My twin sister, Lacey, told me a story once. I think she was just telling me the storyline of a short film she watched. A middle-aged midwestern woman had always dreamed of going to Paris, and she was finally able to get the vacation of her dreams. She was finally able to go to Paris. She spoke French fluently and had studied up on where to go, etc.
So the woman finally gets to Paris. She walks into a clothing store, and says something in French. The French people can immediately tell that she is American, and begin speaking to her in English. She wanders the streets of Paris alone for a while. She buys a sandwich and sits on a bench in the middle of a park. She eats the sandwich silently. “At last,” the narration says, “I found Paris.”
When Lacey told me this story, I was confused. Obviously Paris was meant to represent something bigger than just a city with close-knit cobblestone streets and romantic street cafes serving disgusting food, but what? What could this woman possibly have found in eating a sandwich in a foreign country all by herself? For years this has confused me.
Tonight I went out with my roommates. They wanted to go out drinking and dancing, and explore what else Rome has to offer. They wanted to meet Italian people and learn more about the culture. And this sounded like a fine idea. I can study history anywhere; I need to experience Rome.
So we all got prettied up and headed to the Campo di Fiori.
I took a picture of myself on my computer just to commemorate the occasion. I wore make-up and a pretty dress. I wanted to get a picture of my roommates looking pretty too, but I forgot to put my memory card in my camera before we left. Oops.
Deanna and Nicole had met a guy last night, Paul, who worked at an Irish pub called Abbey’s. So we first headed to Abbey’s. Paul was not working, but we stuck around for a bit anyway. Ayan and I sipped water while Sarah, Nicole, and Deanna tried various cocktails (I think they had three each). We also had cheese fries and fried shrimp. Then we paid and headed to our next destination.
The next destination was at the Campo di Fiori. I got excited when we showed up at the piazza, because I had heard about this place. My professor for Rome to Augustus had mentioned it in one of his lectures, when we were learning about the Teatro di Pompey.
“If you go to the Campo di Fiori — which I know you guys have, it’s the main hangout spot for study abroad students — you can still see part of the theater,” my professor had said. “If you stand facing the statue in the Campo di Fiori, you can see some buildings behind it that are round in shape. That’s because those buildings are built on the foundations of the theater,” which was round in the Grecian style.
So I stood there in the middle of the square and studied the buildings behind the statue until I finally saw the round buildings. There it was. The shape of Pompey’s theater.
Unfortunately, my search progress meant that I had lost the girls. Fortunately they had just ducked inside the bar and were looking for me as well. The bar we visited, the Drinking Ship, was just an American bar. It was filled with study abroad students and a few Italian men looking to score with a drunk foreign girl. Loud hip-hop music played, most of which I didn’t recognize; the “window to the wall” song played, I think (is that a real song?), and a few others.
I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to do. Actually the longer I stood in the bar the more I became terrified. I have agoraphobia, and loud music just makes it worse; I can’t hear myself think properly, I can’t calm myself down. I was immediately uncomfortable, and the longer we stood there the more I became terrified. Deanna immediately had a drink and started dancing and disappeared for a bit. Some businessman started hitting on Nicole and Sarah, and then just Sarah, pretty hardcore. Nicole found some friendly guys to chat with. Ayini and I stood there. She tried to dance and sometimes joined in with Nicole’s group of guys.
“Are you doing okay?” they asked me a few times, and I assured them I was fine. I examined the architecture; it was a small bar, and the door to the bathroom was tiny. This was probably a historical building of some kind. I couldn’t get any more than that.
A couple of times, Nicole and Sarah’s guys tried to include me in the conversation, but all I could manage was monosyllabic answers. After a few tries, even Sarah’s guy gave up on me. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I had to leave the bar, which took a few minutes, despite the tininess of the bar. I told Sarah and Ayan that I would just be by the fountain and to not worry about me. I stood by the fountain, cried a little bit, and then started fiddling with a fallen bunch of fake flowers that were just floating in the fountain.
