In Rome, public transportation is a full-body experience.
It usually goes something like this: the doors slide open with a hiss. I hug my bag close to my chest as I maneuver my way onto the tram, bumping shoulders and elbows and feet with the wave of people exiting. The doors chirp their closing warning as I fight my way through the crush, trying to find somewhere stable to plant myself before the tram lurches to a start.
Seats go first to the elderly and infirm, and then to whoever rushes into them, which is rarely me. I try to tuck myself into corners, where I can brace my back against something firm and spread my feet and—hopefully—avoid grabbing the surely-grimy handles and poles.
Sometimes the tram slides gently into motion. More often, it heaves forward with great enthusiasm. I stumble, usually, then right my footing. Often, to my chagrin, I find myself reaching for the poles.
Tram 3 runs an impressive forty-six stop line, passing through my neighborhood of Trastevere. I hop on at Pascarella and ride just three stops to the Ministero dell’Istruzione. The Ministero is a grand, imposing building, all white stone and stoic columns. It’s the kind of building that can’t be ignored on one’s first, second, even third glances, and yet it eventually and inevitably fades into the scenery of all the other grand Roman sites.
Just around the corner from the Ministero, buses 44 and 75 pause before making their ascent up Giancolo Hill. This combo of tram (3 or 8) and bus (44 or 75) is a tried-and-true route up to my university. If you hit the stops just right and the buses are faithful to their schedule—which, in Rome, is a miracle in and of itself—it takes about 45 minutes. On the other hand, the walk to the university only takes 25 minutes, but it requires braving a multitude of stairs.
In my first week of being in Rome, I’d walked upwards of forty miles and, in the process, over-stressed my right knee. The doctor prescribed the time-tested solution of rest, so I’ve taken to the public transportation system despite preferring the walk.
This afternoon, tram 3 was relatively empty; I didn’t have to wrestle my way on board or hug my backpack to my chest, and I even found a nice, roomy corner to settle myself into.
Roman trams rarely smell nice. I’ve been cataloging the unfortunate aromas lately: body odor, sun-warmed trash, sweaty feet, cigarette smoke. The smells increase with the temperature. It’s only February, and I wonder—with both dread and fascination—how much worse it will be in the spring.
This is what I was pondering as the tram came to a clunking stop at Bernard. Da Feltre, the stop before the Ministero. The doors slid open as the weak yellow lights overhead flickered off, then on, then off again. A bike whizzed by on the street outside. Fresh air breezed through the open doors, ghosting along my cheeks. I readjusted my footing, preparing for the tram’s departure, ears awaiting the chiming of the doors—but it never came.
The doors remained open. My fellow passengers began poking curious heads out, then leaving the tram altogether, one by one disappearing onto the platform. I resisted following at first, but as the tram slowly emptied, I began to edge towards the doors. Those who’d exited before me were walking up-road and—to my dismay—the driver, identifiable by his ATAC name-tag, was standing on the platform, talking to another man in rapid-fire Italian.
I was only one stop away from the bus, which meant just a couple blocks of walking. Whatever was happening with the tram didn’t seem like it would be quickly resolved, so I decided to follow the stream of other passengers.
As I crossed from the tram platform to the sidewalk, the view up the Viale di Trastevere opened up. There was another tram—an 8—stopped just ahead of the one I’d exited. Its doors were also wide open; it was also empty of passengers. And then, ahead of that, another 8 in the same condition: doors open, no passengers.
I kept walking—limping, really, but that’s neither here nor there—up the viale. The crowd on the sidewalk was growing thick. All in all, there were twelve trams stacked back-to-back on the rails, some pulled so close to one another that they appeared to be kissing. They stretched the length of multiple city blocks, forming a sort of wall between the two sides of the viale. People were chattering, pointing at the spectacle, some even taking photos. I didn’t take a picture, though I now wish I had.
Instead, I kept limping on, hoping that the buses weren’t having a similar problem—after all, as fascinated as I was by the whole ordeal, I had to get to class.
It’s not as if things like this are uncommon; everyone has a tale of Roman public transportation gone wrong. A week ago, my friends and I waited an hour for a bus. The whole time we stood waiting, the electronic sign boasted that it was “In Arrivo”—that is, within a minute of arrival. And the night after the twelve-tram pile-up, Colleen and I were headed into the city when our tram unceremoniously parked a couple stops before our destination, the driver loitering out on the platform as all the passengers filtered out and found new routes.
This is Rome—city of unpredictable buses and back-to-back trams. Beautiful, infuriating city. We simply learn to take it in stride.