Want to be an American expat in Rome? Here are 10 tips to live by

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.


You’re standing in line for 60 minutes to pay an electric bill you don’t understand and think the postal worker taking your money is speaking medieval Bulgarian instead of Italian. You then go stand outside for 45 minutes waiting for a bus that should’ve arrived 30 minutes ago. You return home to a freezing or sweltering apartment, depending on the season, and cruise the web looking at other flats more suitable for Hobbits than Americans.

Welcome to life as an American expat in Rome.

I understand the appeal. You’re bored with your job. You hate seeing the U.S. turn into the Fourth Reich. You’re reaching that make-or-break age where you either change everything or continue your Bataan Death March into what’s left of Medicare or onto a fairway in Florida. You spent the best week of your life in Italy on vacation. You still look at that photo of St. Peter’s, back lit at midnight. Or you’ve read my blog for the last five years.

Let’s quit everything and move to Rome!

If this is you, I’m here to help.

As I wrote in my recent fifth-anniversary blog, my Rome honeymoon has worn off. However, the long list of positives (In fact, I list 48 in the blog) far outweigh the irritation of waiting for a bus. I love Rome. Retiring here was the best decision of my life, and I’ve never been happier. I’ll never live anywhere else.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way. You won’t find these tips in “Lonely Planet” or on a brochure at your nearest Italian consulate. They’re a survival guide that serves as a continuous loop through my brain as I walk the narrow cobblestone streets of my favorite city in the world.

I’m not the only one. Rome has Americans living here either on government contracts or as students, entrepreneurs or retirees like me. The Queen Bee of American expats is Patrizia Di Gregorio. She was born to Italians in the small town of Piedimonte Matese in Campania, moved to Schenectady, N.Y., as a baby and returned here in 2000. A year later, she started Expats Living in Rome, a terrific Meetup group that gathers expats from around the world and some Italians every Tuesday night for Italian and English lessons, a buffet dinner, lots of wine and beer and international conversations.

The group’s Facebook page has 21,000 followers.

Now, 47, she has given more advice to Americans in Rome than the pope. We exchanged anecdotes about the ugly Americans we’ve seen. I once had dinner with one acquaintance who ordered meatballs and was aghast when they served her polpette, little dry hunks of meat. Spaghetti and meatballs is served in Rome, New York, not Rome, Italy. Di Gregorio talked about how Americans can’t find anything to do from 1-4 p.m. every day when Italians have their pausa, the afternoon break.

I asked her how many Americans she has seen come here and not make it.

“Plenty,” she said, facing a big room full of tables in the Rec23 cocktail lounge where instructors are teaching Italian to expats and English to Italians. “One, the document situation is hard. I just feel like a little bit of Americans are spoiled. They feel they can live anywhere because they’re American.

“Any immigration, you’re going to have that. But Americans think they should bypass that because they’ve been stamped American. ‘I’m American! I can do whatever I want.’”

That’s a big mistake, my fellow Americans. Life here is hard. The language barrier is massive. The bureaucracy is mind boggling. The social scene is polar opposite of the U.S. You need to be independent, confident and adventurous. Anything less and you won’t last three months.

We must realize that we are no different than the legally documented West Africans and Albanians and Syrians. When I renew my visa at the Questura, the police station that documents immigrants, I am no better than all the others with different-colored skin sitting around me. We all have one thing in common:

A willingness to do about anything to live here.

“Expats need to understand they’re immigrants regardless if you put the fancy word ‘expats’ next to it,” Di Gregorio said. “Any immigrant living anywhere, especially if you don’t know the language, you have to work harder in order to make it. And in this country, compared to the UK and the U.S. you’re not going to make as much.

“And you have to work harder to make that little bit they’re going to give you.”

I won’t give tips on finding a job. That’s a whole separate blog and, being retired, I have little experience job hunting. What follows is a guide to get you started once you arrive. Read it, clip it, keep it handy in times when you want to smash your head against a 2,000-year-old marble statue or execute the entire population.

Call it the American Expat’s 10 Commandments:

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.


1. Learn Italian. This. Can. Not. Be. Emphasized. Enough. I’ve written about this before. Many Romans know some English. Some are conversational. Few are fluent. If you don’t know Italian, you’ll starve. In five years of shopping in two charming open-air public markets that sell the freshest, most natural food in the world, I’ve met two people who speak English.

I know people who have gotten by without Italian. However, they surround themselves with other expats or Italians who speak English. I don’t want to just talk to a New Yorker or a tour guide or a hotel clerk. I want to talk to my fishmonger, my barista, the guys in my gym. That’s where you get a sense of the Roman soul.

Take lessons. Language schools and tutors are all over Rome. But the best way to learn is either live with Italians, get a job where you speak Italian or get an Italian lover. You either live it, work it or sleep it.

For five years I’ve done scambios, language exchanges where you meet a local who wants to learn English. You speak Italian for an hour and English for an hour and correct each other. But women, be cautious.

Some Italian men use them to meet women. You’ll know when they ask definitions for body parts.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.


2. Find a local bar. In Italy, “bar” means cafe. It’s where you go to get your daily coffee. Whether it’s cappuccino or caffe macchiato or caffe schiumato, discover your morning poison and go there frequently. Within three visits the local barista will know your name and your coffee preference. Soon you’ll be in daily conversations with him about current events and meet other regulars around your neighborhood. You can practice your Italian and start feeling like a true local.

