I’ve recently had the good luck to have one of my best friends move here from the US to get her degree at my own alma mater, the American University of Rome. In between being absolutely thrilled to have her here with me, I find myself very nostalgic about my own first few months in Rome, remembering the sheer joy (and occasional fear) that filled me every time I went out of my house, struggling to close my front door with the strange, bulky clump of foreign keys.
I arrived in Italy wearing lime green combat boots. My hair was some sort of Manic Panic pink, faded by time and a lack of maintenance. I was studying abroad for my sophomore year, having somehow survived a year of college on the icy shores of Lake Superior in the far north of Michigan. It took months for the surreal feeling to wear off, the realization that I’d made it to Rome’s sun-smeared domes and crumbling ruins intertwined by ancient sampietrini. It’s funny now, looking back, the things I was amazed by then. The graffiti that covers every wall, the street vendors selling fruit (which now I know is surely infested with salmonella), and the scooters whizzing through traffic were all as strange to me as the sing-song Italian language.
I got off the airplane exhausted from hours of nearly falling asleep. Every time I got close I was awoken by that sense of doom which is inescapable the first time you fly away from your life to start again on the other side of an ocean. That, or, a fat little boy would appear out of nowhere to poke at me with a chubby index finger.
Sleep deprived but still excited, I struggled with to pull my enormous suitcases off the belt (in those days you got two with an international flight). Now that I was off the plane and firmly grounded in this new world, my anxiety was shoved aside by a thorough, almost unbearable excitement. The air was heavier somehow, more dirty but filled with rich scents unknown to the young world I’d left behind. Even the trees looked different in this place, speckling the side of the road with strange shapes and colors, utterly foreign, something out of a book by Doctor Seuss.
My first few nights in Rome were a blur of jet-lagged exhaustion and tall beers that I could barely finish. There were long hours of orientation that I went to and long hours of orientation that I skipped, having crawled back into my bed at dawn after long nights of roaming the city. Though I did well in my courses, I don’t remember them starting, and I definitely don’t remember what I took. What I do remember is the pure thrill of leaving my house in the sunshine every morning, making my way to school on the 44 bus for the first time, the market where I bought Roman zucchini and fresh tomatoes that smelled of heaven, the thrill of forcing out a sentence in Italian to have it rewarded with a smile (even though it was completely incorrect and totally mispronounced).
At night, I navigated the piss-scented labyrinth of Rome with dear friends, most of whom I rarely see these days. We drank Peroni in Trastevere, saw concerts in strange corners of the city, and made our way across Rome on night buses, returning home only with the first rays of the rising sun. I’ve often thought that the buses used at night must be as old as the city itself, blue and grey and filled with flickering fluorescent lights. They are covered in miscellaneous stains and filled with the detritus of night-time debauchery: abandoned beer bottles that roll up and down the aisles and wrappers filled with horrific un-identifiable specimens. As the drivers fly through the city, they take full advantage of the lack of traffic, rattling across cobblestones until it feels like your teeth might shake right out of your head, and hurtling straight towards ancient walls only to turn at the last minute. Waiting for the night bus in Rome means at least 40 minutes between buses arriving, and the inadequate routes that don’t quite connect the city often means changing three or more times to get from point A to point B.
Rome is something like that, forcing you to learn the right tricks, find the right route to get from A to B. The path connecting the two might seem simple, but with all the obstacles this city has to throw your way, you never know what you’ll have to invent to make it there, or what adventures might befall you on your way.
Top five things I learned when moving to Rome:
- Don’t buy discount vodka, especially not the peach or strawberry variety.
- Checking to see if the bus you’re getting on is going the right direction never hurt anyone. Oh, and when someone tells you where to meet them, have them write down the name so you don’t have to get off on every metro stop just to see if they’re there.
- Most nighttime sandwich/kebab shops actually will let you use their bathroom without buying anything. They may also offer you a job as a ‘dancer’.
- When going into a shop for the first time, shouting things in Roman slang will not make you look like a local. It will just make everyone die of laughter because you said something incredibly rude with a thick American accent.
- Sometimes it’s better just to walk.