The eye of the storm

Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome.  Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army.  Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate.  Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.

Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long.  The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent.  On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block.  The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body.  During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.

But outside, my environment is eerily quiet.  The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.

The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet.  There is nothing to bark at.

Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not.  I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades.  I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees.  Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.

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There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual.  None of us are comfortable with the silence.  We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.

Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do.  Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come.  Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.

Piazza Navona Day

For many years what determined where I lived was whether it was possible to have coffee in Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s loveliest renaissance piazzas, whenever I wanted.  It meant that Rome was always top of the list. Today is a Piazza Navona Day.  It’s a day I regularly set aside to do nothing much except sit in Piazza Navona and drink a coffee.

Like magic a bus appears as soon as I leave my apartment, it whisks me away and in 20 minutes I am in the very heart of Rome. The Capitoline hill, where the Roman Empire, once extending as far as England and Egypt, was governed and is still governed from today.  I salute Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor in bronze on his horse at the top of the staircase in Michelangelo’s square, guarding the spot where the temple to Jupiter received sacrifices and spoils from Roman conquests. I wander slowly along Rome’s main street lined with palaces now housing banks and insurance companies – providing the same service as the noble families who once inhabited them did.

At Piazza Navona I spy a table in the morning winter sunshine, draped with dense cream linen and standing on some ancient cobbles.  I point to it and politely ask the waiter if it is OK to take that one. Although my Anglo Saxon looks can never pass for Italian, my accent and language can, so I get the usual quizzical (are you a tourist or not?) stare as I order my cappuccino ‘ben caldo, con poco latte, niente cacao’ very hot, with less milk than usual and without chocolate on the top.  It comes so hot and strong that it will take me an hour to drink it – just what I need.

Although we are deep in the middle of winter, the sun is shining brightly and warming the top of my head.  No wind reaches this piazza, protected from the river breezes and tucked well into a ring of medieval and renaissance palaces. I hear the constant falling of plentiful water in the fountain nearby, designed by Bernini in 1650 to represent the four great rivers of the time.  The gigantic statues of four men that depict each river lean out from around a huge Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Cleopatra, which pierces the bright sky with a Christian cross.  The fountain sits on top of the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s chariot racing track.  Here is Rome in a nutshell, or a fountain – marble statues, flowing water, stolen treasures, sports arenas and empires one on top of another. A great unbroken line of humanity in this very place; people who loved, laughed and cried right here; people who thought their worlds were about to end and those who thought they would never end.

At the table across from me a woman and man, well advanced in their journey through life, soak up the sun and sip their coffee talking about a family lunch this weekend.  I have always admired these Roman women. When I first arrived in Rome in the 1990’s they wore floor length fur coats, glittering jewelry and hard cased Prada handbags wherever they went.  The fur coats are now mostly gone but this woman stands up and puts on an ankle length carmine red wool coat with matching colored Prada backpack, her jewelry catches the sun and makes her whole body sparkle.  She looks so cheerful and benevolent, and I wonder when I can expect to transition from cranky and sweaty to cheerful and benevolent. After we retire says my husband.

 

Watching this couple, I can’t wait, I feel like I am always chasing after a life that is just ahead of me – just out of reach and disappearing as quickly as I gain on it.  A life of old Rome, of women in fur coats, and men in hats, of unhurried conversations with family and friends, of quiet winters with no tourists, of freezing Februaries with no sun, of deserted summers where the city shuts down, and doesn’t exist online, and a country where no one speaks anything but Italian. Coming up fast behind me, pursuing and almost engulfing me is another life, full of a younger generation I don’t want to be, and a fast paced, hurried life that I don’t want.

The huge bells of Saint Agnes in Agony ring out deafeningly and I feel my entrails turn to water as a Roman senator would say.  They ring out an ancient stone sound that makes me want to cry; young laughter from the table of girls behind me overlays it – ancient and new, sorrow and joy, pain and the exquisite gift of being, mingle together. The sound fades away slowly and I am in the present again with my faint headache and feet that feel the uneven cobblestones beneath them.  I am home for now and will give myself another ten minutes to sit in the sun and enjoy my here and now life, exactly between the other two.

