Midnight In Rome: Book Review and Interview with Michael Gyulai

Midnight in Rome

Midnight in Rome: One man’s quest to experience Rome like a local

At 22, Michael Gyulai graduated from college and moved to Rome with a simple goal: “To really live there. To understand the place like a local.” Midnight in Rome, a memoir about the time he spent in Rome, is an engaging exploration of just how difficult it can be for travellers to immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

The narrative finds Michael in Rome, where dwindling finances are forcing him to look for work, a process made more difficult by Italian bureaucracy. But he does find a job, and that’s when the real cultural immersion begins. Taking up a part-time position at a modern nightclub, Michael struggles through the language barrier to develop relationships with his Italian co-workers. While still hampered by an inability to converse as freely as he’d like, Michael’s co-workers pull him into their world, immersing him in modern-day Rome.

At the same time, Michael’s perspective of Rome changes, from a city of vespas, cobblestone and pizza, to a city of unrequited love, drugs and confusion. The reality of every-day Rome starts to displace its popular imagery.

I enjoyed Midnight in Rome for its first-hand look at how the modern intersects with the ancient in Rome; how a visitor’s notions of what a city should be like are often upturned by the reality of what it is like; and how language creates a barrier for anyone trying to experience a foreign culture from a local perspective. While the book’s narrative is centered in Rome, many of its themes are common for travellers visiting anywhere foreign.

After finishing the book, I exchanged emails with Michael. In this short interview, he talks a little about his decision to write Midnight in Rome and his experiences in Rome.

Why did you decide to write Midnight in Rome?

I was 23, my bank account had all but emptied, my visa long expired, and I had to accept the possibility of deportation every day I went into work—all while transitioning into independent, self-sustaining adulthood.

While living in Rome I would receive book recommendations from my friends back in the US. All the books seemed to be similar: they were comprised of soft, anecdotal essays written by semi-retired expatriates whose biggest concerns seemed to revolve around finding a punctual plumber or getting their villa painted before the August vacation. Meanwhile I was 23, my bank account had all but emptied, my visa long expired, and I had to accept the possibility of deportation every day I went into work—all while transitioning into independent, self-sustaining adulthood. I found so little to be relatable in those books that I felt I had to publish my own story. I had to give a voice to the confused, illegal, struggling young expatriate.

You set off for Rome straight after you finished college. In retrospect, how important do you think your time in Rome was to you?

It was the most potent period of self-actualization I may ever experience. To turn on the television was to expand my vocabulary in Italian. Reading tabloids taught me modern Italian slang. Simply existing another day in Rome after my three-month tourist visa had expired became another battle won—and I lived there two years after that. That’s 730 mornings waking up and feeling conquest. It was absurd—the level of achievement I was feeling. By the time I left Rome I had the key to an upscale lounge in the city center on my keychain and was training incoming Italians in the craft of bartending. The crash coming back to California was immense—it was just an unrealistic atmosphere to maintain.

At the start of the book, you write about a conversation you have with a friend. You tell her that you want to move to Rome “to really live there” and “understand the place like a local”. Do you think you eventually were able to understand it like a local?

Something I did not understand when I had that conversation was that there are many different ways to be “a local.” I had just graduated college, and thus assumed being “local” would entail acquiring a social network of other young Italian professionals. I took my life in California and transposed it onto the Roman landscape, and translated it into the Italian language, and that was my vision. Where I ended up was off the tourist map, in a zone of the city know for high densities of immigrants, socializing with young nightlife employees whose priority was survival, not career building. The Rome I now know is one of taverns and nightclubs, bartenders and promoters, after-hours clubs and winding back alleyways. But do I know them as well as a local? Absolutely.

Midnight in Rome can be purchased through Amazon.com. You can read the first chapter online at MidnightInRome.com.

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Discussion »

  • #1jessie

    What a great review! I’ll have to read it. Too often, we have this idealized view of a place, and it isn’t quite real, is it? Thank you.

  • #2DesertMama

    No kidding, sounds like a great read.

  • #3Eric

    That’s really where the book excelled – in the way it brought Rome down to everyday reality.

  • #4David

    Oh, to be 23 again! This book review not only makes me want to read the book, it makes me long to be 22 again and experience a city like Rome the way that Michael did (although the expired visa part is a bit scary).

  • #5Mitesh

    Great Interview and come lovely sound…. i like it.

  • #6Sergio Fragiacomo

    I am Sergio Fragiacomo, owner of Bistrot de Venise, a very unique place in Venice, where Rare Wines & Historic venetian gastronomy matches Art & Culture….too many interesting reasons to come and visit us during your next trip to Venice.
    I warmly invite you to have a look at our website and look forward to welcome you in Venice.
    Best regards
    Sergio and his efficient young Team.

  • #7Jackelin

    Michael, I can sympathize with you, I did it too a decade ago. It’s about the hardest thing on can do- we have to vent some way…congrats on your achievement. You turned your anguish into something creative and helpful to others…smart guy.

    Out of all of my pain and interweaving, I came out with a book of a different sort from all of my experience….lots of poems.

  • #8Charlotte

    Michael, Rome was my very first foreign experience. I Had only taken a semester of Italian; being a woman traveling alone to a foreign country and not knowing the language was scary. I have since traveled around the world on my own, but Romissas my first love. When I first saw your book at a bookstore and read your writing style, I thought of it as a must read. When you had hardcover copies at the North Beach Street Fair I had to get a copy. I finally found the time to read it; I’m glad I bought a hardcover copy, because I’ll be reading it again.

  • #9Charlotte

    Correction: I have since traveled around the world on my own, but Rome was my first love.

    PS. If there a second book I would read that as well.

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