A Death in the Eternal City

Photo credit: David de Sola

Rome is one of my favorite cities on Earth, with a deep personal significance for me. I had the incredible privilege of living there for four years on two separate occasions. The first time, I was there for my final three years of high school. The second time, I was working there for a year after finishing graduate school. I’ve traveled far and wide in the years since, but I always find myself coming back to Rome, in body or in memory. My experiences living and growing up abroad were some of the most influential of my life, and I eagerly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to do so. I think it would be fair to say most of my friends and former classmates I knew from my time there would say the same thing.

I was shocked and devastated to hear about the death of Beau Solomon, the 19-year-old University of Wisconsin student whose body was found in the Tiber River a few days ago. Part of the reason this story hits so hard is the unnerving feeling that the same thing could have happened to me, or to someone I know. Friends of mine from high school still live and work in Rome. My cousin who just graduated from high school spent a few days there earlier this summer.

The Trastevere neighborhood is a very popular hangout for local Romans, expats and tourists alike, with bars, restaurants, and hangouts for just about any demographic or activity you can imagine. I lived in that neighborhood for a year, about a ten-minute walk from the John Cabot University campus, where Beau had enrolled in a summer abroad program. I walked those streets at all hours of the day and night in varying degrees of sobriety. I never once felt unsafe or in any danger. Many friends and relatives have visited Rome over the years, and none of them ever had a bad experience, to the best of my knowledge.

As I recall from my high school days, I was warned about pick pockets, especially in areas with a high concentration of tourists, as well as potential for violence associated with local hooligans after a soccer match. To the best of my recollection, neither I nor any of my friends ever had a problem with either, nor did we go out looking for trouble.

These words will do little to comfort Beau Solomon’s family and friends. What happened to Beau was a tragedy, and my thoughts go out to them, as well as the John Cabot community. Whoever was responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent Italian law permits. To the people who are reconsidering their trips, work or study abroad opportunities to Rome, I would urge you not to. Even by Italian or European standards, Rome is a unique city with its own distinct identity, culture and flair.

Henry James — the American expat and writer who fell in love with Rome more than a century ago — wrote in a letter to his brother in 1869: “At last — for the first time — I live! It [Rome] beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy — your education — nowhere. It makes Venice, Florence, Oxford, London seem like little cities of pasteboard… I’ve seen Rome, and I shall go to bed a wiser man than I last rose yesterday morning.”