Tag Archives: rome

Just too northern European

Before anyone accuses me of moaning about the weather, I’d like to specify that I see this more as a pre-emptive freakout.

It topped 20C in Rome today. Just a few weeks ago it was the depths of winter. Although the snow here was aberrant, the generally cool temperatures weren’t. Our flat might not be designed for cold weather – it’s draughty, the heating doesn’t have a timer or a thermostat, and significant radiators don’t work – but by and large I found the winter here delightful. It suited me. I could dress in a preferred fashion (with layers, jacket). I didn’t get a stinky sweat on when I used my default form of transport – brisk walking.

The Roman summer, on the other hand is both something that I’m not used to and something that doesn’t suit me. I don’t like wearing just a shirt. And as much as I like to wear shorts, such attire is somewhat frowned upon here for a grown man. Getting your first pair of long trousers in Italy is (or was) like getting your first car in 1950s America, it’s a rite of passage, visibly liminal, a public declaration of your status. (There’s a scene in the film Malèna [2000], set in the 1940s, where the 13-year-old protagonist, desperate to appear more grown up, has a tailor re-cut his father’s suite trousers to fit him. His dad isn’t happy.)

I’m British. I’m used to British weather. And although, like many other Brits, I despair of the limbo of week after week of overcast, grey weather, I don’t have a problem with the temperatures in Britain. Mostly. I mean, admittedly, I was peeved when my June wedding day didn’t muster more than 8C but hey, it was northwest Devon, so that wasn’t so unexpected. What was unexpected was leaving a Sussex August at 18C and arriving in a Roma of 40C. A temperature that didn’t drop much through much all of September 2011.

Now, British friends will say “Wow, wonderful, I love temperatures like that and sunshine.” But really, what they mean is, they love temperatures like that and sunshine when they’re on holiday, and can spend most of the day on the beach, swimming in the sea, and potentially retreating to an air-conditioned hotel. That is a very different kettle of fish to living in a big (-ish) city, densely populated with people and cars, so many belching cars. And dogs, so many hysterical dogs. And dog owners, so many irresponsible dog owners who don’t pick up their beasts’ cacca [no spellcheck, I don’t mean cacao].

Last August was a very literal shock to the system to me. I didn’t acclimatise, the baking dumpsters and cacca griddling on the pavements were – objectively – disgusting, and I didn’t enjoy spending so much time self-consciously sudato e puzzolente (sweaty and stinky!). Basically, it being so warm now, so soon in the year, ho paura – I’m scared. Scared of if I’ll ever feel acclimatised here. Scared of another several months of trying to sleep when it doesn’t drop below 28C at night in our room, even after living in a bunker all day with all the shutters and windows closed to block out the sunshine and heat (something that’s counter-intuitive for a Brit used to craving rays and vitamin D, but necessary). And I’m really not looking forward to the return of the mosquitos (though it is lovely to see the lizards emerging again).

I am just too northern European. The prospect of another hot summer in Rome freaks me out.


Filed under Main thread, Rome

Pass the dolci

Italians love their dolci: sweets, desserts, ice cream and pastries, or pasticceria. I always assumed the French had the last word on patisserie, but living in Rome, I’m not so sure any more. In Monteverde Vecchio, our neighbourhood, indeed within about 100 metres of our flat, there are at least three pasticcerie (as I understand it, the word can mean the outlet, the trade and the product), as well as a bakery/tavolo caldo (“hot table” – meaning then sell hot snacks) that also does pasticceria. Two of these places, and another one just down the hill on Viale Trastevere, have counters around 4-5 metres long utterly packed with biscuits, pastries, chocolates and sweeties that you buy by weight. And none of them are chains.

