Dear friends, I am so excited to let you know that my new book is ready! Click below for sneak preview and to order! Kindle version is ready now and paperback version any day now. And Rome-based residents can purchase directly from me. It is available in all Amazon markets. Stand by for an invite to the book launch. Please help me by spreading the word and sharing this in your feed or group of friends, and leave me a review when you have finished it! Happy reading everyone!
Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.
Greek islands, Summer 1993……
Bronté finds herself backpacking through the Mediterranean, but it’s not all paradise.
Reeling from the end of her marriage, the loss of her job, and with no place to call home Bronté hadn’t hesitated to pack her bags when she unexpectedly won an airline ticket to her dream destination, with spending money included!
With nothing left to lose, she had set off into the unknown with no itinerary, no experience, and a hastily filled backpack. After losing access to her money on her first day, being poisoned on her second day, and finding herself sleeping on a beach next to travellers on the run from organised crime, her adventure takes her on an hilarious tour through the underworld of backpacking.
This is a story about transformation from helplessness to power, hopelessness to faith, and anguish to joy. Set against the backdrop of breathtaking Mediterranean islands, vibrant Rome, enchanting Tuscany, and captivating Turkey, Bronte connects with the beauty of nature to restore her shattered heart and confidence.
But how will she be able to go back to normal life after this journey? Should she stay in the arms of her belly dancing boyfriend? And is the amount of byzantine icons in a city a good indication of whether she should settle there?
“I listened, I let myself go where my heart took me and it never took me ‘back home’. It took me to a new one.”
“From a dark, gaping hole of plans that had fallen through, and a life that had never worked out the way I wanted I had trodden step by step, carrying nothing with me except what was required, staying constantly in the present. Somehow I moved forward just by being, just by stepping, just by continuing to look at the sky, talking to the people around me, and being out on the road each minute, each hour, each day. Although I had wanted to stay still, crying on a Greek beach waiting for someone to rescue me, I found that moving into the unknown was so much more interesting and, in the long term, truly fulfilling.”
A compelling and candid story. An odyssey of self-discovery that fundamentally questions how to live and find happiness.
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.
November is the time for this years batch of Vino Novello or ‘young wine’ to be released. A red wine, it is produced in a way that accelerates fermentation and has no tannins. Like a Beaujolais, it is fresh, fruity and deep. Italians have many, many rules as a society and a large quantity of them are related to as suggestions (like lanes for traffic) except when it comes to food and drink. The rule of Novello is that it is only available from October 30th until sold out (usually by the end of the week). It does not keep well so needs to be drunk immediately (I am just relating the rules).
2. The color of the sky.
Rome’s sky turns turquoise in Autumn, its sharp blue the perfect back drop for its burnt orange buildings, and perfectly seen through leafless trees.
3. The food.
Autumn is the time you feel like (and enjoy) eating again after the sweltering humidity and heat of the summer. Oranges from Sicily, mushrooms from Tuscany, fresh pork sausages from the countryside near Rome all go well with Vino Novello as do the chewy salami‘s and tangy sheep’s cheese (pecorino). Vegetables such as Funghi porcini mushrooms, artichokes and the very Roman puntarelle appear back on the market after their long summer rest, and last sometimes only a few weeks so all of a sudden everything has funghi porcini or artichoke in it. Food is seasonal in Italy and therefore looked forward to. The sense of anticipation and reminiscing is shared and joined in by everyone. If you go to a friends house for dinner in Autumn you know that artichokes, puntarelle or funghi porcini will be on the menu.
4. The sun
Finally you can sit in it. Avoiding the sun was the past time for the past six months but now it is sought out. Sitting in the brilliant Autumn sunshine is a legitimate past time and reason to go outside. It can still warm, is too bright to look at and bathes everything in happy yellow autumn. It also goes well with a glass of Vino Novello.
All over Rome, communal vegetable gardens are being prepared for Winter. Pruning, weeding, digging and raking are all activities being undertaken. Everyone lives in apartments in Rome so these small plots of land are a hive of activity being undertaken in the brilliant autumn sunshine, often followed by a glass of Vino Novello (just saying).
I grew up in a suburb with lots of leaves where every autumn i delighted in diving into big piles of them and throwing them up in the air with my dad frantically yelling ‘don’t do that, there’s probably dog poo in there!’ Rome, having mostly trees that shed their leaves rather than evergreens, like in Australia, is full of leaves. Just one of the many delights I discovered when I first came here. You can go to any large park in Rome and literally drown in leaf pools. You can run through the middle of them and throw leaves up in the air to your heart’s content and mostly they don’t have dog poo on them. Or you can just scuff them up under your feet in your local neighborhood. No one rakes them up and they sit there for weeks until an Autumn deluge comes along and washes them away.
7. The peace
Summer holidays are over, children are back in school, tourists are back at work. The summer squalls and winds are finished. Leaves float gently down like stars. Vision is clearer through sparkling sunlight. The evenings come quickly and quietly, nothing stirs.
8. The temperature
It’s cool for the first time since April. The mornings are fresh and crisp, the days sunny and bright, the evenings cold. Perfect for Vino Novello.
