As I ate, I noticed protesters filling the street outside the window; they set off pink powder flares and chanted as they moved past the café. None of the other customers took any notice of them; they just sipped their coffees and chatted away. But I went outside to watch the young people holding banners with slogans that I couldn't understand. Curious, I stopped two young women and asked them what they were protesting.
"We're anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-environment." She stopped her roll of "antis" to correct herself. "No, not anti-environment," she said with a laugh. As I walked down the sidewalk against the current of students enjoying their protest, I came across the line of police following them. They kept their distance, strolling in a laid-back fashion, as if protests were just a daily neighborhood occurrence.
Later, I wandered the back streets of Testaccio past the old apartment blocks with laundry hanging from the windows and walls covered with neon graffiti. Small restaurants with Roman specialities dotted the streets. It took me a few minutes to realize there wasn't a single shop selling gladiator helmets, selfie sticks or post cards. I was still a tourist but on those quiet streets I didn't feel like one.
I found my way to the Testaccio Market, a centerpiece of life here. The market's been around for about a century as not only an important shopping venue but a meeting place for locals. For most of its time, it was outdoors but several years back city officials, claiming the need for better hygiene, turned into an indoor market. At the time, there were fears the spirit of the market would be ruined but it appears the fears were unfounded. Besides, the market's glass roof makes it feel light and airy.
On any given day, locals clog the aisles to buy from the more than a hundred shops and restaurants. Oh, there are other tourists around. But on the days I visited, we were in the minority as shoppers checked the freshness of the artichokes, chatted with clerks—some who looked like they'd worked there for many of the years the market has existed—and blocked the way to admire babies and catch up on gossip.
It was noon the first time I went to the market; the wine bar selling by the glass was already busy. I noticed a sign for an Amarone for six euros, settled on a stool and ordered one. My drink came with a tin bucket filled with crispy potato chips and a platter of appetizers which the bartender seemed willing to refill endlessly even though I stuck to one glass. The two bartenders had good reason to be friendly. I noticed they checked the display of open bottles often and when they discovered there wasn't enough in a bottle to serve a customer, they poured the wine into glasses and drank it themselves, often mixing the remains of different wines.
The last day I visited the Testaccio market was a Saturday, a day more frenzied than any other. Every table inside the market and outside was filled with couples and families eating lunch after filling their shopping bags. Parked cars circled the streets around the market and, because there were not enough spaces, other cars were double parked around the first ring of cars. As I was leaving the market, I heard the constant honking of a horn. A woman who had parked properly was stuck in a layer of cars. When she wasn't honking her horn, she stood on the sill of the car door yelling frantically into a phone, reading licence plate numbers from the cars around her.
No one paid her any attention. Those who did look up from their meals laughed. She was still standing there honking and yelling when I left half an hour later, knowing I'd visited a true Roman neighborhood of eccentric history, glorious food and pure Italian chaos.
Debi Goodwin is the author of the non-fiction book, Citizens of Nowhere. Her memoir on grief and gardening, A Victory Garden for Trying Times, will be published by Dundurn Press in Canada in September of 2019.
Get Me to a Nunnery in Rome - Susan Van Allen
Days of Celebration in Small-town Umbria - Debi Goodwin
A Hedgehog Hospital in Italian Wine Country - Claudia Flisi
Hiding the Cannoli in Sicily - Kirsten Koza
See other Europe travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy Citizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus at your local bookstore, or get it online here: