In celebration of it being the 70th Anniversary of the Republic of Italy (and who really needs a reason to celebrate all things Italian), I wanted to take the opportunity to remind you of, or introduce you to, my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons. Please see below for a synopsis and sneek preview. This book can be purchased through Amazon worldwide (in hard copy of as an e-book), from the FAO and Lion Bookshops in Rome, or in any Australian bookshop. Links are provided below. Happy reading!
This is a book about Italy, Rome and me.
It is not a book about falling in love and marrying an Italian, running a B&B, or restoring a farmhouse.
I arrived in Italy on a whim as a result of having won an airline ticket in a raffle. The city of Rome captivated my heart and I decided to stay awhile. It was the year before Berlusconi came to power. Seventeen years later we were both still there. Much to everybody’s amazement, particularly our own (although I can’t strictly speak for Berlusconi).
Rome and Italy are places of extreme contrasts. The Italian political system, its Universities, banks, and industries are in disarray. Italy has always seemed to be on the verge of crumbling according to many economic indicators. And yet somehow life continues on a daily basis in much the same way it has for hundreds of years. The breath taking countryside, stunning islands and beaches, non- stop blue skies, excellent food and wine, art collections, fashion, family, tightly knit neighbourhoods, rituals and traditions, and the beauty of the cities make it hard to be gloomy or to reconcile the failure of so many of its institutions. It is easier to have an excellent coffee, stop and chat awhile with your neighbour.
This is a book about how seasons, food, family, architecture, nature, traditions, and weather all come together to create the lifestyle of Italians much more so than their economic well being, and why it looks like La Dolce Vita to most of us. It also debunks some myths of La Dolce Vita and shows the not so attractive side of being Roman/Italian that tourists don’t get to see.
The book is divided into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. It describes the city of Rome, its inhabitants and lifestyle for each season and time of year – the food, rituals, events, practices and behaviour that go with each season and why. This is a fundamental key to the differences between an Anglo-Saxon culture based on economic rationalism and one which is dictated by the weather/natural environment and by human relationships. And it is a difference that has far reaching effects in all aspects of Italian society, economics and attitude.
The book also follows my movements as I participate in each season’s rituals and practices, some of which are easy, some not, some I still find bizarre and some I revel in. It highlights several key relationships I have with other Italians and ex-pats and talks about life in Italian society from their point of view.
It includes chapters about important Italian events such as the annual celebration for the Liberation of Italy from the Nazi’s. It covers my local festival which celebrates a traditionally impoverished neighbourhood where some of Italy’s most important film makers, artists and actors came from. It talks about the importance of the first sea swim of the year, what happens on Year’s Eve and why, what Italians do on the weekends, and some classic and unforgettable examples of how the Italian state is run.
It details areas of Rome and its surrounding that are not covered in Guide Books, and gives surprising and key information on how to survive and enjoy Italy. It provides little known facts and advice about Italian society, lifestyle and behaviours that enable the reader to understand, appreciate and get the most out of any experience of Italy.
It is also a personal story that brings alive the spectacular environment in which it is told. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in a country that insists on a three hour lunch break (in spite of it being the eighth most industrialised country in the world); or why if you are related to someone on the Police force, are wealthy, or a blonde female, the usual rules and laws of the country don’t apply to you; or what life would be like in the absence of economic rationalism, then you will enjoy this book.
This book is about what it is like to be so different from all those around you while identifying and appreciating things that were always missing in your own life. It is a book about living an unending and continuously surprising adventure, about following your heart, and living amongst people who continuously use theirs.
CHAPTER 3 – FRANCESCA AND RITA
Are our neighbours, were our neighbours. Today is a sad day. It is the first day without them. They moved out yesterday, after renting here for fifty years. It is the end of an era and everyone in the whole apartment block is sad.
Francesca moved here with her parents when she was nine. Her play mates are still mostly living here too. Their parents all knew each other, she along with her other playmates, stayed here until they were married, and then returned to live here with their husbands and wives. They then had their own children, who are now also friends.
Antonio and Gianni played together as small boys. Antonio still lives in the same apartment underneath us, and has lived to see Gianni marry Antonella who became Francesca’s best friend. Marianna’s mother and Francesca’s mother were best friends when Marianna and Francesca were children. Marianna helped Francesca nurse her dying husband, who introduced Marianna to hers.
We live in a tightly knit neighbourhood. It is unwise to get annoyed at anyone as they are usually related to someone you know quite well, or depend on (the pharmacist, the mechanic, the owner of the local trattoria – Antonio’s brother owns ours). Many people live within walking distance of where they grew up, and where their extended family lives. The inhabitants of this quartiere are polite to, but a little wary of, outsiders. They are fiercely proud and protective of their suburb, and find it a little unusual that anyone would voluntarily come and live here. For generations the traffic has been going the other way.
