No place like Rome
Rotary Club of Rome International
“Living in Rome is like living in an open-air museum,” says Elise Paul-Hus, a member of the Rotary Club of Rome International. A few minutes later, she points out a building that once housed Roman baths and was later transformed into a basilica. “The interior was designed by Michelangelo,” she says. It’s a warm July evening, and members of the Rotary Club of Rome International — an English-speaking club with many expatriate members — are enjoying another of Rome’s open-air delights: dinner on the terrace of a polo club where they meet one Monday evening a month. The club is in a quiet part of Rome, away from the crowds of tourists spending their summer vacations in the city.
Guido Franceschetti, a longtime Rotarian who founded this club three years ago, recommends the cacio e pepe, a traditional Roman dish. After a waitress brings a bowl of spaghetti coated with pecorino cheese and flecks of black pepper, Paul Redmond, a Scot who has lived in Rome for 14 years, notes that the dish is deceptively difficult to prepare well. Despite appearances, there’s no cream in it — the starch in the pasta water combines with the cheese to create the sauce. “The trick is to get the ratios right,” he explains.
While the polo club is an idyllic setting, Marcella Checchia, one of the club’s Italian members, says the group, which meets twice a month, prefers not to be constrained to one location. “There are so many beautiful places to eat in Rome,” she says.
Flexibility is one of the club’s defining features. “We take our members’ needs and desires into account to build a club that accepts anyone, of any culture, and allows them to be a part of the Rotary experience in a way that works for them,” says Jennifer Lepscky, the club president, who describes herself as half-American, half-Italian. “Some of our members are diplomats. Some work for the UN. They may not be able to make every meeting, but then they come back and we learn about their fieldwork, and it makes us a better club. We learn about the state of the world and get new perspectives.”
“Many clubs in Italy are very traditional,” explains Franceschetti. “I wanted to start a club that was different.” He also saw the need for an English-speaking club in Rome: Because of his role as one of Rotary’s representatives to the United Nations, his social circle includes ambassadors and diplomats. He thought they were perfect candidates to join Rotary, but each time he asked, they would hesitate, because his club’s meetings were in Italian.
Noting that Rome is the headquarters for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and its World Food Programme, Franceschetti says, “I thought, ‘How do we not have an international club, in English?’” He suggested the idea so many times that finally a friend challenged him to start such a club himself. Today, Rome International has 31 members from nearly a dozen countries, including Canada, Colombia, Iceland, and Russia.
“There are so many beautiful places to eat in Rome.”
The club offers a sense of belonging that Redmond says he had been looking for as an expat. “Rome is a very old culture, which is good in the sense that it preserves the things that are important,” he says. “But it can be difficult to break in if you don’t know the language or the culture.”
As dinner rolls from one course to the next, the group begins swapping stories about working abroad. Elise Paul-Hus is originally from Canada, but her work as a lawyer has taken her to Tokyo, Moscow, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and now Rome; she speaks seven languages. Lepscky shares a story about observing Ramadan as a sign of respect while working in Lebanon, and Paul-Hus nods in understanding: She did the same in the United Arab Emirates.
The diversity of backgrounds and cultures at the table makes for fascinating conversation, and Lepscky says that during her year as president, she hopes to continue building connections to other cultures and reaching across borders for projects. Using her background in marketing and communications, she plans to launch a digital ad campaign to solicit donations for the club’s two primary service projects. The first, called Ambiente Amico, supports a program to train local young people for jobs in sustainable agriculture and ecotourism in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. The second works with a nonprofit called Link to provide educational opportunities for girls in Ethiopia. Redmond facilitated a partnership with the Rotary Club of Edinburgh in his native Scotland for this project. The club also sponsors an Interact club.
“I’ve always thought that the international side of Rotary is a rare and valuable quality,” Franceschetti says. “Anywhere you go, you can sit in a Rotary club meeting as a member, a friend.”
— VANESSA GLAVINSKAS
• This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.