I mentioned in my first “Laurenissima” post that my Roman boyfriend Dario had “tried” to break up with me days after I’d moved to Rome. We’d met during my semester abroad in Italy over one and a half years earlier. Most of our relationship had developed over Skype conversations and a couple visits to California so by the time I actually got to Rome, the relationship which hadn’t been built on a whole lot to begin with was on shaky ground.
However much sense it might have made to go our separate ways, I had literally JUST gotten to Rome and knew nobody else in the city. He agreed to “see how it went” which, as you can imagine, wasn’t exactly what I’d been imagining when I moved across the world to be with him but … I’d take it.
Luckily for us, Rome has to be one of the most romantic cities in the world. I dare you to go on a walk with someone in the evening as the lamps turn on and moonlight shines over the fountains and not at least half fall in love with that person. As neither of us had any money, going on strolls was all we could afford to do anyway.
We hardly ever went out in the city center. Romans in their 20s aren’t going to marvel at the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona or have a gelato in Piazza di Spagna on a typical Friday night. We’d go to clubs down the Via Ostiense or in Testaccio, to places in the periferia that I never knew the actual location of, to Tiburtina and to Pigneto.
East of the Esquilino district and Termini station, Pigneto lies roughly between Via Casilina and Via Prenestina where I took my tram rides into town in that first month after moving to Rome. This was a former working class neighborhood which at that time seemed to be peppered with grungy hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants with spindly little tables and chairs threatening to tip over in the wind. Nothing was permanent so everything was possible.
Now you can take the metro to Pigneto, emerging from the underground up escalator after escalator right into the center of the neighborhood but at the time you had to get there by car or tram. Dario drove a tiny blue car that was perpetually out of gas much like his phone was perpetually out of minutes (any American woman who has dated a Roman is laughing and crying right now, I guarantee it) so our return to romance would start with driving for what felt like an hour, looking for a gas station to fill up on €5 of gas then continuing to drive around looking for a place to park that inevitably would be a 30 minute walk from wherever we wanted to go. Maybe not the stuff of dreams but to me everything was new so everything was interesting.
We only ever went to Pigneto at night and we always drove which meant I could never find my way around. To me Pigneto felt like a labyrinthine honeycomb of alternative hang outs, overflowing with students and hipsters yelling passionately about… something… words I couldn’t understand. There was a low, sunken, abandoned building that was so old the street level had grown up half the height of this shack-like house. We used to peer in as we hurried past our neck craning, finding only windows of jagged glass and ivy snaking down the walls, begging the question: what happened here? There was a pedestrian bridge over train tracks and I wondered where those tracks went. New to the city, the language and the people I followed Dario and his friends through clouds of cigarette smoke and past graffiti I couldn’t read to buy cheap bottles of Peroni and plastic cups to drink it, sitting on plastic crates on the side walk.
“What is this graffiti?” I asked, followed by a typically American assumption: “Are they gang related?”
“No!” Dario said, “This one is: ‘The stars are in your eyes, Vittoria,” this one says, “You are my sun and my moon, I love you.” He explained to me that the girls probably lived across the street, the idea being they would open their window and see love messages from boyfriends and admirers the next morning. At night, we all become poets.
We couldn’t afford anything so we ordered “just appetizers” at an Indian restaurant with dark cobalt blue walls which I’ve never been able to find again. I talked about writing, he talked about music and we got to know each other again. On other nights we shared a drink in the garden of Bar Necci once the waiters finally acknowledged us, trying to somehow soak up the essence of the writer Pier Paolo Pasolini who had frequented the bar, (it also appeared in his film Accattone). I’d read his book “A Violent Life” during my semester abroad in Rome and I’d brought my copy with me. It had moved me and I hadn’t really understood why which I think is a testament to what great art can achieve. When I’d first read it, I understood only a fraction of the desperate lives he had captured in those pages, the halting poetry of Romano dialect completely lost in the English translation, a universe I couldn’t understand of the poor, the dispossessed, the frightened, the people whose lives were steamrollered by storms of corrupt politicians, mafia and hatred that eventually led to the murder of the artist himself, now martyrized in street art throughout the city.