That’s one thing I love about Italy – it’s got an incredibly strong business culture of independents, of SMEs (small-medium sized enterprises). As well as all the independent pasticceria, which are also cafés, there are umpteen independent cafés, which also sell pasticceria. Although I’m an oddity in this culture for my dislike of coffee, I’m more than happy to frequent these places and indulge in pastries and, as it’s the winter (hey, there was a frost last night), I can get away with drinking lots of the cioccolata calda without breaching too much strict Italian food and drink etiquette. Well, I say “drinking” but it’s frequently half-way to eating as Italian hot chocolate is generally thickened with cornflour, making it a thick, gloopy thing that’s almost like a hot chocolate mousse.

My current obsession is for castagnole and frappe, which started appearing in the pasticcerie shortly after Christmas, specifically at Epiphany; that’s 6 January for heathens. These are seasonal sweet treats for carnevale – carnival or Mardi Gras season. The Christian tradition is that Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, aka Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, is the day when you use up all your rich food products, fats and sugars to initiate Lent, the period of abstemiousness that leads up to Easter. While us Brits, and others, might have a pancake blow-out on just one day, here in Italy it looks like we’re getting weeks of the aforementioned treats.

So, castagnole are small, deep-fried dough balls, a bit like doughnuts, but the dough isn’t leavened with yeast, but with chemical raising agents, ie baking powder or equivalent, according to both the ingredients taped up on the counter at Pasticceria Dolci Desideri (“Sweets you want”!; our local, on Via Anton G Barrili) and the recipe on this blog. The word presumably relates to castagna – chestnut – though they have no chestnut flavouring. Instead you can get them semplice (plain) or filled with crema (custard) or ricotta. Frappe, meanwhile, are basically thin rectangles of crisp, slightly puffy pastry, like a sweetened pasta, baked or deep-fried, and sprinkled with icing sugar, or sometimes flavoured with honey. The name itself (singular: frappa) is a bit confusing, as the similar word frappé means shake, or milkshake.

According to the above-mentioned blog, they’re also known as cenci (the plural of cencio, rag – not very appetising), stracci (shreds; stracciare is the verb to tear or rip up) and lattughe (lettuce) in other parts of Italy. We’ve been treating ourselves to castagnole and frappe, well, pretty much every day this week. It can’t go on, for obvious reasons, but not only are they delicious, there’s just something inherently lovely about going to a pasticceria and getting some treats wrapped up like a gift (eco concerns about over-packaging notwithstanding.) Really, Brits have a long way to go to make the patisserie experience as charming as this. Sure we have some wonderful independent bakeries these days, but their patisserie can still seem meagre by comparison, even if they have an array of poncy cupcakes. And for people who still don’t even have access to real bakeries, some foul mass-produced “Toffee Flavour Yum Yum” from “Greggs The Home of Fresh Baking” [sic] just doesn’t cut it.


Filed under Baking, Food misc, Main thread, Rome


Living in Italy can be a Kafka-esque experience. It’s not a new observation, indeed it’s something that Tobias Jones alludes to a lot in his highly enjoyable extended op-ed book The Dark Heart of Italy. But we’ve been having such fun (*gritted teeth*), here are a few more first-hand experiences of Italy’s apparent love for the Catch-22 scenario.

My favourite has to be Fran going to collect an ID card at FAO – the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that her organisation, Bioversity, has a relationship with. (They’re not part of FAO, but FAO can be considered the mothership.) So Fran has to go to the FAO offices, an impressive modernist block near the Circo Massimo that used to be the Department of Italian East Africa.

“Hello, I’m here to collect my ID card,” says Fran. “OK, ID per favore,” replieth the security guard, or words to that effect. See where I’m going with this? It brings to mind the scenes in Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil with Rene from ‘Allo ‘Allo (Gordon Kaye) manning the desk of the Ministry of Information, confounding the enquiries of Jill (Kim Greist).

My least favourite has been going on for the past three months, but nearly caused us both to have nervous breakdowns yesterday through sheer exasperation.

Three months ago we ordered internet for our flat; while we wait, we’re relying on dongles. This isn’t great, as it’s expensive and the data is limited, hence we’ve not been able to enjoy such basics of modern life as BBC 6Music and Skyping family and friends, something we’d really like to be able to do at Christmas, per favore.

