Visitors (and even Romans) often describe Rome in terms of “chaos.” That strikes me a little unfair, because I so often experience great hospitality and kindness in the Eternal City.
But then it rains, and everything goes straight to hell.
I’m finally going home, after a long six-week journey through Europe. My grand finale is Rome. And on the morning of my departure, I pack up my bag and head downstairs to hop in a cab to the airport. It’s Saturday morning, about nine o’clock.
When I tell the receptionist I’ll be needing a taxi, a flash of quickly suppressed panic crosses his face. Feigning competence like a champ, he quickly gets on his computer and requests one for me. “It’ll just be a moment. Once they confirm, I can give you the name and the time of arrival.”
A few minutes pass. I’m relaxed, but he’s growing noticeably agitated. Finally, he tries calling, and is put immediately on hold.
Enough time goes by for me to recall how, the day before, I overheard a fellow guest ask to order a taxi for the next day. They were assured it was not necessary — “Just tell us when you’re ready to leave, and we’ll call one. It will be here in five, ten minutes maximum. No problem.”
The night before, I double-checked and got exactly the same response: “Five, ten minutes, no problem.”
But this morning — a mere 10 hours later — the receptionist’s quest to order a taxi is entering its eighth minute.
He looks at me apologetically. “In Rome, when it rains, it becomes very hard to get a taxi.” Apologetic shrug.
I glance outside, at bright sunshine gleaming off wet cobbles. “But…it’s…not raining.”
“Huh. Well, yes, now. But thirty minutes ago…” Big shrug.
He glances over at the bellhop, who smiles and returns the big shrug.
We stand there, waiting, serenaded by the taxi dispatcher’s schmaltzy hold music. He clicks feverishly on his keyboard. Noticing the “four stars” sign above his head, I begin mentally subtracting stars.
Finally, after 10 or 12 minutes, the phone muzak is abruptly disconnected.
“Well,” he says, “It seems that we may not be able to get you a taxi.” Big shrug.
“But,” I say. “I was told that it wasn’t necessary to order one ahead. That you could just call one.”
“Huh, yes, well, normally,” he shrugs. “But it’s raining, so you understand, there are no taxis available.” Shrugging, he repositions his computer screen toward me, so I can see for myself that his online request, too, has twice been declined.
“Don’t you think, maybe, you could have told me that when I asked about this yesterday? You could have said, ‘It’s no problem unless it rains, in which case you need a little more time’?”
The idea is preposterous to him, and he explodes with laughter. “Ha! Well, sir, of course you can’t expect us to predict the weather, now can you?” He laughs heartily at his own zinger and glances over to the bellhop for backup. The bellhop looks up from what he’s doing to return a generous chuckle, with a side of shrug.
It takes the bellhop a moment to respond because — and I swear I am not making this up — at this precise moment, he is talking to a rather unpleasant American guest who has been loudly complaining about the weather. To egg her on, he is showing her the many rainclouds in the weather app on his phone.
Also — and I apologize if I’m pressing the point too much — but it’s not like we’re in the Gobi Desert here. It rains in Rome. It has rained four of the last five days in Rome. In Rome, it rains — on average — something like 70 days every year. If you work at a Roman hotel, and it’s a rainy week, and you are aware that it’s impossible to get a taxi in the rain, don’t you think you might provide this information when a guest specifically asks about it?
It dawns on me that perhaps this supremely talented duo thinks that my taxi trip this morning is an optional one. Maybe it’s just, you know, a passing fancy. A joyride. Skippable. “Oh well, no matter. I could use the brisk walk anyway!” But I have a 5,000-mile journey ahead of me. And the first step of that journey is getting to the frickin’ airport.
“So then,” I say. “What do you suggest? Am I supposed to walk to the airport?”
The receptionist gives me an “oh you’re still here?” look, then theatrically shrugs three times — the first, presumably, for the Father, the second for the Son, and the third for the Holy Spirit.
“Well, there is a taxi stand. It’s next to the Zara, across the piazza and to the left.” He gestures with an exquisitely unhelpful vagueness toward the front door.
The bellhop nods vigorously as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, taxi stand, yeah.”
“But if you can’t call a taxi, why should I expect that there will be one just sitting there, waiting for me?”
Trapped in an impenetrable cage of logic, our antagonist can only offer a big shrug in response. “Well, we only work with certain companies. But there are many companies. So…maybe…one of the other companies…has taxis there?” While he’s shooting for reassurance, it’s clear that he’s making this up as he goes, and he achieves exactly the opposite.
This guy may not have been the star of his hospitality school class, but I’ve gotta hand it to him: He’s the living embodiment of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Also, you have to admire his chutzpah. I have seen a lot in my travels, but I have never, ever had a hotel flatly and unapologetically refuse to help me get a taxi.
One star. We’re talking bathroom-down-the-hall territory here. Peeling wallpaper. Though, to be fair, my room at this particular “four-star” hotel already has peeling wallpaper. (I predict a 90 percent chance of downgrades in the next edition of Rick Steves Rome.)
I know when I’ve been beat, so I sigh theatrically — the only meaningful response to the Roman Shrug — and try to get more precise directions to the (quite possibly hypothetical) taxi stand across the piazza. The bellhop halfheartedly offers to accompany me there, but at this point it will be a tremendous relief to simply cut ties entirely with the crack staff of the Grand Hotel Shrug. (Do they even give zero stars? Is that a thing?)
I trudge through brilliant sunshine across the piazza and make my way to Zara. The taxi stand has but one taxi. But one is all I need. Friendly Fabrizio hops out, loads my bag in the trunk, and rattles my fillings mounting a curb to catch a yellow light — getting me to Da Vinci Airport in record time. Grazie, Fabrizio!
As for the security line at the Rome airport…well, that’s another story, for another day.
This post is part of my “Jams Are Fun” series — designed for those who savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad. Like that time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea? Or the time I became embroiled in a gelato feud in a small Italian village? Or, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily.