Traveling is often a weird negotiation between expectation and reality—expectations can easily lead to disappointment, especially if they’re shaped by movies. This is particularly true of Rome, whose monuments have served as backdrops for a number of iconic films. There’s La Dolce Vita, which has had generations hoping to pull an Anita Ekberg and frolic in the Trevi Fountain (not allowed). People climb the Spanish Steps hoping to inherit an ounce of Audrey Hepburn’s style in Roman Holiday (unlikely). Angels and Demons has people searching the Vatican for signs of the Illuminati (good luck). And then there’s perhaps the most important film set in Rome: The Lizzie McGuire Movie, which in 2003 set the bar for hair clip use and study abroad trips.
If you haven’t seen The Lizzie McGuire Movie, then I apologize—this blog will be mostly lost on you. Also, you’re missing out on an incredible piece of early 2000s pop culture. The movie’s extremely reasonable plot goes like this: Lizzie McGuire, her candid inner voice, and her best friend fly to Rome for a school 8th-grade graduation trip (this is the most believable part of the plot. Seriously). While at the Trevi Fountain, she wishes for an adventure, then promptly decides to ditch school and hop on the back of a cute Italian’s Vespa. She later learns that the cute Italian is actually an international pop star, and also learns that she looks just like his pop star partner (Isabella). Long story short, Lizzie is convinced to pose as Isabella at an Italian award show, and performs in the Colosseum to thunderous applause while wearing purple bell bottoms.
As you can tell, the movie is magnificent. It is, as the title song says, “what dreams are made of.” It prompts you to ask “Why not?” and, perhaps more importantly, provides an endless stream of relatable gifs (which I admittedly tapped into several times during my time in Rome). It also inspired one of my longest-standing dreams, which is to ride on the back of a Vespa in Italy. Yes, I want to ride on the back of a Vespa, specifically, as Lizzie did with Paolo (international pop star) during the movie’s best montage. I could drive the Vespa myself, which would make accomplishing this dream much easier, but that would make gawking at the monuments much harder. Also, I’d prefer to leave that responsibility to someone who is less easily sidetracked by bakeries and gelato shops.
Thus, I arrived in Rome with the expectation that I would accomplish this one element of The Lizzie McGuire Movie. My first step was finding a driver, preferably one who isn’t going to lie about his singing ability (plot spoiler, I’m sorry!). Thankfully, I was in luck; at my hostel, I met a college junior from Connecticut who knows how to drive a Vespa and was intent on renting one.
Expectation: We drop everything and pick up a Moto around the corner on the way to the nearest monument.
Reality: In Rome, unlike Greece, Moto rentals must be arranged a day in advance, so we make plans that maybe if he rents one someday, he’ll give me a call and I’ll join him.
A couple days later, I got the call.
“Got 30 mins and a head to put a helmet on?”
“Hell yes I do.”
We started at the Fori Imperiali, buzzed by the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, and passed the theater of Marcellus. We zipped along the Tiber, down narrow streets and under shady sycamore trees. We dodged pedestrians, weaved through cars, zoomed past shops, and heard at least five Italian curse words.
This has got to be one of the best feelings in the world, I thought as I marveled at the freedom of it all. I mean, literally, it is a free-for-all. I know there are traffic rules and regulations in Italy, but people choose to follow them selectively: Scooters invent their own paths between cars. Pedestrians pop out from random alleys. Crosswalks are optional. On big roads, there’s a de facto scooter lane near the dividing line, between large buses and larger tour buses. It was terrifying, but also exhilarating, but also I didn’t want to die, so we deviated onto the most picturesque narrow street in Centro Storico. It was lined with petal-colored buildings, paved with cobblestones, and covered in ivy. There were also a few street signs, which, at this point, we assumed we could ignore.
Expectation: No rules!
Reality: Ok, there are some rules, like you can’t go the wrong direction on a one-way street, especially for six blocks.
A police officer stepped out to halt us and confirm that, yes, traffic rules can be and are enforced in Italy. Luckily, despite not being from Rome or an international pop star, my driver could speak Italian, so we were shooed away with a look of minor annoyance rather than outright distaste. Oops.
Speeding up again and now traveling down the most adorable street in Rome (in the right direction), my Italian-speaking driver informed me that his four hours with the Vespa were up soon and it was time for me to go. We pulled up to the Piazza Venezia, near the imposing Altare della Patria. It’s a cinema-worthy drop-off point, with its swarm of cars, people, cobblestones, and towering white marble.
Expectation: I smoothly slip off the Vespa, whip off my helmet, and disappear into the crowd as the coolest tourist to ever breeze through Rome.
Reality: I hop off just fine, but the helmet buckle wouldn’t open and got stuck in my hair. It took a minute and a small section of my bangs to get off. This is why you won’t be seeing me at the box office anytime soon.
And yet, I’m still smiling. I may not have started my singing career in the Colosseum, or made a good impression on the Italian police, but my thirty minutes of whizzing by the sights of Rome were better than I anticipated.
Before parting ways, I asked my Vepsa driver what he’d like his pseudonym to be for this blog.
“Rafaello,” he answered.
Not the name I would’ve chosen, but then again, expectation and reality hardly ever align.