Looking at this photograph, you might notice well dressed people hanging out at sidewalk cafés, old ochre-colored buildings covered in ivy, cars parked on the cobblestones, and the marble portico of a church at the end of the street. I look at this photograph and I remember making a decision that would change the course of my life.
I was in Rome for the first time, staying in a tiny rented apartment in a narrow street behind Piazza Navona. There was an Italian moka pot—the kind you put on the stove to make espresso—but I didn’t know how to use it, so I went down to the Caffè della Pace for a cappuccino in the morning.
I could tell the place was special, though I didn’t know its history at the time. I know now that the Caffè della Pace is where Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola take their coffee when they’re in Rome. Today it’s about the closest you can get to La Dolce Vita . The café has been around since the 1800s, and it looks the part—all mahogany and marble with sculpted nymphs and an antique cash register. In the summer, they keep the windows and doors open, and patrons sit under white umbrellas outside, drinking espresso in the morning, or Prosecco and Campari in the evening.
Rome in July is always hot, but the heat is not what I remember. Roman heat weighs you down, but I recall feeling light and unburdened that day. I visited the Caffè della Pace many times after I went for that first cappuccino, so I don’t remember what time of day it was when I took the photograph, but I remember how I felt. It was a strange and beautiful feeling, as if I were dreaming. Or maybe the passage of time makes it appear to me as a dream.
The way I remember it, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I breathed in the Mediterranean air, looking at the beautiful people dressed in white and listening to them speak. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but when they spoke Italian, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a series of little operas. I looked around at the marble tables on the terrace of the Caffè della Pace, the ivy-covered buildings on either side of the street, and at the end, the pristine white portico of the church of Santa Maria della Pace. I remember stopping to take this photograph and thinking, I just have to learn this language and come back here to live.
And that was that. My decision was made. I had to learn Italian and live in Rome, no matter what.
I was twenty years old, and had just completed a rather formative year of study in Paris, where I felt I was becoming the person I wanted to be: smart, confident, and poised. I was not intimidated by a little challenge like learning a new language and carving out a place for myself in a foreign country. I had done it once, I could do it again.
Yet, this line of thinking would have been unimaginable before that year in Paris. There, I was faced with the task of reconciling the world’s expectations of me with my own desires. I began to build my identity by noticing little things about myself. For the first time, I acted capriciously instead of planning things out. I learned that I am a person who likes the freedom to act on a whim; who enjoys nursing a café au lait while sitting at a café writing in a journal; who can’t stand feeling rushed; who chooses rather arbitrarily which placards to read in art museums; who sometimes daydreams elaborate scenarios and entire conversations; who decides to do something and stubbornly keeps at it. Eventually, the little things added up to a complete picture.
A year later, I was back in the Eternal City with the intention of staying as long as I possibly could. I stayed for two years, and though I never managed to find another apartment near Piazza Navona, I visited the Caffè della Pace often. Now, the street bears many memories, but none of them would have been possible without the first.
Photo © Laura Itzkowitz. All rights reserved.
Laura Itzkowitz is a New York City-based writer and Research Assistant at Travel + Leisure. She spent her junior year on Smith’s Paris program and lived in Rome for two years after graduating. She holds a BA in French from Smith and an MFA in creative writing & translation from Columbia. She is a contributing editor at Untapped Cities, and her writing has appeared on Fodor’s Travel, Mic, Architizer, The Huffington Post, Business Insider, Words Without Borders, and others. She was named a New York expert blogger by Time Out New York and one of the Top 20 NYC bloggers by Hotel Club. She serves on the editorial board of Global Impressions as Alumna Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @lauraitzkowitz.by