I didn’t do it the easy way. Or the legal way. Or the right way. Or the wrong way. A friend of mine that I met in Italy has said: “Rome calls people to her. Those of us who have made a life here are the ones brave enough, crazy enough, and maybe stupid enough to answer that call.” It sounds a little mystical and vague but so are all our answers as to why we are here. Those of us who have stayed say: I feel at home here. I need to be here. It’s right here. Seconds later we are probably screaming at a motorino that has cut us off.
I moved to Rome the only way I knew how: taking one step at a time in the general direction of what seemed to be calling me and not knowing much more about my motivations than that.
After eight and a half years living in Rome, I now work as a professional tour guide. Almost every day of the summer I meet Americans who are in Italy on their vacation, excited to see the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica and try the best cheese of their lives. And almost without fail, they ask me: Why did you move here?
The answer seems easy at first. I moved to Rome because I fell in love. But almost immediately I get stuck. In love with what, exactly? Well with an Italian for one thing. That always helps one make a trans-Atlantic move at the age of 22 with almost no money, no job, a vague plan, and only a few Italian phrases up one’s sleeve. But that wasn’t the only thing. That wouldn’t have been enough.
I’d fallen in love with all the cliches of cobblestone alleyways, rough tufa stone blocks against creamy white marble, the way you can glimpse the Pantheon down an alleyway, the sound of the word “Buonasera” which I still think is one of the sexiest words in any language, the taste of a half melted gelato. I thought of myself as a practical person, which I’m sure you can see is ludicrous.
A few years ago during a chat with an old college friend, we started talking about dissatisfaction. Living in the same town where we’d gone to school together, he felt frustrated with his job, his love life, with day after day of the same old same old. I asked him what I thought was a simple question:
“Why don’t you move somewhere new and start over?”
His response took me by surprise. “I’m not just going to throw everything away and run off into a field, Lauren.”
Is that what I had done? Was moving to Italy just running off into a field like an irresponsible little fool in that linen dress from Under the Tuscan Sun? I decided to retrace my steps.
I arrived in Rome in August of 2010. Freshly graduated from college and armed with a bachelors degree in literature that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with, I came to Rome to become a writer. Ok yeah, I guess you don’t get more romantic and delusional and field-frollicky than that.
But that answer doesn’t satisfy me. It wasn’t just the romantic “dolce vita” life I was after. If it was, I wouldn’t have lasted longer than my three month tourist visa which drew to a rapid close leaving me in a no mans land of illegality, unable to rent an apartment or get a legal job contract and with a serious fear of men in uniforms. I was not sipping prosecco on a rooftop. I was not driving around on a Vespa pretending to be Audrey Hepburn. I was not living the Dolce Vita.
When I tried to speak Italian, I stammered, I stuttered, I wilted, I withered. I hated my shyness and how small my voice sounded trying to form the words. My boyfriend had welcomed me to the city by trying to break up with me days after I arrived. (That’s right: “tried.” More on that another time). If this was frolicking in a field, then it was a field of doubts, insecurities and a deep fear that I would completely fail at… at… at what? At getting a job? At becoming fluent in Italian? At making it work here? Perhaps quite simply it was the fear of becoming the kind of person that says: I just couldn’t do it.
This brings me to Laurenissima. She’s kind of like my alter ego. In Italian if you add -issimo or -issima to the end of a word you enhance it. You make it more of itself. So if something is bella, or beautiful, you just add -issima to say it’s really beautiful! Che bellissima! Laurenissima is the more enhanced version of simple Lauren, a Lauren who was a bit lost, insecure, unsure how to make herself in the world.
I had to imagine Laurenissima before I could try to become her.
I grew up reading a lot. I preferred it that way for a long time. Books were much easier to enjoy than people and the world, which I found dull and uneventful (which probably just means I had a stable, safe childhood so thanks Mom and Dad). I was so pathologically shy that I wouldn’t answer a telephone and I’d freeze when I had to speak to someone, all thoughts draining out of my head instantly, leaving me mumbling something like “sorry, it’s nothing, sorry, never mind.” I dreaded interacting with strangers and frequently even people I knew. But at some point I started to understand that hiding from the world didn’t solve anything. It made you more fearful, more small, not less. And that fearful life wasn’t enough anymore. To guide myself in what I thought might be the right direction, I turned, as I always did, to books. I started to ask the question: What would the main character do?
If I was going to eventually write anything worth reading, I’d have to conquer being shy, being scared, being safe. Maybe my call wasn’t from Rome herself but from something deep inside of me that was trying to be formed but which I couldn’t define or fully understand without testing myself, without seeing if I could be the main character of my story. I had run into a field, yes. But beyond that field lay the deep, dark forest and I plunged in, searching for my own story, searching for Laurenissima.
The first challenge that crossed my path would determine whether this was an epic tale or a rather short story. Laurenissima needed a job.