The other day, I came across Italy Blogging Roundtable‘s invitation to write a post about gifts. For me, the invitation was similar to to the question I have been asked about 1 million times since I have moved to Rome: What is the best souvenir from Rome? I.e. What would truly encapsulate the Eternal City for 10 euro or less?

I could say a bag of Sant’Eustachio coffee, a plastic gladiator costume, a faux-bronze poly-sterene David statuette, or a John Paul II collector’s item bottle open (a.k.a the Popener), all of which I have given as proud ricordi di Roma but what I think is the true gift from Rome and Italy is the gift of a story.

My entire life I grew up hearing stories about Rome which transported me to a dream city– I watched my Nonno try to take out my not-yet-Nonna on a date on the famous snowy December 30, 1939. I stood next to my mother for her first taste of champagne wtih her uncles and Ingrid Bergman* in the early 1950s, and gaped at my seven-year-old Nonna turning cartwheels down the main aisle of St. Peter’s basilica at a private audience for Pope Pius XII. These stories made me want to come to Rome and its that very idea of captivating storytelling that I think is the best gift, the only gift from Italy. With that, here is my story for you:

In the early 1990s, I had finally gotten over extreme shyness and came to Rome for my semester abroad. Unlike the 80 other art students in my program, I was the only one with living, breathing relatives in Rome and actually spent time with them. My friends thought I was “sooo lucky” with my full-immersion Thursdays and weekends- most of which were spent in long dinner discussions about so-and-so personal hygiene defects with my nonna’s sisters and sister-in-laws, a gossipy crew in their late sixties. One evening, the aunts decided that I needed to gain some weight and spend time Giampiero, our newly discovered half-cousin who was not just close to my age (26!!) but also an artist.

Mezzanotte, sotto casa tua, andiamo al palatino, io, te e Fabio Midnight, below your house, me you and Fabio to the Palatine, Giampiero growled through the phone to which I immediately responded Yes, having no idea who Fabio was or what to wear. Like a good Philly girl, I was ready in mini-dress, kitten heels and garish eye make-up when Giampiero’s car rolled up.

Sei davvero la cugina di Giampiero Fabio commented as I got in the car. Giampiero, while wearing nicely pressed jeans and dress shirt akin to those of Fabio, was also wearing a colorful and not-to-be-missed Ascot scarf around his neck. Yes, we cousins were stylish. The car sped through the streets of Rome, finally screeching to halt next to a broken gate and over-grown brush. I looked around for the bouncer and said Allora, la discoteca**… in what I thought was coolness personified. Giampiero held out his hands as if I were to step into them for a hoisting up. Fabio, who was in fact climbing the gate, howled ‘sti americani, non sanno niente di storia. These americans, they know nothing about history.

This american knew nothing about Roman social life nor how to climb a fence ladylike but in just a few short minutes, mini-dress , trashed kitten heels and my bad-ass self were walking through Domitian’s hippodrome and Nero’s cripto-porticus with two Roman boys, two cigarette lighters and a lot of attitude. I was in Rome and I liked it.

*For the curious: if you find yourself at Castel Sant’Angelo, make sure to visit the bar on the penultimate level where you’ll find a photo of my uncles Mario, Cesare and Alberto with Ingrid Bergman.

**for the record: my formulative college years enlightened me to Philadelphia clubs with names such as The Palladium, The Forum and, ahem, The Black Banana

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