Romantic it may be, but you will not want to tackle life behind the scenes without this step-by-step map of real life by expert expat Mary-Ann Smillie.
When asked why we were moving to Rome, we started to explain, but were interrupted – ‘Well, of course you would want to move to Rome – there is no where more romantic or wonderful in the world’. True or not, it does reflect the opinion of the many ex-pats and Romans who live in Rome, not to mention the 4 million tourists who visit each year.
Where to Live? City or Suburbs?
It is indeed a most extraordinary city to visit – but what about to live in?
Everyone agrees that transportation is one of the hardest practical aspects of living in Rome, so the first decision to make is whether you want to live outside the centre of Rome where you could have a house, a garden and parking, or in the centre of the city where it is well nigh impossible to find all these three things in one home.
The apartments in central Rome are all small; since Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe - having just been pulled out of negative growth by virtue of government tax incentives - none but the very largest apartments have three bedrooms. Some have terraces from which you can see hundreds of green oases tumbling over the pink terracotta roofs. But almost none will include parking. With a city centre that you can easily walk across in twenty minutes, people who live in the bustling, historic heart of Rome only use their cars parked at some distance…to make the weekend exodus to the countryside or coast.
Romantic or Practical?
There are houses and larger, more modern flats in apartment blocks in the up market area of Parioli, at the outskirts of the city centre, and in the small satellite towns around Rome. These offer everything you could want in a glorious Italian home – except the romance of walking to the Pantheon or the Campo del Fiori market.
So your first decision is one of romance vs practicalities – and it is a decision you will find yourself making regularly in Rome. Will you choose practical flat shoes for the cobblestones and long walks in Rome, or elegant high heels to look like a true Italian? Will you carry a backpack with water for the hot days and for the shopping from the market stalls, or will you shun this and go instead for a leather handbag?
There are numerous estate agents to help you with the house hunting, and these can be found from the internet or the English Yellow Pages (available free in Rome) with listings in English for Rome, Florence and Milan. There are also accommodation listings in the invaluable Wanted in Rome magazine, available from newspaper stands or online at www.wantedinrome.com.
Transportion...How Long a Commute?
The other factor when house hunting will, of course, be distances to schools and work. Unless you have a driver and children who go on the school bus, you will need to rely on public transport. This is notorious for its unreliability and the regularity of the strikes. Having said that, if your children are older and do not want to go on a school bus, or you want to be able to use public transport, it is not expensive and some of the buses are very regular; plus, the metro lines (there are only two and they stop running at 9pm) are a quick and efficient way of getting around town.
To check out transport from a prospective home or area, look online at www.atac.roma.it to see bus lines. You can even put in your address and the school or work address to find journey time by public transport.
Traffic and Driving
Traffic is bad and driving is chaotic. The roads are narrow, some are one way, and they do wind - whilst the ancient Romans were famous for their straight and well built roads, medieval paths and later centuries of road building by less efficient non-Pretorian designers have resulted in a veritable spaghetti junction in the centre of Rome: not to be taken on except by the very brave.
People used to the American grid system find learning their way around maddening – ‘how do they ever learn the names of so many streets – I am used to numbers!’ (or at least that’s what transplanted New Yorkers say!). Roads at the outskirts of Rome and in the suburbs are easier but regularly jammed at rush hours.
Peculiar to Rome
When it comes to looking at houses, most people have an instinct about which one could be a good space for their individual needs, whether or not the house needs to be furnished or whether they will be bringing their own furniture with them.
Things peculiar to Rome are that kitchens are often small; electricity connections are complicated by the range of different socket sizes; plumbing, especially in the centre of town, is often ancient and slightly decrepit – so check water pressure by turning on showers as you go round houses.
Money and Banking
The common medium of exchange is cash – credit cards are fine for larger shops but cheques are not always accepted and don’t be surprised if you are asked to leave the cheque undated: the Italian banks charge interest on the time between dating the cheque and its being presented. So to avoid charges by the banks, cheques are left to be dated on presentation.
Opening a bank account involves time and patience and some amount of paper chasing - work permits, evidence of address such as utility bills and always a fiscal code ( codice fiscale, a tax ID card necessary for everything from opening a bank account to buying a car or apartment. EU citizens can obtain them online www.agenziaentrate.it; non-EU cititizens must obtain them from the Italian Consulate in their own countries).
Non-Italian banks, for example, Barclays, tend not to need the same amount of chasing round and are well worth exploring for a simpler account-opening experience.
Shopping. Shopping. Shopping.
This is an Italian pastime and a pleasant way to pass a Saturday afternoon in the Corso with a full wallet and a need/desire for shoes or some beautiful leather accessory. Italy has a high number of specialist and individual shops, though there are large chains springing up as in most European cities.
Despite the two large out-of-town malls, most of the shops in Rome are much smaller than would be found in other countries – especially in the US. The trick is to do a large monthly shop out of town, and local shopping the rest of the time.
There are small supermarkets in most blocks – some will deliver and most have good deli counters with prepared food. Otherwise, invest in a shopping basket on wheels like your grandmother once used and hike off to the market to fill up with wonderful fresh vegetables and fruit and practice speaking Italian at the same time.
All very time consuming but that is how the Romans do it, and since most kitchens are small you may not be able to store more than a few days worth of groceries at a time. Build shopping time into your timetable.
