Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Venice in January

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I love Venice. I’ve always dreamed of visiting in the low season, when it’s cold and foggy and there’s a fraction of the usual crowds. 2020 got off to a good start – three dreamlike days (and two atmospheric nights) exploring the city on my own.

I’ve been to Venice six times. A summer family holiday as a child, where we all had such a good time that we went back in the spring a few years later. When I was 17 I was so keen to return and to have my first grown-up holiday (without parents) that I got a part-time job stacking shelves at Waitrose to save up for the holiday; I went with one of my best friends the summer after we finished school. Then again with another friend in 2014, to experience Carnevale for the first time. My first solo trip in 2015 – a couple of nights en route to Trieste and Slovenia. And then another solo trip on 2 January this year, booked impulsively just because I wanted to. I had the time and the money, and it had been too long since my last visit, so why not? Reading about the floods and the hotel cancellations were added incentives. If everyone else was cancelling their bookings, it was the perfect time to visit, making my own small contribution to the economy, while avoiding peak tourist season.

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Venice in January was both more crowded and colder than I expected. The crowds near the Rialto and Piazza San Marco are a permanent fixture, unfortunately, although there were plenty of quiet streets in Cannaregio and the backstreets of Santa Croce. I also spent a very relaxing day on Giudecca, perhaps the least touristy part of Venice. As for the cold…my advice for anyone visiting Venice in winter for the first time is not to get misled by degrees. 5-10 degrees doesn’t sound that cold, but in Venice it’s really cold. A damp cold that gets into your bones. I was baffled to see some tourists in shorts, and a girl take off her coat to pose for photos in just a t-shirt on the terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

If I could afford it, I would visit Venice several times a year. Every season is beautiful in its way. But Venice is expensive, and I’m always aware that a trip to Venice means missing out on a trip to somewhere new. One consolation is the novel I wrote. When I was 22 I finished writing Hyacinth I, which unfortunately had no luck with literary agents. It’s the story of Hyacinth, the king of a fictional European country, who fakes his death and goes to live in peaceful, luxurious anonymity in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, until his world is turned upside down by an encounter with a woman who recognises him. Writing Hyacinth was the next best thing to actually living in Venice for a year.

The next morning, drowsy and disorientated, he found himself in a new world. Walking down the station steps, the blast of heat was like nothing he’d ever known. He walked without thinking, drawn into the maze of streets and canals where he would be lost for the rest of the day. It was like a picture in a book he’d read as a child, a kingdom by the sea in dreamy watercolour, filling the entire page. Only this was a kingdom in the sea, rising up out of the water. Crumbling buildings the colour of sunsets, of cakes, of death. He couldn’t decide what they most reminded him of, and so he gave up trying to make comparisons. Some buildings looked so old that he could imagine them collapsing and being reclaimed by the ocean. It was only an act of magic, or some optical illusion, that held the city together at all.

He was lost from the second he left the station. Ordinarily he would have been terrified, but he could not be afraid in the presence of so much beauty. The sun burnt him and the streets exhausted him, but he walked on and on, driven by a nameless compulsion. He reasoned that it didn’t matter where he went, because it was impossible to leave an island without knowing it. From now on, he would always be in Venice. Somewhere beyond this impenetrable labyrinth of walls was the open ocean. Hyacinth, who had never seen the sea, felt almost sick with excitement.

On my most recent trip to Venice I was happy to discover a street named Calle Giacinto Gallina (Giacinto is Hyacinth in Italian). Then I found Calle Santa Lunga Caterina (Caterina is one of the main characters in my work-in-progress). Shortly afterwards I eavesdropped on a conversation between a mother and her daughter, Caroline (the name of one of In Exiles main characters). Not a remarkable coincidence for anyone else, but it was nice – a symbol of what Venice and Italy have meant to me as a writer.

There was another good omen of sorts as I walked back to the hostel one night. Dark, cold, foggy, hardly anyone in the streets. On a backstreet I came across a group of Venetian men walking towards me, talking in dialect. The dim street lighting in Venice means that at night, you often only have a vague idea of the people walking past you. One of the shadowy figures turned to me, quite unexpectedly, and said “Buon anno signora.

Buon anno indeed. May the next year (and decade) be full of travel and inspiration!

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Tips for visiting Venice

  • Visit in low season (November-January). Unfortunately, with 30 million visitors every year, Venice is busy all year round, but it’s easier to get away from the crowds in low season. January is probably the quietest month. Visiting during Carnevale (February) is fun, but the city’s extremely crowded.
  • Stay overnight. There are so many reasons to stay overnight rather than doing a day trip. For a start, you can’t possibly do justice to Venice in a single day. Then there’s the atmosphere – Venice is at its best early in the morning and after dark, without the hordes of day trippers and cruise passengers. By booking a hotel room you’re supporting the local economy. And if that’s not enough to convince you, there’s the introduction of the tourist tax for day visitors.
  • Choose your accommodation carefully. Locals are unhappy about the number of “b&b abusive” – illegal B&Bs that don’t pay tax and occupy apartments that could otherwise be used as housing for locals. And while I’m a regular Airbnb user, I’d be wary of booking an Airbnb in Venice. I think the most ethical thing to do is stay in a hotel or hostel on the main island. My family loved Hotel San Cassiano and I was happy with my recent stay at Ostello Santa Fosca. Staying in Mestre (on the mainland) is another option if you want to save money, but personally I prefer being able to enjoy central Venice early in the morning and after dark, which is harder to do if you’re based in Mestre.

