With summer in full swing here, Romans have some new topics of conversation to take their minds off Italy's kidnappings, recent student unrest and spiraling terrorism that have made anyone under 25 look vaguely dangerous.
The major preoccupation of a majority of Romans now appears to be the suntan. With Rome only half an hour's drive from the beach, this means some pretty heavy traffic that contrasts with a recent slack caused by sky-high gasoline prices.
On Sundays, in fact, the highways leading to either Ostia, below Rome, or to Fregene, slightly above it, are packed with cars all morning and often totally clogged by the evening return.
The way to beat the beach traffic is to start out about 1 p.m., when the morning shift of Italians has closed its umbrellas and left for lunch.
Few Italians seem to go in for picnics as Americans know them and generally regard hardboiled eggs and homemade sandwiches with disdain. Generally convinced that the rays of o yole mio are safe only in the early morning or late afternoon, at midday they head for home or a nearby pine forest, where they set up tables and enjoy a full course meal from pasta to nuts.
Those who frequent the more luxurious bathing establishments that monopolize most of the shore line solve the problem by merely moving indoors for a sumptous meal in restaurants whose customers wear skimpy [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and countless gold chains.
This kind of eating will keep them out of the water afterwards for at least three hours, a hyper-cautious equivalent of the American one-hour wait that reflects not just the heaveiness of the Roman midday meal but a widespread indifference to the water.A surprising number of Italians cannot swim. Every summer, panic accounts for a startling number of drownings in relatively unthreatening circumstances.
There was a long court battle over whether the bathing establishments have a right to charge for access to the beach. A partially fair, and very Roman, solution was found.
The fee - which runs from 40 cents to over a dollar at the fancier places - is now labelled "beach service" and entitles a person to stake a towel anywhere on the grounds. Those who don't pay must sit within six yards of the waterline. That is thearea the magistrates have decided belongs to the citizens.
In other Italian regions - for example those bordering the Adriatic Sea - citizens are entitled to a bit more in these areas, there are fees for refreshments, beach chairs, and cabin rental, but not for entrance.
In those parts of Italy, the local government actually takes charge of keeping the beaches clean. Lazio's few stretches of free beach are usually revoltingly dirty and most people are forced to use the stabiliment, whose owners naturally charge for keeping things in order.
The onset of summer naturally brings vacation to mind and all over the city Romans can be heard vying to impress one another with their plans for "Le Vacanze." The duration of those plans, however, appears to depend on the outcome of a feud between two of the ministers in Premier Giulio Andreotti's Christian Democratic Cabinet.
The dispute started when Franco Maria Malfatti, the minister of education, moved the opening date for next fall's school session from late September to Sept. 15. He is convinced, that there is no persuasive reason why Italian children should have only 190 school days a year while the Swiss have 215, the West Germans 230 and the Austrians 240.
Under pressure from scores of hotel owners and travel agents, the minister of tourism, Dario Antoniozzi, strongly disagreed. He claimed any date before 26, would mean disaster for the vacation industry. Parliament seems to favor a compromise and is expected to pass a bill setting the date at Sept. 20.
LIKE THE POPPIES that bloom in the Roman spring, setting the neighborning fields ablaze with scarlet blossoms, the arrival of warm weather here also means the appearance of other familiar signs of summer, like watermelon stands and compact squads of Japanese tourists.
But according to one male Roman stroller, this year's most notable "blossoms" are the new Vigilesse or traffic policewomen, who appeared downtown on masse shortly after the May rains.
Dressed in tailored blue, the city's first female law enforcers have clearly decided to deal with Rome's mysoginist drivers by being tougher and much more rigorous than their male counterparts.
Outside the Rome Press Building for example, a round-the-clock detail of Vigilesse is turning back all motorists who aren't authorized to drive in this downtown sector. Even worse, they are forbidding representatives of the Fourth Estate to park outside their place of work.
This parking restriction was handled differently in the winter months by the white-helmeted male vigili. They preferred to hide in doorways taking down the license numbers of passing cars and slapping daily, and rarely paid, traffic tickers on reporter's cars.
According to neighborhood shopkeepers, this system was designed by the men to insure their overtime payments. The women's system is merely to keep the street clear.
"Whether or not the regulation is stupid is beside the point," a crisp brunette vigilesse told an argumentative Sixilian reporter the other day. "As long as I'm assigned here they'll be no parking, and that's all there is to it."