Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: February, 2016

Scambio di lingua, cambio di personalità


Excluding some very informal lessons over aperitivo – she gave up on trying to correct my pronunciation, and our “lessons” became discussions about our love lives – I’ve never really had Italian lessons. Partly because I’ve never had enough money to spare, and partly because I’ve always felt like I should be able to learn the language well enough just by being in the country.

If, like me, you choose not to have lessons, you need to find another way to learn the language. There’s a common belief that expats magically become fluent in a language simply by living in a new country, but my own experience, and the experiences of other expats I know, have shown me that it just isn’t true. In a city like Rome, you can work in an English-speaking environment, live with English-speaking people, and socialise only with other expats, while getting by with a few basic words – “ciao”, “grazie” and so on.

I was determined to reach a decent level of Italian – to integrate, to have Italian friends, and not end up as one of those embarrassing expats who’s lived in the country for years without being able to string a sentence together. I taught myself a bit of grammar from books and listened to a lot of Italian music (Renato Zero is surprisingly educational), but I mainly improved through conversation exchanges.

Shortly after moving to Rome I joined Conversation Exchange, a website that enables language learners to become pen pals or meet up to practise their speaking. I liked the idea of meeting up with locals, especially if they were around my age and we shared interests. The worst case scenario is that you don’t click, but even if you only meet once, at least you’ve both had an opportunity to help each other with your English/Italian. Every conversation in a foreign language, no matter how awkward, helps you to improve

In the past two and a half years, I must have met up with at least ten people from the website, usually starting with a coffee or an aperitivo. Some I met once and never again, some I met regularly for a few months, and others have become friends. There were a couple of odd ones. Luca (the first of three) who messaged me obsessively and was deeply offended when I tried to tactfully break it to him that I wasn’t interested in meeting again. Vincenzo the Stronzo who had just bought an apartment and didn’t have the money for a drink (“so let’s go back to my place”) and who didn’t have any furniture in his living room (“so let’s go in my bedroom”).

But apart from those two, I’ve generally had very positive experiences. It’s a good way to practise your speaking in a relaxed environment – ideally over a glass of wine – and you’re less embarrassed about your mistakes. You can stumble over verb endings without feeling too foolish, because you know that when you switch language in ten minutes’ time, your conversation partner will make a mistake too. There’s no judgement, and you’re both willing to be patient with each other.

I think it’s the hours and hours of conversation exchanges that have made me reasonably fluent in Italian. There are so many things that have helped me to learn – cheesy pop songs, struggling through La Repubblica articles, listening to my ten year old students chatting in the classroom – but it’s the conversation exchanges that taught me how to speak.

The other day I met my conversation exchange partner/friend Giulia for aperitivo, and we were discussing the fact that I only speak to my boyfriend in Italian. “Don’t you find it strange?” she asked. “Because you’re not the same person in Italian. You’re different when you speak English.”

She wasn’t just talking about the language, but about my personality. My conversation exchange partners are the only people who notice this difference, as with everyone else I speak entirely in English or entirely in Italian. People like Giulia get to see both sides of me. But until she commented on it, I hadn’t been aware that I was different in Italian. I know I’m less eloquent in Italian – obviously I’m less eloquent – but apart from that?

Her comment led me to reflect on my Italian self. I can still vividly remember the excruciating conversations in the early days of learning Italian. Even if I could basically communicate, I knew how boring I must be. There was so much nodding and smiling, nodding and smiling, racking my brain to think of something that didn’t sound as though I’d learned it from a phrasebook. My sense of achievement at being able to remember a verb was completely overshadowed by the awareness that I must be boring everyone to death.

Now, at last, I have some kind of personality. I must have, otherwise I doubt Valeriano would be able to put up with me for long. But I’m not exactly the same person in Italian as I am in English. Unlike people who are raised bilingual, who grow up switching effortlessly between languages, those who learn a language from scratch as adults are forced to create a personality for themselves.

