Rome recovered!

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.

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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.

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If you liked this story read more in my book Roman Daze – La dolce vita for all seasons at https://brontejackson.com/prosecco-fixes-everything-stories-of-life-in-rome/

And soon to be published……..Ticket for One. One woman’s transformative, inspirational and humorous trek through Greece, Turkey and Italy.

Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.

The eye of the storm

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.

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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.

Piazza Navona Day

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.

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My favourite activity of the week

The market is a two minute walk from my apartment but is unrecognisable unless you already know what it is.  For six months I walked past the shabby collection of closed up boxes wondering what they were.  Each only slightly bigger than a skip bin, they were sometimes outnumbered by them. But one day I happened across them in the morning and now shopping at my local market is my favourite activity of the week.  Whatever befalls me during the week I know I have the market to look forward to.  I wake each Saturday morning excited and happy, looking forward to the experience that I know won’t disappoint me and will be over too soon.

I am standing at the edge of Aldo’s fruit and vegetable counter hemmed in on both sides and at my back with people.  Aldo keeps up a non-stop chant, tallying up the prices of the fruit and vegetables as he weighs them while customers impatiently crowd around thrusting their bags full of produce towards him.  Hands push out from behind me at the level of my hips, towards the apricots and peaches that are stacked up in front of me, as customers continue to shop while others wait in a non-existent line based on the time they first put their bags down on top of the fruit and stopped filling them.  Every time Aldo finishes serving a customer he tells the remaining ones which of them are next, up to the last person waiting.  No one ever argues and he never gets it wrong.

All women are referred to as beautiful “bella” and young “giovanne” by Aldo who is well into his 70’s and has regular heart valve surgery.  The older you are the younger his description of you is. I am referred to as a beautiful girl “bella ragazza”. I am 55. White haired women bent over double are referred to as beautiful little girls “belle ragazzine” while young women are called “belle donne”, beautiful women.

“Hey don’t forget about me”, shouts out a man.

Only people who are new to Aldo’s stall ever say this.  The rest of us know that he knows exactly who has been waiting and for how long, and we patiently or impatiently wait our turns.

“Throw me a bag Aldo”, someone shouts and another hand is thrust out from between the bodies to receive it.

“Are these the only type of apricots you have?”

“Yes they are”, he answers, “they are from my orchard, taste one I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

“Do you have any prepared salad left?  Yes we do, Marie, get that young man a bag of salad.”

Along with answering and organising he is still weighing goods and verbally tallying them up.

The stall is open on all sides and shaded with a low canvas that covers the array of tables topped with produce.  It traps the sound in.  It is very hot and I have been standing here at least ten minutes waiting for my goods to be tallied.  But I am not in a rush.  I let others fill their bags full of apricots from the mound in front of me not fearful of losing my place under the eagle eye of Aldo and actually hoping it will take as long as possible.  Because under this cacophonous, fragrant tent stacked with figs, overflowing with cherries, nuts and lemons, decorated with eggs, honey, mozzarella and lettuce, swimming in tomatoes and zucchini and pegged down with watermelon, eggplant and cabbage, I can feel my aura being gently cleansed.

My shoulders relax and start to ease themselves down from around my ears, my spine straightens and I can feel my feet firmly on the earth for the first time since the beginning of the week.  I take root amidst the vegetables and fruit and come back to fully inhabit my body again feeling each part of me gingerly integrating and coming into the present.  I watch an old man bend over peppers and inspect each one before putting it into a paper bag. I see a youngish man next to me enthusiastically filling a bag with small deformed apples and ask him in Italian what they taste like.  I exchange a smile with a woman next to me and ask how she intends to cook her cabbage (because I don’t know how to even though I love cabbage).  I join in a general conversation and answer another man who is wondering what beetroot is and what you might eat it with.  The cares and worries of the week cascade off me, puddle in a pool at my feet, and gradually melt away into the earth.

Too soon it is my turn to be served.

“It’s this beautiful girls turn now”, Aldo announces to everyone as he drags my bags over the mounds in between us, and starts to weigh and tally out loud.  It’s like listening to a race commentator.

“We have four zucchinis, some peppers and an eggplant.  What’s in this bag now?  Oh so we have also a bag of       salad and some tomatoes along with the zucchinis, peppers and eggplant and now I can see a fennel.  What do we have in this other bag?  Oh some apricots, peaches, figs and a quarter of a watermelon.  Now we still have the zucchinis, peppers, eggplant, salad and tomatoes along with the fennel, and we are now adding the apricots, peaches, figs and watermelon.”

 

No matter what I buy it’s always the same price, twelve euros. He throws the money into the red plastic bucket he uses as a cash register. Sometimes he doesn’t even add on half the vegetables in my bags.  I try and hand him more than the twelve euros and he responds by putting another few peaches into my bag and then stacking it full of lemons, thrusting the bags back at me and turning to the next customer before I can protest.

