Congratulations to all the Solas Award winners selected by Travelers’ Tales. I’m delighted to have my writing appear alongside the work of so many talented writers. This year, “The Marco Chronicles” won the Gold prize in the category Travel Memoir: The best story that draws heavily on the writer’s past to make a point or reveal the lessons of a lifetime. And my essay “Things You Can Learn From Nuns and Other Tales” won the Bronze for Women’s Travel: The best account by a woman of an encounter or experience on the road. Click here to see the complete list of Solas Awards Winners. For a taste of my prose, here’s an excerpt from the Women’s Travel category:
an excerpt from
Things You Can Learn From Nuns and Other Tales
by Elizabeth Geoghegan
I dream of my house on the Gianicolo
near Villa Pamphili
green all the way to the sea
a penthouse full of old sun
always cruelly new in Rome
— from “I Too Am …” by Pier Paolo Pasolini
The Stranger or Why Joan Didion is So Skinny
I remember the tired excitement I felt setting out in a taxi from Fiumicino airport, the late morning sun coming in through the window, the landscape rolling past—the trip from airports into cities the world over never really designed to make a good first impression—and yet, after the glacial conditions in Chicago, I felt happy gazing out at the ubiquitous umbrella pines as the driver navigated through one of Rome’s ancient arches and into the city. My first residence, the Hotel Campo de’ Fiori was a modest affair at the time. Small rooms with shared baths, no elevator, breakfast served in an airless basement embalmed with horrific, flocked wallpaper, and a “solarium” that was six flights up and revealed itself to be two plastic chairs on the roof. But the view from above was phenomenal. Cupolas galore.
By the second week, Rome took on a rather gloomy cast. February arrived. The evenings were beyond damp. I began to feel like a character in a Henry James novel, certain I would die of consumption at any moment. What were all those ailing foreigners thinking when they traveled here for the so-called cure? No wonder John Keats never left his bedroom after that chilly carriage ride along Via Flaminia. Had a city ever been so humid? Had buildings ever been so bone-chillingly cold? Not even Chicago could touch this. And if I’d really been paying attention, I might also have noticed that Keats hadn’t managed to pen a single line of verse during the year or so he lived in Rome. And then he died.
But the city was breathtaking, my peripatetic nightly jaunts leading me into unexpected piazzas dominated by the sparkle and splash of a fountain running full-bore in mid-winter. Crisscrossing the Tiber, each bridge offered me a slightly different glimpse of the river, high embankments giving rise to rows of plane trees in silhouette against the evening sky, first pink, then darkest blue, the pastiche of monuments, domes, and rooftops glowing against the horizon. There is a kind of ecstatic melancholy about an evening’s stroll, alone, in Rome. Straniero (or straniera in my case) is the Italian word for a foreigner and the equivalent of stranger. No term could more aptly have described my situation. Those early days and nights were steeped in an unexpected sense of estrangement.
I took to wandering, hour after hour, without any objective destination, making my way through the various neighborhoods of the city and feeling a complete outsider in each of them. It wasn’t just the linguistic barrier that kept me at a distance. The trattorie were always full to bursting. Throngs congregated around the major monuments and lesser marvels. Everyone seemed to travel in packs, Romans and tourists alike. But I was neither of those things. And the Italian knack for rampant public displays of affection could make nearly any solitary traveler feel utterly alone. I didn’t have a single friend for a 4,000-mile radius. I didn’t have the appropriate “I’m on holiday” state of mind. I couldn’t focus on museums or the usual sites. I wasn’t just unsettled; I was unmoored. Around me, tourists arrived, soaked up their Rome experience, and departed.
I needed to find an apartment, and quick. The hotel staff was quickly growing bored of me and while my tab grew, my novel seemed to shrink. I logged more than a few hours sitting on my lumpy bed staring at my laptop, but the sounds of the Italian language and the sights of Rome had already begun to undermine all that I thought I knew to be true about Italy. I started rewriting older scenes. Mostly I cut them. My manuscript morphed into Ouroboros, swallowing its own tail.
I pondered the writer’s life, listing the great works penned while living abroad, in transit, or otherwise in absentia. But I found little to console me. Too often the writers, themselves, had plunged into despair, gone mad, or ended up entombed in foreign lands. In Pasolini’s case, somebody even took the poor guy out. But then, I recalled Joan Didion preferred living, and writing, in hotels, and although I couldn’t account for her productivity, I thought I understood her being so thin. Perhaps she had once experienced a similar humiliation to mine, dining alone in Roman restaurants. Whenever I arrived on the scene, the waiters would shout “Single? Sola?” and parade me past festive families and canoodling couples to a table near the kitchen. To combat this, I embraced the Italian passeggiata, or ritual evening stroll, and strolled on through the dinner hour, eschewing the meal altogether, and opting for a Twix bar or a cigarette instead. So much for the fabulous Mediterranean diet.
