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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mix together 300g ricotta cheese with 200g of fetta cheese, some salt, pepper and a small dash of italian extra virgin olive oil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Italian summer did not disappoint. It was hot. Relentlessly, endlessly hot. Each day the same. Each night only just bearable. The sky was cloudless and blue, the days windless and still. The evenings had breaths, whiffs, occasionally something that could be called a breeze. During the day the bright yellow sunshine bathed everything in its happy colour. The baby blue of the sky lit everything with its peaceful tincture. Yellow and blue met you as soon as you descended from your apartment and hit the street. Tiredness from lack of sleep, worry, jet lag, heat, or having eaten and drank too much the night before, disappeared after a few steps into the soft warm colour filled day.
The streets of my old suburb were decorated with rubbish piled up every 10 metres, overflowing from the communal rubbish bins provided for each apartment block. The stench of rotting garbage assailing me and stopping me in mid conversation every couple of steps. How sad. One of the many results of the Italian financial crisis, less public services. It marred the stone cornices, circular sweeps of entrances, and leafy corridors.
We walked to the metro station of Garbatella and stood in the shade on a Sunday to wait for the train to take us to the centre of town and to our favourite Sunday park, Villa Borghese. The station had been built in wealthier times, huge utilitarian platforms of square concrete with smart black, non-slip surfaces, and chairs to sit on. The walls were covered in graffiti and the floors caked with nearly a decade of dirt. A city camping in its own filth. An old but popular Italian song was playing loudly over the speaker, singing about how beautiful all women are, and how wonderful the female sex is, with no irony. Just at the edge of the platform, under the road, were three dilapidated old campers. I watched people come and go, obviously not temporary and not on holiday.
At the stop close to the park, well into the centre of the city, the train was delayed. We saw a group of young teenage girls being shouted at by a man and woman and menaced over by another couple of police officers. The police officers came on board the train as it began to move. They walked up and down the carriages shouting in English and Italian to be careful because there were gangs of gypsy girls, referred to as ‘baby gangs’ whose intent was to steal from tourists. I remembered my first mugging by gypsy children almost 25 years ago.
I started to cry.
“You’re crying because you’re happy aren’t you?” accused my husband.
“Yes”, I admitted, “yes”.
I am happy that the rubbish still stinks and that gypsies still steal your money on the metro, because it is still the city that I know and love. I am happy that it hasn’t been ‘cleaned up’ or ‘modernised’ or ‘homogenised’ or ‘right sized’ or made more consumer friendly. I am happy that it is still the city that doesn’t exist for the pleasure or use, or consumption, by its current set of inhabitants or visitors. The city that makes you work to enjoy it, requires effort to access it, and cannot be consumed, because it is Eternal. The city that has existed for more than 2,500 years, the city of the Etruscans, of Romulus and Remus, of Julius Caesar, of Michelangelo, of Mussolini, of the Popes, of Federico Fellini and of Beppe Grillo.
I’ll admit that things have waxed and waned over the centuries but Rome has always endured and managed to provide its citizens with shelter, water, sunshine, food that is so plentiful it grows between the cracks in the footpath, wine that flows from the mountains just outside it, and opportunities to be part of history, a great ruling power, flex your political or artistic bents; or just sit and relax amidst stone, sunshine and leafy canopies, enjoying music on every street corner and sipping sweet cold orange juice over shaved ice.
“It’s from my garden”, proudly explained the woman who was squeezing it barehanded over our glasses full of ice.
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.