You know you’ve well and truly settled in your adopted country when you get culture shock going back home.
I spent ten days in England, and although it was lovely, it made me realise that I’m very much an ex-Londoner now. I used to love London and Rome more or less equally, but that’s no longer the case. It’s English people I love – my friends and family – rather than England itself.
It’s strange how foreign England feels now. Standing in a massive supermarket in Southport (up north, where my grandmother lives), surrounded by elderly English people and tasteless looking vegetables, I felt out of place, just as I had once felt out of place as a tourist in Rome. The constantly changing temperature, the rain, the cold and the grey skies all made England feel slightly unfriendly. (“I can’t believe you didn’t bring tights with you,” said my mother. “What were you thinking?” “But it’s August” “Yes, but it’s England”).
I felt overwhelmed by the crowds in the West End, a part of London I once loved, and disheartened by the number of chain stores – crap coffee shops and countless Prets. I was amused by the Englishness of certain signs, such as a noticeboard at a train station warning passengers about the hot weather forecast in four days’ time (“Make sure you bring a bottle of water with you”). You just wouldn’t get that kind of public nannying in Italy.
Coming back to Rome, I really felt like I was coming home. An ecstatic reunion at the airport, and a return to sunshine, excellent coffee, delicious food and beauty everywhere.
Rome is spectacular at this time of year. I was dreading August, but it’s turned out to be one of the best months of the year. There’s hardly anyone here – no crowds, no traffic, most shops shut – and Rome has a pleasant ghost town atmosphere. It generally has a more relaxed pace of life than other capital cities, but in August it slows down even more, taking a month-long pisolino (nap). In Trastevere I often find myself alone in the street, while the other night, speeding across the notoriously busy Piazza Venezia on the back of a motorino, I was amazed by how much space there was on the road – practically pedestrianised.
I’ve come back to Rome savouring not only the warm weather and empty streets, but also the sense of belonging. Being surrounded by people speaking Italian was something I once found alienating, but now that I understand what’s being said (most of the time), it’s comforting. I treasure the little things, like the smells of neighbours’ cooking – even the smell of my local supermarket, strangely enough – or the light as the sun goes down. I get sentimental about Piazza Testaccio, watching children playing football or dogs drinking from the fountain, as I sit on a bench with Valeriano, eating gelato.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I’d stayed in London. Technically, I’d be much richer. Friends my age are generally earning £25,000-£35000 a year – more than double what I earn in Rome – yet they don’t seem to have any more expendable income than I do, spending a huge proportion of their salary on rent and transport.
Despite earning next to nothing in comparison, I still have the money to eat out regularly and go on holiday, while an annual metro card costs a paltry 250 euros. And then there are things that are free (or very cheap) like sunshine, gelato, home-cooked meals, beer on the terrace, motorino rides, and walks through the city.
Rome is far from perfect, and Romans are always incredulous when I tell them that I left London behind to come and live here instead. But three years on, it still feels like the right choice. When I remember the friend who once predicted that I would stay for a year, or stay for the rest of my life, I wonder whether she was right…