A city out of time: what do we dream of when we dream of Rome?

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On a writing grant to the eternal city an Italian-born Australian encounters its two faces – the tourist’s fantasy and the residents’ reality

My desire to live in Rome germinated on a European holiday almost 20 years ago. I exited Trastevere train station, bleary eyed after the long-haul flight, and was instantly revived by the sight of women in tight skirts and stilettos zooming past on their Vespas. Men at the local bar made fun of my Italian pronunciation. Come si dice ‘tre’? they would tease each time I turned up to buy tram tickets or the paper. How do you say three? Tre, trre, trrrrrre, I’d sputter, trying desperately to roll my Rs.

Last year my fading dream of living in Rome for more than a tourist heartbeat came true. Scrolling listlessly through emails after a night out, I found one from the Australia Council for the Arts with the subject heading: Grant Notification. It could only be a fail. Wouldn’t there be trumpet blasts and marching bands, a phone call at least, if I had passed?

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