What my dad knew about Italy

What my dad knew about Italy

would not fill a book.  However………..

When I first moved to Rome he began speaking to me in Italian …….

“Where’s the wheelbarrow?”, he would ask, when I phoned him.

“Is it in the elevator?”, and

“Hello, beautiful girl.”

These were the only three phrases he knew and it revealed his history of having worked with Italian labourers on building sites.  (He told me once that what Italians didn’t know about concrete wasn’t worth knowing.) As the Project Manager he needed to be able to ask them these questions  and many of them didn’t speak English.  He also heard them often trying to chat to women passing by.  I never knew my dad could speak Italian, or how much he liked it until I began living there, and he gleefully repeated all his known phrases to me every time we spoke.

My dad first encountered Italy as a young man on honeymoon in the early 1960’s.  He and my mother arrived by ship from Melbourne, Australia, along with hundreds of Italians returning home to look for brides and for family visits.  They docked at Naples.  Dad said he had never seen men cry until that moment.  He said the ship erupted with crying men, hours out of Naples, as soon as they could see land, and that the crying didn’t stop for hours until they docked and were met by crying mothers.  He was very impressed with how manly Italians could be and yet how much they could cry.

As an engineer my dad was very interested in buildings, art, furniture, design.  All the things Italy offered an abundance of.  He and my mother toured around the major cities, he documenting everything in slides – the Duomo in Milan, the Vatican in Rome, the canals of Venice and the Bay of Naples.  His love of design shows through in each of his photographs.

Several decades later when my dad and my step mother visited me once in Rome, we stopped in a piazza in front of the Pantheon, a beautiful, round Roman temple, right in the centre of the modern city of Rome.  We took a seat at an outdoor cafe.  The waiter arrived and my dad asked for a drink I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce, even though I spoke fluent Italian and he didn’t.  The waiter responded in the affirmative and without a glance backwards took off and brought back what ended up being an alcoholic, cherry liquor in a tall glass with soda water, and a blob of vanilla ice-cream floating in it.   Something he’d remembered that he had drunk last time he was in Rome, in 1960.

He told me that one of the saddest days of his life was after that first trip when he and my mother arrived back in Australia, after spending over six years travelling and working in Europe and Asia  (during which time my brother and I were born in Malaysia).  He loved the influences of Europe and Italy, and felt Australia was very quiet and very far away when he first came back.  He was completely understanding of my need and desire to stay and live in Italy and encouraged me to stay as long as I liked.  He told me that he could walk around a piazza every day and not get bored but that once he had seen somewhere in Australia once it was enough for him.  It never entranced him the way a European city could.  I felt the same.

Growing up I remember Dad was very popular with his Italian employees, so much so that they gave him gifts of live birds, home-made salami’s and other incredibly smelly foodstuffs, cakes, eggs and tomatoes.  Once I came home from school to find mum in a bad mood and a strange Italian bloke in our back yard hammering together a cage for the doves he had brought over for my father.

“What are we going to do with those?”, she asked my father.  “We don’t know anything about birds!”

“It’s a sign of respect, darling.  He wants to give them to me.  I have to accept them.”

Dad provided a huge party for his builder’s labourers at Christmas with as much beer and food as they could eat.  He also gave them money from his own pocket when they needed it.  Once it was to pay the funeral costs of a labourer who had died at a work site he also worked at.  He loved the exuberant hugging and kissing and emotional displays he got included in as one of them.  He never lost his fascination for Italian men and their camaraderie from the moment he had that first experience on the ship with them.

He loved that my Italian husband Alfredo, called him Giovanni (Italian for John), and taught him even more words in Italian.

“How are you?  I’m good thanks, how are you? I speak Italian.  Do you speak Italian?”  He would repeat over and over, every time he saw my husband.  He plied Alfredo with dozens of questions every time he got the opportunity.

“What’s the name of the football team based in Turin?  Where is the city with the round, white houses?  What dialect do you speak?  How far is it from Bari to Brindisi? Do Italians eat much meat?”

He never lost his interest in or passion for history, geography and all things Italian, and treated Alfredo as though he was a living specimen of a culture he found endlessly entertaining and inspiring.  His daughter (me) who was actually a Social Anthropologist he never asked anything of.  I wondered if he knew anything about the depth of my knowledge and association with Italy, the country I had lived and worked in for 17 years.  I sent him postcards and wrote him emails with photos of everywhere I travelled, long before I met Alfredo.  One day he got out a huge Atlas to confirm a conversation we were having, just the two of us, about a certain part of Italy.  It fell open naturally at those pages and I saw inked in lines drawn all over Italy and other places I had visited.  He had traced my journeys and plotted them all on the maps in the Atlas, using the postcards and emails I had sent him.

