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Letter from Rome, February 17, 2020: Broken trains, burning buses

Life in Rome is governed by what is called ordinaria follia — “everyday madness” is a fine rendering, but the expression is closer in meaning to the etymological roots of the two words that make it — ordinary folly.

Train in London. (Dan Roizer | Unsplash.com)

I was in London for business on Tuesday of this week, and the trains were not running. Not all of them were not running, mind. Just the ones on the line from Stansted to Liverpool Street, which happened to be the line I needed to get into the city. Long story short: I had to go out to Cambridge, then into the city from there.

I’d flown out of Rome on the first flight of the morning, and landed with four hours to spare before my meeting, which I made with about twenty minutes to spare.

On the way out, I did some reading I’d need for Wednesday, and on the way back, I knocked out the bones of the story I’d be filing for when the embargo lifted on Querida Amazonia — Pope Francis’s post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, which is a hifalutin’ way of saying it is an official encouragement to the Church — and, given the transit disruptions, I didn’t spend any time wandering the city.

Oh, well. Next time.

Londoners were used to the sort of disruption I experienced, and solicitous of this fellow, who was so obviously an out-of-towner. Guards waved me through turnstiles or swiped their badges when my underground pass wouldn’t work, and explained things twice or three times calmly and patiently, while the conductor required no explanation of me when I showed him a ticket for what I am pretty sure was the wrong railroad (but don’t quote me on that).

It was comforting, in a way.

Life in Rome is governed by what is called ordinaria follia — “everyday madness” is a fine rendering, but the expression is closer in meaning to the etymological roots of the two words that make it — ordinary folly.

Ordinary is an interesting word: Church types will recognize it as roughly synonymous with “diocesan bishop” — he’s the one who holds the power to teach, sanctify, and govern — and with the parts of the liturgy that do not change from day to day. So, the “ordinary” is what is ordered, but it is also what brings order, what establishes it and maintains it.

Ordinaria follia does say “everyday madness” but it also says that folly is the order of the day. That is an intriguing idea. It takes a while to get one’s head around it. It takes longer still to learn to inhabit a city that runs on it.

London’s trains are one thing, but here, buses occasionally catch fire.

By “occasionally” I mean more than two dozen of them last year and well over a hundred since 2016 (not all of them in service, and some of them were almost certainly arson). One wonders the numbers aren’t higher, truth be told. When one boards a bus in Rome, there’s no gate, no one to collect a fare. There’s an honor system for punching tickets.

Only occasionally are there transit personnel out to check tickets, and they’re frequently going for the low-hanging fruit: tourists who don’t know the system, or folks who look like they’d be willing to pay the fine to avoid other kinds of trouble. A monthly pass that gets you on every bus and subway line in the city costs €35, by the way.

Oh, about the subways, did I mention that Repubblica station was closed for the better part of a year after an escalator accident left dozens of people injured? The next two stations, at Piazza Barberini and the Spanish Steps, were closed for repairs for several months, as well. The peripheral station at Baldo degli Ubaldi is closed now, too, after an escalator malfunction.

The incidents that led to the closures led also to an inquest that produced evidence of fraudulent maintenance reports conducted by contractors who had allegedly offered cut-rate bids. Four top-level managers were served and eleven others were under investigators’ lights as of last fall.

Anyway, this is the city in which Church universal has its seat of government.

Romanitas may well convey the glory and the ancient grandeur of the Roman system, with all its pomp and pageantry. It also means you’d better get used to the idea the stairs could go out from underneath you, or your bus might burst into flames.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed the article and as a Londoner I’d still say I prefer the transport system in Rome, but maybe it’s because I love Rome so much.

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