The first few posts of this blog have been spent carving out what my identity on this page should be: Am I a tourist? Am I an expat? Am I here for work or love? Is this my version of “Eat, Pray, Love”? Am I running away from my adult responsibilities? The fundamental answer to all of the above questions is a ‘yes’ of elation: you know, the one where you are jumping around your house to your favourite tune like there is no one creepily watching you (In my case it is the employees at the bank opposite my apartment. What a show they get!) This post comes at a time where I am on my way to see my loved ones in Australia after almost two years. Naturally, this flight is shrouded with introspective soul searching so, instead of simply drowning out my whirling questions with in-flight entertainment, I reached to the overhead storage for my laptop. Here we are.
Here are my fresh responses to these questions:
Am I a tourist?
Yes. I still want to “do Rome” like many people who fantasize about a glamorous “Roman Holiday”. The only difference is, I am a romantic at heart and cannot “do” these one-night stands where I skip a few bases and get straight into bed with a city. You know the type: instantly satisfied by a Colosseum, a Trevi Fountain, a Pantheon and a “gelati” (gelato folks! Gelati is plural). I am for a slow burn: wandering down streets, perusing antique stores, conversing with artisans in Italian, finding something new on every street corner, endlessly looking up. I don’t just want to know about Rome’s best qualities that she puts on her profile, I want a city with substance. A slow undress of her every angle. Her personality.
Am I an expat?
Yes. After braving the queues to get my official residency a couple of years ago at the local town hall, hail skittering down on my umbrella, hands gelid from the cold, I have earned the expat title. I have a job that is the same as what I did back home, my Italian driver’s licence, healthcare card, bus pass and I pay my taxes. Come to think of it, some of these things make me more Italian than some Italians (work out which of the aforementioned apply).
Being a Roman bureaucratically is one thing, understanding the culture with all of its nuances is not as simple as adding a few sporadic hand gestures. When I used to teach Italian in Australia, part of the school curriculum was understanding culture which definitely shaped how I learned and, subsequently, taught the language. It is in the little things: the knowledge that milky coffees are completely faux pax after about 10am, the buses will not run on time most of the time(ever), the fact that you were born either as a Laziale or Romanista as football supporters, the fact that Carbonara is made with pork cheek and (never) bacon, having an aperitivo can often turn into an apericena where you don’t have a proper dinner. Admittedly, as I rattle these things off in my head, they decry stereotypes. There are many more, but as a Roman import here, I can say that knowing the language (and a few phrases in Romanaccio dialect) has made an immense difference. When you only speak English, you live the city on a surface level where you will always be a guest, having years of teaching Italian under my belt has given me the opportunity to live Rome. Indeed, working in an international environment, it would be easy to swathe myself in an English world. While I adore my fellow expatriates, I could not say I truly lived in Rome without my Italian family,
Am I here for work or love?
Both. Such a complex question that is the crux of my adult life! Every decision I have made since the tender (I sound like a chicken breast) age of 15 has been espoused by some absurd impulse to find romance everywhere but Australia: I fell in love (most definitely romanticised as opposed to romantic) with a boy from Apulia at the age of 15, who I then went on to date for seven years. In that time, I moved to Italy and lived in the most socially backward yet traditionally beautiful village for five years. When returning to the original question, I can categorically say I was here for what I thought was love.
This time round, things are decidedly different: I secured a job at an international school, which got me my permission to leave in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, what prompted me to apply in the first place was both sentimental and professional: let’s go to the juicy bit: a Sicilian guy I was seeing was based here. He broke up with me. He broke my heart. He did not love me. Said I wouldn’t survive in Rome. I got a call back for this job. I did the interview. I got the job. I took the job. I saw him twice when I arrived. End of that.
In my government high school in Australia, I was overworked: teaching six different classes and three subjects (Italian, Linguistics and English), but was dreaming of teaching more Italian. I had reentered my fold after a sabbatical teaching in London, but felt like I was not at home in my old home. I craved excitement that would give me a professional break and opportunity for my own Italian learning. Although I would only be teaching literature, this job let me live in the city that inspired me to study Italian from age 12.
Is this my version of “Eat, Pray, Love”?
Yes. To be honest, I ashamedly saw the movie (It just isn’t my kind of book. The literature teacher in me snubs it) and did not feel any connection to the protagonist’s life. Let’s talk about that “eat” shall we? I have stacked on (and am starting to lose) five kilos since I landed in the Eternal City. How? Simple: everything that is typical Roman cuisine contains pig or cheese….or both: I transcend this world when a plate of Gricia slides beneath my nostrils. The problem is, I love them all: Carbonara, Cacio e pepe, Amatriciana (okay maybe less). Then there are the sweet cream buns of calorific death: the Maritozzo. Oh, you have not been to Rome unless you have had your nose dolloped by the whipped cream centre of one of these babies.
“Pray”? I am not a super religious person, but I have utmost respect for those people who are. I have sauntered down to the Vatican on the Catholic holidays and adore church hopping. The latter, however, is prompted by the Church’s investment in art over the centuries: in a rather commonplace church you can find works by Rubens, Raffaello, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Indeed my lockdown time was spent heading to religious sites for “faith” purposes.
“Love”? As a young woman living here, the question is almost always one of the first that people ask you. The question itself derives from several cultural and social factors: Namely, Italy is not an easy country to live in; bureaucratically and financially, it is difficult to get any paperwork done here, while jobs pay significantly less than most people’s home countries.
The other reason I get this question is that an English-speaking woman is, quite typically, here because she met, and was swooned by, an Italian man. The simple truth is: women with similar backgrounds to mine rarely emigrate to Italy permanently unless there is a man.
Regardless of whether or not I have a man, I can proudly say that it is not the reason I am here. If I am with someone, it is because I found someone while working in my beloved city. If I am single, it is because I didn’t find someone while working in my beloved city. That simple. I have made the mistake of thinking that a relationship is enough to live abroad. I feel fulfilled on my own.
Am I running away from my adult responsibilities?
If you had the language down pat and got the opportunity I did, you would do it too.
It is more like running towards a life that gives you fulfilment.