Rome – the eternally empty city

I have taken myself off and out for a date with my city – it’s been awhile and I am desperate to fit one in before my privileges are revoked again and we all have to stay at home.

“Where are you going?”, my husband asks.

“I don’t know, that’s the point of an Artists date*, you have no itinerary, no plans; the point is to spend time in the unknown”.

“Well just call me if you need a lift back”.

It’s been decades since I have been able to get lost in Rome.  When I first arrived in the early 1990’s it was my favourite thing to do – wander, get lost, discover new things and places.  Rome seemed an unending labyrinth of possibilities and new experiences, full of new discoveries to be stored up for revisiting and taking others to later. Hidden corners, quaint nooks, undiscovered restaurants and cafes, quiet streets of artisans, grand public buildings, impromptu exhibitions, tranquil shady piazzas, serene vistas over the river, flower ridden parks, newly excavated ruins, newly restored churches and museums, views of the sunset…….but now I know them all and part of me is sad that I do.  I miss the excitement and amazement, the wonder and the thrill of the unknown, of losing oneself and discovering that you are not lost after all, but just in a different place with lots of new possibilities.

But today the city did it for me, for old time’s sake.  I managed to not know where I was for a good half hour or so until I spilled out, from a new direction, into a well traversed piazza.  Today the city gave me what I needed as it always does. Whatever my need Rome fulfils it.  If I am hungry or thirsty it feeds and waters me, if I am bored it delights me, if I am tired it restores me, if I am stressed and overworked it calms and refreshes me, if I am frightened it comforts me, if I have lost my perspective on life it brings it back, if I am broke it entertains me for free, if I am flush it offers me luxurious treats, if I am sad it cheers me, if I need to celebrate and am happy it brings me ways to prolong and satisfy this. All I need to do is get out and into it which I have been prevented from doing for large parts of the year and which is in danger of happening again so I need my dose. And I also need to wander into the unknown; after months of precise assessment, structured processes, analytical decisions and having to care about things I don’t (like how many millimetres a margin in a book should be), I need to be released into the unknown for a bit of a break.

So I do my best to listen to my inner artist, see the unseen, take paths less well trodden and let the day unfold, like it is the first day I have ever been here. It means I have to abandon myself to my senses and watch for the signs that direct me to my unknown destination.  Like the movie production vans (Mission Impossible, again) that block my entrance to quiet street I want to duck down and instead put me on another path, or the gypsy standing on the corner obscured in shade, that attracts me to turn down that street, or the view of a walled in bridge up high connecting two ancient palaces that catches my attention and pulls me down towards it.  And then I am lost.  Lost inside my well known world, enabling me to see it differently, to learn to be at peace with not knowing, to notice the small details of where I currently am, and to appreciate that.

I stumble into a sunny regal renaissance piazza, completely empty, quiet, and in repose.  Plants in marble pots and wrought-iron lampposts border it. Elaborate lace-iron balconies offset the neatly painted white and light orange buildings, all with matching shutters. The small windy street is bereft of cars and motorini, there are no tourists wandering, no one is sitting on the rails edging the small space reading a map, checking their phone, or eating a sandwich.  No one is standing in front of the small church doorway taking a selfie, or posing for someone else. I listen to the wind and notice the empty rubbish bin. I self-consciously take photos of the building that is shaped like a triangle. An older man in an impeccable suit exits a government ministry building, eyes me hungrily, but walks on, looking back at me once or twice as he ambles deliberately slowly across the piazza; but I show no signs of catching up to him or noticing him, the communication is accepted and he moves on.

I amble along the thin curvy street, hemmed in by the walls of the buildings and too soon find myself in a well-known destination, Piazza della Rotunda.  The piazza that houses the 2000 year old Pantheon, one of the best preserved Roman temples dedicated to ‘all the Gods’.  It has been in continuous use throughout its history as a temple to receive sacrifices, as a Catholic church and now one of Rome’s most visited monuments.  Today for the first time in 2,000 years entry is prohibited. The Pantheon is shut. I wander into the piazza, one of my favourite and where I always come when I need to spend time in a special place, either celebrating or commiserating – when my dad came to Rome, when my best friend visited, when my Nan died, they have all been marked here in this piazza at a table with some Prosecco.  Today I am celebrating the finishing of my second book, but it also feels a bit like a commiseration.

 At lunch time, a table in the winter sunshine, without being a politician, movie star or having sat there since mid-morning, would be impossible.  But today as soon as I round the corner I am pounced on by the liveried waiter and there is no need to ask if there is a table in the sunshine available, they all are.  I order a glass of Prosecco knowing it will come with ample snacks (today it is peanuts, olives and chips) and settle down to watch people in the piazza.  Gangs of politicians come strolling through on a lunch break from the Parliament houses close by, groups of tradesmen in uniform amble by, and a couple of pigeons. That’s it. Usually this piazza is packed and worth hours of people watching, while waiters hover as soon as you have finished your drink and others hopeful of your table start to move towards it. Usually there are so many people sitting around the fountain that the steps are obscured and the entrance to the Pantheon obliterated by the snaking line of tourists queuing, the horses and carts waiting, police strolling, gypsies begging, sellers selling, and photographers flashing. Today the waiter doggedly stays inside so I can’t ask for my bill and have to sit there for as long as possible, hopefully enticing others to sit as well.  I slowly munch through my peanuts, chips and olives relishing the December sunlight.