A couple of weeks, a guy from Telecom Italia – which still own the infrastructure, despite deregulation – came to check the line. The ironically named Fastweb, which we’d opted to order broadband through, had been suggesting that the hold-up was due to Telecom Italia, so this gave us hope.

After our umpteenth schlep to a Fastweb shop, and our umpteenth instance of the same absurd scenario where we asked for an update, and a sales assistant tapped away at their computer for 10 minutes, then said “OK, someone will call you to arrange an appointment” (rather than them actually arranging the appointment there and then; they can’t, apparently as it’s a different department), we finally got a call, and a time and date for one their technicians to come with our router. We thought, “Yay, we’re on the home straight.” We naively hoped this might mean line activation. We also, naively, hoped they might actually turn up on the appointed day. I can cope with an hour or two late, as long as they actually just arrive.

Fran had even arranged to work from home, so she was available to discuss the situation with the tecnico, as my Italian is too rubbish in the inevitable event of complicated explanations (like a plumber explaining to me why our bathroom radiator doesn’t work, but that’s another, tedious, story).

Now, sure it’s unprofessional and just plain rude for the tecnico to neither turn up or contact us to tell us why s/he couldn’t turn up, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. There had, for starters, been an enormous storm the night before, as Rome has a tendency to grind to a semi-halt after a bit of heavy rain.

And, to be fair to Italy, getting broadband, or indeed, any telecoms sorted in Britain isn’t ever straightforward either. Indeed, British telecommunications companies are notoriously bad at basic communications. BT can, for example spam you with gratuitous promotional junk mail, but try calling them, and you’d be lucky to get away with 15 minutes of expensive hold followed by a garbled conversation to someone in a call centre in India. But at least you could, in principle, call them.

Yesterday, as the late arrival looked more and more like a no-show, Fran tried to call Fastweb. Or as we call them, Slowweb, or Noweb. Ho ho. Grrr.

The problem was that the 192 192, or 193 193 or whatever number she’d been given didn’t work from her mobile with an Italian SIM, her mobile with a UK SIM, or my mobile with a UK SIM. So she called another number. And they gave her another, normal, number. Which didn’t work. So she called another number. And got another number. Which, even did give her some automated menu options but not the option she actually needed. Now, in such cases, you’d think that holding would give you a human, eventually. But oh no.

So basically we had another telecoms company where we couldn’t actually communicate with the department we needed to reach, and where the people we could reach couldn’t even connect us.

Maybe we could call them if we had a land line. But we need them to activate our land line first. My head hurts.


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Dislike a Virgin

Real internet continues to elude us in the capital city of Italy, so we’re surviving on a diet of dongles – including one whose software insisted on BSOD’ing my computer – and the tantalising whiff our neighbours’ WiFi networks.

All of which makes access to decent radio – ie 6Music and Radio 4, with perhaps a little Radio 2 – impossible. We can’t even get World Service here on a conventional radio.

The station that we’ve tuned to on our little non-digital number in the kitchen is Virgin. Let me just make it clear that this is the least bad station we can find. Which means it’s the station that plays the smallest amount of stupefyingly bad Italian pop/rock. It does play some though, and that’s mostly in the form of sub- and cod-Bryan Adams soft rock. Yes, apparently all Italian “rock” singers have to be gravelly voiced. I assume it’s in the constitution.

Those tracks, perhaps surprisingly, aren’t the worst Virgin has to offer though. The station also has a deeply irritating range of “spoken jingles” (I don’t know the technical term), performed by a gormless-sounding woman with a south of England accent. She intones things like “Style rock”, “Contemporary rock”, “Rock forever”. Even sometimes treating us to rolled Rs in “rock”. Oddly. Oh and yes, there’s a lot of English used, which is understandable when much of their fare is in English.

Another “jingle” samples someone saying “Let’s crank this motherfucker up.” Something that’s not ideal when my three-year-old nephew is around.