He understood my need and desire to live there but when I was back in Melbourne, towards the end of his life, he often expressed anxiety at the thought of me returning.  Last year we were shopping for some dinning furniture and took him with us.  We were in an Italian furniture design shop whose headquarters was in the south of Italy, the region Alfredo is from.  As I touched the furniture I sighed and indicated how much I missed it.  He turned to Alfredo and said in a menacing but joking way “No, she is not allowed to go back now.”  My blood ran cold as the thought of disappointing him hit me.  Returning was always an option for me.

My dad passed away 1 month ago.  In those last days of palliative care, I sat and held his hand and looked in his eyes and told him I loved him and heard him say it back.  Whenever Alfredo spoke to him and called him Giovanni, he responded with a smile and tried to speak in Italian back.  I am glad I don’t have to disappoint my dad by returning to a country I love.  I am glad I am now free to go.  And I am glad I returned to Melbourne, to spend these last years with him.

I am glad I inherited his love and passion for travel, for history, for geography and for learning about new languages and cultures and I will always take him with me where ever I go.

Vale, Giovanni, Vale.

 

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Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live in Italy) cont.

Today’s continuation of Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live it Italy).

4.  You get to eat the BEST and BIGGEST Easter Eggs ever!

 

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Easter is taken seriously in Italy, and nowhere more so than with the giving and receiving of Easter Eggs.  They are the most colorful, ornate and decorated eggs I have ever seen!

 

 

5.  You get to lay down in the middle of the day.

Yes the siesta is alive and well.  And before you scoff just remember that Italy is one of the G8 countries which means it is one of the 8 most productive countries in the world.  (Confirming research that shows sleep and work/life balance actually contributes to sustainable effort) .  At 1.00pm until 4.00pm each day all shops and professional services (lawyers, dentists, doctors, accountants) shut their doors to partake in an appropriate lunch (Top 10 reason no.1) and then snooze, rest, sleep it off before starting the second half of the working day from 4.00pm til 8.00 (this doesn’t apply to office workers who have to power on with only a lunch and a walk followed by a stiff coffee to keep them going).  I particularly love this quiet part of the day where my suburb shuts down and a peaceful silence descends.

 

 

 

 

 

6.  You get to have two birthdays.

I love birthdays and was determined to make a big fuss over my husband’s birthday when we were first going out.  Imagine my surprise when four months earlier than his birthday, his parents, siblings, niece and nephew, God-mother, friends and colleagues all began calling early in the morning to wish him a ‘Happy Onomastico‘ (Happy Name-Day), delivering gifts and asking him ‘what was he was doing for his onomastico?’

It is a tradition in Italy to be named after a Saint or after a family member (who was originally named after a Saint) and each Saint has a special day of the year named after them.  San Vincenzo is April 5th and all those guys who are named Vincenzo celebrate their Onomastico on that day.  Same with San Francesco(a), San Guiseppe, Sant’ Alfredo, San Valentino etc.

There are cards, cake, presents, celebrations.  How is that not like a birthday?

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Next time, the last four top reasons to be Italian.

Don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on 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

or at your local bookstore.  Check out and ‘like’ and ‘share’ my NEW FaceBook page too!

Top ten reasons to be Italian! (and live in Italy)

1.  You get to savour lunch!

I have noticed the lunch hour, and even the concept of lunch, is dying out in many post industrial countries.  Not so in Italy, the inventor of the Slow Food movement.   In Italy lunch begins at 1.00pm.  Not 12.30 or 1.10 but 1.00pm.  No one questions you or where you are going at that hour.  Everyone knows.  It’s lunch time.  Lunch occurs mostly sitting down, mostly with company but not looked on strangely if it is taken alone.  It involves at least two courses, is followed by a coffee (cafe/short black) and a gentle walk.  It never occurs while walking or working.  If a good, nuturing and sustaining lunch is what you desire then pretend to be Italian for a day and take it!

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2.  You can eat pasta every day.

