Text & photos by Leila Herrmann
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?
I realise that I am unprepared to the max, when a friend asks me about the goals of my trip. I
don't know the language, nor have I ever looked at a guidebook or even know a single person
who lives in Rome. So, what do I expect to do? Learn Italian? Yes. Date? Yes. Go out to dinner
alone? Yes. Expand my cooking skills? Yes. A little bit of everything.
A few weeks before my trip, my grandpa tells me that we have Italian roots. How he can keep that
from me for 24 years of my life is another issue. He tells me that his grandfather was from Sicily –
which makes me 1/16 Italian. I can see my friends rolling their eyes when I tell everyone, who will
or won't listen, that I not only look like an Italian, but am one, that I will wear a blue jersey to the
next World Cup or that I cook "Pasta alla Nonna" from now on. My whole life finally makes sense
now. Thank you, Grandpa.
As I pack my suitcase and have to decide whether I'd rather go for party outfits or jogging suits,
question marks outweigh my anticipation. Why Rome? Although I am not at all as miserable as Liz
from Eat, Pray, Love, I share her need to escape everyday life and reality for a while. Our
generation constantly feels the pressure to live a more exciting, more unique life. Then we take off
and call it "self-discovery" or „self-realization.“ With Rome being the prototype of dolce vita, we
dream of pizza at the piazza and hope that the monotony in our lives will be replaced by a
terracotta color. And honestly, yes, I want to do just that: live the maximum Italian cliché for two
months. Because no matter where I travel, regardless of what the city has to offer: I always look
out for the best pasta and the best caffè and start smiling when I hear Italian. I look for Rome in
any other city.
"Welcome to Rome! I love you!" a fish seller greets me at the market in Trastevere. I see him as a
representative of the city and have to smile. Older men wear suits and smoke their cigarettes.
Perfectly red painted toenails peek out of the women's high heels. Children wear sunglasses that
are way too big. Everyone is talking loudly in Italian. A lot of gesticulation is not just a cliché,
swearing is part of the daily routine, cazzo is practically a filler. Tourists can be immediately
distinguished from Romans. Plastic bottles, cameras and lost glances meet the calm disinterest of
the locals. Dead rats and mountains of garbage finally become a minor matter next to the yellow
and orange of the house facades.
On my first day, I feel a bit like Tom Hanks in Illuminati: I know time is limited and I need to go to
all the sights before time runs out. So I walk around as much as I can right after I arrive:
Colosseum, Roman Forum, a quick gelato on hand, then to the Pantheon and to the Spanish
Steps. There, an Italian smiles at me. Quite my type at first glance: tanned skin, curly hair, fiery
eyes. I politely smile back. I walk up the Spanish Steps and realise at the top that he has followed
me all the way up. He offers me a Rome tour on his scooter tonight. That moment I almost have
to laugh as I feel like a main character of a cheesy 2000s romcom. How much cliché can happen
in one day? My illusion gets shattered as I look down on his skinny jeans and Ray Ban Aviator
glasses straight out of 2012. Nonetheless, I take his number. Maybe one day I am so bored that I
will give him a second chance. I decline for that night and hope I will find a hotter guy who will
show me around (spoiler: which I did). Finally, I went to the Trevi Fountain, wishing I were bathing
in the Fontana like Silvia in Fellini's La Dolce Vita instead of dropping a coin in. Check, check,
check. It's only in the evening that I recognize two things. First, I am still here for almost two more
months and there is no need to hurry. Secondly, I very much feel that I am in Rome now – and not
just because of the sightseeing.
After the first few days here, I still love the idea of the city. I have a romance with Rome – with the food, the language, the people, the colours, the vibe. Even those who grew up here feel the same way.
Lorenzo, a Roman I get to know, tells me "Every day you're in Rome, you
feel like you're here for the first time!". And it's true, every day you see a different fountain, a
different church, take a different route, eat an even better pasta than the day before. A
photographer I meet takes me to the Centro Storico to take pictures of the facades and people.
He tells me that he has been to the historic part of the city so many times in his life, but still can't
get enough of it. No matter where he would travel, the road would always lead back to Rome.
How beautiful is it that even the Romans themselves manage to fall in love with their city again
Like Liz in Eat, Pray, Love, I want to learn at least a little Italian. Every morning I get a coffee and
croissant and casually say "Prendo un cornetto pistacchio e un caffè, per favore". My new goal:
not to out myself as non-Italian when ordering. I perfect my pronunciation of Grazie and repeat
individual words a hundred times. Then I either walk out of the café triumphant when I'm not
exposed or feel my 1/16 Italian pride hurt when the barista answers me in English.
After the first few weeks, some daily routine kicks in. When you eat pasta every day for two weeks
and driving past the Colosseo becomes normality, you know: You have arrived in Rome.
On a postcard to the same friend who had asked me about my goals before the trip, I write, "To
your advantage, my cooking skills and my temperament have developed more than my Italian."
Admittedly, though, I've been exercising my taste buds more than my skills. Well, I still have four
weeks left. Wish me luck.