Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Month: September, 2013

La mia casa

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(the rather sinister ornaments above my kitchen counter, which my aunt informs me are called soprammobili)

I love living in Testaccio. Testaccio feels like home. Unfortunately, my flat doesn’t feel much like home.

I chose the flat for its location – I was keen to be in Testaccio, which is a lovely area in itself, but also very convenient for other places. The metro (Piramide), buses going everywhere, and lots of interesting places within walking distance. I love the fact that I can walk to the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, Trastevere, the Aventine, the Protestant Cemetery…

But there are quite a few problems with the flat. Firstly, flatmates. I’ve moved in at a time when two people are moving out and two new people are moving in, so of course it feels a little unsettled. Out of the two people in the process of moving out, one has been mostly absent, and the other has been rather unfriendly. I’m sure she’s frustrated by my bad Italian and sick of the constant stream of people who have been moving in and out while she’s lived here, which is understandable. I don’t blame her for not trying to befriend me, but sometimes it feels like she’s been actively rude, and telling me off for not meeting her high standards of kitchen cleanliness seems unnecessary when she’s moving out soon.

The French boy who’s moving in hasn’t arrived yet, but the ballerina from Naples has been here for a couple of days. She’s much friendlier than the soon-to-be-former flatmate and is more forgiving of my Italian, but she’s already made a point of drawing up a cleaning timetable for next month and complained about a bit of leftover rice in the sink…I’m not sure how compatible we’ll be. I suppose it’s too early to tell, and I can make an effort to improve my Italian and be a bit tidier, but it would be really nice to live with friends instead of strangers. It would also be nice to not have a flatmate (I don’t know which one) who decides to dismantle the bathroom at 2am. That’s what it sounded like, anyway.

My bedroom is very, very small and dark even with the shutters open. The bed is a futon, and when it’s out there’s no floor space and I can’t sit at my desk. I keep wandering around shops in the hope of finding some kind of decoration that would improve the room, but I’m not sure there’s much I can do with so little space, in a rented room. While the weather’s warm I can sit on the terrace, but I won’t be able to do that for much longer. This morning I sat on a bench in Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice to read, mainly to avoid being in my bedroom. Sitting outside, surrounded by children blowing bubbles and dogs, is much more pleasant than sitting in my small dark bedroom, where wet jeans and underwear are dripping everywhere.

Then there’s the bathroom, which is about a quarter of the size of my bedroom. There’s no shower cubicle, only a shower head and a disgustingly mouldy shower curtain. Whenever anyone has a shower, despite our best attempts to mop it up, the floor is soaked at least for a few hours, and the water becomes dirty from people’s shoes. I’m also lucky if I get more than ten minutes of hot water in the shower, so washing my hair becomes a race to get the conditioner out before the water turns cold. I’ve always been more of a bath person anyway, and right now, I would actually pay to have a hot bath. I’m dreading the winter, as there’s no heating in the bathroom.

I’ve got this room till next July if I want it, and I’ve got to give two months’ notice if I want to move out. I’ll see how things go, but I might be flat-hunting again soon…

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Pervertiti

 

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It is a sad but unavoidable fact that if you’re a woman in Rome, you’re going to get sexually harassed or aggressively chatted up at some point. When I was here two years ago I spent a lot of time walking around on my own, and at the moment I’m generally on my own too. The most memorable incidents from 2011 were the man groping me on Via Colombo when I got lost, and the man in the Villa Borghese who tried to chat me up by talking about Byron and complimenting me on my meravigliosi eyes. He stroked my cheek and asked if I wanted to get a coffee; I told him that I’d already had a coffee that day, which confused him. Then I escaped.

I remember feeling indignant that I’d been deprived of my bench in the park, when all I wanted to do was sit and read in peace. I had a similar experience this afternoon, but more upsetting. I’d originally intended to go to the Villa Borghese, but the bus never came so I got on another random bus and ended up near Castel Sant’Angelo. I went to the park there and spent ten minutes reading on a bench before I was interrupted by a middle-aged Italian man who asked me for the time. As I told him, he sat down next to me and I thought, “Uh oh.”

The conversation went something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“London.” I tell him that I live in Rome and am working as an English teacher.
“I want to improve my English. Can you give me a private lesson?”
“Er, I’m not sure. I think I’ll be very busy with my job…”
“No, I mean now. Here, I’ll pay you.”
He throws a 10 euro note in my bag, and at this point I start feeling a little unnerved. I give the money back to him.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asks.
“Yes.” I lie.
“In England?”
Questions about my imaginary boyfriend go on for a while. I end up saying that I’ve been with this boyfriend for two years, and that he’s the only one I’ve had.
“You haven’t been with anyone else? Not even for one night?”
“…”
“20? That’s late. That’s when you lost your virginity?”
“This is really personal – I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m doing a survey…”

He persists until I say I have to go and meet a friend, at which point he quickly walks off.

