My favourite activity of the week

The market is a two minute walk from my apartment but is unrecognisable unless you already know what it is.  For six months I walked past the shabby collection of closed up boxes wondering what they were.  Each only slightly bigger than a skip bin, they were sometimes outnumbered by them. But one day I happened across them in the morning and now shopping at my local market is my favourite activity of the week.  Whatever befalls me during the week I know I have the market to look forward to.  I wake each Saturday morning excited and happy, looking forward to the experience that I know won’t disappoint me and will be over too soon.

I am standing at the edge of Aldo’s fruit and vegetable counter hemmed in on both sides and at my back with people.  Aldo keeps up a non-stop chant, tallying up the prices of the fruit and vegetables as he weighs them while customers impatiently crowd around thrusting their bags full of produce towards him.  Hands push out from behind me at the level of my hips, towards the apricots and peaches that are stacked up in front of me, as customers continue to shop while others wait in a non-existent line based on the time they first put their bags down on top of the fruit and stopped filling them.  Every time Aldo finishes serving a customer he tells the remaining ones which of them are next, up to the last person waiting.  No one ever argues and he never gets it wrong.

All women are referred to as beautiful “bella” and young “giovanne” by Aldo who is well into his 70’s and has regular heart valve surgery.  The older you are the younger his description of you is. I am referred to as a beautiful girl “bella ragazza”. I am 55. White haired women bent over double are referred to as beautiful little girls “belle ragazzine” while young women are called “belle donne”, beautiful women.

“Hey don’t forget about me”, shouts out a man.

Only people who are new to Aldo’s stall ever say this.  The rest of us know that he knows exactly who has been waiting and for how long, and we patiently or impatiently wait our turns.

“Throw me a bag Aldo”, someone shouts and another hand is thrust out from between the bodies to receive it.

“Are these the only type of apricots you have?”

“Yes they are”, he answers, “they are from my orchard, taste one I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

“Do you have any prepared salad left?  Yes we do, Marie, get that young man a bag of salad.”

Along with answering and organising he is still weighing goods and verbally tallying them up.

The stall is open on all sides and shaded with a low canvas that covers the array of tables topped with produce.  It traps the sound in.  It is very hot and I have been standing here at least ten minutes waiting for my goods to be tallied.  But I am not in a rush.  I let others fill their bags full of apricots from the mound in front of me not fearful of losing my place under the eagle eye of Aldo and actually hoping it will take as long as possible.  Because under this cacophonous, fragrant tent stacked with figs, overflowing with cherries, nuts and lemons, decorated with eggs, honey, mozzarella and lettuce, swimming in tomatoes and zucchini and pegged down with watermelon, eggplant and cabbage, I can feel my aura being gently cleansed.

My shoulders relax and start to ease themselves down from around my ears, my spine straightens and I can feel my feet firmly on the earth for the first time since the beginning of the week.  I take root amidst the vegetables and fruit and come back to fully inhabit my body again feeling each part of me gingerly integrating and coming into the present.  I watch an old man bend over peppers and inspect each one before putting it into a paper bag. I see a youngish man next to me enthusiastically filling a bag with small deformed apples and ask him in Italian what they taste like.  I exchange a smile with a woman next to me and ask how she intends to cook her cabbage (because I don’t know how to even though I love cabbage).  I join in a general conversation and answer another man who is wondering what beetroot is and what you might eat it with.  The cares and worries of the week cascade off me, puddle in a pool at my feet, and gradually melt away into the earth.

Too soon it is my turn to be served.

“It’s this beautiful girls turn now”, Aldo announces to everyone as he drags my bags over the mounds in between us, and starts to weigh and tally out loud.  It’s like listening to a race commentator.

“We have four zucchinis, some peppers and an eggplant.  What’s in this bag now?  Oh so we have also a bag of       salad and some tomatoes along with the zucchinis, peppers and eggplant and now I can see a fennel.  What do we have in this other bag?  Oh some apricots, peaches, figs and a quarter of a watermelon.  Now we still have the zucchinis, peppers, eggplant, salad and tomatoes along with the fennel, and we are now adding the apricots, peaches, figs and watermelon.”

 

No matter what I buy it’s always the same price, twelve euros. He throws the money into the red plastic bucket he uses as a cash register. Sometimes he doesn’t even add on half the vegetables in my bags.  I try and hand him more than the twelve euros and he responds by putting another few peaches into my bag and then stacking it full of lemons, thrusting the bags back at me and turning to the next customer before I can protest.

