On Rome, my first Italian Home, Swimming in Volcanic Lakes, Dancing in the city’s Oldest Fountain, and the Art of Letting Go…
Rome, the Eternal City – wasn’t my first Italian love, but she was the first place on la terra dei sogni
– the land of dreams – that I called my home.
If Italy inspired the traveller in me, Rome inspired the crazy Romantic in me…
with its skylines… its freedom…
Rome taught me to dare, to dream, to let go. It’s a city that divides opinion – and I, perhaps more than anyone, know why. But Rome is more than just a tourist fantasy. Once you learn the way of the Romans, once you learn to walk straight past the tourists and the little green flags and the confused and bedazzled backpackers, once you know your own way around that city, your own private spots, your local bar, your favourite church tucked around a street corner – once you feel its earth thumping beneath your bare feet, its voice calling you to move, to search harder, to seek further, to grasp its passionately-beating heart – you will have found yourself in the centre of a universe, a place missed by so many – as an Invisible City opens up, takes you away from yourself, for a time, and teaches you to let go of your past, and make your place in history…
Standing in the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum was a real ‘moment’ for me. Watching the sun set from Capitoline Hill, seeing young lovers dancing outside the Pantheon one night, that time I lied my way into the Sistine Chapel, walking the palaces of Nero, Hadrian, Caesar. I was almost conned numerous times, got ambushed by gypsies down an alleyway and escaped, made friends – some passing, some enduring. All this entwined around my own life in the eternal city... one can hardly forget the life-lessons of Rome.
And one thing living in Rome DEFINITELY taught me??
– how to E-A-T …
Once you’ve bitten the forbidden fruits of Rome it’s hard to stop…
It’s not easy to admit this, but I’d actually had an issue with eating before I got to Rome. Yes… sometimes, for all of us, life is hard. People had hurt me, I’d hurt a few people… Life in England became difficult, empty, confused for a while, and my way of dealing with all the chaos was to control my eating. Food suddenly became boring. Sounds a bit dramatic, maybe, and it was certainly very silly. But the mind is a fickle thing – sometimes you feel a certain way and you’re not even sure why. I became addicted to feeling empty, flat-stomached, and stronger than my hunger. It felt like a battle that I was winning… I was a fool. And I learnt the hard way…
↑ This was taken in my hotel room in Venice, two weeks before I moved down to Rome.
I can’t believe how skinny my arms were! I almost deleted this pictured when I first saw it… but I’m glad I didn’t.
This is a picture of me a few months ago in Greece with my usual weight ↓
↓ Venice again…
People will judge you – say you’re attention-seeking – tell you to just eat more food – but how can you really know what it’s like? How can anyone really judge another for something they’ve never been through themselves?
I remember nights where I couldn’t sleep because of the rumbling in my stomach. I’m not vying for sympathy here – I’m just being honest.
Suffice to say, Rome knocked this crazy phase straight out of me. You can hardly go for dinner to an Italian’s house and eat a little side-plate of salad. NO SIR. Those Italian mamma’s will feed you up good and proper – I was laughing and eating my way through three course meals by the end of my stay. By choice. Food became fun again in Rome. So, yes, thankfully, I got off lightly…
Rome taught me to stop all the control I was trying and failing to execute in my life.
Rome taught me to leave the past in the past, move on, live for the moment, and let go…
I will always be thankful to Rome for that.
Like most things in my life, my story in Rome didn’t start out the conventional way. No tour guides or open-top buses for me. I received an offer to go and stay with some friends of mine, Tommaso Giartosio and his husband Gianfranco, in their apartment in Rome, in exchange for my helping with their kids, teaching them English, taking them to school, that kind of thing. It was the perfect excuse to leave England, and all the trouble it had brought me behind… I accepted without hesitation, even though I had no idea what I was in for… And so I became the ‘English Babysitter’ for a couple of months. In Rome. For a gay family… all I can say is I had to learn Rome life quick!
Tommaso’s a writer, Gianfranco’s a teacher – their kids are two little bundles of enormous Roman energy! As chaotic and passionate as the city itself. We lived in Testaccio, a lively residential area just south of the centre, in a third floor apartment just a block from the ancient Aurelian Wall, and next to the famous pyramid of Testaccio. I eventually had this little black triangle tattooed on my wrist as a memory of the ‘pyramide’, and that city.
I smoked off the big, marble balcony every night, watching the city move by down below, the swallows swooping through the darkening sky above, the smell of jasmine permeating the air around as I dreamed my little dolce vita.
I LOVED it.
Can you imagine me – chasing these kids through the busy streets of Rome – one running ahead, one refusing to walk – speaking mixed-up English and Italian – using all my human might to get them on buses, the underground, crossing roads, giving piggy-backs, singing songs, hiding, seeking, playing my own little games to get them to do as I told them, delivering them to their respective schools JUST on time, sighing with relief after seeing them off and then spending the rest of the day wandering the back streets of the city, totally alone, and totally lost in my Roman dream, with nothing but my cigarettes, my notepad, my camera – writing poems, taking pictures – every day another mission, first with the kids, and then to find some secret church, some ancient catacomb, derelict baths, cemetery or temple. I walked every road in Rome, climbed every hill, moved through every square, drank from every water fountain,
touched every sky…
Sometimes other Italians would ask the kids on the metro stuff like ‘where’s your Mumma?’, looking at me oddly, probably assuming I was the father and wondering why my kids spoke such good Italian and I didn’t. It was awkward, I won’t lie. In the middle of an empire of tradition this was a pretty non-conformist set-up, even for me… That’s the thing about tradition – it’s a double sided coin. Italian tradition brings with it all the good food, passion, friendship and loyalty – but they’re not such an open-minded race really. They like what they know, and an outlandish gay family with this mad Englishman babysitter singing songs on the metro is not what they know in Rome. This was certainly more than just your average cultural experience.
