I’m on my second espresso at the bar in Termini, watching passengers line up with their documents in hand at the Covid checkpoint. I never thought I’d leave Rome. But to be fair, I never really imagined that I would have the chance to live here, either.
On my first trip to the city, I stayed in an apartment on the corner of Via della Scrofa and Via della Stelletta, above the Antico Forno bakery. It was a 5th-floor walk-up with a minuscule terrace where there was just enough space to sit and watch the sun setting over the church domes that grace the skyline. I kept a photo of that view as the wallpaper on my computer when I arrived back in New York, and for years it was the happy place that my mind drifted off to when I needed to escape. I tried to make la carbonara at home as I had tasted it in the Roman trattorias. I bought the little tumblers that many restaurants serve their house wine in, I watched Italian films, I read books on Rome’s history, and I immersed myself in Italian culture as much as one can without actually residing there.
At some point, it dawned on me that I was eligible to apply for a British passport, as my father was born in London. With that in my possession, well before Brexit was in the cards, living in Italy suddenly became a tangible possibility. My U.S. visa was about to expire, and as much as I loved New York City and everything that it offered me as a musician, it didn’t take me long to decide that this was an opportunity to be taken by the horns.
I moved to Rome in May of 2009, along with my drums and possibly the largest suitcase known to man. I accepted the first driver on offer outside Fiumicino airport and naturally paid double what a legal taxi would have cost. I think I even tipped the driver on top of that. I had no idea. My new home was in Pigneto, which I remember the New York Times described as “Rome’s Answer to Bushwick”. I don’t know about that, but it certainly had an up-and-coming feel to it. The apartment was on the ground floor in an ex-convent with bunker-thick white walls. It had a small garden with a table and chairs. Suffice to say, I put that to good use over the summer. Pigneto was host to a vibrant and bountiful open-air market with a fishmonger and a butcher, along with the several local fruit and vegetable stands that are still there today. I took my morning coffee at alternating neighborhood bars and spent my days exploring every corner of the city. The nights were dedicated to getting to know the music scene.
The first jazz club I went to was Gregory’s, in Via Gregoriana, near the Spanish Steps. It was packed, the band was cooking, and there was a hard-earned mix of beer and sweat in the air near the bandstand. Then there was Alexanderplatz, where just about everyone who’s anyone in jazz has played. There was the Monday night jam session at Charity Café in Monti (that served Guinness), the Villa Celimontana Jazz Festival in an ancient park throughout summer, Crossover in San Lorenzo, il Cantiere in Trastevere, Sale e Argento, a dozen cultural centers, Caffe Cantù, Chourmo, Circolo degli Artisti. There was, and still is, a strong sense of community in the jazz scene in Rome and the musicians took me in as a part of the family. I soon found myself being invited to dinner with them, going on vacation with them, talking to their parents over long lunches, and feeling truly welcome. It was beautiful.
There was, of course, a teething period, as I came to grips with some of the cultural differences. The loose sense of time regarding anything and everything, apart from when meals should be eaten. The fact that back then everything was closed on Sundays, and sometimes Mondays, too. The almost total shutdown of the city in August, when everyone goes to the sea. The erratic nature of the public transport system and its monthly strikes. The bureaucracy. And, of course, the language. My Italian was very limited when I arrived, but Italians, in general I think, are extremely patient with foreigners trying to learn their language. They will give you as much time as you need to find the word you are after, or they will try to help you find it without getting frustrated or losing interest in following what you are trying to say.
I learned a lot in Rome. The Eternal City gives one a more accurate perspective of their place in history. It is humbling, to say the least. This is a city with twenty-eight centuries of recorded history, and for a large chunk of that, it was considered the capital of the world. Roma Caput Mundi. Its influence on art, architecture, law, religion, and philosophy is inestimable. It has seen countless wars, plagues, devastation, periods of opulence, population decline, rebirth, reformation, has been home to some of the most important figures in both ancient and modern history, and it is still standing and still vital today. We can walk around places like the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, visit churches which house paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Michelangelo, eat a slice of pizza next to fountains designed by Bernini, have a picnic by the ancient aqueducts, watch films in an open-air cinema by a 2000-year-old bridge, take a tram from under a travertine gate that was constructed during Emperor Claudius’s reign. It is all mind-boggling. I came to realize that no matter what I am going through and how important it seems to me in the moment, the world will keep moving on. Rome will still be here and has already seen and heard it all before, so you might as well just get on with it.
Getting back to the food, though… the food! There is something unique about the dining experience in an old-school Roman trattoria or osteria. The attitude of “this is what we do, this is how we’ve always done it, take it or leave it”. Rowdy conversations between the tightly packed in tables. The anticipation for the moment when the waiter or waitress comes over to give you the menu verbally. The scent of guanciale in the air that puts the salivary glands to work. The 1L carafe of wine slammed down on the table along with a basket of bread. That first forkful of pasta, followed by sounds borne of sensorial ecstasy. The satisfaction and pride in the owners’ faces when you tell them how much you enjoyed the meal on your way out.
It is almost impossibly hard to leave Rome. I could live here forever and keep doing what I was doing pre-Covid. Maybe that is why I feel like leaving. This past year, since the pandemic kicked in, has been rough in one way or another for most people. For me, it has brought about many changes in both my personal and professional life, forcing me to reevaluate my plans and priorities. As a musician, I have been inactive for several months now – something which I would never have imagined possible if not in retirement. I am sure things will pick up again soon, but if this is not the ideal moment to change things up and challenge myself again, then when is? I have decided to go for a total reset. The train I am about to board is headed to Venice’s Santa Lucia station. Through a friend of a friend, I have had the fortune of finding an apartment to rent in the historic center. Right now, with all of the travel restrictions in place, Venice is without the crowds and is as peaceful and quiet a city as one can imagine. It is biding its time, preparing to spring back into life in new ways. As am I.