“You can’t pay whatever you want you know”, he admonishes me.

“Well you charge me whatever you want”, I counter.

“It’s my store”, he responds, laughing.

My husband takes the heavy load of fruit and vegetables from Aldo’s garden and we move away together, me slightly sad as it will be another week before I get to stand in the aura cleansing tent again.

“What do we need next?” my husband always asks.

I don’t know.  All week my days are about ‘to-do’ lists.  Some weeks, each day is divided into half-hour slots of time where I have to produce, do, or attend something for every slot.  So when I am not at work I don’t have lists.  I buy whatever takes my fancy and I follow my intuition.

The fish lady knows this.

“What about these salmon and “orata” fish burgers that I have just prepared, or the fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and celery? Or how about this blue fish “pesce azzuro”,  that I have just finished frying with red onion for lunch?”

The first time I tasted the salmon, I rushed back the next week and demanded to know why it tasted so different to any other salmon I had ever eaten.

“I know”, she said, winking at me and pushing her blond curls off her face with the back of her plastic gloved hand while holding a long thin knife that never seemed to leave her palm.

“It’s from a special farm in Norway where they raise the salmon to be relaxed.  They play music to them. That way they develop a lot of fat just under their skin.”

Each time I am cooking the salmon I watch the layer of fat between the skin and pink flesh melt and spit, flavouring everything.  Today she hands me the package of salmon that her father has already prepared in anticipation for us.  It has ‘Australia’ written in black biro on the paper that the fish is wrapped in.  Like Aldo she wishes me a good Sunday and tells me she will see me next week.

Unlike the fishmonger, the butcher and I regularly need to brainstorm together before any purchases can be made.

“What kind of meat would you like?”

“Lamb.”

“How would you like to cook it signora?  Baked, grilled, casseroled, with or without potatoes (my favourite so if you were wanting to invite me over that’s what I would like you to cook), vegetables, or with a little wine and olives?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Together we come up with something and he grabs the relevant animal and prepares the cut.  He doesn’t wear gloves and cuts with a blade that could double as a paddle, some pieces are so thin you can see through them.

He is the head of the market and in charge of its comings and goings so he updates me on anything relevant and then asks what season it is in Australia, what temperature it is and how many hours flight it is again?

I linger at the grocer’s counter eyeing the array of fresh mini ricottas made from sheep or cow’s milk, some of them baked and standing up in little plastic sieves, some oozing and gooey like white butter starting to melt.  My eyes gaze upwards to the pink rounds of prosciutto, salamis and hams that would go magnificently with any of them, each one with their own salty, fatty, chewy taste.  Today I spot my favourite cheese, a camenbert made with buffalo’s milk, so subtle and yet so delicious it takes control of you and makes you finish the entire round in one sitting.  Everyone I introduce this cheese to has the same experience, and in a nation of experienced cheese tasters I am delighted to be able to offer something different and new.  It goes a long way to building up my credibility as a  resident of Italy, and being worthy of my visa.

But too soon it is over.  There is nothing left to buy unless I want a cotton handkerchief, a velvet dressing gown, or bleach, all housewife staples which are on offer and which I wish I needed, if only  to keep me looking at the market for longer.  But my husband knows we have mortadella in one of the bags and is inching me towards the exit.  And we have to stop at the flower seller on the way out.

Each week it is the same.  I moon over the herbs and flowers knowing full well we have no balcony and that all three of our window boxes are full to overflowing and threatening to take down one side of the building if I fit one more pot in there.  So I settle for blooms that cost less than one day’s worth of public transport and thank the vendor as he adds a few more in for free.

There really is nothing more to do except go home, enjoy the produce and look forward to the next market shop, one full week away.

La mia Garbatella

Everyone loves their own suburb. And I do love mine.  But then Garbatella is not like any other suburb in Rome, or anywhere else.

Nestled in a quiet corner between major arterial roads leading south out of Rome, and only ten minutes drive from the center of Rome, it boasts quiet communal gardens, hidden staircases in place of roads, decorative archways, green oases and tranquil piazzas.  Walking along pedestrian only paths that climb hills and meander along parks, watching women hang out laundry on communal lines while men sit smoking in shady corners and children run up and down, it feels more like the center of the many quiet little towns found in the countryside near Rome.

