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.

Roman Life – Il Primo Bagno, The first swim of the season

Some things can’t be homogenised, commercialised, mass produced or copied.  Thank goodness.  You have to wait until they come around again, like the seasons of the year.  A lot of things in Italy are like that. Some see that as an archaic attitude to life, lacking rationale (economic in particular), and a wasted opportunity.  But not all experiences can be bought or made, sometimes they are just to have.  And its in the having and savoring, without a desire to do anything else with them, that Italians excel; and why their lifestyle and culture is so envied and, ironically, copied………

Its exactly eight years since I last tasted the tart little tarts, filled with fruit from the orchards and fields that surround them deep in the heart of the countryside south of Rome.  The paddocks are lined with glasshouses that supply the city with its peaches, figs, tomatoes, and berries.  Buffalo cows that produce the milk for mozzarella meander the streams that flow down from the rocky mounts behind them. into the sea just in front of them.  We search for the small, nondescript little cafe that we always stop at, about half way into our journey from the city to the sea and yes, it is still there!

And so are the tarts……… I choose blackberry and as I bite into it thank goodness that some things stay the same, that some things are a genuine expression of their local resources and culture.  I thank goodness that the owner of the bar still serves these tarts, as she watches me.  No doubt wondering why a foreigner, who has probably lived all over the world (I have), would bother to look so happy and satisfied at a roadside stop somewhere between Rome and Naples.  But I have come literally half way around the world and waited eight years for these little dense, well built, rounds of fruit.

We continue on our way to Sperlonga, a beautiful white stone, seaside town built on top of a cliff.  Its staircase, which begins at the sea, twists and turns up the mountain through caves designed to be blocked off so that invaders (including a pirate called Red Beard – really!) couldn’t reach it.  The water at Sperlonga is a particularly high quality due to the underground springs of fresh mineral water that bubble up through the seabed, in bursts of freezing cold water, in the otherwise 22 degree, translucent blue, undulating body of sea.

20180708_193251

At the bottom of the cliff the large stone, knee height pool that fills with natural spring water is still there, built for the women of the village to do their washing in and take advantage of the clean, cold water.  Italy bursts with fresh, cold drinking water from the ground for its citizens.  Where ever you are it seems the earth sprouts forth the enticing and the necessary to enable and cherish life and encourage it to stay (or return) right here at its source, enjoying and relaxing in its abundance.  Maybe that is why the residents are so thankful to their local Saint, who presides in a full life sized statue over the beach.

It is hot and sunny, the perfect day for our first swim of the year/season. We have our lunch in the shade of the Saint, giving thanks and celebrating our first swim with local buffalo mozzarella, local tomatoes and a zucchini and ricotta strudel from this months La Cucina Italiana cooking magazine, http://www.lacucinaitaliana.it

When I first arrived in Italy, I was fresh from back packing around the Greek islands.  I wasn’t carrying any cook books in my backpack.  The internet didn’t exist and cookbooks in English were rare. I knew how to cook but not how to use Italian ingredients (I had no idea what to do with an artichoke and some months it is THE main vegetable on offer), or cook Italian food (and many of the ingredients I was used to were unavailable – pumpkin, ginger, coriander, self raising flour).  I was especially not used to only using seasonal produce.  I was so stunned the first time I asked for strawberries and everyone in the shop laughed at me.  So I needed to learn how to cook in Italy and I needed to learn Italian.  In the days before the internet, La Cucina Italiana monthly magazine did both.  I learnt all the Italian words for food and cooking terms, including local expressions like ‘a string of oil and 2 fingers of milk’, as units of measurement.  It helped that there were a lot of pictures, step by step guides and special features each month on what to do with the in season vegetables and fruit, as often you couldn’t get much else.

“Do you have anything besides zucchini?” I once asked my fruit and vegetable seller.

“What do you mean?  We have dark green zucchini, light green zucchini, baby zucchini, zucchini flowers, why do you need anything else?”

So in zucchini season its helpful to have a few recipes for zucchini. I have translated it so you don’t have to learn Italian as well. See below for recipe. Serves about 9.

