Text and Photos by Leila Herrman
When I'm asked "What's your favorite city?", I always answer "Rome!". Yet I've never been there. I only know the city from postcards sent to me by my aunts, from influencers posing with their gelato in front of the Spanish Steps and from movies like Eat, Pray, Love. So far, it's just an idea in my head – or rather an illusion formed from familiar clichés.
For two months, I want to test if I only love the idea of Rome or also the city with all its facets? Is it a coincidence that Roma finds itself in romance?
Perhaps you know the film The Great Beauty, La Grande Bellezza, by Paolo Sorrentino. Jep is in his mid-sixties, has written only one novel in his life and has rested on his success for the last forty years. During the day he sleeps on his terrace, at night he goes out partying with Rome's high society.
I enjoy the sweet life of Rome as well. As Jep says, "There's so much time to waste in Rome." A bottle of red wine in front of the Colosseo here, watching the sunset in the orange garden there, walking for hours by the Tiber and through the historic streets of the center, tanning and swiping to find the best companion for the evening.
One day, Jep is strolling through the streets of Rome and feels an increasing emptiness inside of him. He notices how monotonous and superficial his life actually is, and above all how lonely. In the bright light of day, what shines is much harder to see. Because even though he spends his evenings on Rome's most beautiful roof terraces, in expensive clothes, with a different beautiful woman by his side every day – what is it that remains when he wakes up the next day?
And scaringly, as the days go by and my enthusiasm begins to fade, I can somehow relate to Jep.. Never have I met so many people in such a short time before. What is missing is not randomly being with other people, but familiarity. After a while, you long so much for closeness, for intimacy. And I do not mean intimacy in the physical sense, but psychological intimacy. The feeling of being mentally close to someone, of having a connection, a sentiment that feels like home, that you have with friends and family, regardless of whether you are physically close.
I noticed that although I met people and had nice evenings, I did not really connect with many of them. Either they leave Rome the next day, they are only interested in dating or we both know after minute one that we will never see each other again after that night. I get tired of serving my life story on a silver platter over and over again and trying to present my essence as being as exciting as possible. I just want to be. But not alone. As Simon Strauss wrote in his novel Roman Days "and I do what so many have done before me: Be in Rome and hope someone notices."
Actually, I hardly know the feeling of homesickness. My sleepovers used to go from Friday to Sunday, I would always have liked to extend school trips by another week and even when I moved out, my excitement outweighed my longing. Yesterday was somehow different.
I felt lonely for the first time, just because I was away from home. I walked through Trastevere and did not think about where I was, I just walked past the facades, the cafés and felt nothing. And I noticed: Even in my favourite place in the world in the midst of people, you can feel lonely. I realise that Roma can not only be found in romance, but also in romanticisation. And today is probably the day I do not romanticise this city for once.
And what do you do when you feel lonely? Think about the people you miss, with whom it would be a bit nicer to be with right now. I text my best friend. She makes me realise that this feeling is part of the experience when you’re doing a trip alone for a longer period of time. She tells me, "It cannot be pizza, wine and sex every day. Sometimes it is pasta, a movie and crying." I should surrender to that feeling. Isn’t it always like that: You can only appreciate the ups when there have been a few downs in between?
So I sit down in a café near Via Garibaldi and order an Aperol Spritz. And just as I was about to ask the waiter for paper and pen and start writing, I was approached. And to spoiler right away: I had the most beautiful evening here in Rome so far. My company for the next four hours is in his early 60s, grew up in Brooklyn, is now a screenwriter in Los Angeles. We talk about relationships, about death, self-doubt, intimacy. I have known this man for half an hour and I feel like he already knows me better than anyone else in this city. We talk without pauses, change locations in between, gelato at the Piazza Santa Maria, red wine in a bar nearby. We come from different generations, different worlds and meet in Rome – just when I needed it most. The evening ends with a jazz jam in front of the Bar San Calisto. He dances like my father.
I learned three things from that evening: not to compulsively meet new people, my friends are just a phone call away and if it is only half-hearted, then it is okay just to be alone. Going to Naples on my own. Strolling through the flea market on Sundays. Sitting at the basketball court next to the Colosseo. Eating Caccio e Pepe in a nice little restaurant. Walking my own route and taking pictures. And then, when you are alone, without distractions, Rome hits you with such Great Beauty.
Today, I get up at 7am and walk through the streets of Trastevere, exhilarated. The streets are still empty, the cafés are just opening, elderly gentlemen are sitting on benches with their newspapers. Yesterday's piazza is still dormant. I go to the same café where I made a friend yesterday and order two croissants and coffee. I have to smile. Someone has really noticed that I am in Rome.