When traveling, I have a firm belief that airports don’t count. Flying through O’Hare doesn’t mean you understand Chicago. The Newark airport is blissfully not indicative of what NYC will be like, and Fiumicino will not prepare you for Rome. But exit the building, cross the threshold and step outside – with these actions, our story begins.
We are greeted by a young Italian man resembling Dustin Hoffman who quickly exhausts his English vocabulary after welcoming us and confirming our destination. The streets of Rome are packed with Fiats, Smart Cars and scooters who operate under a “lane line optional” philosophy while weaving in and out of traffic. Our driver follows their cue and leads us down one-way stone roads that, other than his insistence on driving down them, seem to be little more than pedestrian-filled alleys. He parks in front of a smallish church and signal that we had arrived. And so we have.
The Trevi Fountain has materialized majestically in front of us as we enter the piazza. Imagine, if you will, that this story is a play being performed on a vast stage. The curtain has just opened, and for a fleeting second, all you see is the backdrop. Soon, it will fade out of your mind’s eye, but it is there all the same. Fontana di Trevi will serve as our backdrop. Up 88 marble stairs and you will be in the catwalk where a two bedroom apartment perches; two 7 feet tall windows open to the fountain, while three others let a cool breeze run through the house. The noise of the four-story fountain and the tourists who visit well into the evening act as our very own symphony.
Down below, half a dozen polizia are stationed at the fountain, but their presence seems to be for show, rather than function. Their primary occupation is smoking and directing tourists to the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, or metro. Back up in the apartment, I feel like a benevolent care taker, graciously allowing these throngs of people to visit the fountain in my own backyard. In this way, I feel that all of Roma is mine, or maybe, perhaps, that I am hers.
Venturing into the crowd of people below, you have two choices: to move with them, observing the city and her people as an outsider, or to move through them, embracing the city as your own. There will be days for joining with them; for standing in line and walking only down the main streets. But for today, we take this second path and find that the city opens up to us. Parks, neighborhoods, and markets are ours to explore and to enjoy.
Away from the buildings, umbrella pines fill the landscape. Parks are dotted with fountains and benches that invite you to come in and sit for awhile. Further in, you remember that Italy is a hospitable, restful place. There is no need for wrist watches; church bell towers will tell you the time. And with shops closed for two hours in the middle of the day, very little seems urgent in this city.
In the Parco di Traiano, children of all ages play soccer while their parents join in or read nearby. A girl and her grandmother slowly make their way through the park. A family celebrates a young child’s first birthday. Everyone is greeted warmly in rich, effusive Italian. On the other end of town, in the Borghese Gardens, men in impeccable suits walk together during their lunch break while joggers run by on either side of them. Older women sit on park benches and seem to do little more than contemplate the day or admire the many dogs out for a stroll in the spring sunshine. The parks are an oasis from the rest of the city and remind me that it is the ordinary and the mundane that make up much of the beauty of our lives.
In many ways, the markets are complements to parks, showing off another side of Italy. Where the parks offer rest and solitude, the markets are fast and noisy. In the parks, nothing in Italy seems urgent. But in the markets, everything is now – the produce is “da oggi” (for today), the conversations are short and fast. You either know what you want, or you get out of the way. But even at the markets, the people are friendly and gregarious. There is a pride in the people who are selling but also in the people who are buying, knowing they will find the best ingredients for the day to perfect their legendary Italian cooking.
This too, this ordinary every day, will come to fade into the background of this story. It is these scenes that help tell the story of my time is Rome. As we move through ancient Rome and into the Renaissance, modern Roma looms just behind the veil, waiting to be noticed. Pause for a moment in the midst of the blur of travel and you will see it again, discovering that it has been present all along.