We’d usually meet Dario’s friends, which was something of a mixed experience and an education in and of itself about how different I was from these Romans. When you are learning a foreign language you feel like you have no personality. You can’t make jokes and just when you think you can interject something clever into a conversation, more often than not you’re met with a quizzical arched brow that tells you that you totally didn’t get it. Forget trying to understand Pasolini, I was just trying to understand the people around me whose language I could barely speak.
All of his friends in their mid 20s still lived at home, something that was almost inevitable following the 2008 financial crisis. In 2010 youth unemployment was nearly 30% and in subsequent years would only rise. Some were in university some not, but none of them had met in there. They’d met as kids and that entitled them to a lifetime of friendship of which some were closer (“true friends” as I’d have categorized them) and others were just “those people you hang out with forever because that’s how it works in Italy.” Really, you hang out with these people for the rest of your life. While teaching English I met a man from a small town near Bologna who said he had to go home every weekend to see friends because he didn’t have any in Rome. I responded, “I know it’s hard to make friends when you’re new in town.” Oh no, he explained. I’ve lived here for over 20 years. Meeting new friends is a whole other ball game in some parts of Italy and Rome seemed to be one of those parts.
Almost all of Dario’s friends from both the inner and the outer circle were in various bands so we made the rounds of small dive bars listening to rock to metal to folksy blues. Many of them sang in English even if they couldn’t speak it but while crooning pronunciation seems hardly noticed. They all smoked so I learned to roll cigarettes just so I could have something to do though I wouldn’t smoke any of them.
There were such characters as tall, lanky Ivan who played the sitar, smoked roughly a small forest of weed every week and at one point got completely obsessed with a particular type of free range eggs which became all he wanted to talk about… the ritual of preparing them, how he’d drive out of town to get them, why they were so great. Georgio worked for his father’s antiques shop and hated it but when I asked why he didn’t get another job, Dario just laughed. How could he? There was Francesco with Bob Dylan-esque nest of hair who was the most talented musician of the bunch but who always seemed to squander musical opportunities when they came his way. He and his band cancelled a gig because they didn’t “know the owners.” This revealed another part of some Italian psyches I would get to know over the years: Risk-aversion to the point of nonsense. I asked what they had to lose. Are they worried they won’t get paid? “No, they weren’t gonna pay us,” they said. “But you just don’t know how it’s gonna go, do you?”
The concept of “bromance” is very real in Italy. In the world I saw of nagging mums, half absent fathers, and an economy in shreds, they know they’s always have each other. In some ways, male friendship can be a more important relationship than your significant other and you see it just in the way they interact, kissing, hugging, joking around. There’s a freedom and consistent love that supersedes the little tiffs and minor infractions of the friend code. Your male friends accept you and all your shit and they always will.
There were other friends from the outer circle who didn’t talk to me much, to the point of sometimes not saying hello or acknowledging I was even there. When I asked Dario why he started by apologizing on their behalf and said,
“They probably don’t want to offend me.”
“Offend … you?”
“By talking to my girlfriend. I know,” he hastily added, “it’s stupid.“
“It’s not like we’re flirting or talking all night. Just a small conversation. Just a hello.”
“They are really old school,” he said. “They look young, but they have the old mentality.”
An old mentality that seemed to think girlfriends were the property of their boyfriend and therefore were to be left alone out of respect for the man.
One of these, we’ll call him Fabrizio (I actually don’t remember his name) was clearly uninterested in talking to me since his entire focus and drive in life, the thing for which he lived, was to hook up with a different girl every night we went out. After some hellos and a cigarette with the group, he’d quickly disappear like a dog on the hunt. He’d circle back around occasionally but eventually he’d vanish and we’d know the hunt had been successful. “Guess he found one,” they’d say.
You can imagine my surprise when one night he had a girl with him. “Wow, did he actually get a girlfriend?” I asked Dario as we ambled over to the entrance to “In It,” essentially a cement cube that specialized in the kind of throbbing techno I could have lived without.
“Oh, that’s been his girlfriend for the last three years.”
“Wait, what about all those other girls?
