What I Left Behind

Last weekend during my first trip to visit Rachel in London, I got a brief taste of the world I left behind.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

The UK isn’t exactly America’s twin.  But after living in Rome for two months, surrounded by people speaking a language I don’t understand and adhering to cultural norms I haven’t fully learned, being in a place that felt so normal gave me a sense of calm and comfort—a feeling that I haven’t felt in quite some time.

On the way from the airport to Rachel’s apartment, there were clear signs (in English!) directing me how to find the train, and at the train station, how to transfer to the tube.  The tube cars were clean inside and out (no graffiti!), and people boarded them orderly (they waited for everyone to exit before cramming on).  When I exited the tube station near Rachel’s apartment, the streets were clear of debris and everything looked so orderly and tidy.  And when I got I got lost along the way, I didn’t have to fear approaching a stranger to ask for directions…because I actually could communicate with them!

It was a weekend full of simple pleasures that I had come to overlook—from the pure convenience of being able to speak the native language to the joy of eating Mexican food at Chipotle (overpriced, but so good!) to the amazement of walking the aisles of Whole Foods marveling at endless number of food products all available in one place (no grocery store in Italy has nearly that wide of a selection). 

When the weekend ended, though, it was back to reality.  Back to a world that still seems so foreign.  Back to a sense of always being on my toes, of never truly understanding what is going on, of being uncomfortable and challenged and pushed outside the realm of what is safe and familiar.

But while that fleeting dose of familiarity may have made me nostalgic for what I left behind, it also forced me to take a step back and think about why I am doing this:  Why did I choose to give up what I knew?  Why did I choose to move to a completely new city?  What in the world was I thinking?

I run through this set of questions most days, and even more often when I’m feeling homesick or exasperated by culture shock.  I don’t fully have the answers yet, but two months into this adventure, some thoughts are beginning to crystallize.

Pushed outside of your comfort zone, living in a totally new culture, you learn about yourself.  About how much more resilient you are than you give yourself credit for.  About how quickly you can adapt to a totally new lifestyle and circumstance.  About how you actually appreciate seemingly “ordinary” life back in the US.

You learn different ways of being—of living, and enjoying, and appreciating life in its so many forms and from its so many perspectives.  Sitting in the basement of a neighborhood restaurant alongside Giacomo (the friend I’m renting my apartment from) and his friends, I watch as their hands wave in front of them and fluid Italian sentences flow off their tongues at a rapid staccato speed.  They pass the dishes from one person to the next, taking the time to savor what they eat and the company they eat it in.

And you see things that make you think, that take your breath away, that help you put together your place in the world and with those that came before you.

Walking out of a meeting at one of the other UN agencies here in Rome last week, I was greeted by a panoramic sunset over the Palatine Hill, with the Coliseum cresting in the distance.  The center of the known universe for hundreds of years, and the source of so many ideas, decisions, and cultural trends that continue to shape our world today.

Every now and then, there are days that put you into a funk and cast doubt on your decisions.  Days when things just don’t seem to work.  Days that have you longing for order and efficiency—and at least some semblance of customer service!

But then you experience something new, see something truly special, and understand something on a deeper level.  Then you realize that living abroad—living in this perpetual state of uncomfortability—just might be worth it.

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A Political Showdown

It was an eventful week in politics.  A government in crisis, on the verge of collapse.  Leaders refusing to compromise, standing firm in their positions.  With pressure mounting and tension flaring, would they take the country over the brink, or would the looming consequences give way to a change in course?

Boehner vs Obama in a showdown over a government shutdown?

No, I’m talking about Enrico Letta, Italian Prime Minister, vs Silvio Berlusconi, the former PM and current senator, in a fight to keep the current parliamentary governing coalition intact. 

To supposedly protest a VAT tax increase set to take effect on this past Tuesday, Berlusconi instructed several of the Cabinet Secretaries from his party to resign from the coalition government.  But convicted of tax fraud—a charge that under Italian law will strip him of his Senate seat—the billionaire media mogul acted as much out of desperation to shore up his waning political clout as he did out of any policy preference.  As planned, the resignations threw the government into turmoil and forced Letta to call a confidence vote that could collapse the current government.

In a stunning display of defiance, however, members of Berlusconi’s own party refused to go along with his plan.  After an impassioned speech from a typically dispassionate Letta, parliament voted in favor of the current coalition, averting political crisis that would have brought markets to a halt and cast storm clouds over an already gloomy economy.  

