Right away, it struck me.
Then, there was the colour of the sea. The languid Ligurian Sea, lazy and azure, is framed by rows of boats rocking gently to and fro, cradled by the sea, against a backdrop of the verdant Apennine Mountains. Famous for its historic role as a key port city, the bygone home of dukes and birthplace of such notable explorers as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, Genoa has since lost much of its commercial significance, with the advent of airplanes and the wave of globalization driving Italian-based waterborne travel closer to desuetude.
And it shows. However ornate, the Genovese architecture is not entirely well-preserved. Just a few streets away from the row of august palazzi where dukes once lived is the intersection of dingy alleyways that comprise the red light district. But for the most part, the city appears unaltered since its Renaissance days. I stayed somewhere in between the two aforementioned areas, in a charming building with butter yellow walls and a staff with sunny dispositions. There, I met an American taking a roundabout detour on the way back from Morocco, an Australian couple honeymooning far from their Melbourne home, and a Spaniard with a knack for storytelling late into the night. United by our varying degrees of fluency in English and our wanderlust, we traded travel stories and marvelled at this beautiful city that, at least for the time being, was ours to share.
Whether exploring with them, or wandering alone, I continually found myself drawn out of the maze of narrow roads back to that azure coastline. I was almost sorry to leave after just a few days, aboard a train destined for Rome. This hidden gem, nestled between mountains and ocean, tucked away from foreign tourists – most tourists there were Italian – has retained most of its lustre over the years. It was less overrun by gimmicky attractions and people dressed as gladiators peddling souvenirs. As a result, it felt “authentically Italian.” Stories I had heard about Rome intimated otherwise.
Yet, despite my initial misgivings, I soon found myself falling in love with Rome. Granted, not at first sight. In fact, it was nightfall when my train pulled into the station, and there was not much I could make out in the darkness other than overflowing dumpsters and derelict buildings as I made my way to my hostel. However, that all became secondary come morning as I became acquainted with the other side of Rome. Its frenetic energy, its ancient edifices, its modern fashion. In truth, I am more stereotypically English than Italian in nature, with my Earl Grey-drinking, sarcastic-joking, civility-prizing ways. But they say opposites attract, and my Roman experience was at the heart of my Italian “roman”ce (pardon my cheesy wordplay).
I had been warned by several people and had read countless times in my research of Rome to beware of pickpockets, which had tainted my expectations of Rome. In fact, my interactions with Romans were by and large lovely. The locals were generally quite friendly. In fact, I encountered the opposite problem in Rome that I had sometimes found in Paris. Though I was illiterate in Rome, people spoke to me in Italian and were wiling to help me understand what they were speaking, though this was usually rendered unnecessary by their hand gestures. And when they did speak in English, it was without condescension or disgruntlement. On my way to Gianicolo, the second-tallest hill in Rome which offers a picturesque panoramic view of the city, an Italian man approached me, asked me where I was from, and gave me recommendations for places to see, all without me soliciting any of his advice.
So, no pickpocketing in my experience. The closest I came to losing money was nearly paying for three cones instead of one at Giolitti, which I would not have minded much anyway. I subsisted on gelato the entire trip. Proper sit-down meals were nauseating affairs in Rome, not because the food was bad – on the contrary, everything I did sample was like a symphony for the taste buds – but because the humid heat seeped through my skin and suppressed my appetite to the point that I felt sick anytime I ate anything heavier than fluffy, light-as-air gelato. Good thing gelato comes in flavours from all the major food groups. Prosciutto gelato, anyone? (I prefer the more conventional riso e cioccolato fondente. The combination sings like poetry.)
As I learned from my solo trip to Dublin, travelling alone can walk a fine line between being liberating and isolating. But I never felt lonely in my time in Rome. Certainly, I had come prepared. I found a hostel that was a hub for travelling students and ended up bonding with a couple of Canadians. I had Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza as companions in the hushed Villa Borghese and atop the steps of Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli and overlooking the Tiber, a silver ribbon in the moonlight. I wrote in cafés and bars. Travel helped me to declutter my mind, release my creative juices, and write. And even if I was just taking in the sights without my new Canadian buddies, I never felt lonely: I had thousands of years of history by my side.
Most of the challenges of travelling alone in Italy can be prevented by common sense. Do your research so that you can find affordable, conveniently located hostels that are good for meeting other travelling students. Learn at least a bit of Italian beforehand – fluency in musical terms like “pianissimo” and “allegretto” does not count – so that you are not discomfitted in areas where English speakers are a rare friend, especially relevant when travelling in more off-the-beaten-path places like Genoa. Be prepared for the occasional creepy comment or curious stare; brush it off and take it in stride. One of the many men dressed as gladiators by the Colosseum insisted on knowing where I was “really” from after I told him I was from North America, before kneeling and avowing “Wǒ ài nǐ.” I was not sure whether to be flattered or flummoxed. More than anything, I was amused.
Regarding its treatment of minorities, Italy is at an interesting crossroads. Some of its historic issues with dealing with minorities have extended into the present, such as the marginalization of the Romani people, many of whom are deemed illegal aliens under the state and reside in tent camps without electricity or running water. Other issues are emergent, such as the undercurrents of racism toward the recent influx of Chinese immigrants. With such a long history behind it, Italy promises to continue to adapt and evolve.