Two years ago today I landed in Rome with three bags, fewer friends and more risk than a mob informant. But today, I am approaching my 60th birthday in two months at the apex of my life. My happiness is growing like the lemon tree on my penthouse terrace overlooking the Tiber River. Retirement in Rome was the biggest chance I’ve ever taken but has made me happier than I’ve ever been. Looking forward to retirement, folks?
Retire to paradise, wherever you consider that is.
The last year sent me on many trails. New England. India. Sri Lanka. Paris. Estonia. Slovenia. Rio de Janeiro. Paris again. But each time I returned home, Rome provided a soft landing. It wasn’t like going home to Denver where I faced a job in the tailspinning journalism field and black ice on the roads. In Rome the only ice I see is the amarena gelato at my Giolitti gelateria down the street.
My Italian has improved to where I’m picking up some Romanaccio, the crude side of the Romano dialect. Romanaccio is basically conversational profanity. They are words I can use in public outside the Lazio region. Other Italians have no idea what I’m saying. Around Rome, I am considered crude, rude and foul. In other words, I sound like a Roman.
As I did a year ago today, I am presenting all the reasons I love living in Rome. Please cut and paste on your laptop or refrigerator. Refer to it every time you get depressed. In no time, you’ll buy a ticket to Rome:
* Watching the 18 million euro renovation project return the Colosseum from a crumbling artifact to a colossal symbol of Ancient Rome’s strength, with a glass of wine at a table across the street at Oppio Caffe.
* How people will pull over and stop their scooters in order to use their hands more while talking on their cell phones. Italians have about 190 hand gestures. You don’t need to know Italian to know what an Italian is saying.
* Kisses hello.
* Kisses goodbye.
* Fascist architecture. L’EUR south of my home is Benito Mussolini’s unfinished fascist neighborhood marked by architecture that even LOOKS fascist. Strong. Bold. Big buildings. Big right angles. Big windows. Big letters. Mussolini nearly ruined Italy, but his building designs were good.
* Guanciale. The wonder meat from the pig’s cheek. It is the key to great pasta amatriciana and cheaper in my Mercato Testaccio than hamburger in the U.S.
* Arrapato. It’s the Italian word for “horny.” This is my idea of an Italian lesson:
“Ciao. Mi chiamo John.” (Hello. My name is John.)
“Sono arrapato.” (I am horny.)
“Sei arrapata?” (Are you horny?)
“Si? Siamo arrapati!” (Yes? We are horny!)
Feel free to clip and save this, too, guys.
* Eating outside in winter. It’s mid-January and I’ve eaten my last two breakfasts on my terrace. Weather plays no role in my life. I handle weather extremes really well. But, I must admit, mild winters are seductive.
* National sports dailies. Every day there is at least 18 pages of soccer — and that’s in the off season.
* Saldi. It’s the Italian word for “sale.” They happen in January and July and last about a month. Where in the U.S. can you get a pair of leather, Italian-made loafers for 40 euros as I did last weekend?
* Baristas. If you go to a cafe for a cappuccino with a woman, the coffee bender will form a heart in the foam. Only Italians can find romance in coffee.
* Listening to Andrea Bocelli while making pasta amatriciana in my kitchen, with the windows open and a cool breeze mixing with garlic in the air.
* Airport bus from Termini train station for 4 euros.
* Sipping a nightcap glass of Frascati wine on my terrace after a night out in Rome, looking at the street lights dance off the Tiber River. At night, in Rome, even the Tiber is sexy.
* How two turns can take you from the touristy madness of Piazza Navona and onto a side street lined with ivy and flowers and solitude.
* Bufala mozzarella fresh that day from Campagna. Sweet, juicy nectarines from Sicily. Sweet, juicy tomatoes from the Lazio countryside. My daily trip to my Mercato Testaccio would make any man look forward to grocery shopping.
* Caffe schumato. My new coffee of choice. It’s a little mini cappuccino and perfectly acceptable to order in the afternoon. Order a real cappuccino after noon, the baristas will give you a hand gesture.
* No bouncers. Romans drink very little, even the men. In two years, I have never seen a drunk outside of New Year’s Eve. Forget bar fights.
* How Italian women negotiate 2,000-year-old cobblestones in stilettos. These women were made for sexy style.
* Walking through the orange trees in Parco Savello on Aventine Hill where, legend has it, one of the city’s founding twins, Romulus, set up his first camp. Today, Aventine Hill is the site of the basilica of Santa Sabina. When I see priests do their contemplative strolls among the orange trees and look down at the city at sunset, I want to join them.
* How “vino della casa” (house wine) still guarantees you good wine. House wine in America only guarantees you a good headache.
* How pistachio gelato tastes just as good as you imagined it would in Italy when you tried it for the first time as a kid in America.
* Communist Party. Hang on. Before you hit the delete button, keep in mind Italy’s Communist Party is not your father’s communism. It’s pro labor and pro environment. I once attended a party rally where local leaders raised awareness of a tree-laden neighborhood about to be razed to build a shopping center.
* How panna (fresh whipped cream, almost always free) on gelato adds a sexy, subtle touch to the end of any date.
* How gelato always reminds me of my favorite quote I heard as a travel writer. For a story on gelato I once interviewed the owner of Giolitti for SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine. I asked what he liked most about gelato. He had a faraway look in his eye (was that a tear?) and said, in an Italian accent right out of central casting, “You know, when you walk around a dimly lit piazza, and you have your lover in one hand and a gelato in the other, and you lick and you Lick and you LICK … THAT is love!” I couldn’t print it but damn, I was arrapato.
* Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Right in the heart of Centro Storico, you can walk in on any given day and stare at three priceless Caravaggio paintings. For free.
* How every bar makes their chocolate cornettos a little different — and every one is just as good as the rest. It’s the Italian version of the French croissant and doesn’t take a back seat to any pastry in the world.
* Fathers kicking the soccer ball around with their sons in piazzas. It’s a custom that dates back to the invention of soccer, the Italian equivalent of American fathers throwing the baseball around with their son, a tradition we lost so long ago.
* Cacio e pepe at Da Felice. The best restaurant in my Testaccio neighborhood has waiters come to your table and prepare the traditional Roman dish. In the Romano dialect, “cacio e pepe” means “cheese and pepper.” That’s all it is, mixed with pasta, but the Pecorino Romano cheese makes it one of the kingpins of Italian cuisine.
* How, after two years, my honeymoon in Rome hasn’t worn off. I don’t think it ever will.