I don’t relate this story to celebrate what can actually happen when politicians put partisan concerns aside to do what was best for the country (although our current Congress could learn a lesson or two about that).  Instead, what was most interesting to me was that I learned about the crisis not by reading a story in an Italian daily or during a conversation at work, but rather when thumbing through the NY Times on my phone on the train to work.  In between stories of the impending government shutdown and the launch of healthcare exchanges in the US was a short article about the crisis in Italy, in Rome—the very city where I am living. 

In the roughly two months that I’ve been here, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to stay aware of events going on back home.  Reading the latest issue of the NY Times or breaking news from Buffalo take little more effort than the click of some computer keys or the refresh of an iPhone app.  Information is accessible, it’s up-to-date-, and quite importantly—it’s in English.

As connected as I am to life back home—to the broad contours of news stories at least—to some extent I feel somewhat removed from life here.  I shop at the local vegetable stands, buy meat from the butcher and cheese from the deli, and do most of the things that most Italians do.  But I don’t pick up the newspaper—the real newspaper, in Italian, in print—on my way to work.  And despite the current economic situation, I don’t go out of my way to learn about the issues and challenges facing the country, aside from whatever information is readily available in my American news publication of choice.  Blame it on the language barrier or on a lack of effort, without truly immersing myself in Italian new and politics, I feel as if my experience here will be somewhat incomplete.  I don’t want to learn about the next political crisis—and there will likely be others—in the pages of the NY Times.

It’s a challenge I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and one that I hope to overcome.  I’ll keep you posted.  

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Ancient Rome Lives On…

Rachel came from London to Rome this weekend, and since it was her first time in the city, we went all out on a blitz to see as many tourist sites as our feet would allow.  While it wasn’t the most relaxing weekend (next time she’s here we’ll take things a bit slower…), it was a great opportunity for me to re-visit many places that I hadn’t seen since my high school trip to Rome in 2005.

We marveled at the delicate and realistic Bernini statues at the Galleria Borghese, looked up in awe at the mammoth St. Peter’s Basilica, gazed out on the city from the heights of former Roman imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, and weaved our way through the ruins of the Roman Forum.  Lest you worry, we ate our fair share of pizza and pasta, drank many espressos and cappuccinos, and tested just about every gelato shop in town (basil, walnut and honey was my favorite flavor, followed by raspberry sage).

One of the amazing things about Rome is that it is home to so many rich layers of history, from the triumphant Roman empire to grandiose Baroque Renaissance churches to Mussoulini’s imposing fascist designs.  Exhausting as it was, seeing so many of these sites and encountering so much of this history over the course of a few days afforded a unique vantage point to understand and appreciate the interplay and interrelationship between each of these layers.

I’ll share an example of something I found particularly striking.  On Saturday, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica.  Although I had been there before, its sheer scale and ornate décor took my breath away.  Walking through the nave, I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the designs on the ceiling, especially in the transept:

Altar-nave-St-Peters-Vatican

Fast forward to the next day, when I am looking up at the remaining wing of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.  Built in 308, only the north wing of the structure survives today.  Take a look at the Basilica, paying close attention to the concrete pattern of the ceiling.

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Look familiar?

Ceiling décor aside, even the word “basilica” was borrowed from the past.  In Roman times, basilicas were large public buildings where Roman officials (in the case of the Basilica of Maxentius, the emperor himself) received visitors or heard disputes.  The term for this important gathering place was later adopted by early Christians.

A fascinating study in historical continuity, and a connection that is all the more clear when you experience it in person.

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A Day in Naples

In his guidebook, Rick Steves describes the city of Naples as “crusty,” and understandably so.  The facades of most buildings are crumbling, trash overflows from dumpsters into the streets, and graffiti covers bridges, alleyways, sidewalks, and even the side of a church.  After spending a day in the city, I’d add the words “chaotic” and “crass” to his description, too.  Men, women, and children on motor bikes and motorcycles dart through the narrow streets at high speed, dodging tourists and pedestrians and sending your heart racing when a bike brushes by.  Street vendors hawk bootlegged children’s videos next to adult themed ones, and young couples openly display their affection in the most public of places.

But beneath all of that—and it’s easy to be sufficiently off-put by the crustiness, chaos and crassness not to take a second glance—there is a city with a certain charm and a palpable vitality that leaves you wanting more.  The sloping, maze-like alleyways with windows and balconies draped in laundry out to dry have a simplicity and a character of their own.  Maybe it was the beautiful sunny weather, maybe it was the friendliness of the old ladies sitting out on the street saying “hello” as I passed by, or maybe it was just the amazing Neopolitan pizza that I ate, I left Naples intrigued and wanting to go back.

