The hardest parts of living in Rome

Bread

For a nation that loves its carby, starchy foods, they really don’t have a great handle on the whole ‘bread’ situation. They’ve got the giant loaves sorted out, which is fine when you want something big and crusty to dip into soup or for mopping up the tasty, tasty juices on your plate, but average day-to-day bread is a mess. These guys are the cornerstone of western civilization yet they haven’t figured out that a loaf of batch is like manna from heaven? And normal sandwich bread isn’t much better, far too small and far too sweet to be of any use to anyone. I’m feeling like Nigel Tufnell in Spinal Tap.

Bud Spencer

Back home, street-sellers have posters of things like Scarface, Trainspotting and Bob Marley. Which gives us a good glimpse into the mindset of youth culture in Dublin - fascinated by drugs and trashy drug-related movies. Here, they sell posters of uh… Bud Spencer movies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Bud Spencer/Terrence Hill movies and when I was younger, I loved The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid, so I’m not really complaining. Just confused.

Italian Music

What. The. Fuck? Granted, I haven’t looked very hard, and I’m sure that over the next three years, I’ll eventually find some Italian music that I love but right now I’ve had it up to my fuckin' harbls with crappy power-ballads. Less Zucchero, more Jovanotti thx.

Fascism

I’ve never lived somewhere that had people actually still promoting fascism as a viable political option. Before I came here, I never heard anyone proudly describe themselves as a fascist. All the other things - the bread, the music, the pictures of Bud Spencer’s giant face grinning out at me from the side of the street - I can get used to these, with enough time. I hope I never, ever get used to hearing someone proudly describe themselves as a fascist.

Spatial Dissonance

On my first trip here, I experienced what I guess I’d call a sort of temporal dissonance. I was in a taxi, heading up the Gianicolo towards my hotel. The Gianicolo is a hill that sits in the south-west part of the city, meaning that from the top, you have a perfect view of historical Rome on the one side, and a fantastic view of the Vatican from the other. Now, maybe it was just the jetlag, but sitting back in that taxi, I had an of out-of-body experience: I realised that I would soon be living in Rome, a place I always thought of as almost fictional, a mythic place where all the history happened. The rational part of my brain decided this was my only chance to feel overwhelmed by the city before I would have to get on with day-to-day life, and so I sat back, reeling at the weight of it all.

Strangely, this is the only time I have felt this way. Now, I’m cutting across St. Peter’s Square - a magnificently opulent, overwhelming place - on a daily basis and only when I’m halfway across do I gain any sort of awareness; holy fuck! I’m cutting across St. Peter’s Square!

I’m blaming this on everyone’s favourite scapegoat: videogames. When we first visited the Pantheon, I wondered what was up on the second level of the building. In my imagination, I saw a dark place, filled with wooden crates, lever-puzzles and bad guys with Uzis. But hang on a second… Wooden crates don’t actually exist in the real world, not really. They only exist in videogames as containers for ammo and/or health. And bad guys with Uzis? Jesus. Then I realised, I had seen the inside of the upper levels of the Pantheon. Or, at least, a Pantheon. In a videogame. (Tomb Raider perhaps?) And in the end, a tiny part of me was disappointed by the actual Pantheon because I didn’t get to go exploring all its dark corners.

Gears of War has affected my experience of Rome more than any other videogame. The look of the game, the so-called “Destroyed Beauty”, was heavily influenced by Romanesque architecture. For the most part, the game takes place in wide streets flanked by marvelous, oppressive buildings and everything in a massive state of disrepair. Well, this being Rome, there’s no shortage of Romanesque architecture. Or wide streets. Or marvelous, oppressive buildings. But there’s more to this than simple generalities. On Via Nazionale, there’s a building whose long, winding entrance I would swear is the direct inspiration for the Fenix Mansion part of Gears of War.

I’m still blown away by Rome on a daily basis, especially when I stumble across some particularly beautiful place. But still, a tiny part of me is waiting for the moment that the Locust Horde comes pouring out of the ground. Where’s my Lancer?

We never got ads like this on the back of Dublin Bus โ†’

Er…

Coping?

