Rome is the one big city where I’ve always felt safe. Sure there are no shortage of pickpockets, but those are primarily in the more touristy areas and for the most part, as long as you are careful with your bags, wallets, etc, you are fine. I feel very safe walking the streets at night alone and I’m fairly certain I am not going to be held-up at gunpoint for my wallet – not really the Italian style of thievery.
That being said, I’ve always been fascinated by what I believe is an obsession with security among Italians. Perhaps it is just second nature. After centuries of needing to protect themselves against external threats from the barbarian hoards (Ostragoths, Visigoths, etc), the Gauls, the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, etc, they feel as though its best to be prepared just in case. In fact, you can see the this long held concern with security in the remnants of ancient Roman walls around town. These walls continued to be actively used and repaired over time. This is door called the Porta San Paolo originally built in the 4th century on a segment of one of the walls that encircles the city. The Porta San Paolo came in handy when the Ostrogoths tried to attack the city in the 6th century and in the 20th century the Italians managed to hold off a segment of the German army at this door.
In addition to those external threats, there was also the possibility that your neighbor might get angry and come after you, particularly after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages, when Italian cities were run by powerful families who built defensive towers beside their homes. When things got tense among the various families ruling the town and it looked like violence would erupt, everyone retreated into these towers to fight it out. Here is an example of one that is found in Trastevere not far from where I live.
So, perhaps all this would explain Italian doors. Here is a picture of mine.
For those of you who have no experience with this type of door it seems to operate like this: there are crossed bars running along the width and length of the door and when you leave, you turn a skeleton key in the lock several times which moves the bars into catches in the floor and ceiling. This, I suspect, makes lock-picking useless. In fact, I’m certain the only thing that you might use to open this door other than a key would be a battering ram. There are no doorknobs, just a catch that you slide over to open the door.
I’ve never actually felt a need to activate the moving bars when I am in the apartment, so I’m not quite sure how to do it. That is, until yesterday.
The apartment I have rented is up for sale and a realtor brought a prospective buyer over to look around. Afterward, they left, shutting the door behind them and the agent, in what she probably thought was a polite act, put her skeleton key in the lock and started moving those bars. At the time, I was sitting on the couch, working on my Italian language homework. As I saw the bars moving into place I thought: “I have absolutely NO idea how to get out of here”. I ran to the door and saw that if I pulled back a little cover there was a place for my key, but I find in Italy, its best not to assume something will work like it is supposed to. Best to expect the worst—the power will go out if you turn on the stove and the heater at the same time, there will only be 5 minutes of hot water, etc.—and if it doesn’t happen, you are pleasantly surprised.
So, after examining the door and then hearing the front door to my building close, I felt like I had only one clear option. I ran to the window and threw it open and yelled out “Scusi signora” and then proceeded in broken Italian to explain that I wasn’t sure how to unlock the door. She and the prospective buyer looked up at me probably thinking . . . well who knows what they were thinking, but she kindly walked back into the building, up the stairs and set me free. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief at the fact that I wasn’t going to have to climb out of my apartment from my second story window and managed to squeak out a ‘grazie mille, signora’, she replied ‘niente’ (its nothing) as she walked away.