Brits hear the word 'scooter', the picture which usually pops
up in our mind's eye is of the classic 1950's or early 60's Vespa
or Lambretta - The ones the mods all rode, with those bulbous
fairings over their rear wheels, half a dozen chrome wing-mirrors
on long stalks arraying the front fairing, a fibreglass whiplash
tank aerial with pennants flying from the tip, and fake bullet-hole
In England, scooters were just some
quirky fashion which came and went in the sixties. In the mid
seventies they enjoyed a small revival among Northern Soul afficianados,
and again in the post-punk era of the late seventies and early
eighties, when The Who released their filmversion of Quadrophenia,
and bands like The Jam, the Merton Parkas and Nine Below Zero
echoed mod culture and music, a similar resurgence of interest
in scooters and all things mod was brought about. In the nineties,
Brits are again looking seriously at scooters, though now this
pursuit is cooler than ever, as scarcity of those early sixties
machines in good running order has pushed up the prices to the
effect of making them antique collector's pieces. A '64 Lambretta
is now a status symbol for fashion-conscious young (and old)
professionals who wish to wallow in retro-style.
The scooter situation in Italy, and Rome in particular, is completely different from that in England. Nobody rides a sixties Vespa or Lambretta anymore! And why not? Because they're all riding nineteen-nineties scooters, not sixties ones!
Rome culture is a scooter culture because Romans have always ridden scooters, have never at any time stopped riding scooters, and will, for the foreseeable future continue to ride scooters evermore around their fabulously hip city.
Swoopy aerodynamic fairings and heavily
over-styled paint jobs in loud pearlescent colours, featuring
the kind of patterns and strobe-stripes we in England associate
more with Formula One racing motorbikes, powerboats or jet-skis.
There's lots of moulded plastic sculpturing and 'air-intakes'.
It's all a bit naff really. As with most things Italian, there
is style but no taste. There are small, medium and large sized
scooters, ranging right up to machines like the mega-mutha Honda
Spazio which is the scooter equivalent of a stretch-limo.
Many machines have electric-start and indeed they need to have, for the 'Highway Code' in Italy permits fourteen-year-olds to ride a moped or scooter, and kickstarts are no fun when you're fourteen.The most significant thing in all this is that scooter-riding is not a boys only province;
Any self respecting schoolkid has their own scooter or moped, and this of course means girls too. While British schoolgirls stand shivering in the rain at bus-stops, or hump mountain bikes uphills, bundled up in crash-helmets and anoraks, their Roman counterparts are whizzing their mopeds around the Piazza Venezia on the way to school, long hair streaming wildly in the warm breeze behind them (as crash helmets are not compulsory here). It's just way cooler than anything a British fourteen-year-old could ever hope to be in a million years... There is no driving-test for small-engine bikers as we in England know it (though it is mooted), which means that anyone, even the schoolkids, can take a pillion-passenger on the back with them. Whereas British schoolboys are emasculated by not being able to drive their girlfriends anywhere for a date until they are almost eighteen (at the very earliest, given the waiting time after the 17th birthday to take driving lessons and apply for a driving test), Italian boys, in contrast, are romantically mobile on mopeds at fourteen.
This means that Italian girls of fourteen and younger are used to being treated generously and well by their boyfriends, because girls already have their own scooters, and therefore their own mobility and consequent equality, independence and power. Think about it;
Girls can get to the cinema on their
own or ride with their own gang without needing an older boy
to take them. With such gender empowerment, Italian girls can
therefore demand a higher level of respect, loyalty and entertainment-value
from boyfriends, all in all adding up to a nation of young people
with a far more grown up attitude towards dating and responsibility
in romantic relationships than their British counterparts.
The scooter in Rome is much more than just a status symbol for schoolkids, (like, say, a pair of training shoes or a Nintendo console.) It is in fact a liberating influence within youth culture, and a catapult into the responsible world of adulthood.
Scooter-riding is not merely the domain of the young here though. People of all ages use them to commute to work.
And not just scooters; Equally numerous
on the streets of Rome are mopeds and motorcycles. Here again
the attitude is in complete contrast to that held in Britain,
where the moped has always been viewed as that shameful little
excuse for a gadget which sixteen-year-olds are doomed to ride
until they can pass a driving test, or as that which pensioners
who cannot afford a car have to ride: In Rome there is no such
stigma attached to moped ownership! It is a wonderfully classless
vehicle, on a par with cars such as the VW Beetle, Citroen 2CV,
or commonplace items like the Zippo cigarette lighter or Doc
Marten boots, all these things having acquired coolness, street-credibility
and thus respectability over the years, for the simple reason
they are cheap, cheerful,and peerlessly fulfill their original
design brief. Ownership of a moped is simply the most cost-effective
method of regular short-distance city commuting. Being a few
inches narrower than a scooter, it is also slightly better than
the scooter for weaving through traffic-jams. Most modern mopeds
are actually hybrid machines designed to look more like a scooter
with large wheels.
Whilst the average British pleb is used to being anonymously hidden from close scrutiny by huddling in his car, unshaven and hair unwashed and probably wearing some hideous 'shell-suit', in stark contrast, the average Roman is fully bodily visible whilst riding their moped or scooter, and the climate being favourable, will be attired in a shirt and tie and well-tailored jacket, or for women, a smart business suit or some example of the latest street-wear that makes her look as if she's ridden her machine straight off the pages of Elle. The scruffiness or cheap simplicity of the moped or scooter acts as a contrasting backdrop to the elegant dresser astride it, and the bike takes on the role of a photographer's prop in a fashion shoot.
If you're planning on spending a few
months in Rome, you can pick up a clean used machine for under
a thousand pounds. But even if you're only holidaying here for
a week or two, you can hire
a scoot for around twenty quid a day... Go for it!