A prompt bzzzt shocks awake an otherwise sleepy Amsterdam morning. It’s 5 AM, and our Dutch taxi driver has rung in to let us know that he’s arrived. I roll my borrowed carry-on suitcase down the hall into the tiny apartment elevator along with my three other family members. We reenact the packing process as we squish ourselves and our belongings into a modest 6-foot by 6-foot space. As the doors close behind us, my insides expand with the excitement of uncharted territory…
Our well-clad driver finishes a cigarette as we exit my parents’ home-away-from-home onto the hushed canal streets. This is a city that never rises before the sun, and on any other morning, I’d be jealous. Giddy rebels, we defy the norm and speed through the empty cobblestoned passageways to the airport.
On the plane, I memorize useful Italian phrases and fantasize about my first spoonful of gelato. Ooos and Ahhs draw my attention to faint, snowy mountain caps and dusty purple slopes through the powdery haze below—the Alps?! Their jagged peaks and curving troughs stretch as far as the eye can see, as though painted on canvas. I lose myself in them for a while before returning my curiosities to the Frances Mayes travel memoir I’ve brought along:
"Travel pushes my boundaries. Seemingly self-indulgent, travel paradoxically obliterates me-me-me, because very quickly—prestissimo—the own-little-self is unlocked from the present and released to move through layers of time." (xviii, A Year in the World)
Layers of time are exactly what await us in a city with such a striking blend of ancient and modern. Brightly-colored Ferraris speed past 1500-year-old rubble from Rome’s glory days, tech companies charge ahead within Renaissance-age buildings, and an entire history of Western thought and culture permeates the layers of sediment under our feet. A “historical lasagna,” they call it. Mmm. Famished, we stumble upon our first taste of Italy. It’s an understated, local restaurant off the beaten path. The best kind.
We practically have to hunt down the restaurant owner and ask permission to dine—somewhat of a typical scenario we will find ourselves in again and again. I conclude that he must be annoyed by our language and culture barrier like the French seemed to be in Paris. But, a tour guide would later laugh away my suspicions, “Never trust a friendly Roman restaurant owner!” If he appears overeager to have your business, it may be because he needs your business. Translation: terrible food! The best restaurants don’t beg for attention, they let the food speak for itself. This place certainly does. I am warmed and welcomed into this lush, hospitable culture with every bite of pasta and sip of wine.
Rich, full-bodied flavors harmonize as effortlessly as they have for countless generations: pasta with a bright, savory salmon sauce… pizza Margherita bordered by silky soft dough and a gently crisped crust… fresh, vibrant mushrooms at peak season. I’m in awe of the simplicity of how it’s all created. Travel enthusiast, Anthony Bourdain, once noted that in French cooking, the chef is the star, but in Italy, the ingredients do all the talking. What is it about this place that even the crops emerge from the soil with utmost flavor and passion?
An enthusiasm and zeal for life is evident all around, from the slick, Armani-clad businessman talking on his cell phone with grand hand gestures to the fully-outfitted nun who has given herself entirely to the Catholic church. Even the elderly have a certain sparkle about them. I pass by a white-haired gentleman out for a stroll. He tips his hat with a charming, well-worn gesture, Buongiorno! I greet him back and glance around for cameras and a film crew—surely, I’ve walked onto a movie set. If I had, I’d be a silver screen starlet in a Fellini picture, enraptured by the ease and delight that leaps and abounds here. I’ve never met you before, Italy, but somehow I feel as if I’ve known you my entire life.
Jarring shrieks of metal-on-metal swiftly transport a melting pot of locals and tourists via Metro. Next stop: Colosseo! We ride the escalators up to ground-level, pass by counter-terrorism officers wielding machine guns, scan our week-long passes to exit, and there it is—the Colosseum! Right there, in your face, massive. My mind hurls into a time warp, unsure if it’s 2016 or A.D. 70. Cars whizzing by turn into horses and chariots driven by Roman soldiers with red-feathered helmets. I feel the weight of history, the grand opulence of the ancient Roman empire. The earliest Christians walked where I’m standing—Paul, Peter, Timothy. The book of Romans was written to the church here. I consider the martyrs. A sobering connection emerges with centuries of brothers and sisters who willingly laid down their lives for their disputed belief in Christ. My Christ. For a fleeting moment, like the sun breaking through rapidly-moving clouds, I see through the lenses of eternity. One Day, all will be avenged. All will be made right. Come, Lord Jesus.
“Colosseum tour tickets! Lowest price today only!” a street peddler pulls me back into the present where the world charges on around this vast, ominous wonder. I wish, all too often, that the tourist hustle and bustle would quiet into the Italian preference for unhurried leisure. A kindred spirit has set up his easel in an unnoticed corner, carefully painting his view of the iconic structure. I wish to sit and chat with him for a while.
My only tangible art form on this trip, besides my wild writer’s imagination packaging up little moments to unwrap later, is photography. I embrace the blur, the local who walks into my shot, the scene as it exists when I discover it for the first time. In this way, I like to disappear, observe, collect. A swift, unspoken enrichment occurs when you open yourself up to another way of life. Under the guise of pure intrigue, new colors, ideas, and understandings burrow their way deep into the soul. My current worldview, struggles back home, and the very idea of who I am is suspended in the air of this new place as it all becomes free and malleable again.
We saunter through stony streets lined with sunshine-colored buildings to reach the enchanting Piazza Navona. The dancing waters of Bernini’s immaculate Fountain of the Four Rivers roar louder as we approach the humble entrance of this shining square, tucked away in the map of Rome. “Michaelangelo and Raphael get all the international glory,” our exuberant guide would later tell us, “but it’s Bernini who made Rome beautiful.” She’s right. The entire city beams with stunning Renaissance charm making it a joy to discover block by block. I look into the expertly-carved eyes of each stone figure and wonder at what all they’ve played silent witness to through the years. Creative explosion, world wars, the constant ebb and flow of humanity. Oh, the stories they could tell.
Nightfall approaches as we continue our exploration onto a little island called Tiberina on the outskirts of Rome. We dine outside under string lights with a classically Italian plaid tablecloth and order all the glories of the fertile countryside: ripe, expressive vino bianco… the locals’ favorite comfort food, Carbonara… mouthwatering zucchini and eggplant… and endless helpings of the most decadent, heart-warming pasta. As if that wasn’t enough to enchant us entirely into a happy food coma, our waiter—kind, though not quite smiling—treats us to a round of limoncello on the house. To Italia! We whisk it back joyously. My veins surge with citrusy sunshine as the sky’s waning colors dissolve into an exciting nightlife that, for the locals, has only just begun.