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.




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


An Ode to the Tourist


Image via THOR,; 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.

Sometimes, It’s Work

Nearly 2 years ago, I read about a movie called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in the New Yorker magazine. A remake based on a James Thurber short story from three-quarters of a century ago, the film was in production for years. It’s directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who has proclaimed it a passion project. The movie came out a few months ago, and though I haven’t seen it, it’s advertised as a parable about embracing adventure and not leading a normal, dormant life.

Walter works a boring job at the soon-to-be defunct Life magazine. A final assignment sends him on a trip around the world, and he finally gets to realize the adventures he’s daydreamed about for years.

What struck me is that Walter works in New York City, in midtown Manhattan to be precise. New York City is a place that people from all of the world fantasize about seeing, even if only once. It is the dream they daydream about. I remember the awe of a Paris taxi driver when my husband and I mentioned we had come from NYC. “I dream of going there one day,” he said. “But you live in PARIS!,” I wanted to respond.

Which is kind of the point. Everywhere else seems like the cure to our sometimes boring, stale lives, which can often feel like Walter’s. And though I love to travel–absolutely love it–there’s something to be said for appreciating where you are, especially when that place is NYC. Chasing the newest, best, most exciting cultural experiences can ultimately feel unfulfilling.

And at a time like this, when everyone is so completely worn out from this horrid winter, keeping the spark alive between you and your city is, well, work. It means getting out even for a few hours, even when you don’t really feel like it. It means appreciating the frigid beauty of a long winter in the city, snow-covered parks and all (pictured below). It means feeling grateful that you get to interact with people from all walks of life every single day, even if on a crowded subway.

Plus, spring is just around the corner. I can feel it.


The Kinship of Cities

There are a handful of attributes that are true of many Western world capitals:

  • The public transit system is labyrinth-like, but efficient.
  • The streets are crowded and buzzy.
  • The neighborhoods are distinct and their residents proud.
  • The people may appear gruff, but are generally polite and even helpful.

If you’re going to Paris or London or Buenos Aires, you know you can expect the above. I love these attributes. Cities are where I am most comfortable. Coming from New York, the controlled chaos feels familiar and manageable. In fact, I’m always amazed at how quickly a brand new city can feel like home.  It’s quite heartening. My husband and I like to jump right into the deep end by taking public transit from the airport upon arrival, if we’re not too tired. I love the challenge of quickly deciphering a complex metro system. (No, really, I do.) We also prefer to rent an apartment in a residential neighborhood as opposed to staying in a hotel. If you don’t care about having a dozen towels at your disposal or troubleshooting an issue if something goes wrong, it’s an ideal way to feel like a real resident (well, as close as you can get on a week-long vacation).

This past September, we traveled to Spain and rented apartments in Madrid and Barcelona. I loved both. And both felt like home instantaneously.

Madrid is the true heart of Spain, with busy boulevards and a familiar big-city feel. From the similarities between Central Park and Retiro Park, Times Square and Sol (complete with sketchy people in character costumes), the Upper East Side and Salamanca, the Met and the Prado, the city felt almost earily similar to NYC. We found Madrileños to be fun-loving, friendly and cultured. I’d read about Madrid’s brusqueness, but found none in practice. People were very polite and helped us with everything from directions to picking out menu items. (A Spanish phrasebook did come in handy for when the answer to “Habla usted Inglés?” was a distinct “no”.)

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From top: first taste of jamón at Mercado de San Miguel; wine and stuffed olives; seafood at Mercado de San Miguel; the lake at Retiro Park; looking west from Retiro Park; the bar inside Viva Madrid; tortilla española breakfast; El Rastro flea market; jamón sandwich window display; Real Madrid stadium after a game; tapas at Txakolina; churros and chocolate at Chocolateria San Ginés; breakfast at La Mallorquina; Expressionism at Reina Sofia; Museo del Prado; rooftop bar at Mercado de San Antón

Barcelona has the unmatched beauty of a city that’s warmly embraced both its historic past and and its modernist future. It’s distinctly Catalan with a casual Bohemian vibe. It’s also filled with tourists. We heard more English spoken in our first few hours than we heard during our entire stay in Madrid. There is also a distinctness to Barcelona–the feel of being in a locale that’s wholly unique. Between the ancient winding streets of El Born and Barri Gòtic, the wide boulevards of L’Eixample and the uniquely Mediterranean beach and coast, you feel as though you’re in a place that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world. The city has a lively, kinetic energy and a laid-back, friendly local population. I’m actually surprised it’s not even more packed with tourists.

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From top: the view from our Barcelona apartment in L’Eixample; the winding streets of La Ribera/El Born; watching the parade on the last day of Festival La Mercè; cava and blistered shiseido peppers at Bar de Pla; Casa Batlló, a Gaudí building; organ inside La Sagrada Familia; view from Parc Güell; Gaudí aqueducts; exterior of Palau de la Música Catalana; arròs negre at Kaiku restaurant on the beach; view of Catalan coast; fountain inside Parc de la Cuitadella; mosaic roof; squid and chickpeas at Cal Pep; interior of Santa Maria del Mar; elderly shoppers at Mercat Santa Caterina

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