I usually wake up between 7am and 7.30, groggy and in desperate need of coffee. I usually go to bed after midnight and my sleep is often interrupted; by the heat, by irritating, buzzing mosquitoes, by the very active train tracks near my apartment. Trains trundle and chug past throughout the night, occasionally blasting their horns at no one in particular. If I close the windows, the sound is muffled, but if the windows are closed, my bedroom turns into a sauna. Dilemmas dilemmas.
I open the wooden shutters in our apartment, sixth floors up on a quiet side street near Piramide metro station. We love our neighbourhood – it doesn’t feel touristy, it’s full of Italians (many of whom don’t speak English – or pretend they don’t) and it’s well-connected with buses, trams, the metro and overground trains. From the overground station, we can reach Ostia beach within thirty minutes, and prettier beaches like Santa Marinella in less than an hour. Piramide straddles two neighbourhoods; Ostiense – gritty, covered in street art, full of good bars and one of the best gelaterias in town – and Testaccio – packed with fantastic restaurants, great for people-watching, homely and authentically Roman.
The sky is a glorious bright blue, without a cloud in sight. I shovel down a bowl of cereal then change into my strategically chosen outfit. As I spend my day moving from office to office, teaching Business English to business men and women, I alternate between excessively air-conditioned buildings and sweltering public transport. I have to wear something airy enough for sweaty bus and train journeys, snuggled into strangers’ armpits, yet professional enough that I can walk into the reception area of a bank or law firm without looking like a lost tourist. Here, layers are key. A blazer or cardigan transforms me from beach-ready to boardroom-ready.
Once dressed and fed, I start my descent down to street level. There’s no lift in our building, one must tackle the 120 stairs up and down several times a day. They’re the bane of my existence, yet the reason why I can eat an extraordinary amount of gelato without needing to join a gym (yet). I don’t have much interaction with my neighbours. There are twenty other apartments in my building yet some of the tenants I’ve never seen. Those I know by sight, I haven’t introduced myself to properly. It just doesn’t seem like that kind of building – everyone keeps to themselves. However, there is no hostility or awkwardness. When my neighbours and I pass each other on the stairs or enter/exit at the same time, we greet each other cordially. In the mornings, I sometimes pass my aged neighbour, back from collecting his freshly baked bread from the pasticceria next door. “Buongiorno!” I chime. “Buongiorno a lei“, he wheezes, clinging to the banister for support. He uses the formal ‘Lei’ form, most commonly used with strangers and figures in authority.
Once at street level, I walk past rubbish bins which are surrounded by uncollected waste, creating an awful stench. Frequent strikes by the government workers mean waste collection days are often skipped, for days or weeks on end. Not the image you’ve got of beautiful Rome, huh? Well, it’s part of the reality. Next to the stinky bins are several recycling bins. Recycling is very methodical here – paper & card in one bin, glass in another, metal & plastic in a third. There’s a fourth for ‘everything else’. Although the cynic in me wonders if they don’t all end up in the same landfill.
I enter the underground station, where there’s a gaggle of teenagers gossiping by the entrance. An inebriated drunk settles down for a day of people-watching. A tram slowly slides away – it’s the number three, one of my favourite routes as it passes my beloved Colosseum and the beautiful Basilica di San Giovanni (before continuing onto Villa Borghese). It feels like a tourist hop-on/ hop-off bus tour…. for the price of a €1.50 tram ticket. Once inside the metro station, I pass a Romani woman with a designer handbag on her arm. Almost everyday she offers to ‘help’ me buy a train ticket for my onward journey. Out of the goodness of her heart….oh no, wait, for my money! I’ve seen her in action – after helping tourists buy their tickets, she persuades them to tip her for the assistance. If she experiences any resistence, she can be aggressive and demanding. Tourists are intimidated into paying up or do so, believing it’s the custom here. Even though this woman sees me so often, even though I use a monthly travel pass so never go to the ticket machines, even though I warn unsuspecting tourists of her secret agenda, she still tries her luck with me.
