A few months after I moved to Rome, Italy in 2010, I did a telephone interview American financial maharishi Suze Orman for an article I was writing about managing finances in relationships.
We were talking about the financial mistakes women sometimes make while dating, and after she told me about some of the horror stories she’d come across, I told her my own. Just a year before, I had joint credit cards, bank accounts and investments tied up with my ex-boyfriend, and was left in a great deal of debt when things ended.
After hearing my tale, Suze asked where I was calling from. I told her I was in Rome.
“You had to run that far, huh?’ she said.
She was right about the running, although I couldn’t admit it at the time. In my mind, I moved to Rome because I had always wanted to live in Italy. I moved there to live la dolce vita, and to fill the raw void inside of me with as much pizza, pasta, gelato, espresso, wine and Nutella as possible. I moved there for a change, a purely selfish change.
The relationship I got into five years before, the one I escaped to Italy after, grew quickly from a life-consuming but innocent infatuation I mistook for love into something much more perverse. He became controlling, manipulative and emotionally abusive, and soon, I felt trapped in a twisted cage that I didn’t see a way out of. He was the puppet master, and I the unwitting puppet.
No one goes into something like that wanting to be the puppet. Even a year into it, I knew I would have to get out of the relationship or ultimately surrender every last ounce of myself to him in order to fully become what he wanted me to be (which was a well-dressed, silent, Stepford robot wife, basically).
Each day I stayed with him wore me down a little more. After four very long years, I was weary from the constant fighting, from never living up to his standards, and from my friends and family not being good enough for him. I was also incredibly afraid that he’d hurt me, and the people I loved, if I left. He once told me, point blank, “if you ever leave me, I’ll ruin your life.”
I did leave, though, eventually, and he tried to make good on his life-ruining promise. The relationship ended in a blowout after I learned he had cheated on me with escorts. The day after we broke up, not only did he change the locks on our shared condo, take our dog Zeppelin away, and try in vain to get my name off of the land title and mortgage, he also emptied our bank accounts and left me drowning in debt. Since I was the primary account holder of our joint Visa, I was responsible for the massive credit card balance he had accrued.
While in the relationship, I had changed from a beer drinking, guitar playing hippy into a designer jeans-wearing wine snob for him, and now, here I was, broke, homeless, dogless and very alone with my vast knowledge of Burgundian grape varietals.
It took me nearly a year -- one hard fucking year -- to pay off most of my debts and bank enough money and emotional strength to move to Rome.
On the plane there, I downed two mini-bottles of red wine, one of which I scored by trading it for my carrot cake with the chubby Vatican priest sitting next to me. It was divinely sanctioned drinking. I was anxious, but excited, because going to a new place where everything was different meant that I could be different, too.
Bleary from my wine-induced plane slumber, I got off the plane and spent 45 minutes searching for my luggage carousel, which wasn’t indicated anywhere. Every airport worker I asked seemed to not know or care where I could find my luggage and I was about to resign myself to the fact that it was gone forever when I found my plane buddy, the chubby Vatican priest. He pointed me in the right direction and I thanked him and said I’d visit that massive church he worked at some point during my yearlong stay.
By the time I got to the passport line, I was so ready for a nap I didn’t notice that a passport officer had been calling me to his window for I don’t know how long. I walked up, flushed from embarrassment because he looked like the Roman god of handsomeness, and handed him my passport. His eyes didn’t leave mine as he took it.
“What is it you dream of?” he asked me, scanning my passport.
“Sorry?” I said, nervously. I was already confused and men that hot make me jittery.
“Right now. You were dreaming in line,” he said. Our gaze remains unbroken.
“Oh,” I said. “I dream of Rome.”
Without taking his eyes off of mine, in one fluid motion, he stamped my passport and handed it back, holding onto its edge as I went to take it back from him. With our fingers lightly touching, he said, “Rome dreams of you, too.”
My first hours in Rome sum up my experience of living there for a year. It was utter frustration, flippant people and systems where nothing works but everything eventually works out, combined with beauty, charm and a certain enchantment that sometimes felt like the country was sprinkled in magical unicorn dust.
