Rome is caramel coloured in September. The light is muted, tired almost from the constant brilliance of June, July, and August. Everything is bathed in a soft tone, reflecting the cream stone that makes up most of the city, and creating a warm dulce leche glow.
It is sweeter than the harsh hotness of the light in August, palpable in its heaviness. Or the fierceness of July, relentlessly heating the city up. And sweeter too than the brightness of June, when nights never seem to fall.
September is shorts and T-shirt weather, muggy even, but the fight has gone out of it. You can feel summer relinquishing its grip, succumbing to the darkness that encroaches each day. The fresh mornings tempt you to wear long sleeves or trousers. At your own peril because by 10.00am you will be rueing that decision. And although evenings come quicker, they don’t come with much coolness.
September is also still. Like summer is in a game of ‘play dead’, hoping that autumn won’t notice it has overstayed. At night not a leaf or speck of dust moves.
During the day a powder blue sky accentuates the city’s domes and skyline of medieval towers. Trees in full green bloom line the slow flowing river. Soft beige light illuminates and smooths every curve of marble and groove of column. There is no where to hide from it and no need to. It is benign, tranquil. Just enough to show it off to its best, but not so much that you need to manage it. It allows its twisty streets to claim you, show you hidden delights too small to be included in guidebooks but unique in their ability to transfer an experience of Roman life.
September summer means not having to stop for siesta unless you want to, as your brains won’t fry in the sun at 3.00pm. It means not having to drink a Trevi fountain sized amount of water, and then find a public toilet (good luck with that). In September Rome is a languid city, content from having had its piazzas and parks used to their fullest for concerts, operas, marching bands, open air theatre, cinema, and book fairs. The end of summer Rome knows it’s a full-blown beauty and looks it.
As the golden month ends something must be done to celebrate it – to say thank you for the long and glorious summer and to toast the ‘any day now’ appearance of Autumn. All rituals in Rome revolve around food and wine so that must form the basis of this one. In September there is great competition between the late season white and yellow peaches and the new season plums and the purple grapes that are as big as my eyeballs. Wild mushrooms appear, always caked with dirt, along with crisp cabbage, onions, and fresh garlic. Its all another sign, that no matter how long summer pretends to hang on like it owns the joint, the earth is turning away from it, into the long dark night of autumn.
It must be Autumn’s bounty that we use to herald it in, say thank you to summer and let it know that it can release its hold and allow us all to be cosy, dark, and fallow for a while. Deep red wine from the fields of Sicily where the soil knows what old and dark tastes like, and Rome’s indigenous grape variety, Cesanese, make up our choices. The Syrah (Shiraz) from Sicily tastes like Autumn itself, spicy and berry like, while the Cesanese tastes like an alcoholic Ribena shot through with dark chocolate. Sharp cheese and salami go with them. I rejoice in the re-entry of this food into my diet as the cooler temperatures allow the flavours and consistency to be enjoyed in a way that in the height of summer they aren’t.
A table of mums next to us raise their glasses ‘to Autumn’, and I realise we are not the only ones that do this. As I gaze down at my sun-tanned legs still in linen shorts it’s hard to believe that by December they will be encased in woollen trousers and long boots topped with a cashmere coat. Each winter I do the reverse and find it hard to imagine that my legs will be bare. And yet it happens, every year, bringing with it the comfort that some things never change. For now, I am enjoying the present, Rome bathed in a subtle, sweet caramel light that will gently descend into Autumn.
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“Now we can start living again” is the phrase I most hear around my neighbourhood. Its mostly from the elderly, those over 70, of which Italy has one of the highest population levels globally. My suburb is representative, many of the inhabitants are over that age, and in the range that has been most impacted by COVID.
The vaccines are here and being handed out with military precision and effectiveness as always happens when things get handed over for the army to do. The infection and death rates are plummeting and soon this all will be a memory. I am glad we have faced it head on, dealing with and learning from the consequences, adapting, and adjusting rather than trying to avoid it, pretending it’s not there, or hoping that it will just go away. The changes we made as a population and as a nation helped us survive and will continue to, as changes always do. There is a lot to be said for having weathered a storm.