It’s difficult for me to list all the ways I change when I speak Italian, as it’s something very subtle and subjective, but I’m aware of a few things. I suppose the most obvious is that I become less English and understated, and a bit more “dramatic”, for want of a better word. Everything becomes slightly exaggerated. Hopefully not to the point of caricature…I haven’t yet adopted the hand gestures, and there’s no risk of me accidentally sounding like I’m doing a Super Mario impression. But I’ll throw in the occasional “Mamma mia!”, exaggerate my reactions, use a “cazzo” when it’s appropriate. Translating everything I would say in English into Italian – especially all the pleases, thank yous, and unnecessary sorrys – just doesn’t work. When you communicate in another language you have to get rid of a lot of the verbal habits from your native language, or you sound ridiculous. To compensate for the missing words, you inevitably end up substituting with more appropriate words and phrases in the second language.

I’m certainly more direct in Italian. I have to be. When I’m speaking in English, it only takes a split-second to think of a more polite/indirect/evasive way of phrasing something. Speaking Italian probably forces me to be more honest, as I don’t have the linguistic dexterity to be dishonest. If someone asks me for my opinion in Italian, I’m more likely to just be blunt and say what I really think. In a way, it’s quite liberating. There have been conversations with Valeriano that were actually easier because they were in Italian. With an English boyfriend I’d have been anxious about saying the right thing, overanalysing every word. But with an Italian boyfriend I just have to go ahead and say it.

Sometimes I worry about my Italian self being a little unsophisticated, and it’s partly for that reason that I recently bought myself a proper Italian grammar book (Si! L’italiano in mano by Claudio Manella). Although I know that most people couldn’t care less if I screw up the congiuntivo, I’d like to improve my grammar, and of course my vocabulary is a never-ending work in progress.

As for my pronunciation…Italians will always smirk at my Englishness, and Valeriano mi prende in giro, but I honestly don’t care. I can speak in Italian for hours. I have a personality, of sorts. I’m no longer the tongue-tied girl nodding and smiling, because I finally have something to say.



Exploring the ruins of Rome


Rome is a city of ruins. Ruins are to Rome what canals are to Venice, and while other cities build over their past, Rome builds around it. My neighbourhood, Testaccio, is mainly made up of nineteenth century apartment blocks, and it seems almost modern compared to the crumbling centro storico. But on one otherwise ordinary street, a stretch of Roman wall rises out of the ground like the back of a sea monster. The contrast between the modern apartments and the ancient wall is startling when you see it for the first time, but locals walk past without giving it a second glance. It’s just the remains of a 2,000 year old port – no big deal.

When you live in Rome, it’s easy to take the city’s history for granted, but some ruins are more spectacular than others. Some are so well-preserved that they seem to bring the ancient city to life, narrowing the gap between the past and the present, while others are disorientating, even alienating, as their fragmented state makes it impossible to visualise the original building.

Whether you’re on your own or exploring the ruins on a walking tour of Rome, it’s always an adventure. Here are some of the most interesting in Rome, including one that’s off the beaten track.

ruins house of augustus

  1. The House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill

The history of Rome began on the Palatine Hill, as it was here that Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf. Octavian, the man who would become the emperor Augustus, chose the Palatine for his personal residence because of its legendary associations, and had his house built near the remains of Romulus’s hut.

The ruins of his villa have just been opened to the public, and can be explored on a tour of the Palatine. Augustus had relatively modest tastes for an emperor (or an emperor-to-be), and the house isn’t as large as you might expect, but the art is stunning. The walls and ceilings are decorated with vivid frescoes depicting plants, theatrical masks and mythological scenes. While the building is technically a ruin, the paintings are amazingly well-preserved, having been protected by their burial underground.

ruins domus aurea

  1. Domus Aurea

This is another imperial residence, but belonging to a very different sort of emperor. Nero’s pleasure palace dominated the centre of Ancient Rome, covering up to 300 acres. There were hundreds of rooms decorated with gold and ivory, and a dining room with a rotating ceiling. At one of Nero’s more decadent banquets, a guest was apparently smothered to death by the petals that fell from the ceiling. After Nero’s suicide, subsequent rulers tried to bury all traces of the Domus Aurea, and it remained hidden until the fifteenth century, when a young man fell in a hole and was amazed to find himself in the painted ruins of the palace.