Obviously I should have got up and walked away at a much earlier point in that conversation, but I have this ridiculous instinct to be polite and engage in conversation until I’m feeling really uncomfortable. And by that point, I’m too freaked out to get up and leave.

As I went to find another bench I wondered what it was like to be a man, and not have to deal with this shit. Or a woman in a relationship – I know any woman is a potential target, but the chances of these things happening must be significantly reduced if you’re walking around with your boyfriend or husband.

I love Rome, but I hate not being able to sit on a park bench without being harassed, or ride on a tram without being chatted up by Brazilians called Sergio (all right, that only happened once). I’ll just have to hope that I get better at escaping from these situations at an earlier point, and that I learn ways to avoid getting into them in the first place.

Rose-sellers and perverts of Rome, leave me alone! For the first time since arriving here, I’m feeling a little nostalgic for London, where I walked alone everywhere and never got harassed.

EUR

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(Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana)

I’ve only been to EUR twice, but I have a love/hate relationship with it that’s currently leaning more towards love…

I first visited the area in May, for the surreal experience of a Renato Zero concert at the Palalottomatica. Despite the fact that the stadium was immediately visible from the metro station, with Renato’s eyes and a sign saying “ZERO” looming over the park, it wasn’t at all obvious how to actually get there. My friend and I went back and forth across busy roads, climbed steps that led nowhere, and debated whether to follow an elderly couple wearing gold baseball caps, hoping that anyone dressed eccentrically would be a fan, and so might lead us to the concert.

We got there in the end, and enjoyed an insane three and a half hour performance involving backing dancers dressed as toothbrushes. When we emerged, having missed the last metro, we tried to find out where we could get a night bus to take us back into central Rome. We were misdirected by a policewoman and wandered around EUR without any idea of how we were going to get out. At last we found some other lost fans from the concert- it seemed like every pedestrian in the area at 1am on a Sunday was walking around in a daze after the concert – and after waiting hopefully at a few different bus stops that all turned out to be the wrong ones, we eventually managed to run after the N2, which took us back to civilisation. Well, that’s how it felt at the time.

EUR is not a particularly pleasant place to be lost at night. It felt very lonely, and if I’d been on my own, all the empty offices and fascist architecture would have seemed even more intimidating. It was a like a ghost town, and I found it hard to believe that people actually lived there.

I returned to EUR for a walking tour at the weekend, and although the streets were deserted like last time, I found that the area really grew on me. In general, my preference is always for the old over the new – books, music, art, architecture – and my favourite buildings in Rome tend to be churches rather than bleak fascist constructions. But in EUR, somehow it works. It’s a vision of a future which never happened, something I find fascinating. It’s dystopian and slightly scary, and feels like a project gone wrong. I’m sure it feels very different during the week, when all the office workers are there, but walking down empty streets on a sunny Sunday afternoon past rows of fountains and sterile white buildings while the traffic roars down Via Colombo is quite an eerie experience. The other thing it reminded me of was a massive film set that had been abandoned.

So while I wouldn’t want to live there, I would happily go there again if I felt like a change from central Rome. I still have to visit the museums, and see the famous gigantic model of ancient Rome. The park is also lovely, filled with families and people selling balloons.

But the main reason I’d go back is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, which is one of those buildings I’m really drawn to for reasons I can’t explain. It sticks out like…not a sore thumb, but a beautiful white symmetrical thumb? I don’t know. It gleams in the sunlight and you can see through both sets of windows to the sky on the other side. I might find some fascist architecture interesting, but rarely beautiful – this is the exception. It’s been used in quite a few films, including Titus, which is set in a kind of parallel-universe-Rome. EUR itself feels a bit like that.

VN POPOLO DI POETI DI ARTISTI DI EROI

DI SANTI DI PENSATORI DI SCIENTZIATI

DI NAVIGATORI DI TRASMIGRATORI

And I do love buildings that show off.

Viaggi

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I bought a pot of basil and named it Lorenzo. Ten points to anyone who knows why! The man who sold it to me in Testaccio Market was very enthusiastic. “It’s from Napoli – smell!” he said, shoving it in my face.