When in March 2020 we were sent home from work for two weeks, with schools, restaurants, gyms, shops all closed, no one imagined that we would still be in some form of lockdown more than one year later. March 2021 was a hard month for everyone. In March 2020 no one imagined that instead of two weeks it would be more than two months before we were allowed outside again without a certified signed document stating the 3 reasons you could leave your apartment (buying food locally, visiting the doctor or on a walk by yourself in your own neighbourhood for mental or physical health reasons), or risk being fined up to 800 Euro. No one imagined that over one year later it would still be mandatory to always wear masks inside and outside, or that some form of lockdown would continue indefinitely with strict lockdown occurring again at Christmas, New Year, Easter and for weeks at a time either side.
I like many others have never returned to the workplace. No one imagined that after a brief hiatus last summer, all gyms, theatres, schools, and businesses would again be closed until the beginning of the next summer, or that when restaurants, bars and cafes were closed at 6pm and a curfew installed at the beginning of last autumn, that it would be spring before we could go out and eat at night again. And no one imagined that there would be second birthdays or anniversaries of things in lockdown. The challenge of adapting the celebration to the new restrictions and the fun of inventing new ways to do things is gone the second time around. All the energy to recreate new traditions and the fight to make the best of it has gone. Used up in the more than a year of daily energy required to be resilient in the face of a never-ending threat and combatting an ever-present level of anxiety that we all feel, an undercurrent to everything we do, making any other stressful events even more so. After a year of this we are all slightly stupefied and lethargic, it’s as close to a zombie nation as I hope to ever live in.
There is a listlessness that comes after over a year of lockdown and restrictions. We have all been champions at working and schooling from home converting an entire nation almost overnight to digital. We work, study, socialise, exercise, play, relax, celebrate, eat, shop, have medical appointments all through the screen of our computers, and always in the same 20 square metres. Italians like many nations live in relatively small and mostly shared spaces where there is only one space for the family to relax during their leisure time. This space is also the workspace, the study space, and the exercise space. Yoga mats replace roll away desks, and ironing boards in front of sofas become ballet barres after hours. Balconies, if you have one become the place where you can shout out or down to friends and neighbours in the street, and many an abandoned rooftop got dusted off and decorated with socially distanced deck chairs and tables over the past year.
We haven’t been able to hug or kiss or touch each other for over a year, a culture that kiss each other several times a day, amongst friends and family. Recently a friend gave me a clandestine hug when she came to visit me while I was mourning the death of a family member (not from COVID). It was like an electric shock. The feel of someone’s arms around me stunned me out of my grief for a few minutes and then made feel incredibly sad that we had all missed out on this most basic of human kindnesses in a time when we all most needed it. Eating together as families and friends outside in the public places that replace most people’s living rooms, sharing a table, sitting long into the night together, the tinkling of glasses in the moonlight, or the odour of fresh seafood in the sunlight, the energy we all get from each other, from changing our environments, from the wind that whips up the edges of table clothes, from the sounds of music coming from other classrooms in the gym or dance school, the stimulation of peers and colleagues, the snatches of different languages, going for a walk in the countryside, being in nature, leaving the province to go on holiday or visit family, the feeling of being challenged physically, the feeling of advancement over compensation, of thriving rather than surviving, of gain over loss, these are all the things that have been sacrificed in this long, hard, more than a years battle. They are integral to the experience of life here and without them life has changed considerably.
It has made us all more appreciative of small things, tolerant, and thankful for the battle we have fought and (mostly) won together. With great suffering comes great joy. I don’t know whether the suffering always has to equal the joy, but I would never have imagined I would have the amount of joy I am experiencing right now at the announcement that my ballet school will now be open in a week, or at how much the joy is intensified by sharing it with the 10 others that I have struggled through 9 months of pretty hopeless and very frustrating ballet lessons via zoom! Due to bandwidth issues we all heard the music at different times so we could never co-ordinate our movements, and those of us (i.e. me) used to copying the person in front them, could no longer do so. For the teacher to be able to see my whole body the screen had to be so far away that I needed my glasses on to see anyone else, and for the same reason I have become very familiar with everyone’s crotches as we neared the screens each time the teacher needed to demo something. Let’s not even mention trying to do pirouettes in the space usually taken up by a desk. Or about how my barre, which is really the back of my office chair, keeps wheeling itself away during pliés so I am left holding on to thin air and post-menopausal muscle density. Small suffering, maybe, big joy at its ending, definitely.
So maybe the joy is always greater, and, in that case, we are all in for a big load of it. Not the least of which is that we will soon be free to leave the country and wander this wonderful earth again, as well as welcome visitors to this wonderful piece of it. Flights full of vaccinated, quarantine exempt citizens from the UK and US are speeding towards us this very minute.
