A welcoming walk

Piazza Navona, August 2022

I arrived in Rome early this week after a whole summer spent in New England. I had been itching to go back to Rome for a while; moving back home after being on my own for months was certainly not the easiest thing.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I was able to go home, since next summer will likely be filled with internships, more work, and other opportunities amongst my friends. The one thing they don’t usually mention about growing up is how much it sucks not regularly seeing the people you’re so used to seeing every day, so I try not to take it for granted anymore — even though it isn’t what it used to be, and likely never will be again.

Suckiness aside, though: I’m so happy to be back in Italy. So much has happened since the last time I was here, yet it feels like I never left. Being in the same apartment definitely has something to do with that, but even after my walk around the city today, it feels like nothing has changed but the weather. It’s funny, cause when I go back home, I hate the fact that nothing has changed. Here, for some reason, it’s quite comforting.

I woke up around 9:30 but actually got out of bed around 10:30. (I thought I’d “beat” jet-lag this time around, but I’m writing this at 1 a.m. and feel more awake than I’ve felt all day.) I have not had a true moment alone in over two weeks, and I think I’ve been slowly dying because of that. On the plane, all I could think about was how excited I was to go on a walk to all my favorite places in the city, by myself, with no one to entertain or talk to or follow. I could turn around and go to that store if I wanted to, or stay a little extra longer at the bar, or get an ice cream before eating lunch. To me, solo travel and exploration is the epitome of freedom.

This morning, though, once I finally had the opportunity to go out alone, I completely froze. I did everything I could to avoid leaving the apartment. I began to worry I might have forgotten all of my Italian, and that I wouldn’t be able to communicate how I used to. I began to worry that I wouldn’t wear the right outfit in this 90-degree heat. I began to worry that I’d forget how to get to my favorite places, and that I’d lost everything I’d learned here. But after an hour of procrastination in the form of outfit changes and random chores, I walked down four flights of stairs and entered the Eternal City.

My first stop was at one of the bars in my neighborhood. I went in with the intention of having a coffee but instead ordered an iced tea, because after walking less than a quarter of a mile, I was already drenched in sweat. I drank the tea and ate a small but delicious pastry — some sweet, square-shaped cornetto with pecans on top. I paid for it and began walking towards the center of the city, purposely choosing the paths that were shaded by apartment buildings to avoid the sun as much as I could.

I wanted to get a few things for my bedroom, so I went to Flying Tiger, which is basically like a European version of 5 Below, except everything is 10x cuter and there are various things that are more than 5 euros. I bought two small picture frames, a mirror, and a mini USB fan for my desk.

After that, I stopped in La Feltrinelli, an Italian bookstore chain. I walked in with no intention of buying any books, since I spent almost 30 dollars on books at the Book Barn back in Connecticut just the week before. Instead, my intention was to get a break from the heat since it was air conditioned. I also wanted to check out the upstairs cafe that I’d heard about last semester but never visited.

In the cafe, there were people doing work on computers and people reading books. You don’t see that much here; eating and working do not really mix in Italy. It was comforting, though, since it’s so common back home to do work in cafes and coffee shops. I decided that I’d definitely come back to work on homework once I actually have homework to do next week.

I scanned the menu of drinks and random food items and immediately noticed that they had caffe’ shakerato, which is like a coffee cocktail without the alcohol. They mix espresso and ice and sugar and it becomes all foamy and sweet. They even filled the bottom with some chocolate sauce, and I drank every last drop. It’s a summertime drink here, and I didn’t know it existed until I saw photos of it on Instagram immediately after I left Rome in May. It was delicious, and I’m surely going to be ordering them for as long as I can.

The woman who made it was so sweet, and she made me realize that everyone I had interacted with thus far had been extremely kind. I talk about this a lot with my friends, how Americans are often seen as super nice and helpful (especially in retail-related positions), but a lot of it comes off as artificial. Normally, in Italy, I notice how it is very different in that way: no cashier will ever ask you how you are. But some will call you tesoro, and wish you a buona giornata. Some will even use formal pronouns, responding to grazie with a lei. There’s no need for unnecessary small-talk — to me, that is what creates the synthetic feeling. I’d been surrounded by much of that all summer, which is why I especially noticed the kindness today. Italians can be cold at times, so when they are not, it feels 10x more special.