Now firstly I’d like to point out that while vintage panto heavy metal like AC/DC may qualify as “rock”, the oft-played Coldplay does not, by any stretch of the imagination. And why Coldplay may qualify as “contemporary”, I’m not sure that argument stretches to the adolescent poetry of The Doors (hey, I still like the music, but oh boy, those lyrics don’t scan so well as you age way beyond Morrison’s age).

More worryingly though, the station seems happy to excavate a disgusting seam of misogyny exemplified by a couple of songs currently in their (limited) playlist. One culprit is by far and away also the worst song they’re playing: “We’re all gonna die” by Slash. And Iggy Pop. I’m having to restrain myself from using lots of exclamation marks here. Iggy Pop!! I’m ashamed to say I maligned the entire Italian nation when I initially thought this had to be an Italian song. It’s jaw-droppingly moronic, tuneless, and lyrically odious. Did Iggy really co-write that? Is he singing? Is he doing it for a joke?

The other current culprit – and I’m having to Google this to find out who it is – is “The bitch came back” by Canadian bank Theory of a Deadman. Who I’d never heard of before this moment. This band may have done some other good songs; I don’t dislike their audio style per se, but the lyrics of this song are way out of order, or at least are way out of order for being played outside the confines of a some dumb male teenager’s bedroom. Sure, maybe it’s a comedy record, but it’s just plain nasty. Mr Branson, I think you need some higher ethical standards in this regard.

Anyway, you wonder why we turn the radio on at all. Well, because I like to have music while I cook, and because it’s not all bad. They do play plenty of music that I can tolerate, and sometimes even music I actually like. In no particular order these include: Depeche Mode, The Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, Queen, Led Zep, Foo Fighters, Neil Young, Kasabian, Pink Floyd, Noel Gallagher, Travis, Jane’s Addiction, Vaccines etc.

Oh, and you too can enjoy those gormless verbal jingles here.

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The discomfort of strangers

On three separate occasions yesterday, random Italians talked to me in the street. Yikes!

Firstly, I’m baffled by this as I doubt I pass for Italian. I may be slightly more moro (dark, of skin and hair) than the average Caucasian Brit, but surely my style and manner is foreign. When we were talking about national stereotypes in a class, the things that came up for English and British* were: sciatti e sporchi (scruffy and dirty) and i denti brutti (you know, like Austin Powers)!

Secondly, though, these situations always catch me by surprise. Walking around I’m often mulling things over in Italian in my head, playing out conversational scenarios or whatever. Which, counter intuitively, means I really struggle when someone actually talks to me in real Italian. In the real world.

On the first occasion, I was going down some ridiculous steps near where we live (the top part is all made from slightly wobbly scaffolding, and would seem to be temporary were it not for the fact that it’s so weathered and there’s such a massive build-up of trash below. The bottom part is a huge, grand bit of 19th century construction. Go figure.). I was asked directions, and managed to fumble a reply in semi-Italian. Afterwards I was annoyed with myself for not getting my agreements right – I said l’altro scale, when it probably, maybe should have been le altre scale (the other steps). Ooops.

On the second occasion, I was taking a picture of this poster. (Note the apposite advert below.)

I believe it’s saying the junta of Renata Polverini (pres of Lazio) are using Villa Adriana, aka Hadrian’s Villa, in Tivoli, as a dump, or planning to. But don’t quote me on that. I tried to ask my teacher to explain, but I couldn’t quite follow her reply. This is the story I think, if you can actually read Italian. Anyway, some smart-looking chap started ranting and doing the classic hand gesture as he walked past me. I couldn’t tell if he was saying it was bullshit or it was a disgrace. Gah.

On the third occasion, I was musing while I walked through the artisan backstreets near Campo di Fiori and another chap said something to me. Given the context, he was either asking the time, asking for a light, or propositioning me. Annoyingly, in this case, I knew the words, almost, but just misheard. It sounded like avere scendere – “to have” “to descend”. Of course he was saying avere accendere or some variation thereof, with accendere being the verb “to light”. Which I only really grasped last thing at night when I quizzed Fran. D’oh!