The place I usually go for lunch is closed. There is a sign on the door explaining that as long as the Covid restrictions are partly in force they can no longer afford to open. Glad I ate all my peanuts, I head to my favourite café for a hot chocolate.  It’s in via Condotti, Rome’s busiest and most exclusive shopping street that leads up to the Spanish steps.  Café Greco usually has a queue to get in, service is slow and erratic, and it has been continually open since 1760.  Today the formal suited waiter opens the door for me and ushers me to a table.  I am the only person in here.  It is so quiet I can hear the coffee machine steaming. 

I order my hot chocolate which comes with separate whipped cream and is the kind of thing that is akin to enlightenment – the world looks and feels entirely different after one of these.  I snuggle in to the plush red cushions at my back and take my fill of the glorious paintings and etchings that surround me, knowing I can take as long as I like. About five minutes later the overpowering silence and lack of activity begins to feel eerie.  This is not a place that should be bereft of people, of the clinks of china, the swish of tray bearing waiters, exclamations of consternation from people as they realise there are no spare seats, the squeals of children that usually run up and down between the aisles of tables, murmured conversations, delighted laughter, selfies and group photos, customers trying to get the attention of waiters, heated conversations mid-passageway between staff, and the muted shouts from them behind the counter to their mobile counterparts.

This is the unknown.  An empty Rome, and none of us feels comfortable, and we are all sick of it.  The last time Rome was this empty was after the final conquering of it, more than 1,600 years ago, when everyone that was still alive fled, and sheep grazed amongst the rubble in the Forum for the next 1,000 years. After years of wishing that Rome was less full of tourists and having given up even frequenting some parts of the city, I find myself hoping that they would all come back, hoping that you all come back, hoping that we all come back.

If you enjoy these blogs you might also enjoy my books Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons and Ticket for One. Available in paperback and kindle on Amazon, Book depository and book stores. https://www.amazon.com/Bronte-Dee-Jackson/e/B00I5BH68K

*If you are not familiar with this term see Julia Cameron’s book, The Artists Way.

Missed the Australian book launch of Ticket for One?

Or just want to watch it/experience it again? No problems. Click on the below.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1oYUZymERWVXPFi81gtce-POZ5TQsH3yL/view

It starts about five minutes into the introduction of my book, Ticket for One, by author Liliane Grace. She talks about what makes the book ‘work’ from a readers perspective and why it ticks all the ‘best writing/entertaining’ boxes. We then dive into a Q & A about why I wrote the book, how I handled the tricky themes of vulnerability and bravery, as well as the struggle about keeping the ‘voice’ of the young woman I was when I took the journey. There are a couple of readings from the book, which while not giving anything away, give a flavour of what there is to enjoy about the book. And then we launch it! The whole thing takes about 45 minutes so sit down with a glass of wine and a Greek salad, some Turkish mezze or Italian antipasto and enjoy the show!

Ticket for One has now reached no. 16 on the Amazon global best sellers list for Italian travel but is not only about Italy. Here’s what Amazon reviewers are saying:

“A great read of an adventurous young women as she finds her place in the world”. UK reviewer

“Bronté Jackson is a gifted storyteller with a talent for evoking the colours and sensations of the places she visits”. Italian reviewer

“A beautifully descriptive and emotional account of backpacking adventures in far away places while reconsidering the direction of one’s life”. Australian reviewer

I say the book is about three things:

  1. How you can be on the brink of things, with everything falling apart around you, and come back from that to a whole new version of yourself.
  2. Travel. The wonder, the hardship, the joy of travel; travel as a journey to learn about yourself and others, getting the widest possible input into your world view, understanding ‘the other’, realizing that we are all much more like each other than we are not; friendship, those made on and off the road, and sustained.
  3. The beauty of the Mediterranean. The power of that beauty to heal and restore, to reach right down into your soul and find you, the power of history, of past civilisations and their human experiences that teach and help us in our struggles today.

And apparently you will laugh a lot, and need to eat Greek, Turkish and/or Italian food!

To launch the book I asked Helen Palmer, facilitation artist, team shaper and founder of Self unlimited, Melbourne, and Liliane Grace speaker, author of many books, and writing coach/teacher. Liliane and I attended high school together and shared a passion for writing even back then. We reconnected at a school reunion about twenty years later, and have been firm friends ever since, as well as co-encouragers and advisors in our writing and creative ventures. Liliane also launched my first book ‘Roman Daze – La dolce vita for all seasons.’ Helen and I have worked together, served on a global board together, co-created as professionals and spend time regularly in a peer support/review group for experienced Organizational Development and change practitioners.

