To Rome, Without Love

Staggered by the recent death of my brother, I landed in Italy and proceeded to ignore the place along with everything I was feeling

In Rome, a sweet life exists.

If Rome were a woman, she'd be a whore. The kind of whore who looks good from a distance or in just the right light. And while you are busy ogling her cupolas, she will deftly slip the wallet from your back pocket. She will deceive you and she will seduce you and she will be so intoxicating you will have a hard time letting her go.

My anti-relationship with the Eternal City began by accident. I never burned for Italy the way so many others do. I never imagined idyllic afternoons, lolling supine beneath a vine-strung pergola, chatting in a foreign tongue to new friends. And I never bought into all those stories about the irresistible charm and sexual dynamism of that mythical creature, the Italian male.

Staggered by the recent death of my brother, I landed in Italy and proceeded to ignore the place along with everything I was feeling. Then, one afternoon, alone in a café near the San Lorenzo market in Florence, I met a beautiful, and — it must be mentioned — non-Italian, man who invited me to a dinner party in Fiesole, a village along a winding road, high above the city, the house just a stone's throw from the birthplace of Galileo.

Looking back, I recalled the evening with that particular man as one of the first times I forgot — if only for a few moments — to be devastated about my brother. As a result, the memory of Italy was forever intertwined with that reprieve. It became for me a landscape offering sex and solace and roads as yet untraveled. Illusive, beckoning. But memories, like men, can be alternately sharp, then shadowy; they slip so easily from grasp. As it turned out, so did the artist. And after a stint there during graduate school, Florence faded, too. Italy, however, remained.

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And everybody knows where all roads lead.

Of the dozen or so years I have lived in Italy, I have spent the bulk of them avoiding encounters with Italian men. It's not that I don't like Italian men. I like them fine. What I don't like is dating Italian men. A brief year or so after my arrival, I swore them off per sempre — forever. I didn't have a broken heart. The cause wasn't anything that emotional. My decision wasn't based on romantic anguish or misfortune or upon even a shred of heartfelt disappointment. I discovered that the cultural barrier was simply too vast to overcome, though it presented itself in ways I would never have expected.

I think of Italian men the way I think about most things with the label "Made in Italy" — form over function. Fabio may gleam like a sleek and stylish Ferrari — all smooth lines and the perfect finish as he sidles up beside you, motor purring, leather seats beckoning — but climb in and you will soon discover the ride is more Fiat 500 than Ferrari. By all means, take Fabio for a spin, but do it in the same spirit with which you might rent a convertible and speed along the Amalfi Coast: Always keep in mind that there aren't any guardrails, and the fall is a long, long way down.

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In some ways, "La Dolce Vita" seems to blame for the misconceptions about life in the Eternal City. The Italy-obsessed bandy about those three words, willfully ignoring the utter lack of romance and the undertow of desperation in Federico Fellini's masterpiece, which coined the phrase. Stripped of its irony, la dolce vita implies that, in Rome, a sweet life exists — and, of course, in some ways, it does. Or it can — especially if you are just passing through. But the afterglow of a wholly Roman moment — a blissful afternoon whiled away on a shaded terrazzo or a gorgeous meal shared with an equally gorgeous man — is fleeting. Rome has always been, and remains, a labyrinth of complex social mores, indiscriminate etiquette, street-side histrionics and daily indignities set against the backdrop of the city's enduring ancient relics, all a timeless testament to her magnificence.

That bitch.

It's easy to assume that women come to Rome in search of the dark-eyed stranger, a whisper of danger about him, who sings out, "Ciao, bella!" and offers a midnight ride on his Vespa, but that cliché feels reductive to me. That same woman, the one who is independent enough to pack her bags and swap countries, or even continents, is hardly the kind of woman who would be content to be relegated to the back of a motorino, bouncing along cobblestone streets. She will, at the very least, want to drive.

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Nearly all of my female friends in Rome are single. They are sculptors and scholars, chefs and architects; they are journalists, jewelry designers, filmmakers, and actresses. They are accomplished. They are fun. They are attractive. They are women who have never suffered so many harrowing stretches of singlehood anywhere else in the world. I am one of them.

And yet, I remain.

Elizabeth Geoghegan is currently working on the story collection "The Book of Boys." Excerpted from "The Marco Chronicles," an original memoir for Shebooks, the new publisher of short e-books by and for women.

Tags: travel