Still, one and a quarter-ish out of three ain’t so bad.


* Many Italians appear to use the two interchangeably, which annoys me no end, and is certainly deeply offensive to the Welsh and Scots, but that’s another story.


Filed under Main thread, Rome

Il tempo brutto

After having a bit of a rant about politics and economics yesterday, I thought it’d be good to get back on safer ground today, with that perennially popular topic for us Brits: the weather. And, specifically, horrendous weather – il tempo brutto.

Before arriving in Rome, we’d heard that the city occasionally experiences massive storms, but it’s been hard to conceive of even so much as a heavy rain shower here as most of the past 6 weeks have been clear and sunny, and only slowly dropping from utterly scorchio through much of September to temperate now, with many days featuring my favourite kind of weather – cool, verging on the crisp, in the morning, warm, verging on hot later on. (Weather that always reminds me of my favourite part of the world – Golden Bay and environs in New Zealand’s South Island.)

Anyway, today was different. We woke to the sound of the rain rattling on our exterior metal shutters, and frequent claps of thunder (tuono). It was just past dawn, but the sky was still dark as night, lit only by flashes of lightning (lampo or fulmine). My wife was freaked by the prospect of getting to work, but not because of a soaking during the 10-minute walk to the station, but because of the lampi, being one of those types who believe she is destined to be struck, every time there’s a storm.

Me, I was more worried about the soaking, and with good cause. Despite a raincoat, a brolly and Gore-Tex-lined shoes, my 25 minute walk to language class left me decidedly soggy. It was pretty exciting though. We live up on a hill, Monteverde, and there are a lot of stairways. Usually benign, sun-dappled steps transformed into raging cataracts were an impressive sight.

As Rome is generally dry, presumably it’s not a priority to keep the drains clear. They’re all doubtless rammed with spazzatura (rubbish), mozzicone di sigarette, merda di cane, polvere (dust; one of those great words with a built-in mnemonic – ie pulverised), e cose. Oh, and lots of leaves, as it’s autumn. Ergo, my normal walk involved dodging torrents and wading through various temporary lakes. A Gore-Tex shoe lining ain’t much good when the water comes over the top.

The Tiber, meanwhile, was threatening to flood the cycle track and path alongside it when I went over Ponte Sisto at 8.40am ish. When I came back after midday, lo and behold the tracks had disappeared in the brown swirling murk. It’s no surprise that after Rome became the capital of the new republic in 1870, the powers that be were keen to sort it out this soggy beast, then without embankments, properly. Apparently it used to flood so badly, via del Corso – the equivalent of say London’s Oxford Street – hosted a sailing race in 1878*.

The flood waters in the streets have subsided fairly quickly, but it’s interesting to experience this kind of weather. It rains a lot in Britain, certainly, but historically – at least in my lifetime – it was always more a case of lots of middlingly-heavy rain, endless days of grey and drizzle. So us Brits are arguably less used to this kind of tempesta. That said, the past few years in England we’ve been increasingly experiencing massive, tropical-style storms, where unusually large levels of rain fall in a short period (Thank you climate change.) So you’d think I’d have worked out the best way to handle such weather. Nope. I didn’t even bring my Wellies to Rome. They would have been perfect this morning.

* See Whispering City: Rome and its Histories, RJB Bosworth (Yale University Press, 2011), p114.

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“Merry Crisis”

Found myself in an interesting position the other day (ok, Saturday 15 October 2011), as I went from tour guide to demonstrator by way of the liminal act of slipping through a police cordon.

Some friends were visiting from England, and I plotted out a circular walk to show them Rome, including some of the tourist faves. The only thing they adamantly wanted to see was the Colosseum. I was keen to revisit the old brute too, having recently re-watched Gladiator, for a digital taste of ancient Rome in its prime. So after a grand giro that took in the Janiculum, St Peters, some quality pizza in a slightly ratty place in the Prati, Piazza del Popolo, Villa Borghese, Spanish Steps and the Trevi (is it ever not utter carnage there?), we headed for the Colosseum.

