It felt like falling off a cliff, so abrupt, almost terrifying, was the change in my life. Black and white to color TV. Darkness to light. Depression to dream. When they say, “it seems too good to be true,” they’re talking about situations like this one. At the end of my second year in Rome I fell so hopelessly and recklessly in love with the Pilot that I had the dizzying feeling of stepping out of one life and directly into another. “Dress up,” he’d say, “I’m taking you out.” Heels, tight skirts, jewelry, cocktails, expensive watches. As clean as walking through a door from one room into another, I walked out of my life of living off panettone and suppli and into a sparkling new Rome I hadn’t realized had always been right in front of me.
I have a recurring dream in which I discover an unknown door in a house that is familiar to me. Blending into the wall, behind a curtain, up a strange staircase, I go through the door to discover there’s an entirely new space or wing of the house I never knew about and I explore, often finding other doors, other places, other universes. The dream is always pervaded by a sense of excitement and wonder that right here, in a place I thought I knew, there could be so much more to experience and discover. I always wake, disappointed, knowing that there was more that I hadn’t had time to find.
With the Pilot by my side, Rome began to show new facets of herself one after another until it felt like an entirely new universe had been unveiled. From a labyrinth of monotonous and dysfunctional public transportation, tangled verb tenses and the closed doors of every restaurant I couldn’t enter, every job I couldn’t get, every conversation I couldn’t join with my rudimentary Italian, everything was just suddenly, simply effortless. Everything was fun.
On one of our first dates the Pilot met me in Piazza del Popolo wearing a linen suit (he owns a suit!). He’d just finished a day of work (he has a job!) and wanted to take me somewhere special (he has a plan! Nay, a surprise!). He put his arm out for me to take and we strolled to the Hotel de Russie on Via del Babuino, famous for its courtyard bar and garden, a cascade of greenery over a white terrace where you could sip a cocktail for astronomical prices in a way that said: money means nothing. I guess it says a lot that I was desperately looking for the cheapest thing on the menu when he closed it and said, “Come on, get whatever you want.” And the feeling of just suddenly being taken care of when it came to something as simple as a drink was comforting. I had literally been whisked off of the crowded street into a secret garden, in a building I’d passed many times and never realized the little wonderland within. And who doesn’t love a good whisking?
Everything felt like that. Nothing could be ordinary with the Pilot.
He spoke of his “car collection” which included a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, the same that had been featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof where (naturally) one of the girls is strapped to the front of it, driving at a hundred miles an hour and trying to outwit a psychopath before being creamed (because: Tarantino).
The pen in his pocket was always a Montblanc.
He owned a horse…somewhere.
He had a house… in England.
He had an apartment a few blocks from Piazza del Popolo with a terrace covered in jasmine he’d planted.
When he decided to buy an old Ferrari in Milan we flew up to check it out, ferried across the lake and drove the Ferrari back to Rome.
He once told me just to prepare for a weekend trip by plane and surprised me with Madrid and a drive through the night for hours. We woke up in a castle.
In that moment in time, we were both each other’s fantasy. I knew he liked having a young, long legged girl on his arm. I liked the feeling of having someone next to me with a plan. Someone decisive. A man. I was testing out a new side of me, a new role: is this who I am? Someone who is “the young girlfriend” and rides around in Ferraris? Maybe.
Too good to be true? Oh you have no idea. There was always a feeling of being “doomed” and I suppose that just draws you closer, knowing it can’t last, convincing yourself maybe it can, knowing in your gut that it won’t. For one thing, he was 18 years older than me which does not disqualify a relationship by any means but definitely leads to a lot of raised eyebrows. More worryingly he was always saying things like: “if only this could last” in a way that would induce mini heart attacks. He was a pilot which literally everyone warned me about. I mean.. literally… everyone. Complete strangers would tell me to “be careful” because “they have a girl in every port,” but I didn’t believe them. He drank beer more readily than water, and when I told him I loved him for the first time he said he might be moving to Africa (I’m not joking) and yet we collided like we’d known each other in a former life. There was absolutely no question about treading softly or being careful. As soon as we met, we were in way over our heads, all caution thrown to the winds. The hunger to know another person felt like a possession and everyone told us they’d never seen two people more obviously in love while also saying, “just be smart about it” which basically means, “you know this a bad idea, right?”
The bubble would burst more spectacularly than I could ever have imagined but while it lasted, it was really a dream in which our interest in learning more about each other was reflected in exploring everything else around us. When you’re falling in love with a person, you fall in love with the world around you. Rome and the surroundings became a new territory to explore.
The Pilot was an action guy, he always had to be doing something. On days off he’d take his ancient green Land Rover (the kind you have to hoist yourself into) into the countryside discovering places like Antica Monterano. He said he’d seen the ruins from the plane (of course he did) and wanted to find it “in the landy.” After driving an hour north of Rome, just west of Lake Bracciano is the territory of Casale Monterano and further west, down a gravel track through the trees we found the ruins of a ghost town emerging through the foliage.
The Castle of the Altieri family still has the crumbling ruins of the Fountain of the Lion, by great Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself and whose cascading design is said to have been the inspiration for the Trevi Fountain. A 17th century aqueduct still frames the greenery under its arches and all around us, just hills upon hills of trees and no sign of civilization in sight.
We ignored the signs to keep out (of course) and climbed up to the top for a view over the countryside, spotting more ruins that turned out to be an ancient church. The roof had collapsed and in the center of the building had grown an enormous gnarled fig tree whose leaves spread out over us.
I’ve always been drawn to abandoned buildings with a fascination that must be related to those dreams. They have a haunted, nostalgic melancholy that attracts me and immediately jumpstarts my imagination. What used to be here. Which people. What did they do? What did they say? Where are they now? And, reversing the game, I look at the things around me imagining them in ruins, ourselves the ghosts of the future (yes, I read too much as a child).
In a way, this is what I love about Rome too. We are living in the ruins of those abandoned ancient buildings and if you know where to look, you start to see that we are the new growth flourishing in the shells of the past, following the same structures, tracing the same lines.
The shape of Piazza Navona, sporting its own Bernini fountain in the center, exactly resembles the ruins of a first century race track it’s built on top of.
The Pantheon, now the Basilica of Mary and the Martyrs is a 2nd century temple built by emperor Hadrien.
The curves in the walls of buildings around Campo Dei Fiori market trace the curves of the seating around the Theater of Pompeii where Julius Caesar was stabbed on the fateful Ides of March, 44bc.
The dais in the Hotel de Russi garden is a reminder of the Galleria Borghese front steps, themselves a copy of Michelangelo’s double staircase on the facade Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline hill.
If a city can’t escape its past, how can any of us?