Sheila Kohler, Lecturer in Creative Writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts, is a writer of fiction whose works draw on her experiences living and traveling abroad in such diverse locales as South Africa, France, and Italy. Her writing is widely admired for the vivid descriptions she provides of her characters' internal struggles. Among students and colleagues at Princeton, she is known for her keen intelligence, kindheartedness, and ability to teach students to draw from their own experiences to give voice to their stories. Her When in Rome feature is a masterwork in itself, not just illustrating her engaging narrative style, but also revealing her passion and sense of adventure. Her pick: Rome.
Why does Rome hold such a fascination for you?
I have lived in Rome at different moments all through my life. It seems an almost a magical place, where extraordinary things have happened to me. At eighteen in Switzerland I met an Italian, a young Roman aristocrat, who fell in love with me. He persuaded my mother and me to come all the way from South Africa and live for a summer in Rome.
This was 1960 during the Olympic games. The young man, who died very young, spent one entire evening over dinner at Meo Patacca (a dark Roman restaurant you might want to visit) in the Trastevere drinking an entire bottle of wine and saying in his rudimentary English, "Sheila must stay Rome" over and over again. Somehow he convinced my mother, a widow of independent means, to rent a ground floor apartment in the Parioli area (a posh residential area) near Piazza Crati, where he could visit us, and water my mother's flowers. My older sister, who came along for the ride, and I studied Dante with an Italian woman who would read the Divina Commedia with her hand on her heart. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" we intoned solemnly.
The young Roman made the mistake of telling me about his best friend, an American whose mother lived on the Italian coast. "Michaeeeel is such a clever and handsome boy," he told me so that when the boy arrived and stood in the shadows before the iron gate which opened onto the house where we lived I was already half in love with him. Well, reader I married him!
Later in my life, having published many books I would return to Rome as a visiting writer and have two wonderful summer stays at the American Academy in Rome where I was researching a book on Freud called "Dreaming for Freud." Rome had a special significance for Freud too, but that is another story.
What are the three things one must do "when in Rome," particularly for the first-time visitor?
- Visit the Borghese Museum and Gardens. (You should book in advance.)
- The Pantheon. Just stand and stare up at the extraordinary ceiling.
- Chiesa Santa Maria del Popolo just to see the spectacular Carravagios there and particularly the painting of Saint Peter.
What are the two or three things that one should do or places that one should go while in Rome that can’t be found in a typical guidebook?
- Climb the Janiculum hill to the American Academy (Via Angelo Massina). Though it is a private residential community, it has a full roster of free academic and artistic and cultural events open to the public. You can get the list of upcoming events online; or you can make an appointment to visit (Monday-Friday only). The buildings (the Stanford White McKim) are spectacular and the gardens lovely.
- The Villa Doria Pamphili near the American Academy. You will find this wide and beautiful park entirely surprising. In this setting, with few tourists, you may forget that you're in the city!
- Villa Sciarra. I discovered this small, romantic, and not particularly well-kept garden while running around the streets near the American Academy. The best approach is from Via Dandolo. Again, here you will meet everyday people, Romans out with their children or dog walkers chatting as they do anywhere, as well as see palms, fountains, and strange and evocative statues. There is a strange fountain surrounded by statues of half-women half-beasts, sphinxes with animals in their claws. They represent the four vices: wrath, lust, greed, and gluttony. They have long twitchy tails which wind round their bodies, and their wild heads are turned as though watching out for hunters. I found the four of them extremely strange and suggestive and they will appear, no doubt, in the novel I am writing now tentatively called "Murderers!"