Thirty eight people zoomed in from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, NSW Central coast, north coast of Victoria, and Rome to attend the Australian based launch. You will not be able to see all the participants as the recording done on zoom only catches the first screen of people. You will also not be able to see the slideshow so I have inserted it below. You will have to play the soundtrack yourselves of the songs that went with it and captured the moment and moods of summer 1993………..

(Madonna, Like a Prayer; REM, Loosing my religion; Pet shop boys, Its a sin, Go West; Black, It’s a wonderful life; D:Ream, Things can only get better; U2, In the name of love)

The northern hemisphere book launch will be posted soon, along with a podcast of this one. Thanks a million to all who attended both launches and have supported me in this book. Please keep spreading the word in your networks and leaving me reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Word of mouth and reviews are the best way to publicise a book. Both books are available in e-book from Amazon, and in paperback from Amazon and Beaumaris Books, Melbourne.

Amazon.com: Ticket for one: One woman’s transformative, inspirational and humorous trek through Greece, Turkey and Italy eBook: Jackson, Bronté Dee: Kindle Store

https://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Dolce-Seasons-English-ebook/dp/B07N2FB9CL

Book release!

Dear friends, I am so excited to let you know that my new book is ready! Click below for sneak preview and to order! Kindle version is ready now and paperback version any day now. And Rome-based residents can purchase directly from me. It is available in all Amazon markets. Stand by for an invite to the book launch.  Please help me by spreading the word and sharing this in your feed or group of friends, and leave me a review when you have finished it!  Happy reading everyone!

Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.

Greek islands, Summer 1993……

Bronté finds herself backpacking through the Mediterranean, but it’s not all paradise.

Reeling from the end of her marriage, the loss of her job, and with no place to call home Bronté hadn’t hesitated to pack her bags when she unexpectedly won an airline ticket to her dream destination, with spending money included!

With nothing left to lose, she had set off into the unknown with no itinerary, no experience, and a hastily filled backpack. After losing access to her money on her first day, being poisoned on her second day, and finding herself sleeping on a beach next to travellers on the run from organised crime, her adventure takes her on an hilarious tour through the underworld of backpacking.

This is a story about transformation from helplessness to power, hopelessness to faith, and anguish to joy. Set against the backdrop of breathtaking Mediterranean islands, vibrant Rome, enchanting Tuscany, and captivating Turkey, Bronte connects with the beauty of nature to restore her shattered heart and confidence. 

But how will she be able to go back to normal life after this journey? Should she stay in the arms of her belly dancing boyfriend? And is the amount of byzantine icons in a city a good indication of whether she should settle there?

“I listened, I let myself go where my heart took me and it never took me ‘back home’.  It took me to a new one.”

“From a dark, gaping hole of plans that had fallen through, and a life that had never worked out the way I wanted I had trodden step by step, carrying nothing with me except what was required, staying constantly in the present. Somehow I moved forward just by being, just by stepping, just by continuing to look at the sky, talking to the people around me, and being out on the road each minute, each hour, each day. Although I had wanted to stay still, crying on a Greek beach waiting for someone to rescue me, I found that moving into the unknown was so much more interesting and, in the long term, truly fulfilling.”

A compelling and candid story. An odyssey of self-discovery that fundamentally questions how to live and find happiness.

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https://www.amazon.com/author/brontejackson

 

New book!

Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.

Greek islands, Summer…

Bronté finds herself backpacking through the Mediterranean, but it’s not all paradise.

Reeling from the end of her marriage, the loss of her job, and with no place to call home Bronté hadn’t hesitated to pack her bags when she unexpectedly won an airline ticket to her dream destination, with spending money included!

With nothing left to lose, she had set off into the unknown with no itinerary, no experience, and a hastily filled backpack. After losing access to her money on her first day, being poisoned on her second day, and finding herself sleeping on a beach next to travellers on the run from organised crime, her adventure takes her on an hilarious tour through the underworld of backpacking.

This is a story about transformation from helplessness to power, hopelessness to faith, and anguish to joy. Set against the backdrop of breathtaking Mediterranean islands, vibrant Rome, enchanting Tuscany, and captivating Turkey, Bronte connects with the beauty of nature to restore her shattered heart and confidence. 

But how will she be able to go back to normal life after this journey? Should she stay in the arms of her belly dancing boyfriend? And is the amount of byzantine icons in a city a good indication of whether she should settle there?

“I listened, I let myself go where my heart took me and it never took me ‘back home’.  It took me to a new one.”

“From a dark, gaping hole of plans that had fallen through, and a life that had never worked out the way I wanted I had trodden step by step, carrying nothing with me except what was required, staying constantly in the present. Somehow I moved forward just by being, just by stepping, just by continuing to look at the sky, talking to the people around me, and being out on the road each minute, each hour, each day. Although I had wanted to stay still, crying on a Greek beach waiting for someone to rescue me, I found that moving into the unknown was so much more interesting and, in the long term, truly fulfilling.”

A compelling and candid story. An odyssey of self-discovery that fundamentally questions how to live and find happiness.

Ready for release mid-November on Amazon in paper back and e-book (kindle)

https://www.amazon.com/Bronte-Dee-Jackson/e/B00I5BH68K

Rome recovered!