“Basically he just… cheats with them constantly.” The rest of the guys were moving towards the club and beckoning us to hurry up. My main role as girl in the group was to help us get into places that would balk at a group of Roman dudes showing up at the door. With me and any other girls around positioned first, they had a chance.
“I don’t get it. Why? Why not just be single, what’s the point in having the girlfriend?”
“I think it’s for blow jobs.” He said.
I stopped in my tracks. “Ok, you gotta explain that. She won’t give blow jobs so he thinks he should go get them elsewhere?”
“Not it’s more like… he doesn’t want her to give blow jobs AND he gets them elsewhere.”
“None of this is making sense to me.” Someone from the group was actually coming back to hurry us up. We had to be in “In It” soon or we risked being stuck waiting outside.
“Ok, this is another one of these old school weird things,” Dario was saying. “Basically, to summarize, there’s a phrase that explains why you don’t want your girlfriend or wife doing things like this: These are the lips that kiss my children.”
“He doesn’t HAVE children!”
“No of course not. It’s an expression. It’s stupid.” And then we were into the crowd, me and the non-blow job girl in the front, the guys following. His friend stayed with the group all night, paying no attention to the girlfriend and looking surly. She herself also paid no attention to him or to any of us. I didn’t get it at all.
Much later I’d hear a similar story via one of Dario’s co-workers who was complaining to colleagues during lunch that her husband would only ever “allow” her to do the missionary position. (I guess everything’s up for discussion around here.) When I’d exploded in incredulity his response was, “I don’t get it. Maybe…it’s a Catholic thing? It’s stupid.”
Having other girls in the group wasn’t the bonding fest that it was in college where the fact of being female seemed to instantly connect you in a new group. There were some girls who were friendly, eager to talk and commiserate about the fact that nobody ever had minutes on their phone or gas in their car. Then there were accessory girls, the ones who didn’t interact with each other or with any other guys there. They gave other girls looks and they posed and flipped their hair and sometimes said a few words to their man. I didn’t get them at all, and I’m sure they didn’t get me and that was just fine.
On a typical Saturday night we started coordinating at about 8 or 9pm but Giulio was still at dinner with his father, Marco was meeting his girlfriend in Monti for one drink that took four hours, Ivan was just preparing his nightly free range eggs and Francesco’s car had broken down somewhere. We’d finally meet up but couldn’t find Marco cause his phone was dead so oh well. Then we tried to park, giving a few coins to a guy to not key the car while we were away. Then we needed to get food for Francesco who hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday. Then Ivan needed to find a tabbachaio open to get papers. Then they all smoked. We’d try to get in somewhere but they’d turned us away, “too many guys.” “Next time Lauren should speak English to them, show them we have an American with us!” they joked. We finally ended up somewhere around 2am and it would feel like all of Rome had just arrived.
Then it didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Italian as the music was too loud to hear myself speak anyways. Crowds of people are pushing, I’m exhausted. I just spent my €10 for the night on a vile cocktail and someone has spilled most of it down someone else’s dress. “Mi dispiace!”
Some nights dragged on until 5am when I’d be dizzy with words I didn’t know, music I loved, conversations with Dario whispered and shouted all night long. We went to hidden jungle courtyards like Circolo degli Artisti or Angelo Mai (both since shut down though Angelo Mai keeps popping back up again before the police get to it) where you hung out in a garden chatting then danced until you were soaked in sweat then lounged in the garden to dry off, then danced again then all crammed into a car to go to the 24 hour cornetto place with people on the sidewalk, one faint pink light shining from a neon sign and everyone holding cornetti or donuts, sugar glistening on noses, that heavenly baked smell and a smiling man passing out pastry in white paper yelling, One euro! Two euro! Vai Vai! Eccomi! Arrivo! While cooks in the kitchen jumped around the ovens as sweaty as we’d been dancing and we shared sugared kisses in the warm dark summer smiling at each other and remembering why we’d fallen in love. Roman summer nights have a magic if you can catch them, like a soap bubble in the sunshine, ethereal and delicate.
Finally we’d go home and collapse into sleep. The next day was my day off which meant Sunday lunch with… The Family.