When in Rome: An Expat Excuse for Thuggery

I love idioms as much as anyone, and use every opportunity during conversation to slip one in. Sometimes even without opportunity.

-How are you?

-In seventh heaven! On cloud nine! And that’s no pie in the sky!

-Umm, okay. Want to get something to eat, other than pie?

-How out of the blue! Oh would I like to!

-Uh, actually I just remembered I gotta go do something.

Yet despite my love of idioms, there is one commonly used idiom which now, when I hear it, causes me to cringe.

When in Rome.

Aside from being an unpleasant memory of an utterly dreadful romantic “comedy” from some years back, the use of “When in Rome” causes me distress in another way: I usually hear it just after something unethical or unseemly has taken place. In other words, “Yeah I threatened and harassed you, but when in Rome.” Which is to say, to justify or excuse malice or injustice.

Speaking from my own experience, I haven’t heard this idiom used once in a nice, pleasant way since being in Rome.

-Shall we go to the Colosseum tomorrow?

-Sure! When in Rome!

No. Instead I hear it in conversations like this:

-Why are there no trashcans around here? (wielding popsicle wrapper)

-I think there’s one further up.

(Drops wrapper on the ground)

-Well, when in Rome.

Amusingly, this is a justification most often mounted by expats, as it of course plays to perceived Italian stereotypes, such as those of Italy being corrupt or having trash strewn streets.

I’ve heard it used as an excuse for skipping a queue;

-No one else respects the line, so why should we? When in Rome…

For not buying bus or metro tickets;

-People always squeeze in after me. When in Rome. You go and I’ll squeeze in behind.

And for not tipping;

-Tip? Nobody tips here. When in Rome…

I admit that I have employed the “When in Rome” excuse for not tipping or tipping very little on more than a few occasions, but this stems from my understanding of server pay being based not purely on tips here (unless I have been misinformed).

But my personal favorite use of this idiom came after a former American employer (from Texas, naturally) at a school in Rome threatened to inform the carabinieri of my illegal Italian status once I told her I was quitting (despite having hired me anyway knowing full well I lacked the appropriate documents).

-When can I get my last payment?

-I’ll have the carabinieri bring it to your new school, (name of school excluded here).

-Are you threatening me?

-Not at all.

-You know what would happen if you threatened an employee in the U.S. like that?

-We’re not in the U.S. so, when in Rome…

Needless to say, I did not get deported and am not working for any crazy Texans anymore so that’s a positive. On the negative side, it goes without saying that expats who use “When in Rome” to justify thuggery only add to it, and rather than making a complicated but beautiful country better they just further drag it into the filthy mire of corruption and estrangement.

Not to mention the shame of misusing a beautiful idiom.

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