Plus, you’ll drink the best coffee of your life.

Just this morning I was across the street at my Romagnani Caffe. I talked to Davide, my barista and fellow AS Roma fan, about Wednesday’s 7-1 humiliation at Fiorentina. He was very impressed with the new Italian word I learned.

Vergognosa (Shameful).

3. Buy a Metro pass. Do NOT buy a car. It’s not true Romans drive like drunk Formula 1 drivers. They do have brakes. They do stop, occasionally. The problem with cars is the expense. Owning a car adds about 20 percent to your yearly budget. Gas here is about 1.50 euro a liter. That’s about $5.70 a gallon. Besides, you’ll need the extra cash for the shrink after going crazy trying to find parking spots every day. This city is nearly 3,000 years old. It was not laid out with parking lots in mind.

The Metro pass gets you on the bus, subway, tram and regional trains. They go everywhere in the metro area. The pass is only 250 euros and I average about 500 trips on public transportation a year. At 1.50 euros for a single-trip ticket, that means I’m saving about 500 euros a year on transport.

That’s a lot of cappuccinos.

4. Find a rental agency. Expats move around a lot. They tire of roommates. In my case, they tire of landladies. You seek better contracts. You seek better neighborhoods. My 65-square-meter apartment for 1,000 euros a month in the “chic” neighborhood of Monteverde is my third home in five years. That’s not many for an expat.

The Internet is full of rental websites showing reams of vacant apartments in Rome. I’ve gone that route and found nothing that didn’t make me cringe, laugh or duck to get inside the tiny doorways.

Good rental agencies have the best properties available. I highly recommend Property International (info@propertyrome.net). They found my last two homes here (and my home when I lived here from 2001-03). Others they showed were very livable. The finder’s fee is one month’s rent but you’ll forget you paid it a week after you move in. Plus, they serve as a liaison between you and your landlord. That is invaluable.

Trust me.

5. Join Meetup groups. Romans are extremely open, curious and friendly, despite their cold reputation elsewhere in Italy. However, it’s somewhat difficult to come in social contact with them. Rome is a restaurant town; it’s not a bar town. People go out in groups, not individually. Bar hopping does not exist.

Meetups are casual groups united by common interests. I not only belong to Meetups Living in Rome but also Language Exchange (similar to Expats but different day), Internations (international clientele in business community), Rome Explorers (hiking and history) and Rome Wine and Food Lovers (wine tastings and restaurants). You meet at regular intervals in various places around the city. I meet new people from around the world every week. There are Meetup groups for all interest in the city (https://www.meetup.com/cities/it/rm/roma/).

For women it’s a safe haven from men who see Italian women as not nearly as sexual as they dress. Di Gregorio said her Expats Meetup is about 58 percent women and 42 men.

“I think expat women are targeted by these people with no life, no social skills and want to trap somebody for an hour and a half,” she said. “They don’t intend to meet up, period. They want to go exclusive to a small bar and just a you-and-I kind of thing, like a date. I do suggest not to do that because if you meet people at the event, if you like them you can continue to talk but at least you met the person and decide if you want to waste another hour and a half of your life.”

6. Buy Italian clothes. When you pack for your overseas move, bring a fraction of your wardrobe. Sell or give away the rest. You don’t want to walk around Rome looking like you walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog or a sporting goods store. It pained me to get rid of my college sweatshirt collection. But I look like a tourist enough. The last thing I want to do is be seen near the Colosseum wearing a University of Oregon hoodie.

Italy remains the international fashion capital and has the best clothes in the world. Rome is built for shopping. Entire streets, such as Via Cola di Rienzo and Via del Corso are lined with clothes stores.

Keep in mind the prices are geared toward female tourists so it’s not cheap. However, they’re also priced for local men. Thus, men’s clothes are not expensive. Twelve of my 14 pairs of shoes are Italian and each pair was so comfortable I could walk the old Appian Way as soon I walked out the door.

Also, Italy has saldi (sales) every January and July, lasting about a month. Stock up twice a year and you’re set for years down the road.

7. Get Rick Zullo’s Permesso di Soggiorno blog. Zullo is a friend and was the godfather of Rome bloggers (Rick’s Rome, http://www.rickzullo.com) until he moved to Florida four years ago. Before he left he wrote a terrific guide (https://rickzullo.com/permesso-signup/) on how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno, the holy grail of expats. It’s the visa you need to remain in the country. You must get it to remain Italy for a year and then renew it every year or two. It is wildly confusing.

Zullo’s blog is not. It takes you step-by-step, from going to the post office for the form to your Questura appointment and meeting face to face with immigration officials deciding your fate. In between, it covers every step in a concise, humorous manner. You’ll enjoy reading it. And you’ll be grateful when you walk out with that card that makes you legal.

Matteo Salvini’s immigration Nazis can’t touch you.

8. Learn patience. Americans are notoriously impatient. I was notoriously impatient even for an American. Everything takes a lot longer in Rome. Good Lord, you wait in a post office to pay your electric bill. It took me 48 days to get my Internet transferred from my previous apartment. PosteItaliane delivers packages to you — kind of when it feels like it. You get better odds in Las Vegas.

