When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Stroll into a glitzy café in the Piazza Navona, call for magnificent espresso in tiny cups, eat a pizza the size of a carpet, exclaim over silver dishes piled with desserts of spectacular hues.
Or if that doesn't take your fancy, when in Rome, you can simply do as I did.
I was 23, in the city alone, and too timid to stride into one of these cafés. Too awkward to approach a waiter and ask to be seated. Or do you ask? And, if so, how do you ask?
I wandered round the squares, trailing my fingers in the fountains, wishing I was brave and cosmopolitan enough to just take a seat and have a coffee, but I was stricken with that exquisite British terror of doing the wrong thing.
So I skulked away from the teeming cafes and found a supermarket on the Via Nazionale, opposite my hotel. Each day, I bought bread and sausage and fruit and bottled water there. I made up picnics in my room every morning and shoved them into my bag, pretending to myself as I stepped onto the dazzling street that I was being adventurous, for I shall see the 'real' Rome, and not be hemmed in at a tiny touristy table. No, I'll be out there, pounding the streets, seeing the sights - whereas really I was just too damn shy to enter a foreign restaurant alone.
I unwrapped my limp food parcels under shimmery trees in the Villa Borghese and told myself this was the best way.
Thirsty, I stopped to buy a can of 7Up. I handed over a five euro note and received a tiny smattering of copper in change. I knew I'd been cheated but didn't have the guts or the language to protest, so I crept outside and drank my 7Up on the hot Spanish Steps, smarting at my gaucheness, and how scared I was of doing the wrong thing, for I'd rather have handed the shopkeeper the five euro note than to have had to ask, in stuttering Italian, how much it was and to then paw around in my unfamiliar money for the exact change and have him tut and flap his hands at me.
I drank my 7Up and tried to convince myself I was brave, coming here alone. Brave enough to travel across Europe, perhaps, but still flushed with anxiety when it comes to dealing with people.
At the top of the Spanish Steps was a tiny creaking cart selling ice cream. There was a board propped against it listing flavours and prices. Being stationed on the Spanish Steps, the seller was clearly aiming for the tourist trade so his board made it painfully easy to order. Just state your flavour and hand over the coins. Easy. I can do that.
Triumphant, I made the transaction, got my gelato vaniglia and was puffed up with courage. I wolfed it down then skipped back up the steps to buy more, but this time no vanilla for me. No, I'm brave and cosmopolitan now. I'll have lampone this time, or alla menta or al gusto di pecan. There will be no stopping me. I was so proud of myself that I wanted to keep the tiny pink and turquoise plastic spoons as souvenirs.
So, after my gelato transactions I was fine. I was sturdy and courageous. I could wander into a café, perch my sunglasses in my hair and order coffee. I kicked myself for the wasted days slinking round the Eternal City, timid and awkward, living off supermarket bread. Well, no more. Goodbye to the British fear of doing the wrong thing!
Well, that was eight years ago, and I managed to bring the sentiment back from Rome, but there is one aspect of life where the fear of doing the wrong thing still predominates, and that's when going on a date.
I was out with a man last week who had suggested coffee and 'we can stay on for dinner if it goes well'. This was very pragmatic and honest of him, but it did lend a frisson of tension to the coffee stage as I couldn't help wondering if I'd passed his test and if dinner would be, quite literally, on the table.
So, throughout my Americano there was the thought am I doing the right thing? Has he been sufficiently impressed to suggest we stay for dinner? I tried to summon up the spirit of the sun-kissed Roman Julie, striding proud and confident through the Eternal City but she had vanished somewhere, leaving rain-weakened Glaswegian Julie, nervous and jittery. Am I doing the right thing?
The matter was decided when he went to the bar and brought back some menus, which he slapped down on the table.
'Let's eat,' he announced and I knew I'd passed his test.
After dinner there was the usual awkwardness over who should pay. The old rule (and the one I like) is that the man pays, but in our politically correct times you can't rely on such gentlemanly conduct, so the safest rule to live by is that it's the one who suggests dinner who should pay. But then, this man had suggested coffee, and maybe dinner, so the rule doesn't apply here. Oh dear, the terror of doing the wrong thing!
I decided to play it safe, so when the waitress brought the bill I fished in my bag for my purse. This is the point at which any man worth his salt will be insulted and insist he is paying. There were no such exclamations of horror emanating from his side of the table, so I pulled out £30 and placed it in the saucer.
He looked at the money and said 'but I wanted to pay my half by card.'
'Pay by card, then,' I said, not meeting his eye. I sipped my gin and looked out of the window.
'But my half will be £24, so don't you have change? If you can throw in £22 I can just put the rest on my card.'
'I don't have change.'
'Well, why don't I pay £31 on the card and you can just put in a round £15?'
'They'll give you change if you ask at the bar.'
I scraped my seat back and reached for the saucer.
He touched my wrist. 'I'm joking.'
I couldn't tell he was joking, because I was so stricken with terror at doing the wrong thing. I was so keen to either let him pay or, failing that, to neatly halve the bill, that I couldn't see the cheeky glint in his eye. I'd rather have snatched the saucer, taken it to the bar, got the change, and handed him a saucer of precise coins and notes, than indulge in a bit of humour and banter about who's paying.
Awkwardness reigned. I sat back in my chair and looked down at my drink. Why can't I summon up Roman Julie when I need her? Why can't I revive the spirit of that trip where I swore to stop being timid? I wish I could act like that again, proud and dauntless, as I was in Rome.
Truly, when on a date, do as the Romans do.
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