When you have lived somewhere for a couple of months, you start to make it your own. Having lived abroad before, I knew the escape to Rome in 2020 would have been much smoother than previous moves: I spoke the local tongue, had known one of my housemates from my past life in Puglia, nabbed a job that inspired me, and had a very nuanced understanding of the so-called dolce vita that is not as dolce as many romanticise. Fleeting confidence aside, when I landed with a face mask and face shield, I faced the reality: I had landed in a stinking hot city alone: my new housemates were all frolicking on the Apulian beaches, while I faced 2 weeks of quarantine at home with no air conditioning. As I write this, it feels beyond self-indulgent in light of the current turbulence in our world, but they were my first impressions at the time.
Venturing out of my hothouse den after two weeks, everything felt surreal: a heightened sensory slap: the oppressive heat, the smattering of Italian conversations, the face masks everywhere and that heightened awareness that you are on the other side of the world. It was overwhelming: surrounded by swarms of sweaty people and so alone.
Knowing that this would have been the case before, I had packed trinkets from my home in Australia: I used my cushion covers as packing cubes and then stuffed them when I arrived; I had packed my smaller wall prints into an A4 folder; and I had even kidnapped stuffed toys (Hermione and Paddington Bear) as reminders of home. Those things certainly helped, but leaving this unrealistic safehaven in my new room and venturing onto the streets made me feel like a lifeform from another planet.
The first thing that I do when I move anywhere is create my own mental map to get my bearings. You find the main street, the supermarket, a cafe, a pharmacy and maybe a pizzeria (it is Rome after all). You keep going to those same places. Once a week you pop in. Then, slowly, people start to recognise you. It starts with a smile. Then they know your coffee order before you sit down. They let you know about their supermarket loyalty card. Your accent gives you away. Then the conversation starts. More than a conversation though, it is a series of questions that you hear on loop: You are not Italian, are you? Where are you from? Why do you speak Italian so fluently? Are you in Italy to study or for love? (Neither of which are true for mean in the way that they intend it) Is it true that kangaroos box you? It is true that you find spiders under the toilet seat? Can you teach me English? You pleasantly reply to all of these because, deep down, human beings are starving for human connection. All of a sudden, you are less lonely. The streets around your home are yours. You have a routine and a place in your new world.
After two years in Rome, I can say that I am local: The coffee shops around my house know who I am and my penchant for ordering cappuccino at all hours of the day (super un-Italian as this is a breakfast coffee). If I do not have coins to pay, they smile and trust that I will pay next time (paying by card here is super expensive for small businesses – especially when all you are paying for is a 1 Euro coffee). I have my hairdresser two streets away who knows I always come in on my school holidays, the pizzeria downstairs that knows which floor of the building I live on and, above all, I have genuine friends that enrich my social circle.
Indeed, one of the things that I take the most pleasure in living abroad is how I reach out to people in a way that I never do in Australia. I remember that my weekends back home were laden with work that I lumbered home with, meaningless solo brunches and Saturday nights painfully alone. I am a person who is invigorated when surrounded by others; I imbibe people’s energy and genuinely want to help people and be loved. At home, the loneliness crept in and invaded my soul. One thing I rarely feel here is loneliness. Nostalgia for family and friends seeps in every now and then, but I can genuinely say that my life, in all of its chaos and frenzy, is how I want it.