Oh, RomePosted on October 21, 2017
Last week I picked up my renewed permesso di soggiorno, the little rectangle of plastic that is quite possibly one of the most valuable things in my possession given that it allows me to legally stay in Italy. I sat in a sparse, dingy police station waiting room where announcements from 1998 were thumbtacked to peeling blue walls and a crooked, gilded crucifix hung above the door, and then I sat in front of an unsmiling officer in a cramped office while she dug my new permesso out of a shoebox full of envelopes, sliced my old one into a few plasticky shards and had me sign an immense black ledger full of foreign-looking names. Permesso in hand, I headed home.
That the new permesso had taken nearly a year after the renewal appointment to show up as ready to be picked up on the immigration office’s supposedly accurate online system was, apparently, a minor detail; just part of the yearly headache-and-anxiety-inducing bureaucratic process guaranteed to weed out anyone who doesn’t really, really mean it when they say that they want to live in Italy.
I’ve been here for just over five years now. Five years! It seems simultaneously incredible and yet entirely natural – when I arrived in Rome, five years felt like a milestone I’d never hit. Even the one-year mark seemed hazy and far-off; when you throw yourself headfirst into a new culture, getting to the end of each week feels like a milestone. And then, somehow, time sped up and the years started to pile up, with each one that passed leaving me feeling more and more comfortably entrenched in my life here in Rome.
My actual five-year Italy anniversary slipped by completely unnoticed at the beginning of September, while Alessandro and I were in Palermo for a few days. I didn’t love Palermo as much as I thought I would (but that’s another story for another day), so arriving back in Rome a few days later felt particularly good. My city. Not mine in the same way as it belongs to a Roman who’s grown up here, but mine because I chose it. Mine because I continue to choose it, even when it confounds me, exasperates me to the point of tears or does its best to make me feel like an outsider looking in.
I remember, sometime in my first couple of months in Rome, going to one of those excessively awkward expat events intended to get people to meet and mingle. Not knowing anyone there, I wedged myself into a group chosen at random, which happened to be made up of people who had been living in Italy for years already – the kind of people who spoke what sounded like perfectly fluent, accent-less Italian, who knew the city inside and out, and who were extremely vocal about its downsides and shortcomings.
At a certain point, one of them asked me how I was liking Rome, and I launched into a long-winded, glowing monologue. Of course I just loved the city, I loved the people, the language, the cobblestoned streets, the chaos, the pizza, the inefficiency, everything. All of it. And the entire group exchanged a collective knowing look – a sort of subdued eye roll, really – before one of them turned to me and told me, in a rather snarky tone, that I should wait until my rose-coloured glasses came off before making such statements. This seemed unnecessarily harsh. Why couldn’t I love the city I had chosen to live in?
The thing is, though, that the rose-coloured glasses really did have to come off. As it turns out, you can’t actually live in a place for any length of time and maintain that kind of single-faceted, shallow adoration for it – the cracks eventually start creeping in. And creep in they did, during days when I spent hours trying to accomplish a single task and then failing, days when I felt boring and clumsy and irrelevant because I couldn’t even make small talk in Italian, and days when everything in the city felt dirty, broken and utterly outdated. Rome won’t let you mindlessly adore it for too long before it shows you a hint of its dark side; tourist Rome and everyday Rome are two different beasts.
Getting to know the real Rome didn’t make me want to leave though. Some people pack up and move on when they see past the initial sparkle; I dug in my heels and held on. There is something so alive about this city, about the way it magnifies everything into extremes. Conversations in the street are a form of drama, emotions underlined for everyone around to notice. A pretty sunset here isn’t just a pretty sunset; it’s the kind of moment that makes you slow down and just watch the way the sunlight slants over the buildings before fading into a thousand shades of pastel pink. And seeing garbage bags slumped against the side of a historic building isn’t just unsightly, it’s infuriating, a glaring red arrow pointing to the government’s incompetence.
In this city, every day, around every corner, there are moments, scenes, and things that stop me in my tracks and make me say, “oh, Rome”. It sometimes comes out in the kind of tone a deeply disappointed parent might use on a disobedient child, accompanied by a frown or a head shake. But other times it’s more of a contented sigh, a smile, the acknowledgement of a small moment that adds something much larger to my day.
I’ve realized that Rome is many things to many people. Not everyone loves it. Some people hate it. I even hate it, sometimes, on one of those days when it seems like the entire city is against me and trying to get something done feels like rubbing salt in a paper cut. I think that’s a good thing, actually. I’ve long since moved past that unrealistic desire to feel nothing but single-minded adoration for the place I live. I prefer to feel alive.
Five years, and I’m still here. I’m here, and I see myself here for the foreseeable future, because when it comes down to it, I love Rome, and – more importantly – I love the life I’ve built here in Rome, the people around me, and the routines that make up my day. And Rome may be many things, but there is one thing that it is emphatically not: Boring.