Living in Rome Italy: What I’ve learned

Friday marked six months since my arrival and start of living in Rome Italy, and I wrote down a few things I’ve learned. If you agree, print it and save it. If you don’t, print it, perforate it and put it on a roll:

Testaccio is the greatest neighborhood in Rome.

OK, I’ve got caught up in civic pride. Families have been living in this working-class “quartiere” south of the Forum for generations and there’s no place we’d rather be. There is no more pure Roman neighborhood. It has no hotels. It has no English. You have to really hunt for a postcard. The only tourists occasionally wander into my Mercato Testaccio on guided tours of true Roman cuisine such as tripe (inside lining of a sheep’s stomach), vaccinara (meat of an oxtail) and pajata (ringed intestine of an unweaned calf). It has one of Rome’s prettiest, tree-lined, shaded piazzas where the elderly and young alike gather on benches to read newspapers, gossip and flirt.

The versatility of pesto.

It’s my new peanut butter. I put it on everything. Bread. Chicken. Every kind of pasta. Romans gasp that I slather it on browned, chopped chicken breasts — “You invented this yourself, right?” — but I don’t care. The smell of this crushed pine-nut puree itself is enough to make me immediately boil a pot of water, like Pavlov’s dog.

Living in Rome Italy: Expats aren’t bad.

I know. I am one. I started living in Rome Italy six months ago with the notion that I would stick with Italians. I needed it for language. I was going to be a reverse expat snob. I wasn’t going to speak English unless my life was threatened. However, in a city as metropolitan as Rome, to isolate yourself from other foreigners you’d have to lock yourself in a closet or in a neighborhood butcher shop selling tripe and pajata. It’s not possible. I joined a terrific Meetup group called Expats Living in Rome Italy. They have meetings nearly every Tuesday all around town. We’ve had aperitivos on Isola Tiberina in the middle of the Tiber River, dances in the tony OS Club and World Cup watch parties. I’ve met fascinating people from Poland, Turkey, Mexico, even Gibraltar.

Living in Rome Italy: Emperor Nero in Anzio
Emperor Nero in Anzio

But you have to know to whom you’re talking.

Tuesday night I went to the Meetup to watch the Germany-Brazil World Cup semifinal. After Germany crucified Brazil, 7-1, I met a couple of fellow expats and we started talking about the game. I went on a rant.


One problem: They were Muslims. Oops! He had some royalty connection in Jordan and the woman, an absolute goddess who looked like some queen’s daughter, was from Syria. The guy looked at me as if I had just sacrificed a goat on his living room carpet. The woman, however, was howling, trying to hide her face from showing her friend she thought it was funny. I doubt during her times in royal palaces has she ever heard the word “flaccid.”

Day trips from Rome are endless.

I’ve visited too many little towns to count but each one has its own reason for visiting. Viterbo (thermal baths and the best gnocchi in Italy), Porto Ercole (Caravaggio’s place of death), San Gimignano (world’s tallest skyline for a little town), Calcata (a village of 55 people hanging precariously over a cliff), Borgorose (speck of a town and jumping off point for incredible hiking in rural Lazio). As I did in my first stint here, I want to put up a map of Italy and throw a felt pen at it. Whatever town it hits, I’m going to visit. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it — unless I throw high and it hits Milan.

The Tiber is beautiful — at night.

During the day it’s the color of a Marine’s uniform after four days fighting gun battles in the desert. There are enough white plastic bags stuck in trees along the banks to outfit grocery stores in every suburb in America. But at night, when the 19th century lanterns along my Lungotevere street illuminate the waters, it is only a little disgusting. Actually, after a couple glasses of wine, it resembles the Seine in Paris. At my end of Rome, the Tiber is as tranquil as a country stream. It moves slowly, like my Testaccio neighborhood. Around Isola Tiberina, the island in the middle of the river near Centro Storico, water cascades down drop offs all around you. It would look like a good place for whitewater kayaking if falling in didn’t put you at risk to 1,000 rat urine-related diseases.

You must eat Italian bread within about, oh, 30 seconds.

Otherwise, it’s as hard as an iron bar. Italians don’t eat sliced loaves of bread. My local grocery store doesn’t even carry it. Romans buy it from public markets when they’re made that morning, every day for that day. Unlike its French cousins, Italian bread has a hard crust hiding the rich, soft dough inside. However, if you buy it in the morning and wait to eat it in the afternoon you need a gladiator’s ax to cut it. Loaves of bread are bought in the morning for lunch — or in the evening to help ward off a foreign invasion.

Romans are unhappy.

A big question I get from Romans is what’s the biggest difference I’ve found living in Rome Italy, between my life here and my first stint from 2001-03. I look them straight in the eye and ask them a simple question: “Sei felice?” (Are you happy?) Most don’t hesitate. No, they’re not.

I’ve often written that Italians have a tremendous ability to not worry about things for which they can’t control. Salaries. Political turmoil. Bureaucratic mazes. More than 11 years ago, it all rolled off their backs like so much olive oil. They had their friends, their wine, their two weeks August vacation in Sardinia. Why worry? Today, 13 years after the introduction of the euro, more than a decade of runaway inflation and sedentary salaries have taken their toll.  Life here is real hard. Romans are having a tough time making ends meet and it goes double for the young where underemployment is nearing 50 percent. Housing prices have made staying in Rome one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Suddenly, they’re no longer laughing warm nights away over a bottle of wine in a piazza. They can no longer afford the bottle of wine. Forget two weeks in Sardinia. I have wholeheartedly bought into the learned statement from a photographer friend of mine who told me, “John, Rome is a great place to live if you don’t have to work.”

On that note, I must run. I have the rest of my life to live.

(This Part II of John Henderson’s two-part series marking his six-month anniversary living in Rome Italy.)

About John Henderson


John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

Other posts by the Author

Leave a Reply