I grew up with this concept ingrained in my brain, long before I set my foot on the streets of the Eternal city or anywhere outside of my home country. Only we used the Russian version, translated as “Don’t go to someone else’s Monastery with your own set of rules”. My Mom is big on this concept and taught us to apply it virtually everywhere – from its original meaning of abiding by the customs of a society you are visiting, to respecting the rules of any place you go to in daily life. We carried it well into our adult lives as well. Got a new job? First learn how they really do things around there, develop appreciation for what’s been established before your time – and only then jump in with your helpful suggested changes. So, you get the point.
It wasn’t until later that I learned what the English saying sounded like. It intrigued me why of all places on Earth Rome and the Roman values were chosen by the British for bringing home this important message. Digging through online phrase dictionaries revealed that this proverb dated back to 390 AD resulting from the travel experiences of some early Christian saints. The saying wasn’t documented until the Middle Ages and got popularized last century. In fact it became so cliche that it’s recognizable even in its shorter version. People often say “When in Rome” but don’t always bother to finish the sentence.
I had to see Rome. Do you know the saying “All roads lead to Rome”? In my case it rang so true. While visiting family in England I got invited to the ancient Roman city of Bath a couple of hours to the west of London. That was a real treat for me and having this sneak peek into the Roman culture only further spiked my interest to see the real deal.
Last summer I was finally able to travel to Rome and was determined, in my Mom’s finest traditions, to use this chance and do as the Romans do. And who if not the Romans themselves are best to tell what they really want us to do while we are in their city. So I involved the locals in my quest. The people I met were nice about it. They showed a lot of pride in being Roman and not in an arrogant kind of way. The suggestions I got differed depending on who I talked to:
Try real pizza! Have lots of gelato! Experience the Opera! Travel back in time! Soak in the art!
I was on a mission to do as many of these activities as the time allowed. But I felt something was missing – most of the above spoke more for the general Italian values, not necessarily Roman.
Then one local caught me off guard: “We, the Romans are smart, be smart like us,” – he offered.
– Hmm, I thought – I want to be smart, at least for the time being, while in Rome.
– Stop wasting money on the bottled water. We drink running water – it’s so clean in Rome.
In fact I had noticed lots of water fountains throughout the city from simplest to more elaborate. Learning this water was drinkable, got really handy in the mid-August heat when no amount of purchased beverages seemed enough to get me through the day.
Turned out these fountains or the Nasoni, how they call them, carried fresh clean water from the Apennine mountains and were the heritage left from the ancient emperors, who used the original Roman aqueducts to provide for the city’s drinking and bathing needs. My smart new Roman friend Fabrizio Aquilanti eagerly shared that the Roman secret to keeping the water free from bacteria was to keep it moving. Apparently that was why they always built steps, even in the baths.
Things I saw and learned in Rome gradually moved my awareness from the general meaning of the famous saying to abide by the customs to its equally important and more specific meaning of why we should really do as the Romans do.
What truly struck me as a consumer and a Quality Management professional is the lasting quality that I saw in Rome which is the result of their ingenious engineering. While their magnificent architecture has all of the aesthetic external appeal the preceding Greek and Egyptian civilizations are known for, the Romans placed more importance on the integrity of the internal structure, the practicality of the design and the choice of materials. By being the first to discover concrete, use the fired bricks and master the art of building arches the Romans raised their architecture to a whole new level.
Here are only a few examples of the impeccable quality that withstood so far two millennia worth of natural disasters, war destruction and corrosion:
The Pantheon – with its dome of unprecedented scale that has been copied many times in history.
The Colosseum – the largest amphitheater of its time.
And I am most proud to announce that I stepped my foot on the legendary Roman roads that exist since the ancient Romans first created the paving system all the way in 300 BC!
There is a lot to say about the Roman quality – the level of which is worth striving for and worth bringing home with us. Having seen it firsthand I’m now present to a deeper meaning in the famous concept. Knowing how cliché it’s become and how people prefer to use its shorter version, I personally would leave out the first part and keep the rest. To me the true message is – learn what they’ve done right and do how they do it.
I couldn’t bring Rome home with me, so I brought back a piece to remind me every day of the year this important message: Be wherever you are, but do as the Romans do.