Rome beyond the Ruins
In 2004 I took my then 14-year-old son on his first foreign travel adventure. My original intention was to do a condensed backpacking trip through a number of European highlights, but our limited two-week time period and the unpredictable nature of adolescent cooperation made me realize that settling in one location for the entire time was a better plan. I decided that an extended stay in Rome, the Eternal City, would be an excellent introduction to the wonders of world travel.
My son may have been enthusiastic about the trip, but he didn’t let it show. Art and history were not on his skateboarder radar screen. He evaluated every image of an ancient ruin only for its potential as a skate park feature. I had to remind myself that the primary reason for this adventure was to open the world to him from his point of view.
Our trip was scheduled during Easter week which meant that visiting the Vatican museums would test even my patience. Instead, I focused on finding connections to skateboarding in Rome. After piecing together many awkward Google translations of Italian skateboarder blogs, I found a few Roman skate spots that got the most mention and made them the primary goal of our excursions. That led to a trip that was more exciting, surprising and rewarding than I ever imagined.
Our adventures took us into neighborhoods where we were likely the only Americans. With skateboarding as the common language, my son connected with his Italian peers, who in turn welcomed me as a kind of necessary accessory. For two weeks we became citizens of 21st century Rome.
My biggest reward, however, went beyond being part of my son’s obvious enjoyment. While planning for the trip, I found references to underground artists groups who build communities in abandoned factories throughout Rome. Being illegal and transient, it was difficult to find them but often well worth the effort when you did. Of course, they didn’t have published addresses. Because of the skateboarders, though, we ended up in one of the largest of these underground art communities.
Every Wednesday, in an abandoned Fiat factory on the outskirts of Rome, the huge assembly floor became an indoor skate park. The skateboarders we met invited us to attend. The location wasn’t on any of my tourist maps but a helpful English speaking employee at the Colosseum Tourist center gave us directions to all the right tram lines, well beyond typical tourist activity and right into the heart of underground Italian art. The abandoned factory was the site I had hoped to find. The Wednesday skateboard fest was just one of the events taking place there. I met artists of all ages and backgrounds from every part of the world. Both my son and I were thrilled.
Of course, we did visit some main attractions of ancient Rome. Perhaps because he wasn’t preoccupied with being skateboard deprived, my son was impressed by what he saw and felt, particularly in the Pantheon. And both of us learned that being open to the unexpected can lead to a perfect experience that could not have been planned.