A funny thing happened when I wasn’t looking.
I don’t know when, exactly, this city started to feel like a place where I actually live. But it does.
A few weeks ago Peter asked me, “Do you still have those days when you can’t believe we live here?” We were making our way down the hill to Trastevere. I turned a corner and suddenly the city was in full view, lit with the golden late afternoon light that still makes my knees go weak. I thought, of course! Isn’t that what I’m supposed to feel? But then the real answer came to the surface. Actually, I do believe I live here. Feelings of awe still come over me, but I spend more time just enjoying a daily life. It only happened once I stopped over-thinking (like so many good things). Rome is my new normal.
I’m fascinated by this metamorphosis, this slow and silent process I’m barely aware of until it’s over.
It doesn’t matter where I’ve lived–Saint Paul, Spain, Chicago, New York City or Rome–my pattern of adapting has always been the same. The first stage is infatuation. Like the thrill of a freshly minted love affair, I’m enthralled with the very newness of it. I want to be close to my new city, get down to its roots and explore every inch. But the romantic patina eventually wears thin.
The next stage is a slow, but stubborn dawning of the realization that this new place is not like the old place. Not at all. It wouldn’t matter if I were just passing through with a tourist’s rose-colored glasses. When it dawns on me that this is the place where I live, the novelty morphs into a bad joke. The thought, What an adorable grocery store! Look at all these delicious meats and cheeses! becomes Why the hell can’t I find limes? What do Italians have against LIMES? Basic things like navigating around the city or communicating with its residents are a challenge. And then there’s a supremely stupid rock-bottom moment (I’m trying so hard to remember what that moment was in Rome, but I honestly can’t recall. It must not be a very good story. Or, I’m too embarrassed to admit what it was that broke me, so I promptly forgot.). There’s no telling what it might be, but it’s guaranteed to be trivial. It’s the point where my struggles end in complete exhaustion and defeat. It’s the moment when I consider getting on a plane and going back home.
But then, just as quickly as it came on, the moment passes. Usually within a few days or a really good night’s sleep. I am realizing that I have to see the worst in a place before I can see the best. The struggle to assimilate is just a part of the process. After this it gets increasingly easier. The final stage is the best one. It’s where I realize that Rome is Rome. It will never be anything but Rome. So if I’m going to enjoy it, if I’m going to really experience being here, I need to accept the city on its own terms.
So what is this new normal?
There’s the city of Rome and then there’s the American Academy. The life I lead here is not at all like the life I had before. There are the obvious language and cultural differences. And then there’s a whole bunch of lifestyle changes. I went from living in a little house in a medium-sized city to living in a 15×12 bedroom inside a gated villa. I went from cooking dinner and lunch most days a week to eating meals served to me in a dining room with 50+ other people on a given night. I went from biking down Summit Avenue to my job at the Golden Fig to taking long walks twice a week past ancient Roman ruins en route to my Italian language classes. I went from a private life with a husband and some close friends to a community life of sharing meals, ideas and bottles of wine (plus the occasional grappa) most nights.
The Academy is described by people who live here as “Eden”, “The Golden Birdcage,” or an “American cruise ship docked in Rome,” depending on who you ask.
It’s a shapeshifting, amorphous place that changes according to the season and the assortment of residents who call it home. Besides the 30 or so Fellows and their “Fellow Travelers” (yes, that’s me), there is a constant flow of visitors. We all have titles– Affiliated Fellows, Visiting Artists, Former Fellows, etc.–and we’re all here for different reasons and for varying lengths of time. One of the challenges (but also one of the thrills) to living here is adapting to each new wave of people that come through. Every night is like a dinner party where you may or may not be seated next to the mystery guest.
There are so many lessons yet to learn, but this one I know already– you get what you give. The people who live here, and the people who pass through, are what give the Academy life. This place is a thought experiment. It’s a dream. But it only works if the people invited to stay here open up and share what they’re most passionate about. Painters, scholars, writers, poets, architects, sculptors, designers, historians, preservationists and so many others from different, equally fascinating fields, all gather here. The premise is that something great might happen once their ideas mingle. Some big spark, some life-changing thought, a new way of perceiving one’s work and the world we all live in. This may sound heady, but when it happens it feels nothing but organic. It’s usually over dinner. It’s usually with the help of some wine. But it won’t happen at all unless you’re willing to engage.
So, the new normal is this: Living with a bunch of people. Eschewing my introverted ways. Being okay with not having a plan. Being okay with spending a year learning things for no reason except my own enjoyment. And savoring this year like it’s my last. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Before I know it, I’ll be back in Saint Paul, trying to figure out what “normal” means all over again.