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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

What my dad knew about Italy

What my dad knew about Italy

would not fill a book.  However………..

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

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

“Is it in the elevator?”, and

“Hello, beautiful girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vale, Giovanni, Vale.

 

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Roman Daze – From notes to first draft

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

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

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

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Panettone or Pandoro? What to eat at Christmas.

I have suggested in previous posts (and explained clearly in my book ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons‘), that Italians can often be neatly divided into two groups, in a variety of ways:

  • Those who take their annual holidays in the mountains v those who take their annual holidays at the beach (and neither the two shall meet! :))
  • Those who hail from the North of Italy and those who are from the South of Italy
  • Those who support the Roman football team ‘Roma‘, and those who support Lazio, the Regional Roman team
  • Communists and Fascists (who are friendlier to each other than those in the above two categories are)

Now I want to introduce two new categories.  Those who prefer Panettone as a Christmas dessert v those who prefer Pandoro.  Both are delicious, sweet cakes and are eaten only at Christmas time.  They both come in highly decorative, large boxes (sometimes Panettone can come wrapped in brightly colored cellophane instead of a box).  They only come in one size (large) and will feed between 10 – 20 people, depending on the serving size.

Italian Christmas cakes

Now some explanation about the difference.  Panettone is originally from Milan and is a high, airy dome of yellow fluffy goodness studded with candied orange peel, candied lemon peel and sultanas.  It takes many hours to make as the dough must rise and fall three times before it can be baked.  It is never attempted by home chefs and going out to buy the Panettone (or Pandoro) is a sacred Christmas ritual.

Image result for images for pandoro and panettoneImage result for images for pandoro and panettone

Each household would buy up to 5 or 6 Panettone (or Pandoro) as each Christmas visit is accompanied with a Panettone (or Pandoro) for the host.  In this way Panettone and Pandoro are often swapped around frequently between households until Christmas day when one is finally opened and consumed as the dessert of the Christmas meal.  This can be anytime from Christmas eve to Christmas night.

Alternatives are:  as soon as they appear in the shops going and buying one and eating it immediately with a cup of tea, eating it regularly for breakfast leading up to and including Christmas day, eating it regularly for afternoon tea leading up to and away from Christmas day, eating it smothered in butter (for breakfast – Panettone only), smothered in ice-cream/liquor for dessert (Pandoro only).  But these are just my suggestions 🙂

I must admit to being a bit disappointed when i first unwrapped a Panettone and cut into it.  Delivered of its smart, brightly colored box with ribbon handle it looked like a large brown rock and not very appetising.  Looking inside it looked a little plain to me and not worth all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  I was used to cream, brandy butter, and desserts that were alight with flames as part of my Christmas dessert, and this looked like it was going to be a bit of a let down in comparison.  But like much Italian food, the key is in the simplicity, and the quality of the ingredients, along with the seasonal approach to food which creates a longing and anticipation.

Image result for images for pandoro and panettone

Image result for images for pandoro and panettoneImage result for images for pandoro and panettone

What looked like a door stop of a piece collapsed in my mouth into quite small mouthfuls as the dough was liberated from its airiness.  The tender, fluffy morsels were interspersed with just the right amount of sweet sultanas and slightly bitter peel.  Towards the bottom (my favourite bit), the dough became denser and more chewy.  A Panettone (like a Pandoro) is not served with a fork or spoon but is usually pulled apart with your fingers or held in your hand with a serviette and bit into.  Usually accompanied by a glass of prosecco.

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But what about the Pandoro?  Is there any room left for argument?  Plenty.  Pandoro comes from Verona originally and literally means  ‘Golden Bread’.  It is bread dough enhanced with lashings of eggs, butter and sugar.  It rises high and is in the shape of an 8-pointed star, dark golden on the outside and light gold on the inside.  It comes in a cellophane bag with a small packet of icing sugar.  Protocol requires that you keep the Pandoro inside the cellophane bag and sprinkle the icing sugar over it.  You then hold the bag tightly at one end and shake it therefore dusting the entire Pandoro evenly with the icing sugar.  You need to do this just before serving it as the moist outside will quickly absorb the sugar.  It looks like a Christmas wonder, all tall and dusted in white.  This is eaten in the same way and at the same time as a Panettone.  Now can you see the dilemma?  Luckily for me I love Panettone and my husband loves Pandoro so we always have to have one of each!