A couple of minor breakdowns aside, I think I’m finally starting to get a handle on life in Rome. I’m not exactly homesick, just finding some things really hard. The language barrier has been a lot more of an obstacle than I was expecting. And combined with the distinctly unique Italian way of doing things (which I’m sure I’ll complain blog about in due course), I’ve found myself struggling just to get some stability.

But the stability is slowly arriving. I’m learning my way around, and I finally know where the essentials are, like the supermarket and launderette. I’m even starting to cope with the weather. At the beginning, I would head out and arrive home in a horrible, sweaty mess. Now… well, it’s not as bad. I’ve just been observing the Italians and seeing all the little things they do to deal with the weather. Like not leaving the house between the hours of 12pm and 4pm. Under any circumstances. And always walking in the shade, even if you have to cross a busy street to do this.

There’s another huge factor in coping with the heat: pace. Last week, I was out walking when Toots and the Maytals started playing on my iPod. With this, my pace dropped to a slow, relaxed strut (I challenge anyone to listen to Broadway Jungle and not feel like the baddest motherfucker on the planet). Strangely enough, this change of pace helped a lot, the heat wasn’t as much of an issue. That’s when I noticed that the Italians walk at a similar pace, and with a similar strut although theirs seems to come naturally.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Five days to go!

Some things are still up in the air. When we land in Rome on Sunday, we’ll be going into temporary accommodation until we can find somewhere to live. This means that when the movers come on Friday, they will be taking all of our stuff and putting it into storage until we give them a call and say “Yes, we are living at this address now, please bring all our worldly possessions to us.” And since we don’t know when we’ll actually have a place to live, this means that we might not see our stuff for anywhere between two weeks and six months.

So right now, I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I’m reassessing everything I own and think “can I live without this for six months?” While everyday clothes are cheap and easy to replace, I have to think about all the possibilities. I should bring formal clothes, because there will inevitably be some function where I will be required to scrub up nice. So that’s a no-brainer.

But what about the other stuff? Movies and games? There’s no way I can live without those.

This is a tough decision. I’m totally addicted to my Xbox 360 now, and what better way to keep in touch with my nerdy Irish friends than by kerb-stomping them over Xbox Live? And what better way to maintain a sense of accomplishment than increasing my gamer score? But as much as I love the 360, it’s far too heavy and takes up far too much space for me to bring on my own. It will have to come with the movers.

I’ve decided to only take my PlayStation 2 with me. I’ve dumped the boxes for the games so that the actual disks are in a couple of CD wallets and I’m bringing my PlayStation 2 in my carry-on luggage. This means that I’ll at least have a couple of games to play when I get there (Final Fantasy XII, God of War 2).

We’re taking a Macbook, so we’ll have something to watch DVDs on. But what DVDs? I’ve got a CD wallet especially for movies, and now I have to decide what I should fill it with. This isn’t an easy task. I mean, how do I decide what movies to bring? How do I predict my tastes and moods for the next six months? I realise that there are people who could fit their entire DVD collection in one of these 72-disc wallets, but there’s a reason I have as many DVDs as I do - I’m a fussy, temperamental little shit.

And this leaves us with a little thought-experiment: if you were moving to a foreign country and you could only bring one DVD, one game, one book and one CD with you, what would you bring?

Guide Books โ†’

I’m fast becoming an expert on guide books to Rome. So far, my favourite is “City Secrets: Rome”. I like it because it lists the things to see and places to eat followed by a short anecdote by someone who knows the place well, and explains why they recommend it in real, human terms.

For example, this is what Virginia L. Bush says about the Colosseum:

"A new visitor to Rome should go first to the Colosseum. Since it is said that Rome will stand as long as the Colosseum stands, and the world will last as long as Rome stands, it would be good to check first that everything is in order with the universe"

Evenings in Rome

Statues

Ah, Roma.

Despite my tragic Italian vocabulary and the fact that, in a land of thin, tan people, I stick out like a sore thumb, our trip was largely successful. We managed to get some sense of what our life in Rome would be like.