The most important Italian word you will learn is tranquillo. It’s just like it sounds. Stay calm. It’ll get done. Just give it time. Take a newspaper or your Italian homework to the post office. Make friends in your corner bar where you’ll work waiting for the Internet. Don’t go postal on PosteItaliane. You’re in Rome. What, you’ve got a corporate meeting to get to?

9. Take a cooking class. I’m not a good cook. However, I’m a good cook in Rome. The ingredients are so fresh and so tasty and so healthy, I can butcher a pasta dish and still make it better than anything I made in the U.S. Once you peruse the open markets, where everything is shipped farm fresh that day, you’ll want to cook.

Cooking classes are all over the city all year. In one I learned to cook zucca ravioli. I hate pumpkin. Pumpkins are made to be carved, not eaten. I now like zucca ravioli.

You’ll be surprised how much weight you’ll lose. Between the natural ingredients, smaller portions and all the walking you do, you’ll get in the best shape of your life.

Plus, learning to cook is a must for economic survival. Rome restaurants aren’t terribly expensive but eating out every night will end your retirement — or your stay — in a hurry. You don’t want to wind up eating cold pasta on the banks of the Tiber.

So take pride in a sink full of dirty dishes.

10. Leave an impression. I consider myself a mini ambassador to the United States. Many people I meet around Italy have never met an American. How they view me when I leave is how they may view Americans in general.

Americans have a reputation of being loud (I’m guilty as charged), arrogant (not anymore) and fat (nope). Be conscious about being nice. It isn’t hard. Italians are very curious people. They’ll always ask you questions about your life. Ask them about theirs. Show an interest in their culture, their holidays, their families.

Do not talk about money. Do not make your first question, What do you do for a living? Do not criticize the culture. (Although verbally filleting the public services and government corruption is fair game. You’ll sound like a local.)

Men, respect women as you’ve never respected them before. Roman women have evolved. They’re independent, ambitious, strong. The men still live with their moms. The women are dying for men who respect them for who they are and not just what they look like.

When you date, don’t touch them. Wait a few dates. Have deep cosmic conversations with them. Cook them dinner. Barring unmasked physical flaws, overt cheapness or wearing a University of Oregon hoodie, you’ll likely see them again. And if you do, don’t cheat on them. Roman women are dying for loyalty. It’s a rare quality here.

Well, there you have it. Hope that helps. Living in Rome remains a paradise for me. It’s a great life when your biggest stress is getting enough foam in your cappuccino, when your biggest decision is to drink red or white wine. So keep staring at that photo of St. Peter’s.

It still isn’t that far away.

Five-year anniversary in Rome: Honeymoon is over but the happiness and love remain

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


Shortly after I moved to Rome five years ago today, a fellow expat scoffed at the rockets and red glare that swirled around me as I talked about my love for this city. She said, “The honeymoon wears off after about five years.”

Today is my five-year anniversary since I arrived from Denver with a duffel bag, a roller bag, a computer bag and lots of dreams and fears. Well, guess what?

She was right.

Rome’s problems are beginning to mount. So are my headaches. Topping the list are public services that are right out of the Pony Express era. It took my Internet provider 48 days to switch over to my new apartment. I switched services recently and got my Internet knocked out for another week. I ordered a new debit card on Dec. 26, after a cash machine ate my other one, and it’s still gathering dust in Milan’s airport.

However, still, there is no place I’d rather live. After all, every city has its civic embarrassments. Rome’s public services are the worst in the western world, the city is the filthiest capital in Europe and the local government has been rife with corruption scandals.

And Denver has the Broncos. So it all evens out.

Besides, making up for a city’s flaws is a glorious new apartment, good health, better friends and a bright future with a beautiful, talented girlfriend who loves to travel as much as I do.

Tonight Marina and I will return to Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a wonderful trattoria near the Colosseum where I dined the first night of my arrival with my kind expat mentors from across the alley, Gretchen and Peter Bloom. It’s a Jan. 11 ritual, one I plan on continuing the rest of my life.

But it would help if my debit card arrived.

Another Jan. 11 ritual is my blog listing all the reasons I love living in Rome. No honeymoon is perfect. No marriage is perfect. Any life in Rome is better than life right now in the United States. The U.S. has bigger problems than a lousy post office.

So, once again, here is all the things I love about this city. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of items to list:

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street greets me with “Cappuccino bencaldo e cornetto cioccolato?” before I even give him my regular order of an extra hot cappuccino and a chocolate croissant.

I love how Romagnani Caffe’s cappuccino bencaldo is better than mine and always worth the extra 1.10 euro and the effort to get out the door.

I love Trevi Fountain before dawn, when all you hear is the splashing water.

I love never having a car with so few places in Rome and Italy you can’t go by tram, train, plane, bus or boat.

I love paying only 250 euros for a year public transportation pass, meaning my transportation in Rome costs less than $25 a month.

I love the slightly burnt outer crust on a wood-fire pizza.

I love how pizzeria waiters will always let you make up your own pizza off menu. My regular: gorgonzola and sausage.

I love strolling at night behind Il Vittoriano, the giant 1885 monument known as Mussolini’s Typewriter, and seeing the empty Ancient Forum glowing in perfect light and eerily quiet.

I love having coffee bars on opposite corners on my block, a cozy enoteca around the corner and a beer bar around the next corner.

I love how few bars have bouncers.

I love how the sun reflects off the lake 10 months a year up the street from me in Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s biggest and most underrated park.