After the bookstore, I had to make a stop at Piazza Navona, just down the street. It is my favorite piazza in all of Rome, and I have so many memories here. The very first time I visited Rome, in 2019, I remember admiring the great big Bernini fountain in the center. I took so many up-close photographs of it, and every time I’d look at pictures from that trip, I’d sigh in hopes that I could return.

When I did return last summer, long-term, my first real solo trip outside of the apartment was to Piazza Navona. Being back felt full-circle then, and it felt full-circle today, too. Since then, I’ve taken visitors there, I’ve celebrated my birthday there, and I’ve silently weeped there on various occasions, because I am extremely dramatic. From now on, my life may be measured in trips to Piazza Navona.

This time was lovely as always, but it was more crowded than ever. I dodged so many tour groups, avoided so many people trying to sell fans and umbrellas, and I walked through it a little faster than usual, since the entire 270 meter-long square is not shaded in the least.

The end goal of today’s walk was to buy shampoo, because I made a horrible mistake and accidentally bought body wash and conditioner instead of shampoo and conditioner (I am flipping off Trader Joe’s for packaging them in the same exact bottle). My hair is a pain in the ass, and it always has a hard time adjusting to the water and the climate here. Last semester, I found a decent shampoo at Naturasi, which is a natural food store I like to call the Italian version of Whole Foods. I went to the one near Campo de’ Fiori, enjoying even more A.C., and bought some shampoo and a bouquet of lavender to decorate my room.

When I left, I decided I’d better get home since my bag was getting a bit heavy. I wanted to get a vase, though, since we didn’t really have any suitable ones in the apartment. I walked by Lela Casa, a small boutique of beautifully curated home goods right near Ponte Sisto. I have walked by this shop probably 50 times, if not more: this is a regular route I take when going to the center of the city. But every time I walk by, I have a reason not to go inside: it’s too expensive, I’m with someone who will not want to go, or I simply do not have the time.

Today, though, it felt like a sign from the universe to go inside. And I’m so glad I did.

The shop’s owner greeted me as she ran in and out, unpacking a delivery that was left on the street. She was the sweetest person I’d interacted with all day, assuring me that she’d come back inside if I needed help or if I was finished. I browsed the dainty linens and colored glassware for a while, eventually picking out a small glass vase for my lavender. After telling her I had finished, she responded with arrivo! and quickly made her way behind the counter. She asked if it was a gift or for myself, and I understood the question, but for some reason it took me longer than usual to figure out a response. Once I told her it was for me, she asked, smiling, if I was Italian.

As I continue to learn Italian, I have found that there is always a “drop-off” moment, where the other person will say something that catches me off guard and makes me think a little more than usual to respond. These moments usually follow with the native speaker asking if I am Italian, which sometimes leads to them switching to English. This time, though, she complimented me, speaking only her language the entire time, and telling me I had great pronunciation. I told her that I was still learning, and she reassured me that I was doing a good job as she wrapped up my vase.

It’s so strange, because at Tiger earlier in the day, I was contemplating buying one of their cheap, two euro vases because I had planned to get some sort of floral decoration. Something in me told me not to, and I know that if I had, I wouldn’t have had this interaction that made my entire day. I was so nervous to go out, mostly because of the language barrier, but today put me at ease and reminded me so much about why I love living here.

(And from now on, that shop is where I’ll go when I need a confidence boost.)

I walked around a bit after that, eventually heading back home but making sure to stop at Fatamorgana for the very best gelato in Rome. I had a cone of strawberry and apricot, topped with the best whipped cream, and I ate it in Piazza San Cosimato on a bench in the shade.

It was delicious, and it was the best lunch I’d had in a while.

When I got home, I framed some photos and placed the lavender into my new vase while sitting in front of the mini fan at my desk. I planned out the rest of my day, took a shower, ate some mozzarella, and got some work done. School starts next week, and I’m very excited to get back into a routine — but I gotta say, after today, il dolce far niente is my favorite way to live life.