Rome only has two metro lines and the service is quite slow. There’s usually a wait between trains. Once the train arrives, people push and squeeze past each other to get a seat. The walls are scrawled with illegible graffiti on the walls and ceiling. Piramide is on the B line, whereas the A line trains are generally more polished as more tourists travel on that line. The B Line does include some very popular station for tourists – Termini, Colosseo, Cavour – but the A Line includes the Vatican and stops near tourist attractions like Piazza di Spagna and the Trevi fountain. While my body sways with the rhythm of the train, I spend the time people-watching. It is such a contrast, compared to taking the tube in London. In London, everyone focuses on their phones, books or newspapers. Avoiding eye contact and trying to be incredibly quiet. Whereas in Rome, there seemed to be a challenge to make as much noise as possible. I am surrounded by sound; people making loud telephone calls, gesticulating widely, gossiping with the people sitting next to them, teenagers joking with their friends and, the very worst, people watching videos with the volume on loud. Why? Why do people do this? Headphones were invented for a reason!
Although I try to avoid it, I often have to travel to Termini station. The city’s main bus station is there and it’s the only point where Rome’s two metro lines overlap. Termini is an assault to the senses; it’s crowded, it’s loud, commuters jostle past you, it’s difficult to avoid bumping into confused tourists trying to navigate themselves out of the pit, and certain parts of the station frequently smell of urine. I leave as quickly as I can, breathing through my mouth, and walk to my first student of the day. As I teach in-company, I spend my day travelling to different offices around the city. While I walk to my lessons, I take in my surroundings. During the commute, I pass spectacular fountains, statues, monuments…and occasionally piles of 2000-year-old ancient ruins.
My students work in different sectors; IT, marketing, banking, finance, insurance, law, energy and so on. Cancellations are frequent – sometimes as many as 3 or 4 a week. Once one of my students cancelled seven lessons in a row. As my students rarely do homework or any kind of self-study, the progress he had made undid itself over those seven weeks. As I have a full-time, fixed contract with my school, I don’t mind the cancellations too much. I receive the same salary regardless of how many students cancel and how much notice they give. It’s quite a different story for freelancers. My freelancer friends become very frustrated because their earnings fluctuate dramatically because of cancellations. The general rule is if a student cancels with less than 24 hours’ notice, the school can charge them for the lesson and therefore the teacher gets paid. Over 24 hours’ notice and the school can’t charge so no pay for the teachers. Therefore lots of cancellations in time having freelancers pulling their hair out!
Before long, I arrive at my first appointment. Usually I have between three and four lessons a day. Lessons start at 9am or 9.30, but can finish as late as 7 / 7.30pm. The downside of teaching in-company is students usually want their lessons at the start of the day, around lunchtime or immediately after work. Therefore my days feel long and often have big chunks of time to fill between lessons. If I could squash my lessons together, I could finish work so much earlier. No such luck. I use these chunks in a variety of ways; sometimes finding a secluded park to read my kindle (my favourite ‘quiet’ spots in the city centre are Villa Aldobrandini and Villa Carlo Alberto at the Quirinale). I read a tremendous amount of books to pass the time. I also spend a lot of time in cafes, sipping cups of espresso or glasses of caffè freddo: hot coffee that has been cooled for several hours, before being loaded with one too many spoonfuls of sugar and served with ice. An inexplicably moreish, teeth-rooting drink for a hot summer’s day. If I have the energy, I might window-shop along the city’s main shopping street – Via del Corso. It gets very crowded at weekends (and everyone walks so damn slowly!) so it’s much more bearable mid-week. Although I’m in a beautiful city, surrounded by stunning architecture and fascinating history, these long breaks – day after day – can be tedious.
I try to bring my own lunch from home – something simple like a pasta salad or last night’s leftovers – that I can eat at a bus stop or on a park bench without spilling on myself. However, on those days when I am less organised, I have to buy on the go. Italian supermarkets offer a meagre selection for lunch. The idea of pre-packaged sandwiches hasn’t reached Rome yet. Instead, people usually go to cafes for freshly made sandwiches or salads, or grab a slice of pizza or two. There is of course a hierarchy of pizza places but my favourites are rarely close to where I’m teaching. However the pizza chain Alice is dotted all over the city, offering lots of different toppings. You can select exactly how many slices and how wide you want them to be. Another option is a tavola calda – a canteen-style restaurant. Outside the restaurants are signs listing the meal choices of the day. You get a tray, queue up, choose what you’d like from a range of dishes – usually several types of pasta, a rice dish, some kind of meat and potatoes, different kinds of salads, fruit salad and so on. You grab a complimentary bread roll, then take your tray to the first available seat. You sit on long tables, often next to people you don’t know. These places are full of business men and women grabbing a bite to eat with their colleagues.
