Better moving than standing still

After two and a half years, we are leaving Rome and heading back to the U.S. The time spent here has been enriching – both personally and professionally – but it is time to hit that open road. Neil Young recently said, “I’ve always been better moving than I am standing still.” I think Derek and I are like that. I guess we are okay at being unsettled and something deeper gnaws at us to keep changing our landscapes and experiences.  I guess we are mad to live, mad to experience, and want to take it all in. On our terms. Or, maybe we are just tired of being expats.

Before coming to Italy we lived in NY for about a year, before that, Kenya for a while, then NY (in 7 different apartments), then Arizona, then Georgia, then New Hampshire, all while traveling around the world for work and pleasure about 60% of our time. On the move. Always moving. Losing ground. Or maybe gaining ground. Don’t know.  Maybe I just yearn to go home, to something familiar and easy.

We meet a lot of expats in Rome and on our travels, and for some, I am not sure when was the last time they were “home.” (Derek told me that in most other languages, there is no word for home. There is a word for house, but not home. Per esempio, casa e casa e casa. Basta.). Sometimes I wonder what expats are seeking or running away from. In the Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character Jake Barnes said to the Robert Cohn character: “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”

One thing Rome taught me is that no matter where you are, no matter how beautiful and iconic your surroundings can be, you still have to deal with yourself, your habits, your life. Maybe we put too much faith in that a place, a city, a country, will make us happy. But they all have good points and bad points, so just find a city, find yourself a city to live in, as David Byrne rightly put. I guess Derek and I just choose New York. I guess I choose not to be an expat.

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around cafés.”  – The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

So what will I miss about Rome you may ask? I guess nothing. Keep on…keeping on. Rome is a great city to live in, a terrible city to work in. Basic day to day interactions slowly kill you. I miss getting mail. I don’t like train strikes every Friday. I like to hail a cab in the street, not a designated station 2 kilometers away. I like more than just Italian food. I like other Italian food besides roman food. I don’t want my newscaster to have massive boobs and siliconed lips. It would be reassuring to know that at least one pharmacy is open during summer holidays, or go figure, a hospital. I don’t want to die by being hit by some asshole motorino and of course, I would get the blame because pedestrians have no rights in Rome. The plethora of cigarette smoke sucks. Moreover, I don’t like a city overrun by cars without a cyclist in sight. I don’t want to be imprisoned for being a scientist. I don’t want to have to pay my electricity bill at the post office. I like shops being open on Sundays, cause I work Monday through Friday. Go figure. Speaking of working, is there a gym in Rome that is open before 10 am?  And goddammit, I like my cappuccinos hot.

I sound spoiled don’t I? There is the dream, and then reality. But there are many things that I will miss about Bella Roma. San Pietrinis and cobble stone streets, the water flowing nasoni, the churches, the food…more on that. The way the sunrise comes up over the Aventino. The use of language and bodies, hands, when communicating, the cheap but tasty wine, the hilltop towns, amalfi. The weather. Our home, our garden including all the peppers, strawberries, herbs. My runs along the Tiber river. The incredible almost unreal beauty of the city center. Did I mention the weather? I won’t miss the cafes…

I think what I will miss most is the food. Italian food is the bomb. The care, passion and importance of local and regional cuisines is unequaled. I am going to miss the cuisine deeply, profoundly, and I have five additional pounds on this frame to show for it. The buffalo mozzarella from Campania and the pecorino romano were in our daily diet. The tomatoes. Like no place else on earth. Pasta carbonara, which I would usually find disgusting, is delicious here. The seasonal foods – puntarella, artichokes, porcinis, hazelnuts, and blood oranges only from Sicily. Homemade pastas, and good soft gnocchi. Raw red shrimps and Botarga. Yum. Calabrian hotsauce. The fried foods – bacala, olive ascolane, fiore di zucca stuffed with cheese and anchovies. The fantastic wines. Prosecco. I will miss Da Teo and Gensola, our neighborhood places.

I will miss our friends.

I had the opportunity to work at two food organizations in Rome. I told you I like to move… I worked at Bioversity, an international research center focusing on agricultural biodiversity and livelihoods. I served as the Nutrition Leader there. They have a very cool mandate that deserves more attention. Thereafter, I worked at the UN World Food Programme in a program called REACH, which is an “interagency initiative” of 4 United Nation organizations supporting countries in nutrition activities. Both experiences were totally different and challenging and both provided incredible learning experiences for me.

So what have I learned you may ask? Well, I don’t want to be a manager/administrator. Writing performance evaluations, hiring and firing people, and looking at budgets 90% of the time, is not my gig. We all have to do some of it, but I just don’t want it to be my sole job. I prefer being a scientist and researcher who is contributing to development by contributing to the evidence of what works and how to make it work.  Politics are everywhere and unavoidable, but sometimes, they can kill the spirit of a project. People forget why they are working in development and get caught up in the workplace dynamics. Maybe they need to question if they have gone into the right line of work. UN isn’t supposed to be a cushy life where you engage in the art of war 24/7 without doing any substantive work that benefits those in most need. If that is your thing, go be a freakin banker. Hmmm…what else. I like data. I like young people. I like field work but usually when it has research or learning components. I think you know where I am going with this…

Anyways, it is time to move on, back to NY, back to reality, back to normalcy. Back to the English language being spoken. Back to variety, diversity. Back to cold weather. Back to functional transport systems. Back home.

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7 Responses to Better moving than standing still

  1. Maggie says:

    beautiful thoughts for your transition… wishing you well.. and i will take you out for a really hot cappuccino next time i am in the big apple.

  2. trainerkimi says:

    You write so beautifully Jess! I love your insights. I’m with you about being an expat. I love to travel, and I enjoy being on American soil. Wishing you and Derek a great transition back to NY.

  3. Tanuja says:

    Good luck Jess! We’ll miss you.. Keep movin’ but we will keep following your posts and be connected.. Thanks for your inspirations! T

  4. diane porlier says:

    Good grief !!! You are returning to a NYC that you will not recognize!! Geez, I hope it is not in the next few days with all the uncertainty. Watching newsclips of the devastation we were saying over and over how relieved that you were not in the eye of the storm this time. We can totally agree with everything you have articulated so well. We can relate to the restlessness, the politics etc. as we are struggling with the same issues as well as the thoughtless, self-serving attitudes. Have you actually quit your post?
    We are living in very challenging and uncertain times ourselves as things are shaky for us with the economy really nailing us.
    We have so much abiding love for you. Hoping you celebrated your birthday well.

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