My family is Italian. Super-Italian. Like, we own red and white-checkered tablecloths, everyone has at least three garments bearing an Italian flag, and growing up I thought it was normal to eat spaghetti on Thanksgiving. It was what they served at Plymouth Rock, right?
So, with this pride in my famiglia, it was a dream of mine to visit the place to which all roads lead. The place far too marvelous to be built in a day. The capital of the world to anyone with marinara in their veins and pizza on their brains – Rome.
Rome seemed like a magical wonderland of architecture, pizza ovens and gelato. A place crowded with Vespas and elegant women with long, trailing scarves and swarthy men who called Ciao, Bella! to any member of the opposite sex who strolled casually by, no matter their age or appearance. This was my ROMA.
When I graduated from college, my mother planned an epic trip for the two of us, my first time out of the country. We planned to fly from Detroit to Rome, and then after a day or two go to the Amalfi Coast, then return to dear Rome for a day or two before heading home. Heaven. The Motherland was calling to me and my mind was filled with visions of dark, red wine and piazzas filled with romance and beautiful people. I could hardly keep my heart from bursting through my chest. I was going home.
Have you ever been so dreadfully wrong about something that it tears you to pieces? If so, then you have an inkling of what my experience of Rome was like.
We landed at Leonardo da Vinci Airport – a good sign, right? Wrong. And the smell alone makes one wonder if every stray cat in the city is allowed to urinate in the terminals. We collected our ridiculously large bags, an international travel flaw I’ve since remedied, and got into a cab.
If you’ve visited Italy, then you know where this is going. Everyone there, bless their hearts, believes that they own a race car. The little cab whipped and zipped down the streets, at one point narrowly missed a group of nuns, and slammed my head into the window during several unnecessary hairpin turns. And then, we arrived at our hotel.
Unsurprisingly, it was a dump. As in, there was a mattress pad and a sheet on the bed with a thin blanket on top. All these fabrics were literally laid on top of a concrete slab – not a bed so hard that it feels like concrete – an actual concrete slab covered by musty linens.
After fleeing the shadows of our dismal hotel as quickly as possible, we emerged, heads high, into the eternal city. This was Rome, dammit! I’m one of her daughters! I will find something to embrace here. But as much as I held my loving arms out to her, Rome, it seemed, did not want me.
We wandered through piazzas, were almost struck by several cabs, and walked through a thoroughly disappointing colosseum. And then, I decided to barter with a man selling colosseum replicas. The guidebook said to always haggle over prices, and so in my best Italian, I offered the man a sum not much lower than what he asked. With a bored look and a single raised eyebrow, he spat … and then pushed me into oncoming traffic. That was it – the last straw! I’d been jostled, spat at, pushed around and then, almost murdered. If there was romance here, it wasn’t for me.
So, earlier than expected and with hearts heavy yet bursting with American pride, we left Rome and headed for the Amalfi Coast, a place more apt to provide romance and succor. A land of lazy waves, the heady scent of lemons and the lilting voices of Italian men saying Ciao, Bella! to every silly American girl they saw. Rome was a bust, a heartbreak which in all of my travels has never repaired. But Italy, as I knew she would, redeemed herself quite beautifully. Now it is no longer Rome that I dream of, but instead the lure of the southern coast, calling its siren song into the marinara of my veins, the pasta in my heart. ♦