Overwhelming isn’t the right word. Intimidating, sure.
Rome is intimidating. Not overwhelming. Overwhelming would mean you couldn’t catch your breath, that there was just so much in front of you – like a meal where they don’t separate the appetizers from the mains – that it hurt your head to even imagine where to start.
Paris is overwhelming, I think.
Because there’s so much there and it’s spread the hell out. And there are things you imagine yourself doing in Paris – like eating, drinking, and eating – and there are things others imagine you doing in Paris, which makes you feel obliged or even forced into – like lining up for the Eiffel Tower, or Notre Dame, or Versailles, or that graveyard with Jim Morrison, or lining up for anything, really. And there’s not enough time, not ever, to do it all the way you’d imagined it.
And there’s a lot in Rome, but it’s only intimidating – not overwhelming, not quite. Rome’s not big enough. But it’s grand.
You can walk Rome. There are only a couple metro stops you’d even travel to, within the city itself. The train station is a nice little shopping mall in a dumpy area, but even then you’re only minutes from the Spanish Steps or the Villa Borghese. You go the other way and you’re at the Colosseum. And then northwest or east (or whatever) along the Tiber from there, you’re in Trastevere or at Trevi Fountain or you’re on the Via Veneto or in the Piazza Navona.
“Rome is like a cinema set,” says a woman in Anthony Bourdain’s Layover episode there. And she’s right.
Magic is so easy to find, you stumble upon it. By accident, or fortune. Or just because it’s inevitable – inevitable that, if you walk enough, you’ll see it all.
So it’s not overwhelming. But intimidating, absolutely.
Because you feel a desperation to understand it all. You want to connect with the buildings, the arts, the history, even if you’d never normally truly connect with those sorts of things. You’re desperate to fit in – you pretend you don’t need Starbucks, that you’re cool sipping on too-strong black espresso, holding your pinky up while you do because that’s what you imagine an Italian would. Going from your North American living room to an Italian’s manicured everywhere is like moving from a soft sofa to a little metal chair – from the depressing, mundane convenience of Wal Mart to the stylish, unforgiving boutiques in Brooklyn or Berlin. Or Rome, I suppose.
You want to be one of them so bad. But it’s hard to be Italian. It’s even harder to be Roman.
And it’s impossible to pretend to be either.
It’s like what Bill Maher said about how Republicans think of Ronald Reagan as their Kennedy – “Calling someone your Kennedy will never really cut it. Because our Kennedy is Kennedy.”
But I’ll stop with the bullshit. I’m just talking – or writing. I’m wasting time. You’re wasting time, actually, if you’re not on your way to Rome. Right now. It’s the eternal city, after all. (There can’t be a better nickname for a capital, anywhere in the world, than that.) And Rome is everything – it’s the foundation of our modern world, perhaps not where its roots were created (that would be Greece, politically) or where it was forged (that would be in the chaotic fires of the long, dark Middle Ages or in the light and paint strokes of the Renaissance). But of course, the Renaissance was here, too, in Rome. And not too far away, a little north in Florence, too. And Venice.
Because Rome is very unique in what it means, both to the Western world and to Italy. It’s a hub and a jumping-off point, both at the same time. It’s your base to explore the country – probably where you’ll land, most likely where your trip will revolve around. It’s also your destination – you don’t have to like Rome more than Florence or Venice or Palermo or Cinque Terre or Siena, but you’ll most definitely judge your Italian vacation by how you felt about Rome.
The city is your thermometer for the country. All roads lead there; all roads start there. That’s how it is today; that’s how it’s always been, since there really were Caesars.
And it can be weird, at first, to get there. It’s not all beautiful – it’s not all bubbling pizza or soft pasta. The beer gets warm and the wine’s still just wine, really, even if the cheapest version in Italy is exponentially greater than the swish and glorified juice you’re buying at Walgreen’s.
There are wide boulevards with lots of traffic and there’s trash on the street. And if you come in through Termini station, which you most likely will, you’ll be shocked when you walk outside and think you’re in the Middle East or Romania. Nothing against Romania – but it’s not where you booked your hotel.
Because Rome is, and this may be a shock or a blow to your dream, a modern, living, breathing city. And that means it’s also boring in many ways, like mostly every modern city.
Romans have to live in Rome. They’re not vacationing like you are.
But then again, when you realize that and really think about it, it makes the city so special. Because even though Romans – new and old, authentic and immigrant – are living and working and buying shit on the cheap, like all of us are wherever we’re settled down, they’re doing it in freakin’ Rome. They’re doing it in the world’s postcard.
When they hustle and bustle, the Colosseum’s down the street. When they run to work or to pay a parking ticket, or whatever, they pass the Spanish Steps or the Forum.
And perhaps even that’s a false – I don’t really know what it’s like to truly be Roman. I wouldn’t pretend to. I’m just guessing and reverting back to the kind of stereotyping crap I blasted only a few paragraphs earlier.
But consider that as proof, proof of how magical Rome is. It’s impossible to not get carried away, to become even a little cheesy and pathetic.
*All photos below by Kolby Solinsky (no use permitted without permission)