Not just for special occasions or only after you have laboured by making it fresh yourself, pasta is a staple and comes in a myriad of forms.  Pasta is eaten ‘al dente‘ (chewy) so that the flavour and texture can be truly appreciated, and is paired with seasonal produce and is therefore constantly changing.  It is part of every Italians’ diet and now even gluten free pasta is offered at most restaurants (by asking for it as it won’t appear on the menu).  Pasta is not only matched with seasonal ingredients (herbs, vegetables, fish and meat), the shapes, sizes and texture (ribbed or non ribbed) of the pasta are matched with particular sauces and ingredients to bring out the taste and texture of ingredients e.g. ribbed pasta with tomato based sauces  The thickness of spaghetti is also chosen depending on what it is served with.  Tip: never serve size no. 3 with seafood!

20130917_202754Rigatoni cacio e pepe –  one of my favourite typical Roman pasta dishes.  Sheeps cheese and pepper.  Sounds simple, is delicious.  Note it is served with ribbed pasta so that the cheese coats the pasta as you eat it – yum!

25122004(001)My mother-in-law Francesca’s Timbalo (baked pasta dish – every mother does one).  Francesca’s has fried pork meatballs in it and is sealed with fried eggplant.  The pasta inside this dish is usually penne, unribbed because the mixture is already dense and doesn’t need to stick to it.

 

3.  You get to experience four complete seasons, consecutively and well spaced (but don’t forget to follow the seasonal ‘rules’).

Each season is quite distinct in its weather, food, activities and lifestyle.  As everyone is impacted by the seasons at the same time it creates a sense of community – everyone is eating, doing and talking about the same things at the same time.  Where you will be going for your summer holidays, when the seasons last vegetables are available, how you will be celebrating this seasons’ saints days, what you will be eating for lunch that day are all acceptable conversations with complete strangers at the bus stop or with neighbours in your apartment block.  The first sunny day is not a reason to go to the beach unless it is after June 21st (the official beginning of summer) and if the heat continues into September it is still not a reason to wear your summer clothes as I recently experienced.  While walking in my local neighbourhood wearing my summer clothes (as it was 27 degrees), I overheard a person commenting to her companion how ridiculous I looked wearing them when it was now September and therefore clearly Autumn!

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If you’re not sure what to do in each season or how to behave, head to the Trevi fountain and look up.  The four statues at the top represent each of the four seasons in Italy and how they are personalised!

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Next week: more reasons to be Italian.

If you love this blog don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on 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

or at your local bookstore.  A synthesis and first chapter is available on this blog by clicking on the ‘My book’ page.  If you have already read it please ‘like’ my FaceBook page, subscribe to this blog, write a review on Amazon, and tell your friends!

The best things in Rome………..are free!

The title of this blog was supposed to be ‘ Top Three Spas in Rome‘ (watch this space for a later blog), but while doing research for that blog post I became outraged about the amount of ‘best things to do in Rome‘ articles requiring the spending of zillions of $$$. They included things like breakfasting on hotel rooftops and banqueting with 250 of your closest friends inside the Vatican palace ‘so you can experience the splendour that only Popes and royalty do/did’, while casually mentioning ‘you might like to also take in a few piazzas, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon if you have time’. So I decided to change the topic of my blog.  I am passionate about my adopted city  because it is one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world, full of art and colour and life, it also is one of the most historically and culturally interesting.  And most of all I love the fact that nearly all of this can be experienced for free!  Yes folks it’s true, the best things in Rome are free!

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It is therefore a backpackers and budget travellers delight.  However probably because a lot of it is free, it seems that the Eternal city sometimes thinks its needs to embellish itself and add costly delights for travellers who don’t feel they are special if they don’t have to pay lots of money for something.  One of the things I love the most about Rome is that I can be minding my own business sitting around at the Trevi Fountain when right before my eyes Isabella Rossellini hops out of a taxi.  Or that I can be waiting for a table (not queuing, there is a big difference) at a well-known restaurant in Campo dei Fiori and ahead of me in the not-queue is Harvey Keitel.  Or that I can walk into Prada or Dolce & Gabbana or Versace on the Via dei Condotti and be treated like I, in my wildest dreams (and theirs), would be able to afford anything.  You could also find yourself out for drinks with any one of Italy’s international movie stars or politicians who frequent the vibrant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks that often substitute dinner) scene in Rome’s tiny back streets.

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Rome is a great leveller.  Its streets and piazzas are open to everyone, always. It’s accessible a lot only by foot and so this makes it hard to create VIP experiences as opposed to public experiences. Rome is unequivocal, it can’t be cordoned off because Brangelina are visiting. Movie stars, models, zillionaires, dictators, mafia bosses, Prime Ministers mingle with the unknown, every-day tourist, back packer and refugee.