After having lived in the adjoining suburb, built only forty years later, where (in my apartment that was on a lean and eventually fell down), the rubbish truck woke me at 1.00 am each night with its flashing lights and loud mechanical grinding, and where at 7.00 am each morning, as the walls were so thin, the neighbors alarm clock woke me in time for work; and having lived in the very center of Rome in a medieval apartment block whose bathroom roof caved in one night and where I could go for a week without ever seeing a living plant; I stumbled on this green suburb full of well built houses by accident in 1998 (as the only suburb I could afford which was close to the city center), and wondered how it was possible that such a jewel could exist.

Slowly I found out, although some of the facts are a bit hazy and like all good creation stories several versions exist of the same event.  In the 1920’s someone, let’s say Mussolini, decided to build a suburb outside of Rome in the countryside to house in particular, the poor.  It could have been a social experiment, one that was popular at the time as cities all over the world were planning how to effectively house more people.  Gandhi came on a visit here, dressed in his white robe, to see an example of what could be offered to ensure that even the poorest could be housed effectively.  This event at least is fact as there is a picture of it on a sign post in my suburb.

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Or it could have been that as the Vatican and the Italian government had made a truce to peacefully co-exist as separate states, and in thanks to the Vatican for a sizable donation, the Italian government decided to clear the slums that bordered around and obscured the Vatican, building in their place a huge driveway and stately road leading up to the Vatican (called appropriately Conciliation Street) and necessitating the removal and re-housing of thousands of city slum dwellers.  There are several other versions but they all involve re-housing city slum dwellers into low-rise blocks, built to look like the mid 1800 apartment blocks they were used to, but placed within communal gardens, a unique setting in Italy.  Due to the fact that the new suburb was miles away from where these families had always lived, it was built complete with kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, restaurants, hotels, a public bath house, theater, playgrounds, fountains and piazzas.  As though it had always been there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you build a suburb from the beginning you have many advantages.  Like what it will look like and what goes where.  In addition you have the opportunity to use the buildings and the spaces to foster the behaviors you desire and to create community.  Especially necessary when thousands of people are uprooted and plonked down miles away in an alien environment.  So architectural competitions were held to create all the public buildings (theater, baths, hotels), resulting in all the best architects of the time contributing to the new suburb.  Public spaces were created within each city block so that apartment blocks faced onto private yet communal gardens, walk ways, washing lines and other places to gather, just like the small pedestrian streets and spaces that had previously defined their inner city neighborhoods. Curving streets, round piazzas and even rounded and curved buildings created spaces that felt organic rather than planned.  The use of staircases to connect streets or instead of them, created spaces for pedestrians to travel and move around the suburb never meeting any traffic, much like a small country village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garbatella has moved through many phases as the city of Rome grew up and around it, engulfing the fields that once surrounded it. From being shamed as a modern-day slum unwelcome to outsiders (but with very cheap rentals to foreigners who didn’t know about that), to a center for cutting edge arts and radical politics, full of some of the best traditional Roman restaurants and trendy new wine bars.  It is still a place where most people who live here also work in the suburb, where many generations of the same family live and where people if they are not related at least know of each other and who they belong to. (I once walked into a cafe and was asked “who did I belong to?” before i was asked for my order).

It is a place where Roman dialect rather than Italian is the main language and where you can sit down to lunch and know that every thing on your table has been grown, butchered or made by the local person you bought it from.  It is a place where you can wander on a quiet sunlit afternoon through lovingly tended gardens, sit on benches under trees and hear only a fountain bubbling, and get lost rambling along tree-lined paths under arches and up staircases around a whole suburb without ever crossing a street.  So I do love my suburb.  La mia Garbatella!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you would like to read more about La bella Garbatella you can do so in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.

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

What’s up in a Roman January?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2018!!!

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Bella Roma (Beautiful Rome)

The Italian summer did not disappoint.  It was hot.  Relentlessly, endlessly hot.  Each day the same.  Each night only just bearable.  The sky was cloudless and blue, the days windless and still.  The evenings had breaths, whiffs, occasionally something that could be called a breeze. During the day the bright yellow sunshine bathed everything in its happy colour.  The baby blue of the sky lit everything with its peaceful tincture.  Yellow and blue met you as soon as you descended from your apartment and hit the street.  Tiredness from lack of sleep, worry, jet lag, heat, or having eaten and drank too much the night before, disappeared after a few steps into the soft warm colour filled day.

