(part two to this story is here.)
“Two months in Rome on your own?” she said to me. “But… but won’t you get lonely?” The thought hadn’t crossed my mind until then. I don’t mean to sound like a Tumblr thread celebrating the virtues of introversion when I say: I’m used to it. Being alone. But since I happen to be quite fantastic company I’m seldom lonely. There is a difference. Plus, Rome and I have this thing going on. We’re not exactly committed to each other, but we definitely hook up when I’m in town. And then she does something to fuck it all up again and I hate her as much as I ever did. It’s complicated, with Rome and me. I often think that’s mostly my fault, though. Actually - it’s definitely my fault.
Let me start at the beginning.
Let me start at the beginning because I’m better at beginnings than anything else. The story of my life is firework openings and whimpering finishes, and so nothing ever feels clear-cut. I’m built to live in the grey area, I think. The “dot, dot, dot…” zone. The story always has possibility for one more chapter. But because beginnings are my thing I can tell you with certainty that it started with the trees. That’s what I remember: tree-lined streets that seemed grand and romantic and deliberately designed to frame a life that could be exactly that. Exactly what I dreamed my adult life could be. I was sixteen years and two months, and resolved, firmly, somewhere off of Piazza del Popolo, that I’d be back. I saw a whole future unfold for me. I’d become a woman in Rome. I wasn’t sure how, but I would.
I was twenty-five and four months when I had my first day as Director of Studies for Young Learners at an up-market language school around the corner from the Vatican. I arrived with €400 to my name after my summer paycheck had been, scandalously, almost a thousand Euros short. I’d wanted a simple teaching job, leaving my mornings free to write in cafes across the city. I’d just graduated from university with a first-class honours in Creative Writing, and had a tale that I wanted to tell. But that autumn was the wettest autumn on record and I had holes in my shoes that I couldn’t afford to replace until payday. I didn’t have blankets for my bed, only thin sheets, and they proved insufficient for the unseasonably cold weather. I slept in socks and a jumper and sometimes, even, a hat. My job had far more responsibility than I was prepared for and the gaps in my Italian made it impossible to make friends. It wasn’t, in short, what I’d had in mind. I sought solace in disrespectful sex with a man I never directly addressed in public, and that only made everything feel worse. It was a sad time.
After I’d left, eighteen months later, to start a new life in London, I saw a photograph on Pinterest of my old home. The place I had lived. It was an old, crumbling block off of Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, covered in vines with a pully-washing line across the front. The annotation said something like ohmygod what heaven but it never felt like that when it was mine. What I lived then wasn’t something to aspire to.
I’d been fired from my job in London when I arrived back here last summer. I didn’t have a plan. I had modest savings and the opportunity to help out some friends at their language school for a month, and it was the month that changed so much. I lived and breathed the team I worked with, out of a residential, non-touristy neighbourhood of Rome where we’d drink in the park and coffee at the bar and eat meal after delicious meal with students’ families and their friends. I barely looked at my watch in those weeks: it is a blur of effortlessness and the overriding feeling I remember now is freedom. I stopped trying so hard, and in that surrender I had the most incredible fun. In the most incredible fun I finally started to settle into a version of myself that was right.
I wish I could tell you the formula. The method for how it all “clicked”. Being back here, thirteen months later, typing this on a tree-lined street like the one my teen self marvelled at, with a cappuccino and an aqua frizzante and all these memories, I feel like life really is grand and romantic and that I am worthy of both of those things. What I do know is that when I did that one thing - stopped fighting against myself - everything else came up roses. I was twenty-eight and two months when I left Rome a woman, almost twelve years to the day I’d declared I would. And now I’m back, more myself than ever before, leaning into the next chapter I so handily left unwritten because it turns out, the dot, dot, dot isn't a character failing - it's just life.
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