In Elizabeth Gilbert’s (wonderful) book, ‘Eat Pray Love‘ she has a conversation with her friend Giulio about why Rome is a beautiful city, but it’s not ‘her’ city. Giulio says that each city and each person has a word to describe them, and if your word and the city’s word don’t match, you’ll never be comfortable there. It’s easier to type out the conversation than to try to explain it, so we’re including that section here (pp. 102-104):
“I remember something that my friend Maria’s husband, Giulio, said to me once. We were sitting in an outdoor café, having our conversation practice, and he asked me what I thought of Rome. I told him I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Just as we were talking a helpful visual aid walked by. It was the quintessential Roman woman – a fantastically maintained, jewellery-sodden forty-something dame wearing four-inch heels, a tight skirt with a slit as long as your arm, and those sunglasses that look like race cars (and probably cost as much). She was walking her little fancy dog on a gem-studded leash, and the fur collar on her tight jacket looked as if it had been made out of the pelt of her former little fancy dog. She was exuding an unbelievably glamorous air of: “You will look at me, but I will refuse to look at you.” It was hard to imagine she had ever, even for ten minutes of her life, not worn mascara. This woman was in every way the opposite of me, who dresses in a style my sister refers to as “Stevie Nicks Goes to Yoga Class in Her Pajamas.”
I pointed that woman out to Giulio, and I said, “See, Giulio – that is a Roman woman. Rome cannot be her city and my city too. Only one of us really belongs here. And I think we both know which one.”
Giulio said, “Maybe you and Rome just have different words.”
“What do you mean?”
He said, “Don’t you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn – what is the word on the street?”
Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be – that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.
“What’s Rome’s word?” I asked.
“SEX,” he announced.
“But isn’t that a stereotype of Rome?”
“But surely there are some people in Rome thinking about other things than sex?”
Giulio insisted: “No. All of them, all day, all they are thinking about is SEX.”
“Even over at the Vatican?”
“That’s different. The Vatican isn’t part of Rome. They have a different word over there. They’re word is POWER.”
“You’d think it would be FAITH.”
“It’s POWER,” he repeated. “Trust me. But the word in Rome, it’s SEX.”
Now if you are to believe Giulio, that little word – SEX – cobbles the streets beneath your feet in Rome, runs through the fountains here, fills the air like traffic noise. Thinking about it, dressing for it, seeking it, considering it, refusing it, making a sport and game out of it – that’s all anybody is doing. Which would make quite a bit of sense as to why, for all its gorgeousness, Rome doesn’t quite feel like my hometown. Not at this moment in my life. Because SEX isn’t my word right now. It has been at other times of my life, but it isn’t right now. Therefore, Rome’s word, as it spins through the streets, just bumps up against me and tumbles off, leaving no impact. I’m not participating in the word, so I’m not fully living here. It’s a kooky theory, impossible to prove, but I sort of like it.
Giulio asked, “What’s the word in New York City?”
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. “It’s a verb, of course. I think it’s ACHIEVE.”
(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word on the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)
I asked Giulio, “What’s the word in Naples?” He knows the south of Italy well.
“FIGHT,” he decides. “What was the word in your family when you were growing up?”
That one was difficult. I was trying to think of a single word that somehow combines both FRUGAL and IRREVERENT. But Giulio was already on to the next and most obvious question: “What’s your word?”
Now both Marcia and Mike dreamed about coming to this city for some years before we arrived, so it got us to thinking: What would be our word for Victoria? Even better, what would be our word for ourselves?