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Every year on my birthday (since I stopped being a backpacker and could afford to eat properly), I used to choose one of the fancy restaurants advertised in tourist magazines as being ‘the best restaurants’ to eat in.  The kind where you spend your weekly and sometimes monthly wage on dinner.  Year after year, hoping for an amazing experience, I was disappointed.  The food was always average, the service pompous (one year my husband and I had to sit near the toilets because he wasn’t wearing a tie – just a suit) and we mostly ended up stopping on the way home at one of our usuals to calm ourselves down with a real bowl of pasta and some local wine.  My point being that in Rome the best restaurants are always frequented by average Romans, even the very wealthy ones.

So when in Rome don’t spend your money on rooftop breakfasts in hotels or dinning in the Vatican museum with 250 0f your closest friends or in a fake Roman spa being pampered by Eastern Europeans or on ‘private’ tours (where in the end you will have to queue up and approach things on foot with everyone else anyway).  Here’s my tip for a fabulous Roman Day out and, apart from the inexpensive meals, it is all FREE!!!

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Begin at the nearest bar (cafe) to your hotel.  There should be one within 100 metres.  Order a cappuccino or a ‘cafe’ and a cornetto, possibly with an orange juice if you want to be healthy.  You will find the coffee is the best you have ever had, the cornetto (Italian croissant) will be light, and made that morning, the juice will be juiced in front of you and you will pay about the same amount altogether as the cost of one cup of coffee on a rooftop.

Then take your free map (get them at the airport, McDonalds or from your hotel).  Hopefully you have done some slight research (free on the internet) or have a cheap guide book.  Otherwise scroll through this blog to get to the ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘, ‘Top ten places to eat in Rome’ etc. articles. If you are staying anywhere in the city of Rome (centro) everything will be in walking distance with plenty of opportunities to sit down, grab more coffee or juice, fill up your water bottle free at a fountain or just rest.  Start at one end of town and make your way down and then left and right as you please.  Take one to five days depending on your itinerary and energy levels and repeat in the evenings for a different view.  You can start anywhere but I have you starting at Piazza del Popolo.

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Marvel at the huge space in such a crowded city, cast your eyes up to the lush green gardens of the Villa Borghese on one side, and put it aside for another day.  Feast your eyes on the fountain in the centre of the Piazza, the churches all around it (one of which contains a Caravaggio) and the Egyptian obelisk (stolen by the Romans from Egypt).  Walk out of the Piazza and down the Via del Babuino and admire the antique shops (stop at Hotel de Russie if you want a spa – next blog).  Be entranced by your next view at the end of Via del Babuino which will be Piazza di Spagna.  Sit awhile on the staircase and admire the beautiful people and the view of Via dei Condotti, Rome‘s premium shopping strip.  Don’t forget to look in the window at Dolce & Gabbana half way down the Via Condotti, one of the best visual feasts outside a museum that you will see.

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At the end of Via Condotti you will arrive at the Via del Corso. Turn left and head towards the ‘wedding cake’ Victor Emmanuel Monument at the end of the street.  Admire the palaces and beautiful baroque buildings that line either side of this main street of Rome.  Shortly after you pass the houses of Parliament on your right, turn down a pedestrian side street on your left full of market stalls.  Follow it on to the end.  Gasp.  Get pushed in the back by other tourists behind you who don’t know why you have stopped.  Yes folks this is the Trevi Fountain, at the cross roads of three streets or ‘tre vie’.  All the more beautiful because it is contained in such a small space, wangle your way to the front and admire it sitting down for as long as you can.

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Walk back the way you came and cross back over Via del Corso to another pedestrian street full of restaurants.  Meander along the path following everyone else until you get to the Pantheon, another breathtaking moment but within a larger piazza.  Sit on the steps of the fountain in the piazza and take it all in before you head inside (for free) and view the perfectly round, 2000 year old temple, with a hole cut out in the middle of the roof that lets the sun in to highlight different sculptures around the room as the sun moves overhead.  How’s that for antique engineering??  Using your map move your way left (with the Pantheon to your back) towards Piazza Navona.

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Now at this stage if you really have had enough of Roman culture and need to recover, you could eat at the McDonalds which faces the Pantheon (and serves beer), therefore having a drink/burger with one of the world’s best views at about 100th of the cost of sitting at any of the other cafes that also surround the Pantheon.  I am only recommending this on the grounds of it being cheap and acknowledging that sometimes people need a break from antiquity (based on the experience of some of guests over the years).  Otherwise I would suggest pushing on and eating a slice of pizza, also for the same price as a burger, at one of the places around Campo dei Fiori, a bit further along in our walk.

