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Rome Alone

One Writer's Moment of Magic In the Eternal City

By Ryan FrawleyPublished 7 years ago 6 min read

No one finds themselves. That’s not why we travel. You’re right there, where you always were. But sometimes a foreign sun can show you to yourself in a different light, the veins of quartz that shine in the flashlight’s blue beam as we make our way through the cave. To see yourself through the eyes of a stranger, even for half a second, is to confront an enigma.

I was buzzing, floating two inches off the floor as I climbed down the metal stairs hastily rolled up to the side of the plane. Rome has never been my home, but I’ve been fortunate enough to occasionally feel as though it is. After a few happy days in the gray grandeur of Vienna, the Italian sun wrapped its arms around me, and I beamed back at her while my blood swarmed.

At the time, we were living in Formia, a coastal town ninety minutes from Rome on the cheap train. My wife, our new marriage pasted on top of an old relationship like a FRAGILE sticker on a mistreated suitcase, was waiting for me there. She’d left Vienna a day before I had, to allow me time to do some research she had no interest in. Besides, we have a cat to consider. But I never miss a chance to spend time in Rome. There was no reason for me to rush home. I took the slow train from the airport to Termini and stepped out into the long-shadowed chaos of what may be my favorite city on earth.

I was eighteen when I first came to Rome. I was alone then, too. This was before the Euro, before the World Trade Center fell, before soldiers patrolled the streets of every capital in Europe, arms draped over downwards-pointed rifles. This was before I dropped out of university, before I stopped believing in the inherited myths I’d been raised with. I don’t believe that the world was any brighter then than it is now, but memory makes it look that way. No city on earth demonstrates the way the past can be made to shine the way that Rome does. It can be seductive, the past. But it only loves you once you’re gone.

After 2001, I moved across the world, and it was 2014 before I found my way back to the Eternal City. I’d thought then, with the woman who was to become my wife at my side, that there was no way that Rome could measure up to my memories of it. But if anything, I found myself falling more deeply in love with the place than ever before. And so, in 2016, when she and I decided to change our lives and move to Europe, it was Italy we moved to first.

So I’ve seen the sights. The churches. The museums. The Coliseum’s vast bulk, crouching in its pit at the side of the straight highway Mussolini had built at enormous cost to the irreplaceable ruins below. As beautiful as Rome’s sights are, I don’t go for that. Instead, I made my way down Via Cavour, grabbing a couple of heavy bottles of beer from a corner store as I made my way to the steps near the wedding-cake shaped monument to Italy’s first king. I’m not going to plead for authenticity here. For a foreigner, especially one who doesn’t speak Italian, il vero Italia remains out of reach. I don’t go to Rome to see Italians, or not only them, anyway. The entire world descends on this city, day after day, the airports and train stations disgorging blinking crowds in every costume and every language of the globe. In Rome, I like to sit out with a cold beer and watch the whole world parade past.

The sun moved slowly across the stone steps, where budget-minded tourists bring a sandwich for a break from the city’s inflated prices. I fished a battered notebook out of my backpack, the silver pen tucked into the wire spiral of its spine. Vienna’s gilded hallways still echoed inside me, the breakthrough I’d made in the novel I was writing in a budget hotel with a view of the Riesenrad still filling me with borrowed—ok, stolen—light. Creativity begets inspiration, and not the other way around, as many people think. Surrounded by the buzz of a hundred different languages, my own words spilled out across the page in the lazy Roman sun, the stones ringing with the buzz of the centuries as I turned brown alcohol into purple prose.

And that’s when it happened, those little moments of gilded magic that make up Rome, just as much as the pitted marble and shattered columns.The senseless splendour of the everyday, the sun-glutted throb of a wasp, the fine hairs that rise on our skin as the hand of a lover draws near. Looking up from the page to take another swig of Peroni, I saw a family passing close in front of me. Mother, father, son, all with that harried look of tourists in Rome for the first time, overwhelmed by traffic and heat and relentless street hustlers trying to sell selfie sticks and friendship bracelets. Not the daughter, though. She was looking right at me. And she was smiling as though she had never seen anything quite like me.

I’ve never been good at guessing people’s ages, but I’d put her at around twelve. Young enough that her eyes still shone, before we see enough and fear enough to dim them. As she followed along in the wake of her scowling father and harassed mother, she turned her head to keep her eyes on me. I never heard a word from any of them, and couldn’t even guess where they had come from. But wherever she called home, I imagined that she had never seen someone sitting out in public, writing by hand. I imagine her as a writer herself, young enough to believe that something so ludicrous could be an actual career path, just like I did at her age. I imagine her remembering that, seeing an adult writing for no reason beyond their own pleasure, and being encouraged to keep making her own art. Within a few steps, she and her family were swallowed up in the swirling crowd. For her, foreigner that I am, I was part of the scenery of Rome, part of the same fascination that gripped me when I first saw the city and has never let me go since.

Rome gives you these moments constantly. There’s always another door opening to show you something you’ve never seen before in a square you thought was utterly familiar. The light is forever changing, even though the sun is the same one that baked the dusty streets when the Caesars rode in triumph through marble arches. It’s unbelievably ancient, and it’s always new. Every time I step off a train, I half expect to meet myself, eighteen, troubled, hungry, and confused. But I wouldn’t smile at myself the way that young girl did. By the time I found Rome, I thought I was past that kind of light-heartedness. I thought I knew how the world worked, and I didn’t like it. Rome showed me then what it continues to remind me now. Emperor, Pope, priest or peasant, we each contain our own stories, an ancient city in miniature, visible only in the briefest glimpses to those who keep their eyes open.

When a conquering Emperor rode his chariot through the streets in honor of some military victory, a single slave stood beside him and whispered in his ear: Remember, you are just a man. In Rome, you can still hear the whispered words bouncing back from the worn marble of toppled temples. But it was the hands of men that built Rome. Who could want anything more?


About the Creator

Ryan Frawley

Towers, Temples, Palaces: Essays From Europe out now!

Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of many articles and stories and one novel, Scar, available from online bookstores everywhere.


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    Ryan FrawleyWritten by Ryan Frawley

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