In the film Roman Holiday, when Gregory Peck’s character treated Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann to a gelato from a street cart at the Spanish Steps, it was no ordinary ice cream cone. It was an act of rebellion for the proper, demure Princess Ann, tasting of freedom and sensual pleasures. In today’s Rome, it would also be a misdemeanor.
When in Rome…
Last week’s mayoral decree banned snacking in the city’s historic center—the areas around centuries-old monuments and archeological sites like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, and pedestrian gathering spots like Piazza Venezia, Piazza Navona, and yes, the Spanish Steps. An ill-placed slice of pizza can result in a fine of up to 500 euros (around $650).
On the surface, the new law is about historic preservation, targeting the garbage that litters popular sights and the exhaust that spews from double- and triple-stacked cars left idling while the drivers pop out to a food stall. Beneath the surface it’s a rap on the knuckles of immigrants and tourists; the real agenda is to curb the indecorous behavior of these vulgar visitors who don’t have the requisite Roman élan. Romans, and really most Europeans, don’t eat and drink on the street. Pizza is eaten as a whole pie with a fork and knife, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Roman coffee bar that even stocks to-go cups.
Death by condescension
In Paris, a city whose citizens’ reverence for mealtime is matched by their supercilious bearing, there’s no law against public eating, but it’s still criminal in a Parisian’s eyes. They self-police the streets with withering looks and a snide ‘bon appetit‘ for the offenders. Bite off the end of a baguette on the way home from the boulangerie and the neighbors will ask ‘Was that you I heard of eating in the middle of the street? Mais non!‘
It’s like a great big moveable feast
Here in the U.S. we eat standing up at food trucks, sitting in the barber’s chair, and walking down the street; we nosh our way through supermarket aisles and eat breakfast standing on line at the ATM. And we’re talking about FOOD; not candy bars and bagels, but the kind that isn’t pulled out of a briefcase or a handbag and requires two hands to work the utensils.
We do draw the line at the messy and the malodorous in confined spaces. The one place public eating is frowned upon is on public transit. Some cities, like Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco have official no-food-on-train policies with varying degrees of enforcement—you’ll see brazenly consumed take-out Thai food on SF’s BART trains, while the DC Metro police had to ease up after the arrest of a 12-year old girl with an after-school snack of french fries was mocked in national media.
New York City struggles with the lenient food policy of its subway system, where nuisance aside, there’s an impressive rat problem. Every few years some New York state senator or other will introduce a bill that would outlaw eating on subways, and every few years it’s slapped down. New Yorkers, who’ve always taken pride in their own, urban variety of grit, have a grudging respect for the heartiness of their fellow subway riders who are able to negotiate the jolts and jostles of the moving train and are unfazed by the contact their hands have made with stair railings and turnstiles, and now food.
Most of us, as long as we’re not lapsing into a coma of food deprivation, would just as soon wait until we’re back home and sitting at our own kitchen table. Or at least wait until we’re back above ground. But to be compelled to do as a matter of law would be an unacceptable assault on everyday freedoms.