Expat Memories: Rome, Italy
It was in September of 1993 that I first arrived in Rome, the eternal city, armed only with a Filofax map and a Wicked Italian phrasebook. To this day I’ve never felt the need to announce: ‘Your breasts are like melons from Tuscany’, but it’s a quirky addition to my bookshelf all the same.
My company was based out in the sticks so, not being a driver then, I chose to live near a stop on the appropriate underground line, in the somewhat gentile area of Prati, not a million miles from the Vatican City. I had a lovely apartment with a roof terrace on which I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time. Idiotically I’d chosen to work for my former boss in Hong Kong, who for the purposes of these hubs I’m calling Darth, following two dramatic events: the takeover of my company by Rupert Murdoch (yes, that man again), and the sudden death of my father. Hong Kong felt impossibly far away from my grieving mother, whereas Rome – her favourite place in the world – was a mere two hours’ flight. Not convinced I was doing the right thing, I accepted his offer.
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Ever ambitious, Darth imposed Hong Kong working hours and six day weeks in a country used to long lunch breaks and even longer siestas. Now, he had two secretaries, a wife and a bunch of maids running his errands – I didn’t. And while most places in Hong Kong would stay open in the evenings and on Sundays, in Rome they remained resolutely shut.
The day my furniture arrived, I was allowed a generous morning off to welcome it. As I waited for the removals van, I wandered out into the neighbourhood, amazed to discover that behind all the metal shutters I’d only ever seen were a delicatessen, an electrical supplier, a dry cleaners and even – oh the joy – a small supermarket.
Prati also boasted a fabulous pizzeria and a wonderful café. Like the locals, I took to stopping off on my way to the underground for a cappuccino and cornetto, (a croissant-type confection stuffed with either vanilla cream or chocolate), taken standing up. Once fortified, I’d begin my weary trudge to the end of the line, wondering why my waistband felt that much tighter.
I have a lot of wonderful memories of Sunday trips taken with friends, and endless lunches in restaurants we chanced upon. I don’t think it’s possible to eat a disappointing meal in Italy: starting off with antipasti, and grilled vegetables dripping in olive oil, then the pasta course and lastly the meat, often some tenderly-cooked lamb. One of my favourite spots was Lake Bracciano, about an hour and a half’s drive from Rome, with its gorgeous waterfront seafood restaurants. Then there were trips to Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi – all full of stunning churches and monuments too numerous to mention. At Easter I took myself down to Naples and then Sorrento, from where I explored the Amalfi coastline, visiting Capri in the pouring rain.
Rome itself is made up of many parts, and quite spread out. One of the nicest things to do is to stroll around Trastevere, the medieval part to the west of the river Tiber, with its narrow streets, gorgeous squares and beautiful architecture. Campo de’ Fiore, renowned for its flower and vegetable market, was another favourite spot, as were the Pantheon, a remnant of ancient Rome, the Trevi fountain, where throwing a coin in ensures your eventual return, and the dramatic Piazza Navona, lined with Baroque palaces.
I managed to do two memorable things in my time in Rome: I went to see a ravishing performance of Aida at the Teatro dell’Opera, and I took my mother to midnight mass at the Vatican. I had to apply in writing for tickets, and it was only the night before that they were hand-delivered to my home address. I have to admit that religious services are somewhat lost on me but my mother certainly appreciated it.
But for all the gorgeousness of Rome, it was still a pretty tough call for an expat working long hours. It took me a while to discover a proper supermarket in my neighbourhood, which – unlike just about every other establishment in Rome – actually stayed open for a few hours on Sundays. I remember breaking the good news to some American colleagues who lived nearby, and their reaction the following Monday after their first visit. With tears of joy in our eyes we hugged each other, and I think they might have named their firstborn after me.
The truth is that Rome is exceptionally villagey, and full of speciality shops where you are forced to make direct contact with people over your purchases. Being blonde I’d just smile and say in my cutesy Italian: ‘I’m sorry, I’m English, I don’t speak much Italian’ and somehow get away with it. There were two old boys in my neighbourhood I remember with great affection. The first was in the delicatessen, where I’d buy fresh pasta, cheese, salami and olives. One Saturday, having bought as much as I could think of to last the week, he looked at me doubtfully. ‘Is that everything?’ Yes, I assured him, wondering what I might have forgotten. ‘Vino?’ he asked, knowing me better possibly than I did myself. He was dead right. I’d completely forgotten one of life-under-Darth’s total necessities.
The other old boy was in a florist where I’d treat myself to a huge bunch of flowers every weekend. Patiently he’d show me round the displays, advising me and making gentle suggestions as to what might work well with what. Once, on arriving home and unwrapping my cellophane and tissue bundles, I discovered a single red rose, tucked in among the gerberas. In the eternal city, it seems, romance never dies.
All photos courtesy of Photo Roma - http://www.photoroma.com/
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