When I hear the phrase “now we can begin living life again”, I know exactly what it means, and I sincerely look forward to it.
Ticket for One was launched in Rome (where the author is based) and then in Melbourne, Australia both via zoom. If you would like to see the Australian book launch, and the slideshow that went with it please click here.
Thanks a million to all who attended both launches and have supported me in this book. Please keep spreading the word in your networks and leaving me reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Word of mouth and reviews are the best way to publicise a book. Both books are available in paperback and e-book from Amazon, Beaumaris Books, Melbourne, FAO Book shop and Otherwise bookshop, Rome.
Ticket for One reached no. 16 on the Amazon global best sellers list for Italian travel but is not only about Italy. Here’s what Amazon reviewers are saying:
“A great adventure showing how chance encounters can change your life forever. If you are brave enough to take the first step.” UK Amazon reviewer
“Bronté Jackson is a gifted storyteller with a talent for evoking the colours and sensations of the places she visits”. Italian Amazon reviewer
“A beautifully descriptive and emotional account of backpacking adventures in far away places while reconsidering the direction of one’s life”. Australian Amazon reviewer
If you would like to preview either of my books please click on the links below.
I have taken myself off and out for a date with my city – it’s been awhile and I am desperate to fit one in before my privileges are revoked again and we all have to stay at home.
“Where are you going?”, my husband asks.
“I don’t know, that’s the point of an Artists date*, you have no itinerary, no plans; the point is to spend time in the unknown”.
“Well just call me if you need a lift back”.
It’s been decades since I have been able to get lost in Rome. When I first arrived in the early 1990’s it was my favourite thing to do – wander, get lost, discover new things and places. Rome seemed an unending labyrinth of possibilities and new experiences, full of new discoveries to be stored up for revisiting and taking others to later. Hidden corners, quaint nooks, undiscovered restaurants and cafes, quiet streets of artisans, grand public buildings, impromptu exhibitions, tranquil shady piazzas, serene vistas over the river, flower ridden parks, newly excavated ruins, newly restored churches and museums, views of the sunset…….but now I know them all and part of me is sad that I do. I miss the excitement and amazement, the wonder and the thrill of the unknown, of losing oneself and discovering that you are not lost after all, but just in a different place with lots of new possibilities.
But today the city did it for me, for old time’s sake. I managed to not know where I was for a good half hour or so until I spilled out, from a new direction, into a well traversed piazza. Today the city gave me what I needed as it always does. Whatever my need Rome fulfils it. If I am hungry or thirsty it feeds and waters me, if I am bored it delights me, if I am tired it restores me, if I am stressed and overworked it calms and refreshes me, if I am frightened it comforts me, if I have lost my perspective on life it brings it back, if I am broke it entertains me for free, if I am flush it offers me luxurious treats, if I am sad it cheers me, if I need to celebrate and am happy it brings me ways to prolong and satisfy this. All I need to do is get out and into it which I have been prevented from doing for large parts of the year and which is in danger of happening again so I need my dose. And I also need to wander into the unknown; after months of precise assessment, structured processes, analytical decisions and having to care about things I don’t (like how many millimetres a margin in a book should be), I need to be released into the unknown for a bit of a break.
So I do my best to listen to my inner artist, see the unseen, take paths less well trodden and let the day unfold, like it is the first day I have ever been here. It means I have to abandon myself to my senses and watch for the signs that direct me to my unknown destination. Like the movie production vans (Mission Impossible, again) that block my entrance to quiet street I want to duck down and instead put me on another path, or the gypsy standing on the corner obscured in shade, that attracts me to turn down that street, or the view of a walled in bridge up high connecting two ancient palaces that catches my attention and pulls me down towards it. And then I am lost. Lost inside my well known world, enabling me to see it differently, to learn to be at peace with not knowing, to notice the small details of where I currently am, and to appreciate that.
I stumble into a sunny regal renaissance piazza, completely empty, quiet, and in repose. Plants in marble pots and wrought-iron lampposts border it. Elaborate lace-iron balconies offset the neatly painted white and light orange buildings, all with matching shutters. The small windy street is bereft of cars and motorini, there are no tourists wandering, no one is sitting on the rails edging the small space reading a map, checking their phone, or eating a sandwich. No one is standing in front of the small church doorway taking a selfie, or posing for someone else. I listen to the wind and notice the empty rubbish bin. I self-consciously take photos of the building that is shaped like a triangle. An older man in an impeccable suit exits a government ministry building, eyes me hungrily, but walks on, looking back at me once or twice as he ambles deliberately slowly across the piazza; but I show no signs of catching up to him or noticing him, the communication is accepted and he moves on.
