The ugliness is abrasive. Instinctively, I wrap my trench tighter across by chest and stride through customs, as though shielding myself from the sheer non-Italian-ness of it all. Grating English consonants in lieu of mellifluous Italian vowels. Gone are the potential lovers in linen locking eyes with me across a piazza or the bar of a crowded café as they coo into their telefono “ciao amore… ciao mamma… un bacio… un bacione”; here, strangers in supersized tracksuit pants grunt into their cell phones recounting not a single detail of what they’ve eaten that day. It makes me wince. The bitumen, the fresh paint, the odour of antiseptic and order and punctuality! I long for cigarette smoke and the profumo of freshly baked pizza bianca; dark, dark espresso, the heady stench of rubbish left in alleyways and that glorious scent I inhale when I cross from a hot Roman street through thick timber doors inside a palazzo with cool marble floors – have you ever noticed how you can smell the marble?! Or maybe I’m just pathetically hyper sensitive in Italy. Yet as I sit in the pristine train from the airport to my home town like some sullen bambina robbed of her gelato, I feel numb, resignedly conscious of the hour, date and year. For me, the pleasure of living in Rome is the utter havoc the city plays on my sense of time. Is it 2012? With these frescoes and my giant fairytale door key it couldn’t possibly be! Is it the age of the Roman empire? With women in stilettos alighting from Vespas, it mustn’t be. Is it the era of neo-realist cinema, the elegant 50s and 60s – ma no, there are galleries filled with international installation art and all around the fountain the young and infatuated flirt on their iPhones. Ask me why I moved to Rome and the answer is perhaps this: temporal ambiguity. It’s the reason we Italophiles feel so violently displaced when arriving back in an Anglosaxon context, which informs you that it is, in fact, 2012 every minute of the day.
I had to go back to Australia very briefly for a tedious visa issue and inevitably, after my initial repulsion, I did become less petulant about being away from Italy. The truth is, my family has a house on one of the most magnificent beaches in the world, it was 26 degrees every day in our supposed ‘winter’ and being a country acclaimed for our aptitude for fusion cuisine, you do eat exceptionally well in my home town. I hate to admit it, but the tomatoes from my family’s local farmer’s market are sweet and ripe; I can locate buffalo mozzarella with ease and the Australian males who have courted me have always been intensely romantic. (Sure, we’re condensing the evaluation a bit, however, I guess I assess a country primarily on its relationship with food and love!)
A friend told me his date was bella but he can’t be with her because “le manca la poesia” – she lacks poetry.
So have I idealised Italy? Has my greatest fear – cultural homogeneity – actually brought all the things I love about this country right to my fingertips wherever I am in the world, nullifying the great dream of ‘Throwing It All In And Running Away To Live In Italia’? As an expat in Italy it’s easy to become a snob when back in your native country and find yourself aching with adopted patriotism. But if you’re more than just a day-tripper, if you have also lived the alienation of arriving in a foreign-speaking city and having to create a social circle from scratch; if you have added up your monthly expenses – l’affitto + phone credit + money for aperitivi + money for caffé and cornetti + money for another bicicletta which was stolen + money for that essential trip to Capri with new lover + train ticket to Tuscany for that weekend with friends you met last night – and found that you’re living beyond your means and fear telling your family that you’re approaching poverty; if you’re earning half of what you could at home; if you’ve scanned Porta Portese and When in Rome and Romeing’s job site for any kind of work that doesn’t have the deceptive words ‘ragazza immagine’; if you’ve been the boring mute in a group of Italians and fluent expats because linguistically can’t yet do irony or nuance…. allora, then you’ve earned your right to be a snob.
I’m writing this in an egg-shaped bath inside a giant luxury grotta, or cave, in the ancient village of Matera that is thousands of years old. I was served a breakfast of crostata di ricotta, fresh figs, peaches and homemade yoghurt and bread warm from the oven smeared with pear and cinnamon marmalade, while looking out over the mountains. Yesterday I was in Naples with a friend who told me his date was bella but he can’t be with her because “le manca la poesia” – she lacks poetry. My friend Kirsten has just messaged me asking for a good restaurant in Ponza because some guy has picked her up on a yacht and they’ve spontaneously decided to spend the weekend on the island. And I’m reading Lord Byron’s lyrical prose and realising no intellectual could fathom the abundance of pleasure in this country.+
It’s not all in our heads. Life is better here. So here’s to snobs and Italophiles everywhere.