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As you spill out into Piazza Navona and take a stroll around its race track type shape (yes it was originally a chariot racing track), admire the artists who display their wares and the magnificent fountain of four rivers in the middle.  At one end (on the other side of the toy shop) you can see the original entrance to the race track in Roman times, below street level.  Exit the piazza at the other end and cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele into cobblestoned streets that sell great pizza by the slice, and where you can sit down and eat for around the same price as McDonalds.  Take the opportunity here to have an ice-cream in the same area.  Campo dei Fiori will open up in front of you.  Stroll around the square, take in the history of this being the last place that the Vatican burnt someone at the stake for daring to state that possibly the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around……

If you follow most of the traffic going out of the piazza in the opposite direction from where you came in, you will eventually hit a street going off to your right which becomes a foot bridge over the river.  If you follow it you will find yourself in Trastevere, the oldest neighbourhood of post medieval Rome and home to its vibrant restaurant and nightlife.  Have an aperitivo, at any of the little bars (cafes) that line its tiny cobbled streets, standing up of course which will cost you a fraction of what it costs to sit down, enjoy the free bar snacks and choose your inexpensive restaurant to eat at for dinner!

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After dinner take a stroll along the river, meander throughout the Trastevere neighbourhood or go back the way you came for a completely different view of Rome.  We haven’t even touched the free St. Peters or Roman Forum or the many parks and gardens that are just waiting to be explored!  During your walk, or the next day, lose yourself in any one of the streets off this main beat. Sit and watch the local Roman traffic go by from a street cafe. Admire the marble columns, statues and painted plaques that adorn most buildings. Freely feast on the art inside most churches, and regularly look up to enjoy the free natural beauty of the skyline with its domes, starlings and magnificent sun sets. Now that’s something for free that’s worth paying for!

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‘La Crisi’ or why I love Italians

No one can miss the fact that there is a financial crisis in Italy.  “La Crisi” is spoken about on a daily basis and overheard in most street conversations.  Long after the rest of the world has stopped talking about it, Italy battles on, slowly sinking under the weight of ‘austerity measures’.

Friends of mine with young children, hunker down and hope to wait it out so that by the time their kids need jobs and to leave home, Italy will be prospering once again.

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Those with school or university leavers, say goodbye to theirs.  Young Italians, never big on a ‘gap year’ are fleeing the country in droves.  They go to Australia, UK, Germany and the US.  Many of them miss home, miss their country, are not looking for adventure, but their responses are all similar ‘What is there to do back home?  Sit at home and wait?  Do nothing with my life?’.  Many of them will never return and the loss of their skills, knowledge, university education and endeavour is signficant for Italy now and in the future.

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Daily life is affected by more than just the constant topic of conversation being about how hopeless everything seems and the absence of youth.  Shops and businesses are closing regularly, some of my favourite have already gone.  Jobs, always scarce in Italy, are even more so.  The last week of every month is very quiet as people stay at home due to the fact their household pay packet no longer stretches until the end of it.  Houses remain on the market, empty for years on end without selling, prices for everything have dropped, holidays are simpler and closer to home.

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But watching the morning news encourages and inspires me as I watch every day Italians innovate, struggle, embrace and respond in ever more creative ways to the constricts of their circumstances.  Three news stories have stood out for me over the past month that have made me so proud to call Italy one of my homes and have reminded me of the Italian spirit and tenaciousness in times of difficulty.

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1. A public school in the North of Italy was suffering so badly from government cuts, lack of funding to cover the amount of students requiring an education, and the inability of parents to contribute to buying school books or paying fees so the school could buy supplies, that they decided to produce their own.  The school produced their own text books by writing their own, downloading copy from the internet, printing and producing all the texts required to run the primary and secondary lessons.  Teachers and staff were gleely demonstrating their innovative approach and their self published texts.  Not a scrap of self pity, just shy pride at how they had managed to win against the odds.

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2.  There is one shop or chain of shops that are booming and opening up all over Italy.  Pawn shops and cash converters.  Where Italians used to queue outside shoe stores or designer clothing shops they now queue outside pawn shops.  Most Italians have a prodigous supply of precious jewellery – gold, silver and precious stones are collected from one’s baptism onwards and are seen as a sign of prestige and value on men and women.  But now items worth a couple of thousand euro are being sold for a couple of hundred.  These days three hundred euro can equal a weeks grocercies, petrol and bills for a family and is judged much more valuable than another peice of gold to be worn.  Jewellery can always be bought back once times get good again.

