While walking in Rome one evening, I asked my kids about what they noticed was different about life in Italy and their life here. Aside from “I can’t get stracciatella gelato every night,” they actually picked up on some of the principles that had been part of my architectural history and urban design classes, although in a less jargon filled way. We talked about the street life in Rome and how the squares are kind of like theaters, dining rooms, and playgrounds all rolled into one. They noticed that people come outside to walk at night, to get ice cream for sure, but also just to stroll and be a part of whatever was happening in the square or the street below. We talked about where you live affects how you live – how big family rooms feel right in a suburban house, but tiny apartments are geared more towards being part of the square and street outside.
Our little foray into European city life reminded me too of what I had learned the last time I had stayed in Italy, namely that these historic buildings are not all treated as monuments and frozen in time. We stayed in apartments in Trastevere in Rome and Dorsoduro in Venice, both of which were somewhat off the beaten tourist path. The buildings were at least one hundred years old in both cases, and years of use had created lovely worn stair treads and patches in the terrazzo floors. A tiny elevator served the Rome apartment, and in Venice, a charming courtyard was punctuated by flowers growing in an old rain cistern. The homes were equipped with new windows and kitchens and modern bathrooms were tucked away under the eaves, making the layers of time visible even to my generally oblivious teenagers. Gardens grew on rooftop terraces, and families hung laundry out to dry in the Venetian sun. The obvious age of the buildings and the necessary modern conveniences coexisted quite comfortably, in a matter of fact kind of way. These homes didn’t feel pretentious or perfect: they felt real and loved. It was a refreshing reminder that, whether for two weeks or two centuries, part of what makes a home lovely is the recognition that life happens inside of it.