I amble along the thin curvy street, hemmed in by the walls of the buildings and too soon find myself in a well-known destination, Piazza della Rotunda. The piazza that houses the 2000 year old Pantheon, one of the best preserved Roman temples dedicated to ‘all the Gods’. It has been in continuous use throughout its history as a temple to receive sacrifices, as a Catholic church and now one of Rome’s most visited monuments. Today for the first time in 2,000 years entry is prohibited. The Pantheon is shut. I wander into the piazza, one of my favourite and where I always come when I need to spend time in a special place, either celebrating or commiserating – when my dad came to Rome, when my best friend visited, when my Nan died, they have all been marked here in this piazza at a table with some Prosecco. Today I am celebrating the finishing of my second book, but it also feels a bit like a commiseration.
At lunch time, a table in the winter sunshine, without being a politician, movie star or having sat there since mid-morning, would be impossible. But today as soon as I round the corner I am pounced on by the liveried waiter and there is no need to ask if there is a table in the sunshine available, they all are. I order a glass of Prosecco knowing it will come with ample snacks (today it is peanuts, olives and chips) and settle down to watch people in the piazza. Gangs of politicians come strolling through on a lunch break from the Parliament houses close by, groups of tradesmen in uniform amble by, and a couple of pigeons. That’s it. Usually this piazza is packed and worth hours of people watching, while waiters hover as soon as you have finished your drink and others hopeful of your table start to move towards it. Usually there are so many people sitting around the fountain that the steps are obscured and the entrance to the Pantheon obliterated by the snaking line of tourists queuing, the horses and carts waiting, police strolling, gypsies begging, sellers selling, and photographers flashing. Today the waiter doggedly stays inside so I can’t ask for my bill and have to sit there for as long as possible, hopefully enticing others to sit as well. I slowly munch through my peanuts, chips and olives relishing the December sunlight.
The place I usually go for lunch is closed. There is a sign on the door explaining that as long as the Covid restrictions are partly in force they can no longer afford to open. Glad I ate all my peanuts, I head to my favourite café for a hot chocolate. It’s in via Condotti, Rome’s busiest and most exclusive shopping street that leads up to the Spanish steps. Café Greco usually has a queue to get in, service is slow and erratic, and it has been continually open since 1760. Today the formal suited waiter opens the door for me and ushers me to a table. I am the only person in here. It is so quiet I can hear the coffee machine steaming.
I order my hot chocolate which comes with separate whipped cream and is the kind of thing that is akin to enlightenment – the world looks and feels entirely different after one of these. I snuggle in to the plush red cushions at my back and take my fill of the glorious paintings and etchings that surround me, knowing I can take as long as I like. About five minutes later the overpowering silence and lack of activity begins to feel eerie. This is not a place that should be bereft of people, of the clinks of china, the swish of tray bearing waiters, exclamations of consternation from people as they realise there are no spare seats, the squeals of children that usually run up and down between the aisles of tables, murmured conversations, delighted laughter, selfies and group photos, customers trying to get the attention of waiters, heated conversations mid-passageway between staff, and the muted shouts from them behind the counter to their mobile counterparts.
This is the unknown. An empty Rome, and none of us feels comfortable, and we are all sick of it. The last time Rome was this empty was after the final conquering of it, more than 1,600 years ago, when everyone that was still alive fled, and sheep grazed amongst the rubble in the Forum for the next 1,000 years. After years of wishing that Rome was less full of tourists and having given up even frequenting some parts of the city, I find myself hoping that they would all come back, hoping that you all come back, hoping that we all come back.
At last we are let out and into the city we go! I have never met a Roman who was not in love with their city – who did not appreciate its history along with its almost 1,000 year reign, world domination; and subsequent contribution to law, philosophy, government, military strategy, engineering, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, religion, sanitation, town planning, heating, food, holidays and hydrology.
