12. Down and out in Rome

The next “season” of Laurenissima begins where all good stories do: at rock bottom. If “happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” then a story containing a bit of hardship and general misery usually makes for good reading (thanks for the pointer, Tolstoy). Year two of life in Italy almost broke my resolve to live here and by the end I was sure I’d be moving back to California. Of course, it had all started out very differently.

After nearly breaking up then falling back in love in my first year in Rome, my boyfriend Dario and I were moving in together. In the preceding year our relationship had strengthened, I felt closer to him than anyone I’d ever met. We could share anything and talked about dreams and plans late into the night. He was someone who I could just walk down the street with and it would be fun. It would be magic.

He was moving out of his mom’s house for the first time (something, I have to add, is very normal in Italy to do way, way, WAY later than Americans), we’d both be living with a significant other for the first time, and even though we’d be living in an apartment with a friend of his, it was exciting and romantic.

He would definitely be able to find a job shortly after we moved in together … right?

In the meantime his mother would help out with his half of the rent, using sporadic funds received from his father who now lived in Milan with his second family. Foolproof plan. For sure.

I asked The English School where I’d worked the previous year if they would give me more work in return for exclusively working for them. I was one of the few returning teachers after all so I wasn’t surprised when they said, of course. Great!

Could they maybe help get me a visa this year since I was still illegal in Italy? We’ll talk about it “at some point.” Sounds good!

In the meantime, I’d make headway in someday getting out of English teaching by finding another job like… hmm… what… I know! A translator. I’ll just improve my shaky Italian immediately, no prob.

Well … the foundations were not sound.

Let’s put into this crucible of expectations a young couple in love and see what happens.

I did not immediately become fluent in Italian (shocking), Dario didn’t get a job (in Italy, really not surprising), the sporadic funds from mom for his rent were… well, sporadic. Add to this an obvious question: does an Italian boy who has never done laundry or washed dishes suddenly start doing laundry and washing dishes? You know the answer to that one.

And the school? They gave me less work than the year before. I couldn’t believe it. They kept telling me “more work was coming.” I needed it now. I’d sunk all my savings into moving to Italy and made none to make up for it in my first year of teaching English. I had a little money from waitressing over the summer back in California but that was gone in the first month of being back for rent and expenses.

Lessons trickle in slowly at the beginning of the year as parents signed their kids up but by November I should have had a full schedule. I didn’t. Then in December, when there are always fewer lessons due to the Christmas break, even MORE of my students cancelled than usual: sick kids, early vacations trips. When I went in to get my paycheck at the end of the month (ahem, envelope of cash) it was €390. My half of the room we rented in an apartment with one of Dario’s friends was €350.

Since I was the only one with a job, that meant we had €40 between the two of us to get through January.

I had to go to the school. They, after all, had been prepaid for the lessons for the year and I was only being paid for completed lessons. If parents cancelled more than 24 hours in advance they didn’t lose anything. The school didn’t lose anything. Only I did. Well over half of my nearly non-existent lessons had cancelled. Could I get an advance or be compensated in some way? “Sorry Lauren, that’s not our policy. But don’t worry, more lessons are coming in soon!”

When I came home and found that Dario had absent mindedly eaten an entire box of cereal (while not getting a job) I exploded – it was the beginning of many months of my transformation into someone I didn’t want to be. Someone who nagged, who snapped, who yelled.

I wish I’d yelled at the school and not Dario. I was too shy. I didn’t know what I was doing. wish I’d told them: this is all I have! But I was embarrassed not to have more.I was embarrassed to be illegal and to know I had no power. Maybe because the school was American, I thought they had my best interests at heart and wouldn’t try to take advantage of a foreigner. I wish I’d told them to be ashamed of themselves. Instead I was ashamed of myself. What was I doing in this foreign country? Maybe all of this was a mistake.

That year it snowed in Rome for the first time in 26 years. The Romans prepared like it was the apocalypse. Supermarket shelves were empty, people hauled water bottles home in case pipes froze. Everything came to a standstill as people posted tiny lopsided snowmen pictures on Facebook. I watched the snow from the window of our room. Gray skies, white roads, a silence.

We’ve all been down and out. At least I was down and out in Rome. There was a rawness to existence. Everything was new. Every success a great victory. There were days like a basket of overflowing fruit. Days when I felt so full of love and excitement. Days when I felt like I was so close to Dario we could never be parted. Days when I hugged friends I’d met months before and felt: we’ll know each other the rest of our lives. We’ll always share this. I filled journal after journal after journal with impressions, thoughts, desperations, musings, stories. I’m doing it, I thought. I’m writing. I’m dreaming. I’m creating. I’m also a bit… hungry.

For most of these months I survived on a lunch out of suppli – the fried rice balls you find at pizza to go places that cost a euro. For dinner we had pasta or we’d go to Dario’s moms house and ask to take leftovers home.

Since it was the Christmas season, it seemed like every dinner, there was another Panettone lying around. Panettone is a large bread loaf full of dried fruits that everyone gifts each other at Christmas in Italy. They start to fill the supermarkets in November, whole towers of cardboard boxes proclaiming the holiday season. We made off with one every time we went back to Dario’s mom’s house and ate them for most of December and January, one shred at a time.

In better moments I would think: we can be starving artists, I’ll write a great novel, he’ll compose music. Turns out when you have no money or food around and you’re bickering all the time, you’re not exactly at your creative best.