Visiting the Domus Aurea today is a strange, slightly unsettling experience. Not many traces of luxury remain, apart from some water-damaged paintings, but as you walk through vast, echoing corridors, you get a good sense of how enormous the palace was. The decadent atmosphere of Ancient Rome has been replaced by the cold, damp air of decay, making it one of the most haunting places in Rome.

ruins underground colosseum

  1. Underground Colosseum

The Colosseum is the most spectacular ruin in Rome from any perspective. Admiring it from the Capitoline Hill, whizzing past it on a motorino or gazing down into the arena from the top level, it never ceases to amaze. But you haven’t truly seen the Colosseum until you’ve explored underground, walking through the tunnels beneath the amphitheatre. It’s a chance to go behind the scenes, and walk in the footsteps of gladiators, slaves and wild animals. Exploring the spaces where lions were caged and gladiators prepared to make their entrance (through lifts and trapdoors) allows you to see the Colosseum through the eyes of the people who lived, worked and died here. After going underground, you’ll feel you’ve seen the human side of the Colosseum. That’s the beauty of ruins – some old stones can unexpectedly make you feel closer to people who died more than two thousand years ago.

ruins baths of caracalla

  1. Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla were the second largest public baths in Ancient Rome. When they were in use during the 3rd-6th century BC, they would have contained a hot room, a cold room, a swimming pool, gyms, shops and a library, and they were decorated with mosaic floors and huge marble statues. During their heyday they must have resembled a cross between an elegant spa and a shopping centre.

The artwork has since been scattered across the country for preservation in museums, but some of the mosaics remain. These days, the most impressive aspect of the Baths of Caracalla is their sheer size. Standing in the shadow of the vast red walls makes you feel very small indeed. The ruins must have been even more spectacular in previous centuries, when they were overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, but the bare red bricks are striking for their starkness.

The theatrical potential of the ruins has not gone unnoticed. The baths appear in key scenes in La Dolce Vita and La Grande Bellezza, and are used for opera performances every summer.


  1. Villa dei Quintili

There are lots of fascinating ruins to be explored along the Appian Way, the ancient road that once linked Rome to Brindisi, including the Circus of Maxentius and the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. About five miles down the road you’ll also find the remains of the Villa dei Quintili, one of the most atmospheric places in Rome.

This huge villa used to belong to two brothers, until the emperor Commodus had them killed, and then took the house for himself. Centuries later, it’s a labyrinth of ruins – high walls with gaping windows, and dusty mosaic floors that once decorated a grand dining hall.

Now that everything’s open to the blue Roman sky, it’s difficult to visualise it as a house at all, and even harder to imagine imperial banquets taking place in these fragmented rooms. But exploring the ruins, which include baths and a hippodrome, feels like a real adventure. You’re far away from the centre of Rome, and most of the time you’ll have the ruins to yourself. It feels as though you’re exploring this strange, timeless place, which belongs neither to the past nor the present. You could almost believe that there was never a palace at all. Perhaps they were always ruins, waiting to be discovered by the next explorer on the Appian Way.

Note: This post originally appeared on L’Italo-Americano

San Valentino a Napoli


I spent last weekend (and Valentine’s Day) in Naples with Valeriano. Most Italians are bemused by my Naples obsession, and can’t understand why I keep going back. I’ve now been to Naples more times than I’ve been to Venice, which is more of a reflection of how much cheaper Naples is…but still. I love Naples. And while a few people were surprised that I would choose such an “unromantic” city for my Valentine’s weekend, one friend understood. “Ah…Napoli. Vesuvio, il mare…” At its most beautiful – walking along the seafront on a sunny day – Naples easily rivals any other Italian city. And even at its grottiest, why shouldn’t Naples be romantic? What makes a city romantic anyway?