It’s the first Sunday since quarantine was lifted and after 2.5 months of eerie silence the streets and piazzas of Rome are packed. Chock full of Romans. There is not a tourist or an English speaker in sight or earshot. I feel like I am in a time capsule that has landed me back in the early 1990’s when I first arrived in Rome. Before the invention of cheap flights and millions more tourists at all times of the year. Prior to this, Romans had always had the city to themselves from October to March, and during those months, people stared at me as though I had forgotten to go home. At that time by mid-December you could sit by yourself in the Sistine Chapel and write a novel, and by February most of the city shut down for a good long rest until Easter. In comparison, for the past decade, and before quarantine (BQ), no one has been allowed to even stand in the Sistine chapel for longer than a few minutes without being hurried along to make room for others waiting to come in. You stood shoulder to shoulder admiring as much of the ceiling as possible while shuffling along in a sea of humanity, towards the exit.
Sunday night has always been a big social night for Romans. Far from it being the night in which to stay in and prepare for the work week ahead, it is seen as the last opportunity to milk the weekend. It’s also the time to catch up with friends after having spent the whole day with extended family. Italy has the second highest amount of elderly citizens globally therefore most people have parents or are one. So the streets and bars are packed as my husband and I saunter lazily through them. Imagining that we would be a lot more alone than we are, I am surprised but also delighted.
It’s busy and full but not crowded and bursting. There is space. Space between the gatherings of people, empty medieval corridors where chairs and tables are being set up for dinner, ivy covered spaces empty of people because it’s not yet the Roman dinning hour. A city being used by, and for, its residents alone.
The tables in the bar next to me are filled with octogenarians drinking Aperol spritz, mostly women, and groups of couples with prams and newborns. In the piazza in front of me, instead of a keyboard and badly played Dire Straits covers, there is a vigorous game of soccer being played between six under twelves, who keep it going amidst the walkers, and use all four corners of this huge space. Instead of flower sellers and photographers coming to our table there is a determined gang of five year olds on scooters, using the 1.5 metre quarantine space between tables as lanes, and being constantly shooed away by the waitress. Instead of coloured plastic toys that make a noise when thrown into the air by their hopeful vendors, the shouts and screams of five girls playing hide and seek can be heard. And as the twilight lengthens, instead of a gaggle of uncomfortable looking foreigners wearing the same T-shirt, drinking beers and self-consciously stumbling across the piazza, a serene flock of Romans cruise gracefully past on a bike tour.
Just after sunset everyone leaves, aperitivi is finished, and it’s time to go home and eat dinner. The piazza is quiet, empty and darkens a little just as the breeze that always occurs at sunset blows over it. For a few minutes in the silence the piazza is bleak and windswept, reminding me of another of its original uses – a place of execution. The imposing statue of the last person burnt at the stake on this spot, looms out of the darkness, his hooded figure menacing and joyless. But just as quickly the piazza starts to fill up again as families who have decided to come out for dinner do so; like the appointed hour for aperitivo, dinner is similarly scheduled. Freshly washed children prance around with their parents as groups of friends meet and sit down to dine.
My husband and I have been coming to this restaurant for twenty five years – many of our early dates were here. It’s been two decades since I have seen groups of Roman families here. It’s mostly couples and always tourists. The proprietor’s Nonna still makes the fettucine daily, sometimes just inside the front door if you come for lunch. They bake their own bread and he is the fourth generation that has run the restaurant. We are his first customers after quarantine and if we could, we would hug vigorously. Instead we talk loudly and at length about all that has passed in the last few months.
‘The day after we had to shut down, I came to the piazza anyway’, he says. ‘I had come here every day for the past thirty years to work, it just seemed natural. When I saw the piazza empty and everything shut, I felt my heart break, it was too difficult and I stayed away after that.’
After such a long time I expected things to be a bit rusty, but it was as though 2.5 months of pent up longing went into my meal. The antipasto of burrata cheese with char-grilled slices of zucchini and eggplant put me in my happy place for more than 24 hours. The lamb was juicy and tender, the wine cool and fruity, and the roast potatoes sprinkled with sheep’s cheese and pepper, induced an eating episode that was more like an inhalation of all that I had missed and loved about this place. I sailed home as the last twilight faded, wishing that everyone in the world could come here and have this – just a few people at a time though.
Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome. Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army. Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate. Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.
Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long. The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent. On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block. The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body. During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.
But outside, my environment is eerily quiet. The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.
The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet. There is nothing to bark at.
Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not. I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades. I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees. Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.
There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual. None of us are comfortable with the silence. We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.
Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do. Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come. Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.
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.
The other day I was stopped on the street by a woman in a floor length, dark fur coat dripping with brooches. Her ears hung low with sparkling baubles which matched those pinned to her fur hat.
Oh what beautiful earrings you are wearing!
Holding my shoulder, she reached out to touch my simple blue spheres. She stood close to me and took me in from head to toe with a wide smile on her brightly painted lips, nodding in appreciation and then gasping,
and they match your eyes!
I must admit that I was a little chuffed that someone had appreciated and noticed my well put together outfit, as I usually spend quite a bit of time choosing the exact pair of earrings. I looked at her outfit, knew I was with a kindred spirit, and knew what my task was.
Thank you. I was just admiring your beautiful brooch, and how it exactly matches your scarf.
She beamed at me and stroked the gilt star shape she had pinned to her chest.
Well sometimes I am not sure about these things. But I try to always look my best. I am eighty you know.
Italian women are rarely shy with their age. It was my cue to exclaim that she, ”carried it well”, the best compliment you can give a woman over 50.
Many of my friends from other countries tell me they feel invisible once they turn fifty.
Move to Italy
is always my answer.
Women here are never invisible and never not looked at. The ages of the men may get older but they never stop looking. I have lived here since I was 29. I was not used to being looked at in the full-bodied, appraising, unapologetic, second nature way that Italian men and women look at each other. I got sick of it sometimes but comforted myself with the fact that it would soon enough be over. I am now 54. It’s not over. And not just because “I carry it well”. I get looked at the same amount as when I was 29, only the age range of the lookers has changed. They have aged as I have. Although not always. The response “I am old enough to be your mother” didn’t seem to be working so I now say “I am old enough for you to be my second child”. But sometimes I don’t need to say that at all.
Yesterday I was crossing an intersection, another woman, slightly older than me was coming in the opposite direction. As she came closer she held her arms out in an appreciative gesture and said to me “che bella signora”, or “what a beautiful lady”. I must admit that being called beautiful in the street by random strangers on your way to buy the groceries is something that always puts a spring in my 54-year-old step. Italians don’t seem to think that only youth have a monopoly on beauty.
Which is why when I am 80 I fully plan to be wearing floor length (fake) fur coats, bright red lipstick, and as much jewellery as I can attach to myself without falling over.
If you like this blog maybe you would like my Memoir:
Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons, Melbourne Books, 2013
Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, FAO Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.
Everyone loves their own suburb. And I do love mine. But then Garbatella is not like any other suburb in Rome, or anywhere else.
Nestled in a quiet corner between major arterial roads leading south out of Rome, and only ten minutes drive from the center of Rome, it boasts quiet communal gardens, hidden staircases in place of roads, decorative archways, green oases and tranquil piazzas. Walking along pedestrian only paths that climb hills and meander along parks, watching women hang out laundry on communal lines while men sit smoking in shady corners and children run up and down, it feels more like the center of the many quiet little towns found in the countryside near Rome.
After having lived in the adjoining suburb, built only forty years later, where (in my apartment that was on a lean and eventually fell down), the rubbish truck woke me at 1.00 am each night with its flashing lights and loud mechanical grinding, and where at 7.00 am each morning, as the walls were so thin, the neighbors alarm clock woke me in time for work; and having lived in the very center of Rome in a medieval apartment block whose bathroom roof caved in one night and where I could go for a week without ever seeing a living plant; I stumbled on this green suburb full of well built houses by accident in 1998 (as the only suburb I could afford which was close to the city center), and wondered how it was possible that such a jewel could exist.
Slowly I found out, although some of the facts are a bit hazy and like all good creation stories several versions exist of the same event. In the 1920’s someone, let’s say Mussolini, decided to build a suburb outside of Rome in the countryside to house in particular, the poor. It could have been a social experiment, one that was popular at the time as cities all over the world were planning how to effectively house more people. Gandhi came on a visit here, dressed in his white robe, to see an example of what could be offered to ensure that even the poorest could be housed effectively. This event at least is fact as there is a picture of it on a sign post in my suburb.