Although it was a foreign country with a foreign language and foreign rules, Italy felt safe. I was far away from everything that reminded me of home. I was far away from the pain my ex-boyfriend had caused me, and, most importantly, I was far away from the girl I was when I was with him.
I used to think of running away from my problems as a bad thing. In children’s books and Disney movies, coming of age tales and The Bible, we are taught quite early on to stare down that fire-breathing dragon, to face our Goliath, to endure, to stay the course, and to fight.
Sometimes, though, running away is an act of fighting. I was fighting to regain the control I had lost. I was fighting to reclaim myself. The space that comes naturally with the passage of time can allow these things to happen, but for me, the physical space of being miles away in another country was not only a more exciting notion, it actually felt like my only option.
I needed to go.
When you’re stuck, in a relationship, in a life rut, in a job you hate, or in any other situation that feels like it’s pulling you into the ground with its quicksand, there comes a point where you might require a drastic change to wake yourself up. Moving away was that change for me.
When I first got to Rome, I was overwhelmed. The eternal city seemed a lot like its symbol, the she wolf—a gorgeous, feral beast waiting to rob me, ruin me and eat me up.
Although more unbelievable beauty, food and culture than I had ever encountered surrounded me, living in Rome wasn’t easy. Simply crossing the street there was an act that required a heroic amount of bravery.
Gated stairway to heaven? In the coliseum.
I understood some Italian, but I struggled to learn it. I also struggled against myself to speak it, so scared I was of making a mistake. A lot of the insecurity that wormed its way into me while I dated my ex-boyfriend -- a product of being criticized and yelled at, ignored and scolded -- was harder and more complicated than hopping on a transatlantic flight to get rid of.
Also, despite the numerous Adonises in my midst, I purposely didn’t date anyone while in Italy. My friends and family were like: “Are you crazy? You’re in the city of romance!” but quite frankly, I didn’t want to deal with it. After devoting myself to an unworthy man and living like 50s housewife with a fulltime job, I needed a break from men in general.
And that was OK. Rome didn’t mind.
Like the symbol of Rome, I became a she-wolf of my own making during my year in Italy. I looked out for me, and only me. I made my own money freelancing and teaching English. I ate when I wanted. I walked around aimlessly all the time and came across breathtaking scenes and street art. I stared at artwork, sculptures, vistas, dogs and people for hours and cried. I ate a lot.
I made friends. I sauntered across bridges and sighed. I went to soccer games and cheered until I lost my voice. I walked to my favorite gelateria to eat a two-scoop gelato every single day, sometimes twice a day. I tried all the flavors. I ate my gelato on church steps, while walking down cobblestone streets, with handsome men, and in rose gardens.
I sipped heavenly cappuccinos and didn’t think about Starbucks even once. I discovered new, strange and beautiful things every day. I wandered into grand churches and experienced unexpected, spiritual stirrings. I went to discotecas and danced until sweat dripped into my eyes and blurred my vision. I ate pizza: so much pizza. I looked out my window at the little angel statue carved into the building across the street and the ivy crawling up the wall beside her. I prayed to her. I went for aperitivo with friends. I studied Italian and read Bukowski poems in the language. I wrote. I ate Nutella all the time.
The lovely Italians encouraged my indulgences, and there was no one there to tell me I was being a pig. The freedom was intoxicating. I was becoming myself again, albeit a more mature, experienced, and tough version of the girl I was before I met my ex-boyfriend.
At a party one night, a very sweet Italian man named Giuseppe told me that I was like water to him. I was sure I had misunderstood, but he explained that, like water, I seemed fluid and adaptive.
Roman water. (The Tiber).
With the winding river Tiber running through her middle, Rome is like water, too. You can see her and feel her and she’ll leave you wet if you touch her, but try to hold on and she’ll pass around you -- leaving you changed, touched, loved, and wretched -- but leaving you, all the same.
Even though I moved to Rome for myself, to learn Italian, live Italian, and live amongst Italians, after hanging up with Suze that day, I realized that I had run away.
And it was the best decision I ever made.