Walking in Rome on a night in December, the first thing you notice is the lights. White, gold, and blue- they are strung across every street, and bathe everything in an otherworldly glow. Huge gold and silver orbs hang down on invisible strings. Outside the churches, there are life-sized nativity scenes made of wood and stone. There are vendors selling spiced cider, mulled wine and chestnuts on every corner.
In contrast to Rome in the summer, with its sweaty, stale days, Rome in the winter is a city in which you can walk for hours without great discomfort. It is a city in which you can get lost, and should expect to. In the winter, the stifling summer crowds are absent. Most of the tourists are Europeans on their holiday breaks; you hear a variety of languages as you wander through the streets.
Rome at night is always breathtakingly beautiful, but it is even more so during the winter. The dirt and trash that are endemic to every city seem to fade after dusk. All Rome’s imperfections are covered. On the first few nights after I arrived, rain soaked the city. It blurred the Christmas lights into a soft wash of color as I explored the area near my apartment. The city smelled damp, like water and smoke, the noise bombs the Italians love to set off. The stores were all like galleries, the items for sale as exquisite as sculptures. I passed a jewelry store where the necklaces and bracelets were displayed floating in fishbowls; they swayed like sea creatures every time the door opened.
The apartment we stayed in was above a bar, between the Vatican and the Castle Sant’Angelo. By Christmas Eve, the rain had stopped, and it was warm enough that I could open the windows. I heard the Pope speaking in Latin, his voice amplified over loudspeakers, and the drunken revelers singing below me. The reveling got longer and more boisterous every night as the year drew to a close. By New Year’s Eve, I was ready to join in.
The bombs and fireworks started going off early in the day, more and more as night approached. My brother and I headed out of our apartment at about ten. Vendors selling beer and champagne crowded the streets, and we passed a bottle of Peroni back and forth as we walked on the cobblestones, following the crowds to find the best place to ring in the New Year.
Groups roamed the streets like roving gangs, shouting incomprehensible cheers. People threw their champagne and beer bottles against the ground; we had to dodge explosions of glass as we walked. The huge noise bombs were going off everywhere, setting off car and store alarms. I was jittery and on edge. I knew I wasn’t actually in danger, but I felt as if I was.
My brother and I walked toward the Spanish steps, and as we made our way down the street we passed glittering, expensive stores, Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, their alarms going off, reflections of fireworks bursting in their windows. As it got closer to midnight the crowd grew larger and larger. Rockets were going off everywhere, sending colored showers of sparks up above our heads. The chanting increased as the countdown to midnight began; the ground shook with the stomping of feet.
Then, in the seconds before midnight, a hush fell. The crowd seemed to be holding its breath. Then, as all the clocks in the city began to strike, the mob erupted. Corks were popped and champagne spurted into the air, raining down sticky-sweet on us, so much that it coated our glasses and blurred our vision. In the sky, fireworks of every color were sent up from every part of the city, and everything was as bright as if it was the middle of the day. Loud music was coming from somewhere, and everywhere people were celebrating: couples kissing, families embracing. One man grabbed his daughter and swung her around and around above us. As I watched the scene around me, time slowed down, and the moment took on the shimmer of a movie. It seemed unreal. Although there are many other places I want to travel, and many other things I want to experience, I promised myself then that I would come back to the Eternal City one day.
About the Author: Adriane Hanson is a writer and artist from Richmond, Virginia.
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