The streets of my  old suburb were decorated with rubbish piled up every 10 metres, overflowing from the communal rubbish bins provided for each apartment block.  The stench of rotting garbage assailing me and stopping me in mid conversation every couple of steps.  How sad.  One of the many results of the Italian financial crisis, less public services.  It marred the stone cornices, circular sweeps of entrances, and leafy corridors.

We walked to the metro station of Garbatella and stood in the shade on a Sunday to wait for the train to take us to the centre of town and to our favourite Sunday park, Villa Borghese.  The station had been built in wealthier times, huge utilitarian platforms of square concrete with smart black, non-slip surfaces, and chairs to sit on.  The walls were covered in graffiti and the floors caked with nearly a decade of dirt.  A city camping in its own filth.  An old but popular Italian song was playing loudly over the speaker, singing about how beautiful all women are, and how wonderful the female sex is, with no irony.  Just at the edge of the platform, under the road, were three dilapidated old campers.  I watched people come and go, obviously not temporary and not on holiday.

At the stop close to the park, well into the centre of the city, the train was delayed.  We saw a group of young teenage girls being shouted at by a man and woman and menaced over by another couple of police officers.  The police officers came on board the train as it began to move.  They walked up and down the carriages shouting in English and Italian to be careful because there were gangs of gypsy girls, referred to as ‘baby gangs’ whose intent was to steal from tourists. I remembered my first mugging by gypsy children almost 25 years ago.

I started to cry.

“You’re crying because you’re happy aren’t you?” accused my husband.

“Yes”, I admitted, “yes”.

I am happy that the rubbish still stinks and that gypsies still steal your money on the metro, because it is still the city that I know and love.  I am happy that it hasn’t been ‘cleaned up’ or ‘modernised’ or ‘homogenised’ or ‘right sized’ or made more consumer friendly.  I am happy that it is still the city that doesn’t exist for the pleasure or use, or consumption, by its current set of inhabitants or visitors.  The city that makes you work to enjoy it, requires effort to access it, and cannot be consumed, because it is Eternal.  The city that has existed for more than 2,500 years, the city of the Etruscans, of Romulus and Remus, of Julius Caesar, of Michelangelo, of Mussolini, of the Popes, of Federico Fellini and of Beppe Grillo.

I’ll admit that things have waxed and waned over the centuries but Rome has always endured and managed to provide its citizens with shelter, water, sunshine, food that is so plentiful it grows between the cracks in the footpath, wine that flows from the mountains just outside it, and opportunities to be part of history, a great ruling power, flex your political or artistic bents; or just sit and relax amidst stone, sunshine and leafy canopies, enjoying music on every street corner and sipping sweet cold orange juice over shaved ice.

“It’s from my garden”, proudly explained the woman who was squeezing it barehanded over our glasses full of ice.

Definitely not homogenised.

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

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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Top 10 reasons to be Italian (and live in Italy)

Hi everyone and apologies for the lack of posting over the past few months.  I injured my neck and shoulder (too much stting at my computer!) and needed to have a complete break from it.  Finally here it is, the last four reasons it is great to be Italian (and live in Italy).  Enjoy!

7.  There is a time for everything and everything has its time.

Italy has the same amount of time as everywhere else obviously, but somehow life seems to linger there and fit, in a more balanced way, to the 24 hours alloted to each day.  I never get the sense of being rushed in Italy, or expected to do too many things at once, or that I will miss out on something if I don’t.  In fact rushing (di fretta) is often used as a slight rebuke.  If someone says to you ‘Hai fretta’? (are you in a hurry?), it is usually not because they want to help you out, but because they want you to chill out and stop upsetting everyone around you.

Image result for italians at work imagesImage result for italians at work imagesImage result for italians at work images

There is a timetable in Italy for doing things, from eating and shopping to working, holidaying and resting, dictated by the seasons, connected to nature, and supported by ritual.  Many of the things I have already referred to – expectations that you will eat a long and proper lunch, resting,  only participating in activities that are right for the current season, celebrating as much as possible.  These all create the ability to live in the present, as well as expectation and hope for the seasons to come, which bring with them their own new activities, celebrations, food and rituals.  Somehow by spacing things out, taking time in between them, living in the present yet being secure in the knowledge of what is to come, and by repeating activities that are connected to the natural world around us, Italians have created more room in their lives than I ever feel I have anywhere else.