The Honeycomb Hideout
My early days in Rome would quickly be characterized by encounters with the dissolute. Addicts and would-be actors. Hipsters, hedonists, and multilingual misfits. The city seems almost custom-built to lure a certain type, and this type is neither Italian, nor foreign, neither male, nor female, ageless. And yet, there exists a prototypical slacker that tends to arrive in Rome and find in its tangled network of neighborhoods and picturesque cafés the perfect place to pull the plug on the rest of the world. To the discerning eye these people don’t seem the sort. They often have impeccable educations, speak several languages, and excel in their fields. That is, until they settle in Rome.
I am always reminded of a television commercial from the 70’s common during my childhood. It was an ad for Honeycomb cereal, and the jingle beckoned a group of kids to come to the “Honeycomb Hideout.” To me, Rome is the Honeycomb Hideout for over-educated underachievers. Although there are plenty of people who come to Rome in pursuit of productivity, there seems to be a disproportionate number who come in pursuit of its opposite. Or, at the very least, who fall prey to the city’s many detours, eventually giving up when they realize hard work is not rewarded here. In Rome, you will more often be praised for finding a way around something, rather than for actually managing to pull it off.
And if Rome is the Honeycomb Hideout, then Trastevere is its headquarters. Historically, the district’s labyrinth of narrow alleyways has long been host to immigrants and outsiders who would only be tolerated trans Tiberim—beyond the Tevere—or Tiber River. The locals became known as Trasteverini, developing their own dialect and culture. Centuries later, they still celebrate their role as “us other” folk, with the annual Festa di Noantri. Gentrified or not, Trastevere’s combination of edgy otherness meets dilapidated, Medieval charm gives the quarter an undeniable allure, making it the ideal place for a new breed of outsider to reinvent oneself, become a fixture in one of the area’s many bars, or even to simply disappear.
For my part, the city continues to test my limits and my loyalty again and again. There was no one-time entrance fee paid for living here. It is a perpetual battle, both bureaucratic and emotional. Italians have a saying, “È meglio chiedere perdono che permesso”—it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. So difficult is it to navigate the usual combination of Roman inefficiency, crumbling governments, ever-changing immigration laws, and the barrage of misinformation that this notion quickly made sense. Why bother with the headache of hours spent queuing for documents, stamps, and signatures when you could be soaking up some of that famous Roman light while sipping the best espresso in the world? Why not just pay the fine if your transgression comes to light? All the better if it never does. A small victory.
If some miracle worker had supplied me with a list of how-to’s, the necessary work permits, and my university teaching job before my arrival here, Rome still would have immediately put my self-discipline to the test. I had lived in Seattle where the sun refused to shine for 45 days at a stretch, and I had spent years in Chicago where it is commonplace for inhabitants to freeze to death in winter or succumb to heat stroke in summer. But that was simply weather. Baby stuff. So, too, had I lived in Manhattan, a city notoriously tough to manage, but whenever I take a hiatus from Rome to spend time in New York, it feels like free-falling into a bowl of panna cotta, so soft is the landing, so easy is it to mail a letter, settle a bill, or even to have a meal and a newspaper delivered. Seemingly simple tasks, yet after so much time in Rome, ease and simplicity are no longer things I take for granted. Nonetheless, when people talk about the Eternal City, the word most often heard to describe what sets it apart is the “lifestyle.”
Even now, well aware that La Dolce Vita is as much a myth as all the other myths associated with Rome, I too, am continually seduced by the idea that I can somehow reach out and grab hold of it—make it my own. I tell myself I never meant to live here, that I never dreamed of the expatriate life, nor consciously chose to construct one. But here I am. I have been here so long that I am just shy of eligibility for dual citizenship. I still tell my friends—many of whom have long since come and gone—that I am leaving. My new mantra is stamped with irony, “As soon as I get the Italian passport, I’m gone.” But until then, whenever I feel particularly battered by the myriad ways this city reminds me, even after all these years, that I am still a straniera, I simply climb to the top of the Janiculum, where the din of traffic is finally hushed and, standing beneath the shade of a towering umbrella pine, I gaze out over the shimmering expanse of rooftops and ruins that stretch all the way to the dark outline where Alban hills meet Mediterranean sky. It gets me every time. ©