I’ve been gazing wistfully at everything in the market, and all the food shops in Testaccio. This place is food heaven and you can get anything you want, whether it’s delicious fresh mozzarella, spices from the spice emporium round the corner, massive juicy peaches, or emergency pizza when things go wrong in the kitchen. The men working in the bar were very friendly, calling me “lady” and offering me free food while I waited. I felt slightly self-conscious about ordering takeaway pizza for one and tried to explain about my problemi in cucina. I can just about manage these very basic conversations, but when my landlord is talking to me about banks and postboxes with broken keyholes it’s another matter altogether.  I’ve finally found out what my address is – my flatmate didn’t know either – but actually receiving post seems to be much more complicated than it should be.

I’m trying to make the most of having lots of free time by getting to grips with the public transport. The metro is straightforward and seems to be (mostly) reliable. The buses are all right when they actually turn up, though I’ve had to give up a couple of times. I read somewhere that Freud and Jung were too frightened to use the buses in Rome, but I haven’t had any traumatic experiences yet – no pickpockets or gropers. There’s also the advantage of the view – the journey from Via Marmorata to Piazza Venezia takes you past the Palatine and right round the Colosseum. There was a Frenchman on the bus who was deeply engrossed in a book on Ancient Rome, who seemed oblivious to the fact that we were going right past the Colosseum. I hope that even if I lived in Rome for 60 years, I would never take that sight for granted.

I had a leisurely journey on tram 3 from Piazzale Ostiense to Villa Giulia, which took about an hour. There are so many museums that I still need to visit, so it’s hard choosing where to go. Villa Giulia was a good choice though – a beautiful building with an enormous collection of Etruscan art, and hardly any other visitors. The Sarcophagus of the Spouses was a highlight, and I also loved the statues of gods. You’d probably need at least a day to do the museum justice, so I’ll certainly be returning.

I’m not feeling as lonely as I was earlier this week, as I already have something of a social life. On Friday night I went to a cinema on Via delle Quattro Fontane with Claudio to see Sacro GRA. I met Claudio at the expat event – although he’s Italian, he’s originally from Genoa and doesn’t know many people in Rome yet. Watching an Italian film with people talking in the Roman dialect without subtitles was…challenging. I can’t say I understood a great deal of it, and it’s frustrating to be surrounded by people laughing their heads off when you don’t get the joke, but still, it was an interesting experience. Afterwards Claudio took me to an Irish pub in Monti which seems to be popular with expats. While I don’t want to live in an expat bubble, it’s good to know about these places, and Monti has a great atmosphere at night.

I also met up with a friend of one of my former colleagues in London, Giulia, who took me to Pompi, near Re di Roma, and very kindly bought me one of the best tiramisus I’ve ever had. She gave me lots of useful advice, on everything from English teaching to bars to Italian hand gestures, and also showed me round Pigneto. It’s not an area that tourists would ever go to. Giulia said it reminded her of Camden. Camden without the tourists and the goths, perhaps? It’s an odd mix of drug dealers, hipsters, and old ladies and their dogs. There’s lots of street art, and some of the buildings are quite short by Roman standards, which is quite refreshing in another way. It was like visiting another city. Another place that I need to explore…

Solo a Roma

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(street art on Via Ostiense)

I said a tearful goodbye to my mother on the platform at Ostiense yesterday. She’s gone back to London, and now I’m alone. I’m very close to her and I don’t really know anyone in Rome, so it was a difficult afternoon. Afterwards I sat on my terrace and cried for a bit, then pulled myself together and went to Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice to read, which cheered me up. That place feels like the heart of Testaccio, and I love how there are always children running around everywhere, old women gossiping and neighbours saying “Ciao” to each other. I suppose it should make me feel left out, sitting alone in a piazza full of Italians who all know each other, but I actually find it quite uplifting. Later that evening I went to an expat event where I learnt some Italian, had some food and wine and chatted to a variety of people, including a German archeologist and a very friendly group of Italians.

The nice thing about taking such a big step in life (ie, moving to a foreign country) is that after that, every little step feels like another big step. I was sent my employment contract today, and asked to print off two copies, sign them, scan a signed copy, and then send them to England (although I’m working at a school in Rome I’m being employed by a British company). I spent the afternoon walking in circles around Testaccio trying to find somewhere I could print and scan the contract, and then somewhere to buy an envelope…My bad Italian and the kindness of shopkeepers helped me to achieve my goal, and I felt a sense of accomplishment quite out of proportion to what I’d actually done.

Other things that made me happy today – unexpectedly seeing Shelley’s face beneath a train bridge on Via Ostiense, and a trip to the deserted Centrale Montemartini, one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It’s an old power plant filled with Greek and Roman statues, and they’ve left the machinery in place. It makes for an interesting contrast. I’m sure that if the museum was in a more central location, it would be swamped with tourists. While I was there I also learnt some new Italian words that I’ll probably never use, such as testina (small head) and togato (wearing a toga).