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3.  Yesterday a job was advertised in a hospital for a nurse.  More than three thousand people applied.   Young men and women turned up from all over Italy, travelling for up to a day to sit the entrance exam which constituted the application.  Special buses and excursions were arranged from the south of Italy to take applicants to the North of the country where the job was advertised.  The news report showed a jovial atmosphere of people greeting each other, laughing, and talking together while congregating outside the examination hall.

20130926_111910Viva Italia!

Top 10 things to eat in Rome!

As promised nos. 6 – 10 plus another one for dessert!  For context please read the intro to my last blog as this sets the scene for the precious food tips I am about to give.  All of these dishes can be found on the menus of the ‘Top 10 restarurants in Rome’ blog dated March, 2012.

6.  Saltimbocca alla Romana.  Veal done Roman style (literally means – jump in your mouth style).  There is a theme here……each of these dishes are called ‘alla Romana’ because of the fact that the dishes originated in Rome and are mostly not found outside of Rome.  Another reason to eat regionally and where ever you are, if you see something on the menu that ends in ‘alla the name of the place you are in’ then order it!

Saltimbocca alla Romana are thin, soft slices of veal sauteed lightly in olive oil and flavoured with proscuitto and sage leaves.  Any veal in Rome is divine and no matter how many times other countries’ butchers and restaurantuers tell me they have thinly sliced, soft veal, I’ve never tasted anything remotely like it outside of Italy.  The salty prosciutto and the strong pungent flavour of the sage work perfectly to bring out the subtle taste of the veal.  Highly recommened.

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7. Pollo all Romana.  Baked chicken Roman style.  This is a simple and humble dish and very traditional.  The flavours are amazing, subtle and sweet.  It is basically cuts of chicken (not breast) that have stewed most of the day with a variety of peppers (capsicums) of all colours, some wine, garlic, herbs and tomatoes and produces tender, fall off the bone meat surrounded in delicately flavoured juices that require Italian bread to soak them up.  If you like chicken or need some protein it is highly recommended.

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8. Fegato alla Romana.  Liver Roman style.  OK I admit I am a liver lover, even the shoe-leather type liver I grew up eating, so this liver dish is a real treat and I have often converted non-liver lovers to it.  The liver is very thin and delicate, and is fried using a bushel of white onions and olive oil so that it tastes almost sweet.  It is like eating a deconstructed pate.  Romans have been cooking offal for centuries and they have it down pat!

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9. Carciofe alla Romana.  Artichokes Roman style.  Vegetables are served as separate dishes in Italy and are not included as part of the main dish. They are worthwhile ordering just on their own though, perfect as a simple starter or instead of the main dish.  Carciofe alla Romana are artichokes cooked in Roman mint and garlic.  Roman mint can be found in any park or nature strip in Rome.  Just walking on a park or naturestrip disturbs the scent and you can then identify it.  It is different to other strains of mint and tastes a little sweeter and subtle than other varieties.  I am just intrigued by the fact i can have a local vegetable cooked in a local herb.  It is cooked by boiling it with the ingredients mentioned before and comes to the plate hot, soft and wet and flavoured with the squeeze of a lemon and some olive oil.  They are fantastic with a basket of bread as a light lunch with a cool glass of local Frascati white wine – yum!

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10. Puntarelle.  Little points (aka translation is useless just trust me).  This vegetable dish contains a riot of small green things that look and taste a little like celery, but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

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11. Torta della  Nonna.  Nana’s/Grandma’s cake.  This is essentially a custard tart topped with pine nuts and is found in every cafe and restaurant in Rome.  It is light and delicately flavoured with just a hint of lemon.  The pine nuts give it a crunchy texture and add taste.  If you really want to understand and appreciate the flavour of the pine nut I highly recommend the pinoli gelato, pine nut gelato, also found prolifically in Rome.

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I have now made myself so unbelievably hungry it is time to go!  Next week more about Francesca and less about food as we all give ourselves time to digest!

I will throw out a challenge though.  How many of you can make all of these dishes before my next blog?  Reports and photos required.  All recipes are found easily, and in English, by googling the names of them.  Buon appetito a tutti i miei amici.

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Antonio and Francesca – A love story.

Antonio and Francesca were my parents-in-law.  They are the charactors Renato and Checchina in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasonshttp://www.amazon.com/roman daze.  They lived in Taranto, a small city right at the bottom of Italy on a beautiful bay.