I was unaware of the global day of demonstrations. In my defence, we’ve not got real internet, my Italian is still too poor to read an Italian daily, and I generally only read the Guardian Weekly, a superb digest of quality news stories but not exact current. I took a backstreet route, keen to avoid the traffic on via dei Fori Imperiali, and suddenly found myself faced with a crowd and a line of cops, young guys looking all bad-ass with their belts and guns and sunglasses and hair product. Still oblivious, we waited our turn to squeeze through a between van and ancient ruins, and found the via dei Fori Imperiali not full of stinky vehicles, but instead full of people – demonstrators.

Italy, like the US but less like the UK, is a place of vocal political extremes. I’m sure there is centrism, but it doesn’t make its presence felt very clearly. This march seemed full of red flags with that strikingly anachronistic symbol, the hammer and sickle, amongst others.

The protest, like those in 81 other cities around the world (I found out later) was vocalising despair at the economic collapse, which some are now suggesting is worse than the 1930s Great Depression. I may be getting on a bit, but I’ve no memories of that particular crisis. Instead, I’m living through this one – and all too painfully aware that we, the ordinary people, are dealing with the fallout of things going wrong in that odious alliance between the finance industry and the super-haves. Pretty much everyone else is a have-not, but it’s the super-haves that run the place, via corporate power and the giant casino that seems to form the heart of the global economy.

That absurd casino is particular tangible in countries like Iceland – oops – and the UK, where we’ve abdicated and abnegated most of our other, real industry. Well, guess what, gambling is no replacement for heavy industry or manufacturing or viable agriculture – you know, processes that actually produce useful, tangible stuff. that, you know, could provide products to a local market. I think that’s what the widespread and somewhat amorphous protests are actually about – it’s not about right or left, political concepts that feel outmoded and profoundly unhelpful in the face of the economic and environmental crises of our era. It’s about, frankly, getting real. About controlling the gamblers and instead regenerating industry, particularly at a local level. Unfortunately, humanity largely tends to follow a pattern of the rich ruling for the rich (read rich old white men; cf this article), and the rest be damned. More idealistic notions such as Marxism led to the monstrosity of Stalinism and the epic failed experiment that was the USSR. What replaced that? More overt kleptocratic gangsterism, much like that in the US, or here in Italy, or even in the UK, where it’s obfuscated slightly by the arrogantly polite veneer of decency projected by our ruling class of old Etonians who have no concept that there’s a real world beyond the superannuated Oxbridge debating society atmosphere of Westminster.

Anyway, so although I feel many of the same complaints as many of these demonstrators, we weren’t quite prepared to fully participate, particularly not when the truck with the giant sound-system rolled down the road, pounding bassy hip-hop and followed by a horde of the kind of punching-the-air, black-clad, hooded youths that have accompanied so many newspaper headlines recently. We retreated, found the entire road blocked by police and carabinieri vehicles, and not a single official steward type to advise the many bewildered-looking tourists. Squeezing back through our entry point, a black column of smoke filled the sky above the Colosseum, and the water-cannon trucks screamed past us. It was certainly a very different vision of crowds at the Colosseum to those watching Maximus scrap, and justifiably slaw, nasty emperor Commodus. A means of changing society that’s nice and immediate, but not really a viable option.

(Oh, and Rome is already the most graffitied city I’ve visited, but the new slogans sprouted like fungus on this particular weekend. My favourite? “Merry Crisis”.

“Oh, #2”, it’s interesting to see the mask worn the terrorist/freedom fighter, hero/antihero of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s ‘V For Vendetta’ [and its middling film adaptation] appearing at these events. That’s a tangled semiotic web if ever there was one.

“Oh #3” – I snapped the three posters today; I like that socialist realist aesthetic, and fair enough to encourage people to “buy Italian”. See the above link to the Guardian Blog for a comment on that state of affairs.)