I love the gorgonzola in pear sauce at Renato e Luisa, my favorite restaurant in Rome.

I love Lazio wines.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love finding great wine bargains for under 10 euros in any enoteca.

I love the sexy terrace at the Radisson Blu hotel, the perfect place to see Rome’s most beautiful people from around the world at an Internations event.

I love how the nut lady at my Mercato Gianicolense pulls out her special stash of salted almonds from under her counter when she sees me approach.

I love how Birroteca Stappo, my new local bar, has my name on a card and I get a free beer when I reach a certain number of beers.

I love how Birroteca Stappo carries Italy’s growing list of delicious craft beers.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how Max, my fishmonger, knows to cut a smaller tuna fillet for Marina on the days I cook for her.

I love how AS Roma’s ultras fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud every game, regardless if Roma is winning or losing, if they’re cheering or whistling.

I love watching Lazio lose.

I love Roma 3, Lazio 1, Sept. 29.

I love the white chocolate cornetto and pistachio cream cornetto at Sweet Paradise, the pasticceria near Marina’s.

I love the handmade Italian leather shoes Marina bought me for Christmas.

I love writing on my penthouse balcony on a Sunday morning, with a cappuccino at my side, with the birds chirping and church bells ringing up the street.

I love the No. 8 tram: Two blocks from my door and direct to Centro Storico in 10 minutes.

I love wine tastings every month without ever having to visit a winery.

I love my elevator. (Yes, elevators are near novelties in Rome. It’s a 3,000-year-old city. My previous three buildings had no elevator. It was sometimes a pain but no resident was fat.)

I love watching couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee at an outdoor cafe.

I love how outdoor cafes let couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee.

I love how the buildings along Via della Conciliazione perfectly frame St. Peter’s when I pass the long boulevard leading to the church on the No. 23 bus.

I love the white chocolate that goes over my black cherry gelato then solidifies at Brivido, my favorite gelateria, in my old Testaccio neighborhood.

I love fettuccine al salmone affumicato (smoked salmon fettuccine) anywhere, especially the way Marina makes it, with a glass of crisp white Frascati wine.

I love 3.50-euro beers in San Lorenzo, the university neighborhood.

I love free laser surgery.

I love the view from the Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican with St. Peter’s to my right and Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s giant mausoleum, to my left.

I love the beautifully illuminated wall of beers at Open Baladin, which remains one of the top birrerias for Italian craft beer. The wall makes it look more like a museum than a beer bar.

I love red and yellow.

I love she-wolves nursing.

I love the ruins of the Ancient Roman warehouse around the corner from my old apartment and walking by it every day thinking Julius Caesar may have walked these same steps to check supplies.

I love 100-euro Italian suits during the twice-annual saldis (sales) at King Boutique.

I love the ivy strung all along Via Margutta, a narrow cobblestone street lined with antique and art galleries near Piazza del Popolo.

I love the pizza amatriciana at 72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria in Rome.

I love Sunday passeggiatas (strolls) down and around Centro Storico’s narrow, twisty alleys through the piazzas and past the shops, the pizzerias, the trattorias and the enotecas with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love the word francobollo (stamp). It’s the one word that makes me sound more Italian when I pronounce it.

I love Sensi di Vini, my local enoteca and maybe the coziest wine bar in Rome with only two tables.

I love photo exhibits with black and white photos of old Rome when the war was over and Italians were falling in love again.

I love Marina, the most beautiful woman in a city full of them.

Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.


I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj


While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare


Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo


I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo


Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo


Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo


Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”

Cefalu'

Cefalu’


We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.

Democrats Abroad did its part in victorious U.S. elections

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night's potluck.

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night’s potluck.


About 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood served as a storage area for all the grain, wine and olive oil that came in on the Tiber River. They all arrived in large terracotta vases which, when disgorged, were broken up into little pieces and discarded onto a big pile. The mound, which stands more than 150 feet high, still exists today and is dubbed Monte Testaccio.

Friday night, on Via di Monte Testaccio, the Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter held a potluck, celebrating the Democratic Party’s take over of the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the Republican Party’s stronghold into little pieces.

The irony was not lost on me.

Being an American expat can be lonely at times. Here in Rome, most of my friends are Italian. I have few to vent with about the U.S. circling the drain into the bowels of fascist and racist hell. My rants are mostly limited to unbridled torrents on Facebook, sitting in bed, pissed off at 2 in the morning.

I’d go out with my Roman girlfriend after our Pres. Rancid Velveeta would call an entire ethnic group worthless protoplasm or something earlier that day. She’d see me visibly agitated. I’d fidget. I’d frown. I wouldn’t have to say a thing and Marina would say, “You’re thinking about Trump, aren’t you?”

She knows me all too well.

Democrats Abroad gives me an escape. It’s the one place in Rome where I can meet like-minded, pissed-off people and unleash pent-up anger in an arena where everyone understands and everyone has all their teeth. Friday night wasn’t just a receptacle for hate. It was a victory bash. The Democratic Party took over the House. We have put a blockade on the Republicans’ charge toward a fascist state for the next two years.

We expats made a difference. I made a difference, however small.

According to Julia Bryan, international chairperson of Democrats Abroad, voting among expats around the world increased — get this — 800 percent since the last midterms in 2014. She said she won’t know the total numbers until all the votes are counted but she said we helped flip seats in Florida and New Mexico and may end up helping flip another in Arizona.