I’m feeling much more settled now. This afternoon I did some writing on the terrace, and that felt like another achievement. I’m writing a novel and I’m about 43,000 words in at the moment. A couple of years ago, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I said, “Move to Rome and become a novelist”. Halfway there!

Strano

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(the shrine near the entrance to my block of flats)

This is my second day of living in Rome and everything is…strano. I expected things might be stressful or difficult to begin with, but I didn’t anticipate quite how strange I’d feel. I’m here with my mother, who’s staying in a nearby hotel for a few days to help me settle in and have a bit of a holiday. But despite the fact that I’m not alone, and even though I know Rome reasonably well and have some knowledge of Italian, I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed. The two moments I felt it most were quite random – having dinner at Da Bucatino on the first night, and lying awake in my room listening to the voices of the people at the restaurant downstairs, and the traffic. I’m sure I’ll start to feel more settled soon. It’s not that I’m unhappy, just that the whole situation feels surreal. At the back of my mind are all the things I need to do. Learn Italian! Make friends! Buy a phone! Finish writing my book! Find love! Get my codice fiscale! And so on. Obviously there’s some practical stuff I need to sort out soon, but I know the rest can wait. I have two weeks before I start my job, so I have some time to settle in.

My room is just as tiny as I remembered. Troppo piccola, really, but I’ll manage. I chose the flat for the location (Testaccio) and the relatively cheap price for a central location. It’s small and a bit shabby, but there’s a nice terrace and the kitchen’s all right. My landlord, Roberto, has been very welcoming. I think of him as “the beautiful shady Roberto” due to a mix-up with an online translator – it got confused by word order in the description of the flat, and made it sound like the landlord was beautiful and shady, rather than the terrace. As for my flatmates, I’m not entirely sure what the situation is. There’s only one person here at the moment (Luana, a student), and I think she and the other girl, Tatiana, move out at the end of the month. They’ll be replaced by two people I haven’t met, an Italian girl and a French boy. Having spent the past year living at home with my family, it might be hard having to adjust to living with strangers, but hopefully the new people will be nice.

We went to the Protestant Cemetery this morning – one of my favourite places in the world – and the heavens opened just as we reached Keats’s grave, which seemed appropriate. Whenever anything has gone wrong over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking of Keats. Flight delayed by an hour? Keats’s journey from London to Rome took two months. Irritated by mosquitoes? Keats had TB. Worried about feeling homesick? Keats never went home again. Poor Keats. I need to bring him flowers again, and Shelley too.

The rain has been torrential all day, but we’ve done lots of walking and shopping. Coffee at Linari, a trip to the supermarket, a rainy walk to Trastevere, buying some essentials in a cheap Chinese shop and UPIM…There was also an unfortunate encounter with a would-be flasher on the Aventine on a lonely path – we had to quickly retrace our steps, and he followed us for a bit, so that was unpleasant. But apart from the pervert and the rain, it’s been a good (if very tiring) day.

La Grande Bellezza

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Curzon cinema in Mayfair to see La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). Since watching The Dreamers I’ve liked the idea of sitting on the front row, so I went to the front and sat in seat 14, just because I’m moving to Rome on the 14th of September. Silly, but it felt like a nice symbolic thing to do.

The timing of the film’s release in England is perfect – the week before I leave for Rome. I don’t know if I’d rate it as highly as some of the critics, and it did feel slightly too long, but it’s beautifully filmed and well-acted. Having just said it felt too long, I have to admit that I stayed right till the end of the credits (a slow journey down the Tiber) because I couldn’t tear myself away. After the curtains had closed on the final image of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, it felt strange emerging from the cinema and walking through cold, grey London streets. As much as I love London, I felt almost resentful, like I shouldn’t be there at all.

I think anyone who loves Rome would have to love La Grande Bellezza, at least a little bit, if only for superficial reasons. It was wonderful to be reminded of the places I already know and love, like the Baths of Caracalla or Palazzo Barberini, as well as being shown a glimpse of places I have yet to explore, such as the Villa Medici. But I feel like the latter is bound to be a disappointment after the film, as I won’t be able to sneak into the garden in the middle of the night…

What I liked most about La Grande Bellezza, apart from the cinematography, was the way it captured the frustration of loving cities. No matter how much you love it, or how long you live there, your experience will ultimately be defined by a small area, or a small group of people. You can’t have everything, and you can’t be everywhere at once. As Jep discovers, you can’t spend your life going to parties and also be a great writer. I’ve spent years exploring London, but there are still huge areas I know nothing about. Sometimes I find it hard deciding which turning to take, because walking down one street means leaving another street unexplored.

