Rome's historic center is undeniably full of wonders, but it's the other side of the city, in its mundane splendor, that holds my interest most. During my recent visit, I had the opportunity to experience the everyday life in my cousin's neighborhood, Trionfale, an up-and-coming area in the northwest of the city.
Because they knew I have an interest in food, they wanted to take me to the Mercato Trionfale. For many years a street market, the booths -- all 273 of them -- now occupy a modern structure. Past the sleek exterior, the market has a bazaar-like atmosphere.
Yes, that's a butcher advertising horse meat. I've seen this in France, but never Italy. When I asked my cousin about it, he was surprised to see it. He's never eaten it, and doesn't know anyone who does.
From there, Federico wanted to take me to Eataly. I've been to the Eataly in New York, and am fairly unimpressed by it, but Federico assured me that the Rome outlet was worth the trip. He and Renata often make an afternoon of it, much as we would go to the Ferry Building. So I hopped on the back of his scooter, and we zipped clear across town to the Ostiense neighborhood to check it out.
Eataly Roma is huge, five floors of all the epicurean goodness Italy has to offer. The selection is staggering. Aisles and aisles of dry pasta. Cases of cheese and salumi from every region. Nearly an entire floor of wine, beer, and spirits. But what struck me most was the produce, meat and fish. Everything was vibrant and fresh. All the whole proteins had bright, clear eyes, including sinister-looking pesce sciabola, or scabbard fish.
After we enjoyed lunch at one of the restaurants (there are several), Federico wanted to take me up to Monte Mario, a hilltop park close to his home, and the highest hill in Rome. The slow progress of Rome's growth engulfed this enclave of what was once farmland. In fact, a handful of people still live in shanties in the park with their goats and chickens. They are now flanked by manicured greens and paved walkways, and adjacent to an increasingly tony neighborhood.
The vista from the park looks eastward over the city, but not the typical view. The duomo of St. Peter's and the gnarled streets of central Rome are to the south. Here, you look over the modern structures of the Olympic stadium, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Palazzetto dello Sport, and MAXXI (National Museum of 21st Century Art). You look over the Flaminio district, and on past Pinciano, north of Villa Borghese. You see the other Rome, the quotidian Rome, the real Rome.
In many ways, I'm pretty adventurous. I will always order the one thing on a menu I've never had, or don't even know what it is. Launch a site? Explore a new destination? Meet a new person? I'm in. It's served me very well over the years.
But it wasn't always so. I used to be moderately shy, and while I had a curious spirit, I struggled to break out of my shell. It never stopped me from making friends or trying new things, but it was a struggle, at least at first.
Nearly 15 years ago, dpaul and I were considering moving away from the Bay Area. When the dot-com bubble burst, maybe half of our friends ended up moving hither and yon. While we remained employed, we felt that maybe it was a natural inflection point, a chance to begin a new chapter.
In the end, obviously, we did not choose that path. After serious consideration, we decided to stay. It was coincidentally then that we saw the call for training for San Francisco City Guides. This was an opportunity for us to reinvest our energy in the city we loved. But I had an ulterior motive as well. I wanted to be stronger and more confident in front of people.
The first time I led a tour—not even a public one, but a test run with friends to bust my tour guiding cherry—I stood stiffly in front of my group. I stammered. My voice quavered. I stumbled over my material. But I made it through. My friends even politely complimented me on it.
Most importantly, the deed was done. From that point on, it could only get easier. I led a public tour, then another, and another. To date, between City Guides, Edible Excursions, and my own tours to Italy, I've led hundreds of tours.
Because of that confidence, I have also spoken on and moderated panels. I've taught classes. I would have never done any of these things if I hadn't pushed myself, 15 years ago, to do something that was outside my comfort zone.
After my Italy tour last month, I took the train down to Rome to visit family. On my full day there, my cousin Federico wanted to take me around Rome, a ritual that happens every time I'm there. This time was different.
"We'll take my scooter," he said. "Okay," I stammered, letting the vowel drawl a little too long on the second syllable.
I don't even ride a bike, much less a bike in an urban environment, much less a motorized bike in an urban environment, much less on the back seat of a motorized bike in an urban environment, much less on the back seat of a motorized bike in an urban environment where the occupants of cars and scooters drive like Romans. Outside my comfort zone? A lot.
In our first visit to Italy in the '90s, while visiting a winery, Federico's mother suggested I try the salame sitting on a cutting board, noting they made it in house. I had been vegetarian for more than a decade. In that moment, I thought to myself that I did not fly more than 6,000 miles not to try it. I did. It began a lengthy process of learning to eat meat again, and even to make my own salumi. It changed my life.
I did not fly more than 6,000 miles not to ride through the chaotic streets of Rome on the back of a scooter.
From his home in Trionfale, north of the Vatican, we zipped down the Lungotevere. Federico pushed ever forward, squeezing between moving vehicles so closely I thought my knees would scrape. I clutched the grips behind my seat so tightly my hands hurt. I'm sure my eyes bugged. I know I grinned like an idiot.
But what an experience. Instead of fear, I felt exhilaration. Rome sped past us in fast forward, but there were moments stuck in slo-mo, like passing a young woman on a scooter, gesticulating as Italians are wont to do, her cell phone deftly wedged under her helmet so she could talk while driving and still maintain a free hand to gesture.
The deed was done. The next time could only be easier. Would I do it again? Absolutely, without hesitation, yes.
Today, I complete another revolution around the sun. Each new year presents opportunities to grow and expand. You achieve so much more saying yes than saying no. And I'm looking forward to the next chance to step outside my comfort zone.