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  •  To escape the crowds, walk away from tourist attractions. This may sound obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out, considering the enormous difference between the streets near Piazza San Marco and the backstreets of Cannaregio. If you’re getting sick of crowds and you see a yellow sign for the Rialto, for example, walk in the opposite direction. The tourists who complain about Venice are probably the ones who never managed to escape from the tourist scrum around Piazza San Marco. But it’s really easy to get away the crowds, just by walking in streets where there are no major tourist attractions. Also, if you have a choice between two streets, choose the one that fewer people (or no people) are choosing. It may lead to a dead end – so many streets in Venice are dead ends – but it may also lead to a peaceful piazza or a quieter, more residential area.

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  • Visit Giudecca. On a related note, Giudecca is ideal for getting away from crowds and enjoying a more peaceful side of Venice. Giudecca is an island to the south of central Venice, so it’s only accessible by vaporetto or water taxi. The absence of major tourist attractions means that the majority of visitors don’t bother going. I did see tourists when I spent a day on Giudecca, but refreshingly they were outnumbered by locals. More people speaking with a Venetian accent than speaking in English! Also, while not exactly a must-see, it’s interesting to visit Sacca Fisola (an artificial island to the west of Giudecca, connected by a bridge). This residential neighbourhood is completely different to the rest of Venice – airy and green with modern architecture.

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  • You don’t have to go on a gondola. I’ve visited Venice six times and don’t feel like I’ve missed out by not going on a gondola. The vaporetto is cheaper (and the journey lasts longer and if you do the whole route), and the water taxi is more fun – one of my best memories from a family holiday was whizzing across the lagoon in a speedboat. The advantage of a gondola ride is that you get to go down the smaller canals, but at €80 for 30 minutes…I would only go on a gondola if I really felt like splurging – some special occasion like a honeymoon, for example – or if I could split the cost with several other people. If a couple shares a gondola with two other couples, it’s just over €25 per couple. Not so bad.
  • Be a respectful tourist. Don’t make coffee in the street, or take your exotic bird for a walk. Just try to be as polite and unobtrusive as possible, keeping in mind that Venetians are really, really sick of mass tourism. Yes, their economy depends on tourism, but that doesn’t mean locals should have to put up with rude behaviour.
  • Get tips on where to eat. Eating well in Venice is tough. There are lots of tourist traps, and lots of restaurants that are just so-so. This probably sounds snobby, but you can’t even trust a high average on Tripadvisor or Google, because a lot of ratings are probably from tourists who don’t know the difference between ok Italian food and good Italian food. As a general rule, I’d avoid eating in restaurants located too close to tourist attractions, or eating pizza. Venice is not famous for pizza. On my latest trip I got some recommendations and ate well – paccheri with shrimp, tomatoes and courgette at Casa Bonita (Cannaregio), baccalà and polenta and bigoli alla salsa at Trattoria Casa Mia (Cannaregio), spaghettia al nero di seppia at Osteria Nono Risorto (Santa Croce), and baccalà and polenta at Osteria Al Pontil (Giudecca).


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  • Indulge in cicchetti at every possible opportunity. Cicchetti are snacks served in traditional Venetian bars, usually accompanied by an Aperol spritz, glass of wine, or another alcoholic drink. My favourite is the baccalà mantecato (bread with a creamed cod spread), but there all kinds of varieties. There are few things in life more enjoyable than sipping a glass of white wine and nibbling on cicchetti, watching the world go by from the side of the canal. There are cicchetti bars all over Venice – just look for signs in the window that say “cicchetti” – but I can recommend a few I went to: Vino Vero, Paradiso Perduto and Santo Bevitore, all within a 5 minute distance of each other in Cannaregio. I have mixed feelings about the fact that Santo Bevitore doesn’t serve wine (only beer and gin), but it’s a cosy little bar and both the G&T and the cicchetti were excellent, so…

For more recommendations, check out Spotted By Locals Venice. And finally, if you want to understand the problems faced by residents, here’s an article from the Guardian today.

 

Dark Naples

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There are many reasons why I love Naples – the chaos; the energy; the sea; the people. The pizza, obviously. I also love the dark side of Naples, which appeals to a certain darkness in myself.

It’s not that I’m dark or depressed in any way. But my tastes, interests and creative inspiration have always had a macabre streak. My grandmother was shocked when she read my novel, In Exile, with its scenes of bacchic violence. “But I’d always thought of Alex as such a cheerful person!” I am a cheerful person. I just happen to be a cheerful person who enjoys reading about true crime, listening to Bauhaus, visiting cemeteries, and writing about suicidal gods and Purgatory. I’m an optimist who looks on the dark side of life.