Help! And How To Find It...
Whilst many people do spend time in the markets and local shops, Italian families are used to having domestic help. It is not unusual to have both a cleaner and someone to help with children and even a driver as well. Many Italian families have a housekeeper who comes daily to clean, iron, shop and cook.
In Italy, since families with two working parents often have help, names can usually be found by word of mouth from neighbours or, if you live in an apartment block, from the doorman/porter. The latter is usually a great source of information for any type of help and can be a first port of call when looking for repairs or technicians.
Whilst shopkeepers, taxi drivers, housekeepers and the doorman are almost always helpful and honest, they rarely speak English. They love it if you try to speak some Italian and are used to using their hands to make themselves clear. But of course nothing will beat you learning the language.
Rome is full of language schools and Italian teachers for adults. It is not as easy finding courses for children, but all the international schools have Italian teachers and are used to getting children without any Italian and turning them into fluent Italian speakers.
Italians are very keen to learn English and this can be used to agree to language exchanges (one hour Italian in exchange for one hour English) and means that families with English speaking children are welcomed into Italian families in the hope that they will learn each others’ language. All the international schools have a proportion of Italian speaking children and this provides a chance for your children to speak Italian.
The proportion of Italian to non-Italian speakers is fairly critical in schools, particularly in the Junior Schools where Italian children may even out number non-Italian speakers, making it more of an Italian school than an international school. This is certainly a fact to consider when are looking at schools and may be something you welcome, or could leave your child feeling left out if he/she did not speak Italian.
Clubs and Organizations
As well as the usual school parent network, the embassies all have a social and cultural role in the city – the school choirs sing at the embassies, and the residences host Christmas parties and Thanksgiving parties.
The churches also form a social structure (www.allsaintsrome.org is the English speaking Anglican Church, though needless to say in Rome, there are all sorts of religions catered for- even besides the big one with its own city!).
There are associations whose members can share huge amounts of experience from years of living in Rome (eg. American Women’s Association of Rome www.awar.org ) as well as organisations where you can offer to volunteer. Caritas www.caritas.it is the largest in Rome; it runs soup kitchens, refuges and collects clothes, and always needs people to help in their many centres throughout the city.
Cultural academies have existed for over a hundred years, with libraries, cultural events as well as visiting academics – the British School is at www.bsr.ac.uk and the American Academy is at www.aarome.org.
And don’t forget the Italian language school which may well be your first port of call when getting to Rome - www.scuolaleonardo.com is one of the more established, as you consider not only your children’s education but your own.
Sports and Fitness
Sport is more of a spectator event than something an Italian does regularly – particularly worthwhile is a trip to the Olympic Stadium where Rome’s two football teams, Lazio and Roma, alternate in weekly matches.
There are gyms in Rome and even some yoga studios, though not nearly as many as in the US or UK, nor are these such popular activities. However, there are good tennis clubs - great places to play and to meet people. There are also football clubs for children, which can be a way of meeting Italian children as well as getting exercise.
Swimming is seen as a summer activity only, when pools open up along the Tiber and people head off to the nearby beaches and lakes.
Promenades and Cafes
Whilst there are not a large number of green spaces, people use the main streets at twilight for a leisurely promenade, and whole families with several pushchairs meander along the streets. As evening deepens, families can be found eating out.
Then the streets fill with young people meeting up in local squares or in the Campo del Fiori where, under the watchful eye of several truck loads of policemen, they go from bar to bar to see who they know and who they would like to know.
It is generally considered safe for young people to be out at night; dangers in Rome are mostly from cars and motorbikes. There are stories of burglaries – people being knocked out with sleeping gas while their house is ransacked, and bags being snatched from bicycle baskets - but there is not much of a culture of violence against the person and so children can go out at night and walk the city.
From the Back of a Vespa (Your Audrey Hepburn Fantasy)
And walking may well be the only way home since the Metro closes at 9pm and there are very few night buses. This brings up the question of motorbikes. Children from 14 years on are allowed a 50cc motorbike in Italy. Most expats are wary of the roads here and are reluctant to have their children on bikes, though they are aware that this frequently leads to their children being on the back of someone else’s bike – often a worse scenario.
Another temptation is the macchinetta, a 50cc engine in a flimsy car that gives young people freedom of the roads before they are allowed to use a proper car at 18. These are often to be found outside the international schools - raising envy amongst those who are bus bound.
All Roads Lead To (and Fro....)
Having dealt with finding a house, a school, some housekeeping help and your way around the banking and shopping situation, you can then indulge in some exploring of Rome and the areas around.
There are trains that leave regularly for Florence and Naples, and the Eurostar will get you to Milan in four hours. Flights are regular from both of the two airports in Rome, Fiumicino and Ciampino. The port of Rome at Civitaveccia has boats going to Corsica, France and Barcelona for a slower journey, or if you want to bring a car to Rome but miss some of the long drive here.
With so many visitors and so much to see in Rome, tourism is very well catered for and a true delight. A view of St Peters early in the morning, sunset over the Forum, a bicycle ride along the Tiber, Sunday walks in Villa Borghese, frequent stops for coffee and ice cream and innumerable restaurants to try out – all these will make it clear why all roads lead to Rome.