to give up our Frommer’s. But the catchphrase and its meaning took hold in us over the years. Indeed, whenever we found ourselves enmeshed in a culture and its ways, we would recall it, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Visiting cheesy waterparks on the Jersey Shore? Brett and I call that “living among the Romans.” Eating clam cakes and “milk chowdah” in Narragansett, Rhode Island? Doing what the natives do; simply living among the Romans.

Which brings me to Barcelona.

Brett and I had the great fortune of visiting this lovely city a few weeks ago, in celebration of both my upcoming 40th birthday and the completion of my doctorate. We went in full-on Julie and Brett style, with guidebooks in hand, articles cut from recent magazines (with sections underlined and highlighted), and inside info from Gwenyth Paltrow’s website, Goop. We had a Master Plan, a day-by-day itinerary.

We gorged ourselves on Gaudi, poured over Picasso, and marveled over Miro. We followed every guidebook suggestion about where to eat, and were “rewarded” for this by being seated next to Americans and British at every meal. Everyone around us was reading off of an English menu and ordering the same three items.

It was a little bit depressing, truth be told. I mean, I had come to Spain to, you know, see the sights. But hadn’t I also come to see Spanish people…doing their Spanish people stuff? What was that, exactly? The guidebooks just didn’t say.

One event on our list of “musts” was to dine at a tapas bar called Inopia. On her website, Gwenyth writes that she would “fly al the way to Barcelona just to eat” here. That endorsement would have been enough, but Inopia also comes with major kudos from Frommer’s, from my friend Debbie, and also from a recent magazine article. So, getting into the spirit of Barcelona, we headed out for a late dinner, arriving at 10 pm.

Just before the taxi pulled up to the restaurant, I noticed a woman desperately trying to flag down our cab. Her arms were waving madly and she was jumping up and down in her platform sandals, three companions by her side. At that moment, I had this weird vision. For one, I knew that she was an American tourist, like me. I just sensed it in my bones, in that “I see dead people” kind of way. Also, I knew that she was in this section of town just to dine at Inopia, probably hearing about it as I had from several sources. Plus, I imagined that she had bought those white skinny jeans she was now hoping up and down in at Scoop in New York City, in anticipation of this upcoming trip to Barcelona. And that, further, she had totally planned the night’s ensemble imagining herself eating the world’s best patatas bravas while showing off her trendy look.

What concerned me was the apparent distress accompanying this woman’s whole look. Hadn’t she just eaten a great meal? Why was she so hell-bent on getting into my cab? But there wasn’t time to answer these questions. She and her friends faded into the darkness as our cab sped past them and stopped on the next block.

I shrugged off my disquieting vision and hopped out in front of Inopia, where couples stood waiting. While Brett paid the taxi driver, I approached a man taking names and asked how long the wait would be. We were prepared to wait in line for perhaps an hour just to get in the door. What we weren’t prepared for was being told that no more names were being taken for dinner that night.

“You mean…I can’t eat here? At all?” I gasped.

“No. Not tonight.” The host replied.

“Brett!” I screamed. “Hold that cab!”

“Huh?” He asked, standing in the spot left by the cab exactly half a second before.

Explatives flew as I explained out current state. It was 10 pm, we were stuck on a secluded street in a nowheresville section of Barcelona, and we would not be eating Gwenyth Paltrow’s favorite tapas! We were f*&%ed.

Just like that Scoop woman, I now understood.

I was on the verge of tears. Brett approached the host and spoke quietly with him.

He returned a moment later and took my arm. “This way,” he said, leading me away from the famed restaurant.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, not too kindly.

“Well, I asked the guy who is not taking names where he would eat right now, and he told me about a place he likes. Two blocks up, make a right.”

“You mean…we’re going to…live among the Romans!?” I laughed, the tension created by the scene outside Inopia leaving my body.

“Looks that way,” Brett smiled back.

And so, we found our way to La Clara, a lovely little spot for tapas. We sat at the bar, ordered the ubiquitous tortilla, some cheeses, and yes, the patatas bravas, and had a nice, relaxing meal together, doing as the Spanish do.

A few nights later, we dined with the afore-mentioned friend Debbie at Michelin-star rated Cinc Sentits, and relayed our story about the failed attempt at Inopia.

“La Clara?” She responded. “That’s supposed to be great. They were reviewed quite favorably in The New York Times, in the same article as Inopia.”

Please insert your eye roll here.

Funny that a comment indented to make me feel better should actually have the opposite effect.

Were Brett and I ever truly able to live among the Romans in Spain?

Tune in to my next article and find out.

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