ROME — One of the more familiar results of Rome's annual August holiday, when most city dwellers flee for a month to cooler mountain and beach resorts, is that millions of house pets are abandoned temporarily to fend for themselves on the streets. Most of them are cats.
Coincidentally, the rats of Rome have enjoyed an unprecedented population boom during the past year as a result of a garbage strike and a general increase in edible refuse around the city, according to Rome zoologist Franco Tassi.
That should mean plenty of four-footed meals for homeless cats, right?
Wrong, according to the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, which quoted a cat-watching building superintendent as blaming the burgeoning rat population on the city's venerable "cat ladies"--mostly elderly women who follow a centuries-long Rome tradition of feeding stray cats.
"The old ladies give the cats so much to eat that they either just watch the rats or run away from them," the superintendent said.
Another cat-watcher told the newspaper that, in his opinion, the cats and the rats had reached what he called "a historic compromise." To make his point, he described a scene that he swears he witnessed last week.
"I saw cats and rats walking together," he said. "Then they threw themselves onto a mountain of rubbish. On one side, the cats had their meal, and on the other side the rats gorged themselves."
Cats are not very good at chasing rats anyway, said Franco Robustelli, described by Il Messaggero as an expert in animal psychology, because the rodent is "a ferocious creature which runs in packs while the cat is by nature solitary."
Robustelli suggested that instead of counting on cats to eradicate its rats, Rome should unleash a commando unit of fox terriers, a breed whose natural enemy is the rat.
Fabled Venice is anxiously trying to win back big-spending American tourists, many of whom opted to see America this year because of international terrorism or the plunging value of the dollar. The romantic, canal-crossed city's image has therefore taken on greater importance to concerned officials who fear that Venice's free charms were luring too many low-life types.
As a step toward upgrading the public image that more genteel and desirable tourists want to see, officials banned outdoor sleeping in public places, such as St. Mark's Square, where for years backpacking youngsters and bums have taken free lodging each summer night.
Another step toward preserving the purity of Venice for the edification of touring foreigners was not so successful.
Venice Tourist Commissioner Augusto Salvadori asked the city's 397 gondoliers to stop serenading their customers with non-Venetian songs. He was particularly upset by the all-time favorites among the romantic couples who rent the gondolas by the hour to glide through the city's canals--"O Sole Mio" and "Funiculi, Funicula." Both songs are distinctly of Naples origin.
"That's like welcoming visitors to New York with 'Oklahoma,' " one journalist complained.
"I maintain that the first welcome to the tourist should be a Venetian song," Salvadori said.
But the gondoliers ignored Salvadori's request, arguing that they are only businessmen giving the customers what they want and that the customers, particularly the Americans, want "O Sole Mio."
The familiar image of the free-spirited Italian motorcyclist whizzing through city streets or along the \o7 autostrada \f7 with hair dramatically tousled in the breeze is now just a memory. A strict helmet law now requires headgear for all motorcycle riders and for motor scooter riders younger than 18.
But the new law, which took effect in July, has created unforeseen problems. What do riders do with the helmets, which, for security reasons, cannot be carried into public places such as soccer stadiums? Most motorcycles have helmet locks, but many scooters do not.
Private entrepreneurs have provided the answer, establishing helmet parking lots outside the nation's soccer fields. It is now common to see thousands of crash helmets strung on lines, like laundry hung out to dry, when soccer teams clash.
Taking note of a good thing, Italy's National Olympic Committee added the helmet parking situation to its formal agenda for discussion this fall. The committee owns the main soccer stadium in Rome and has a vested interest in its concessions.
In Milan, the city government has opened its own helmet lots and offers free helmet parking, and in the northern city of Bergamo, officials sold the license to park crash helmets to a private company.
The cost of parking one's headgear in the private lots ranges from 35 to 70 cents.
Some sort of record for forbearance was set by Ambrogina Mameli, an 82-year-old from Carbonia, Sardinia, who was abandoned by her husband in 1950. She had not seen Giuseppe since then--until last week. That's when Giuseppe, now 81--who has been living all these years as a bachelor in Messina, Sicily--decided that he wanted to live out the rest of his life with his wife and five children in Sardinia.
Not all the children welcomed him, but Ambrogina said she was glad to have him back.
"Better late than never," she said. "I've forgiven him, but on one condition: that we don't hear a word of Sicilian spoken in the house."