I doubt my social life will be anything like Jep’s, and in many ways I wouldn’t want it to be, but with any film or book that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life, there’s always the “What if…?” It’s frustrating to think that you have one life, and you only have time for a certain amount of people. In a lifetime, I don’t think you can get to know more than a handful of cities intimately.

I’ve almost finished packing, and two days from now, I’ll be on the plane, about to start my life in Rome. Sometimes I feel like I’ve only started to scrape the surface of London, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in Rome…

Introduzione

rome - view from aventine

Buongiorno!

I’m Alexandra, a 22 year old from London. In a week’s time I’ll be moving to Rome, and hopefully finding work as an English teacher. Although I don’t know anyone in the city, I’ve been put in touch with some friends of friends, and hopefully it won’t be too difficult to meet people. I’ve already got a flat, which is a good start – a tiny room in Testaccio which I can call home.

As a teenager I went to Rome a couple of times – very briefly on a school trip, and for a few days on a family holiday – but it wasn’t until September 2011 that I fell in love with it. I went with a friend and stayed in a hostel for three weeks while doing some work experience at Keats-Shelley House. I ate a lot of pizza, saw so much art that I started to suffer from a slight culture overload, and was so reluctant to leave that I cried on the plane journey home. When I went back to Oxford to start the final year of my degree, the dome of the Radcliffe Camera seemed disappointingly small, and I immediately started plotting my return to Rome.

Two years later, it’s actually happening. This blog will be the story of my move to Rome, as I create a life for myself in the city, and try to earn enough money through teaching to pay my rent and maybe even travel occasionally. We’ll see.

The title of the blog, “Go thou to Rome”, is from Adonais by Shelley.

Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness

Shelley, my favourite poet, lived in Rome while writing Prometheus Unbound, and he’s now buried in the Protestant Cemetery. My feelings about Shelley are too weird and complicated to summarise here, but in a strange way he seems to influence lots of my major life decisions. “Go thou to Rome” – all right, Shelley. I will!

Here are the most commonly asked questions, whenever I tell anyone about my plans.

Can you speak Italian?

No. Well, I can order food in a restaurant, have a conversation of sorts with my landlord and make up excuses to escape from amorous old men in the Villa Borghese, but my spoken Italian is pretty bad. If all else fails, I can always communicate in the lyrics of Renato Zero, declining a threesome, calling someone a slut, or declaring “E un bordello l’esistenza mia“.

Have you got a job?

No. I’ve only just qualified as an English teacher, so there was no point in applying for jobs until now. I just had a Skype interview with a language school which I think went well, so fingers crossed, but there’s nothing definite.

How long are you going for?

I don’t know. My mother thinks (hopes) I’ll be back after a year, and one of my friends thinks I’m never coming back. In reality, it’ll probably be something in-between. I definitely want to stay longer than a year, but after that, it completely depends on jobs and how happy I am. I’m sure I’ll miss London lots, but at the moment I don’t know if I’ll miss it enough to come back for good.

Why Rome?

I never know to answer this. It’s like when someone asks you about your favourite bands and your mind goes blank. You know you could list a hundred things and give detailed reasons if you had the time, but when you’re put on the spot you forget everything. I usually go, “Er…” and then say something vague about food, art, and wanting to learn Italian. Which is true, but there’s so much more to it than that. The Appian Way, umbrella pines, Caravaggios in gloomy churches, the view from the Pincio, cobbled streets in Trastevere, the view of the Forum from the Capitoline Hill, the Giardini degli Aranci, the graves of Keats and Shelley, the Villa dei Quintili…

If I had to sum it up in one word, I suppose it would be “beauty”. When I was in Rome for a few days in May, giddy with excitement and so happy to be back, I discovered a path near the Giardini degli Aranci, leading down the hill to the Lungotevere. I’d already admired the view of St Peter’s that everyone tells you about, jostling for a place at the edge of the park so I could see it. But while I was wandering down this steep, deserted path the Vittoriano suddenly came into view, and all these layers of Roman trees and rooftops. It was so beautiful, and so unexpected – cities without hills don’t have the same drama, the power to stun you with a sudden glimpse of ruins or the river, the back of the Palatine or domes on the other side of the Tiber.

I know that once I’m actually living in Rome, I won’t be in a perpetual swoon. Crowded buses and the smell of Termini should prevent me from romanticising the city too much, but even so…I feel incredibly lucky to be living in place which is essentially a massive work of art.