“The Florida agricultural commissioner won by a little under 600 votes,” Bryan said from her home in Prague. “We definitely sent more than 600 votes to Florida.”

Democrats Abroad is a feisty, underrated organization that has 150,000 members in 190 countries. There are Dems Abroad committees in 45 nations. Italy has nearly 3,000 members.

We all came to Rome for different reasons. Job. Heritage. Love. Or, in my case, retirement. But we have one thing in common: We hate Putin’s Papaya-Flavored Pawn. Trump has united us. Misery loves company. Despite being 4,500 miles from Washington, despite being that far away from the nearest Trumpeteer, we think of our country’s direction and are miserable.

“I like the word ‘indignant,’” said Neal Huddon-Cossar, the chairman of the Dems Abroad’s Rome chapter. “We’re extremely concerned about the direction the country’s going. People are indignant. That’s why I personally have seen so many people in my social circle who are Americans become more active in political organizing and activism.”

The potluck was a celebration of last week's Democratic victories.

The potluck was a celebration of last week’s Democratic victories.


Take Huddon-Cossar. The day after the Halfwit Tweet Twit won the election in 2016, Huddon-Cossar, started a Facebook group. Using the hashtag #notmypresident, he invited all his friends then learned about Rome’s own involvement in protests such as the Women’s March and Indivisible Movement. More local chapters formed in Italy, and he got in touch with those people.

In two years, this 30-year-old grad student in global energy and climate policy became chairman of Rome’s Dems Abroad chapter. Talking to other Yanks, he learned we were as appalled at what was happening across the Atlantic as the people in the trenches.

“Americans abroad are shocked at what the politics are in the U.S. at the moment,” he said. “It was all driven by the election of Trump. Just the Trumpian direction of the Republican Party has taken over the past few years. A lot of people were complacent under (Pres.) Obama and didn’t think it was necessary to vote or stay engaged.

“But this (2016) election was a real reality check.”

So Huddon-Cossar went out and set up about a dozen get-out-the-vote events, mostly at Rome’s various universities specializing in American abroad students. He set up sign-up desks in expat events such as Expats Living in Rome of which I’m a member and set up a website, votefromabroad.org. He established a ballot drop off at a local school, hosted by a cultural center and supported by the U.S. Embassy. That three-hour event alone signed up 90 people.

It’s not easy voting from abroad. Rules are confusing. They vary from state to state. I vote in Colorado, where I worked from 1990-2014, and twice had to call Denver to make sure they’d send me an email ballot. I voted in October. Filling it out was easier than a to-do list.

I voted Democrat all the way down the line. I didn’t look at a single name. I didn’t do one second of research. If I saw a “D” next to the name I voted for it. I’m furious. I want change. Democrats Abroad provided me that avenue. As it turns out, Democrats in Colorado, a battleground state, won four of seven House seats, nine of 17 Senate seats, 37 of 60 State House seats, the attorney general’s race and the governor’s race. I learned the Democrat who won the Colorado governor’s race, Jared Polis, is gay.

I had no idea, nor did I care.

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo


I wasn’t alone.

“We are the bluest state,” Bryan said. “We’re the only Democratic state that had a growth in the primaries in 2016. We had 50 percent growth over 2008. That’s huge.”

How blue? Bryan said two years ago 69 percent of Dems Abroad members voted for Bernie Sanders. (“We are very progressive,” she said.) I didn’t. Bernie was a liberal’s wet dream: He had all the right ideas but no convincing path to achieve them. I voted for Hillary Clinton. If more Democrats had done that, I’d be writing about AS Roma today.

Sometimes I wish I retired to Rome in the ‘90s. That was before Internet, before social media. Our only American political news would come from whatever the old International Herald-Tribune would print. Today with cable TV and every American newspaper and wire service available on your cell phone, I could just as well be in Washington’s Dupont Circle as my leafy neighborhood in Rome. The U.S. government is a train wreck. You don’t want to watch but once you start you can’t pull away.

Italians are up on it, too. When they meet an American, they all have one question.

“They want me to explain how the hell this could happen,” said Jim Sawitzke, a Dems Abroad member at the potluck. “They used to have so much respect for the U.S. What’s happened to us? Like, I’m an American, I have the answers.”

Sawitzke, 55, is an interesting expat story. Raised in Helena, Montana, he went up through the educational and professional ranks as a scientist when three years ago he moved to Rome to work for the European Molecular Biology Laboratories. Like all Dems Abroad members, he and I bonded — and not just because he got his doctorate at the University of Oregon, my alma mater in the knee-jerk liberal town where I was raised. Sawitzke spent 21 years in suburban Frederick, Maryland, where he lived near the apex of American politics.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.


Like me, Dems Abroad has become a safe haven of vent. The potluck was just one example. It was held in the Associazione Rigatteria, a cultural center built in a stone cave that once also served as a storage area for food and wine. Glass squares on the floor illuminate dark tunnels that snake through the area.

A table was filled with finger food, from salami to breads to the one thing you’ll never find at a Trump rally: hummus. We clinked wine glasses toasting the victory. We talked about who we want running against Dingbat Donald in 2020. Huddon-Cossar gave a presentation summarizing all the Democratic victories.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Sawitzki said. “It’s nice to talk freely with like-minded people. I felt comfortable. It reminded me of people I’d speak with in similar events in the U.S.”

