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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La mia Garbatella

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.

Image result for picture of gandhi in garbatella

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.

https://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X