My first impressions in Rome seem to echo over and over in the stories I hear from newcomers to the city. It seems that everyone must pass through the mingled initiation of both terror and awe that they experience while careening into the city in a taxi while coming to terms with the possibility that this may be the last few minutes of their lives. The driver is excited to share his city, proud to show off her monuments as if he’s giving a dinner guest a tour of his newly remodeled house. While pointing out the white monstrosity of the wedding cake (Romans hate it, foreigners like me, love it), he veers straight into an onslaught of moving vehicles. He swerves around a bus, looking over his shoulder to point out the terracotta brick arches that were the center of commerce: what we guides like to call “the world’s first mall”. You can barely concentrate on the spiraling tower of masturbatory self-congratulation that is the Column of Trajan because you’re sure a pack of tourists is about to be the victim of your drivers enthusiastic tour on wheels. And you’re starting to think that a peek down the road at the gap toothed grin of the Colosseum might be the last thing you ever see.
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These glimpses imprint themselves on the memory: terrifying and excited moments when the sight of so much beauty makes you feel on the doorstep of adventure. Rome feels like the backdrop for godly activity. That is what Michelangelo wrested out of cold stone: God-men. In Rome you feel you are one of them. This is the city for a passionate (maybe tragic) love, to escape a terrible (maybe just mediocre) past and to Create with a capital C: Art, Poetry, Music, the next Great Novel.
When I moved to Rome in 2009, two months out of college, I was looking for the right setting for what I wanted my life to become: something epic. Rome is for dreamers. I was afraid I couldn’t do it but I had the giddy feeling of knowing that at least now I’d prove to myself if I could or not. Set the scene, lights, camera…. and paperwork?
On vacation or for a short stay Rome is one thing but actually trying to live in the Eternal City is not all operatic highs and lows. Braided into the fabric of every day life are frustrating and interminable regulations that all seem to change based on the time of day or who is sitting across the desk in front of you. Paperwork becomes a Kafka-esque ordeal that becomes ridiculous to the point of surreal, a game you aren’t sure if you are supposed to play or avoid.
Rome exhausts you in the labyrinth of the dysfunctional, the incomprehensible, the tedious paperwork games you’re force to play the longer you stay, the more you become entrenched, wrapped up in strings, unable or unwilling to leave after all the work it takes to stay in the dream, your life slipping by you in breaks to get a coffee, in strolls through the ruins, in hours spent on public transportation just to get to the office you need to get your permesso only to find it closes early (just on Tuesdays), in lines in the post office waiting to finally approach the sportello to find you should have taken another number and have to start again, in days being told, “no you need the stamp from the office in Tiburtina not in Trastevere” so you reschedule your English lessons to go there next Thursday but when you arrive you learn the office you need is only open on Wednesday. Ok, next Wednesday afternoon you are free. “No,” they say “only morning”. So you cancel work to go next Wednesday morning and you arrive and they say, “Where is the marca da bollo? No, you can’t get it here, you have to go to a tabacchaio shop.” The closest tabacchaio shop is roughly an 18 kilometer walk away. You’re back, you have the stamp, they affix the stamp and turn the page and stop. “But, signora, where is the signature?” What signature? “The one from the first office.” That office is open Tuesday, Thursday, every other Wednesday and the first and fifth Fridays of every month ruled by a water sign. That coincides with next Friday! You’re in luck! You quit your job – forget it. You start drinking. You go for coffee with your friends 25 times a day as you wait for next Friday. You take up smoking and silk screening. It’s Friday.
I need a Signature.
Ok, Maria can do that.
Where is Maria?
She’s not here today.
Ok, I’ll come back next Friday.
Will she be here?
I don’t think so.
Oh, why not?
She’s on maternity leave.
When will she be back?
We don’t know.
What do you mean you don’t know?
You know how women are when they have a baby. Totally unreliable. (actual quote. Go to hell, sir.)
So, nobody else can do this signature?
Well, Filippo could.
Who is Filippo?
I am Filippo.
You stare at each other for seconds that last centuries as you imagine all the ways you would flay him alive.
Can you give me the signature? (You ask, as the clock strikes four.)
We close at four. Arrivederci!
You go outside, cursing the world, cursing yourself for having moved to this god forsaken shit hole of humanity, the birthplace of insanity, fodder for profanity and you sit down in a caffe to write about it because hey, maybe you’re a poet and maybe you’re “Hemingway meets Virgina Wolf” and not among Peter Pan’s lost boys after all. After a few minutes you get kicked out because they actually need that table for people buying sandwiches, not people buying coffee and you can’t afford a sandwich so you go outside and wander under an aqueduct that once brought spring water to hundreds of thousands of toga wearing Romans before so-called barbarian invaders ripped apart the rotten heart of a brilliant but ruthless empire. You step into a cool church and just sit. Peace and angels under a ceiling that cost a cardinals fortune. You think: Am I delusional for moving here? Maybe yes. Maybe the word “delusion” has an incredible word origin that will shed light on the situation. You look it up. “Delusion: The act of being deluded.” You laugh at yourself, then get kicked out of the church because it’s time for mass.
You’re not delusional, you’re determined. Your world is a reflection of yourself. Rome is inside: beauty and catastrophe. As if that very first taxi ride held the kernel of all that was to come. You reside in ruins, in majesty, in poetry and profanity. The sacred and profane vibrate through you. You are meaning, you are chaos.
You still need to find a real job.