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Monday, June 19, 2006

Romance, or Roma/n’/c’è?

Being in Rome is like being in a relationship.

When I first met Rome in 2000, I was enchanted. I stumbled, clutching my unwieldy bags, off the metro right into the city’s heart. The first thing I saw was the Coliseum and I stood in its shadow for an hour or more, unable, unwilling to make a move lest it somehow turn out to be a dream. It seemed as though my entire life had led to that moment and I could at last touch every inch of the city I had so often imagined.

And touch I did, everything I could reach. I drank water welling up from ancient waterways, I ran my fingertips lightly over smooth marble in the Pantheon. I walked across the stunning piazza to the doors of St. Peter’s and went inside to lose myself in the third largest building on earth, and I feasted my eyes on sculptures that made stone look like liquid, rippling to drape bodies only hinted at by the hands of masters. I walked up the more-than 700 steps to the highest point of the dome, and I walked the streets of city as far as I could see. And then kept going, trusting that Rome would reveal more and ever more intimate details as I went.

I rounded a corner once and the crooked alley-like streets opened to reveal La Fontana Trevi – I’m not sure there’s a better way to discover a sculpture so vast… it sparkled in the afternoon sun, and I’m sure Poseidon laughed at my stunned amazement.

The entire trip was magic itself, and I found not one blemish. I loved everything about Rome, and I wanted nothing more than to lose myself in it forever.

This, then, was what falling in love felt like.

Trip two, in the summer of 2005, was almost as spectacular. Almost. I walked the same streets, I rounded the same corners, I found new and just as spectacular vistas and sculptures and churches. But… I began to see the things I hadn’t noticed before. Rome was dirtier than I remembered – had these monuments always had this dark patina? Had the Forum been this crowded? Had cappuccino cost this much? And had the line for the Vatican museum been two hours long?

Despite these things, I still loved Rome. I looked past its flaws, noticing them but paying no attention. I ignored them, I pushed them to the back of my awareness, and I continued to walk the streets, seeking – and finding – new and always exciting pathways through the city I was beginning to know well. I found ways around the disquieting questions, and I felt only slight twinges of uncertainty.

By the time I left I was sure I still loved Rome, and I looked past the cracks I had begun to see in its perfection.

This year, I am beginning to see Rome the way it truly is. It is crowded. It is loud. It is full of people who can sometimes be rude. It is dirty, and expensive, and it never slows down… yet it is achingly slow when I want to do something quickly, and it is frustratingly unhelpful when I need to be helped.

It hit me today, upon my return from Siena, that – as in a relationship – Rome and I have changed the way we approach each other. We have passed the stage where everything is perfect. We have passed the point where everything bad can be glossed over. We are now at the place where the bad things are front and center, and the choice becomes…

… do I fall in love all over again, now that I have seen beneath the veneer of my own expectations? Or do I walk away before I am in too deep and fall into an unhealthy spiral that leads forever downward?

The answer has built in me slowly. This first week in the city has been both a reminder of what I loved, and a window into what I have learned to dislike. I have teetered on the fine line between giving my heart again, or leaving and not looking back. It took going away for the weekend and coming ‘home’ to know for sure.

Rome is ancient and brooding, modern and loud, and it is perfect only in the dreams of those who don’t know it well. And yet it is still lovely. Every day, I make the same decision: I enter it with joy.

I think there is no other way to be in Rome. If you’re not in love, it will drive you crazy.

If that’s not a relationship… I don’t know what is.


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