I hadn’t planned to be in Rome, and then suddenly there I was, fresh from the dark, steamy jungle cities of Sumatra. The sense of displacement was acute; I felt flung sideways without a second to catch my breath, my senses suddenly awash in sun-dappled, coffee scented European summer. Rome is one of those places that I’ve always thought about going to in kind of an abstract way, a ‘one day’ place to be visited when I eventually start to feel like a grown up, but it is Rikki’s favourite city and the place he instinctively suggested we retreat to once we had crawled, exhausted, from Sumatra’s inextricable grasp.
I drank Prosecco on the flight from a night-long layover in Oslo, and arrived woozy and blinking into wide streets bustling with traffic and rushing people. Our hotel was in a side street opposite Termini station, the kind of wonderfully old fashioned hotel that’s just grubby enough to be interesting. It had net curtains, a lot of mint green walls, and breakfast was bread rolls and yoghurt served in a windowless subterranean room with wall sconces. I loved the innate European-ness of it, the dimly lit, bed-and-breakfast feel, redolent of rainy summer holidays and whispered affairs in flock wallpapered rooms.
For the last eleven months I had inhabited the haphazard and slightly hyper-real state of the long term backpacker in South East Asia, concerned with the bus journeys that must be endured, the guesthouses that must be survived, the counting out coins to stretch to a bowl of street side noodle soup. Suddenly I was in the business of long hot showers and wearing clothes from a hanger, of wearing shoes and hunting for treasures and sipping chilled white wine at a barrel commandeered as a table; of long, lazy lunches and afternoons spent wandering the streets of a city in which glitteringly vivid life comes tangled with a history you know by heart in a blurrily beautiful mess; the crumbling heart of civilisation circled by roundabouts of speeding headlights.
We walked those streets endlessly, mostly entertaining ourselves in amongst taking photographs of the big, famous sites and making up stories about the people who used to live amongst the fallen stones. There was a surreal quality to the rolling slopes, dotted with their distinctive umbrella pines beneath a searing blue sky; as though we had stepped straight into a movie set, which did nothing for my confused sense of displacement. We stepped briefly out of Italy and into Vatican City, twirling through a kaleidoscope of Renaissance red and gold and green and out the other side with my neck aching from craning upwards to see everything.
Other than that, we ate. We ate everything, and all the time; stopping for warm chocolatey pastry mid morning and fat briny olives between lunch and dinner. There were floury pizzas melting with mozzarella, and huge door stop sandwiches filled with cured ham and cheese and tomatoes. There was perfectly grilled fish, and crisp fennel salad draped with more ham, and a particularly beautiful bowl of spaghetti, fat with tomatoes and accompanied by half a lobster. On our second night we found a place mere steps from our hotel, outside which we sat on the pavement surrounded by candlelight and learned how to eat dinner like an Italian.
First the antipasti; a doughy crunch of bread soaked in peppery olive oil, pearls of mozzarella, anchovies and peppers, cured salami veined with fat. Then the primo, a bowl of pasta delicately swathed in sauce, followed by the secondi, grilled steak for him and fish for me with salad and vegetables. After this came cheesecake, and coffees, and a tiny vial of grappa, and then, finally, a short stumble around the corner to bed, spent.
At night I lay in bed drifting to a faint lullaby of car horns, shouting laughter and varied threads of music carried on a cool European breeze. Our room looked down through billowing white curtains onto the street corner below, where drunks congregated with wine bottles in paper bags, and groups of teenagers gathered at dusk to swagger and gesticulate and snog with gloriously Italian abandon.
A few days later we left, on a train that swayed all the way down to the toe of Italy’s boot, and a ferry to Sicily. We ran through Termini station in the late morning clutching huge ciabatta sandwiches wrapped in paper and a bottle of cheap wine for the train. When in Rome, and all that.