Dems Abroad isn’t stopping. Bryan and Huddon-Cossar have reached out to expats for stories about their health care overseas. We all have our frustrations living over here. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. The government is rife with corruption. But Italy’s health care system, like many in Europe, is fabulous.

Bryan will soon take to Congress her stories, including my story of going blind in my right eye in the summer of 2017. The total cost of my treatment, including tests, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery was only 525 euros. In the U.S. it would’ve been nearly $7,000.

The Rome chapter did the same.

“The idea was to share our stories as American citizens living in these countries and what it’s like to live in a country that guarantees health care,” Huddon-Cossar said. “We had a huge, huge response.”

He received more than 300 stories, including his own. Last year he had to get an endoscopic gastrostomy exam after a series of stomach problems. He went to the ASL, Italy’s state health service, and they gave him an appointment in Frosinone, a town 55 miles southeast of Rome. Instead, he went to the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, a private care hospital, on Rome’s Tiberina Island. They had him in the following week. His total cost?

One hundred fifty euros.

Besides health care, the other advantage all expats agree on is the streets in Europe are safe. Rome, a city of 2.8 million people, averages only 30 murders a year, hardly any by guns. Last fall gun nuts barbecued me online after I reacted to the slaughter in Las Vegas by pointing out that Italy’s tougher gun laws were reasons for the low murder rate. The critics pointed out the Czech Republic, which has the most open gun laws in the world behind the U.S., is proof that more guns mean safer streets.

Bryan, who grew up in a liberal family in Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Prague 20 years ago to head up a design section of a startup and now has a software company. She said guns nuts are missing the point.

“The thing to understand is the Czechs don’t have open gun laws,” she said. “They have really intelligent gun laws. They’re really strict about who can have a gun. If you have any mental problems you’re not allowed to have a gun.

“The Czechs take away guns. You can lose your reliability status if you are deemed to have excessive use of alcohol, if you commit a crime, if you commit misdemeanors. The health clearance is an important part of the license process.”

I left the potluck early and went to Marina’s. I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. She didn’t ask me a thing about the Decomposing Jack-o-Lantern.

Why Rome? From loathing to loving, the long, twisting journey to my dream retirement spot

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Italians are very curious people, like anthropologists but better dressed. They ask you a lot of questions. Where are you from? Where are you going on vacation? Where did you buy your shoes? Things that matter to Italians.

As a subject, I’m different. I’m a novelty. I’m retired. Four and a half years ago, at age 57, I left the U.S. to start a new life in Rome where I plan to end my life as well. It was a colossal leap of faith, a major risk with a downside of winding up dead broke in a foreign land with no family or friends. So Italians, most of whom work until they die, always raise a coiffed eyebrow when I tell them my situation. And they, as well as tourists, all ask me the same question.

Why Rome?

It’s a long story, one made longer by the many twists and turns the journey took since I first visited here in 1978. The political and economic climate changes in Italy like its fashion scene. That made each visit unique and challenging in its own way. Most expats here all have the same story. They came to Rome for the first time and fell in love, either with the land, with the food, with a man or with a woman. The beginning of my tale is different.

I hated this place.

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo


In 1978 it was particularly bad. Inflation and unemployment poleaxed Italians, exhausted from a decade of economic chaos. The right-wing fascists, left-wing Red Brigades and Mafia all fought over the ugly daily headlines. On May 9, it suffered a particularly gruesome one-two punch. Ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, the leading figure in the dominant Christian Democracy party and who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks before, was found murdered in the trunk of a car.

On May 1, Peppino Impastato, a noted leftist and outspoken critic of the Mafia, was kidnapped by his hometown Cosa Nostra in Cinisi, Sicily. On May 2 he was dumped on the railroad tracks with sticks of dynamite tied to his torso. Later that day, his body parts were found over a 300-meter radius. He was 30.

So this was the romantic Italian landscape I came skipping through as a skinny 22-year-old with a beat-up duffel bag and a dog-eared Youth Hostel card. I arrived in Italy a frazzled, filthy mess. I took a 27-hour train ride from the flaming shithole port town of Algeciras, Spain, to Milan. I stopped only in Barcelona just long enough to take a shower in what turned out to be the home of a screaming homosexual with gay porn spread around his bathroom. I blame only youthful naivete for not picking up that his Peter Pan slippers were a telltale sign. Fortunately, his shower didn’t work — or the lock — and I excused myself out his door before he could show me his paella.

In Italy I followed the American tourist path more beaten than the Atlantic City Boardwalk: Milan (Newark with a big church), Venice (too impossibly romantic to visit alone which I didn’t — if you count the 20 snoring, drunk backpackers with whom I shared a Youth Hostel dorm) and Florence (more excited about the John Travolta disco leather boots I bought for $25 in the flea market than Michelangelo’s David.)

Then, tired, hot and thirsty, I reached Rome. At the end of a two-week Italian run, I was arted out. I could suddenly understand why that mad Turk vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in 1972. He’d seen too many damn Michelangelo statues. He went crazy. So did I.