At last we are let out and into the city we go!  I have never met a Roman who was not in love with their city – who did not appreciate its history along with its almost 1,000 year reign, world domination; and subsequent contribution to law, philosophy, government, military strategy, engineering, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, religion, sanitation, town planning, heating, food, holidays and hydrology.

It’s the first Sunday since quarantine was lifted and after 2.5 months of eerie silence the streets and piazzas of Rome are packed.  Chock full of Romans. There is not a tourist or an English speaker in sight or earshot. I feel like I am in a time capsule that has landed me back in the early 1990’s when I first arrived in Rome. Before the invention of cheap flights and millions more tourists at all times of the year. Prior to this, Romans had always had the city to themselves from October to March, and during those months, people stared at me as though I had forgotten to go home. At that time by mid-December you could sit by yourself in the Sistine Chapel and write a novel, and by February most of the city shut down for a good long rest until Easter. In comparison, for the past decade, and before quarantine (BQ), no one has been allowed to even stand in the Sistine chapel for longer than a few minutes without being hurried along to make room for others waiting to come in.  You stood shoulder to shoulder admiring as much of the ceiling as possible while shuffling along in a sea of humanity, towards the exit.

Sunday night has always been a big social night for Romans.  Far from it being the night in which to stay in and prepare for the work week ahead, it is seen as the last opportunity to milk the weekend. It’s also the time to catch up with friends after having spent the whole day with extended family. Italy has the second highest amount of elderly citizens globally therefore most people have parents or are one. So the streets and bars are packed as my husband and I saunter lazily through them.  Imagining that we would be a lot more alone than we are, I am surprised but also delighted.

It’s busy and full but not crowded and bursting.  There is space.  Space between the gatherings of people, empty medieval corridors where  chairs and tables are being set up for dinner, ivy covered spaces empty of people because it’s not yet the Roman dinning hour. A city being used by, and for, its residents alone.

The tables in the bar next to me are filled with octogenarians drinking Aperol spritz, mostly women, and groups of couples with prams and newborns. In the piazza in front of me, instead of a keyboard and badly played Dire Straits covers, there is a vigorous game of soccer being played between six under twelves, who keep it going amidst the walkers, and use all four corners of this huge space.  Instead of flower sellers and photographers coming to our table there is a determined gang of five year olds on scooters, using the 1.5 metre quarantine space between tables as lanes, and being constantly shooed away by the waitress.  Instead of coloured plastic toys that make a noise when thrown into the air by their hopeful vendors, the shouts and screams of five girls playing hide and seek can be heard.  And as the twilight lengthens, instead of a gaggle of uncomfortable looking foreigners wearing the same T-shirt, drinking beers and self-consciously stumbling across the piazza, a serene flock of Romans cruise gracefully past on a bike tour.

Just after sunset everyone leaves, aperitivi is finished, and it’s time to go home and eat dinner.  The piazza is quiet, empty and darkens a little just as the breeze that always occurs at sunset blows over it.  For a few minutes in the silence the piazza is bleak and windswept, reminding me of another of its original uses – a place of execution.  The imposing statue of the last person burnt at the stake on this spot, looms out of the darkness, his hooded figure menacing and joyless. But just as quickly the piazza starts to fill up again as families who have decided to come out for dinner do so; like the appointed hour for aperitivo, dinner is similarly scheduled. Freshly washed children prance around with their parents as groups of friends meet and sit down to dine.

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My husband and I have been coming to this restaurant for twenty five years – many of our early dates were here.  It’s been two decades since I have seen groups of Roman families here.  It’s mostly couples and always tourists.  The proprietor’s Nonna still makes the fettucine daily, sometimes just inside the front door if you come for lunch.  They bake their own bread and he is the fourth generation that has run the restaurant.  We are his first customers after quarantine and if we could, we would hug vigorously.  Instead we talk loudly and at length about all that has passed in the last few months.

‘The day after we had to shut down, I came to the piazza anyway’, he says. ‘I had come here every day for the past thirty years to work, it just seemed natural.  When I saw the piazza empty and everything shut, I felt my heart break, it was too difficult and I stayed away after that.’

After such a long time I expected things to be a bit rusty, but it was as though 2.5 months of pent up longing went into my meal.  The antipasto of burrata cheese with char-grilled slices of zucchini and eggplant put me in my happy place for more than 24 hours.  The lamb was juicy and tender, the wine cool and fruity, and the roast potatoes sprinkled with sheep’s cheese and pepper, induced an eating episode that was more like an inhalation of all that I had missed and loved about this place.  I sailed home as the last twilight faded, wishing that everyone in the world could come here and have this – just a few people at a time though.

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If you liked this story read more in my book Roman Daze – La dolce vita for all seasons at https://brontejackson.com/prosecco-fixes-everything-stories-of-life-in-rome/

And soon to be published……..Ticket for One. One woman’s transformative, inspirational and humorous trek through Greece, Turkey and Italy.

Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.

The eye of the storm

Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome.  Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army.  Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate.  Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.

Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long.  The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent.  On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block.  The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body.  During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.

But outside, my environment is eerily quiet.  The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.

