Each time I’ve turned a corner in Roma I’ve found myself face to face with a new monument or towering relic of history, dazzling in design and daunting in size. It becomes practically unnecessary to set out to see these attractions, because you happen upon them without even trying.
There is, though, a strangeness about seeing in real life things I’ve seen a hundred times in movies, books, and pictures. Walking down the street felt more like walking through a guidebook. Nothing reads as real, and my touristic excursions felt cliché and impersonal. What I wanted was the real character of the city, true Roma.
In just my first 72 hours, it began to reveal itself. I saw elderly Italian men tend the roses and coo over visiting grandchildren in the courtyard of my residence building, quintessentially clothed in linen pants and brimmed hats. I noticed with amusement the same neighborhood dog appear first in the courtyard, then by the nearby bar, and yet again a few streets down, as if he were as much a local dweller as his owners. I observed Italian couples engaged in stereotypically impassioned lovers quarrels. I asked a waiter his favorite things to do in the area and he not only replied, but offered to walk us around the city as our guide. I went for a morning run along the river, and saw the city from a new angle. I felt joyous pride the first time I managed to cross the city without a map, making only one (OK, two) wrong turns. Each small experience introduced a new charm or quirk which brought the city to life.
It became most clear on a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. As I looked over the city’s buildings, standing united in one picture, each small experience came to mind and formed an image just like that of the city below me. While these were sights seen and experiences felt by millions of people, the city had not lost its magical intimacy with each new visitor. The city was not just showing itself to me, it was welcoming me to become a part of it.