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.

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.

Roman Life

The other day I was stopped on the street by a woman in a floor length, dark fur coat dripping with brooches.  Her ears hung low with sparkling baubles which matched those pinned to her fur hat.

Oh what beautiful earrings you are wearing!

Holding my shoulder, she reached out to touch my simple blue spheres.  She stood close to me and took me in from head to toe with a wide smile on her brightly painted lips, nodding in appreciation and then gasping,

and they match your eyes!

I must admit that I was a little chuffed that someone had appreciated and noticed my well put together outfit, as I usually spend quite a bit of time choosing the exact pair of earrings.  I looked at her outfit, knew I was with a kindred spirit, and knew what my task was.

Thank you.  I was just admiring your beautiful brooch, and how it exactly matches your scarf.

She beamed at me and stroked the gilt star shape she had pinned to her chest.

Well sometimes I am not sure about these things.  But I try to always look my best. I am eighty you know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italian women are rarely shy with their age.  It was my cue to exclaim that she, ”carried it well”, the best compliment you can give a woman over 50.

Many of my friends from other countries tell me they feel invisible once they turn fifty.

Move to Italy

is always my answer.

Women here are never invisible and never not looked at.  The ages of the men may get older but they never stop looking.  I have lived here since I was 29.  I was not used to being looked at in the full-bodied, appraising, unapologetic, second nature way that Italian men and women look at each other.  I got sick of it sometimes but comforted myself with the fact that it would soon enough be over.  I am now 54.  It’s not over.  And not just because “I carry it well”.  I get looked at the same amount as when I was 29, only the age range of the lookers has changed.  They have aged as I have.  Although not always.  The response “I am old enough to be your mother” didn’t seem to be working so I now say “I am old enough for you to be my second child”.  But sometimes I don’t need to say that at all.

Yesterday I was crossing an intersection,  another woman, slightly older than me was coming in the opposite direction.  As she came closer she held her arms out in an appreciative gesture and said to me “che bella signora”, or “what a beautiful lady”.  I must admit that being called beautiful in the street by random strangers on your way to buy the groceries is something that always puts a spring in my 54-year-old step.  Italians don’t seem to think that only youth have a monopoly on beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why when I am 80 I fully plan to be wearing floor length (fake) fur coats, bright red lipstick, and as much jewellery as I can attach to myself without falling over.

If you like this blog maybe you would like my Memoir:

Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons, Melbourne Books, 2013

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

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.

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

 

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.

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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

What’s up in a Roman January?

January is a cold, dark, short month.  It’s sometimes better just to hunker down and get it over with.  Then again sometimes its hard to notice it at all.  By the time Christmas and New Years festivities are gotten over, it’s almost finished anyway, and there isn’t much to do until the Carnevale starts livening things up again in February.

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So this post will be short.  It’s just to let you know that January is not a great month to visit Rome.  Everyone is tired, especially at the Vatican.  Many places close for a restful few weeks, and those that can, get out of the city and go skiing.  No one wants to party or eat much, and no one is very interested in serving you.  It’s too cold to stay outside for very long and enjoy the best parts of Rome, which are actually mostly outside.  Although the keen winter sun does make it lovely for a short stroll either just before lunch or just after.

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If you do happen to be stuck in Rome in January the three best things to do all begin with S – shopping (there are lots of sales), skiing (ski fields only about an hour away) and sipping hot chocolate.

A Roman hot chocolate is a spiritual experience and will revive even the most jaded of palates and auras.  When I first got handed a hot chocolate in Rome I thought someone had made a mistake in my order.  It looked nothing like the brown, milky, liquid hot chocolate I grew up with.  You basically had to eat it with a spoon and it came with an inch of whipped cream on the top to “even out the chocolate”.  In Rome a hot chocolate is taken standing up at the counter of your local cafe, or sitting at a table alone or with friends.  In Winter it is one of the basic five food groups, along with deep red Chianti.  But as most people are heartily sick of drinking by January, and are saving themselves for Carnevale, a hot chocolate is a steady substitute.

Italy has some of the best ski slopes in the world, the most breathtaking scenery and the most comfortable accoutrements to skiing in the Western world.  Added to this is the high fashion still apparent on the slopes, the spectacular food and venues, and it is a pretty good way to pick yourself up during a dark, cold January.

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Lastly the sales.  While others are working off their Christmas kilos on the slopes or dieting by drinking hot chocolate alone, some are using shopping as their cardio.  It’s not just the heart stopping deals and the adrenaline inducing battles that go on between shoppers, it’s that you end up walking for ages, laden down with bags due to the fact that the bargains just go on and on.  It is also an ideal way to throw off Winter blues.

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Oh and if you are still stuck for ideas, try http://www.wantedinrome.com and  http://www.facebook.com/TheYellowRomeGuide  between these two you will find everything else you need to enjoy a Roman January.

Happy 2018!!!

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A tale of Italian cities – Taranto rehabilitated

Each year when I attend the Italian Film Festival in Melbourne I feel like I get a glimpse into the heart and soul of Italy through the films that have been made, and most loved, by Italians that year.  Last year I was struck by the number of films set in or around Taranto, where my husband is from, and which during the 17 years I lived in Rome, no one ever seemed to have visited or wanted to.

I had been visiting Taranto regularly over the years, spending long periods at Christmas, Easter and the summer months.  It always seemed strange to me that a place that was so much cheaper than the rest of Italy, with some of its best beaches and spectacular food, was not over run with Italians and other tourists. To me it was a place of unique beauty, full of love and laughter from my in-laws, and people that stared at me unabashedly like I was an alien, but who were never the less incredibly welcoming and friendly.