The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet.  There is nothing to bark at.

Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not.  I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades.  I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees.  Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.

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There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual.  None of us are comfortable with the silence.  We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.

Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do.  Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come.  Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.

Piazza Navona Day

For many years what determined where I lived was whether it was possible to have coffee in Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s loveliest renaissance piazzas, whenever I wanted.  It meant that Rome was always top of the list. Today is a Piazza Navona Day.  It’s a day I regularly set aside to do nothing much except sit in Piazza Navona and drink a coffee.

Like magic a bus appears as soon as I leave my apartment, it whisks me away and in 20 minutes I am in the very heart of Rome. The Capitoline hill, where the Roman Empire, once extending as far as England and Egypt, was governed and is still governed from today.  I salute Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor in bronze on his horse at the top of the staircase in Michelangelo’s square, guarding the spot where the temple to Jupiter received sacrifices and spoils from Roman conquests. I wander slowly along Rome’s main street lined with palaces now housing banks and insurance companies – providing the same service as the noble families who once inhabited them did.

At Piazza Navona I spy a table in the morning winter sunshine, draped with dense cream linen and standing on some ancient cobbles.  I point to it and politely ask the waiter if it is OK to take that one. Although my Anglo Saxon looks can never pass for Italian, my accent and language can, so I get the usual quizzical (are you a tourist or not?) stare as I order my cappuccino ‘ben caldo, con poco latte, niente cacao’ very hot, with less milk than usual and without chocolate on the top.  It comes so hot and strong that it will take me an hour to drink it – just what I need.

Although we are deep in the middle of winter, the sun is shining brightly and warming the top of my head.  No wind reaches this piazza, protected from the river breezes and tucked well into a ring of medieval and renaissance palaces. I hear the constant falling of plentiful water in the fountain nearby, designed by Bernini in 1650 to represent the four great rivers of the time.  The gigantic statues of four men that depict each river lean out from around a huge Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Cleopatra, which pierces the bright sky with a Christian cross.  The fountain sits on top of the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s chariot racing track.  Here is Rome in a nutshell, or a fountain – marble statues, flowing water, stolen treasures, sports arenas and empires one on top of another. A great unbroken line of humanity in this very place; people who loved, laughed and cried right here; people who thought their worlds were about to end and those who thought they would never end.

At the table across from me a woman and man, well advanced in their journey through life, soak up the sun and sip their coffee talking about a family lunch this weekend.  I have always admired these Roman women. When I first arrived in Rome in the 1990’s they wore floor length fur coats, glittering jewelry and hard cased Prada handbags wherever they went.  The fur coats are now mostly gone but this woman stands up and puts on an ankle length carmine red wool coat with matching colored Prada backpack, her jewelry catches the sun and makes her whole body sparkle.  She looks so cheerful and benevolent, and I wonder when I can expect to transition from cranky and sweaty to cheerful and benevolent. After we retire says my husband.

 

Watching this couple, I can’t wait, I feel like I am always chasing after a life that is just ahead of me – just out of reach and disappearing as quickly as I gain on it.  A life of old Rome, of women in fur coats, and men in hats, of unhurried conversations with family and friends, of quiet winters with no tourists, of freezing Februaries with no sun, of deserted summers where the city shuts down, and doesn’t exist online, and a country where no one speaks anything but Italian. Coming up fast behind me, pursuing and almost engulfing me is another life, full of a younger generation I don’t want to be, and a fast paced, hurried life that I don’t want.

The huge bells of Saint Agnes in Agony ring out deafeningly and I feel my entrails turn to water as a Roman senator would say.  They ring out an ancient stone sound that makes me want to cry; young laughter from the table of girls behind me overlays it – ancient and new, sorrow and joy, pain and the exquisite gift of being, mingle together. The sound fades away slowly and I am in the present again with my faint headache and feet that feel the uneven cobblestones beneath them.  I am home for now and will give myself another ten minutes to sit in the sun and enjoy my here and now life, exactly between the other two.

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My favourite activity of the week

The market is a two minute walk from my apartment but is unrecognisable unless you already know what it is.  For six months I walked past the shabby collection of closed up boxes wondering what they were.  Each only slightly bigger than a skip bin, they were sometimes outnumbered by them. But one day I happened across them in the morning and now shopping at my local market is my favourite activity of the week.  Whatever befalls me during the week I know I have the market to look forward to.  I wake each Saturday morning excited and happy, looking forward to the experience that I know won’t disappoint me and will be over too soon.

I am standing at the edge of Aldo’s fruit and vegetable counter hemmed in on both sides and at my back with people.  Aldo keeps up a non-stop chant, tallying up the prices of the fruit and vegetables as he weighs them while customers impatiently crowd around thrusting their bags full of produce towards him.  Hands push out from behind me at the level of my hips, towards the apricots and peaches that are stacked up in front of me, as customers continue to shop while others wait in a non-existent line based on the time they first put their bags down on top of the fruit and stopped filling them.  Every time Aldo finishes serving a customer he tells the remaining ones which of them are next, up to the last person waiting.  No one ever argues and he never gets it wrong.