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The legendary Giulia (Noi e la Giulia)

Palace presents the Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2015

How can a movie that highlights the brokeness of Italy and its people, be so uplifting?  By acknowledging everything that is present, and focussing on what is good.  So Italian.

Every aspect and characteristic of Italian society is presented in this film.  How they work together or not is cleverly woven into the interactions between these characters.

  • Winner
    • Best Actor in a Supporting Role – David di Donatello Awards 2015
    • Best Comedy – Italian Golden Globes 2015
    • People’s Choice Award – ICFF Italian Contemporary Film Festival Canada 2015

THE MAFIA

Represented in three generations, in clothes and language that appear clichéd, they still have enough believable (and actual) power to terrify a group of educated and grown men who know that in spite of their legal rights, the law, and natural justice; that being assassinated for daring to not pay a fee to the local mafia, is a sure thing in many parts of Italy.  But this is the first time I have seen an Italian film about the mafia where ‘the people’ win.

Films depicting the mafia have slowly changed over the decades.  From semi-glorifying the mafia, then depicting it as evil but always winning (One hundred steps, 2000, Gomorrah, 2008), to challenging that this should be the case (The mafia only kills in the summer, 2015).  The legendary Giulia goes even further in a way that I am hoping represents a  change in the power dynamic.

The Mafia Kills Only In Summer            

In this movie the characters not only dismiss the Mafia’s age-old reasoning (the state provides no help for this region and only the ‘families’ provide support and economic infrastructure so you should pay them fees like you pay taxes to the state), but they actively fight back and then ‘remove’ them.   Doing to them what has been inflicted by them, for centuries.  In doing so they also ‘rescue’ one of them from the role he has been forced to play.

The mafia rises again though, showing how hard it is to cut off the head of this Hydra, and at the end of the movie you are not sure who is the victor.

The individuals that make up the Mafia show that, like other roles in Italy, the one you get is often determined by the geographical location of where you are born and what kind of family you are born into.  Although there appears little room for choice and this has led individuals down the paths we are shown, the central characters show that choice is possible, although painful and requiring great courage, and that happiness can be the end result.

SOCIALISTS

Many people don’t know about the deep connection many Italians have with Communism and that it is still a significant force in Italian society and approaches to living.  It explains many things about how Italy works.  There is a deeply held reverence and respect for work, whatever that work is.  There is more importance on having work than what type of work it is, as all work is considered valuable and all workers deserving of respect.  There is a strong sense of everyone having their say and acting only when there is consensus, and when there is, throwing your lot in behind the majority for the sake of getting things done, rather than standing apart and sabotaging (many nonItalian politicians could learn from this).

The strong ‘people power’ sentiment is represented by a character who lives his communist values by keeping everyone together and ensuring that everyone is treated equally in the face of extreme fear and lack of resources.  He is the one that fights for their rights against the parasitical mafia who want to send them broke as a new business, and whose practical experience and ‘hands on’ approach to life ensures that the right foundations are laid for all to enjoy .e.g. he is the only one who knows how to fix a toilet using only his bare hands, some rubber gloves and a tea towel……….

REFUGEES

Italy is heaving with refugees from Africa and elsewhere.  Literally millions land on its shores every year and many of them eek out existences where no one else would bother, and in the dry, deserted lands of the interior and south of Italy.  In this film, a tribal Prince from Ghana who led his nation into warfare is treated with fear and derision by a broke celebrity who wears an ‘Italy for Italians‘ T-shirt and thinks that Ghana is in Nigeria.  The refugee helps them out in a crisis, rescues them from themselves, and protects them when they are in danger.  Essentially performing the role that Italy has performed for them.