It probably explains why I get stared at a lot. If I lived in one of the suburbs that are popular with foreigners, I wouldn’t get a sideways glance, but here people have the look of, “but WHY would you choose to live here, with us?!!” It explains partly why, when your neighbours do get to know you, they embrace you with the fierceness and tightness of a mother about to be separated from her first born. In fact you can’t get away from them, ever again.
We have a well kept, shady, shared garden area as part of the apartment complex we live in. Our apartment complex is not public housing but was built for employees of the post office just up the road. Marianna is one of the only post office employees left that still lives here. The communal area consists of a rather large space, surrounded by trees and grass, sculptured by hedges and containing three separate sitting areas, complete with benches. It is astounding to have this kind of facility in Rome. Most apartment blocks are built one right up against each other with barely a wall between them. The last one I lived in I didn’t need an alarm clock, the man on the other side of the wall had one and it always went off at the time I needed to get up.
I was overjoyed when I first saw the garden. I imagined myself sitting there at any time of day, relaxing in my own bit of green space. But the reality is I go there stealthily. First I scout from my balcony to see if anyone is sitting in it, and then I run there as quickly as possible to avoid being spotted by anyone else. Then I sit in the part the farthest away from the buildings and bury my head in a book, scowl, or close my eyes and chant if anyone comes close.
This amount of preparation and strategic planning is necessary. I discovered early on that sitting there by myself was a beacon for anyone else in the apartment block to come down and join me. Apparently what I am communicating by sitting by myself in the garden is, “Help! I am lonely and would like some company, please come and talk to me”.
Francesca often watched me when I was in the garden, waving and smoking from her balcony. She folds boxes for a living and is also a Sarta (dressmaker). The boxes are the staple part of her income in a land where there is no unemployment benefits, or pensions for widows. Her husband knew the man for whom she folds boxes. Out of charity the work was passed on to her after his death. She is a woman who always manages to look elegant, from her fingernails to her hair. She has a rasping cough, never walks anywhere, and has laughter continually on her face. She is a chain smoker so there is always a cigarette on her face as well. The entire house smells of smoke. She is always at home, as is her twenty-five year old daughter, Rita. Rita is tiny, like most Italian women at that age, and she could pass for fifteen. She is beautiful and has the dark features of her Arabic father.
As I often work from home, and sometimes also my husband, Francesca was always coaxing us over for a coffee or a chat. It was a welcome relief for me, from a day spent concentrating in front of a computer.
What first attracted me to Francesca was that she would often ring on my doorbell wearing only her pyjamas. At midday. I would usually still be wearing mine, and the relief to find someone else that not only thought that was OK, but that it was OK to go calling in them, was enormous. Sometimes Rita would poke her head out of their door, and she would be wearing only her pyjamas too. Sometimes we would spend quite a bit of time chatting together from our doorways, drinking coffee, in our pyjamas. Francesca would always invite me in but I refused to cross my thresh hold wearing only my pyjamas. I find it hard enough to get dressed some days as it is. This never stopped Francesca though, or Rita, who would regularly come visiting in their pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. It was a private, female world we had on the top floor of our apartment block, where we knew no one would ever appear unless we knew about it first.
I first met Francesca and Rita a few months after we had moved in, during a violent rain storm. Water had come streaming down the stairs from the roof and was forming a small lake, in the entrance hall of our apartment. Both my husband and I stood helplessly in the corridor outside our apartment watching the flow, and not knowing what to do. Next thing I knew, two women had bowled out of their apartment and were in mine, mopping my floor and stuffing towels on the stairs while shouting for the bloke downstairs to come and unblock the drains on the roof. They mopped and sopped and then went back into their apartment leaving my husband and I staring at each other and wondering what we would have done without them. We had met them once.
Yesterday we helped them pack and said goodbye to them as they drove their car out of the compound one last time. We were all crying, and smoking. Many of the residents had come out to say goodbye and for each hug there would be fresh tears and a fresh cigarette. Francesca did not want to go. The landlord wanted to sell the property and had offered her a substantial amount of money to move, two years before her lease was up. It was more than she could hope to earn in a year. She was entitled to stay in the apartment, even if it sold, for another two years but then she could be given notice without any compensation. So Francesca had chosen a new rental in a seaside town about an hour south of Rome. She could not afford to rent in Rome any longer. She would be close to her brother who also lived there. With the compensation she could afford to furnish the new rental and the furniture would be hers not the landlords.