All women are referred to as beautiful “bella” and young “giovanne” by Aldo who is well into his 70’s and has regular heart valve surgery.  The older you are the younger his description of you is. I am referred to as a beautiful girl “bella ragazza”. I am 55. White haired women bent over double are referred to as beautiful little girls “belle ragazzine” while young women are called “belle donne”, beautiful women.

“Hey don’t forget about me”, shouts out a man.

Only people who are new to Aldo’s stall ever say this.  The rest of us know that he knows exactly who has been waiting and for how long, and we patiently or impatiently wait our turns.

“Throw me a bag Aldo”, someone shouts and another hand is thrust out from between the bodies to receive it.

“Are these the only type of apricots you have?”

“Yes they are”, he answers, “they are from my orchard, taste one I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

“Do you have any prepared salad left?  Yes we do, Marie, get that young man a bag of salad.”

Along with answering and organising he is still weighing goods and verbally tallying them up.

The stall is open on all sides and shaded with a low canvas that covers the array of tables topped with produce.  It traps the sound in.  It is very hot and I have been standing here at least ten minutes waiting for my goods to be tallied.  But I am not in a rush.  I let others fill their bags full of apricots from the mound in front of me not fearful of losing my place under the eagle eye of Aldo and actually hoping it will take as long as possible.  Because under this cacophonous, fragrant tent stacked with figs, overflowing with cherries, nuts and lemons, decorated with eggs, honey, mozzarella and lettuce, swimming in tomatoes and zucchini and pegged down with watermelon, eggplant and cabbage, I can feel my aura being gently cleansed.

My shoulders relax and start to ease themselves down from around my ears, my spine straightens and I can feel my feet firmly on the earth for the first time since the beginning of the week.  I take root amidst the vegetables and fruit and come back to fully inhabit my body again feeling each part of me gingerly integrating and coming into the present.  I watch an old man bend over peppers and inspect each one before putting it into a paper bag. I see a youngish man next to me enthusiastically filling a bag with small deformed apples and ask him in Italian what they taste like.  I exchange a smile with a woman next to me and ask how she intends to cook her cabbage (because I don’t know how to even though I love cabbage).  I join in a general conversation and answer another man who is wondering what beetroot is and what you might eat it with.  The cares and worries of the week cascade off me, puddle in a pool at my feet, and gradually melt away into the earth.

Too soon it is my turn to be served.

“It’s this beautiful girls turn now”, Aldo announces to everyone as he drags my bags over the mounds in between us, and starts to weigh and tally out loud.  It’s like listening to a race commentator.

“We have four zucchinis, some peppers and an eggplant.  What’s in this bag now?  Oh so we have also a bag of       salad and some tomatoes along with the zucchinis, peppers and eggplant and now I can see a fennel.  What do we have in this other bag?  Oh some apricots, peaches, figs and a quarter of a watermelon.  Now we still have the zucchinis, peppers, eggplant, salad and tomatoes along with the fennel, and we are now adding the apricots, peaches, figs and watermelon.”

 

No matter what I buy it’s always the same price, twelve euros. He throws the money into the red plastic bucket he uses as a cash register. Sometimes he doesn’t even add on half the vegetables in my bags.  I try and hand him more than the twelve euros and he responds by putting another few peaches into my bag and then stacking it full of lemons, thrusting the bags back at me and turning to the next customer before I can protest.

“You can’t pay whatever you want you know”, he admonishes me.

“Well you charge me whatever you want”, I counter.

“It’s my store”, he responds, laughing.

My husband takes the heavy load of fruit and vegetables from Aldo’s garden and we move away together, me slightly sad as it will be another week before I get to stand in the aura cleansing tent again.

“What do we need next?” my husband always asks.

I don’t know.  All week my days are about ‘to-do’ lists.  Some weeks, each day is divided into half-hour slots of time where I have to produce, do, or attend something for every slot.  So when I am not at work I don’t have lists.  I buy whatever takes my fancy and I follow my intuition.

The fish lady knows this.

“What about these salmon and “orata” fish burgers that I have just prepared, or the fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and celery? Or how about this blue fish “pesce azzuro”,  that I have just finished frying with red onion for lunch?”

The first time I tasted the salmon, I rushed back the next week and demanded to know why it tasted so different to any other salmon I had ever eaten.

“I know”, she said, winking at me and pushing her blond curls off her face with the back of her plastic gloved hand while holding a long thin knife that never seemed to leave her palm.

“It’s from a special farm in Norway where they raise the salmon to be relaxed.  They play music to them. That way they develop a lot of fat just under their skin.”

Each time I am cooking the salmon I watch the layer of fat between the skin and pink flesh melt and spit, flavouring everything.  Today she hands me the package of salmon that her father has already prepared in anticipation for us.  It has ‘Australia’ written in black biro on the paper that the fish is wrapped in.  Like Aldo she wishes me a good Sunday and tells me she will see me next week.

Unlike the fishmonger, the butcher and I regularly need to brainstorm together before any purchases can be made.

“What kind of meat would you like?”

“Lamb.”

