The Sweet Life in Rome

The past in Rome is like a living organism tethered to the city. It’s literally ever-present. Hidden behind nearly every turn is a thousands-year-old monument, a visual testament to the city’s eternal grandeur and complicated legacy. It’s easy to marvel at the feats of the ancient engineers of the Colosseum, but then you remember the bloodshed and the horror. You envision the fear in the gladiators’ eyes, the murderous glee in those of the spectators. But “it’s so beautiful,” you think, and so inescapably modern. There are grand lessons to be learned from this, I’m sure. Something about humanity’s dual nature. Why were we–still are–capable of such violence? Big questions. Complicated answers. The city is more than a history lesson, though. There’s life here. It pulses through every winding curve and swims among the cobblestones. It’s alive in the Romans themselves, whose passion for their city informs everything about it. There’s a magic here that’s hard to put into words. It’s most evident at night, when the bright green ivy bristles on the ochre stucco of the ancient neighborhoods and the fountains glow holy in the piazzas. The wine is cheap, the food indulgent and unpretentious. It hooks you. After we returned from our trip, a relative, now in her eighties, said the following wonderfully poignant thing: “We thought we’d see the world, but we kept going back to Rome.”

There are imperfections, too. Rome doesn’t have the picturesque elegance of Paris or the renovated facade of Madrid. It’s just a tad rough around the edges, especially outside the touristy areas. Locals complain about basic services. Pedestrians fight with Fiats and Vespas for street dominance. But the undeniable beauty of Rome, my god. And the permanence afforded to it by its history. It feels truly eternal. A place that was, is, will forever be.

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From top: Chicory fettuccine and bucatini all’amatriciana; the Pantheon at night; the streets of Trastevere; the Colosseum; the Roman Forum; rigatoni carbonara at Perilli in Testaccio; ruins and Il Vittoriano; a view of Il Vittoriano from the American Bar at the Hotel Forum; steep steps; the Spanish Steps from above; charcuterie and wine dinner near Piazza Navona; Campo d’Fiori; anchovy and zucchini blossom pizza at Dar Poeta in Trastevere; Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere; a Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto; beautiful streets; cheese and anchovy-stuffed fried zucchini blossoms in the Jewish Ghetto; the Great Synagogue; the Pantheon oculus; Villa Borghese, Rome’s main park; drinking wine on our roof; the view from our rooftop; cheap, delicious gelato all over Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the gardens of the Vatican; Roman streetscape; Pizzarium near the Vatican; a bookstore with an amazing selection of vintage Italian posters, around the corner from Pizza Navona; the lovely, winding streets of Rome

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An Ode to the Tourist

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Image via THOR, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license

What do you get when you distill travel to its essence? Is it experiencing new cultures? Or, getting outside of yourself and your routine? Or maybe, is it, at its core, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes? Travel can be life-affirming in the best possible way: sweeping vistas and exotic foods–a new breeze under a new sun. Those are the ideals of travel. The reality, while often still pleasurable and picturesque, can also be frustrating and rage-inducing. It’s trying to figure out what a gate agent is saying when there’s been a flight delay or accidentally ending up in the wrong part of the city after you’ve misread a map. (Actually, the latter can be quite serendipitous if you don’t have elsewhere to be.) It’s tempting to think it’s just us Americans who stick out so prominently when abroad. But everyone, no matter how cultured or worldly, is a tourist when they’re away from home.

The idea of tourism as shared experience is heartening and can be, at times, liberating. Once you realize you’re in the same boat as all other travelers, your insecurities can melt away. On a recent trip to Italy I saw a group of hip young French girls eating at a cozy trattoria, a supersize Lonely Planet guide unabashedly propped on their table. I often try to read guidebooks inconspicuously so my husband and I aren’t branded *TOURISTS* without being given a chance to adapt to the local culture, but seeing theirs so prominently displayed made me say “who cares?” On a day trip to Florence, we spotted another young French traveler who was flummoxed by the Italian word for “check.” She had thought she said it correctly, but the waiter was confused. I felt for her as I had, on our first day in the country, said muy bueno (“very good” in Spanish) instead of molto bene (“very good” in Italian) when asked how a certain dish tasted. It was a slip of the tongue for which I have no explanation. This is what travel is, though–it’s bumbling, self-effacing, humbling. So much of travel writing is devoted to telling us how to blend in with the locals, either by way of what we’re wearing or how we speak or which places we choose to dine. But this “blending in” tends to be ineffective no matter how hard we try. Every expertly pronounced request to a taxi driver to take us to, say, Trastevere (pronounced tras-TEH-ve-ray) or Termini (pronounced TAIR-mee-nee) was coupled with a sense of pride followed by an immediate reality check when he inevitably followed up with an Italian phrase I couldn’t quite decipher.

My husband and I are American; we’re not, nor will we probably ever be, Italian (or French or Spanish). We’re respectful and we’re kind and we’re curious when we travel, but no matter how polished our demeanor, we’ll eventually be found out as tourists (is it the shoes? the haircuts? our excessive smiling?). We are visitors, after all. And it’s okay if they know. Maybe better, even. At a cozy charcuterie spot near Piazza Navona in Rome we met a waitress who was enamored of New York City. She visited once a year and told us about all of her favorite spots. I was thankful she had asked where were from and we were able to answer honestly.

Maybe the essence of travel has something to do with cross-cultural pollination; them learning as much from you as you are from them. As we fumbled through our interactions in Italy, we discovered a lot more about this place we chose to call home for just a little while. We let the ancient Roman ruins and the swaying ivy seep into our bones, the memories settle into our brains as a catalog of our lives. At the end, we were still tourists, yes, but we were more at ease with the city; it was now an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger.

On our last day in Rome I spotted a young American family standing on a bridge on the Tiber river. The mom was wearing a cute sundress, while the dad was outfitted like an American traveler caricature–safari hat, cargo shorts, tube socks and white running shoes. Their bright-eyed children were smiling widely at the dad’s pointed camera. When he was done taking pictures, the dad looked out over the rooftops of the Eternal City. The day was bright and bursting with potential. His contentment was palpable. Here he was, on the trip of a lifetime, with a wife and kids who were just excited as he was. Does it get any better? Were they going to be dining at the grimy, off-the-beaten-path trattorias or spending time with working class locals at suburban markets? Probably not. But they were away from home. And there was beauty to experience. And for them, I think that was enough.

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