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Dem bones

Exploring Rome, I’ve visited various marvellous churches, from the absurdly ornate Chiese Nuove, to the fascinating San Clemente, with its three tiers of history. The most unusual church visit so far was, however, to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

This church – one of innumerable Santa Marias in the city –  dates from the 1620s, and was built on the orders of Pope Urban VIII. Mr Urban’s bro was a member of the Capuchin order (you know, the people who invented the cappuccino. Not really. It’s named after their garb). This brother, Antonio Marcello Barberini – a member of one of Italy’s major aristocratic families – had the perfectly sane notion to exhume the bones of thousands of dead Capuchins and arrange their bones in the church’s crypt.

I know the memento mori – “remember your mortality” – is historically a perennial piece of artistic iconography, but this really does seem extreme. Apparently, they order simply got into the habit (ahem) of putting their own dead there, along with the bones of various other Romans – including children. Fresh corpses were buried without a coffin for 30 years, then exhumed to be used in the decorations. The soil itself was – get this – imported from Jerusalem. This grand art project religious undertaking only ceased in the late 19th century.

The whole thing is deeply, deeply macabre, and totally at odds with the kind of largely wholesome New Testement Christianity I grew up with. Indeed, even I, an avid consumer of humanity’s more grim cultural output in the form of horror films and whatnot, felt somewhat queasy in the presence of all those bones artfully arranged into patterns and, in the final chapel, a diminutive, bony Grim Reaper, who hangs above you.

The lanterns of bones, mere millimetres above my head as I walked down the corridor, brought to mind Ed Gein’s human skin lampshades, while the skeletons of monks dressed in their habits resembled the antagonists of Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” cult series of zombie films.

The cheery message is “Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete.” (“What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.”). Which is fair enough. But seriously, it’s the weirdest expression of Catholicism I’ve ever seen, topping even the demi-Mayan hybrid activities of San Juan Chamula in Mexico.

My wife Fran said the presence of so many bones reminded her of the bone-filled memorial stupa of the Choeung-Ek Killing Field in Cambodia. Most of us, in the course of a modern, Western lifetime, simply don’t come this close to so many human remains. I can understand the function and power of Choeung-Ek, but I’m baffled by the practises of Santa Maria della Concezione. At least catacomb ossuaries, generally, just stack up the bones, and don’t play with them so ardently. As momento mori go, it’s raw, over-to-top and frankly somewhat pagan.

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“Death on the highway”

72,000 people were killed on Italy’s roads during the 1990s. 72,000. More than were killed in the Vietnam war, according to Tobias Jones.

Yes, I’ve finally got round to reading The Dark Heart of Italy. It was recommended to me after it was first published in 2003, but without any tangible connection with Italy, I didn’t bother. Now I’m living here, it makes sense to read it. And a thoroughly engaging read it is too, though the user-critics on Amazon make some interesting , albeit arguably misguided, points about its credentials. Jones lived in Italy for four years, with an Italian girlfriend, and presumably wrote the book as he went along, as he learned Italian. The Amazon critics abuse him for getting things wrong. But it’s not written as the ultimate fact-based portrait of Italy (c2001-2002), but more like a series of observational opinion pieces, many published previously as magazine stories. Indeed, they’re not unlike blog entries, in many ways.

Writing a blog, or doing any kind of online publishing, there’s a strong sense that you should really be re-visiting each piece, and revising it as you learn more, as your ignorance or understanding shifts (something that’s harder to do with print media).

So for example, when I wrote this about Rome’s traffic, it was early September and I’d only been living in the city for a few weeks. I was naive and ignorant (I still am of course). In early September, a lot of Rome’s residents were still on holiday, avoiding the summer heat. When they came back, the number of SUV-type vehicles on the roads increased markedly. So that’s one comment from that earlier blog piece that’s inaccurate.

(As an aside – seriously, what the hell are these people thinking? Fossil fuels are a tangible and ongoing environmental catastrophe, oil itself is getting increasingly pricey, AND Rome is a city with a core of old neighbourhoods with tiny streets. Status symbolism really is so much more important than common sense to our moronic species.)

