Rome Beyond the Ruins

Travel is one of the best ways to get an education. So, in the Spring of 2004, I took my 14-year-old son on his first European adventure. The thought of visiting various countries was attractive but our time was limited. And the reality of adolescent attention made me realize that staying in one location was a better plan. So I chose the destination that epitomizes Western cultural history, the Eternal City of Rome.

My son was enthusiastic about the trip, but skateboarding was his overriding interest. In guidebooks, he evaluated every architectural landmark for its boarding potential, so I took this as guidance and arranged our excursions from his point of view.

The trip was scheduled during Easter week which meant that visitor lines at the Vatican museums would test even my patience. Instead, I researched Google translations of Italian skateboarder blogs and planned to visit the best recommendations.

There were no official skate parks in Rome at the time, so our hunt for the Google spots took us into ordinary neighborhoods that most Americans would never visit. Through their common language of ollies, grinds and kickflips, my son connected with his Italian peers, who in turn welcomed me as a respected elder accessory. We became honorary citizens of Rome. 

After a few hours of rough riding on cobblestone streets, our new friends invited us to a skating site in a gutted Fiat factory. The location wasn’t on any of my tourist maps so the young Italians scrawled out some instructions and said to meet them there in the evening. Of course, this could have been an unfortunate set-up but instead I’m grateful for an outcome I didn’t foresee.

While planning the trip, I read about underground communities in Rome, notorious for hosting subversive art events. Being illegal and transient, they were nearly impossible for an outsider to find so my hope of locating one was faint at best.

Arriving at the makeshift skate park, built with discarded wood and scaffolding, my son blended easily into the typical skater scene. My delight, however, arrived as a complete surprise. While chatting with an expat from London, I realized that I was standing in a renegade Roman live/work/play space. The heart of underground Italian art. An unconventional path had brought me right to it. For our own reasons, my son and I were thrilled. 

Perhaps because he wasn’t skateboard deprived, my son was visibly impressed when we did visit the attractions of ancient Rome. He especially loved the Pantheon. Best of all, though, we both discovered the unexpected rewards of taking a risk.