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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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

 

Walking tours of Rome

Hi all,

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.

https://brontejackson.com/tours/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contact me for one of my private tours in the Tour page on this website or my Facebook page – Roman Daze

Read more in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’, Melbourne Books, 2013

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

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

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

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

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