It’s funny coming back to a place; I never really do it. I was interested to experience the difference. Three years ago, Rome was hands down my favorite European city—probably because it was the most vivaciously chaotic of the cities I’d visited in Europe. Life was different then; for one, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend, who I’d break up with a month after returning home. Nuff said.
Rome didn’t seem so intense and frenetic this time around; it felt much more manageable. I landed with 8 hours of scattered sleep within the previous 48 hour period, and decided to power through the day in order to acclimate myself to the time difference (it worked).
I wandered through the city in a haze of memory, surprised by how my legs took me to all the familiar spots—muscle memory of a city. There was the Colosseum, aching in its magnificent crumble; there was this piazza and that piazza; there was the terrible Chinese restaurant I dragged us to in a vegan moment of tofu craving. It’s funny when a place has only existed in your mind, at one very specific time, funny to see it still going on, living and breathing, like going back into a dream that had kept on dreaming without you.
I remember my dad saying that Rome made him feel his own mortality, and I can definitely say that’s still true for me. There’s something about the ancient greatness, the ruins and remains of glory, that really serve to check you. Just in case, you know, you got to thinking your shit really mattered, there’s Rome to remind you how inconsequential it all is—how small, how much of one shining moment you are. All your joy and heartbreak, your own impending ruin—it will all come and go, and Rome will still be there. You’ll be lucky if your bones last as long as Rome’s.
That being said, Rome isn’t really about anything I’m about. It’s one of the world’s great cities, and has been for thousands of years, and I love it for that, but everything that I get stoked on—diversity, punk rock, hip hop, street art, tattoos, counterculture—Rome doesm’t give a shit about. Why should it? It had Julius Caesar; Rome doesn’t have time for trends.
Walking around center, you get to feeling like an absolute slob—an(other) American slob. Everyone has so much style and grace in Rome; how do their clothes fit so well? How do they all look so effortlessly chic and beautiful, and what the hell is wrong with you in your Toms and Talk Is Poison shirt?
And then you take a rickety street car down, along desolate tracks and amid rows of block buildings, into the rundown side of town, and you realize: that’s because all the Romans in the center are rich. Rich people of any culture look good, and are inherently alientating (to me at least). You get amid a neighborhood a little more like your own, and you realize there’s more to Roman life than tailored suits and killer shoes.
Pigneto is the Mission Dolores/Williamsburg of Rome—an old-school, traditional neighborhood first overtaken by immigrants, now overtaken by hipsters artist types otherwise entirely abscent from Rome. Along its shady streets, you see little old Italian men shuffling around; African, Chinese and Bangladeshi immigrants hanging out, free of their blankets of goods to sell; young Italian sitting in doorways smoking. I love dynamic cultural collisions like that; they’ve been known to bring much of the forementioned things I love. Including street art.
I’d headed out to Pigneto in the first place to meet up with Jessica Stewart, who runs the very kick-ass Rome Photo Blog, covering contemporary art, street art and other radom wonderful things around Rome. I had some time to kill before we met, so I roamed around and took photos.
I met Jessica at Necci, a bar/restaurant that’s been around since the 1920s and was featured in an issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller last year. We sat at a table under a tree (which only kind of shielded us from the rain) and she told me about the neighborhood, about the art scene and ex-pat life in Rome.
“Rome is a very play-it-safe, stay-with-the-pack kind of city,” she told me. She spoke about the city’s slowness to accept street art in its galleries. “It’s a very traditional city. It’s hard to impress people in Rome—you know, when you’ve got the Colosseum right there, it’s hard to feel like you can do anything in comparison, or anything that matters.”
There were, she told me (and as she’s documented on her blog), a small handful of artists, living out in Pigneto and San Lorenzo, that were doing their own thing. And acceptance was growing, along with recognition.
“The one thing one of the artists said that was true,” she told me, our shoulders hunched under the branches and drizzle, faces half-lit from the barroom light, “is that, if you can make it in Rome, you can make it anywhere.”
It seemed true enough.