THE BLOG

Letter From an Electric Bus in Rome

05/12/2014 06:16 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014
Enrico Fianchini via Getty Images

After living outside of Italy for the past eight years, I moved back to Rome four months ago with nostalgic eyes. I naively hoped to find much of what I had left untouched or, simply, authentically Roman in its inertia. As I observe Rome's quirky corners that were familiar to me long before being married with children, I see how the city often thought to be eternally stuck in its past has changed, albeit gradually.

Due to work and family, I have now lived outside of America for almost 20 years. When I'm in Europe, I feel American. When I'm in America, I feel European. In the Middle East, where I spent the last four years living in Tel Aviv, I felt at home, blending in as an American-European in a melting pot of a city that some Israelis call "New York For Beginners."

Once again, I'm now practicing saying, "Rome is home." I'm also wondering how my recent impressions may reflect not only a change in the city but also in myself.

Whenever I return to Rome after a long time away, it still makes me giddy to ride the 12-seater, Number 116-electric bus around the historic center. Sea gulls fly faster from Via Veneto to Campo dei Fiori than bus passengers may travel, and the wait for it is often a toe-tapping 20 minutes. But, as this ecologically-driven, mini-van with a sunroof quietly creeps over backstreet cobblestones like a cereal box on wheels, it offers front row seats to spectacular historic sites, always chauffeured by a silent driver whose welcoming sign is usually "No Talk. No Info."

On the bus, we dodge cars -- fewer Fiats and Alfas than eight years ago, more Volkswagens, Audis and Fords, the same number of scarab-esque, mini-cars driven by reckless teenagers. All vehicles are still parked pompously on sidewalks, squished in dog excrement, preventing baby carriages and elderly couples from leisurely strolling.

Tourists riding the bus with me boast about their free ride on public transportation, a perk of the new RomaPass sold by the City Council to encourage visiting museums and monuments. Taxis cost more than ever, as a swanky, new Prius slithers silently past us. Locals drone on about the new metro stations soon to be dug out of archeological digs. The bus driver strategically inches past numerous Car2Go Smart cars, rentable by the minute via a Smartphone application, some electrically powered, and all allowing entry into the historic center without the stress of difficult parking.

Many street corners now display a trio of garbage bins reflecting Rome's newfound efforts to finally recycle -- but no one can tell you where the trash really ends up or if it remains differentiated. These containers, alas, are frequently rummaged through by a range of different social classes, desperately pawning someone's trash for another's treasure as one of numerous signs of suffering from the national economic crisis.

Yet a positive outcome of the austerity shows food shoppers trickling into supermarkets carrying their own cloth bags from home, finally opting to resist the pay-as-you-go plastic bags. Additionally, locals fill up their glass bottles out of fontanelle or drink Acqua Chilometro Zero at eateries.

I hop off the bus on one of my favorite streets in the historic center that used to house numerous, funky, clothing boutiques that set fashion trends in Rome. Now, of the few boutiques still open, their storefront windows are permanently wallpapered with Saldi, Sconti or Liquidazione Totale. While dusting their empty clothes' racks of low-quality fabrics, salespeople try luring in customers by promising markdowns. One bookstore's sign reads, "Siamo molto aperti." (We are very open) Many browse, few buy.

Eager to shop where customers could splurge on a Valentino dress or a Missoni blouse, I find the boutique I missed while living abroad shut down -- not just for lunch, but for good. It is now a lonely neighbor of countless souvenir shops and fast food joints offering kebabs, sushi or pizza, all out of the same kitchen.

I could console myself by diving into a cone of gelato biologico from any of the new sprinkling of ice-cream shops around town now selling gluten-free or vegan flavors.

But, instead, I sink into a cappuccino, which, like a good hotdog in Manhattan, is still one of the cheap and satisfying delicacies of Rome. George Clooney has waved his sexy wand on Rome's specialty and coffee shops, like Castroni and Sant'Eustachio, which now sell their daily java blend in capsules that slide into a Nespresso machine.

For lunch, I peak into various trattorie and pizzerie to spot elbow-to-elbow tables of locals and tourists, where reservations are still required in some to guarantee una pasta caccio e pepe. These days, Romans might treat themselves to Puglia's catch of the day over a Prada clutch. While not all of them are dining out on a spigola (bass) or a chianina (high-end steak), many rebuild their spirits by calling it a night after a tasty primo (first course) and a generous glass of Falanghina once every couple of weeks.

There is, however, one thing that is still hard to order in Rome: the bill.

I end up settling for a hamburger at L'Hamburgheria di EATALY (you can take a girl out of New York but you can't take New York out of a girl).

I swoon into a TropeaGiotto of Piedmont-meat topped with red onions of Tropea on an organic wheat bun, and silently thank Oscar Farinetti, the founder of EATALY for introducing a concept that I pray will one day put McDonald's out of business. If you visit this culinary mecca near the Ostiense train station on a rainy day, which offers the best of Italy's regional cuisine without having to travel up and down the country, you'll think Italians haven't eaten for weeks.

The region of Lazio is following suit in taking the best of Italy's culinary roots and jazzing up its local street food in several restaurants in Rome, where a suppli' (mozzarella rice ball), and crocchette di patata (potato puffs) take center stage over nouvelle cuisine.

And, other bite-size delicacies? Years ago, I craved American cupcakes while Carrie ate them in the West Village in Sex and the City. Then, I had to bake them at home if I wanted to devour them in Rome. Now, specialty bakeries pull them out from their own ovens from Ponte Milvio to Piazza Fiume.

Wandering past several of Rome's movie theaters, I sigh. One aspect of Roman cultural life that has declined since my living here in the late 90s is seeing films in their original language. As many Romans are sending their children to foreign schools by day, they continue to watch foreign films dubbed in Italian at the cinema by night.

Long gone are the days of Trastevere's Pasquino, that tiny, sloppy, charming movie theater with backbreaking seats where Romans felt international for the night. I'll never forget the boiling summer I watched Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett shiver to death next to the Titanic while I wiped sweat from my brow under Roman stars after the Pasquino pulled back its roof like a convertible car.

Nanni Moretti's theater still shows an occasional film in its original language, but most Romans complain that they have to use their passports to get there, because it is, as they say, chilometri giu' sul Lungotevere. But, God bless the Nuovo Olimpia, that sliver of a movie theater on Rome's Via del Corso that still manages to keep afloat with its small selection of non-dubbed films.

My feet are no longer trained to trek over cobblestones, and I'm ready for my faithful bus to accompany me home.

On my bumpy ride back, I see that Rome is still beautiful, still lazy, still charming, and still suffering.

Despite all this, it is moving forward, albeit a little more slowly than other European capitals -- much like its electric bus.

I miss the energy of New York and Tel Aviv, and the thirst of those who live there to pursue new ideas and turn them into something tangible almost immediately.

But, there is an alternative type of energy in Rome that keeps its eternal clock ticking. And perhaps I've been homesick for just that.

I suspect I'll be eternally homesick wherever I live -- homesick for other countries when I'm living in Rome and homesick for Rome when I'm living abroad.

Comunque sia, Roma sara' sempre casa. (Rome will always be home)