Wenje, Zhang

An American in Rome

As an American transfer student studying full time in Rome, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over Europe by myself and with others. With Rome as my home base, there has been a very fun and, at times, challenging transition process. This is the beginning of a series discussing this transition and what other Americans visiting Rome should expect.

When I decided to move to Rome, I thought that my multiple visits and extended stays here would have fully prepared me for the transition, but I was far from right. I come from an incredibly small town in the incredibly small state of Connecticut in the United States; uprooting my life to a city as large as Rome was definitely a shock to my system. Rome in particular however has several distinct features that, as an American, require some adjusting to. For this first article in the series, I’ll outline a few of these:

1) You have to be prepared to walk essentially everywhere

The neighbourhood I live in, Trastevere, has such a distinct and authentic character that attracts many tourists looking to avoid the clichéd and often busy tourist areas. There’s tasteful graffiti, vines winding up buildings, local Italians leaning out of their windows or on their balconies, and little of the industrial hubbub of downtown. However, the public transport in this part of the city is lacking at best; you really do have to walk almost everywhere.

Don’t expect vast roads with multiple lanes; prepare yourself to have to squeeze through narrow cobbled streets on a regular basis.(Photographer: Katherine Scibilia)

While there is one tramline that divides Trastevere almost in half, the buses couldn’t possibly fit through the narrow, almost comically small streets that cut through the neighbourhood. Cars and Vespas do manage to get through these streets somehow, but as a student or a tourist, these are usually not an accessible means of transport. In my daily life then, grocery shopping, going back and forth to classes, meeting friends etc, I began walking seven to ten miles (roughly eleven to sixteen kilometres), each day on average.

Coming from a small town where everyone uses cars and there aren’t even pavements available should you choose to walk, this was definitely a major change. Living near New York City and Boston, I was used to visiting cities and preparing for a long day of walking, followed by a good night’s sleep. I wasn’t however used to making this a part of my daily routine. This may be stereotypically American, but our propensity for driving everywhere certainly was a nice luxury growing up.

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There’s no shortage of attractive buildings in Rome; just wandering around will expose you to so much more via back streets, bridges and tiny alleys. (Photographer: Katherine Scibilia)

However, walking everywhere has not only made me fitter, but also gave me a chance to interact with my city. I believe you can’t really know a city until you’ve walked through it and got a sense of its personality, because each city really does have its own aura or individuality. To any tourists, I highly recommend walking around Rome as much as possible, because no matter which part of the city you’re in, you’ll inevitably run into an impossibly beautiful church you’ve never heard of, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, or some sort of local attraction.

2) The rumours about Mediterranean men are (sometimes) true

Moving to Italy, everyone I talked to warned me about how forward the men would be. From my visits previously, I knew what they were referring to. However, this is still something that definitely requires some getting used to when you encounter it every single day.

As women walking down the street in Rome, my friends and I have all experienced the blatant staring, the winking, the sly comments, and the occasional aggressive man. When I was in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast on holiday with my family, a man I didn’t know followed me home from the beach to our villa and waited outside the gate. I’m fortunate that nothing worse happened.

You can expect this sort of behaviour and unwanted attention almost every day from shopkeepers, shouted from cars driving by, or the random passer-by. Eventually, you get used to it and know when to dismiss it and when to proceed with caution and raise your guard. In every city though, you should have a higher awareness of your surroundings and should simply be alert to anything that might be suspicious. This was something I learned very quickly and that my mother from New York City imparted to me very early in life.

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Don’t let rumours put you off this brilliant city. Instead, just bear in mind that you’re likely to encounter certain behaviours and customs you aren’t used to. (Photographer: Katherine Scibilia)

That being said, however, for every one bold, overfriendly man that I have encountered in Rome, I know or have met three more who are kind, friendly, decent, and welcoming. Romans in general are a very enthusiastic, expressive and outgoing people who make visiting or living in their city so pleasant. Most people are excited that you bring a different cultural perspective to their city and simply want to welcome you. Men and women here tend to be more expressive with their feelings than certainly most Americans are accustomed to, but this can be a wonderful thing when you’re finding your place in a new city. As a result of the warmth and generosity of so many Italians that I’ve met, I’ve been afforded a more personal look at the city and have experienced it in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own.

To any Americans – especially American females – travelling to Rome, please no not let these overbearing men taint your experience or scare you from interacting with people; half of the experience of Rome is the people that you meet here.

3) A different sort of diet

Italy is well known for its sumptuous, carb-filled foods, however, unfortunately, it’s not practical when you’re living here to eat pasta and pizza for every meal. That means that I had to get used to a true Roman diet, which is incredibly different from my diet growing up.

To start with, ‘grocery stores’ in the traditionally American sense are very rare in the centre of Rome. I’m used to massive supermarkets where you can buy literally almost anything you might need in your daily life, and a lot that you don’t. In Rome, and especially Trastevere, there are mostly markets that either specialise in quick, on-the-go junk food or fresh, expensive foods; shopping for weekly groceries at either of these types of markets is impractical, especially when you factor in a college budget. The best solution then is either Conad, a decent-sized supermarket located in Trastevere, or Pam, a slightly smaller supermarket across the Tiber River.

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The food in Rome may not be what you’re used to, but what’s on offer isn’t exactly a poor substitute! (Photographer: Katherine Scibilia)

Even at these ‘supermarkets’, however, it’s hard to find many things that Americans consider customary. For instance, over the almost year that I’ve lived here I’ve needed, at different points, pickles, peanut butter, batteries, pancake mix and turkey meat, and was unable to find them even in these larger shops. They’re things we take for granted in our shops back at home. While these certainly aren’t staples in my diet, I do find myself adjusting recipes or things that I want to cook based on the unavailability or high cost of ingredients here.

As Italy has stricter regulations on food preparation and storage, most of the food here also tastes less artificially sweet than foods at home. Aspartame, for instance, is a staple in sweets and sodas in the States, but isn’t really found here. In terms of a healthy diet, this is a good thing, but to an American palette, it’s definitely different. Coca Cola, for instance, tastes completely different in Italy than it does in the US. Vegetables and fruit mostly aren’t refrigerated or sprayed with the same pesticides, which makes for a drastic difference in taste.

One last notable difference is breakfast. Americans are known for having excessive, over-the-top breakfasts, and I certainly miss this when I’m in Rome. Most Romans eat a cornetto and have an espresso and that’s it. I don’t drink coffee (shocking, I know) and a cornetto typically doesn’t satisfy me in the mornings. I don’t eat huge breakfasts every day when I’m at home in Connecticut, but I do eat a bowl of cereal, oatmeal, eggs, or fruit. However, I certainly have the option to indulge in a bigger breakfast should I want to. Here, the option for a big breakfast doesn’t really exist, and pancakes or waffles are rare finds.

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Enjoy proper Italian pasta and pizza the way it should be done: by an Italian, in Italy. (Photographer: Katherine Scibilia)

While these are all minor changes, they have affected the way that I eat, which I would say has generally improved. I’ve also had some of the best food in my life here, including Italian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese fare, because there’s a wide range of food options in Rome. The pasta and the pizza really are as good as they say, though the pizza is much thinner than the adaptations we have in the US.

And, best of all, even a bad dessert here is still better than a good dessert almost anywhere else in the world.

Living in Italy has been an amazing opportunity, one that I’m glad I’ll get to continue for the next two years. While there is so much more to say about my experience, I could never fit it all in one article and hope to have several more segments in the next few months. Despite any cultural differences, it’s always reassuring to know that, wherever you go, you will inevitably find kind, wonderful people.

Featured image © Wenje, Zhang