La Dolce Vita Famiglia
What is life really like for a young British family living in Rome? Isabel Lamb, founder of The Little Grand Tour, is preparing to move back to London after nearly three years, and reflects on her time in The Eternal City...
To visit Rome with children can be a fascinating, fun-filled city break. On holiday, one might imagine watching gladiators inside the Colosseum, hugging columns outside the Pantheon, or eating late-night ice creams in the city’s beautiful piazzas.
But to live in the Eternal City with a young family? That is an entirely different story.
For us, the international school our children go to has been the central focus of our daily lives, and a lifesaver for an English family of four, with limited grasp of Italian on arrival. It has introduced us to a fascinating and friendly international crowd, many of whom have been happy to help when our electricity was mysteriously cut off or recommend a locksmith when I accidentally closed the door of our apartment with our only keys inside.
The ex-pat Roman scene is a mix of the old aristocratic families (known as the Nobiltà Nera or Black Nobility), famous names in fashion, UN employees and ambassadors. Each parent at the school has their own story to tell, but what unites them is a desire for their children to learn English; I am amazed by how much they love British traditions, from quiz nights to Christmas carols!
I have thrown myself into life at the school, joining the parents’ choir and committee, and have met a group of people from all over the world, who have opened my eyes in ways I could never have imagined.
We quickly got used to the Roman way of life: enjoying apperitivi, the endless free food that accompanies a glass of wine; ordering coffee (there’s no queuing: it’s elbows out and shouting across at the barista); and celebrating religious feast days, such as La Befana (an Epiphany stocking-filler celebration, centered not around St Nicolas, but instead a witch on a broomstick), and San Giuseppe’s: our favourite, given our son is called Joseph, and for which every bakery in the city produces wonderful cherry-topped cakes, zeppole.
The Romans sure know how to put on a show for these festivals: Carnivale, which coincides with what the Brits call Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, sees every square foot of pavement or park strewn with coloured paper confetti. Children are excused – nay, encouraged – to throw this confetti and silly string wherever they choose, and all enjoy the abundance of frappe (fried pastry dipped in icing sugar) on offer. It is a magical time for children!
What is funny about living abroad is that it makes you appreciate the mundane things back home that you so often take for granted. Sausages from Waitrose, normal butter, cheddar cheese…. Okay, there’s a theme here. Mainly food! Although the fresh produce is better in Italy, we do miss Shreddies, Cadbury's chocolate, proper English bacon.
Although Italian cuisine is, arguably, the most popular in the world, after a while it bores the expat. Like ravenous savages, we go in search of Asian food; a curry; even a juicy burger will suffice. Anything. But. Pasta. The Italians never tire of it, which explains the lack of good international restaurants in this, a capital city. Italians, or should I say Romans, are just fine with their style, doing it their way.
But the gelati (ice cream) have been a revelation! They are a well-earned treat after grappling with the daily tussle of Roman life. There’s a gelateria on every corner in this city and the ice cream rules here for all ages! This Italian love of ice cream means that businessmen in their suits can be seen lining up to get whipped cream dolloped atop their triple-flavoured cone during their afternoon break.
And that other great Italian food staple, pizza, can be found every fifty metres. Pizza Bianca is our post-school snack of choice, and something I fear will not translate to life back in London.
When you land in a foreign country, food shopping and trying to find alternatives to brands you bought in the UK, are a challenge. I was so chuffed when I finally found Bran Flakes under a different name!
The Italians don’t do weekly shops. The tiny trolleys the local supermarket provides are not built for culinary forward planning and mine is often piled high with enough food for the week, before I squeeze all my shopping onto the world’s shortest conveyor belt at the checkout. After three years I still raise eyebrows on the till.
In the last year, I’ve noticed that things may be changing in Rome; something is afoot. Starbucks have managed to get their corporate foot in the door, opening in Piazza Spagna; ‘healthy’ restaurants selling juices and ‘clean’ food are popping up; and there’s an amazing new department store, Rinascente, which I’m currently frequenting weekly and which rivals any London equivalent.
Local whispers suggest a Chinese investor is buying up a lot of the city and modernising it, which it does desperately need. The playgrounds are in an appalling state, confirmed by my children on a visit to Battersea Park last year, where they couldn’t believe the sight of a swing that wasn’t broken.
Rome needs to change. Not in spirit – the people are genuinely lovely - but in function. The metro and buses need a massive overhaul and public parks are in disarray. And don’t get me started on the dog poo or the rubbish overflowing onto the streets.
We have been lucky enough to have been invited to weekends away with local families to their weekend villas and have explored the surrounding countryside, which has been such a welcome respite amid the chaos of Roman life.
With our flat’s high ceilings and vast garden, we know how lucky we’ve been. This home has more than enough space for visiting friends and family, and having guests at least monthly has been a huge advantage of living here. We have had such fun entertaining, both in and out of our flat. I feel this hosting has given me the opportunity to re-invigorate relationships with my sisters and my mother, as well as a chance to properly ‘be’ with loved ones. Catching up with people in London felt a bit more intermittent. The children have loved seeing family in a different environment, especially their cousins!
Overall, although challenging at times, Rome has given us a truly unforgettable and enriching experience. We have all grown closer as a family and we’ve learnt to lean on one other so much more - because we’ve had to. The children have been exposed to another language and culture, which is a gift worth so much in an increasingly international world. My husband has enhanced his career. And I, the most inflexible of humans, have risen to the challenge and enjoyed so much of it. We have met fascinating people and we’ve all experienced an adventure that will shape who we are and what we do from now on. We move back to London this year but I’m sure we will be returning to this wonderful, frustrating, beautiful, chaotic city for a very long time.
Isabel will be running tours at art galleries in London from summer 2018. See website for details.