If, right upon leaving Rome in August 2016, I had been asked to justify my decision of moving abroad, I would not have been able to provide a fully satisfactory answer. Faced with a question of the sort, I would have probably resorted to some generic reply along the lines of ‘I want to study in English and to experience life in the UK’, internally cringing at my own inauthenticity. It would not have been a matter of not knowing what to say, or of betraying a hidden desire to tell the most intimate aspects of my personal life to random people: I had had these sorts of exchanges countless times already, and appreciated them in their constituting comfortable ground for effortless small talk. My discomfort with my reply at that transitional time would have instead been caused by increasing feelings of self-consciousness around the fact that, if others did not have access to genuine reasons substantiating my choice to leave, neither did I. Yes, being able to study in an English-speaking country was undoubtedly part of the story, but I knew that something else was going on at a deeper level, that my urge to go away had its roots in a malaise whose exact nature I could not pinpoint.
In many ways, living in Glasgow has been to me much more about Rome than Glasgow itself, opening up a comparative dialogue which has helped me shed light on those aspects of my years in Rome I would never have been able to understand or even identify if I had stayed there. One of my biggest realisations came down to a gradual coming to terms with the self-evident and yet elusive fact that life in a city is not univocal or universal in any significant way. Though it is easy to be under the illusion that our own personal Rome or Glasgow correspond to the monolithic public entities we call by the same name, cities are never one but many. I used to think that the unspecified something which made me feel so compelled to leave had to do with Rome per se, but I was wrong: I can now admit that the culprit was the poisonous mix of its southern-eastern suburbs with my overthinking tendencies.
Rome is a city so massive that living at its outer edges means being stuck in a strange liminal space where feelings of belonging and estrangement are inherent. The city centre, animated with a continuous flow of wonderful and partially orchestrated chaos, is close enough and very familiar. Still, whenever I go there, its overwhelming workings always get in the way of feeling its beauty and motions as viscerally mine. It is only the suburbs, border lands of fixed instability, that make me resonate with true, if troubled, belonging. As opposed to the city centre’s frenzy, suburban life articulates itself around waiting, whether it is for the ever-late buses to show up, traffic congestion to diminish, the roads to be eventually evened out, the evening news to air, Spring to be visible in the patches of grass, the church bells to soberly announce the end of another day, and for something, anything, anything, anything new to happen. The act of waiting leaves a lot of room for reflection: inadvertently practising it for years as a consequence of the conjunction between my overthinking and my surroundings had the beneficial effect of leading to extremely valuable insights. Yet this eventually brought me to a state of mental oversaturation.
Suburban Rome’s defiance of ornamentation creates an environment where many contradictions intrinsic to contemporary life are stripped to their bare bones, rendered easier to spot but not being any easier to stomach. Simply having an attentive look around its streets unveils a wealth of deeply interesting realities. Its stories of profit, poverty, hard work, crime, injustice, passion, bureaucratic inefficiency and ideological tension are told by the crowded shopping centres, the abusive villas, the graffiti wars, the abandoned working sites, the high-raise ex office buildings inhabited by refugees, the omnipresent wildflowers, and the occasional excavation area remind you that, after all, this incredibly rich human microcosm is a thumb on the hand on the arm of the colossal body of a city called Rome.
Glasgow eased the suffocating knot. Due to its moderate size and living in its West End, moving here gave me the freedom to substitute waiting with action, stillness with dynamism. I completely immersed myself in its beauty and in its less-than-attractive parts, both of which I could recognise as unequivocally mine. Not having to stall anymore, and finally understanding that I had been stalling for years, I went on and went on and went on and I am still going on, following the hectic motions of university life. There is, I am not going to lie, a slight eeriness to it, the uneasy feeling I have partially lost my grasp on who I am, as well as who I am becoming. Constant movement is distracting: it overshadows analysis and postpones reflection. But it has been a much-needed change.
There always looms the awareness that this liberating Glasgow of mine is to others what suburban Rome was to me, and that someone is currently blooming there where I was slowly agonising, showcasing the fact that personal journeys of malaise and well-being in the city do not merely come down to generalising conceptions of the city itself. In my case, they originated in conflicting dynamics between outer edges and pulsating cores, hyper-reflectiveness and hyper-spontaneity, narrowing down to the crucial difference between letting prophecies and profanities spray-painted on walls reverberate in my mind for hours, and climbing the walls en route to town, brushing past every street and pavement to get somewhere else.