Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Expat Hindsight is 20-20

As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20-20. Having major life changes more frequently than most, expats feel this truth more acutely. But hindsight is really just another word for experience; life is trial and error and along the way you learn a thing or two.

I have lived in Rome on and off for 15 years, about 9 of those have been solid experience of the Eternal City. And now, 10 days before leaving it, I am reflecting on the things that I wish I had known 15 years ago to make my life in Bella Roma a little more dolce. And by dolce I mean helluva easier.


  1. Invest in mosquito netting. Rome has a freaking ton of mosquitoes; yet apartments in Rome NEVER come with mosquito screens. The tiny, demon zanzare tigre (tiger mosquitoes) are barely visible to the eye but to people like me I know within a second when they have bit me because I want to rip that entire limb off. With the advent of DIY home improvement shops in Italy, mosquito netting is cheap and easy to find. Do it! Even if it is not professionally done, having any kind of barrier against the little monsters has revolutionized my life and sleeping habits. If you are like me, the paramour of parasitic insects, at the very least, do not get a ground floor apartment and do not live in Monteverde. 
  2. Look beyond pizza and pasta.  Have you ever heard of cicoria? Neither had I. I wish I had known about this food earlier. There are so many Italian foods that take the stage that it is no wonder that a leafy green probably didn’t make the morning news, but when a restaurant makes this contorno correctly, it is one of the best things out there. Beyond pizza and pasta, there is also Broccoli Romanesco, Carciofi alla Romana, Broccoletti, Fiori di Zucca, Panzanella: I have never seen any of these on a menu outside of Italy, and I will sorely miss them. 
  3. Or if you are desperate to have pizza, at least get it with cicoria
    Hunt carefully
    . Some thoughts on hunting for an apartment in Rome: never assume anything, lower your standards of space, and get ready for the long haul. Like anything else in Rome, you can be pleasantly surprised and luck out on the first try, or you can look for 9 months and still have trouble finding anything you would consider even adequate. A couple tips I wish I had known when looking 1) No ground floor apartments (see point 1 above). 2) a good landlord is key. Base at least one third of your decision on whether the landlord/landlady seems like they may walk into your apartment unannounced (this does happen). 3) Get an apartment with at least ONE air conditioning unit. The heat of a Roman July is not funny anymore. Save yourself the hassle of sleeping naked on a tile floor to escape it. Read more about my apartment-hunting adventures here.
  4. Always walk. I am an avid, dedicated, stubborn walker. I opt for feet over wheels any day of the week and I quickly learned, but not quickly enough implemented, that anything within a 45 minute walk is a route better walked than publicly transported. Even with just a 10-15 minute wait (a very modest estimate for bus waiting times), the traffic and walk to and from the bus stop makes every trip in Rome 45 minutes. So if you can walk it, walk. It is much more liberating and enjoyable than being dependent on an often late, overcrowded, dirty and loud ATAC-mobile. 
  5. But have access to some wheels. And just as I flouted the joys and freedom of walking, I will also state that after 8 years refusing to do so, in my last year I have started to drive in Rome, and I wish I had done it sooner. I am still not an advocate of driving everywhere all the time North-American style, but having the option on a rainy or cold day, or when you need to carry something heavy is a lifesaver. The advent of Car2Go in Rome changed my world; I get the advantages of but not the headaches of a 24-7 car. Car2Go only came to Rome about 2-3 years ago, so I couldn’t have availed myself of this option back in 2001, but I wish I hadn’t hesitated about getting a membership.


  6. Get out of town. To once again go against my own opinion, having access to your own car is however also very important for weekend trips. I often get Rome-aphobic, i.e. claustrophobic of being in the city for weeks on end. In fact, the ability to go to Tuscany or Umbria, not to mention the coasts or mountains, on a weekend is one of the best things about living in Rome. Most small Italian cities still exhibit everything I love about Italy, but don’t always see in Rome: kind helpful people, beautifully kept properties, wonderfully cooked meals and cheap wine. You should not live in Rome without going (often) to the amazing Italian villages a mere 45 minutes away. 
  7. Occasionally deport yourself altogether. After living in Rome for awhile, sometimes you need a new perspective, something more modern, more dynamic, more forward thinking. I find that I am much happier in slow, traditional, unchanging Rome, if I leave Italy once a month or every two months. Being in Europe, there is no excuse not to take advantage of the super cheap air travel choices and plethora of countries within a 1-2 hour flight: Malta, Tunisia, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Spain, France, etc. It is really a gift to be so close to so many interesting and culturally diverse countries. 
  8. Don’t be too devoted to to-do lists. Slow traditional unchanging Rome is the reason that so many tourists fall in love with the place. Rome is always Rome. It is not diluted by modernity or foreign influence. And living in places like North America that are completely modern and sewn together by foreign influences, Italy is charmingly refreshing, appealing and enchanting…until you live here. … and had to get your permesso di soggiorno … at least twice… then charming usually gets replaced by other words such as frustrating, bewildering or nonsensical. As a North American list maker, I wish I had learned earlier not to be too tied to my lists and deadlines. When picking up a prescription sometimes takes 4 trips to the pharmacy, installing internet takes 6 phone calls and 2 visits by a technician, exchanging a garment takes 3 trips to the store etc, it is next to impossible to check things off your list when you want them checked off. You just have to face the fact that it will get done, but it may not be today, or tomorrow, or next week. It may even have to be next month because in months like August, nothing is feasible. This is something I have learned about being a local here and though it is a frustrating truth, I have learned patience from Rome and patience is something I wish I had had a little more of 9 years ago.

Finally some things that I did get right: I am happy that I made lists of restaurants to try, that I consulted a guide book of Rome even 9 years into my stay, that I ran the Rome marathon and that I took advantage of Rome’s yearly festivals, like the Lungo il Tevere in the summer. I am happy that I toured around large portions of Italy and Europe in general and got to know so many Italians from all over the country. I am really glad that I lived like a tourist in Rome because it is probably the best city in the world to do so. And that is my final recommendation about living in the Eternal city.

Use my list to help you Live like a tourist in Rome too:


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