Rome, Venice and Paris are considered romantic cities. Naples isn’t. It’s too dirty. There’s too much crime. It isn’t beautiful in the way that Venice is beautiful. But while I can’t deny the dirt in Naples, or the existence of pickpockets and the mafia, I would argue that it is beautiful, even romantic, in its own peculiar way.

A shrine to the Virgin Mary glowing at the end of a dark street, the palms of Piazza Bellini, a glimpse of the bright blue sea from the chaotic streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli, the exquisite statue of the veiled Christ in Sansevero, the faded pink peeling off the walls, the plants and laundry cascading from the balconies, the faint outlines of the islands shimmering on the horizon…

“See Naples and die,” they used to say. No one talks about Naples as a must-see city any more, but even if it has declined, the beauty remains. I know that it’s a question of personal taste, and that some people will never be able to see beyond the graffiti, but it’s a pity. Aesthetics aside, Naples has so much to offer – incredible museums, some of the best art in the world, and, of course, pizza to die for.

We didn’t choose to go to Naples for Valentine’s Day because it was romantic. We chose Naples because it’s a city we both love, because it’s cheap, because it’s easy to get to, and because I was having insatiable cravings for Neapolitan pizza. But I believe that anywhere can be romantic with the right person – a day out at the rubbish dump with the right person beats Paris with the wrong person – and Naples was getting into the spirit of San Valentino. Heart shaped balloons filled the streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli and young men tried to sell us roses. We didn’t buy a rose, but we were forced to buy an umbrella when it started pouring on Sunday, thus disproving Valeriano’s claim that it never rains in Naples. When it rains in Naples, it really rains.

After battling the wind and the rain on Via Toledo, we went to admire the Cristo Velato, and then took refuge in Trianon, where I had one of the best (and heaviest) pizzas I’ve ever had in my life. Over lunch, discussing the rain and our tiredness, we decided to head back early. A quick coffee on Spaccanapoli, and then we were back in the car, driving to Rome (with a stop at Caianello to pick up some mozzarella).

Every time I go to Naples, I end up leaving earlier than expected. Naples has the paradoxical effect of waking me up and making me feel alive, and then suddenly exhausting me. It’s the equivalent of drinking an incredibly strong coffee, and then experiencing a sudden energy slump. After just over 24 hours in Naples, we were crashing.

I’ll be back soon, though. When I’m next craving pizza and beautiful chaos, I’ll be back.












It’s carnevale in Rome. It’s carnevale in Venice, too, and I wish I was there again. Obviously nowhere does carnevale quite like Venice, and I have fond memories of being there in 2014. It rained so much that a man dressed as a penguin came to shelter under my umbrella.

It’s all blue skies and sunshine in Rome at the moment. Children dressed as princesses or superheroes running through the streets, throwing coriandoli (confetti) everywhere, and parades in Piazza Navona. I didn’t intend to see the parade, but as I spend so much time walking around the centre, I often stumble across events. Last weekend I was horrified to find myself caught up in the Family Day crowds. Obviously it was much more pleasant to accidentally attend the carnevale parade in Piazza Navona this afternoon, watching marching bands and men in togas.

One woman was wearing a hat shaped like the Colosseum, as you’ll see from the pictures below. I’d like it if this became the next trend – hats shaped like ancient monuments. An obelisk hat might be fun.

I often find Italian style – or Roman style, at least – disappointingly dull. People tend to dress identically, with none of the individuality you’ll find in a city like London. Carnevale sort of compensates for the rest of the year.


I also went for a walk along Via dei Coronari, and got a gelato at Gelateria del Teatro. An over-excited spaniel called Lolita was running around inside, ignoring her owner’s cries of “Lolliiii!” as she explored behind the counter. As a dog-lover, this is one of the many things I love about Italy – the tolerance of dogs in public places. You could never get away with letting your dog loose inside a shop or restaurant in the UK.

I don’t have a picture of Lolita the spaniel, but I do have a picture of a dog from my Venetian carnevale, which seems like an appropriate way to end the post:

dog carnevale