May 14th, 2014

Rome is a city of layers, you never know what it is you will find as you find yourself negotiating between one level and another. There is the historic city center, the amazing monuments and the tourism layered with the periferia of the countryside and rural suburban outer layers of the city. But within those two there are thousands of different layers of being, each one given a home on some street, some intersecting grid of life within the confines of a city that is so full of surprises, both good and bad.

I have been trying to learn the many facets of a city with limitless faces. The only way I know to go about doing this is by talking with Roman natives and exploring the different neighborhoods or rione of Rome to see the many faces myself, eye to eye.

Today after my typical weekly market visit to Trionfale, a friend and I headed to a new rione I had never been to before, the San Lorenzo area that is the home of La Sapienza, the main university of Rome near the main train station in Rome, Termini.

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The rain had gone, and the sun was warm on our backs as we ducked into the dark underground metro station that would take us to Termini where we would then adventure out into the San Lorenzo area. When we emerged into the light again in an entirely different section of Rome, it was truly disorienting. It has often felt that way for me when I take the metro places because you emerge from darkness into a totally new, unknown area with a sense of overwhelming mystery washing over you. Even though it is the same city, it doesn’t feel like it. Everything is so different and varies so greatly from one metro stop to another. The air, the people, the buildings, and everything there is to a rione, it is strange to suddenly emerge into a world unknown when you had just started to understand the world you were currently inhabiting. It is like having the earth pulled from beneath your feet and replaced with shifting sand that fills your shoes with the weight of mystery, that simultaneously weighs you down but spurs you forward to discover and unveil what the mystery attempts to hide.

Walking through what I could only describe as a Roman Chinatown, my friend Natalie showed me to the Acquario Romano, a strange building full of different works of art. But we didn’t come for the exhibits; we actually came for the bathroom. Yes, you heard me right, the bathroom. Underneath the building where the bathrooms for the building are, there is a tunnel that is used to get to the bathrooms, is itself a fantastic work of art. Today was actually the last day to look at it before the slate was painted over and wiped clean for the next artists to come and work their magic. The walls of the tunnel had been fully painted in the combined efforts of two fantastic artists with a contrasting style of almost childlike monsters and the grotesque realism of the other that made for a disturbing, but also deeply fascinating artistic experience.

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To try and get a feel of what San Lorenzo was like we just wandered around the streets of the city looking at street art, graffiti and trying to absorb the feel of a part of the city that was not the overly touristy yet fantastic historic city center of Rome. The art was fun, and great and it seemed like every single wall was covered in a variety of different graffiti tags and other works of street art. It gave San Lorenzo a gritty feeling that while beautiful was a strong reminder of the real nature of Rome as a city of turmoil, struggle, and real life not like the idealized and romanticized pictures of Rome that all the tour books and postcards paint.

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But it isn’t all political protest and turmoil, we also had a fantastic time at the old chocolate factory S.A.I.D and got some really amazing hot chocolate that was more like pudding than a drink. It truly is a place of contrasts; to turn a street corner away from graffiti to an adorable little chocolate factory with a cafe inside full of beautiful chocolates and drinks.It was an intriguing transitional experience to see these two things co-existing in one space. That is the epitome of Rome I think, the co-existing of extremes. It was this that we glimpsed in San Lorenzo.

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We stepped out of Termini into the real Rome. A Rome of gritty contrast, both beautiful and terrifying, eternally magnificent yet stricken with problems that run directly to the core of a city that was once the throne of almost the entire known world. Political slogans and words of grave protest splashed across every building, pictures of turmoil, hurt, and injustice screaming out of the cracks in the walls like the voice of the Roman people crying to be heard. The real Rome.

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It is a strange thing to study abroad because you are neither a tourist nor a local and everyone can somehow see this. You try to fit in as a local, but you are treated as a tourist, which in many respects you still are even though you try very hard not to be. We are temporary residents, which often means we as study abroad students only have time, or only want to make time, to recognize the monumental beauty of a place by seeing the “Top 101 Things To Do in _________” instead of taking the time to get to know the city as it really is, turmoil, gritty truth and all. It is probably the most frustrating part of studying abroad, being neither native nor naïve tourist, while not being able to access the comforts of either. There is no security of a native, that is the comfort of the known and familiarity, while also being denied the peaceful naivety of a tourist who can come and go in a few days with only seeing the highlights, the best and greatest and nothing more or less. As a study abroad student, we have access to neither, but still we strive and try as hard as we can to fit in as a local even though I think it may very well be stamped across my forehead that I am an Americana and I don’t belong or don’t understand. It is a complicated and multifaceted experience to study abroad that serves to open the eyes of students like myself to that very fact, that life everywhere is complicated and more than just a few amazing monuments, or more than just history, it is a living, breathing work of art, intricately woven together. The complex intertwining of the multifaceted aspects of a city are never easy to comprehend, all we can do is try to understand instead of putting on blinders to the pain, misfortune, and struggle of those around us. Four months is not enough time to understand the political rifts or impoverished struggle of the everyday person. Nor is it enough time to comprehend the vast beauty that a place like Rome has to offer. Four months is not enough time for anything to be honest, but all I can do is try to see what it is the Roman’s see. What I saw in San Lorenzo was just one of the many layers of Rome that is the beginning of Rome revealed, the Rome that the locals know and the tourists try to ignore. I am beginning to understand the complexity of the living breathing Rome as the creature that it really is, one layer of its being at a time.

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