  1. Slice up finely and length ways (called a listerelle) about 6 zucchini (not the baby ones) with a bunch of spring onions and fry them for about 10 minutes in some italian extra virgin olive oil (its really important to use this oil and not another type), with salt, pepper and sage, oregano or bay leaf.
  2. Mix together 300g ricotta cheese with 200g of fetta cheese, some salt, pepper and a small dash of italian extra virgin olive oil.
  3. Mix the cooled, cooked vegetables in with the cheese and spread it on a sheet of flaky pastry.  Put another sheet on top of it and close the edges  so it is as rectangular as possible.  Make some slits on the top of it and brush it with egg yolk.  Bake it for 20 minutes at 180

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, FAO 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

Click here for a free download of the Prologue and first chapter.

Click to access roman-daze-la-dolce-vita-for-all-seasons.pdf

#holidaysinitaly #holidaysinrome #rome #italytrip #thingstodonearrome #toptenthingstodoinrome #booksaboutitaly #walkingtoursofrome #romandaze #brontejackson #memoirsofitaly #writersinrome #englisgspeakingwalkingtours #aussiesinrome

Roman Life

The other day I was stopped on the street by a woman in a floor length, dark fur coat dripping with brooches.  Her ears hung low with sparkling baubles which matched those pinned to her fur hat.

Oh what beautiful earrings you are wearing!

Holding my shoulder, she reached out to touch my simple blue spheres.  She stood close to me and took me in from head to toe with a wide smile on her brightly painted lips, nodding in appreciation and then gasping,

and they match your eyes!

I must admit that I was a little chuffed that someone had appreciated and noticed my well put together outfit, as I usually spend quite a bit of time choosing the exact pair of earrings.  I looked at her outfit, knew I was with a kindred spirit, and knew what my task was.

Thank you.  I was just admiring your beautiful brooch, and how it exactly matches your scarf.

She beamed at me and stroked the gilt star shape she had pinned to her chest.

Well sometimes I am not sure about these things.  But I try to always look my best. I am eighty you know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italian women are rarely shy with their age.  It was my cue to exclaim that she, ”carried it well”, the best compliment you can give a woman over 50.

Many of my friends from other countries tell me they feel invisible once they turn fifty.

Move to Italy

is always my answer.

Women here are never invisible and never not looked at.  The ages of the men may get older but they never stop looking.  I have lived here since I was 29.  I was not used to being looked at in the full-bodied, appraising, unapologetic, second nature way that Italian men and women look at each other.  I got sick of it sometimes but comforted myself with the fact that it would soon enough be over.  I am now 54.  It’s not over.  And not just because “I carry it well”.  I get looked at the same amount as when I was 29, only the age range of the lookers has changed.  They have aged as I have.  Although not always.  The response “I am old enough to be your mother” didn’t seem to be working so I now say “I am old enough for you to be my second child”.  But sometimes I don’t need to say that at all.

Yesterday I was crossing an intersection,  another woman, slightly older than me was coming in the opposite direction.  As she came closer she held her arms out in an appreciative gesture and said to me “che bella signora”, or “what a beautiful lady”.  I must admit that being called beautiful in the street by random strangers on your way to buy the groceries is something that always puts a spring in my 54-year-old step.  Italians don’t seem to think that only youth have a monopoly on beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why when I am 80 I fully plan to be wearing floor length (fake) fur coats, bright red lipstick, and as much jewellery as I can attach to myself without falling over.

If you like this blog maybe you would like my Memoir:

Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons, Melbourne Books, 2013

Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, FAO 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

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

Click here for a free download of the Prologue and first chapter.

Click to access roman-daze-la-dolce-vita-for-all-seasons.pdf

 

La mia Garbatella

Everyone loves their own suburb. And I do love mine.  But then Garbatella is not like any other suburb in Rome, or anywhere else.

Nestled in a quiet corner between major arterial roads leading south out of Rome, and only ten minutes drive from the center of Rome, it boasts quiet communal gardens, hidden staircases in place of roads, decorative archways, green oases and tranquil piazzas.  Walking along pedestrian only paths that climb hills and meander along parks, watching women hang out laundry on communal lines while men sit smoking in shady corners and children run up and down, it feels more like the center of the many quiet little towns found in the countryside near Rome.

