The following post was written by Emma Land, a freshman at the University of Washington, and a recent study-abroad student in Rome. She originally submitted this as an essay on Roman culture for her creative writing class.I thought it would give some us a different perspective to the experience of living abroad. Side notes: she's our first female contributor in 2006, she hails from the Pacific Northwest, and her intelligence far exceeds her age. Preach on sista'------Andy
When the plane landed and I walked into the sunlit airport I felt a new kind of awareness coursing through my body. My senses perked up, my heart raced, and I could feel the blood rushing through my veins. The car ride was complete silence, a hazy blur, as I stared, my eyes brimming with tears of shock, at the city of Rome. I checked into my small hotel room, set down my bags and collapsed into my bed. Shock and awe washed over me and I fell into a restless sleep. We toured the streets of Rome that the evening. I was mute. Stunned at the beauty around me, the vibrant culture, the song of the Italian language all of this mixing before my eyes, piercing my ears, leaving me speechless. It was at this point that I fell madly in love with Rome.
I did not come to Rome with expectations or preconceived notions. Of course I came wary of Italian men, but that is to be expected. I came with a child’s notion that this might be fun, but not with an adult’s expectations or prior knowledge. With this as my starting point I was able to view Rome as it is, my own ideas not combating what I saw.
By 4am the skeleton of the market is already up, a few dedicated sellers cleaning and arranging their wares. The Plaza del Biscione is littered with broken bottles, cigarettes butts and the stench of marijuana. The young Italians, a medley of bad asses, who frequent this small plaza leave not only remnants of the nights’ activities, but new graffiti appears nightly. New tags, names, symbols, drawings and incorrectly spelled American swear words cover the stone walls and wooden doors in the plaza. Standing at the door, hunting through my bag for keys, I can hear the heartbeat of Rome: the noise of the market, the clinks and bangs from people already rising from bed, the noise of the few cars littering the streets. The sounds of Rome breathe a life into the city that can be found no where else.
Mornings in Italy force even the most fatigued to rise, not simply because the noise is deafening, but because the sounds are riveting. As my alarm abruptly breaks my dream state I immediately hear the conversations and laughter of construction workers, the honk of car horns, the dropping of construction material and the cries of vendors in the market. If it is a weekend I often hear the crying lady, or as Lisa has dubbed her the Biscione crier. She is a large, rotund woman, swathed in layers of black and dirty orange cloth. I often hear her screams during the day. No one knows why she yells or who she is yelling at so vehemently, but everyone in the Campo de’ Fiore knows who she is. If I am not awake by 10am I often gently nudged awake by the sounds of the Campo.
I sip my morning coffee at Cafe del Biscione, un caffe macchiato, and listen to conversations around me. Two Italian women sit smoking cigarettes inside, even though it’s not allowed, the rhythm of their conversation a melodic up and down song. A group of giggling American girls, who share the first floor conference room with me, stomp in a cacophony of noise, clicking of flip flops and bad Italian as they ask for their lattes to go. The owner of the cafÈ smiles graciously at everyone, but I realize as the American girls go to pay he has charged them an extra 10 centisimi. The owner and the tall, imposing, dark haired barman sing in harmony to the opera music cooing softly in the background. After I have paid, said my goodbyes (a volley of ciaos, buongiornos and gracious smiles) I enter into the plaza.
The fountain giggles as I walk past, the water splashing into buckets put out by the men at the butcher’s shop. My mornings are filled with walks through Rome. The more we stomp around this city the more I realize that there is a never-ending noise to the place, a hum that fills your ears and remains there long after you have left the street. The car horns, the clicking of heels against the cobblestone, the constant mutters of Italian men as high heels pass, the opening and closing of shop doors. These noises make Rome. They are the song that pieces together the streets of Roma.
On our walks through Rome churches loom on every street corner solemn and silent, standing as reminders of one’s duty to God and the Roman Church. As you pull back the heavy wooden doors you enter into a new world. The interiors are gilded, the ceilings high, and marble coats the walls. Within churches there are new sounds: the awe-filled gasps of tourists, the banging of heels against marble floors, the echoes of mass wafting from small chapels to your right and left, the constant mutter of students and teachers and the silent whispers of prayers. The universe within the walls of the church is different. The air is musty. The lights are dim. There are constant reminders to devote oneself to God, to give to the Church. The place wreaks of guilt. The opulence is often overwhelming, blurring and confusing the Church’s message of piety.
In the afternoons the city shuts down: doors close, shutters click shut, the traffic slows and the streets seem bare. Restaurants fill with hungry customers the buzz of Italian coupled with wild hand gestures makes every meal an adventure. Schools also have adopted this break. The Pantheon fills with youngsters: laughing, eating and playing in the piazza. Slowly the streets begin to fill again as everyone leisurely strolls back to work. This abrupt stop in the day took me a month of adjustment. The idea that life could slow for two hours, that lunch could be eaten at a leisurely pace instead of a quick run to McDonalds, shocked me.
