My Christmas present to myself was a plane ticket to Rome, for a holiday in February. It will probably be the only international trip I take while I'm here, so I'm pretty excited. And nervous, and tied up in knots: I love Rome. I hate Rome. I have a very complicated relationship with Rome, more so than any of the other cities I've felt that magnetic, needle-to-a-pole attraction to.
The first time I visited Rome was the winter after I studied abroad in Lisbon. I'd been to Italy once before, but never made it south of Tuscany. I didn't have many expectations of Rome, to be honest; I was just looking forward to seeing the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, the Vatican, all the history-nerd highlights.
What I found was this fucking magical fairy land. It was cold, sure, but there was a Christmas market in the Piazza Navona, and hot chocolate tasting like cinnamon and oranges, and pasta con cacio e pepe, probably my favorite dish in the entire world. I walked down empty streets, touching ochre-plastered walls and following strands of lights to the one restaurant near Campo dei Fiori that was open on Christmas Day. I drank red wine by the Tiber, with a man who showed me the scar from when he'd wrecked his Vespa. Like I said, magical fairy land.
Back in the States, I decided I was going back, come hell or high water. I won a scholarship to pursue an internship internationally, and in June of 2009, I flew into Fiumicino for the first time.
To say that things were different would be a hell of an understatement. It was hot and dusty and choked with packs of tourists from every corner of the globe. I didn't click with many people in my program, so I spent most of my summer exploring by myself, trying not to collapse from dehydration or situational agoraphobia.
My job didn't help, either. I'd come to Rome hoping to soak up some culture, speak Italian, talk to people. I ended up sitting in a room by myself, with a single window, cataloging a research institute's archive of films on modern Italian history. So the parts with Mussolini, Hitler, la Shoah (the Holocaust), labor riots, anarchists, and economic paralysis. I did work with three wonderful, inspiring women, but it was hard for me to get excited about it when all I did was watch films about some of the bleakest moments in human history. The field trip I took with my mentor to "get me out a bit" was to the Ardeatine Caves, where 335 Romans were murdered by the Nazis as a reprisal for a partisan attack. The caves were then collapsed on top of the corpses, to hide the execution site. (Read more here.)
When I look back on that summer, I'm not sorry I went. I learned a lot, about Rome and Italy: no place's history is all white ruins, sunflowers, and pasta. I also learned about the kind of working environment I need to be happy. I will never enjoy a job where all I do is stare at a computer in silence. I do have a lone wolf streak (well, lone wolf with canine tag-along), but I need interaction with other people to stay sane. To bring in another Italian, one quote that's always stuck with me is from Italo Calvino's Il barone rampante (translated not at all literally as The Baron in the Trees): the narrator describes his brother, the baron in question, as "un solitario che amava la compagnia," "a solitary man who loved company." While I am obviously a lady-person, that description fits me well. My summer in Rome was too heavy on la solitudine and too light on la compagnia.
But despite all that learning, by the time I was getting on the plane to fly back to DC, I was overwhelmingly grateful that it was over.
So when I realized that I'd be able to manage just the one big trip this year, why was Rome the only place I seriously considered going? I have no idea. I think it's because Rome and I have some unfinished business. Or because, as my mom told me once, I never give up on things when I should. Or because I'm going in the touristic wasteland of February. Or because I miss Pecorino-drenched pasta. I don't know. But I'm going.
|one of the comparatively few highlights of my summer was becoming a regular at this osteria|