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Question: When in Rome, should one actually do as the Romans do or is it all a farce?
Answer: Every traveler to the Big Boot faces this dilemma, but the important thing to remember is discretion. Spending an afternoon at The Coliseum is a fine idea. Dispatching 100 legions to invade Gaul, on the other hand, will make you stick out, especially if you’re wearing khaki shorts and sneakers.
If you choose to do as the Romans do, you must next figure out exactly what the Romans did. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of consensus on this point. For instance in the song ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ there’s a clear reference to ‘16 Vestal Virgins,’ but almost everyone not in Procul Harum agrees that there were only six virgins protecting the sacred fire at the temple of Vesta. Also, a virgin who broke her vow of chastity was usually buried alive as punishment, so keep that in mind if you’re on some sort of church-sponsored, teen-abstinence kick.
The rest of you, however, should consider the following scenario: You’re a single, American man sitting in a café on Via Veneto and the hot woman from Il Postino (who’s a documented sure-thing for homely, sensitive guys like yourself) starts giving you the pizza-pie eyes from the next table. After a period of subtle flirtation, she walks over and whispers in your ear ‘Possiamo andare al vostro hotel?’ You don’t speak a lick of Italian, but you heard the word ‘hotel’ loud and clear and now you need to formulate an easily understood, non-verbal response in the affirmative. The old thumbs up should do the trick.
Or will it?
It’s a widely-held belief that the thumbs-up/thumbs-down convention (which reached its apogee in 1986 with Roger Ebert’s positive review of Top Gun) originated in the Roman Coliseum. According to legend, spectators would determine the fate of defeated gladiators by indicating ‘thumbs up’ (if he fought bravely and they wanted to spare him) or ‘thumbs down’ (if he had made an ass of himself at the end of the chariot race by pulling a Sharpie from his leggings to sign autographs).
But some Latin scholars think that’s backwards. They believe ‘thumbs up’ was a vote for the victor to run through the vanquished man with his sword, while ‘thumbs down’ was a call for him to lay down his weapon, letting his foe live to fight again.
There’s even a third school of experts who believe that the sign to finish the fallen gladiator was to extend the thumbs of both hands and stab them furiously in the air, miming the act of impaling. If they wanted to set him free they would curl their fingers around their thumbs to hide them. (Many think this is the origin of that weird little fist girls make.)
One should be a bit skeptical of this third theory, for no other reason than the difficulty one would have discerning the outcome. Can you imagine if the House vote on Arctic drilling resulted in 223 Republicans waving their thumbs crazily in the air while 208 Democrats tried to hide their thumbs in the most conspicuous manner possible? You don’t want to be sitting next to David Bonior when that happens, let me tell you.
Anyway, back to our Italian date. What do you do? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Wild, thumb-stabbing gesticulations in every direction?
As someone who’s never been to Italy (but who has recently returned from Paris), I’m telling you not to worry about it. They all speak English over there, even the ones who pretend they can’t understand you, or claim they’ve never heard of a goddamn club sandwich
So my advice in this situation is to do exactly what you’d do in America if a beautiful stranger approached you in a restaurant and asked you to bring her back to your room.
Run to the bathroom and throw up.