“How would you like to cook it signora?  Baked, grilled, casseroled, with or without potatoes (my favourite so if you were wanting to invite me over that’s what I would like you to cook), vegetables, or with a little wine and olives?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Together we come up with something and he grabs the relevant animal and prepares the cut.  He doesn’t wear gloves and cuts with a blade that could double as a paddle, some pieces are so thin you can see through them.

He is the head of the market and in charge of its comings and goings so he updates me on anything relevant and then asks what season it is in Australia, what temperature it is and how many hours flight it is again?

I linger at the grocer’s counter eyeing the array of fresh mini ricottas made from sheep or cow’s milk, some of them baked and standing up in little plastic sieves, some oozing and gooey like white butter starting to melt.  My eyes gaze upwards to the pink rounds of prosciutto, salamis and hams that would go magnificently with any of them, each one with their own salty, fatty, chewy taste.  Today I spot my favourite cheese, a camenbert made with buffalo’s milk, so subtle and yet so delicious it takes control of you and makes you finish the entire round in one sitting.  Everyone I introduce this cheese to has the same experience, and in a nation of experienced cheese tasters I am delighted to be able to offer something different and new.  It goes a long way to building up my credibility as a  resident of Italy, and being worthy of my visa.

But too soon it is over.  There is nothing left to buy unless I want a cotton handkerchief, a velvet dressing gown, or bleach, all housewife staples which are on offer and which I wish I needed, if only  to keep me looking at the market for longer.  But my husband knows we have mortadella in one of the bags and is inching me towards the exit.  And we have to stop at the flower seller on the way out.

Each week it is the same.  I moon over the herbs and flowers knowing full well we have no balcony and that all three of our window boxes are full to overflowing and threatening to take down one side of the building if I fit one more pot in there.  So I settle for blooms that cost less than one day’s worth of public transport and thank the vendor as he adds a few more in for free.

There really is nothing more to do except go home, enjoy the produce and look forward to the next market shop, one full week away.

Top 10 reasons to love Rome in Autumn!

1.Vino Novello.

November is the time for this years batch of Vino Novello or ‘young wine’ to be released. A red wine, it is produced in a way that accelerates fermentation and has no tannins.  Like a Beaujolais, it is fresh, fruity and deep. Italians have many, many rules as a society and a large quantity of  them are related to as suggestions (like lanes for traffic) except when it comes to food and drink.  The rule of Novello is that it is only available from October 30th until sold out (usually by the end of the week). It does not keep well so needs to be drunk immediately (I am just relating the rules). 

2. The color of the sky.

Rome’s sky turns turquoise in Autumn, its sharp blue the perfect back drop for its burnt orange buildings, and perfectly seen through leafless trees.

3. The food.

Autumn is the time you feel like (and enjoy) eating again after the sweltering humidity and heat of the summer. Oranges from Sicily, mushrooms from Tuscany, fresh pork sausages from the countryside near Rome all go well with Vino Novello as do the chewy salami‘s and tangy sheep’s cheese (pecorino).  Vegetables such as Funghi porcini mushrooms, artichokes and the very Roman puntarelle appear back on the market after their long summer rest, and last sometimes only a few weeks so all of a sudden everything has funghi porcini or artichoke in it.  Food is seasonal in Italy and therefore looked forward to.  The sense of anticipation and reminiscing is shared and joined in by everyone.  If you go to a friends house for dinner in Autumn you know that artichokes, puntarelle or funghi porcini will be on the menu. 

4. The sun

Finally you can sit in it.  Avoiding the sun was the past time for the past six months but now it is sought out.  Sitting in the brilliant Autumn sunshine is a legitimate past time and reason to go outside.  It can still warm, is too bright to look at and bathes everything in happy yellow autumn.  It also goes well with a glass of Vino Novello. 

 

 

5. Gardens

All over Rome, communal vegetable gardens are being prepared for Winter.  Pruning, weeding, digging and raking are all activities being undertaken.  Everyone lives in apartments in Rome so these small plots of land are a hive of activity being undertaken in the brilliant autumn sunshine, often followed by a glass of Vino Novello (just saying).

 

 

6. Leaves

I grew up in a suburb with lots of leaves where every autumn i delighted in diving into big piles of them and throwing them up in the air with my dad frantically yelling ‘don’t do that, there’s probably dog poo in there!’  Rome, having mostly trees that shed their leaves rather than evergreens, like in Australia, is full of leaves.  Just one of the many delights I discovered when I first came here. You can go to any large park in Rome and literally drown in leaf pools. You can run through the middle of them and throw leaves up in the air to your heart’s content and mostly they don’t have dog poo on them. Or you can just scuff them up under your feet in your local neighborhood.  No one rakes them up and they sit there for weeks until an Autumn deluge comes along and washes them away.  

7. The peace

Summer holidays are over, children are back in school, tourists are back at work. The summer squalls and winds are finished.  Leaves float gently down like stars. Vision is clearer through sparkling sunlight. The evenings come quickly and quietly, nothing stirs.

8. The temperature

It’s cool for the first time since April.  The mornings are fresh and crisp, the days sunny and bright, the evenings cold.  Perfect for Vino Novello.