Lucky for me, I’m only a 2 hour train ride away.

Here are some sights from the day:

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Authentic Neopolitan pizza from Pizzeria da Michele. At a dirt cheap 4 euros a pie, it only comes two ways–Margherita with cheese, tomato and basil, or Marinara with garlic, tomato sauce and oregano.

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Sloping, narrow alleyways strung about with lines of laundry out to dry

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A wedding party prepares for photos in the Galleria Umberto

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The atrium of the Galleria Umberto. A beautiful space, but not in the best condition. Paint is chipping and the interior is a bit dirty

Bay of Naples

Click for larger image — Beautiful panorama of the Bay of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius and Capri (far right) in the distance

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Che bello

Living in a country where you don’t know the language comes along with a unique set of challenges, some anticipated, others not.  There are the basic daily interactions (greeting neighbors, thanking someone who holds a door open for you), the slightly-more-linguistically-taxing business transactions (ordering cheese at the deli or meat at the butcher), and the downright awkward I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-saying-to-me-non-parlo-italiano moments of confusion.  As I mentioned last week, the latter is best handled with a smile, a nod, and a simple “si.”

What I had yet to experience until this past Saturday, however, is that there is a fourth type of interaction, more difficult than the others combined:  having to explain a concept or an idea to someone who speaks not a word of English.  The burden rests on you, and a simple affirmative doesn’t suffice.

I hadn’t gotten a haircut since the beginning of August, so my hair was getting a bit too shaggy to wear to work.  Recognizing that I needed to get a trim but realizing how difficult that could be given the language barrier, my first thought was to email Giacomo, the friend I am renting my apartment from, and ask if there were any barbers in the area he could recommend, and more importantly, that could speak a bit of English.  Unfortunately for me, he still goes to the barber nears his parent’s house, about a 10 minute drive away.  Too far away for my bus pass to take me there, so no luck with that option.

Without any other choice—no Yelp, no Google Maps—this past Saturday morning, I decided to go about it the old-fashioned way and hit the pavement in search of a local barber.  I headed to one of the main roads about 2 blocks away and began to walk.  I don’t go down this street particularly often, but I remembered seeing a barbershop—or something similar—in that direction a few weeks back.  Minutes into the search, I came across a storefront with the word “Parrucchiera” (Hairdresser) blazoned across the door, with “Donna” and “Uomo”  (Women and men) written right below.  Jackpot!

Confident that my dilemma was solved, I opened the door and strolled in.  What greeted me was what I imagined to be the Italian version of Gill’s salon—the place in Attica, NY where my grandma gets her hair done.  An old Italian woman was sitting in the corner, hair in curlers under a blow dryer, reading a People-esque magazine.  Another octogenarian sat in a chair nearby as a middle aged, heavily made-up Italian hairdresser picked through the woman’s freshly curled hair with the long end of a comb.  In unison, they all turned their heads and stared.  If I had any good sense, I would have darted out the door upon first glance at the clientele.  But I had already crossed the Rubicon, and there was no turning back.

“A hair cut?” I inquired in English.

Confused, she replied, “Un taglio di cappelli?”

I nodded my head.

“Si, si,” the hairdresser responded, along with a string of sentences in Italian.

“Non parlo italiano, sono americano,” I said.

She continued on, as if I hadn’t just told her I don’t speak Italian, and she showed me to a chair in the far end of the salon.  As I sat down, the hairdresser plopped a book in front of me, opened it, and gestured to the different pages.  While she finished up with the other two clients, I was supposed to choose my preference from this book of male hairstyles.  Paging through the book, I could barely hold in my laughter.  These were some of the most absurd haircuts I could imagine.  Thankfully, I had my iPhone on hand and can share with you two of my favorites (the first looks like Justin Timberlake from a certain SNL video):

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Twenty minutes later, the hairdresser had dispatched the old lady customers and came over to my chair.

“Which one?” she asked in Italian.

I wanted to say, “None of them.”  But lacking the vocabulary to actually say what type of cut I wanted her to give me, I motioned to the most normal looking picture in the book at said, “Questo—this one.”

“Ah…che bello!”  How beautiful.

She whipped out hear scissors and began shearing away, disregarding the whole language barrier thing, and continuing on with the usual barbershop banter.  Where are you from?  Are you studying here?  No?  Where are you working?  How long are you here?  I tried to keep up with her, responding in broken Italian as best as I could.

