VERSA | Oxford and Rome: two of the better grade-1 listed cities

There’s a distinct similarity between Oxford and Rome. Around every corner, there’s a staggering view, be that coming off the High Street to see the Radcliffe Camera, or coming out of Via del Plebiscito to see the Altare della Patria.

Walking around Rome at night is enchanting. The Fontana dei Trevi is completely deserted after 10 o’clock, save a couple of young lovers exchanging a kiss. When the lights go out in Rome, you see quite how stunning it truly is.  The city simply does not need to be enhanced: it is the architectural and social benchmark to which every other city in the world should be compared, and when I come to power, I will make it a law that no Instagram of Rome can have a filter..

So let’s factor Oxford in.

It is a very beautiful city. Even if all the statues were torn down, it would still be beautiful. While I feel safer walking down Holywell Street at 3am than I do walking down Via Vittorio Veneto, I’d rather have the inexplicable unease and liveliness of Rome. When night falls upon Oxford, its nocturnal students descend on it like starving ratti on a hunk of pecorino. The two cities in their nocturnal states differ wildly; it is the people who characterise St. Giles after midnight, spewing first out of Lola’s and then just…spewing. It hums, but not of its own accord, while the reverse is so in Rome.

Last weekend, I went for a walk around Rome. I left Piazza Cavour at about a quarter past midnight, and I got back to my flat at 4am. I  think that I will remember each of those four hours right up until the moment I die. When I got back in, I felt spiritually uplifted and privileged to have been able to see Rome in all its glory, with nobody to ask me to hold their pizza while they took a snapchat in front of the Spanish Steps. Those who know me will mock me tirelessly for ‘moisture/being moist’, but this walk was a defining moment in my life. I sat in Foro Traiano for no more than fifteen minutes, and felt drunk when I stood up. The never-extinguished flames of the Altare are beguiling, and where I found myself in that moment – with seagulls circling thousand-year-old ruins against that most imposing of backdrops – I kind of understood how great authors cure writers’ block. The truth is I was pretty reluctant to undertake this article, because whatever I write, even if I write it flawlessly, will not make you feel how I felt at any point during my walk.

Just a little bigger than Tom Quad’s Mercury

Rome doesn’t care about its inhabitants. It doesn’t even know they’re there. It’s such an indifferent city. There’s this mound of grass on the intersection between Via Nicola Salvi and Via del Fagutale, at the top of which there is some gravel, two palm trees (one notably smaller than the other), and a bench. Sitting on that bench at 2.30 in the morning is the only way I ever want to see the Coliseum again. With the palm trees interrupting a bit of your view  and the 1,940-odd year-old building in front of you, it would be impossible not to realise that Rome was there long before you were born, and  it will stay long after you die. I’m getting unusually sentimental- the Città Eterna just has that effect on me.

Now is a good time to return to Oxford, which in my mind is a very beautiful city indeed, but one that lacks personality at the moment. It is categorically undeniable that Christchurch’s Tom Quad is one of the most staggering places in Southern England. But it’s a short-lived high. And this is really my main point about Oxford: everything is just a bit frantic. I think England is to blame- a tube strike is a national event in England, despite its impact on only one city, whereas a day without public transport strikes captures people’s attention in Italy. Life is just too angry in England: everyone’s in a rush, and nobody really knows what for. Rome feels more sensible in its approach: if you’ve got to be somewhere, leave 5 minutes earlier. Or later. Or whatever. Nothing’s going anywhere, and the others will almost definitely be late too, so chill, have a coffee, smoke a cigarette, she looks nice—“Ciao bella, come ti chiami?” If the cities were drugs, Rome would be a 12-foot zoot, whereas Oxford would be pingers and ketamine.

Yes, this is all very sensationalistic, and I know we have to accept that Oxford is very demanding, but we don’t have to go 100% flat out 100% of the time. I honestly think people would be happier and feel less of a weight on their shoulders if they just breathed, looked, and walked every now and then.

*Obligatory Colosseum photo*

It was such a liberating feeling to take Rome’s hand at night. Last term wasn’t a particularly happy time for me, and  being alone with my thoughts in that city made me realise quite how trivial it was. Not in a nihilistic way, just in an Italian, dolce far niente way. Except, of course, I wasn’t alone. I was accompanied by the millions (billions?) of people who have had Rome before me, and by all those who are going to follow. Agonising over impenetrable language last term, I started to lose faith in Italy a bit. But from the first “Ciao”, my faith was reaffirmed. Even in the middle of one of those massively over-dramatized arguments that you can’t quite believe really happen, if you say “Ciao”, both the people involved will say “Ciao” back. And I love that: even in the middle of the biggest catastrophe those two people have experienced in the last 30 seconds, they’re still willing to take the time to say “alright mate”. Can you imagine that in Oxford? Someone knocks someone off their bike and they’re having an argument, and you – beaming – offer a “Hiya!”? I think you’d be told to go to fare a culo, so to speak.

I have had the privilege to travel to a great many places in my life, and never before have I been so moved by a city. That walk was like hearing Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the first time; like scoring my first ever goal in hockey (there haven’t been many since); like finishing my first book. I guess I got the sense that I was just a little bit closer to understanding what ‘it’ is all about.

Tags: cities — comparison — Oxford — rome — travel — trite