“You can’t pay whatever you want you know”, he admonishes me.

“Well you charge me whatever you want”, I counter.

“It’s my store”, he responds, laughing.

My husband takes the heavy load of fruit and vegetables from Aldo’s garden and we move away together, me slightly sad as it will be another week before I get to stand in the aura cleansing tent again.

“What do we need next?” my husband always asks.

I don’t know.  All week my days are about ‘to-do’ lists.  Some weeks, each day is divided into half-hour slots of time where I have to produce, do, or attend something for every slot.  So when I am not at work I don’t have lists.  I buy whatever takes my fancy and I follow my intuition.

The fish lady knows this.

“What about these salmon and “orata” fish burgers that I have just prepared, or the fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and celery? Or how about this blue fish “pesce azzuro”,  that I have just finished frying with red onion for lunch?”

The first time I tasted the salmon, I rushed back the next week and demanded to know why it tasted so different to any other salmon I had ever eaten.

“I know”, she said, winking at me and pushing her blond curls off her face with the back of her plastic gloved hand while holding a long thin knife that never seemed to leave her palm.

“It’s from a special farm in Norway where they raise the salmon to be relaxed.  They play music to them. That way they develop a lot of fat just under their skin.”

Each time I am cooking the salmon I watch the layer of fat between the skin and pink flesh melt and spit, flavouring everything.  Today she hands me the package of salmon that her father has already prepared in anticipation for us.  It has ‘Australia’ written in black biro on the paper that the fish is wrapped in.  Like Aldo she wishes me a good Sunday and tells me she will see me next week.

Unlike the fishmonger, the butcher and I regularly need to brainstorm together before any purchases can be made.

“What kind of meat would you like?”

“Lamb.”

“How would you like to cook it signora?  Baked, grilled, casseroled, with or without potatoes (my favourite so if you were wanting to invite me over that’s what I would like you to cook), vegetables, or with a little wine and olives?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Together we come up with something and he grabs the relevant animal and prepares the cut.  He doesn’t wear gloves and cuts with a blade that could double as a paddle, some pieces are so thin you can see through them.

He is the head of the market and in charge of its comings and goings so he updates me on anything relevant and then asks what season it is in Australia, what temperature it is and how many hours flight it is again?

I linger at the grocer’s counter eyeing the array of fresh mini ricottas made from sheep or cow’s milk, some of them baked and standing up in little plastic sieves, some oozing and gooey like white butter starting to melt.  My eyes gaze upwards to the pink rounds of prosciutto, salamis and hams that would go magnificently with any of them, each one with their own salty, fatty, chewy taste.  Today I spot my favourite cheese, a camenbert made with buffalo’s milk, so subtle and yet so delicious it takes control of you and makes you finish the entire round in one sitting.  Everyone I introduce this cheese to has the same experience, and in a nation of experienced cheese tasters I am delighted to be able to offer something different and new.  It goes a long way to building up my credibility as a  resident of Italy, and being worthy of my visa.

But too soon it is over.  There is nothing left to buy unless I want a cotton handkerchief, a velvet dressing gown, or bleach, all housewife staples which are on offer and which I wish I needed, if only  to keep me looking at the market for longer.  But my husband knows we have mortadella in one of the bags and is inching me towards the exit.  And we have to stop at the flower seller on the way out.

Each week it is the same.  I moon over the herbs and flowers knowing full well we have no balcony and that all three of our window boxes are full to overflowing and threatening to take down one side of the building if I fit one more pot in there.  So I settle for blooms that cost less than one day’s worth of public transport and thank the vendor as he adds a few more in for free.

There really is nothing more to do except go home, enjoy the produce and look forward to the next market shop, one full week away.

The Roman Summer

 

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

 

Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons

Hi all,

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!

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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.

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Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, FAO and Lion Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.

http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

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

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

https://brontejackson.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/roman-daze-la-dolce-vita-for-all-seasons.pdf

Reviews

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

What my dad knew about Italy

What my dad knew about Italy

would not fill a book.  However………..

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

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

“Is it in the elevator?”, and

“Hello, beautiful girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vale, Giovanni, Vale.

 

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Roman Daze – From notes to first draft

http://www.the-art-of-writing.com/2016/01/from-notes-to-first-draft-with-bronte-jackson/

How does a writer go from an idea/passion about Italy to writing a book about it?

Lisa Clifford is an internationally acclaimed author of many novels and non-fiction/historical books on Italy, her adopted country. Here she interviews me about how/why I came to write ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.

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

1.  You get to savour lunch!

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

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2.  You can eat pasta every day.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Trevi fountain-building

Next week: more reasons to be Italian.

If you love this blog don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

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