An American Expat in Rome


An American expat in Rome

My enduring love for Rome grew roots many decades ago. My father, an Italian immigrant and a CIA operative, kept finding ways to land assignments in Rome. Naturally, the family packed up along and moved along him to Rome not once, but three times. I came back to the U.S. to attend college and graduate school. About a year after graduating from the Columbia University’s journalism school, I got the itch to move back to Rome. The itch became a full-blown incurable obsession after visiting the Eternal City during the winter of 2005, whizzing around on motorini in the dead of night and sucking down fresh cornetti at midnight with old high-school friends. By the summer of 2006, I had my two oversized bags packed and, with no real plan in place, I hopped a flight with my father to Rome.

Somehow luck was on my side and I was able to lock in a few regular freelancing opportunities to help fund my time in Rome. A friend of the family also let me stay in his small apartment in the Nomentano zone for free until I found a place more central, which I found just up the road from the St. Peter’s Square.

While I had lived in Rome for a total of 10 years as a child and teen, I had attended an international school where the primary language was English and 90 percent of my friends spoke English. I watched British TV at home via satellite and spoke English 99 percent of the time at home, so to say I was completely fluent in Italian would be a lie. I could speak and understand Italian, I would say 85 percent of the time, but when it came to reading and writing it, I was at probably closer to 75 percent. Not being entirely fluent, it was hard to finagle my way around the visa situation.

Back in New York I had visited the Italian consulate office to try to obtain my dual citizenship before embarking on my latest Roman adventure. They told me it was going to take a minimum of a year to establish my dual-citizenship. Being young and impatient, I couldn’t wait a whole year and decided to just move there and then deal with getting a work permit. I strongly advise against this means of entering any country—the “winging it” approach.  Once in Rome, I was fine on my tourist visa for three months, retracting funds from my American bank account through ATMs and racking up hefty fines, and freelancing from the confines of my tiny apartment. I stood outside the Ufficio Stranieri (immigration office), waiting like all the other illegal aliens in Rome for a man to come out with a handful of numbers and grab at them to secure a meeting with one of the immigration officers. Once I explained my situation to the person behind a rickety wooden desk, she granted me an extension on my visa for another three months. But still the clock was ticking and I needed sponsorship if I was going to stay for any meaningful stretch of time.

Besides my visa issues, I had other minor setbacks. Moving back to Rome as a working professional was a reality-check. Living as an American in Rome with the privileges of the U.S. embassy is definitely having your cake and eating it too. I quickly learned that small conveniences found in the States were apparent unheard of luxuries in Rome—like shopping. After moving into my Vatican apartment, I went to buy a pillow. I walked down the road to the small Piazza di Santa Maria alle Fornaci and asked some older women where I might buy a pillow. They laughed in my face and asked, “You want to buy a pillow on a Saturday?!” I looked at them and smiled, was I going nuts or did I misspeak? I repeated my question, and they looked at me as if I had lost half my demented American brain. “You have to wait until Tuesday if you are going to buy a pillow,” they explained to me. Stupid me! While modern furniture and clothing was prevalent in Rome, modern conveniences were not as easily won. Food shopping, however, was much easier in the heart of Rome than it had been in the Nomentano zone. At least near the Vatican I had a supermercato with fresh produce, frozen food, meats, cheeses and wines all under one roof. In the Nomentano area, I had to go to a separate store for frozen food, another for meat, another for bread and, on certain days, the open market for fresh produce. By the time I had all the ingredients to make a meal, something had invariably rotted away.

Another modern convenience I had to learn to forget was speediness. Setting up my own telephone and DSL internet connection, which was crucial to my livelihood there, took me three months. Before that it was a dial-up connection, and often unreliable at that. When I told one of my friends there about the issue he said, “Three months! You must know someone at Telecom! It usually takes people six!”

And while the public transportation system in Rome is astoundingly intricate, it is also not something I would call speedy either. I was used to getting everywhere in a car or, at worst, taking the NYC subway, which got me from one end of the island to the other in the matter of minutes. In Rome, I would sit on buses for hours going from one traffic-laden side of town to the other, sometimes I could walk faster—and I did.

Not until I succumbed to the fact that life in Italy, even in a major international metropolis like Rome, is at a different pace, did I finally stop stressing and pulling at my hair. Going for one of the fastest-paced cities on Earth—NYC—to Rome was a transition I didn’t expect to take so long for a seasoned Romana like me. Everything is more relaxed in Rome, not just the dinners and attitudes—everything. Plan accordingly.

But for all the Roman headaches of losing conveniences and speediness, there is nothing quite like it. Naturally, the food is unquestionably delicious, but the characters you meet every day and the generosity they extend—like my unquestionably amazing landlord and portiere (gatekeeper) who helped me every chance they could and gave me “life lessons” whenever I had time to lend them an ear—and the truly international community surrounding you can open even the most sheltered of eyes to another mode of living and growing.

Being in Rome satisfied my soul. While I felt extreme loneliness there sometimes because I worked from home and my entire family, most of my friends, and the man I was in love with were all still stateside, the ever-relaxed and “everything will be alright” mentality seeps into your veins and you experience a certain calm and wonder at the beauty around you.

I left Rome after becoming engaged my Air Force officer boyfriend who happened to live in Oklahoma. I didn’t want to leave Rome—especially to move somewhere as foreign to me as Tornado Alley—but I have no doubt I will return again one day. If I had any advice for someone wanting to move to Rome, I would say to get your visa ahead of time, learn at least a little of the language, learn how to drive stick or fearlessly ride a scooter, make as many friends as you can once there, and keep a light heart with an open mind. In bocca al lupo (good luck)!

Lisa Spinelli-White
This post was written by
Lisa Spinelli is a freelance journalist, content writer and mother of two. After receiving her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2004, Lisa worked across the country and in Italy as a journalist, editor and Web editor. Her website has links to a smattering of her published clips and information about her upcoming tentatively titled "The CIA Life."