Then my friend got deported. She’d gone hom after overstaying her three month allotted time in Italy by a few months and in Switzerland they’d essentially blacklisted her on her way home. She wasn’t allowed to return to EUROPE for a minimum of two years. If she tried and was caught again, it could be ten more years. I felt like this was every third conversation I had in Rome. Where should you fly? What countries were strict? What were the consequences. Were handcuffs involved (in one case yes), questioning in small rooms (definitely), and was it worth it? I missed my friend and these conversations felt like one lapping wave after another of anxiety I didn’t know how to solve. So I just… went on.

As I met more teachers I started to learn that even the brand new school employees were getting more work than me. Later I would learn that it was becoming harder for the school to pay American teachers in cash and they were trying to recruit more UK teachers who they could legally pay. This means that the whole time they were telling me to just hang on and be patient, they were keeping me at the bottom of the ladder on purpose and not telling me why. A work visa? You already know they never tried. And why would they? I was completely uninformed. What I found online said you need a sponsor so I was waiting for that sponsor. I hadn’t yet learned that anything you wanted, you had to make yourself or reach for yourself. Job training? Legal documents? Realistic pay? I couldn’t wait for these things, I had to make them.

I offered to work in the office since they clearly needed help there. Maybe that could supplement my income. “We’ll talk about it,” they said. A few months later they announced that they’d hired an office assistant.

In February, a friend asked me to translate his entire novel from Italian into English for €300. To me, a fortune. Did I speak enough Italian to do this? Basically no. I knew it was an incredibly low fee but I looked at it more as a resume builder and a way to improve my Italian and besides I really needed that €300.

When an opportunity arises, take it. You don’t know where it will lead. In this case, I was about to get an idea where.

“This novel has upset many people,” he said. “My girlfriend’s family has refused to speak to me since they read it.”

“That’s terrible! Why?”

“Lauren, you’re also a writer so you know that the things you write are fiction. They aren’t real.”

“Of course.”

“They didn’t understand that. They thought the character was me and he does some questionable things. But that’s what art is about! That’s what it’s for! If you don’t push the envelope, are you truly alive?!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll understand.”

Now let me just explain something. The author was named Giacomo. He’d lived in England for a period of time and now lived in Rome, teaching English to Italians and writing his novels.

The character in the book was named Iacopo. He’d lived in England for a period of time and now lived in Rome, teaching English to Italians and writing his novels.

Ok, here’s the twist: Every time the Iacopo character heard English spoken, his evil alter-ego would take over his body and the helpless Iacopo would become a prisoner inside himself, watching with horror everything that the alter ego did and having no control over it. Stay with me…

This alter ego that was unleashed by the English language was ….a sex maniac.

Every lesson he seduced another student in graphic detail as he slowly unraveled poor Iacopo’s life.

Ok, I started to understand why the girlfriend’s family had been a little upset. The possibility for total hilarity was evident but I was not seeing the humor at that stage in life. As I struggled through every single word learning all sorts of new vocabulary describing one sex act after the other, I took breaks only to yell at Dario to find a job.

Yeah… Lesson One in how to NOT improve your relationship.

The more time passed the more frustrated we both became, I saw myself turning into a nagging, sarcastic asshole and he went more and more into his shell without any resources to get a job through a connection, experience and without the “make anything happen, anything at all!” approach that I was starting to see was pretty unique to American universities and not so much to Italian ones. You couldn’t even be sure that your own Professor would show up to administer a final exam let alone count on some administrator to give you pointers on your cover letter. 

As I translated how an alter ego had ripped off the blouse of a particularly busty student as she started to moan and writhe on top of her grammar exercises, I took breaks to watch the surges of people coursing down Via Cavour in one protest after another. The city came to a stop as rivers of people filled the streets and the sidewalks, demanding change, justice, transformation (essentially, everything I wanted on a much smaller, personal scale). We watched little knots form, jostle and smooth out, lines of protestors with flags, then with horns then with whistles, voices and arms raised. Smoke rose from one corner than another. Shouts. Certain individuals threaded their way through the crowd, pushing forward, going somewhere while I watched from above. I didn’t even know what the protests were about. The whole city was simmering and so were we.

One of Dario’s friends started growing weed on our balcony since we were the only ones with a balcony. Logic. Every time Dario heard a helicopter he’d rush to the balcony and bring the plant inside. “As if they are sending helicopters over Rome to find lone cannabis plants!” I said. “Are they going to send a search party?”

He was watching more and more conspiracy videos and his sense of paranoia was growing. (Thank god we couldn’t smoke the weed, can you imagine?) It started to feel like every time I came home from a day spent on public transportation and conducting a smattering of lessons there were more questions to be answered: What is the penalty for growing weed on a balcony? 

Did September 11th actually happen or was it a hoax? Did you see how the tower fell? Did HAARP control the weather? What are geo-politics exactly? Did the Bangladesh guys on the side of the road in Rome have an association with HAARP since they always knew when it was going to rain and were out on the street selling their umbrellas? Was HAARP secretly making side umbrella profits while controlling the world? Are you insane?!

We argued about these things incessantly as what had been clear and good and full of hope slowly splintered into unrecognizable fragments of the dreams we’d had.  It was easier to argue about HAARP than to admit: this wasn’t working. The job, the relationship, Italy. Italy wasn’t working. I decided at the end of the school year, I’d pack up and move back “to the real world.”

But, as so often happens, it’s the moment you make a decision to quit that everything changes.

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