In Rome, there was never time to get bored.
And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I’d come home and find a camera crew interviewing the family and kids in the living room, I’d sneak past, often to that balcony. At dinner parties the kids would be jumping on my back whilst I was talking to guests, climbing all over the diner table, everyone laughing. I was taken to the most incredible museums, book launches, even did a bit of translation work whilst I lived in Rome. Tommaso took me on the back of his vespa one time, round the entire city, my sunglasses on, baggy linen shirt, the breeze in my hair, the sights of Rome dashing before my wide aesthete eyes.
Surely that has to be the coolest-English-babysitter-moment in Rome’s history?!
And then Rose came to stay with the family…
Remember that wild English Rose who I had that crazy time with in Tuscany? – with the obsessed Asian tourist, the naked swimming and that evening with Mr. Bogart? Well… Rose came to see me in Rome before that… and we were just as wild.
So everybody dreams of taking a chance and dancing in the Trevi Fountain. Well, forget it. You’ll barely get a passionate toe in before being arrested, wrestled to the ground by the polizia, or harassed to death by one of those guys selling naff pictures.
But there is another fountain you could try…
In Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere there is one fountain. The oldest fountain in Rome.
One night on our way back from a few drinks Rose and I threw off our clothes whilst passing through the square, climbed into the fountain, and danced…
Water seemed to be a bit of a theme for Rose and I during our time together in Rome. We took a walk in the Vatican City, when suddenly the sky darkened and thick black clouds appeared across all corners of the city. We ran, dashing through the streets and the furious rain, took shelter in a photo booth, and laughed ourselves dry.
Have you ever seen a storm over the Vatican City?
But my favourite place in all of Rome?
Is not even in Rome at all.
Bracciano – take a 50 minute train ride from Roma Ostiense station and you’ll find yourself at the cleanest lake in all Lazio – one of the cleanest you’ll find in all Italy in fact.
Move over smelly Como.
Bracciano was used in ancient times to supply drinking water to the people of Rome, and to this day motor boats are not allowed on its pristine waters… I used to come here often, alone, sit by the waters edge, under the shade of a tree, to write poems and sing songs with my little travel ukulele. Bracciano will always be my favourite lake.
Escape the heat of the city – find Bracciano…
Unlike with Como, Garda or Iseo, you’ll find plenty of clean beach space, no over-priced deck chairs or dodgy ice creams… and plenty of black sand, because Bracciano is a volcanic lake. You’ll also find a beautiful medieval town, a few little restaurants where they don’t speak ENGLISH, complete with narrow, winding streets and a huge ancient castle.
And… if you’re really lucky, you might just find this mythical siren too…
All photos, ideas and stories on this post are copyright Diary of an Aesthete 2015.
All photos on this post were shot with analogue cameras – on 35mm and slide film.
All photos of me on this post were taken by Rose Greenfield.
James, viewing your post of Rome, is like sipping on a glass of chilled Italian Rose, on a summer evening. I am talking about the wine not a rose.
Thank you, Cornelia! Gosh, this is a wonderful trip down memory lane for me… where it all began. What a blessing to have lived so many lifetimes and to share with so many people. I’ve learnt a lot from people, from their successes and failures, from their light and dark… yet I am still just the novice really 🙂 I still, if I am honest, can’t really believe the past 7 years happened. Imagine if I’d never taken those chances back then, never packed a bag, never got on that plane… how different life could be.
I too have enjoyed going back to Rome – both in real life (last year) and here, through this post… somehow the latter has felt more real… Thank you for commenting and reminding me of such precious and vital times… <3
Thank you for your kind response, it’s always great to hear about the reflections in your life. I feel like we are always a novice in every moment, since everything changes constantly.
Amen ! Always the novice… indeed. Always nice to hear from you.
I have been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be much more useful than ever before.
Hi, James! You asked your readers this, “Have you ever seen a storm over the Vatican City?” I’ve never been present for this actually but witnessed this in the media around the time of Francis I’s election. Lightning struck St. Peter’s. But spiritually I see the storm amassing every day.
Your photos are amazing.
Thank you for subscribing to my blog, but what motivated you to? I’m the daughter of a first generation Italian American Mother and enjoyed your pictures of Italy but would love to visit Valdesi country near the Piedmont.
You have a beautiful blog.
Thank you for reading mine.
I am being called back to Italy right now… you’ve brought me back to this thing I wrote some time ago, another of those storms amassing I think…. Peace. Love to you.
James, thank you for your kind words! Yes, another storm…
You are so welcome. Thank you for yours, and for a beautiful exchange. Keep in touch.
Another ancient paradise I have yet to explore. Your photos and words are an art. You create beautiful things and inspire me very much.
Thank you. Your words inspire me. Jx.
The Eternal City – now I have an eternal longing! 😉
Rome is more than the mind can possible grasp. Such a place. Jx.
James, Rome is my favourite city and this post got me burning to go there ASAP! 🙂 I’ll check Ryanair deals right now! 😀
Then that’s something we share in – it’s one of my favourite cities too! Very easily disregarded as nothing more than a tourist hot-spot – but Rome is just so much more, such a lot to explore, as I’m sure you know. Let’s hope we both get the chance of going back soon! Peace. J x.
Damn right! Thanks! xx