I shuffled back and forth on a roughly two week cycle with frequent detours to New York City to visit my then-girlfriend-now-bride. I lived out of a suitcase and a briefcase. I collected frequent flyer miles and passport stamps instead of chotchkies because they were portable and well suited to my itinerant existence.
It was a frenetic time, juggling life on two continents and work in three countries. But it was an exhilarating and thoroughly intoxicating chapter of my still-young life. I was thirty years old and hungry for adventure. Needless to say, my jet-set life was indulging (and dilating) my appetite if never fully sating it.
As I orbited through Paris, Rome, New York City I grew accustomed to certain similarities (ie. all three cities encourage a cosmopolitan, lively, gastronomically diverse and culturally rich lifestyle), but it was the differences that intrigued me most.
Aside from the obvious social, cultural and linguistic differences, the way all three cities engage with their past sets them apart. All three are old — though New York and Rome bookend the age spectrum — and all three embrace their history. Architecture and urban planning are two of the most visible indications of this, and both set Rome apart.
Rome is old. Sure, all three cities can make that claim, but Rome is really old. Ancient. And while Paris reveals Roman vestiges when quaint or historically beneficial and even highlights older archeological roots clinging to the swampy banks of the Seine, so much of the grandeur of Paris dates from the mid 1800s when Napoléon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to renovate and modernize the squalid descendent of Lutetia Parisiorum.
Although Rome has periodically made efforts to modernize, there’s no escaping the city’s ancient history at every turn. New and the old are interlaced, and Romans habitually extol and condemn their ancient city in the same sentence. They bemoan the frustrations of abysmal traffic circulation, for example, and yet they pride themselves on navigating the labyrinthine quarters with alacrity, colorful language and wild gesticulation.
Romans’ love-hate relationship with history is evident in the architecture and urban planning, but it also informs their art, design, food, music and language.
Although I’ve been a collector, even a hoarder since childhood, I credit Rome with awakening my fascination with the living past. One man’s artifact is a Roman’s quotidian necessity. The past is not relegated to museums or worse, the dump. It coexists and enriches the present.
New York covets the new and improved, and Paris fastidiously collects and curates the most valuable gems from the past. But Rome simultaneously lives in the past and the present. Comfortably. Happily. Willfully. In a sense, Rome is timeless for this reason. It embraces its living past.
This has been a circuitous meander to be sure, but it leads to Essex, New York, another “city” that embraces its living past. Alright, “city” is a stretch. Essex in a village, a small village. With a year-round population well under a thousand residents Essex is a mere freckle on Rome’s or Paris’ cheek. And yet this charming freckle simultaneously lives in the past and the present. Comfortably, happily and willfully. Essex embraces its living past, especially when it comes to architecture. Two centuries of heritage and life permeated by a built environment dating almost exclusively to the first half of the 19th century. Indeed many of the current residents were drawn to Essex precisely because of the historic built environment.
While my bride and I didn’t understand it at the time — seeing our transition from Manhattan to Essex primarily as a lifestyle choice — it was Rosslyn, one of the most historic structures in town, that ultimately seduced us. And it is Rosslyn that took me by the hand and guided me back through the years.
Through Paris, Rome, New York City to Essex in one meandering rumination, this is the journey through the coupling of past and present that has drawn me since purchasing Rosslyn in the summer of 2006.