After having lived in the adjoining suburb, built only forty years later, where (in my apartment that was on a lean and eventually fell down), the rubbish truck woke me at 1.00 am each night with its flashing lights and loud mechanical grinding, and where at 7.00 am each morning, as the walls were so thin, the neighbors alarm clock woke me in time for work; and having lived in the very center of Rome in a medieval apartment block whose bathroom roof caved in one night and where I could go for a week without ever seeing a living plant; I stumbled on this green suburb full of well built houses by accident in 1998 (as the only suburb I could afford which was close to the city center), and wondered how it was possible that such a jewel could exist.

Slowly I found out, although some of the facts are a bit hazy and like all good creation stories several versions exist of the same event.  In the 1920’s someone, let’s say Mussolini, decided to build a suburb outside of Rome in the countryside to house in particular, the poor.  It could have been a social experiment, one that was popular at the time as cities all over the world were planning how to effectively house more people.  Gandhi came on a visit here, dressed in his white robe, to see an example of what could be offered to ensure that even the poorest could be housed effectively.  This event at least is fact as there is a picture of it on a sign post in my suburb.

Image result for picture of gandhi in garbatella

Or it could have been that as the Vatican and the Italian government had made a truce to peacefully co-exist as separate states, and in thanks to the Vatican for a sizable donation, the Italian government decided to clear the slums that bordered around and obscured the Vatican, building in their place a huge driveway and stately road leading up to the Vatican (called appropriately Conciliation Street) and necessitating the removal and re-housing of thousands of city slum dwellers.  There are several other versions but they all involve re-housing city slum dwellers into low-rise blocks, built to look like the mid 1800 apartment blocks they were used to, but placed within communal gardens, a unique setting in Italy.  Due to the fact that the new suburb was miles away from where these families had always lived, it was built complete with kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, restaurants, hotels, a public bath house, theater, playgrounds, fountains and piazzas.  As though it had always been there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you build a suburb from the beginning you have many advantages.  Like what it will look like and what goes where.  In addition you have the opportunity to use the buildings and the spaces to foster the behaviors you desire and to create community.  Especially necessary when thousands of people are uprooted and plonked down miles away in an alien environment.  So architectural competitions were held to create all the public buildings (theater, baths, hotels), resulting in all the best architects of the time contributing to the new suburb.  Public spaces were created within each city block so that apartment blocks faced onto private yet communal gardens, walk ways, washing lines and other places to gather, just like the small pedestrian streets and spaces that had previously defined their inner city neighborhoods. Curving streets, round piazzas and even rounded and curved buildings created spaces that felt organic rather than planned.  The use of staircases to connect streets or instead of them, created spaces for pedestrians to travel and move around the suburb never meeting any traffic, much like a small country village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garbatella has moved through many phases as the city of Rome grew up and around it, engulfing the fields that once surrounded it. From being shamed as a modern-day slum unwelcome to outsiders (but with very cheap rentals to foreigners who didn’t know about that), to a center for cutting edge arts and radical politics, full of some of the best traditional Roman restaurants and trendy new wine bars.  It is still a place where most people who live here also work in the suburb, where many generations of the same family live and where people if they are not related at least know of each other and who they belong to. (I once walked into a cafe and was asked “who did I belong to?” before i was asked for my order).

It is a place where Roman dialect rather than Italian is the main language and where you can sit down to lunch and know that every thing on your table has been grown, butchered or made by the local person you bought it from.  It is a place where you can wander on a quiet sunlit afternoon through lovingly tended gardens, sit on benches under trees and hear only a fountain bubbling, and get lost rambling along tree-lined paths under arches and up staircases around a whole suburb without ever crossing a street.  So I do love my suburb.  La mia Garbatella!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you would like to read more about La bella Garbatella you can do so in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.

https://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X

What’s up in a Roman January?

