It was an hour’s drive from the airport to the apartment in the city. The van driver was whistling an opera, making noises with his lips that were better suited for an orchestra than a mouth. The day was overcast, but 70 degrees (f) warmer than the -20 temperature I left on the plains. Nothing looked as I expected it to; the cars were so small and squeezed two or three to a lane designed for only one, the trees were new shapes and the architecture unfamiliar. A hectic menagerie of horns honked and beeped along with an increased ferocity as we got closer to our destination in Rome’s heart. The streets made no sense. For the first time in my life I had absolutely no idea which way was North.
The entire concept of foreign was completely unbeknownst to me.
I was 19, fresh off the farm, and three semesters into a university located in a town best known from a film by i fratelli Cohen (the Cohen brothers). The reality of people speaking a language other than English was something I had never truly experienced, each strange word making my mind flinch. It had never occurred to me that not everyone in the US grew up on a farm or went to a state school in a small city. I was baffled by the attitudes and insights of everyone who seemed to know some secret I had missed out on.
Our apartment was spacious with tall, plastered ceilings and large windows. It had the loveliest dining room table and a kitchen that barely fit two bodies. My roommates included a sweet southern belle, two bold and sassy best friends from Boston, an edgy girl from South Jersey, and a heartbroken adventurer from Rhode Island.
Within a week, my first impressions evaporated. Two months in, those girls became my best friends. Five years on, nothing much has changed with our relationship.
Studying abroad in one of the world’s most legendary cities inherently provoked plenty of clichés before I left North Dakota. Rome, after all, was where I was going to fall in love; where I was going to lose myself until I found out who I am.
In some way or another those clichés came true.
I did fall in love in Rome, with Rome. I adored its dog shit covered cobblestones and its stubbornness to straddle a millennium of history, with one hand in Caesar’s era and the other hand Instagramming ancient wonders. It’s a city dripping with passion – every trattoria, SPQR-stamped cornerstone, and piazza is in a perpetual lovers’ embrace. The Italian language is as graceful leaving your tongue as it is slipping into your ear. Every sensation in the city lends itself towards love and adoration.
I also got lost in Rome; almost daily and usually on accident. But I always managed to find my way back to my apartment. It was not the romanticized type of losing oneself, oh no. Up to that point, I had never been anywhere where I could legitimately lose my way. My dad engrained in me an internal compass so that I instinctually knew cardinal directions, but that compass was askew for quite some time. It was a huge accomplishment when I finally became ok with losing my way, knowing I’d always make it back.
At 19 I could to go into a bar, travel to other countries, and generally act however I felt without the knowing eyes of family and lifelong friends present. I drank screwdrivers and Sex on the Beach because I didn’t know what else was good whilst attempting to seduce Italian men with my devastatingly amazing language skills. I danced until dawn, studied like crazy to pull off straight A’s, and threw myself into discussions on topics I had never bothered to express my opinion on prior.
Rome didn’t change me, it exposed me. In six short months, I discovered it was ok if I didn’t aspire to the same societal norms as many of my friends back home. The fear of the unknown transformed into a fascination with new experiences.
In some ways, these discoveries were kind of a curse. Had their existence remained a mystery, the future would have unfolded very differently. But they have engrained within me an insatiable curiosity to see and do more than what might be possible. Consequently, the idea of staying in one place for too long feels like settling rather than striving.
I crave more of those long drives from the airport to the city when the new air hits your face, the unfamiliar language lingers in your ears, and an expectedly unexpected landscape unfolds before your eyes.
Thank you, Rome, for introducing me to the rest of the world.