After my final lesson, I hurry home to have dinner with my boyfriend. I usually stop off at the frutteria near our apartment. We eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and prefer to go to a frutteria than a supermarket. The prices are low and the selection fantastic. The food displays are organised like the colours of a rainbow; bright red shiny peppers, fuzzy orange peaches, yellow bananas, green courgettes and…well nothing blue, but there are deep purple aubergines. The produce is seasonal so we enjoy the short cherry season while it lasts, look forward to the artichokes coming in and go nuts when the peaches, plums, medlars, nectarines and apricots arrive. One of the benefits of visiting the same frutteria several times a week is the staff get to know you. It took several months but the cashier has now warmed to me. We greet each other and exchange pleasantries in Italian. When you’re in with the cashiers, you get some perks. Often they round down the total bill, because they don’t like dealing with fiddly little euro coins. So for example you may only have to pay €2 instead of €2.40. These little discounts really add up over time. Once a cashier gave me some fresh garlic and an onion, probably because he felt the total was too small for it to be worth him opening the till. Another perk; free herbs. Behind the till are huge bunches of parsley, basil, thyme and other herbs. The cashier will ask if you want any once your fruit and vegetables have already been weighed and placed into brown paper bags. They never charge for these herbs.
Then I climb the 120 stairs to my apartment and help my boyfriend prepare dinner. We usually eat between 8.30-9pm, and, unsurprisingly, we eat a lot of Italian food. However, we were both used to eating a variety of different cuisines back in the UK, so we don’t eat Italian food everyday. We like to mix it up. Finding all the ingredients we need can be difficult. Our local supermarkets have some ‘international’ products (like soy sauce, noodles, cous cous, feta cheese etc) but the selection is very limited. So, when we are running low on ingredients, we go to Nuovo Mercato Esquilino. It is a huge market, a short walk from Termini station and open six days a week. Many non-Italian restaurants get their produce from there. It is a chaotic shopping experience, with shouty vendors trying to attract your attention. It’s very different from the more subdued markets where the Italians shop, such as Testaccio market, near our apartment. At Esquilino, you can find different types of rice, noodles, lentils, beans, dried fruit, cooking sauces, oils, pastes, along with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. There are some vegetables there I don’t know the name of and have no idea how to cook with, so you can be quite adventurous and creative when shopping there! If you visit Esquilino, bring small notes and lots of coins, they won’t be happy if you try and break a €50 unless you are making a large purchase. Often people bring wheelie suitcases with them as they buy so much in one go. It’s not somewhere we pop into on a weekly basis but is a great place to go when you need a break from pizza, pasta, risotto and other traditional Italian dishes.
In Rome, mid-week late nights are a common occurance. The balmy weather encourages people to stay out late and forget about the early start the next day. After dinner, I might meet friends for a glass of wine or a gelato, or have a catch-up while walking along the Tiber river. Sometimes we meet for dinner or just a light aperitivo. On Tuesdays, I often go to the events organised by Expats living in Rome. They take place at Rec23, a bar in Testaccio. It’s an opportunity to see familiar faces, catch up with friends and meet new people – Romans and other international people living and working here. It’s a very friendly atmosphere; everyone is looking to make new friends and there’s an emphasis on language exchanges between English, Italian and other languages. I don’t go out every night of the week. When I’m feeling tired or antisocial, there’s Netflix and a big sofa to relax on. However I spend my evening, soon enough it’s bedtime. Time to spray the bedroom with anti-mozzie spray and hope that when (not if) they bite me during the night, it’s not on the end of my nose, like last time!
The Curious Sparrow