After a few minutes, Ayan and Sarah came out of the bar too. Sarah complained that the bar wasn’t very good and wasn’t her scene, it wasn’t hopping enough. They started joking about Italian guys. We started talking and joking. Ayan and I sat on the edge of the fountain. I started telling some stupid story; right in the middle of it, some guy walked out of the bar, came over to me, shook me as if he were going to push me into the fountain, then laughed and walked away. I continued telling my story without a pause. Sarah and Ayan just laughed at the whole thing.
Eventually Deanna and Nicole emerged, Nicole on her second drink from the Drinking Ship and Deanna on her third (girl can put them away). They agreed that there wasn’t anything interesting at the Drinking Ship. We all stood around trying to figure out what to do next.
Some guys approached us and started talking to us. They just sort of fell into the group. Their names were Said and Luca. When we said we were trying to find more of a club-type place than a bar. Said said that he knew where one was. So we agreed to go with Said and Luca to the club.
We walked all the way from the Campo di Fiori all the way to the more touristy, historical parts that I was more familiar with, the Area Sacra and the Palatine Hill. Then we weren’t there anymore. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city with men we barely knew, without having any idea what our final destination was besides “it’s near the Spanish Steps”. Not to mention that once we got there, the best-case scenario was more throbbing crowds and deafening music. The empty animal of a crowd.
I started to panic again. I wanted to go back to the apartment. I wanted James. I wanted to cry. I didn’t.
“Are you okay?” Nicole called to me. She was in the middle of an e-cigarette with Luca. “You’re so quiet. You normally don’t stop talking.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
But as we continued farther and farther down, until even the other girls started to question where we were going, I realized I wasn’t fine. I didn’t want to do this. I was going to leave the first opportunity I had. I couldn’t walk home — I didn’t know where I was, and home was a far ways away — so I would just take the bus or get a taxi, whatever I got first.
It was a struggle to hold back tears when I finally managed to get a taxi, several blocks on. 18€ or 19€, and I would be back at the apartment, where I was safe and could be alone. I don’t know where the girls and Said and Luca ended up going.
The taxi driver had horrible English and was obviously very relieved that I could give him my address in Italian and understand the rough financial transaction in Italian. He was also happy that I wanted to be quiet. At one point he turned on the radio to an English pop channel. It was just Coldplay, but I was so happy to hear a song I knew.
He drove past the Palatine Hill, where I saw the Piazza Venezia, towering over the skyline. We took the Via del Mare home. My class had been walking along this road just a few hours earlier; I saw the Teatro di Marcello, built by Augustus in honor of his nephew, Marcello, as part of his restructuring and beautification of Rome. I saw Church of St. Nicholas of the Prison, which had the remains of three ancient temples sitting in it. My professor had taken us into the basement to show us the vault and the prison. We passed by an ancient temple of Hercules, where legend has it that Hercules, exhausted from stealing cows from a giant as one of his Labors, had taken a nap.
We crossed the river, and now I found myself in really familiar territory. This was the road that sold lots of automobile parts, and on Sundays became a street fair. I was almost home. I almost cried again.
The cab driver sat outside the apartment building and made sure that I was able to unlock the door and get in safely. I took the elevator upstairs rather than the stairs, as I figured it was late and the noise of me walking up the stairs might wake up the other residents. I walked inside the apartment, sat down on my bed, and finally cried.
Why am I here, if I don’t want to get to know the inhabitants of the city? Why am I here, if I don’t want to experience Italian culture? And I realized the wash of comfort and excitement that I had found in seeing Pompey’s theater and Hercules’ temple. The excitement I felt everywhere. Sure, I’m enjoying urban living, with its convenience and walking, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m not here to experience modern Italian living. I’m here for ancient Rome. I’m here for history.
That, I think, is what Rome is for me. History.