After the break shops grind back into action, the city picks up again, cars bustle down the streets. As the sun begins to go down there is a new buzz to the air. Students are done with school. Jobs end. Restaurants open their doors. By 8pm the city is a bustle of hungry people either on their way home or on their way out to eat. This is when Rome is filled with laughter. From every restaurant the clink of silverware on plates can be heard. The hum of laughter, raised voices, the whoosh in the air of wild hand gestures all blend into to a cacophony of joyous sound.
As the sky becomes filled with stars, the moon glistening down on the ancient roads a new life emerges: the nightlife. By 10pm the Campo is filled with Italian and American voices. The bars filled with chatter and noise, music from each restaurant and pub echoes through the Campo mixing and melding together with the conversations happening throughout the square. Men and women dressed in their best coming home from dinner. Teens stand smoking in the Plaza del Biscione. The girls fix their hair, snap their gum, stare with looks of superiority at the foreigners, and giggle at the boys as their young suitors make fools of themselves. The boys roll joints, drink beer and play fight. They are loud and excited, constantly acting up for the attention of the surrounding girls. The Americans stick out in the crowd: stiletto heels stuck in the cobblestone, short skirts, sweats and drunken behavior. By midnight the Americans can be spotted drunkenly stumbling out of the Drunken Ship giggling and falling over one another. By two the Campo is filled with the remainder of drunken Americans, most of the Italians have left for home. By three the Campo is silent, the tourists have left, the Americans have stumbled home, the pubs all closed.
Life in Rome is an amazing adventure full of interesting and shocking surprises. One of the greatest changes for me was the way Italians approach time. Drinking small, quick cafes in the morning, a two-minute event. Then in the evenings or over lunch you are never asked to pay or given the bill until you are ready. The pace contradicts itself. One minute you are rushing to finish your cafÈ in order to make more space at the bar and the next you are leisurely enjoying a 3-hour dinner not once thinking about rushing. The same is true with traffic. Drivers in Rome like to drive with minimal notice to laws: cutting corners, running red lights, and speeding are their main pleasures. On the road Italians are maniacs, but on the streets they stroll, walking as though they have no where to be in the world but right there. This contradiction is a pleasure to me. There are certain activities that deserve the time taken to truly enjoy the experience. Dinner with friends is a pleasure that should be enjoyed. Walking the streets of Rome there is so much to see that taking the extra minutes to get from point A to point B is worth it. Coffee drinking and driving are activities dubbed less important and therefore the time spent on them is less.
Romans also have a unique friendliness. Store owners, workers and every once in a while fellow occupants of my apartment say hello and goodbye at every meeting. At the grocery store or the market Italians meet and make small talk with the workers. I am never treated poorly for not speaking the language or laughed at for my unique miming technique. But, this friendliness only reaches so far. It is a surface friendliness. When I walk around the streets of Rome I am accosted by stares, not simply of men, but also of the haughty Italian women. The teens sneer as I walk out of the building into the plaza at night. I am constantly aware of the piercing eyes of Italians, summing me up, coming to conclusions. The contradiction between friendliness and coldness is about Italian’s pride. The hellos are a friendly gesture, something ingrained in the culture. The haughty response to foreigners comes from a love of Italian culture and a desire to maintain that vibrancy and life with minimal outside interference.
Rome is a beautiful city, filled with antiquity and yet the city is dingy. The streets are dirty and grimy, although every 12 hours the street cleaners appear and sweep the streets with their witches’ brooms. Minutes after the streets are freshly cleaned the trash begins to pile again, the cigarette butts litter the ground and the trashcans start to overflow. At night the streets fill with the younger Italian crowd, who jeer, sneer and yell at the Americans. They stand outside my big, green door and break bottles, chant communist sayings and from time to time riot in the Campo. Graffiti covers the walls of many buildings, a mixture of American and Italian sayings and swearwords. Italians have such a love for their city and culture and yet they disrespect the city they live in. At the AS Roma games the stadium reverberates with Roma cheers, Roma pride bubbles over the edges of the colosseum. But, when you leave you see the youth tagging buildings and the crowds dropping their trash on the ground.
But, the greatest contradiction of all is that while this city is grimy, the younger crowds can be menacing and troublesome, people can be rude and pushy there is never a moment that I do not feel safe and in love with this town. There has not been one moment in my trip that I have not rejoiced at the inconsistencies of this place. That I have not simply laughed at my grocery store being closed at five for no reason or smiled and waited patiently in line at the Post Office for an hour and a half. Rome teaches you to slow down, to learn to smile at contradictions, laugh at closed doors, revise schedules and never once complain. Rome wants you to fall in love with this lifestyle, to embrace the three-hour dinners and long walks through the crowded streets. Rome asks that you choose to slow down and appreciate life and learn to live it to the fullest.