Living in Italy was refreshing compared to living in Prague. After two summers of work in Rimini as a club promoter (or professional partier), I moved to Rome. I was eager to experience one of the most jaw-droppingly historic cities in the world.
I was lucky to have a friend who lived, and worked in a bar, in Rome, and she let me stay at her flat while she lived with her Italian boyfriend. I shared the apartment with an Irish couple who also worked at local pubs. So… free place to stay and free drinks at night. Not a bad start.
I needed work, so I checked all the local English-printed magazines and newspapers, scouring for jobs that I would qualify for in a foreign city as an illegal alien. I happened on one that consisted of helping out with tours during the day and leading pub crawls at night. I met an American named Jason, who led the tours, and Cosmo, an Italian, who led the pub crawls. They brought me on board and I was to start the next day. In the morning, I was scheduled to meet Jason in Piazza San Pietro, or St. Peter’s Square.
I'm not religious at all. I actually dislike organized religion. But I respect other people’s beliefs and I also respect the beauty and, can I say, gaudiness (billions of dollars’ worth) of the largest church in the world.
When I met Jason, I was struck by the sheer size of the piazza. It can hold up to 65,000 people! Jason asked me to be a "gatherer" for his tours. My simple task was to spot English-speaking people and give them my ten-second pitch: “Hi, do you speak English? Great! We are giving a free tour in 10 minutes of the Basilica. You can leave the tour at any time. The tour is about 45 minutes and at the end, we will be touring the Vatican Museum.”
Might seem simple, but the task became a bit discouraging at times. I was one of those people who come up to you on vacation to sell you something. But I wasn’t peddling; I was inviting people to an engaging, FREE, well-spoken tour by one of the best tour guides in Rome.
I eventually became quite good at it. I was able to gather 40–60 people and Jason closed the deal with his tour-leading skills. The groups would get bigger as we went along through the enormous space of St. Peter's. After “gathering,” we would take the group to a nearby pizza shop on Via Borgo Vittorio called Alice. The shop baked a dozen types of pizza on square sheet pans that were sold by weight, so you could try different types of pizza in small portions.
My usual lunch would be four to five squares of pizza alle melanzane (eggplant) or pizza al prosciutto (cured ham) e patate (potato). This was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. Best of all, Jason and I would usually get our pizza for free for patronizing the shop.
My other job, the one at night, was similar to my job in Rimini: coercing people to get drunk. I worked for Cosmo as a pub-crawl leader and promoter. I would usually head over in front of the Colosseum or Piazza Navona to hand out fliers in search of a certain “profile” clientele – people I thought would want to roam Rome drinking their faces off.
The pub crawl, aptly named “The Scream,” gave customers an hour all-you-can-drink from 8:30–9:30. I'd then lead the group to four bars where they received a free shot at each bar, all for the low price of 10 Euros. We would meet people at the fountain in Piazza Barberini, above a hill in the center of Rome. The piazza abuts Via Veneto, once the heart of the famed Dolce Vita jet set in the '60s.
Instead of Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, however, you had Cosmo greeting you with beer and wine ready. No, you wouldn’t receive Barolo or Menabrea (a delicious Italian beer), but instead got carton wine and the cheapest discount-store beer Cosmo could find. (Imagine we could do this in the U.S., buy alcohol and just drink outside in a city square!)
The biggest group I ever led was about 60 people. They typically qualified as an eclectic mix of 18- to 20-something-year-olds from countries like England, America, Holland, Ireland, Germany, Australia. The common denominator was a desire to get drunk and “meet people.”
One of the hardest things to do was getting these kids onto a bus to go downtown after an hour of drinking. Imagine the looks we received from Italians who happened to be riding the bus! We would travel down to party central, Campo de' Fiori, to commence our bar hopping. After staying at the first bar in Campo for about an hour, we’d move on to a second and then third bar. I was the one who had to gather everyone to walk to the next bar, shepherding them to avoid traffic incidents.
After two weeks of babysitting underage kids in their quests for inebriation, I was feeling a little dry. To quench my thirst, I starting taking advantage of the free drinks that I received at all the bars I took groups to, which even extended to the nights I was not working. (So to recap: free place to stay, free pizza and free drinks...man, in retrospect, what a great time!)
In time, I became good friends with some of the bar owners and they asked me to work for them, but I declined in order to keep working with Jason during the day and Cosmo at night. Cosmo was the quintessential sleazy Italian boss, however. He was often late in paying me and wanted me to do all the legwork while he, of course, took most of the profits. Still, I was grateful to have a job.
But after one month, I was about to “Scream” myself, and bailed on the pub crawl. I couldn’t babysit anymore. I decided to devote my time to helping Jason. In the context of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, his educational, enriching tours were a welcome contrast to the nightly leading around of post-pubescent lushes. The beauty of the city dimmed by nighttime pub crawls was illuminated by Jason by day.
At the conclusion of my Roman summer, I’d gained the deepest appreciation for the Italian culture. (In addition to Rome, I also “Headed South” to get a taste of Italy away from the tourist track.)
Not to say it was easy immersing myself, but I know that if I didn’t live that one summer in Roma, I wouldn't have understood what Italy's truly about. It's not about eating pizza, drinking wine and taking a picture of the Colosseum (although all that was great). I was there to be completely engulfed by the romantic, voracious culture. Grazie molte a Roma!
Jason’s passion and expertise evolved into organizing one of the best touring companies in Italy. For more about Walks of Italy’s small group tours and activities all over the country, check out their website: walksofitaly.com.