I try to make a trip to Rome every year. With the newest and fastest Frecciarossa train you can get there in 2 hours and 55 minutes from Milan. A trip that only 5 years ago used to take 4 hours (once, when commuting from Milan to Rome during my then long-distance relationship, I was stuck on the train for 9 hours. “Trainitalia apologizes for the five hour delay,” a voice said over the loud speaker as a total stranger and I exchanged exasperated looks).
“Why is your Rome your favorite city?” people ask me, “Surely there are more beautiful places in Italy!” After fumbling around in my brain, the answer is actually very simple:
Whenever I go back, I feel like I’m going home.
To be clear, I don’t feel like I’m Italian at all or Roman for that matter. I don’t necessarily even think I’m supposed to be in Rome, but I feel like there’s a space for me that will always be there. It was the first place in my life where I felt OK to be alone. Better than OK, I was fantastic, I was over the moon. Following my gut to leave home and study there at 21 when I had never set foot in Europe before always felt right. In Rome, I don’t feel anonymous even as I walk among hundreds. It’s pure magic like when the whole place lights up at night. Each monument has its own night time ambiance, its own personality.
Every year I come back and sit at the same steps, eat gelato by the same fountain, walk by the same churches, take the same buses, and it never gets old. The experience is different every time I come back. The first time I was in awe, exhilarated, full of adrenaline and wonder. The second time was terrifying knowing I was completely alone (without a school or a program to follow), the third time I already had a good grasp on Italian life, and so on.
There are a lot of things I hate about Rome. It’s dirty. It’s covered in graffiti. You can sit on a bus for an hour (try the 39 from Montesacro that goes down Via Nomentana all the way to Termini station) and look out the window and see graffiti on every building you pass. No building is spared. There’s dog sh*t on sidewalks and cigarette butts everywhere. Even those sidewalks are badly maintained and there are potholes galore. In the summer it’s too hot (avoid coming at all costs in July and August when the masses of visitors and beating sun will suffocate you), and although the historical city center has unparalleled beauty, the outskirts of the city can be a whole different nightmare.
It’s bizarre how such a seemingly unfriendly place, can include spots of complete serenity that envelop you in a warm, welcoming embrace. My favorite fountain in all of Rome is not the striking, beloved Trevi, but the far lesser known (among tourists), Fontanone on Gianicolo Hill. I could linger around there for hours, staring at its smudgy pastel marble and light green water. It has been the backdrop for countless scenes in Italian cinema and tv. Moments of tenderness and sentiment can be exchanged here, which is unthinkable in many parts of the city.
Rome has always been unapologetic about its immortality. The first time I came back to Rome, I was shocked to see everything the way I left it, with maybe a cobblestone here or there out of place. As if one year would cause the Colosseum to crumble (when you’re in your early twenties you apparently have this power). Everything was exactly the same, only I had changed. Rome enchants you, reels you in until you are head-over-heels, and then doesn’t commit. How can it? When you’re immortal, you need to be stoic. You need to stand tall during the passing of time, as everything around you evolves and eventually withers.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t left an everlasting impact on the city. After all, it gave me a gift that continues to open every time I set foot in those ancient streets. Rome has countless admirers, and if you are one of them, you realize that life goes on without you, but when you come back it’s all here for you again – every messy, breathtaking, contradicting bit of it.