Growing up in Rome, my experience of the city was very different from that of travelers. Instead of an ancient Roman road, I saw a traffic jam. Instead of a wonder of the world, the Colosseum was a landmark one would use to reference for directions. My home was a modern metropolis where people live, work, and play just as they do anywhere else.
Within the chaos of modern life in a big city, I was able to bear witness to the way people would tour my country. From oversized buses to guided herds of cruise ship passengers – I watched as people wandered the streets of Rome as though they were in a giant museum. All the while, life was happening all around them, they seemed to be in an invisible bubble of comfort and convenience from which they could observe the wonders they had only read about in textbooks.
Back then, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to help change the way people traveled. All I knew was that I didn’t fit within the chaos of Roman life; so I escaped. At 17, I decided to embark on a journey to the country that most Italians always dream of; America.
The eight-lane highways, the dispersive department stores, the endless miles of grassland, the fun high school pep rallies, and of course Hollywood! The idea of coming to the United States felt so liberating to me. It’s the land of the free after all!
After not knowing which state I would end up in one month before departure, I finally got a call from my study abroad program called WEP and they delivered the news that a wonderful, loving family in the small town of Woodstock, Georgia had selected me. I would never forget her question; “Karen, we’re so excited we got you a family but I need to ask you a question per the program’s protocol. Your host father is a pastore, does that work for you?” The word pastore is Italian for shepherd and my instinctive reaction was, “of course, how many sheep does he have?” Then, she kindly clarified as I could hear her chuckle; “Un pastore di chiesa!” – a church pastor. It would take a book to describe my experience, but all I can say is that I loved and savored every second of it! America was everything I had dreamed of!
Fast forward a year later, I returned to Rome to graduate high school and start my undergraduate adventure at John Cabot University in the heart of the city. During that time, I was befriending the same tourists that I ran away from. I started spending quality time with them and taking them to my favorite local restaurants and peaceful, hidden gardens, a rarity in Rome.
And it was shortly after that I realized that many of them had come to Rome for the same reasons I came to the States, just in a different form. Instead of the large roads, they craved cobblestone streets and tiny alleys. Instead of a giant cheese mac, they wanted to savor the traditional culinary delights of Italy. Instead of speed, they wanted slowness.
But as I watched closely, I noticed that even the most well-intended of visitors would often miss the very thing they came to experience in the first place – something unfamiliar, unique, and authentic. Something only the most immersive and knowledgeable travelers could find. The visceral and unforgettable experience that only comes by engaging with people, exploring local cuisine, and discovering places unspoiled by the masses. This is what we Italians call La Dolce Vita.
And in some cases, they were even seeking Il Dolce Far Niente – The sweetness of doing nothing.
And then it hit me: maybe the countless hours I spent sitting at a coffee shop with my friends just watching the passerby and sharing silly stories wasn’t time wasted. The times I skipped school and took a bus to the beach to just sit in the sand and watch the waves roll by didn’t do much damage to my education. The everyday hour-long dinners that my mom prepared with so much love weren’t a waste of energy. I’m not going to lie, I resented them during my teenage years but now I understand that that was our Dolce Vita!
This experience is in great part what inspired me to pursue a different way to travel. And I knew I had to come back to the United States to share this re-ignited passion for my country with travelers.
Fast forward a few years, after I studied abroad in California where I discovered my love for surfing, I moved back to Georgia, graduated from university, got married to my wonderful husband, and started teaching Italian full time. And that was the perfect opportunity to share my culture and passion for my country with those who were interested in experiencing more than the standard travel agency would provide; hence why they were learning the language.
And that’s how Life Beyond the Room was born.
I’ve since been on a mission to bring authentic travel experiences to our travelers through engaging, culturally-enriching and people-filled itineraries, away from the everyday masses. Our goal to preserve culture and tradition through meaningful, sustainable, and exceptional travel has touched the lives of over 200 travelers, who are now committed to a travel approach that actively contributes to the well-being and empowerment of both the travelers and the local communities visited.
When I am not crafting itineraries or reading books on sustainable travel, I practice Brazilian jiujitsu, yoga, take surfing trips, and of course love spending time with my beautiful family of six.
I adore my husband Jett Hattaway, to whom I owe much of the company’s success, my two loving children, Kiara and Alessandro, and our two fur babies, Pepe and Prosciutto (except they’re 100 lbs each).
While Life Beyond the Room is based in Georgia, we have decided to relocate to the beach town of Ladispoli, 30 minutes outside of Rome so that we can better serve our travelers and continue to expand our offerings.