Four months in the Eternal City

on my walk home from school by Liz Hunter

What city do you live in? What neighborhood?

I spent four months living and studying in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. Trastevere is centrally located in Rome, about a 15-minute walk south from Vatican City and right across the Tiber from the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Capitoline Hill, and the other trademarks sights of the Eternal City. It is a historically “working class” neighborhood, notable for its narrow, winding cobblestone streets.

What are some adjectives that describe your neighborhood?

Eccentric. It is at times peaceful, at times chaotic. Worn-down but still vitally alive.

How long have you lived there, and what brought you there?

I knew that I wanted to spend a semester abroad while I was still in college, and when it came down to deciding where, I always knew I wanted to go to Rome. This was a bit of a masochistic decision for me, as I had over seven years of French under my belt and no knowledge of the Italian language. Had I gone to France, I would have been able to speak fluently there. Still, there was something about Italian culture calling out to me; I wanted to experience it myself. I spent four wonderful (and quiet!) months living in Rome and traveling around Europe. My camera was on my hip the entire time. After a while, I began to realize that all of my favorite images weren’t necessarily of the different countries to which I was traveling, but of my own neighborhood right there in Rome. Trastevere is the most colorful, worn-in, peaceful, an exciting neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. My photos became my love letter to my little Roman neighborhood, which unfolded itself to me frame by frame.

What is your favorite thing about this place? Your least favorite?

My favorite thing about Trastevere is that every single day living there was a day living in an aesthetic dream. Every single wall, street corner, car, dog, and sign there had as much character as the bright, expressive people who live there. The colors are lush, the cars are tiny and banged up, the dogs roam free of leashes and never bark, the alley cats nap in the shade of mopeds, friends enjoy espresso outside in the morning sun. It’s every bit as Italian as you’d imagine – more, even! The whole place has no order whatsoever, and yet everyone lives together there in harmony and peace. My least favorite part about Trastevere is the lack of rules regarding, well, dog business. They go anywhere, including the middle of the road, and their owners don’t clean up. Watch your step!

Do you feel that you belong there?

Even with my sandy blonde hair, freckles, and utter lack of Italian vocabulary, Trastevere was one place in Europe in which I always felt I belonged. It’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Rome and has been so historically. In the beginning, I did whatever I could to blend in and look Italian, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my differences were embraced in my neighborhood. Local merchants at pizza joints and coffee shops around my apartment would patiently wait and help me through my fumbled attempts at grammatically correct Italian sentences, and they enthusiastically tried their English out on me. After living there for a bit, it became a daily event when I walked to school to be greeted with warm smiles and happy waves from the waiters and gelato-scoopers on my street. It felt like I had lived there for years.

What is the most common misconception about where you live?

A lot of people assume that Italians are lazy. This is certainly not the case. It’s just that their way of life is so much different than Americans. Italians love good food, good wine, good friends, good art, and good romance. And they work very hard at those things! They understand the importance of beauty in life, and this fact is illustrated in every detail. We could all take a lesson from them. I learned to see beauty everywhere while living in Rome.

What is a special fact about your city that you have to live there to know?

On a hot summer day, try the frozen yogurt at the gelaterias. It’s sacrilegious to dissuade against Italian gelato, which is heaven on earth, but the frozen yogurt in Italy is also amazing (real yogurt!). They’ll put as many different sliced fruits on it as you ask for!

What aspect of your city do you secretly love?

I always loved walking around at night on the weekends. Nighttime in Trastevere shows a hidden life of the neighborhood that the tourists never see. Every single restaurant is filled, every bar is overflowing, performance artists are putting on magic shows and musicians are banging on their accordions and upright basses. My favorite spot in Trastevere, Piazza di Santa Maria, which is the small square in front of the oldest Catholic church in Rome, is a tourist spot by day, and a local hang out by night. I can’t count how many times I was on my way home from a bar with friends when we happened upon some impromptu party happening around the fountain at Santa Maria, or a live DJ scratching records for a crowd. If there was nothing else going on at night, we’d walk the few blocks from our apartment to Santa Maria and we could always count on something wonderful. Most of my favorite photos were taken in Piazza di Santa Maria.