  

 

 

 

 

CELEBRITY SEEKERS

The cult of the celebrity, superficial relationships and fake connections are all exemplified in one of the characters who depicts Italy‘s fascination and long-held reverence for television and all who appear on it.  The fantasy world of television where looks and money mean substance has long been seen as a major foundation of Berlusconi’s success in political campaigning.  It comes unravelled as we see the truth of the exploitation  of others that is required for this image to be maintained, how it can’t actually produce or contribute to anything, and how it has to be ‘saved’ by the older generation of practical socialists who have the know how and the courage to back up their goals.  The story of Italian politics over the past two decades.

QUIET, DESPERATE CONFORMER

“When you hate your job, you begin to hate everything about the world and your life is about escaping. In your 20’s it is to run a bar by the sea, in your 40’s it is almost always a country B & B”.  Such is the powerful line from one of the central characters as he is lamenting the fact he has never chosen to do anything he really wants to do in his life.  The failure of the state, the stranglehold of the mafia, and staleness of the socialist approach to life have all amounted to work being difficult to get in Italy with unemployment rates around 50% in many regions of Italy and nationally never under 10%.

Many people just quietly buckle under, are grateful for anything, and accept demeaning treatment to keep their jobs while slowly feeling like their souls are dying.  They accept a high level of dissonance between their own personal values and what must be accepted in order to keep their livelihoods going.  There is  a generation in Italy that got so used to never being able to achieve anything, and seeing that merit was not a reason to receive, that they gave up or left.  This character represents them.

The Mafia Kills Only In Summer

POLICE/THE STATE

The Mafia characters continually refer to the Police as not being relevant.  To those of us who come from nation states that function, it is hard to understand how this can be possible.  Is Italy so advanced that everyone polices themselves?  Does everyone just obey the law naturally as exemplary good citizens?

Partly the answer is ‘yes’ because it becomes apparent when the Police behave little better than the Mafia that it is not due to them there is law and order.  The ‘fees’ for protection that they request are just as high as those asked by the Mafia, and their behaviour just as demeaning and inappropriate.  The difference is that there are more of them and they are sanctioned by the state in a much more obvious way than the Mafia are.

For many the actions of the Police in this movie will be hard to take seriously and have little impact.  Surely this is an exaggeration?  It is a movie after all.  For real life examples of Italian Police behaviour, see the movie ‘Diaz – Don’t clean up this blood’, 2012.

LOOSERS/FAILURES

I love the fact that they celebrate failures in this movie.  A sign of a healthy culture is one that celebrates failures and successes as being part of the same cycle.  Many cultures (particularly those that focus on the celebrity and superficial aspects of life), ignore or denigrate failure.  It takes an exceptionally strong one to celebrate it.

I find it a common characteristic in the Italian culture – to accept all that is there about life – mental illness, financial ruin, poverty, childlessness, vulnerability, weakness, old age, death, illness, loss, loneliness, and not shun it or hide away from it, but to integrate it into daily life, as well as not using it to define who a person is, or always will be.

The admissions of the four characters of their failures was poignant and confronting given that it had mostly resulted from their own choices rather than circumstances.  Instead of making them want to crawl under a rock and admit defeat they used it to go for their heart’s desires, feeling like they had nothing to lose.

HOPE AND NEW APPROACHES

The Madonna is still a powerful icon in Italian society  and the pregnant, single woman in this movie exhibits enormous power in bringing the gang of characters together, nurturing them, and inspiring them to achieve their dream of opening a country B & B.  She is beautiful, feminine, bedecked in flowers and colorful robes and has her protruding (new life, new start) belly constantly on show.

And there are others too.  Amidst the tired but still proliferating Mafia there are other groups represented in this movie that bring international influences, connections with the wider world, and a post industrialised version of Italy – Tibetan monks, Brazilian capoeira dancers, Yoga practitioners, bikies, and young (ish) social media savvy travellers.

Even though most of the worst and most unpalatable aspects of Italy are plainly in view for all to see in this movie it still presents as incredibly inspirational and optimistic.  It is  because of the steady approach to adversity the characters display, the fact that they allow different and more positive influences into their lives, the fact that they never lose heart or fall into despair, and the fact they focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.  It is the recipe of modern-day Italy.

http://www.italianfilmfestival.com.au/films/the-legendary-giulia

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

or at your local bookstore.  Check out and ‘like’ and ‘share’ my NEW FaceBook page too!