Roma Termini bustled with an energy reminiscent of railway stations in India. The paint on the graffiti peeled off the walls. People bumped into me and to each other. The road to my hostel smelled like piss and a scooter almost hit me. The cappuccino I spent my last few Euro for the day on was nothing like I imagined. At the hostel, I met an American cyclist and we set about exploring the city together, young tourists in a daze.
The Colosseum compelled us to imagine what it must have been like when a gladiator walked in to the hypogeum through the tunnels leading up to it, to the roar of the crowd. We walked around, transfixed, by a structure and society that were hard to relate to and yet moved us somehow. Outside, Palatine Hill, offered up a spectacular view of the city, the metropolis managing to look like a chaos of history and modernity.
At St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, people stood around holding up green balloons, handing out brochures glorifying the Pope. On an impulse, we went inside a random church to listen to the priest give an animated sermon in Italian.
We spent an afternoon walking along Via Appia Antica or the Appian Way, the remains of an ancient road connecting Rome to Brindisi in the South. Green pastures lay on either side. A small house called ‘Ave Maria’, creepers intertwined all around its gates, held our gaze, making us think about the lives of its inhabitants.
On returning to the city, we sat on a bridge and discussed our travels as the sun set over the Tiber. The food we consumed on those travels, enforced by a tiny budget that catered for trips over food, consisted mostly of microwaved pizzas and fast foods. The only saving grace was a gelato in Piazza Navona, as people walked around, staring at street artists painted silver to look like fairies.
I was nineteen years old on that trip, and delighted in its visuals and experiences. It didn’t matter that the food lacked taste – it fed my hunger and that was sufficient.
More than eight years later, at a business meeting in a suburb of Rome, I sparked up a group of Italians with the memory of that trip. It was a packed day full of presentations and although it was a working lunch, our clients had put together a delectable feast.
At the end of an exhausting day, I went for a walk through the pines trees, smelling the freshness of the trees. There was a huge old building with big classical columns and a photographer was taking pictures of two models as the light danced between those columns. I passed a large tennis academy as parents took their kids for lessons. It was a suburban haven.
It started raining and I went to a local pizzeria. It was Valentine’s Day and the place was full of families and couples. The waiters and the owner didn’t speak English. I felt a pang, overcome by nostalgia for my first trip and at being alone after a day and a half packed with activity and people. As I waited for my pizza I saw the chef call some kids up to him and the kids squealing with delight looking at the pizza. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, another waiter brought the pizza to me. I waited for him to leave but he stood by my table, as though waiting for a response. He gestured for me to look at my pizza with a grin, and when I saw it, I laughed, for I realized it was shaped like a heart. ‘Buon appetito, signorina.’ The chef nodded at me from a distance and I nodded back, mouthing the word ‘grazie’. On a different day, in a different place, perhaps I might have responded differently, but in that local pizzeria in that suburb, after a busy day on my second trip to Rome, I was rather pleased.
The next day I met my cousin, and we ran through the futuristic Roma Tiburtina station, to catch a train to Tivoli. We had no expectations from this trip and as the train passed through valleys and forests, we sat back in our seats, chatting and happy to merely look outside.
Tivoli with its old crumbling streets and buildings had an atmosphere that was so slow that it bade us to sit at some broken stairs, full of resolve not to move. There was a cat passing by, no one else in sight, and some old lace clothes moving very softly. Hunger finally took us to a restaurant where a mother and her daughter were finishing lunch. We realized they were the owners and they cooked up a feast. Antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce, caffe – now this was an Italian meal my friends and colleagues would be proud of.
In between these indulgences, we visited the Hadrian’s Villa, and made the acquaintances of more trees and fat cats.
On our return back to Rome, we took the bus and I was surprised by the poverty on the streets that is evident outside the cities. We were tired after our journey and took a break sitting on a bench in a courtyard of a church. We spent the evening walking around Capitoline Hill.
A few hours before my flight back to London, I had the opportunity to experience another Roman sunset. Bidding farewell to the sun’s fading rays, we walked in to a bookshop. As I wandered around the bookshop, I found some Montalbanos and Italo Calvinos I wanted to take back with me. The man at the till called to my attention that I still owed him some money. ‘36 EUR not 6, miss’, he was saying. I didn’t have any more cash, and I paid with my card, a luxury I certainly would not have allowed myself on my first trip.
This trip provided so much contentment, that I began to question my sensibilities as a teenager. I thought back to the calm I felt in that courtyard that afternoon and the view of the city from Capitoline Hill as it spread out in all its splendor. It wasn’t very far from the thrill I had felt on a leafy green walk along the Appia Antica, imagining who lived in that little house called ‘Ave Maria’. We are often quite unforgiving when we dissect our youth. There is no excuse for eating microwaved pizzas when you are in Italy, but I knew that if I was forced to make a choice between a nice meal in a restaurant or a trip to some ruins, my allegiance lay with my nineteen year old self.
, by Sneha Nagesh