On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Rome holds allure despite negative image

We had arrived in Rome
ahead of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak who was making a
working visit to Italy.

Despite being a seasoned traveller, I had a phobia about Italy.
A colleague was robbed in broad daylight some years back and arrangements had
to be made to send him some money because he was left penniless by the
small-time Mafia.

Before leaving Kuala Lumpur,
I looked at several websites on Rome.
Many of them warned first-time visitors like me of the dangers of the Italian

One item warned that on arrival at the airport, you may
be approached by people claiming to be employees of the Rome Tourist Board. I
had no such problem.

I read about the indifferent police officers who enjoy
sending victims from station to station just to lodge a report. Sounds

Another item told of greedy taxi drivers ready to fleece
visitors. However, my ride from the airport to the hotel at Viale Castro
Pretoria, near the Coliseum, was a pleasant one.

Despite all the negative reports, particularly about the
notorious gypsy pickpockets, tourists from all over the world continue to visit

Many like me would hold on tightly to our bags when we
visit tourist spots, fearing we would be relieved of our wallets.

In July 2000, ex-Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson lost
US$4,000 after being accosted by a small group of gypsy girls at the famous Via
Veneto – and they outran him.

Like Malaysia,
Rome has its fair share of snatch
thieves, too. Men in scooters often prey on tourists.

But Italian officials are not worried by these negative
reports. Some Malaysian officials, on the other hand, have tried to coax the
press into not reporting cases of snatch thefts, saying the publicity would
drive away tourists.

It is all very silly. By highlighting these issues,
tourists would appreciate our concern in fighting crime.

In Jakarta or
Manila, snatch thieves would not
make front-page headlines because they are so common.

But in Malaysia,
the public and the media are angry because our streets used to be safe. We want
the police to deal with these crooks effectively.

Rome reminds
me of New York. It is noisy,
dusty, dirty and chaotic. Even the Metro trains have similar graffiti painted
on them.

Unlike Singapore,
which is sterile but pretends to be hip and hot, Rome
oozes energy. But the Italians don't believe in rules; you only have to look at
the way they park their vehicles.

has one of the biggest economies in the world, producing some of the finest
names in cars and fashion but its government and social structure are
comparable to that of a banana republic.

Rome is a
city of contrasts. I attended the service at St Peter's where the aura of the
place, especially its pale rays of heavenly light, can move to tears tough and
cynical journalists like me.

I also "weep" later at the Vatican's
souvenir shop where nuns were selling expensive religious memorabilia. The weak
ringgit against the strong euro would make my stay an expensive one.

As I was about to finish this article, a colleague called
up to find out whether the cunning gypsies had got their hands on me.

Not as far as I know, I said. But give the gypsies time –
it was only my first day in town.