I’m nearing the end of my time in Rome, where I’ve been living and working on writing + art projects for the past month.
Two months of non-stop travelling and eleven cities later, I needed to stay put in one spot for a little while. And, I figured, what better place than Rome to go looking for inspiration?
The house I’m staying in is located in the tranquil Monte Sacro quarter of Municipio III, a fifteen-minute metro ride from the city centre. My room has an attached balcony (a godsend during the sultry Roman summer!) and is filled with memorabilia from over the years: a videocassette recorder and tapes of popular movies, novels in Italian, framed photographs, miniature colouring books for children, bibles and stuffed toys.
If my knowledge of Italian weren’t so sparse, I’d converse with the landlady – a spry Italian grandmother by the name of Antonietta – about her experiences, seeing as I’m oddly curious about even (or especially) the mundane details of other people’s lives. The house is also inhabited by a thirty-something lawyer from Tuscany, who leaves for work early in the morning, returns in time for dinner and appears perpetually tired.
“Buongiorno,” the grandmother says, when she sees me in the morning. I reply in kind. “Mamma mia!” she exclaims, whenever she’s baffled or annoyed about something. She makes her displeasure evident when I don’t replace an item in its exact spot, but also insists on making me coffee and a cornetto on the rare occasion that I have an early start.
I’m getting the complete ‘Italian mother/la mamma’ experience here, no doubt.
Plenty has been said about Rome already; the city is bewitching. You can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of history, art and beauty surrounding you, and by the realisation that Roman emperors, Romantic Era poets and Renaissance artists have all walked these same streets at various points in time.
But alas, Rome in the summer is awash with tourists (armed with selfie sticks), as are other prominent Italian cities including Florence, Venice and Milan. A lot of what you see around the main sights is orchestrated for the purpose of those seeking a specific experience of ‘charming, romantic Italy’ – the horse-driven carriages, the ten-euro-a-scoop gelato shops (no gelato is that good, come on) and even the saxophone player seated perfectly next to the soulless café. It can get pretty gimmicky. Restaurants are overpriced and devoid of quality and service because they know they’re catering to a succession of one-time customers. And you’re left wondering how to experience the real, authentic Rome (or Venice or Florence) in all of this.
It’s a relief to leave behind the chaos, the omnipresent sounds of tourists and vendors, and return to my relatively sane neighbourhood at the end of the day.
Some of my most cherished memories are from my time spent with friends and acquaintances in various little towns and villages tucked away amidst the mountains of Tuscany and Umbria: Chianciano, Montepulciano, Pienza, the Val d’Orcia region, Sugano, Bolsena and Orvieto. Many of these places have managed to remain largely untainted by tourism and consumerism, retaining their authentic character.
If you’re in Italy, take a detour and spend some time in the mountains.
The gelato at ‘Bar Il Caffe’ in Pienza is divine. I savoured mine while walking around the virtually-unchanged fifteenth-century town, enjoying the sights and sounds of birds chirping, cyprus trees swaying in the wind, and locals going about their everyday lives.
Some day I’m going to move to Italy à la Jhumpa Lahiri. But until then, the memories will have to suffice…