January 24th, 2015
I’m up with the sun so I can be early to visit one of my most anticipated stops so far: the ruins of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Nadia greets me yet again in the kitchen with her jet-fuel espresso and I’m out the door in a flash. Having learned my lesson about the subway, I take a long, winding walk from the apartment to the center of the city. On my way, I pass the Castel Sant’Angelo, its bridge reflecting beautifully in the morning light.
I will never get tired of walking through this city.
I arrive at the entrance to the Forum park and wait in line to pay and enter. There are tourists from all over the world here, all excitedly chatting away in a dozen different languages.
Once inside, it is overwhelming.
These ruins sprawl across acres in the very heart of the city. And you can literally reach out and touch them. And I do, dragging my fingers across centuries old stone, feeling as though I can reach across the ages with my fingertips. There is something incredibly magical in these moments when you’re traveling alone, moments like this become a sort of walking meditation. As I traverse the grounds, I am completely silent, just drinking in the sights, sounds and sensations around me with little interruption.
I walk every inch of the Forum, then head up Palatine hill and wind my way through the grand estates, ruins of the palaces of former Emperors. Now reduced to faded frescos and broken archways, you can feel their size and former grandeur all the same. I never want to leave. I want to sit in this place forever, feeling the deep connection to the past in a way I’ve never felt it before. I look out from Nero’s palace at the Coliseum, surveying a view of Rome that was once reserved only for the most elite. All around this preserve is a bustling city, with cars and bikes and all the hurry of modern life. But here in this place, time seems to stand still. I stay as long as I can until my stomach demands to be fed.
I slowly leave the Forum and Coliseum behind and get fantastically lost in the city once more, passing gorgeous fountains and squares.
Finally, I round a corner and stumble completely accidentally on one of the most famous spots in Rome: the Fountain de Trevi. Under construction at the moment so regrettably not the impressive site it usually is, but thankfully, it is completely surrounded by little cafes and restaurants trying to attract to tourists. I find a little cafe with wifi and settle in for what has become my lunchtime ritual of pasta, wine and a smoke. I take advantage of the connection to check and update my social media and see if Christian is still coming over for dinner. Regrettably, he has his own family dinner tonight and apologies, but promises to take me all around the city tomorrow to some of his favorite spots and views. He claims to be a “terrible tour guide” but says he’ll do his best.
After lunch, I decide to do a bit of shopping. “Normal” has really become a different thing entirely now that I’ve been traveling for weeks. It feels strange to walk down metropolitan streets and see women in high heels and fancy coats. I’ve been in the same shoes and jeans for over three weeks now, my hair is usually braided out of sheer practicality, and more often than not I forego makeup altogether in favor of a few extra minutes of sleep before my still-early alarms beckon me to go out and explore. Because really, no one is looking at me usually. Backpacking allows you to somewhat blend into an amorphous stereotype. We all look similar, a bit disheveled, highly practical shoes and outerwear that would be more appropriate for hiking the Appalachian Trail than strolling a chic boulevard in a capital city. We drift through the world and most people just glance and think “Ah, backpacker” and move on along.
But after a few days of spending time in the city with Christian, I feel “seen” again. My gaze has been turned inward for so long, I’ve forgotten about the exterior, and now I crave just a little bit of femininity to break up the monotony of my travel visage. I browse some nice jackets and fresh jeans, but then I think about not only my bank account, but fitting them into my pack, which is already perfectly balanced and I fear another item of clothing either won’t fit or will send the entire system inside it into chaos. But the desire to do something nice for myself still burns, so I turn to a makeup shop. Light, compact, easy to travel on with, but something that will make me feel just a touch more feminine than I do at the moment in my well-worn boots and North Face jacket. And of course, this is the moment I realize it.
It’s not just about me. It’s about him.
There’s something in the way he smiles, the way we talk. There may be something.
And when you’ve been on your own for weeks, no matter your growth and the feeling of proud independence, something is a very exciting prospect.
So, now armed with a fresh eyeliner, lipstick, and eyeshadow palette, mildly shaking my head about my girlish impulses, I victoriously head back to the flat for dinner with Nadia.
When I arrive back at the apartment, one of the neighbors is in the foyer chatting with Nadia. Her eyes light up when she sees me and we begin our ritual interpretive sign-language dance as she explains he’s a neighbor who works in television. He speaks a little English and we try to talk a bit about working in entertainment. After a few he heads out and Nadia gets to work on finishing up dinner as I freshen up from the day. We sit down to dinner, Italian drama chatting away in the background, politely smiling at each other and continuing our attempts at conversation. We’re actually getting pretty good, she tells me she’s going to Naples tomorrow for a few days to conduct some business and to make myself at home. Shows me where she’s stashed some leftovers in the fridge for me. Shows me how to use the espresso pot. I couldn’t be made to feel more at home here.
I settle into bed, staring at the ceiling and recounting the day in my head. It feels like there’s magic crammed into every corner here, so much I can barely stand it. And then of course, my mind drifts back to that something, and I try to shake it away, scolding myself for having a silly crush in the midst of my strong, independent adventure. Finally, with a light breeze drifting through my slightly cracked open window, I fall asleep, excited for what tomorrow may bring.