About halfway through the haircut, a middle aged man and woman walked into the shop, and the hairdresser immediately abandoned her post to give them the customary kiss-on-each-cheek greeting.  I quickly picked up that the visitors were husband and wife, and good friends of the owner.  The three of them continued chatting away, and eventually, the hairdresser introduced me by saying that I was “non sono italiano” and “di america.”

The hairdresser made her way back to my chair and resumed the cut, but continued her conversation with the couple.  Arms were waving and gesticulating, notwithstanding the scissors in the hairdresser’s hand.  Pure emotion ran through their voices.

At a lull in the conversation, the man proposed a round of cappuccinos for everyone in the house.

“Uno…due…tre…” he said, pointing to himself, his wife, and the hairdresser.

He looked up at me.  “Quattro?”

“No grazie,” I replied.  Ordinarily I’m not one to turn down free food or drink, but I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to drink a cappuccino while getting my haircut.

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about that.  When the man returned a few minutes later with three cappuccinos in hand, everyone took a 5 minute coffee break, the hairdresser included.

As they finished up their coffees, the female friend walked over to me, grabbed my chin, looked into my eyes, and declared, “Bello.  Molto bello.”  Beautiful, very beautiful.

“How old are you?” she then asked.

“Twenty five,” I answered, turning bright red.

She let go of my chin and returned to the chair where she was sitting.

The conversation continued on for a few more minutes, and my haircut resumed.  Eventually, the husband and wife said their farewells, kissing the hairdresser.  The man turned to me and shook my hand.  The woman bent down towards me and kissed me on each cheek.  So it goes here in Italy.

Soon enough, the haircut was complete, and the hairdresser dusted off my neck and offered to put some gel in my hair.  Images of mohawked, slick haired Europeans immediately popped into my mind.  I politely declined, and proceeded to the cash register to pay.

Walking out of the Parrucchiera, I shook my head and smiled to myself.  A halfway decent haircut and truly Italian experience?  Not a bad start to my Saturday.

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September 16, 2013 · 4:22 pm

Just say yes

With the summer holidays officially over this past Monday, it’s as if the city suddenly sprang to life from the quiet and calm that welcomed me when I moved here in the middle of August.  The stores and stands in my neighborhood that had been shuddered for several weeks—postered with signs reading “Closed for Ferragosto”—have lifted their front security gates to reveal a patchwork of stores, newsstands, and coffees bars.

When I leave for work in the morning, the neighborhood is buzzing about with a renewed energy: old women picking through the selection of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers from the corner vegetable stand, groups of old men sipping cappuccinos sitting on red plastic chairs outside of their favorite coffee bar, and young people on their scooters daringly dodging through traffic, flouting any and all traffic laws.  So although I enjoyed it while it lasted, the days of a quiet commute are no more.  Rome’s notoriously clogged roadways and crowded trains are now the norm, a reminder that living here comes with a sometimes frustrating—but bearable—price.

There are a number of reasons why I decided to uproot and move to Rome, and those of you who know me best can imagine that food was a prominent factor.  And what a great decision it has been.  In the past three weeks, I’ve eaten some of the best food I’ve ever had.  The pastas are delicious, the pizzas incredible, and the gelato is out of this world.  Overall, I’ve been impressed with the diversity of restaurants here, from the neighborhood restaurant around the corner in Garbatella to the upscale trattorias in Monti in the Historic Center.  But what has truly blown my mind so far is the amazing quality and affordability of everyday basic staples like meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables—so much so that I would almost prefer to cook at home than go out to eat!

The entire food system here works very differently than in the States.  There are supermarket type stores (much smaller than in the US, though) where you can buy all of your food needs and other staples, and they are (controversially) growing in popularity.  But still, most of the food stores are specialized “mom and pop” shops—fruit and vegetable stores, butchers, fishmongers, delis, and pasta shops that only sell their focused set of products.  If you avoid the supermarkets and opt for the local stands, grocery shopping may take a bit longer, but you are rewarded with some of the best quality and cheapest food around.  The tomatoes, the peppers, the peaches, the fresh buffalo mozzarella!  All so fresh and flavorful, and—here’s the best part—much cheaper than in the US.  (Converted to US dollars, for example) tomatoes and peaches are only 60 cents a pound.)

