The afternoon was chilly and my espresso was cold. On the plane, shivering under my thin blanket, I’d dreamt of drinking in this piazza, a space as bright as sun-ripe tomatoes, wafting of baked bread and roasted peppers. I’d come to write about living beautiful, about how, if we less fortunate non-Italians were bold enough to consume less and love more, we could taste this dream too.
But Rome in February was tired and grey, a party carried on too long, and I was one of the last guests to shake myself up from my stupor and see it through the painful lens of a hangover. My companions in the café, the few other remaining attendees, huddled beneath beige coats, their hands curled around hot drinks, hardly speaking. This piazza was the bleakness of Chicago made all the more bitter for its unfulfilled potential.
Uninspired, I decided to leave, to seek evidence for the Dolce Vita in another piazza, a piazza where I might trip over artist’s easels while staring at ancient ruins, gelato running down my chin. I looked for a waiter and found only the eye of a floating statue halfway across the square, skin painted silver. He shifted arms to point at me, refreezing his face to an expression of over-exaggerated joy, as if he saw in me a long-lost friend. Uncomfortable under his gaze, I looked down at my stale coffee and wondered if his forwardness or my stiffness were to blame for the moment.
I left a few euros on the tray for the waiter. Nobody said anything to me as I left. I wanted to be chased after, to be lured to stay with promises of tiramisu and a violin serenade. I wanted proposals of love from dark-eyed men and dire predictions from wizened gypsy women. I wanted to be pick-pocketed of the ten euros I left so temptingly in the back pocket of my trousers. I wanted to be seduced, but Rome wasn’t interested.
My boyfriend was in the hotel when I returned to him, curled up on the windowsill, sketchbook in his hands. He was drawing the street below, with its red-tiled pizzerias and second-story windows with flower boxes. In his sketch, it was raining, and the ivy streamed down from the windows like tears. Beneath the canopy of a closed restaurant were two figures, huddled together in shelter from the shower. The pencil-lined figures, with their damp hair and dripping sweaters, were smiling.
The rest of the week was as grey and cold as that first afternoon. The coffee cooled quickly, so we held hands to keep warm. Our breath was visible in the cloisters of churches and one afternoon it rained drops so icy that we were forced to spend an hour inside a cramped bakery.
The dream that the photographs of Rome promised me were fictional composites, a carefully composed story of a vacation and a lifestyle of eternal sweetness. But in Rome that year, I didn’t see those dreams. Compared together, reality can be the bitter, ugly stepsister of the Cinderella fantasies sold to us. Travel, for me, is about seeing that uglier stepsister and liking her not because she is ugly but because you are brave enough to see that her ugliness is actually beauty.
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