Or it could have been that as the Vatican and the Italian government had made a truce to peacefully co-exist as separate states, and in thanks to the Vatican for a sizable donation, the Italian government decided to clear the slums that bordered around and obscured the Vatican, building in their place a huge driveway and stately road leading up to the Vatican (called appropriately Conciliation Street) and necessitating the removal and re-housing of thousands of city slum dwellers. There are several other versions but they all involve re-housing city slum dwellers into low-rise blocks, built to look like the mid 1800 apartment blocks they were used to, but placed within communal gardens, a unique setting in Italy. Due to the fact that the new suburb was miles away from where these families had always lived, it was built complete with kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, restaurants, hotels, a public bath house, theater, playgrounds, fountains and piazzas. As though it had always been there.
When you build a suburb from the beginning you have many advantages. Like what it will look like and what goes where. In addition you have the opportunity to use the buildings and the spaces to foster the behaviors you desire and to create community. Especially necessary when thousands of people are uprooted and plonked down miles away in an alien environment. So architectural competitions were held to create all the public buildings (theater, baths, hotels), resulting in all the best architects of the time contributing to the new suburb. Public spaces were created within each city block so that apartment blocks faced onto private yet communal gardens, walk ways, washing lines and other places to gather, just like the small pedestrian streets and spaces that had previously defined their inner city neighborhoods. Curving streets, round piazzas and even rounded and curved buildings created spaces that felt organic rather than planned. The use of staircases to connect streets or instead of them, created spaces for pedestrians to travel and move around the suburb never meeting any traffic, much like a small country village.
Garbatella has moved through many phases as the city of Rome grew up and around it, engulfing the fields that once surrounded it. From being shamed as a modern-day slum unwelcome to outsiders (but with very cheap rentals to foreigners who didn’t know about that), to a center for cutting edge arts and radical politics, full of some of the best traditional Roman restaurants and trendy new wine bars. It is still a place where most people who live here also work in the suburb, where many generations of the same family live and where people if they are not related at least know of each other and who they belong to. (I once walked into a cafe and was asked “who did I belong to?” before i was asked for my order).
It is a place where Roman dialect rather than Italian is the main language and where you can sit down to lunch and know that every thing on your table has been grown, butchered or made by the local person you bought it from. It is a place where you can wander on a quiet sunlit afternoon through lovingly tended gardens, sit on benches under trees and hear only a fountain bubbling, and get lost rambling along tree-lined paths under arches and up staircases around a whole suburb without ever crossing a street. So I do love my suburb. La mia Garbatella!
If you would like to read more about La bella Garbatella you can do so in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.
January is a cold, dark, short month. It’s sometimes better just to hunker down and get it over with. Then again sometimes its hard to notice it at all. By the time Christmas and New Years festivities are gotten over, it’s almost finished anyway, and there isn’t much to do until the Carnevale starts livening things up again in February.
So this post will be short. It’s just to let you know that January is not a great month to visit Rome. Everyone is tired, especially at the Vatican. Many places close for a restful few weeks, and those that can, get out of the city and go skiing. No one wants to party or eat much, and no one is very interested in serving you. It’s too cold to stay outside for very long and enjoy the best parts of Rome, which are actually mostly outside. Although the keen winter sun does make it lovely for a short stroll either just before lunch or just after.
If you do happen to be stuck in Rome in January the three best things to do all begin with S – shopping (there are lots of sales), skiing (ski fields only about an hour away) and sipping hot chocolate.
A Roman hot chocolate is a spiritual experience and will revive even the most jaded of palates and auras. When I first got handed a hot chocolate in Rome I thought someone had made a mistake in my order. It looked nothing like the brown, milky, liquid hot chocolate I grew up with. You basically had to eat it with a spoon and it came with an inch of whipped cream on the top to “even out the chocolate”. In Rome a hot chocolate is taken standing up at the counter of your local cafe, or sitting at a table alone or with friends. In Winter it is one of the basic five food groups, along with deep red Chianti. But as most people are heartily sick of drinking by January, and are saving themselves for Carnevale, a hot chocolate is a steady substitute.
Italy has some of the best ski slopes in the world, the most breathtaking scenery and the most comfortable accoutrements to skiing in the Western world. Added to this is the high fashion still apparent on the slopes, the spectacular food and venues, and it is a pretty good way to pick yourself up during a dark, cold January.
Lastly the sales. While others are working off their Christmas kilos on the slopes or dieting by drinking hot chocolate alone, some are using shopping as their cardio. It’s not just the heart stopping deals and the adrenaline inducing battles that go on between shoppers, it’s that you end up walking for ages, laden down with bags due to the fact that the bargains just go on and on. It is also an ideal way to throw off Winter blues.