8. No one talks about work outside of work.

I could be cheeky and add that often no one talks about work while actually at work, but I do not want to perpetuate the perception (mostly because of the above points), that Italians are somehow lazy.  As I have said before, being one of the 8th most productive countries in the world, is not the achievement of the lazy.  But I find that in Italy you are not what you do.  There is always a question about work, between friends and at social gatherings, but the question is usually ‘Do you have work?’, not ‘What do you do for work?’.  If the answer to the first question is ‘yes’, the conversation usually stops there, as the most important part of work here is whether you have a job or not (and it always has been).

Italians talk about politics, food, love, holidays, art, love, food, music, philosophy, love, literature, food and sport much more than they talk about work.  I have known some of my Italian friends for years before I actually knew what they did for work.  In Italy it tends to be more relevant how else you spend your life.  Also because for the most of the decades since WW2, work has often been scarce.  People tend to take what they can get.  A person with a PHd in Chemistry might be working as an administrative clerk in an aid organisation, someone with a Masters degree in languages might be managing a video rental store, and a brilliant musician might be teaching Primary school.  It is generally accepted that any work is good work, and that who you are and your interests, may not be reflective of that work.  And that you are one of the extremely fortunate ones if it does.

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Even at work, having a conversation that creates a relationship is far more important and effective in getting things done than merely discussing the tasks.  I once worked with a team of people that began each morning talking in detail about what they eaten the night before for dinner, where they had bought the ingredients and how they had prepared them.  Not only did I earn a wage and create an effective outcome with this team, but I learnt why my Melanzane alla Parmagiana was never as tasty as everyone elses, how to prepare Mozzarella in Carrozza (fried cheese sandwhiches), and where to find pumpkins.

9. You only eat what is in season.

Speaking of pumpkins, the first time I felt like making some pumpkin soup in Spring I couldn’t understand why the green grocer just laughed at me, or why he treated me as though I was slightly mad when I asked for strawberries in Autumn.  Where I grew up, everything was available all year round and nothing tasted like the season fruit and vegetables I began to eat in Rome.  The first time I ate a peach it tasted like it had flavouring added to it.  I had never eaten vine ripened fruit.  It is much easier to sit down to a meal of mostly vegetables, or to eat a dessert of only fruit if they taste the way they taste in Italy.

Eating what is only seasonally available means also that you look forward to eating certain things at certain times of the year, make the most of them, and enjoy saying goodbye to them as you anticipate the next season’s bounty.  It provides a structure for life when certain tastes, flavours and dishes only come around once a year and contributes to that sense of space and time that seems to occur in Italy.

10. Everyone in the world wants to be you.

If I had a dollar for every person I have heard say ‘I am Italian on the inside’ or ‘my soul is Italian‘, I would be rich.  Why is it that I can travel to over 45 countries and ALL of them have Spaghetti or Pizzza on offer?  Why is it that everyone who can afford one buys a Prada or an Armani something? Why do 48 million people visit Italy every year making it the 5th most visited country in the world? Why is owning a Ferrari on every male’s (and quite a lot of females) secret wish list?  Because the world wants to be you! 🙂 If we could bottle Italy and take it out on a grey, cold work day, when we are sitting at our desks eating heated up left overs out of a plastic container over our computer, or while we are congregating in a shopping mall full of machine-made things from millions of miles away rubbing shoulders with strangers who won’t make eye contact, or when we are walking at night across a vast and people less, council built, strip of community park or concrete play ground hurrying to get to our next appointment/activity, then life would be just that little bit better.  Don’t you think? 🙂

temperament of Italian womanImage result for italians at work images

 

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!

 

Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live in Italy) cont.

Today’s continuation of Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live it Italy).

4.  You get to eat the BEST and BIGGEST Easter Eggs ever!

 

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Easter is taken seriously in Italy, and nowhere more so than with the giving and receiving of Easter Eggs.  They are the most colorful, ornate and decorated eggs I have ever seen!

 

 

5.  You get to lay down in the middle of the day.

Yes the siesta is alive and well.  And before you scoff just remember that Italy is one of the G8 countries which means it is one of the 8 most productive countries in the world.  (Confirming research that shows sleep and work/life balance actually contributes to sustainable effort) .  At 1.00pm until 4.00pm each day all shops and professional services (lawyers, dentists, doctors, accountants) shut their doors to partake in an appropriate lunch (Top 10 reason no.1) and then snooze, rest, sleep it off before starting the second half of the working day from 4.00pm til 8.00 (this doesn’t apply to office workers who have to power on with only a lunch and a walk followed by a stiff coffee to keep them going).  I particularly love this quiet part of the day where my suburb shuts down and a peaceful silence descends.