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This blog is to honor them both, but today the story is mostly about Antonio, and Francesca’s stories will come next month.

This story begins around 1937.

Pa was 17 when he first set eyes on the 13 year old Francesca.  She was already working as a seamstress, along with her sister and mother, taking in sewing in any form to earn money in a family that had a choice between food or rent every month, unless there was enough sewing.

He saw her entering and leaving an apartment block every week on a Tuesday afternoon with her sister Nina who was 15.  He had a friend living in that apartment block and so took to visiting him every Tuesday hoping to get a chance meeting with her which he eventually did.  Not being with a parent emboldened Antonio to approach Francesca and a clandestine and innocent friendship struck up, aided and abetted by Nina who was already “spoken for” by a handsome young Carabinieri (a special squad of police that form part of the national miliatary) called Rocco.  Nina wanted her sister to have the joy of a boyfriend too.

It seems that every romance in the south of Italy begins with the parents of the female automatically hating her suitors until the very point of the wedding ceremony and Antonio was no exception.  He was aided in his meetings by Rocco who, being a Carabinieri was seen as vastly more acceptable than a worker from the local munitions factory (where Francesca’s father also worked).

But Antonio was approaching 18, the age at which all Italian males were obliged to do their military service.  This was a two year stint where Italy’s young men were trained as soldiers and could be called up to serve their country if war broke out any time in the proceeding 15 years.  Antonio didn’t have to wait that long.  It was 1939.  War broke out during his national service and he was swept up in it as a young and fairly untrained soldier.

Often when I used to look at Antonio smiling benignly over a plate of cream cakes (he had an enormous sweet tooth) or giggling over the Italian version of Benny Hill, or blowing raspberries into his wife’s stomach (at 91 years of age) or crying as he hugged his son goodbye after a weekend visit; and when I understood his character to be one of gentleness, trust, and contentment with his small lot in life, I found it hard to imagine him with a gun in his hand shooting at others his age.  And then I realised that probably his character, his ability to be utterly content with the simplest of lives and to have no fear of the things in life that I fear, was a result of what he had lived through rather than a pre-existing condition.

Pa was on the front line when Italy changed sides.  He was lying on the ground on his stomach alongside other Germans and Italians shooting at the enemies advancing through the top of Italy, somewhere around Trieste, the most Northern part of Italy.  There was a strange unrest and tension in the air that day.  None of the Italian officers had shown up to the war that morning.  It gradually became known down through the line of soldiers that Italy had changed its allies and was therefore an enemy of Germany.  The very men who were holding guns, side by side with Antonio.  He and another mate from the same home town, Taranto, dropped their guns and ran.  No formal discharge, no orders, no waiting for authority figures to tell them what to do and no fear of reprisals.  Their guts told them to get the hell out of there and so they did.

Trieste is at one end of Italy and Taranto is at the other.  It is a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres.  They walked home.  It took Antonio a month to get home and leaving the front line did not guarantee that their lives were now safe.  They were in uniform and therefore in danger of being picked up by the German military who ruled Italy.  Therefore they couldn’t use the roads or travel during the day.  Because of those same uniforms they were in danger of also being killed by the Italian partisans, the resistance, those who had opposed the war or deserted early.  This meant they were in danger at night, when the resistance travelled along the roads and paths of Italy.

So they followed the aqueducts.  The ancient system of water tunnels the Romans had built from one end of Italy to the other, at night, and only every second night.  They were tired, hungry, afraid, and needed to rest a lot.  They knocked on deserted farmhouses in the evenings and begged for food.  At that time in Italy thousands of men were making their ways home from this war, and resistors were making their ways out to fight it clandestinely. The housewives of Italy fed them all.  A knock on the door around evening time and all through the night was common.  They all needed food and it was always supplied.  The women didn’t care if they had uniforms on or not, whether they carried arms or not.  Most of them were hoping the next knock would be from their men and were relying on other women far away to be keeping them alive as they themselves were doing for the men of other women.

A month after Antonio fled the front line he arrived in Taranto.  No one there knew if he was alive or dead.  He walked up to his apartment building and greeted his incredulous mother who was on the balcony.  He washed and ate and then went to see Francesca.  She was coming along the street, arms laden down with two bags of food shopping and walking next to her mother, when she saw him coming towards her.  She dropped the bags of food (a serious crime in those days) and ran towards him.  There was never any question after that of whether he was good enough for Francesca.  He was a returned soldier who had fought for his country, been caught up in the terrible political machinations of the powerful and wealthy and had survived to come home.  That was good enough.