More than Renaissance art, I wanted a glass of ice. At the time in Rome, ice was distributed with the frequency of winning lottery tickets. Rome, even at that time in early October, seemed as hot as the inside of a Ferrari engine. Living in Oregon my whole life, I never felt humidity that was more appropriate for African violets. Also, the Italian language apparently didn’t have a phrase for “emissions control standards” and Rome’s smog baked me in the inside of a gray, smoky coffin. The Italian sun, the one I dreamed of growing up, was nothing more than a blotted, filtered orange ball.

Never a coffee or water drinker, I survived on room-temperature Coke, citrus fruit and a vile swill called Peroni beer. I was miserable.

I hit all the tourist sites and remembered being so exhausted at the end of the Vatican museums that I laid down on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, not for a better view of the ceiling but merely to rest. My highlight was jumping the fence at night with two Englishmen I met at the Youth Hostel near Olympic Stadium. We roamed the Colosseum’s corridors sans even small floor lights until a growl of a distant dog chased us back over the fence like the miserable, dirty degenerates that we were.

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo


I also saw history. On Oct. 4, I was one of 60,000 people who crammed into St. Peter’s Square to see the funeral of Pope John Paul I, who died Sept. 28 after only 33 days in office, launching a cottage industry of conspiracies that have lasted to this day. He died the night neo fascists shot at a group reading L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, killing one boy.

My memories of food in Rome were no better than of the food in my elementary school cafeteria. I lived on $15 a day. I ate salami and cheese out of grocery stores and pizza slices from the portable carts in the overrun piazzas. The pizza crust was as sharp as shrapnel. And what’s with only one ingredient? The combo pizza at my old Pietro’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield, Oregon, was better.

And during this year-long solo trip around the world encompassing 24 countries, nowhere, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, not communist Hungary, did I find a population that spoke less English than the Italians. I met no one.

On my way out of Italy, I found it absolutely no coincidence that fascists blew up the railroad track near Bologna and I had to change trains and stand the last two hours of the trip. It symbolized my entire Italian adventure. It bombed.

I didn’t return to Italy for 20 years.

I may never had if not for one chance encounter. I was covering Major League Baseball for The Denver Post and one day in 1998 in the Coors Field press box lounge I talked travel with Mike Littwin, at the time with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He said he loved Rome.

“Rome?” I spat, as if he said he loved Karachi. “It’s a shithole. I hated the place. I’ve had better pizza in frozen food sections.”

But he went on about the Pantheon, the food, the wine, the art. I walked away thinking, Hmm. Maybe I should give Rome another shot.

That weekend while reading my Sunday Post by my pool, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, heard my private message to myself. There in the travel section was an ad offering a dirt-cheap round-trip flight from Denver to London plus one other European city. The list included Rome. I left my lounge chair, went up to my apartment and made a phone call. I was leaving at the end of baseball season.

Single and wanting to explore Rome’s romantic side, I thought, who could I invite? How about a Brazilian lingerie saleswoman in Zurich? That’s right. I had met her in Rio two years before while she was on business and we had recently lost touch. I sent an email and the timing could not have been better. She wrote that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and would meet me in Rome.

Thank you, St. Christopher.

Suddenly, Rome didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, a 24-hour romance one could read in a dirty novel ended abruptly on Day 2 when I returned to the room. She told me her rich ex-boyfriend was flying to Rome that afternoon and if she doesn’t meet him, he’d kill himself.

“So let him,” I said compassionately.

“No. He’ll do it. I’m going.”

“Are you serious? You’re falling for this? He’s bluffing.”

She packed her bags and left. I never heard from her the rest of the year. This was problematic. We had agreed to meet in her hometown of Natal, Brazil, that spring for a travel story assignment I received on dune buggies. The last thing I wanted in a sultry, sexy Brazilian beach town was a mere roommate.

As she walked out the door for the airport, she told me to wait by the phone and she’d call me. She spoke excellent English and I’m assuming she clearly understood my American idiomatic expression, “Fuck that!”

I explored Rome.

At the time in 1998, Italy was on an economic upturn. Investments and exports were rising. Economic growth was at 3 percent. The Red Brigade was all but dissolved. Romans were going out again. Chic wine bars, known as enotecas, were surfacing. Even the air was breathable.

I was out all day and night. Rome seemed cheaper than most American cities I visited on assignment. I could get a glass of wine for less than a Coke, and I discovered a wine that remains my favorite to this day: Barolo. I learned pizzas in traditional pizzerias have as much to do with the crap served on the piazzas as the Sistine Chapel has to do with a 7-Eleven.

I researched a travel story about day trips from Rome. Every day I went somewhere new: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port; Tivoli, the town filled with old villas of Ancient Rome’s aristocracy; Frascati, where I had a lovely picnic with porchetta, the sizzling suckling pig famous around Rome, and Frascati’s trademark crisp white wine; Nettuno, a beach town only an hour away with water swimmable in November.

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo


The lone problem came at night. After the Brazilian dropped me like so much rancid pepperoni, I drank in a new cafe every night, alone. Looking around I could tell Romans invented the term “public display of affection,” known during Ancient Rome, I believe, as “coitus minimus.” Everywhere I went, Roman couples were wildly making out. If I saw one more swarthy Roman bend a woman over a fruit cart, I swore I’d get one of those cat scratching poles.

I tucked Rome away as a regular destination in the future. Flash forward to fall 2000. I found myself in full burnout of sportswriting. Baseball bored me. My girlfriend at the time, a public radio reporter in San Diego, was equally burned out. We both needed new challenges, an adventure, a different direction in life, not to mention live in the same time zone for a change.