 

 

 

 

 

6.  You get to have two birthdays.

I love birthdays and was determined to make a big fuss over my husband’s birthday when we were first going out.  Imagine my surprise when four months earlier than his birthday, his parents, siblings, niece and nephew, God-mother, friends and colleagues all began calling early in the morning to wish him a ‘Happy Onomastico‘ (Happy Name-Day), delivering gifts and asking him ‘what was he was doing for his onomastico?’

It is a tradition in Italy to be named after a Saint or after a family member (who was originally named after a Saint) and each Saint has a special day of the year named after them.  San Vincenzo is April 5th and all those guys who are named Vincenzo celebrate their Onomastico on that day.  Same with San Francesco(a), San Guiseppe, Sant’ Alfredo, San Valentino etc.

There are cards, cake, presents, celebrations.  How is that not like a birthday?

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Next time, the last four top reasons to be Italian.

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!

Top ten reasons to be Italian! (and live in Italy)

1.  You get to savour lunch!

I have noticed the lunch hour, and even the concept of lunch, is dying out in many post industrial countries.  Not so in Italy, the inventor of the Slow Food movement.   In Italy lunch begins at 1.00pm.  Not 12.30 or 1.10 but 1.00pm.  No one questions you or where you are going at that hour.  Everyone knows.  It’s lunch time.  Lunch occurs mostly sitting down, mostly with company but not looked on strangely if it is taken alone.  It involves at least two courses, is followed by a coffee (cafe/short black) and a gentle walk.  It never occurs while walking or working.  If a good, nuturing and sustaining lunch is what you desire then pretend to be Italian for a day and take it!

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2.  You can eat pasta every day.

Not just for special occasions or only after you have laboured by making it fresh yourself, pasta is a staple and comes in a myriad of forms.  Pasta is eaten ‘al dente‘ (chewy) so that the flavour and texture can be truly appreciated, and is paired with seasonal produce and is therefore constantly changing.  It is part of every Italians’ diet and now even gluten free pasta is offered at most restaurants (by asking for it as it won’t appear on the menu).  Pasta is not only matched with seasonal ingredients (herbs, vegetables, fish and meat), the shapes, sizes and texture (ribbed or non ribbed) of the pasta are matched with particular sauces and ingredients to bring out the taste and texture of ingredients e.g. ribbed pasta with tomato based sauces  The thickness of spaghetti is also chosen depending on what it is served with.  Tip: never serve size no. 3 with seafood!

20130917_202754Rigatoni cacio e pepe –  one of my favourite typical Roman pasta dishes.  Sheeps cheese and pepper.  Sounds simple, is delicious.  Note it is served with ribbed pasta so that the cheese coats the pasta as you eat it – yum!

25122004(001)My mother-in-law Francesca’s Timbalo (baked pasta dish – every mother does one).  Francesca’s has fried pork meatballs in it and is sealed with fried eggplant.  The pasta inside this dish is usually penne, unribbed because the mixture is already dense and doesn’t need to stick to it.

 

3.  You get to experience four complete seasons, consecutively and well spaced (but don’t forget to follow the seasonal ‘rules’).

Each season is quite distinct in its weather, food, activities and lifestyle.  As everyone is impacted by the seasons at the same time it creates a sense of community – everyone is eating, doing and talking about the same things at the same time.  Where you will be going for your summer holidays, when the seasons last vegetables are available, how you will be celebrating this seasons’ saints days, what you will be eating for lunch that day are all acceptable conversations with complete strangers at the bus stop or with neighbours in your apartment block.  The first sunny day is not a reason to go to the beach unless it is after June 21st (the official beginning of summer) and if the heat continues into September it is still not a reason to wear your summer clothes as I recently experienced.  While walking in my local neighbourhood wearing my summer clothes (as it was 27 degrees), I overheard a person commenting to her companion how ridiculous I looked wearing them when it was now September and therefore clearly Autumn!

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If you’re not sure what to do in each season or how to behave, head to the Trevi fountain and look up.  The four statues at the top represent each of the four seasons in Italy and how they are personalised!

Trevi fountain-building

Next week: more reasons to be Italian.

If you love this blog 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.  A synthesis and first chapter is available on this blog by clicking on the ‘My book’ page.  If you have already read it please ‘like’ my FaceBook page, subscribe to this blog, write a review on Amazon, and tell your friends!