A defining moment takes you by surprise; most of the time, you don’t even see it coming until you are in its midst, broke, hungry, and bare-foot in the nighttime streets of Rome.
Rome is beautiful and gritty, chaotic and serene, crowded and deserted all at the same time, depending on your perspective. Beauty shows through the painted pastels of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the colossal, ancient monuments scattered around the city (pun intended) and the quaint, tucked-away bakery off the tiny viale- little old alleys that take you to secret places- full of delicious pastries, created to perfection. Beautiful is the view from the top of the Spanish Steps, looking down onto Via del Corso, the main street in the center of Rome that also contains some of the most high-end shopping in the world. Nevertheless, the Eternal City blackens your feet in a matter of minutes and on a hot summer day, shorts and sandals serve you little protection from the grit of the streets.
Chaotic is the hustle and bustle of the countless vehicles buzzing around the roadways, the tight and seemingly impossible squeeze of a Smart Car down a narrow alley or a motorino through a crowd of pedestrians, and the gathering of gypsy children on the outside walls of Vatican City. Serenity is Trastevere, the core of ancient Rome situated on the west bank of the Tiber River, its name literally meaning “beyond the Tiber,” with winding, narrow streets so quiet by day that if you listen close enough, and maybe lower your head to the ground, you will find the bubbling sound of the nearest water fountain.
In the City of Love, crowded is the Piazza del Popolo, a massive square aptly named for the plaza that will hold a hundred thousand people, Fontana de Trevi, the Pantheon, and every single Gelato store at any given moment. Desolate are the winding, tree-lined roads of the Via Appia Antica, a Roman road leading from il Centro into the hills and a thousand miles further spreading across the Old Empire of Augustus Caesar and other emperors who ruled this ancient land. Crowded bars and clubs take over the scene come nightfall, but in the afternoon, as the winter sun begins its descent, the city quiets and the people take their siestas before returning to the hustle and bustle and then off to dinner in the thousands of trattorias around Rome.
I have taken many trips to Rome over the past two decades, some with all of my family members, and others with just one. Once a preferred guest at a luxury hotel, a couple times a guest in a stranger’s home, a few times a guest in a family home, and most memorably a wandering backpacker looking for a home, I have experienced it all. I saw the City through the eyes of a child guided by my father, a 5th-grader dragged about by my goofy cousin, and as a preteen brought around for some shopping by my aunt. As a teenager, though, I led my little sister through the ancient city of Rome. As I grew, I began to learn the twists and turns of the streets, the differences between the countless squares, and what direction to go to get to the nearest nocciola-flavored gelato. However, the experience- you know, the one with the defining moment- came when I neither led nor followed, but when I wandered.
This moment, this slice of time, broke, hungry, and bare-foot walking along the dark streets of Rome takes over my thoughts when I look in the rear-view mirror at the days spent exploring the countless streets of the many hilltop towns of Italy and beyond. The only illumination came from the spotlights shining on the Colosseum in the distance as we crossed the Tiber over the footbridge. The sounds of our conversation filled the quiet night air as midnight had passed long ago. I thought about how lucky I was. This moment was perfect.
We were broke because instead of carefully budgeting our trip and skipping out on activities and souvenirs along the way, we rode camels where we found camels, we saw Cristiano Ronaldo score his first goal for Real Madrid, we filled our backpacks with hand-crafted gifts from Hammamet, and we went on a booze cruise with all of our new friends from our hostel in Portugal. Our goal consisted of getting back to Rome in time to catch our flight home out of Fiumicino, and having as much fun and making as many memories as we possibly could along the way. We succeeded.
We were hungry because we were broke. We only had one meal that day and it was free. Earlier in the night, between stops on our free bar crawl- my brother, Joey, had spent the months before our trip working for the Spanish Steps Pub Crawl, appropriately named because that is where each night’s adventure began, so we had a few connections- I spotted a plastic bag on the doorstep of a church as we waited for a bus. Stomach growling and curious, I peaked into the bag to find at least a dozen croissants, or as the Italians call them, “cornetti.” Some were filled with cream and all were still warm. I know this because these pasticceria treats served my brother, our pub-crawl friends, and me well as a delicious (and free) meal. It was awesome.
I guess I wasn’t completely barefoot. One of my sandals was still on my left foot, but I lost the other to the cat sanctuary- the name of this area, quite literal in meaning, houses stray cats of Rome and is run by an association that has the animals spayed and neutered before returning them to the streets. A strong sense of false confidence made me climb halfway down the steps of the feline-filled, garden-like pit, but an even stronger sense of reality (also known as my big brother) pulled me back up the stairs quick enough to knock my sandal off, lost now to my better judgment of returning to the pit of curious animals. We moved on.
When morning came, I stood up from the old, out-of-place church pew that served as my bed the previous night, in an apartment that belonged to a friend of my brother, and prepared to take off for the airport. The train to the airport was not free so we alternated levels as the ticket inspector did the same. As we arrived at Fiumicino, it hit me that I had fallen in love with Rome itself and with traveling and I didn’t want it all to end. My brother and I had just had a great adventure on the last night of our backpacking trip and tomorrow would bring all the comforts of home, but none of the excitement of travel.
Over the years, this city has become a destination I could easily call home, not just because I love the food, the people, and even my relatives, but also because Rome possesses everything all at once; beauty and filth, chaos and serenity, crowds, deserted cobblestone paths, and bags of cornetti left for the homeless. More importantly, this City gave me the defining moment that spiked my interest in adventure, gave me confidence to keep exploring the world, and forever blessed and burdened me with wanderlust.