In December 2019, I, a young and naive 22-year-old, decided to uplift my life, call it quits with my life-long chapter in the United States and move to Rome. I left a future career, friendships, family, language and comfort in a place that would soon become part of the past. My ambitions and a loving support system were slowly pushed to the side thanks to a one-way ticket from New York JFK to Rome and, ultimately, a dream.
The decision to leave was led by a bit of impulsivity and maybe an ex-boyfriend. Still, the idea of moving to Italy had been something I had been meditating on my entire life thanks to my Italian upbringing and the culture instilled in me as a child. My family would always say to me, “We may have become American, but ultimately deep down, Gabriela, we are Italian!” We pridefully wore our heritage like a badge of honor. It is something I talk about endlessly, but what an ironic feeling it is to grow up in a place physically, while deep down feeling that your heart and soul belong elsewhere.
Not knowing what would come, I said my final goodbyes with a bit of shakiness in my voice, a combination of fear and uncertainty, as I parted from my familiarities and my parents. Dropping me off at the airport with two suitcases in hand, there were final hugs, not knowing when the next would be. My dad pulled away and said, “If it doesn’t work out, you can always come home.” But I knew whatever the outcome of the journey would be, I needed to learn to love the decision just like I was learning to love myself.
The first few months were filled with a lot of news: a new language, a new culture, a new system and a new way of life. Combine these with many firsts: the first taste of bureaucracy, the first friend, the first job, the first wave of doubt, the first global pandemic and the first home.
At first, I felt like I had been plopped into a postcard of the ever-so-enchanting ancient city. As time escaped, these impressions slowly faded away; I began to see Rome in its true colors. Seeing past its cobble-stoned pavements, there was a city full of disorganization, chaos and ruin, not to mention a weekly trash crisis. Here in Rome, there is no rhyme or reason. There were days when frustration was strong enough to make my head spin, whether from waiting 45 minutes for the bus instead of 10, stumbling on my newly-acquired Italian vocabulary or being told “no” many more times than “yes” at any immigration office I stepped foot into. I would be left not knowing what to say except “but why!” as I complained to my Roman roommate. He would passively reply, “Because it’s Rome, that’s why.”
More than two years later, I look back at my younger self, smile and wish I could say to her, “Rome may not be an easy city to live in, but despite it all, it will become an easy city to love.” There is so much that the Eternal City has shown and taught me; it comes easy to say I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her. Learning the unspoken rules (most of which I learned the hard way) made settling into my new Roman life easier:
- During the summer months, escape the heat, because the heat won’t escape you.
- There’s an art to Roman fried food. The same goes for being late.
- If you can drive in Rome, you can drive anywhere.
- Don’t fight bureaucracy. Learn to surrender to it.
- Just like any city, there is more life to Rome than in the historic center.
- The bus is never on time, except on the days when you don’t need it to be.
But then there were harsher lessons that this city threw at me, teaching me much about myself, but even more about life.
I have learned the act of perseverance. The city does this magical yet mysterious thing to people: when you want to throw in the towel and call it quits, move to a city like Milan or go back to New York, you are reminded (just when you need it most) why you should stay. And always in a very melodramatic way: the light, the smells, the sounds, the beauty, the sunset is just right as you think to yourself, falling for Rome for the 8th time, “But I couldn’t possibly have it any other way.” There are some who did leave, but found their way back. I have spoken to foreigners like myself, Italians from all parts of the country and the core Romans who have tried different places elsewhere–more straightforward, calmer, structured lives. When I asked, “But why did you come back?,” the general consensus wasn’t “All roads lead to Rome,” but “Because easy isn’t always what we need. Easy isn’t always something worth having.”
Rome became my love, and just like any love, Rome is something I wake up and fight for every day, despite the circumstances and challenges. Despite any curveballs she throws at me, just before drifting to sleep each night, I know that Rome will be there in the morning, waiting for me in all her chaos, history and unpredictability.