9. The mood

The city rests. The violent rain lashed storms have washed the city clean from the detritus of the summer. Things are ticking along.

 

 

 

10. The olives

The first time you discover you have a friend that has an olive grove and who requires help with picking olives, you think yourself blessed and so so lucky to have landed a friend such as that. After you have helped picked olives for this friend you find that you are busy every November ever after.  Olives are great to eat, especially with a glass of Vino Novello, picking them is not great.

Private tours available via the Tour page on this website or https://www.facebook.com/romandaze/

Read more about Rome in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’.

The Roman Summer

 

It is hot.  Hot, hot, hot. Yesterday my husband phoned me from his car at 8.30 am to tell me it was already 30 degrees with high humidity, and warned me to be prepared.  As if I wasn’t already prepared.  It has been hot since the end of May.  It is now the middle of August.

One of the challenges of a Roman summer, besides its length and temperatures, is that Romans don’t really believe in air conditioning. Air conditioners have only been readily available on the Roman market since the early 2000’s and until recently many apartments, shops and restaurants did not have it. Many Romans believe that air conditioning is bad for you, mostly because of an in-built and ancient fear of fever, in particular death by fever, a reality in the ancient past for many citizens of Rome.  They believe that air conditioning will cause fever because of the severe changes in temperature that will result, and that it is unhealthy to have cold air blown on you.

They have a point.  Going from an air conditioned location to the fierce heat of a Roman summer is not a pleasant experience. And this is part of the charm of Rome. It retains its ancient beginnings and mixes them in with its post-industrialism. So these days most public places, including public transport, will have air conditioning on AND the windows open.  “So it doesn’t get too air conditioned”, is generally the answer I get when I ask bus drivers or proprietors why this is.

Rome as a city has had thousands of years of dealing with the heat without it. It is a city that moves outside to catch cool breezes and shady areas. And living in a city which doesn’t air condition the seasons away means you have to live within them.  Adjust your routine, your activities, your diet and your lifestyle to accommodate and move within them.  Romans have been doing this for centuries.  It is only us foreigners who insist on living the same kind of lifestyle for twelve months of the year and are outraged if our productivity slows down.

Rome is not a city governed by trade and commerce.  At 3.00 pm in the afternoon even if you had a million dollars you couldn’t spend it.  No sane commercial trader would try and out compete his competitors by staying open during the siesta, and in fact it is mostly illegal. But why bother when there will be plenty of trade at 5.00 pm when the siesta is over?  Why bother when you can make money AND see your family, make love all afternoon, let your gorgeous lunch digest, prevent a heart attack, have a nap in the middle of the day.  Rome runs on the seasons and on tradition.  And I love it for those reasons.

No one except me is in Rome in the middle of August.  Really.  My whole suburb has shut down.  I have to have my coffee at home as none of the dozens of little cafes serving Romans their daily coffees are open.  Why would they be?  All the Romans have gone on holiday to the seaside or the mountains.  I have another two weeks before going on holiday and I had a long list of things planned but instead I find that the heat exhausts me after around two hours of activity, and all the other things I had planned can’t be done because nothing is open.  I have to wait until September to get my hair cut for example.  Our phone handset died yesterday due to battery failure but we have to wait until September to get a new one. My work suits sit in a pile by the door as I didn’t manage to get them to the dry cleaners before the start of August. My husband can’t go shopping for T-shirts to wear on our holiday as all the clothing shops are shut for two weeks, and thank goodness one of the two supermarkets are open otherwise food would be a bit of a problem too.

But it it is peaceful.  So peaceful.  The quietness of an abandoned city is refreshing, and worth staying in it for.  I love August in Rome.  It is the only time I have the city to myself.  I can wander around unhindered by traffic, human and mechanical.  It takes half the time to get anywhere and I can stop and look at anything without fear of being run over.  It is quiet at night and quiet during the day.

It is a time to stop, to slow down, to contemplate and relax.  The cities work-a-day functions are not available so it forces you to rest in parks, laze by pools, look at flowers and bathe in the sea.   It forces you to take the mental and physical break that nature is taking, a rest before the next seasons’ activities.  It is a time of substituting ice-cream for lunch or dinner, for long siesta’s while outside the afternoon bakes away in silence, not a leaf stirring, as even nature tries to keep cool by not moving. It is a time to enjoy the silky evening air on your skin, to sweat out toxins and negative energy, to wear loose clothing and move languidly, in sync with the city.

Rome is a built of stone and water.  Clean, free, cold water gushes continually out of drinking fountains by road sides and in parks all over the city.  It comes from underground springs in the countryside around Rome and is pumped in using the ancient aqueducts built by the Romans.  Now that’s something a post-industrial city doesn’t have.   It is enough to rest under a tree, stand on a cold stone and drink or splash the water over you to cool down and enjoy a Roman summer.  Who needs air conditioning after all?

Contact me for one of my private tours in the Tour page on this website or my Facebook page – Roman Daze

Read more in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’, Melbourne Books, 2013

Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, Otherwise Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.

http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze