I hunched over my hot chocolate feebly, desperate to get warm in any way possible. It had been raining in Rome since 8:30 a.m. when I’d left my hostel. The relentless rain had drenched me through the two raincoats I was wearing and down into my boots. My hair hung in damp wind-whipped tendrils around my face.
Suspended from my wrist was my decrepit umbrella, which had taken a particularly strong gust of wind and now resembled a cross between a bat and a spider. All I owned in Rome I carried on my back – a change of clothes, my camera, and some simple toiletries.
In short, I was a mess.
To the waiter that eyed me suspiciously as I searched through my wallet, I perhaps looked homeless. I drew out a ten Euro note and paid for my hot chocolate. All that remained were a few Euro coins and some loose British pence.
Not much. The thought of going back into the rain revolted me. I never wanted to leave the warmth of this coffee shop, despite my desire to see the Roman Forum and Colosseum. I had no other place to go, no one who would take me in and offer me warm clothes. I’d paid my thirty Euros for my hostel bed and had given up my room, which I’d shared with five other strange women. I couldn’t go back there.
I was completely and utterly alone. Just me and the wetness, the ever-present wetness. “Unless…” I thought to myself. It was a radical thought, but I decided anything was worth it to get dry. I left my table and withdrew to the rear of the coffee shop. Creeping down a narrow staircase, I found the restroom. For the moment, this restroom was the only home I had. I wriggled out of my cold, wet raincoats and rested my backpack on the sink.
Then, with a sense of pride at my ingenuity, I held each raincoat under the hand dryer. The luxurious warmth spread first over the sleeve of my raincoat, then over the front, and finally over the back. My hands, which had felt like icicles rather than flesh, started to regain feeling.
Surreptitiously, and wisely I thought, I stopped the hand dryer every few minutes so anyone listening wouldn’t get suspicious. When I’d dried both raincoats I began to look at my boots. With every step water squished through my two pairs of wool socks and ran in rivers between my toes. Like an acrobat, I raised my legs to the hand dryer in order to dry my jeans.
I was just about to start unzipping my boots when I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. It was the manager. Standing. In the doorway. Looking at me with extreme vexation on his face. “You know that is for your hands, right?” Before I could nod yes, he coldly said, “You’ve used it too much.”
I mumbled that I was leaving and gathered up my belongings. We made quite a pair – him in his butler’s suit and me in my mostly-dry raincoats, Levi jeans and boots. He proceeded to walk me out of the coffee shop and deposit me on the wet curb. I felt like trash – I knew I’d done something wrong, that I’d abused my privileges.
“This isn’t me,” I thought ashamedly. But as I stood on the Via Cesare Battisti, elbowed by tourists and passed without so much as a glance by natives, I realized that I wasn’t alone. That man huddling in the doorway just across the way – that was me too. The woman shuffling down the street – we were of the same blood.
For the moment, I was homeless. Never mind the family awaiting me across the Atlantic, or my accounts in American banks, or my warm apartment in London – for the moment I was just another nameless face that those who passed tried not to look too closely at.
Homelessness isn’t a personality trait. It is a condition. It doesn’t define a person or their potential; it just identifies their current housing status. I cannot claim to know too much of it, having been homeless for just thirty-six hours.
But I can say that the stigma that comes with it – that you are worthless, that you are trash, that you have and will contribute nothing to society – is terribly painful.
I chose to visit Rome in this way. I chose to see Rome using limited funds and by myself. I didn’t want to travel in luxury or be protected from the realities of the place I was visiting. I wanted to feel the raw experience of being foreign somewhere, of being homeless.