Now buying from the local stand or at the farmer’s market creates a unique set of challenges.  Not all of the foods are properly labeled so I often have no idea a) what the price is and b) in the case of unique meats and cheeses not sold in the US, what exactly the product is.  Then there’s the challenge of actually communicating with the shop owner what product I want, and how much of it to give me.  I’ve quickly learned key words and phrases to help with this process (“basta”—enough, “fette”—slices, etc).

But when they deviate from the script and begin to ask me other questions about my order, my system falls apart.  For example, I was ordering some fresh buffalo mozzarella this afternoon at a Sunday market.  When I took a package of the mozzarella and asked how much it was, the clerk responded with more than the simple number I was hoping for.  I could tell by his intonation that it was a question, so in a state of uncertainty, I said, “Si.”  In all of these types of situations involving questions and food, I’ve resolved to always say “yes.”  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  They give me more food?  In this case, the strategy pulled off.  In addition to the package of mozzarella, he gave me a container of what I later figured out was fresh ricotta cheese.  He was asking if I wanted to make it a combo and buy the 500g of mozzarella together with the container of ricotta, all for only 6 euros—what a steal!

Lucky for me, there are beginner’s Italian classes starting this coming week at work.  I will surely participate!

Other highlights from the previous week:

  • Attending the Roma FC vs Verona soccer game last Sunday night at the Stadio Olimpico, the stadium used when Rome hosted the 1960 summer games.  Judging from the singing and chanting from the stands and the exchange of flares (yes, actual flares) between fan sections of the opposing sides, I’ve come to the conclusion that Italians take their soccer very seriously
  • Celebrating my 25th birthday at a beach party in San Felice Circeo, about an hour and a half south of Rome along the Mediterranean Sea.  A friend I met a few weeks back has an aunt with a beach house there, and he invited me to come to the party for the evening.  The scenery was beautiful, and I got to enjoy a peaceful sunset over the sea.

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Settling in

Two weeks in to the new job and the new city, I feel as if I am finally starting to settle in.  I’m able to (somewhat) find my way around my neighborhood without the crutch of Google Maps on my phone, complete the daily commute to WFP with ease, and get by at the grocery store or farmers market with my very limited knowledge of Italian.  Slowly but surely, I’m settling into a routine, and a world that seemed so foreign just a few weeks ago seems a bit more comfortable and familiar.

For the next two months or so, I’m living in a suburb called Garbatella, just south of the Aurelian walls of Rome.  In a very fortunate turn of events, I’m subletting from a friend who lives in Rome and is currently in NYC visiting his girlfriend.  I met Giacomo and his girlfriend Flavia through my girlfriend Rachel’s old roommate in NY.  (Confusing, I know.)  When I found out I got the job at WFP, I got in touch with Flavia for advice on where to look for apartments.  Coincidentally, she told me that Giacomo was looking to sublet his apartment for a few months.  The timing was perfect, so here I am in Garbatella in Giacomo’s apartment through the middle of October.

Garbatella is a really interesting neighborhood.  It has its roots in the 1920s as a planned community designed by the Fascist government.  The roads follow a radial design, creating many roundabout intersections, and the apartments have communal areas in front where the residents can gather and socialize.  In the early evening before dinner, kids are often outside kicking around soccer balls while their parents sit on the steps and socialize.  The buildings themselves, with aging plaster facades of reds, yellows, and greens, are beautiful to look at despite their grittiness.

Location wise, Garbatella is pretty convenient.  The three main transit channels in Rome—bus, metro, and train—all have hubs nearby, so it’s relatively easy to get into the city center (roughly 20 minutes or so).  Unfortunately, WFP is located in a business park in a farther out suburb and isn’t exactly the most convenient to get to.  From where I live, it takes about 35 minutes or so to get there door to door.  The nice thing is that you can buy an annual transit pass for all modes of public transport for only 250 euro, or roughly $330 USD.  Not a bad price to pay considering you can use public transportation to get to most areas within the city and its surroundings.

One reason why the transition has been fairly easy is that I’m surrounded by a very active expat community.  At WFP and it’s sister UN agency FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization)—and other companies located here— there are many young professionals from across the world who are all new to the city and looking for friends.  And since most of us finish work by 6pm at night (a welcome change for me), there’s actually time to have a social life during the week!   Between dinners and apertivos (the Italian version of happy hour—more to come on this in a future blog post) or exploring the city, there’s often something going on, and making friends has come easier than I expected.  In fact, later this afternoon, I’m headed off to a soccer match between FC Roma and Verona with some co-workers from WFP.

I hope everyone back in the States in enjoying their Labor Day weekend.  When you’re at the beach tomorrow, think of me as I slave away at my desk…

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