Another comment from that earlier blog that’s inaccurate is about cycling in Rome. I do see a certain amount of cyclists in Rome now. I even see people using the cycle track along the Tiber. Presumably, again, people who’ve come back from their holidays. I even sometimes see people wearing helmets, though not often. Though the cycling population is still tiny compared to that of London. In London, a dedicated riverside cycle track would be chocka.

Anyway, the point is that essays, blog entries, or even books like The Dark Heart of Italy aren’t about facts, they’re about opinions, and a certain amount of ignorance goes along with that.  Opinions are an essential part of writing, they’re dynamic, lively. There’s a clear difference between a news story and an opinion piece, but unfortunately in an era of immediate, easy reactions to anything that’s published, many people forget or ignore the distinction and are all too ready to troll.

That said, I wish Jones’ book that included a note giving the source for the “72,000” killed figure.

So anyway, I’m going to publish this now. In a week I might disagree with myself, but I doubt I’ll re-write this completely at any point.

(Oh, and quick quiz – name that tune.)





Filed under Rome


Been noticing the last few days how my road-crossing technique is changing. When I first arrived in Rome, like many stranieri (foreigners – forgive the random Italian words, it helps me learn them), I perched on the pavement, terrified. Now however I’m learning the technique. Some people say you should catch the driver’s eye, but this is nonsense – it’s a sunny country, so the windscreen will be reflecting, and you’ll likely be wearing shades. So instead, just gaze intently at the driver’s location – itself a slightly tricky proposition when in your home country drivers sit on the other side of the vehicle. Make your presence felt, stride out meaningfully.

I’m becoming so used to this technique that I worry when I return to the UK, I’ll absent-mindedly try it with British drivers and get splatted.

On a more serious note – people do of course get killed by traffic frequently, even with the seemingly casual way pedestrials face up to the insane traffic in Rome. Some people even do their bit to encourage more sensible driving. I walk past this graffito most days:

(Avert your eyes if you don’t like sweary swearwords, as it essentially says “Be aware of pedestrians / Dickheads / Slow the fuck down”. Just down the road is a banner that says “Caio Cesare” – I doubt it’s saying bye to a friend who was moving overseas.)

Anyway, the point is that, although my personality will never in a million years become even remotely Roman, I am adapting to the environment. I could say I’m becoming more blasé, but the use of a French word seems inappropriate. I can’t, however, use the equivalent Italian word as there doesn’t seem to be one. Our massive dictionary suggests indifferente or scettico, but they would seem to mean indifferent and sceptical. There’s sangue freddo – which our little dictionary translate as coolness – but that’s not quite right either. The seemingly casual approach to various – but absolutely not all – elements of life is so much a part of the Roman character that maybe there’s just no need for a word. (By the way, I hesitate to say “Italian character”, as a) I’m only intimately experiencing Rome at the moment and b) Italy is a notoriously varied place, of very strong regional identities.)

While walking home from language classes today, I passed through the Campo de’ Fiori, home to the bustling market and the marvellous, belligerently placed statue of Giordano Bruno. At the south end the market, various touts were selling tat – fake designer bags and sunglasses. Suddenly, they all started scattering, grabbing their ware and running towards the river, as various sturdy looking plain clothes polizi arrived. Presumably the touts didn’t have licenses of whatever. The point is, I was right in the middle of this debacle, and it didn’t even occur to me to be all English, step out of the way, stop, stare and say “heavens above!” I just kept on strolling.

The final minor incident of this type occurred as I continued to andare a piedi, through Trastevere. Up one of the many impossibly cute, if grubby and graffitied, cobbled streets, I spotted a group of four men up ahead, one intently moving a table around in the street (more of an alley, or vicolo perhaps). I strolled through this strange group too, only noticing as I passed the ridiculous cheekbones of the best-dressed of the group, the camera wielded by another and the huge pile of stuff marked “Giorgio Amani”. Some kind of fashion shoot thing. Whatever. And on I went.



Filed under Rome