Although I often declined Francesca’s daily invitations over the years, it was comforting to me that she was there. That if I ever wanted company, a cigarette, an egg, or to know that someone would hear me scream, she was there. I had lived some hard and sad times in this apartment and spent much time alone as a result.
I rarely spoke that much when I visited, as I usually found it a stretch speaking Italian, let alone the Roman dialect that she spoke. I rarely offered much of myself, and I gained a lot from being with her. Hanging out the washing together on the roof, talking about whether it would rain or not today, whether the supermarket was open, what kind of tomatoes were in season, what I was going to eat for dinner, gave me a well needed sense of normality. Having a two minute connection with someone living in the same space and time as me, was grounding, and somehow kept me connected to life at a simple and basic level. I felt not alone. Not in a crowded sense, but in an “I am not on my own” kind of way.
I wasn’t really on my own, I had my husband, I had friends, but in day to day living, in daily moments when I was alone, Francesca made me feel not on my own. I understood then how all the women in the Palazzo got on with things. Antonella, who lived in the ground floor apartment and was Francesca’s best friend. Marianna, whose husband left her after childbirth, nine months after they were married, twenty five years ago. Rita, Francesca’s daughter, who could not find work. And Francesca, whose husband died after a few short years of marriage, and who eked out a living, and who was never going to be able to afford to buy her own home. They were always together, the women of this Palazzo, daily visits of minutes at a time. Making sure none of them felt on their own.
In the weeks leading up to their departure, we spent most evenings with them, eating with them, going over for a chat, or just sitting together. One evening Rita read out a letter which was addressed to my husband and I. In the letter she told us that the thought of leaving her home where she was born, and where she had nursed her father until his death, had been continually traumatic and at times paralysing over the past few months, but that throughout it all she had felt not alone because of us. She told us through her poetic writing, that just our presence across the hallway, our hellos and other greetings, our smiles and our availability, had helped ease the burden for her, and that she was grateful.
We didn’t see Marianna the day that Francesca and Rita left. We saw her the next day as we were driving our car into the compound. Her face was haggard with grief, and when she saw us she lurched towards us, almost slamming herself onto the windscreen, like a leaf in a tornado. Luckily my husband had seen her and wound down the window in anticipation, so she did not have to bang on the glass with her fist. “ They’ve gone, they’ve gone!”, she bellowed. “It is the end of an era! It is not just them, it’s the end of an era. Our mothers were friends, they knew each other, who is left to remember my mother now? We left these apartments as Brides, both of us, and returned as wives. It’s a piece of our history that has gone. That bastard that kicked them out, he’s a criminal without a heart! It’s a piece of our shared history that has gone!” I didn’t get the rest as she subsided into tears leaning on our car door.
They call Rome ‘The Eternal City’. It refers to the fact that it is timeless, changeless, always there. It has indeed, in many ways, resisted much of the change that has occurred in other post industrial, European capital cities. Maybe that’s why when it comes, it is such a shock, and so hard to adjust to. It seems that when things change in the Eternal City, they do so in a big way.
Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, FAO and Lion Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.
Click here for a free download of the Prologue and first chapter.
A beautifully scenic account of one woman’s life-long love affair with Italy. Peppered with stunning imagery and interesting cultural insights, Jackson presents the country’s quirks and eccentricities with the fondness of a local. She takes your hand as she walks the streets of Rome, infects you with her passion for the city and its surrounds, and guides you to all its hidden treasures.
Independent Publishers Australian competition 2012 (IP Picks) http://ipoz.biz/News/eNews53.htm. Best Creative Non-Fiction: 1st Commended, Bronte Dee Jackson (VIC), Roman Daze
Rome, the eternal city, presents a princely setting for this cultural enquiry …. how do people live here? Bronte Jackson’s journey is one of personal discovery … a perceptive narrative about friendships found; where street markets assume seasonal differences in pasta, wines, and storytelling amongst the neighbours.
Daryl Jackson, Author, Daryl Jackson Architecture: Short Essays
Much travel writing is by experienced journalists based on quick impressions on sponsored trips. Roman Daze is the account of a 17-year love affair with a city. Written in a deceptively easy prose style, it is recommended to both first-time and regular visitors to the Eternal City.
Professor Geoff Burrows, Editor, Insights: Melbourne Business and Economics
Eat, Love, Eat – Hold the Praying! Roman Daze is a wonderful read for anyone interested in food, culture, people, travel, Italy – and especially food! The author has an exquisite ability to describe places, people, and meals so that they come to life.
Liliane Grace, Author, The Mastery Club and The Hidden Order