An AFAR Ambassador Spends a Week Learning Italian in the Eternal City
It’s Friday morning in Rome. I wake up in my apartment room at Hotel Rinascimento, right in the cuore of the city. I skip the continental breakfast buffet and instead walk to a bar down the street. “Un cappuccino e cornetto, per favore,” I order at the counter. I already know how much the bill is (€2.40) and pay in exact change. I’ve been to this bar every day this week. The server nods before moving onto the next customer. The bar counter is packed elbow-to-elbow with regulars. I try to make out any words in Italian that I can understand. The smell of spremuta d'arancia—fresh squeezed blood orange juice—permeates the air while I await my breakfast.
This is my third trip to Rome. On previous trips, I did more of a fly-by and only spent a couple of days in the capital before moving on to other parts of the country such as the Amalfi Coast or Venice. But this time, I only wanted to stay in one place—Rome—and dig deeper into this beautiful city. I joined Perillo's Learning Journeys program, and specifically their Live Like A Roman—Italian Language Study Abroad and Cooking in Rome itinerary. [Tanveer traveled with Perillo Tours as part of AFAR's partnership with the United States Tour Operators' Association (USTOA), whose members provide travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, and peace of mind to destinations across the globe.]
I down my coffee at the bar and take my pastry to go. I walk to Piazza dell'Orologio and enter a beautiful palazzo where I’ve been taking an Italian language class (via Learning Journeys) all week long. I would later learn this was the same school, Scuola Leonardo di Vinci, that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, attended and wrote about in her popular memoir.
Upon entering the building, I see some of my classmates rushing to finish yesterday’s homework in the hallway. “Ciao!” we call to each other as we file in. I take my usual seat by the window in one of those old-school wooden desks with foldable arms. One by one, a dozen other students trickle through the door. Among them, there is a 19-year-old student from Saigon, a middle-aged investment banker from Russia, and an elderly retired man from Australia. No one is from the same country. Only one thing has brought us all together: Italy.
“Buongiorno,” she greets us in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, as if to wake anyone up who still hadn’t had their morning coffee. “Cosa hai fatto ieri?’ (What did you do yesterday?)
This is how we’ve started each day, with Marta asking us what we did the previous day after class had ended. In a city where I was an anonymous solo traveler, this classroom had become my home base. It’s where I learned how to order in Italian at bars and restaurants, met fellow travelers and made new friends, and then discussed with Marta how I’d fared each day. I hadn’t attended a proper classroom in over a decade, but now that this was the last day of the program, I was already starting to feel a little sad.
A big reason why Rome is one of my favorites cities in the world is the food and wine. Perillo’s itinerary included plenty of opportunities for me to indulge like a modern-day Caligula. Via the Learning Journeys itinerary, I had joined a Food Tour of the Trastevere neighborhood, had lunch at a different palazzo with the Italian countess Violante, and learned to make Roman style pizza and gelato in a cooking class. And, of course, in between activities I had plenty of opportunities to try every kind of Italian delicacy—from delectable supplì (fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella) to the city’s famed gelato.
Maria has curated three unique experiences for the evening. We start at the rooftop bar of Terrazza Borromini with unparalleled views of Piazza Navona and the impossibly rich and dense Roman skyline. Later, we have a private tasting at the bar of the trendy hotel, DOM, where my cocktail was served in a teacup infused with liquid nitrogen. We finish our night at one of top 50 bars in the world, The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, where you need a password to get in. To get there, we walk down a nondescript alley and see a few people standing in front of a door with no sign. Maria had already made the necessary arrangements so we were immediately welcomed inside.
At one point during our conversation I ask Maria what made her decide to move to Rome. I knew she had walked away from a successful corporate career in Melbourne to move here—a city not exactly known for its high employment rate, especially for foreigners. She told me she used to come to Italy on vacation and fell in love with the city. “I cried every time I had to leave,” she admitted. “So one day, I finally decided to live here.”
The next morning, my shuttle to the airport arrived in front of the hotel. I’d only gotten a few of hours of sleep the night before and was still feeling the effects of the cocktails from the previous night. The shuttle van wove through the narrow cobblestoned streets as the sun rose in the sky. There was hardly anyone out. I recognized the cafe I frequented every morning and a restaurant I had dined at during my first night here, which already seemed like so long ago. We crossed a small bridge and the sunlight made the domes of the churches glow. My hangover disappeared as I watched the beautiful city fly past me in the morning light. And I remembered Maria’s words about tearing up each time she had to leave.
I realized that I, too, had fallen in love with Rome—like so many others before me. My week of living like a local in Rome allowed me to take a step back and feel like I was a part of the city. I wasn’t just snapping photos I had seen on postcards or eating at Tripadvisor-rated restaurants. I now understand the older I get and the more places that I travel to that it’s not just crossing places off on a bucket list or trying to get as many stamps on my passport as possible. It is more about la dolce vita (the sweet life), filled with simple Italian pleasures. It is about ordering a coffee at a bar in perfect Italian or giving someone directions on the street (since I actually knew where the place they asked about was!). Wherever life may take me in the next 5, 10 or 30 years, I’ll always remember that time I took an Italian language class in a palace and lived like a Roman for a week.
Tanveer is a travel, hotel, and lifestyle photographer who has explored more than 50 countries. Some trips have led him to photograph luxury hotels on the Amalfi Coast or the Riviera Maya, while others have taken him on long treks in the Bhutanese Himalayas or in search of lemurs in Madagascar. Follow his ongoing travels on Instagram or check out his travel portfolio.