I got engaged in 2002 and I was living in Rome at that time.  When I excitedly shared the news with my local Roman café/bar owners and shop keepers that I was to be married, there was a look I didn’t recognise that came over all of their faces, and a distancing.  Their congratulations were formal and stilted, quite different from the jokey comradery we had built up over the years.  The change seemed to come because I said my fiancée was from Taranto, not because I said I was to be married. I recounted reactions I was getting to the new I was marrying a man from Taranto to my fiancee.  To my surprise he wasn’t surprised.

“Taranto doesn’t have a great reputation in the rest of Italy”

I felt like my parents had told me I was adopted, that the view I had of the world was wrong, and that everyone was in on the conspiracy.  I listened to the descriptions given by my fiancee  as examples of what others in Italy thought of Taranto – lazy Southerners, violent knife wielding thieves, impoverished communist strongholds, aggressive and illiterate fisher-folk, Mafia corruption, and backward saint worshipping enclaves.

So it was with much pride and some amazement that I watched ‘Daddy’s Girl’, ‘Ever been to the moon?’ and ‘Pomodoro’, three films all set in or near Taranto in the 2016 Film Festival.  Each of these films juxtaposed the North of Italy with the South.  Only this time the stories had changed.  Taranto is portrayed as a bastion of humanitarian principles in a world gone mad with excess and ego, a stronghold of human kindness in a world obsessed with image and power, a place that has not lost its core human values of connection with the land and the life sustaining food it produces, and as having deep wisdom about the true needs of the human soul.

In these films it feels like Italy is telling a story about herself; portraying herself as the troubled teenager that went off to find her fortune in the big city and got sick from too much of a good time, returning to her roots to find what she has been searching for, what truly sustains her, was always there.  The common theme in these films is that modernity, luxury, wealth, fame are not always the pots of gold they are made out to be, there are disadvantages to them just as there are to primitiveness, poverty, sobriety and ignorance.  It seemed that through these films Italians were expressing their lessons learnt and revaluing some things about themselves that perhaps previously only outsiders could see.   I am looking forward to the 2017 round of films and this years’ stories that Italians tell about themselves.

Italian kindness – is it a cultural value?

In this quarter of the year I have seen a number of pieces of journalism about kindness, its power, and whether we as Australians have enough of it.  At the same time I saw an article in The Age about the kindness of some Roman policemen that seemed to touch the hearts of many.  An elderly couple, both in their late 80’s, had been heard crying in their apartment in Rome, the police had been called by neighbours, and when asked what was wrong the couple had told them that they were lonely, and a bit frightened by events they saw on their nightly news.  The policemen’s response?  They made the elderly couple a bowl of pasta each, with burro e parmigiano, and sat talking with them awhile.

I got to thinking about kindness and whether it was a cultural value or a human value.  Were some societies kinder than others, or did they value it higher?

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The actions of the police did not surprise me at all.  It illustrated what I have always felt about Italians, and experienced living in Italy, they have what I call a ‘human first’ approach to life.  That is, above everything I am first a human in their eyes.  I may also be a customer, a tax payer, a recipient of a service, a citizen with rights and obligations, a patient, a competitor, a tourist, a student, a stranger, a passenger, a worker, a bank account holder, a voter. But before all of these things I am a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a wife, a husband, and a human.  This means I am responded to first, as one of these categories, before any of the others.  This has its advantages and its disadvantages.

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I remember one time when I had been living in Rome less than a year and the gas rings on my stove top didn’t work anymore.  My Irish flatmate and I did not speak much Italian but we were sure that the phone number on our gas bill was where you reported any problems with your gas supply.  We were surprised when we were told that someone would be out to check within half an hour.  Services did not usually respond that quickly.  We were even more surprised when twenty minutes later we opened the door to four men wearing gas masks attached to oxygen tanks, full protective clothing, and carrying machinery and pipes.

Instead of being angry that we had called the National Emergency Services because we couldn’t cook our pasta, they kindly took off their protective gear, and fixed our gas faucets for free.

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Last month when I returned to Rome for a visit, rather than take a taxi to my apartment from the train station with my luggage, I wanted to walk through the quartier and savour my return.  As I dragged my huge suitcase over cobble stones, cracked pavements and between parked cars, picking my way slowly to my old apartment I was both sweating and crying at the same time, overcome with joy at being back.

Are you OK Signora?  I got asked every 10 metres.  Are you lost?  Do you need help?

No, no thanks, I kept replying, I’m at home, I’m OK, thank you.

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I remembered another time, exasperated with frustration, when I demanded to know from our local Roman bus driver why the bus was always twenty minutes late, and why two of the same number bus always arrived together every forty minutes instead of one every twenty minutes.   He told me that they didn’t want to leave the other one alone at the bus depot.

I remember the conversations I have with some Australians about how 20,000 refugees a year arriving in Australia seem to be too many for them.  While Italy receives 100,000 a year in a country the size of Victoria, and with three times our population, without locking them in prison or deporting them.  It’s the human first principle at work again, to one countries demise we might surmise, given Italy’s economic crisis.  But to the overall improvement of global kindness as a cultural value we hope.

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Italian Four Seasons

Hi everyone, Spring is in the air, so I thought i would share my latest column from ‘Segmento’  – the Italian/Australian magazine that seeks to be a link between modern Italian culture and the rich history that Italian migrants have preserved where ever they have migrated.

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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