Five days in Rome. Then five days in Paris. Back to back. Two of the most iconic cities of all time. I can hardly hope to remember all of the little moments that made the trip what it was. I have been trying to organize my thoughts about the cities. Trying to piece together what everything meant to me. In the process of doing this I came to the realization that traveling isn’t the seeing of new sights or meeting new people or trying new foods. It’s not anything new at all. It’s experiencing something old. It’s experiencing an image that you have heard others talk about or seen in the movies or read in books but that always seemed so…fictional. Travel is transcending that line and realizing that the only reason that image hasn’t seemed real is because you haven’t experienced it.
So what image came to my mind prior to going to Rome? Red-checkered tablecloths. Clinking bottles of red wine. Soft accordion music. Heaping mounds of spaghetti. Plump dark-haired chefs loudly proclaiming “perfecto!” with puckered lips and a raised arm. With this fragmented idea was ingrained the belief that it was in the realm of make believe because of my travel naivety. After all, how accurate can an idea of a city be when it is formed from Hollywood-ized sources? Rome couldn’t possibly be all that it was cracked up to be. There had to be a catch.
I was wrong. Rome was exactly what I grew up thinking it was, but better. I felt like I had stepped right into a movie set. As I walked along the Spanish Steps I became Audrey Hepburn from Roman Holiday and as I twirled some pasta around my fork, I saw myself as Julia Roberts from Eat Pray Love rediscovering the simple joy of food.
It’s difficult to put into words. Rome was a series of moments. Rome was in the violin music across from the bistro. Rome was in the old Italian man wearing a beret walking down the cobblestone street. Rome was in the dramatic Italian plays. I think I understand now why when Rome is depicted in the movies, it is always the same few things that are shown. The feeling of Rome is easier to grasp in those things! Most of Rome must be experienced to understand. So I will try to sum Rome up in a few words. Elizabeth Gilbert says much more eloquently what I am trying to in this excerpt from Eat Pray Love:
He said, “Don’t you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn—what is the word of the street?”
Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city then you don’t really belong there.
“What’s Rome’s word?” I asked. “SEX,” he announced.
“But isn’t that a stereotype about Rome?” “No.”
“But surely there are some people in Rome thinking about other things than sex?” Giulio insisted: “No. All of them, all day, all they are thinking about is SEX.” “Even over at the Vatican?”
“That’s different. The Vatican isn’t part of Rome. They have a different word over there. Their word is POWER.”
“You’d think it would be FAITH.”
“It’s POWER,” he repeated. “Trust me. But the word in Rome—it’s SEX.”
Now if you are to believe Giulio, that little word—SEX—cobbles the streets beneath your feet in Rome, runs through the fountains here, fills the air like traffic noise. Thinking about it, dressing for it, seeking it, considering it, refusing it, making a sport and game of it—that’s all anybody is doing. Which would make a bit of sense as to why, for all its gorgeousness, Rome doesn’t quite feel like my hometown. Not at this moment in my life. Because SEX isn’t my word right now. It has been at other times of my life, but it isn’t right now. Therefore, Rome’s word, as it spins through the streets, just bumps up against me and tumbles off, leaving no impact. I’m not participating in the word, so I’m not fully living here. It’s a kooky theory, impossible to prove, but I sort of like it.”
Now I can’t say I agree with Giulio’s selection of a word for Rome, but his theory is just about spot on in my opinion. Except I believe that if you live long enough in a place then the word of that place will become yours. Even with the short amount of time I have spent in Rome, Paris, and Norway I have been homesick leaving all three. I enter places feeling completely out of place and leave feeling like the rhythm of the city is in synch with my own.
Rome’s word for me was EMOTION. Rome perfectly fit the entire concept of emotions. Emotions with all their variety and passion and chaos and contradictions. This was Rome. It was apparent in the condition of the stores, the atmosphere of the streets, and the culture of the people.
The stores in Rome were incredibly unorganized. In the bookstore, the books were piled haphazardly and strewn about carelessly and in the supermarkets you had to hunt for everything. The universal rules of the road (red means stop, green means go) were acknowledged but overridden by unwritten laws it seemed. Cars would drive on red lights and zoom in front of pedestrians and vice versa pedestrians would walk across the street when they pleased. People also seem to pay no mind to lines. Leaving a space in front of you is an invitation for someone to take your spot.
The Italians themselves have a contradictory way about them. They will spend hours eating together and laughing, not paying any mind to the time. However, once they start going somewhere they are suddenly extremely conscious of punctuality and rush to their destination. The time flux of Rome somehow manages to feel relaxed and stressful simultaneously. People are constantly whizzing by on their vespas and mini cars, yet you are never more than a few steps away from a peaceful candlelit bistro.
These were tucked in the streets everywhere!
Some favorite catch phrases of the Italians are “domani” or “va bene” meaning “tomorrow” and “it’s okay”. Procrastination and going with the flow of things seems to be part of the culture. When you go to a restaurant you eat first and pay after (not just the fancy sit down restaurants like in the U.S.); it would be easy to slip out without paying. The bus system is based on the honors system as well. They don’t check if you have a ticket when you get on so it is possible to ride the public system for free.
They are also extremely expressive people-both verbally and with hand gestures. When an Italian has a phone conversation, it is never private. Even the women have lower powerful voices that carry far. Likewise, Italians won’t keep their opinion of you to themselves. I experienced both ends of the spectrum; I got stares and dirty looks from one couple and a “Ciao, bella!” (translates to hello beautiful) from one man. Public displays of affection are also quite common. I’m beginning to think that hiding emotions is an American characteristic… Europeans seem to think that doing so is a waste of time and energy. Perhaps this is why we think of them as being rude and they think of us as being fake.
If EMOTION wasn’t such a perfect fit for the description of Rome then FOOD would be a close second! Rome had amazing wine, pasta, panini, pastries, pizza, and bread! The panini were way different than what I thought they would be… Honestly I think I might prefer American-style panini which surprises me. They were still good but Italian panini are kind of like white bread sandwiches with a soft filling (egg salad, crab salad…etc.). The pasta and pizza were delicious though! The pizza had less sauce but the crust was delicious!!! Then there were the pastries…with their perfectly crispy crusts and crème fillings…divine. And I can’t possibly forget the gelato. There was a flavor for everything! Kiwi, grapefruit, pistachio, orange…and the list goes on. I personally tried caramel crème, nutella, chocolate, mint, coconut, strawberry, strawberry crème, blackberry, and champagne. Yeah. I ate a lot of gelato. It wasn’t cheap either! A tiny cup (about the size of a Like It from Cold Stone Creamery) was around $3.35. But it was worth it. VERY worth it. The cappuccino in Italy is frothier and has a different flavor than in the U.S. because they put lots of latte in it. Wine is dirt cheap there! A bottle of red wine (probably really bad wine but I can’t tell the difference!) can be obtained for around two bucks. Just the dining experience in Rome was a treat. I loved the whole atmosphere of the restaurants (or as they say in Italian, “ristorante”). It’s sometimes difficult to know what you are ordering though. My roommate found herself chewing on some octopus by accident.
If you’re interested in where specifically we went in Rome then you can check out a day by day breakdown of all that we saw in my next post and see lots of pictures. Other than that, I think I thoroughly covered my experience in Rome.
I came. I saw. I conquered.