9. The mood
The city rests. The violent rain lashed storms have washed the city clean from the detritus of the summer. Things are ticking along.
10. The olives
The first time you discover you have a friend that has an olive grove and who requires help with picking olives, you think yourself blessed and so so lucky to have landed a friend such as that. After you have helped picked olives for this friend you find that you are busy every November ever after. Olives are great to eat, especially with a glass of Vino Novello, picking them is not great.
Private tours available via the Tour page on this website or https://www.facebook.com/romandaze/
Read more about Rome in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’.
It is hot. Hot, hot, hot. Yesterday my husband phoned me from his car at 8.30 am to tell me it was already 30 degrees with high humidity, and warned me to be prepared. As if I wasn’t already prepared. It has been hot since the end of May. It is now the middle of August.
One of the challenges of a Roman summer, besides its length and temperatures, is that Romans don’t really believe in air conditioning. Air conditioners have only been readily available on the Roman market since the early 2000’s and until recently many apartments, shops and restaurants did not have it. Many Romans believe that air conditioning is bad for you, mostly because of an in-built and ancient fear of fever, in particular death by fever, a reality in the ancient past for many citizens of Rome. They believe that air conditioning will cause fever because of the severe changes in temperature that will result, and that it is unhealthy to have cold air blown on you.
They have a point. Going from an air conditioned location to the fierce heat of a Roman summer is not a pleasant experience. And this is part of the charm of Rome. It retains its ancient beginnings and mixes them in with its post-industrialism. So these days most public places, including public transport, will have air conditioning on AND the windows open. “So it doesn’t get too air conditioned”, is generally the answer I get when I ask bus drivers or proprietors why this is.
Rome as a city has had thousands of years of dealing with the heat without it. It is a city that moves outside to catch cool breezes and shady areas. And living in a city which doesn’t air condition the seasons away means you have to live within them. Adjust your routine, your activities, your diet and your lifestyle to accommodate and move within them. Romans have been doing this for centuries. It is only us foreigners who insist on living the same kind of lifestyle for twelve months of the year and are outraged if our productivity slows down.
Rome is not a city governed by trade and commerce. At 3.00 pm in the afternoon even if you had a million dollars you couldn’t spend it. No sane commercial trader would try and out compete his competitors by staying open during the siesta, and in fact it is mostly illegal. But why bother when there will be plenty of trade at 5.00 pm when the siesta is over? Why bother when you can make money AND see your family, make love all afternoon, let your gorgeous lunch digest, prevent a heart attack, have a nap in the middle of the day. Rome runs on the seasons and on tradition. And I love it for those reasons.
No one except me is in Rome in the middle of August. Really. My whole suburb has shut down. I have to have my coffee at home as none of the dozens of little cafes serving Romans their daily coffees are open. Why would they be? All the Romans have gone on holiday to the seaside or the mountains. I have another two weeks before going on holiday and I had a long list of things planned but instead I find that the heat exhausts me after around two hours of activity, and all the other things I had planned can’t be done because nothing is open. I have to wait until September to get my hair cut for example. Our phone handset died yesterday due to battery failure but we have to wait until September to get a new one. My work suits sit in a pile by the door as I didn’t manage to get them to the dry cleaners before the start of August. My husband can’t go shopping for T-shirts to wear on our holiday as all the clothing shops are shut for two weeks, and thank goodness one of the two supermarkets are open otherwise food would be a bit of a problem too.
But it it is peaceful. So peaceful. The quietness of an abandoned city is refreshing, and worth staying in it for. I love August in Rome. It is the only time I have the city to myself. I can wander around unhindered by traffic, human and mechanical. It takes half the time to get anywhere and I can stop and look at anything without fear of being run over. It is quiet at night and quiet during the day.
It is a time to stop, to slow down, to contemplate and relax. The cities work-a-day functions are not available so it forces you to rest in parks, laze by pools, look at flowers and bathe in the sea. It forces you to take the mental and physical break that nature is taking, a rest before the next seasons’ activities. It is a time of substituting ice-cream for lunch or dinner, for long siesta’s while outside the afternoon bakes away in silence, not a leaf stirring, as even nature tries to keep cool by not moving. It is a time to enjoy the silky evening air on your skin, to sweat out toxins and negative energy, to wear loose clothing and move languidly, in sync with the city.
Rome is a built of stone and water. Clean, free, cold water gushes continually out of drinking fountains by road sides and in parks all over the city. It comes from underground springs in the countryside around Rome and is pumped in using the ancient aqueducts built by the Romans. Now that’s something a post-industrial city doesn’t have. It is enough to rest under a tree, stand on a cold stone and drink or splash the water over you to cool down and enjoy a Roman summer. Who needs air conditioning after all?
Contact me for one of my private tours in the Tour page on this website or my Facebook page – Roman Daze
Read more in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’, Melbourne Books, 2013
Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, Otherwise Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.
For those of you who missed this I wanted to show you the new page on this blog which contains my new private walking tours of Rome! Check it out for your next trip, live vicariously, or share it with your friends who you know are traveling to Rome.
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.