How do I even begin to describe my life here in Rome?
I can tell you this: When you visit a city as a tourist, you generally see an abbreviated, selective version of a place. You see a city like a series of postcards or a parade of photo-worthy sites, or even as a neatly pre-packaged history lesson, but you don’t see it as a whole, as a vibrant culture or a patchwork of diverse neighbourhoods and local businesses; as a place filled with real people going about their daily lives.
And then you move there. Not just to a new city, but to a new country, a new continent, and, more importantly, a whole new way of living. Nearly every single aspect of daily life changes in one way or another, some of which are small and almost imperceptible, others huge enough to shake you to your foundations. When you realize that you no longer know how to go grocery shopping, how to call a taxi, or how to respond to a shopkeeper’s greeting, you tend to also arrive at the realization that your life has tipped sideways on its axis and now barely resembles the existence that you left behind in North America.
It’s all incredibly unsettling, but in the best way possible. This is exactly what I came to Rome hoping to find.
I’ve been going through my days here under the influence of a potent cocktail of awe, wonder and confusion. The confusion is expected, at least for now – there are new cultural norms to negotiate and a dense web of streets tangled like spaghetti to navigate. The awe and wonder are constantly being triggered by the smallest details, like the way the light bounces off the cobblestones or the way there are entire buildings draped in thick curtains of ivy.
My apartment building was built in the 1500s. It’s got soaringly high ceilings supported by heavy wooden beams, huge windows, and it’s been in existence since before Canada was even an outline on a world map. The key to my door is a long, heavy skeleton key in gleaming silver – every time I lock the door behind me I’m reminded in yet another way just how different my life is here. I shop for groceries in markets that have existed for centuries, picking out tomatoes or sifting through eggplants while standing on cobblestones that could tell a thousand fascinating stories about Roman life through the ages. When I go out for an evening run, I run past the Vatican, looping around St. Peter’s Square and rushing past the dark facades of imposing palazzi. If I stop to think about all this, to really contemplate the scenes that are now forming the backdrop to the most mundane of day-to-day tasks, it nearly blows my mind.
Half the time, I don’t really understand what’s going on around me. The rest of the time, it’s like I’m listening to music underwater – I can tell what people are saying, generally, but it’s distorted. I know I’m missing out on all those fine nuances and details; the cultural references, idioms, inside jokes and slang that come as part of being fluent in a language. When I manage to communicate properly in Italian – even if I’m just completing a simple transaction – I get such an unexpected rush of happiness that I end up making my way down the street with a grin plastered to my face.
In fact, I can’t seem to stop smiling here. Everything about Rome makes me happy, wildly happy, truly content in a way that I’ve never come close to feeling before. I lean out of my window smiling every time the church bells down the street chime in 6:00 PM. I smile when I pass a coffee bar and hear the urgent clinking of ceramic cups and saucers. I smile when I watch a pack of scooters surge forward at an intersection, or when I pass a flower stand selling impossibly beautiful bouquets, or when the air is thick with the smell of pizza and tomato sauce and a hint of wood-fire smoke.
There’s something about this city, something a little bit intoxicating, something that will grab you and refuse to let go. Rome is seductive. It’s intense, it’s simultaneously fast-paced and wonderfully slow-moving, it’s ancient and modern and thrilling and relaxing all at once… And Rome, I think, suits me perfectly.