January is a cold, dark, short month.  It’s sometimes better just to hunker down and get it over with.  Then again sometimes its hard to notice it at all.  By the time Christmas and New Years festivities are gotten over, it’s almost finished anyway, and there isn’t much to do until the Carnevale starts livening things up again in February.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So this post will be short.  It’s just to let you know that January is not a great month to visit Rome.  Everyone is tired, especially at the Vatican.  Many places close for a restful few weeks, and those that can, get out of the city and go skiing.  No one wants to party or eat much, and no one is very interested in serving you.  It’s too cold to stay outside for very long and enjoy the best parts of Rome, which are actually mostly outside.  Although the keen winter sun does make it lovely for a short stroll either just before lunch or just after.

02012005(001)

If you do happen to be stuck in Rome in January the three best things to do all begin with S – shopping (there are lots of sales), skiing (ski fields only about an hour away) and sipping hot chocolate.

A Roman hot chocolate is a spiritual experience and will revive even the most jaded of palates and auras.  When I first got handed a hot chocolate in Rome I thought someone had made a mistake in my order.  It looked nothing like the brown, milky, liquid hot chocolate I grew up with.  You basically had to eat it with a spoon and it came with an inch of whipped cream on the top to “even out the chocolate”.  In Rome a hot chocolate is taken standing up at the counter of your local cafe, or sitting at a table alone or with friends.  In Winter it is one of the basic five food groups, along with deep red Chianti.  But as most people are heartily sick of drinking by January, and are saving themselves for Carnevale, a hot chocolate is a steady substitute.

Italy has some of the best ski slopes in the world, the most breathtaking scenery and the most comfortable accoutrements to skiing in the Western world.  Added to this is the high fashion still apparent on the slopes, the spectacular food and venues, and it is a pretty good way to pick yourself up during a dark, cold January.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lastly the sales.  While others are working off their Christmas kilos on the slopes or dieting by drinking hot chocolate alone, some are using shopping as their cardio.  It’s not just the heart stopping deals and the adrenaline inducing battles that go on between shoppers, it’s that you end up walking for ages, laden down with bags due to the fact that the bargains just go on and on.  It is also an ideal way to throw off Winter blues.

29012005(001)

Oh and if you are still stuck for ideas, try http://www.wantedinrome.com and  http://www.facebook.com/TheYellowRomeGuide  between these two you will find everything else you need to enjoy a Roman January.

Happy 2018!!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A tale of Italian cities – Taranto rehabilitated

Each year when I attend the Italian Film Festival in Melbourne I feel like I get a glimpse into the heart and soul of Italy through the films that have been made, and most loved, by Italians that year.  Last year I was struck by the number of films set in or around Taranto, where my husband is from, and which during the 17 years I lived in Rome, no one ever seemed to have visited or wanted to.

I had been visiting Taranto regularly over the years, spending long periods at Christmas, Easter and the summer months.  It always seemed strange to me that a place that was so much cheaper than the rest of Italy, with some of its best beaches and spectacular food, was not over run with Italians and other tourists. To me it was a place of unique beauty, full of love and laughter from my in-laws, and people that stared at me unabashedly like I was an alien, but who were never the less incredibly welcoming and friendly.

I got engaged in 2002 and I was living in Rome at that time.  When I excitedly shared the news with my local Roman café/bar owners and shop keepers that I was to be married, there was a look I didn’t recognise that came over all of their faces, and a distancing.  Their congratulations were formal and stilted, quite different from the jokey comradery we had built up over the years.  The change seemed to come because I said my fiancée was from Taranto, not because I said I was to be married. I recounted reactions I was getting to the new I was marrying a man from Taranto to my fiancee.  To my surprise he wasn’t surprised.

“Taranto doesn’t have a great reputation in the rest of Italy”

I felt like my parents had told me I was adopted, that the view I had of the world was wrong, and that everyone was in on the conspiracy.  I listened to the descriptions given by my fiancee  as examples of what others in Italy thought of Taranto – lazy Southerners, violent knife wielding thieves, impoverished communist strongholds, aggressive and illiterate fisher-folk, Mafia corruption, and backward saint worshipping enclaves.