The City Itself

An image that keeps popping into my head is of the entire Roman Empire rolling around on the ground saying “Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” It’s a beautiful city, but it’s not coping very well with modern life. Aside from the copious levels of really, really shitty graffiti, the heritage doesn’t seem to be respected. There’s a lot of history scattered around, at the sides of roads, but this is neglected and uncared for. For example, I can’t help but feel that, in any other country, the ruins at Viale Argentine with its beautiful, two-thousand-year old frescos would be treated as a national landmark. In Rome, however, the ruins are used as a cat sanctuary. I guess you could look at this as simple pragmatism but it still feels slightly tragic.

Driving in Rome

I also have a new-found respect for Italian drivers. The motto over there seems to be “keep it moving”. Which means that if someone cuts you off, you honk your horn, you wave your fist, you give them a mean glare, but you keep it moving. I saw things over there that would have drivers jumping out of the car with rage, but the Italians just get on with it.

And this means that there are very few traffic lights in Rome. Near our hotel in Gianicolo, traffic from four different directions merge into one lane. I spent an hour just watching this intersection. Despite the lack of traffic lights, noone slowed below 30kph and noone got into an accident. It was beautiful. Balletic.

But it reaffirmed for me that I will never, ever be able to drive in Rome. Just driving home from my mom’s house yesterday, I noticed I was starting to drive like an Italian. And it scared the living shit out of me.

And the food

Do you really need another person going on about how great the food is in Italy?

Apartment-hunting

Finding a place to live in Rome is going to be a pain, I can tell.

While I was there, we saw two places. One of them was a beautiful house. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two outside areas. Oh, it was beautiful. But it was in a really sketchy area of the town. I live in Stoneybatter and work on Thomas Street, I know what sketchy is. And even I was put off by the area. And besides my own personal problems with the area, it just isn’t suitable for entertaining or Embassy work.

The other was a lot smaller; one bedroom, two bathrooms, with not a lot of storage. But it’s in a much better neighbourhood. And despite the lack of space, it’s a much more beautiful place. And we want to live there. And so begins the dance.

You see, over here, it’s a much more simple affair. You like the look of an apartment, it’s in your budget, the landlord likes the look of you and, boom, the apartment is yours. Over there, it’s a lot more like a mating ritual, with a lot more bum-sniffing before anyone actually gets mounted.

"We'll pay _$amount_ per month"

“Ah, but it’s worth $amount*3 per month”

“That’s on a short-term lease, we’re offering a guaranteed $amount per month for a 3-year lease with a 3 month security deposit”

“I won’t do anything less than $amount*2 per month, 6 month security deposit and a bank bond”

…etc…

So God only knows when we’ll actually have somewhere to live.

Roman Holiday โ†’

The quiet trend ‘round these parts is set to continue because I’m heading off tomorrow for a few days in Rome. This isn’t actually a holiday though. More of a reccy. It’s basically an opportunity to check out a couple of apartments, get a feel for the place, see if it’s the kind of place we can see ourselves living for the next few years.

I’m sure you’ll be able to follow the progress on Flickr.

Getting ready to say goodbye

When we were told that H. was being posted abroad, I got scared. Actually, let me rephrase that. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was terrified. I knew it was coming, but I’d hoped that… I dunno… they’d forget about her. Forget to tell her to move. Or they’d say that they wouldn’t need her to start until August.

August 2010.

It was not to be. We got word last week that she’s due to start on May 7th. Barely a month from now. So time is against us.

Last week, I handed in my notice. I’ve worked in this company for five years now, and it was such a surreal feeling to be finally saying the words “I quit.” I’d wanted to say them for a long time now. I’d almost said them a few times, when things got really tough, when I desperately wanted a change of scenery. But something always had held me back. Stability? You can’t really call this place ‘stable.’ Job satisfaction? Best skip that one. Security? Maybe - a steady pay cheque is a thing of beauty. Most likely, I stayed because of two things: the prestige of working for this company, and the people I work with.

As a geek, especially a games geek, this is a very prestigious company to work for. The sense of geek pride is enormous, especially given its reputation within the Irish software industry. It might not be as big as Google, but sometimes it feels like this is a good thing. With a small team, it feels more select: the elite of the elite, the ubermensch.

And as for the people, well… I’ll miss them more than the job.

It feels like it’s coming close to the last day of school. Weird, mixed feelings of relief and regret. The door of opportunity has been flung open! I am master of my own destiny once again! There is nothing I can’t do!

Nothing, that is, except work with my friends like this again.