Antonio went on to father two boys, Hercole (yes that is a name) and Alfredo, and be the surrogate father of two more; the sons of his best friend, Alfredo, who lost his life early to cancer.  He and Francesca lived with other couples in rented houses and eeked out a living, often hungry, for nearly two decades after the war had finished.  Their financial highpoint was being able to afford a one bedroom apartment of their own, five stories up with no lift, in the centre of Taranto, with a view of the sea.  Hercole slept in a small walk-in cupboard at the end of the corridor.  When he went to military service at the age of 16, they had a second son, Alfredo, my husband.

Pa went back to work at the munitions factory after the war and worked there every day for forty years.  His life was unadventurous from my point of view.  He never travelled.  He spent his holidays with Rocco and Nina at their small plot of land about forty minutes away from where he lived and picked almonds for them each summer.  He never read anything except newspapers.

“What’s the point in buying a book?” he once said to me as I came home laden yet again with a half dozen of them.  “Once you’ve read it what do you do with it?” He then chuckled at me like I was a little soft in the head. I am known as a person who is addicted to buying books and never letting them go.  He spent his leisure time talking with his mates in the piazza below, watching TV, playing cards with his son and daughter-in-law, and talking with Francesca.

His first question to me when he saw me on the weekends we travelled down from Rome, was always “Have you eaten?”.  He enthusiastically embraced the introduction of Anglo-Saxon traditions such as Christmas crackers and the wearing of the hats that came out of them, insisting his whole family did too.  This was a vastly unfamiliar tradition to them but one that made my Christmases a whole lot better amidst all the pasta, ice-cream desserts and lack of alcohol that made up their typical southern Italian Christmas dinner.

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One day shortly before Pa passed away, Hercole came into the apartment to find Pa lying on the floor, the bottom half of his torso wedged under his double bed.  Francesca had gone out to do the shopping.  Pa was lying there calmly waiting for someone to come and find him and help him up.  Are you alright Pa, Hercole asked half concerned, half finding it funny (I told you they were quirky).  “I’ve been better”, was the reply.

So for his bravery, his contentment, his peacefulness and his fathering which produced an amazing husband (biased point of view) I say Vale Antonio, Vale xxxx

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It’s been two years since both Francesca and Antonio De Luca passed away.  Married for 67 years they weren’t able to exist, one without the other.

Franchy had a stroke when she was 89.  She was rushed to hospital from the 5th floor apartment they had both lived in for over fourty years.  She was away six weeks, floating between life and death and then rehabilitating and learning to walk again.  Pa couldn’t comprehend it.  He was almost blind, had difficulty walking and was in the advanced stages of dementia.  He could also not be consoled.

The person who had been the only constant in his grey and continually dimming world was no longer there.  He was living more and more in a world of fantasy where if he passed a mirror he often spent half an hour talking into it, thinking he was having a conversation with someone else.  He could also spend hours having a conversation with the television.  All he knew was that the person who prepared his coffee first thing in the morning, the person who helped wash and dress him, the person who helped him go to the toilet, who fed him, bought his food and went walking with him was gone.  The woman who, when he woke regularly in the middle of the night and started to get dressed, told him that it wasn’t time yet, the woman who laughed and joked with him at his eccentricities and still took him, and his needs seriously, the woman who even at 89 years old could still make him smile, grab her in a big hug and kiss her repeatedly on the mouth.  All he knew was that she was no longer with him, the concept of time, that she was somewhere else and could eventually come back, eluded him.

In her place were well meaning sons, grand children, neighbours, doctors and professional carers.  He struggled on for several weeks at home then in professional care.  Like Romeo at Juliet’s tomb, believing her dead, he just wanted to go with her.  One day he just stopped eating and died three days later. Francesca survived her stroke and came home to an empty house.  Francesca couldn’t walk very well and as their apartment was on the fifth floor with no lift, she was confined to it.  Her sister Nina and her best friend Maria visited every day, sometimes twice a day, along with neighbours, children and grandchildren. She lasted almost two months without Antonio and then one day another stroke killed her.

They were the kind of parents and parents-in-law that you really miss.  Funny, quirky, courageous, honest, tenacious, tender, unconditionally and endlessly loving to the full extent of their capacity and beyond.  They were two of the most selfless and endearing people I have ever met.  I wish the world had known them more.

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