May 14th, 2014

Rome is a city of juxtaposition. A place where two unlike things are constantly colliding with one another; sometimes resulting in a beautiful abstract work of art, and others producing nothing but a colossal disaster of a mess. The result is not always pretty, but it makes for an interesting spectacle. Eternally stuck between two extremes, Rome is a world where complete opposites sit civilly across the table from one another sipping coffee. Of the thousands of juxtaposed attributes of this city, it is the coexistence of exaggerated slowness and frantic haste that intrigues me the most.

I spent my Saturday morning at the Prati market called Trionfale, nestled in the back streets behind the Vatican. This market was once a huge open air extravaganza and is now technically still an open market, just housed inside a large facility with stalls for vendors to use. Five rows of vendors stretch across this huge facility, each stand filled to the brim with the food of their trade, be it milk and cheese products, the meats of butchers, the breads of bakers, or fruits and vegetables, they are here at a very low price.

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This market is the epitome of this strange juxtaposition of urgency, impatience, and haste co-inhabiting the same space as leisure, painstaking slowness, and practiced appreciation of minute details. When I stepped under the cover of the market and out of the downpour of rain outside, folding my umbrella neatly and carefully, I was able to make my very first observations of the market: I was completely overwhelmed. Hundreds of people jammed down skinny aisles all moving in a thousand different directions, or worst of all, not moving at all. It’s like getting caught amongst salmon during spawning season who are all trying to head up stream. Except all the salmon forgot which way  was up stream. And the stream was coming from five different directions. And the stream is flooding. And bears are trying to eat you, did I forget that part? Yah, it is kind of like that.

Vendors yelling at you, Ciao bella! Trying to draw you in all at the same time. Native Italians who have been doing this their whole lives wedging in front of you yelling out their orders before you have time to say Buon Giorno because you look like a tourist who just got slapped in the face with a fish. Little old ladies who you are trying not to step on because they look so fragile and small, but they just bustle past you without a worry, running your foot over with their market cart. People trying to speak to you quickly in Italian as you try to explain you can’t speak nor understand anything very well.

But. Vendors also kindly handing you free samples of the best prosciutto you have ever had, or a taste of pecorino romano, a delicious Roman cheese. Or vendors giving you extra tomatoes and salad mix just because you smiled and said thank you. Native Italians helping you order something you don’t know how to say, or helping me reach something that was too far away for my short arms. Little old ladies stopping to talk, and talk with you slowly about how crazy the amount of people there are in the market on that given day, or nice little old ladies telling you where to buy the best bread and eggs.

This is the mixture of experiences, jostled moments in the market. The interactions that are written down in the book of what Italian life is, caught in the current of two different streams of life. One rushing downhill like a hurricane coming ashore, the other a wide berthed river lesiurely ebbing with the tide. People crushing you like a lost ant who lost the line back home, or stopping to take the time to help a wounded creature who knows no better than walking into the trap laid by a hunter in wait. The difference between haste and slowness. People who won’t give the time of day, and people who will give you every second of their lives and then some for no reason at all but to be kind.

In the chaos of it all I probably took several laps around the entire market feeling hopelessly lost and out of place. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people, all the different vendors selling mostly the same things at different prices, and the strangeness of it all. This market is so far from anything I had ever experience, both in the people and in the actual goods being sold here. The butcher stands are the most shocking and hard to get used to. There are entire animal carcasses hanging or lying in the display case. Heads of boars perched above like the guardian overseers of the market place, endless chains of sausages, and whole smoked or cured animal legs just waiting to be carved up for the next customer.

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But this strangeness is part of the beauty of the entire spectacle. The very fact that these strange things, strange experiences that seem so out of this world to me are now the quotidian everyday aspects of my life is just so hard to come to terms, but it is what makes the expat life so wonderful.

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I finally stopped in the center of the market, took a deep breath and actually slowed my frantic pace enough to truly see what was around me. A vendor selling every type of nut I had ever seen before was right in front of me. I didn’t buy anything, but I stood there marveling at the beauty of the scene. There was so much beauty here in the chaos, I just needed to step back and actually look at it to truly see.

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But it isn’t just the physical speed of the market that marks it as the epicenter of a massive juxtaposition, it is how people act and feel. It is the actions done in patient slowness and careful tenderness like the woman working as a butcher who takes artful time to slowly carve paper thin slices of prosciutto. The deliberate strokes, the steady hand, and the total focus she has on just that moment, that one action as all else falls away. I waited in total silence, enrapt in this small moment of slowness. As soon as she was finished with her task and done serving me, she became a vendor again crying out to the crowds, trying to bring in the people to her stand. It was such a dramatic shift from slow deliberate and tender caring motions to the rapid gesticulating of a vendor quickly speaking in italian to strangers to get them to buy their food. But knowing, underneath the hasty, and rapid gesticulations was a careful and caring artisan who cared deeply about her product and caring for the customer.

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Everyone you see seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere fast, yet the very same people who will push you in the narrow aisles can be seen just a few vendors away, taking exorbitant amounts of time to smell a clementine to see if it is just ripe enough to be sweet to the taste.

It is a beautiful catastrophe. To observe and partake in this amazing spectacle of human activity is truly an experience. To be both in the thick of bustling life, but be outside of it at the same time to be able to witness both sides of the clashing extremes in the tiniest of moments that would be so easy to miss when swept away by the undertow ebb and flow of Italian life.

This is the struggle, but also the gift of this life I find myself living here in Rome. The pull between being swept away by the habitual ritual of living life in Rome, and the constant awe that overwhelms me at random moments because this beautiful catastrophe belongs to me, every ounce of its beauty, and every ounce of its pain. It is so easy to be caught up in the urgency and haste that is so prevalent in Italy, exhibited in things like the market, or the traffic, dear lord the driving in Italy is horrifying, but everything around me is a constant reminder of how extraordinary this life truly is. The fact that when I hurry to school every morning I pass by the Vatican, cross the Tiber River, and walk under the watchful and protective gaze of the Archangel Michael who wields his sword from atop Castel Sant’Angelo, and that this is entirely normal. This is normal yet so very extraordinary. I hope to never forget that. Even when the weeks turn into months, I hope to be apart of the flow of this city, but not a part of the haste that sweeps away the ability to truly see the things around me.

Though my life and time here is already passing by quickly as the marker for my third week here fast approaches, I will never cry out as Job did saying

My days are swifter than a runner, they speed by without seeing happiness. Job 9:25

I will take hold of this juxtaposition of Rome and embrace the collision of swiftness and slowness to live a life here that is without regret, and instead is full of appreciation for every little thing that I encounter while I am here. Though my days are swift, I will never forget to stop and see with happiness the blessings placed before me.

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