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