Below is my entry for this month’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge. As you can probably guess from context clues, these shindigs happen monthly, so keep an eye out for more of these and participate if you are looking for some wine writing inspiration. This month’s theme is “local.” As a special treat, this entry has photos, but be warned: I was an even worse photographer in Rome than I am now.
After months of sending out scholarship applications, reading over program manuals, and nervously waiting for my visa to be approved, I finally stepped off of an U.S. Airways flight in Rome. For the next three and a half months, I was going to live like a Roman and seamlessly blend in with the chic Europeans as they sipped red wine and nibbled on cornetti. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was living in la-la land, but I was quickly brought back down to earth when I was shoved in the back of a van with five other people who were all sweating through every pore.
Balancing on the thighs of people I just met as we zipped down the highway in ninety degree weather wasn’t exactly glamorous, but I didn’t truly realize that Rome would be completely different than I was expecting until I saw the palm trees. In all my Googling, not one page mentioned there would be palm trees littering Rome and it was completely jarring. These trees were meant for Florida and cabanas, not for a city that was supposedly eternal. Do they sound eternal to you? They sure as heck do not pop up in my mind next to the Roman Forum and Villa d’Este.
Even though the palm trees threw me off, there were a number of other things of which I was certain. One thing I was completely sure about was that Romans did not wear sneakers. This was one rule I was more than happy to uphold as I prided myself on a style that included cute skirts, adorable oxfords, and nothing that could be mistaken for running gear. However, after a week of blisters and a plethora of Romans walking around in rainbow-colored sneakers, I learned that this was one other thing my reading had not prepared me for. Sure, there were beautiful, well-dressed Italians walking around, but there were also ones who looked comfortable in graphic t-shirts that proudly displayed nonsensical, misspelled English words like “Fashion, Cat, Book.” This was one part of being a local that I wanted no part of.
While there were a plethora of moments where it was clear I was an outsider, some of the highlights within those first few weeks were the maid seeing me naked, a 45-minute midnight walk home from Castel Sant’Angelo, and vomiting during a 13-mile trek around the Aurelian Walls. I clearly knew nothing about being a local, but as I began to explore this city that was new to me, I still had high hopes of reaching the Holy Grail that was being mistaken for one by the time I left…even if I did refuse to buy that “Fashion, Cat, Book” shirt.
Though my Roman adventures were a bit bumpy to begin with, I finally hit my groove around the time when the school advertised a wine tasting class. I signed up before it was even stapled to the bulletin board because I’d be damned if I missed out on the only thing of which I was still confident: Italians loving wine. If it suddenly turned out that Italy was part of Africa, Ancient Rome never existed, and Roman soccer games were a safe experience, I would still hold onto my belief that Romans and wine go together like Americans and pumpkin spice lattes. So, on a warm September night, my roommates and I excitedly crossed the Tiber to attend this wine tasting class.
As we walked into the room, we were handed a complimentary wine glass to take home and then were allowed to choose our seats. I shot right up to the front row while most of the other people milled around or sat further away from the gorgeous sommelier. With a PowerPoint presentation behind her and a clicker in hand, I’d imagine most of the students who chose to sit in the back were having flashbacks to daunting Physics classes that still give them nightmares. Even the people surrounding me seemed surprised when this presentation began because when they signed up for wine tasting, they were expecting to down some glasses of wine, not actually learn about wine. By the time the background on wine, alcohol content, and varietals hit the hour mark, the buzz around me was filled with a mixture of boredom and impatience, but I was enthralled.
When the presentation began to wind down, my hand shot up in the air before the refined sommelier could even finish her statement. Like most of my experiences in the city, I was unprepared for what happened next. Gianni, the Student Activities Coordinator and all around cool dude, shoved a microphone into my face so everyone could hear my question. A tad nervously, I asked “I know you said Champagne can only be produced in Champagne, but is there a great difference between this type of sparkling wine and others?” She graciously answered my question since I was a novice to wine at this point before asking if there were any other questions. There was a silent beat where I could tell the students around me breathed out in relief at finally having the opportunity to try the wine, and then I raised my hand again. And again. I just wanted to know it all, and I wouldn’t be satisfied until all my pressing questions were out there for this somm to answer.
Eventually, my questions let up and we finally began trying the wine. Since we were in Italy, we obviously began with a Prosecco. From there we moved onto a Sauvignon Blanc and The Red. This latter wine doesn’t need a name besides The Red because it was the one that really mattered that night. It sparked my future love for bold wines; it was spicy, and exciting, and essentially everything that I was hoping Rome would be. To this day, it remains the most memorable taste of wine I’ve ever had. Whether that’s because it truly opened my eyes up to how great wine could be or because I was beginning to feel a little more at home in Rome, I’m not sure, but it was probably some combination of the two.
I didn’t know at that point if I’d ever really live like a local, but I did realize that my time in Rome would be an adventure. I may not have wanted to hang around students who couldn’t wait to spend eight euros on watered down mojitos, but all that meant was that I would have to work harder from then on to find the experience I was looking for. That one sip of wine, as ridiculous as this may sound, really woke me up and showed me that I should appreciate the little moments; that was what it meant to be Roman, and that was what I needed to do to truly feel like a local.