'Carp' Diem

From the Ponte Sisto in Rome, the view of St. Peter's is postcard perfect. The ancient bridge across the Tiber was built from remnants of various pillages--a chunk of marble from the Colosseum, a cornerstone from an ancient temple. Savor the moment but avert your eyes from the river. This summer it was a sewer of dead fish, killed by no one knows quite what. The stench still lingers and the embankments shimmer with an oily residue, festooned with dead carp and eels.

If a river is a city's symbolic lifeline, Rome is in trouble. It may be the Eternal City, but London or Paris it's not. While other European capitals grow ever more chic and modern, Rome is in a rut. If it's scenic vistas and good food you seek, great. But for cultural liveliness, business vibrancy and the conveniences of modern living? Forget it. Torpidity and decay seem to be Rome's watchwords. Yes, it's still the seat of government, proud citadel of a prosperous G7 nation and a leader of the European Union. But what to make of e-coop.it, one of the few online supermarkets to serve the capital? It promises efficient 24-hour service anywhere else in Italy. But in Rome, where traffic, strikes and chaos rule, deliveries can take up to 48 and even 72 hours. If you want fresh fish, you'd do just as well to get it from the river.

Psychobabblists have a phrase for such troubles. Trying to portray itself as a modern capital of Europe, yet unable to follow through, Rome is suffering an acute identity crisis. Once the seat of a great empire, it has through history been sacked, burned and given up for lost. It has been led astray by leaders from Nero to Mussolini. Rome has always bounced back from adversity with a catlike resilience. But can it do so again?

These days nary a major bank or corporation in Italy makes Rome its headquarters. Milan, with inviting amenities and an adopted northern European ethic of efficiency and punctuality, is the country's business center. For culture, it's Florence or Venice. While those cities have invested considerable time and treasure in promoting their attractions, Rome has not. Pop stars and performers of every stripe, finding Rome to be a sure money-loser, have written the city off their European tours. Rome remains a place of pilgrimage, sacred and secular. But tourism, a mainstay of the city's economy, has slumped, down from 4.1 million in 2000 to an estimated 3.8 million in 2002. In November, American Airlines and Northwest will suspend service to the city for lack of demand. Delta and Continental have already slashed their flights.

Small wonder, as many natives see it. To them, Rome has become an inconvenient and frustrating place, plagued by crumbling infrastructure and crotchety service. Its monuments escaped the devastation of World War II, thankfully. But one consequence is that living conditions can be positively medieval. The city's winding narrow streets, part sidewalk and part motorway, make commerce difficult (as e-coop.it can attest). Infrastructure is notoriously primitive, from balky plumbing and intermittent electricity to bad phone service. Less than a third of the city's dwellings are equipped with such modern conveniences as a clothes dryer. "Rome is unquestionably beautiful," says Ettore Rotelli, who heads Metropolitan Italy, a committee working to modernize the city. "But it is not user-friendly."

To be sure, Rome's problems are not all its own. Terrorism is partly to blame for the falloff in tourism. With threats against the U.S. Embassy, as well as the Vatican, jittery travelers are staying away. But Rome also has something of an attitude problem. Alan Epstein, author of a best-selling portrayal of daily life, "As the Romans Do," explains it this way: "Rome isn't going to change for anyone," he says. "You have to change for the city." Amid the weltering forces of globalization, he adds, Rome has sought to preserve itself as "the largest village in the world." It avoids the newfangled, sticking with the tried and true. (PC and Internet usage, for instance, is among the lowest in Europe.) As for the multicultural diversity that distinguishes other international cities, such as New York or Berlin, Rome is happy to do without. A telling sign: it has the lowest ratio of ethnic restaurants per capita of any other global city, according to Italy's national statistics agency.

There's another Roman attitude. So what if services are antiquated and infrastructure unsound? "Look around you," says Mayor Walter Veltroni. "With so much beauty, how can you possibly complain?" As for modern services, he says, Rome will get around to them sooner or later. After all, it was among the first in Europe to institute car-free Sundays in the city center. Public transportation is fast and cheap, at least when not on strike. The city spruced up for the Year 2000 Jubilee, almost on time. All roads may no longer lead to Rome, alas. But remember: the place wasn't built in a day.