So it was with much pride and some amazement that I watched ‘Daddy’s Girl’, ‘Ever been to the moon?’ and ‘Pomodoro’, three films all set in or near Taranto in the 2016 Film Festival.  Each of these films juxtaposed the North of Italy with the South.  Only this time the stories had changed.  Taranto is portrayed as a bastion of humanitarian principles in a world gone mad with excess and ego, a stronghold of human kindness in a world obsessed with image and power, a place that has not lost its core human values of connection with the land and the life sustaining food it produces, and as having deep wisdom about the true needs of the human soul.

In these films it feels like Italy is telling a story about herself; portraying herself as the troubled teenager that went off to find her fortune in the big city and got sick from too much of a good time, returning to her roots to find what she has been searching for, what truly sustains her, was always there.  The common theme in these films is that modernity, luxury, wealth, fame are not always the pots of gold they are made out to be, there are disadvantages to them just as there are to primitiveness, poverty, sobriety and ignorance.  It seemed that through these films Italians were expressing their lessons learnt and revaluing some things about themselves that perhaps previously only outsiders could see.   I am looking forward to the 2017 round of films and this years’ stories that Italians tell about themselves.

Italian kindness – is it a cultural value?

In this quarter of the year I have seen a number of pieces of journalism about kindness, its power, and whether we as Australians have enough of it.  At the same time I saw an article in The Age about the kindness of some Roman policemen that seemed to touch the hearts of many.  An elderly couple, both in their late 80’s, had been heard crying in their apartment in Rome, the police had been called by neighbours, and when asked what was wrong the couple had told them that they were lonely, and a bit frightened by events they saw on their nightly news.  The policemen’s response?  They made the elderly couple a bowl of pasta each, with burro e parmigiano, and sat talking with them awhile.

I got to thinking about kindness and whether it was a cultural value or a human value.  Were some societies kinder than others, or did they value it higher?

20160804_135856

The actions of the police did not surprise me at all.  It illustrated what I have always felt about Italians, and experienced living in Italy, they have what I call a ‘human first’ approach to life.  That is, above everything I am first a human in their eyes.  I may also be a customer, a tax payer, a recipient of a service, a citizen with rights and obligations, a patient, a competitor, a tourist, a student, a stranger, a passenger, a worker, a bank account holder, a voter. But before all of these things I am a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a wife, a husband, and a human.  This means I am responded to first, as one of these categories, before any of the others.  This has its advantages and its disadvantages.

20160723_083005

I remember one time when I had been living in Rome less than a year and the gas rings on my stove top didn’t work anymore.  My Irish flatmate and I did not speak much Italian but we were sure that the phone number on our gas bill was where you reported any problems with your gas supply.  We were surprised when we were told that someone would be out to check within half an hour.  Services did not usually respond that quickly.  We were even more surprised when twenty minutes later we opened the door to four men wearing gas masks attached to oxygen tanks, full protective clothing, and carrying machinery and pipes.

Instead of being angry that we had called the National Emergency Services because we couldn’t cook our pasta, they kindly took off their protective gear, and fixed our gas faucets for free.

20160723_082739

Last month when I returned to Rome for a visit, rather than take a taxi to my apartment from the train station with my luggage, I wanted to walk through the quartier and savour my return.  As I dragged my huge suitcase over cobble stones, cracked pavements and between parked cars, picking my way slowly to my old apartment I was both sweating and crying at the same time, overcome with joy at being back.

Are you OK Signora?  I got asked every 10 metres.  Are you lost?  Do you need help?

No, no thanks, I kept replying, I’m at home, I’m OK, thank you.

20160801_134441

I remembered another time, exasperated with frustration, when I demanded to know from our local Roman bus driver why the bus was always twenty minutes late, and why two of the same number bus always arrived together every forty minutes instead of one every twenty minutes.   He told me that they didn’t want to leave the other one alone at the bus depot.

I remember the conversations I have with some Australians about how 20,000 refugees a year arriving in Australia seem to be too many for them.  While Italy receives 100,000 a year in a country the size of Victoria, and with three times our population, without locking them in prison or deporting them.  It’s the human first principle at work again, to one countries demise we might surmise, given Italy’s economic crisis.  But to the overall improvement of global kindness as a cultural value we hope.

20160729_203236