On our way back from Venice, the group and I got semi-stranded at Roma Ostiense, one of the many train stations based in Rome. Because our Ferroviaria train was late, which is actually ironic because the name itself means fast train, we were forced to take a later train from Roma Termini with the hopes of connecting to Ostiense. When we finally got to Ostiense, we had missed the last train to Viterbo. Go figure I thought to myself. Here I am, just returning from an unforgettable trip to Venice, the City of Masks, and I have to deal with this nonsense.
Never has there been a time in Italy where I desired to be in my own bed (in Viterbo) more than I did at that moment. The time was quickly approaching 9:15 p.m. and the last train had left at 8:52 p.m. We hopped off the train and looked at the electronic board lined with train departures as the sinking feeling in our stomachs grew larger.
Thanks to Vivian, our humble guide and valued friend, we discovered that we would be taking the 10:13 p.m. train to Cessano, a stop about 50 minutes from our current point.
To kill time, I figured I’d call my parents and chew the fat with them for a little while I waited impatiently for the train. I nervously fumbled over the phone and simultaneously tried to pull my international calling card out of my wallet in front of the telecom. Many of the phone booths in Italy wear the same design. About six feet tall, dirty gray with shades of red underneath ripped and faded stickers written in Italian. There was no door to these booths, which makes it easy for curious Georges to listen in on a harmless, but invaluably heart-warming conversation with your parents.
Much to my (un)surprise, though, the booth did not accept my calling card. This booth marks about the hundredth booth that gave me the same worn out line: “Phone temporarily out of order.” I’m no dummy, though, I swear it. I’m beginning to believe that there is something wrong with the $20.00 USD calling card I bought at Rite Aid before I left. I mean, not every phone can be broken, can it?
After the public phone failed to serve my needs yet again, I made my way away from the train station and out onto the deserted streets outside Ostiense. When I stepped outside, I felt a cold, brisk air clash with the warm, soothing feeling that had occupied every square inch of my body since I got off the train. Sporting a heavy backpack, compressed sleeping bag, souvenirs, and gifts from Venice, I made my way towards a bridge that lit the night sky like the CITGO sign at Fenway Park lights up Boston.
I walked down the street past a mini market, a Tabacchi, and a Ducati dealership. I felt like I was in Viterbo, or more appropriately – home. I felt so inspired on my walk down the street not because I felt free, not because it felt great to walk around, and not because I was in Italy. In fact, none of those things really crept into my pensive mind during my walk. Instead I thought about how being in Italy was so similar to being back home.
I saw buildings ten stories high. I saw graffiti lining the walls, garage doors, and dark alleys all along the street. I saw trash spattered across the sidewalk, and stuck like an adhesive to the sidewalk after days of neglect and wet rain. I saw restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores, schools, and shops both small and big on the main strip and in between the smallest of alleys. I saw people inside some restaurants and outside others, even in nearly freezing weather. There were hordes of Italian men huddles outside the Tabacchi passing around a cigarette. There were hordes of others outside the only bar open past 9 p.m. speaking loudly in words I have still yet to comprehend all while drinking beers on this Sunday night. No big deal, guys. No big deal.
Every building I saw was built up, very cramped like New York, but not as high. They were beige, gray, black, and brick. Some had balconies, some did not. As I walked past these modern, but not magnificent buildings, I noticed the sheer volume of street graffiti plastered onto these buildings. Some tags were amateur, boring, and otherwise underwhelming. But others were well done, like a steak. They had upwards of nine colors with shading and creativity that would surprise even a professional artist.
Trash lined the streets outside the Ostiense train station as it does in downtown Worcester, Mass. There were bottles and cans, old flyers for past events, food wrappers, and crumbled up receipts. All smeared into the sidewalk and every possible crevice along it. It was dirty, smelly, and gross, but it reminded me of home.
I walked past old shops, closed due to Italy’s struggling economy, littered with signs reading, “Affittasi.” – “for rent,” in English. These closed shops reminded me of home. They reminded me of a struggling, but not dead economy in the U.S. constantly searching for a reset button. The economy here reminds me of home.
I kept making connections as I walked and walked a couple of blocks through the town. And I learned something that I previously had yet to realize. I am home, home not in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense. Everything I saw, I have seen before, just at a different longitude and latitude. The barren, broken city atmosphere reminded me of being at home and facing the same issues.
It inspired me. It made me feel alive. It made me appreciate every minute a thousand times more. I have been caught into thinking that I’m in paradise over the last couple of weeks. That the reality I currently exist in has an expiration date. Seeing this landscape made me appreciate and realize that while I’m having the time of my life, I’m doing so in a culture that has more than its share of subtle similarities.
I can breathe, blink, and realize that the dream I am holding onto is happening, but it’s happening within a society that faces many of the same issues as citizens of the U.S. face. My study abroad experience is not all about vacations to beautiful places every weekend or the amount of postcards I collect from each city. It’s about living and understanding the culture that I’ve made myself a part. It’s about adapting and realizing that Italy is much like the United States of America.