The Denver Post union contract allowed year-long sabbaticals. We could do anything we wanted during the year — write, travel, rob banks, whatever — and were guaranteed our jobs back. Maybe not our beats, but we’d have a job waiting. A Post news reporter friend named Joe Sinisi, an Italian-American, had just spent half his year in Italy. One 10-minute discussion hearing of the food, the landscape and the people convinced me.

I’d be a travel writer in Rome for a year. Rome would be perfect. It overflowed with travel stories and is centrally located. I could fly anywhere from Great Britain to North Africa within a couple hours. It was relatively cheap. Italian would be easier to learn than French or German (HA!) and sexier than Spanish. It was warm, a major consideration with a woman coming from San Diego.

So that November I took my girlfriend, Nancy, to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas and on the first night gave her a wrapped present. It was a long narrow tube with a bow around it.

“What is this, a feather boa?” she said.

“Just open it.”

It was a rolled-up poster of St. Peter’s at night. I said, “Want to move to Rome for a year?”

(Guys, take a tip: If you want to score some points with a woman, try the above.)

After the shock wore off, she agreed but first we felt we should go on a recon mission. So that February 2001 we flew to Rome with backpacks, pens and paper. We took notes on every cost an expat would incur: public market food, public transportation, Italian lessons, utilities, wine, restaurants, apartments. We looked at neighborhoods with vacancies. She wasn’t impressed.

During one trip to the scruffy part of Trastevere, she said, “This place looks like Queens.”

However, after a week of wining, dining and exploring without a jacket in February, she turned to me as we sat over the best homemade pasta of our lives and said, “I’ll sell everything.”

We set our departure for that November. That’s November 2001. Yes, what better time to launch a career as a full-time travel writer than two months after 9-11? In one of the savvy career moves of my life, I tried selling travel stories when some newspapers weren’t running stories on destinations to which you couldn’t drive.

In the aftermath, 25,000 Americans cancelled their flights to Rome, which Homeland Security put on Yellow Alert, meaning there was a “significant risk” of terrorist attack. We went anyway and had the best 16 months of our lives. They were also the hardest. We moved to a foreign city where we had no home, no friends, no language skills and no job. We were living together without ever before living within 1,000 miles of each other.

Moving to Neptune may have been easier. The language seemed impossible; so did some of the kitchen appliances. She struggled to find a new line of work; I struggled with Italian school. The tension was palpable. At one point we were exchanging gunfire daily.

But, like an aging actress who gets herself back in shape, Rome slowly revealed herself as the great city it remains to this day in my heart. We found a beautiful, spacious apartment near the Vatican. We had all kinds of adventures. I spent two months in Rome’s gladiator school. (Yes, there is one.) I did a story on Solo Per Due, the world’s smallest restaurant, featuring only one table for one couple per night in the most romantic setting in Lazio. I made more friends than I ever had in Denver. I traveled all over, from Tunisia to Latvia. She joined me to London and all over Italy.

And the biggest discovery of all came from the realization that no matter how confused you get with the Italian bureaucracy, how frustrated you get with the language, how worried you get about money, one thing in Rome is certain.

You always have dinner to look forward to.

Unfortunately, my sabbatical ended — at about the same time our money did. We returned to Denver in April 2003 with the commitment to return some day. For ever. I became The Post’s national college football writer; Nancy took a job at a public radio station in Greeley, a small agricultural town 60 miles north of Denver.

The return was a quasi disaster. I had one of the best jobs in American journalism; she disliked her job in Greeley, a long commute to a town of slaughterhouses and air constantly smelling of cow pies. She hated the cold. She had few friends. For her, Denver was Karachi.

After four years, she had enough. She moved back to Rome in 2007 with the idea that I’d join her. I didn’t. I came close three times but each time jobs fell through, twice after I acquired work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago.

While long-distance relationship are trying, try one from 7,000 miles away. We saw each other twice a year, one time rendezvousing in Kuala Lumpur for a backpacking trip in Borneo. We swapped limoncello for leeches.

We finally set a deadline. I’d return to Rome by fall 2010 or we’d break up. I didn’t make it. I failed. An 11-year relationship ended because I couldn’t reinvent myself in Italy.

However, I reinvented my means to move. Unable to find a job, I decided to save my money and retire. I went back to Rome in 2011, again with pen and paper. I came up with a financial figure I needed to reach and met with my genius Denver broker, Stephanie Gudka. We strategized.

I reached the figure in August 2013, I spent that fall football season working on my visa and announced my resignation Dec. 26 in a crisp one-line text sent from the Palm Springs airport. I flew to Rome Jan. 10. It was a one-way ticket.

It’s 4 ½ years later and the thought of hating Rome seems as distant as my first words at 3 years old. Rome has given me a joy, at 62, that few can comprehend , a garden of adventure that never ceases to deliver. The sights. The tastes. The sounds. The smells. Rome is a kaleidoscope of pleasure that surprises me every day. I would never live anywhere else and I’ll never leave.

Nancy and I both found new life partners, and I truly hope she’s as happy here as I am. Rome is home. A rocky, tumultuous trail has led me to this lovely corner of the world, a place I could write about forever. I could write more now but I must go.

I have dinner to look forward to.