One of the myriad reasons why I adore Naples is that the city also seems to have a split personality. It’s beautifully, intensely alive – streets like Via dei Tribunali are pulsating with energy – but it’s also obsessed with death. Seemingly every street has its memorial stuffed with photos of the dead, or a dusty shrine dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. Naples is an extremely Catholic city, which partly explains the obsession with death and the afterlife. Then there’s the fact that Naples has been scarred by mass deaths – the plague in the 17th century that wiped out half of the city’s population, the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians during the Second World War. And then there’s the fact that for years, the dead were buried a little too close for comfort. During the 17th century there was a great flood that washed the bodies out of the Fontanelle Cemetery; horrified locals watched as corpses floated down the street.

On a trip to Naples earlier this month I explored a couple of “dark” attractions. You don’t have to be morbid to appreciate them, but it helps.

Catacombs of San Gennaro

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If you’re into underground death stuff, there’s so much to see in Naples – a city beneath a city. I haven’t ventured underground that much on my jaunts to Naples because I keep myself busy overground. I’m addicted to Neapolitan streets, and exploring all the neighbourhoods non-Neapolitans tell you to avoid, like the Quartieri Spagnoli, Montesanto, Forcella, Materdei, La Sanità. Then I have to do Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali at least twice each. Not to mention the Lungomare. So normally I don’t have time to go underground.

But this time, it was time. I visited the Catacombs of San Gennaro, located north of the city centre towards Capodimonte. These vast paleochristian catacombs no longer have any bodies (you’ll have to visit Fonantelle if you want to see skeletons), but they’re fascinating to explore. There are guided tours in English and Italian that last about an hour, and the guides are great – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and impressively patient with groups of over-excitable small children. They’re locals who are passionate about the catacombs and the role they play in the regeneration of the neighbourhood. From death to rebirth…very Naples.

I did the tour in Italian with Flora, who led us deep into the catacombs, then out into the Sanità neighbourhood (via a church, a frescoed courtyard and a hospital – not the way you expect to exit catacombs). The tour is a journey through the history through the city, from the burials of the earliest residents of Naples and their patron saint, San Gennaro, to the removal of the bodies, the transformation of certain areas into underground churches, and eventually the role of the catacombs as a tourist attraction and a path to a better life for some of the locals. Sanità is a challenging place to live, with high levels of crime and unemployment. The success of the catacombs as a tourist attraction has turned volunteers into paid employees, led to the opening of the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, and encouraged tourists to spend time and money in a neighbourhoood they would never have visited otherwise.

Hermann Nitsch Museum

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This museum was one of many discoveries I’ve made thanks to Secret Naples. The Museo Hermann Nitsch is owned by Giuseppe Morra, a modern art enthusiast who collects works by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. If you’re unfamiliar with Nitsch and his gory performance art, here’s an interview with Vice (warning: graphic images) and a Guardian article. He’s fascinated with blood and the human instinct for violence. I read an article in Italian where he explains his philosophy, and it’s remarkably similar to what Dionysus says in my novel. So much so that I’m almost tempted to send him a copy of the book.

Nitsch:

“È solo passando attraverso i più bassi istinti dell’uomo che può avvenire la catarsi. Quando squartiamo un animale, sentiamo le sue viscere calde, beviamo il suo sangue, ritorniamo in contatto con qualcosa di primitivo che ci appartiene. È in questi momenti che esce fuori la nostra natura, che non è né buona né cattiva, è semplicemente il nostro istinto. Può essere anche violento, ma la violenza fa parte del mondo ed è meglio esorcizzarla in un rito collettivo che reprimerla. Viviamo in una forma di depressione latente, siamo anestetizzati. Le mie Azioni sono un modo per avvicinare la vita alla morte ed è da questa esperienza che usciamo più forti. Ecco perché la gente che partecipa mi ringrazia.”

A rough translation:

“Only by exploring our baser instincts can we attain catharsis. When we slice up an animal, feel its warm guts, drink its blood, we return to that primitive part of ourselves. It’s in these moments that our true nature emerges – neither good nor bad, but simply instinct. It might be violent, but violence is part of the world, and it’s better to exorcise it in a collective ritual than to repress it. We live with a kind of latent depression; we’re numb. My art is a way to come closer to death. After this experience, we’re stronger than before. That’s why the people who take part thank me.”

The Museo Hermann Nitsch occasionally has displays of work by other contemporary artists, but it’s mainly all about Nitsch. The museum is housed in an old power station high up in the Montesanto neighbourhood, with spectacular views across the city, the sea and Vesuvius. Even if you’re not interested in entering the museum, I’d recommend going for the view.

I have to admit, I very nearly didn’t enter the museum. I strolled along the terrace, took some pictures, and then contemplated continuing on my way. I wasn’t feeling that well, and I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for photos and videos of performance art involving animal entrails.

My visit to the museum was thought-provoking and nausea-inducing almost in equal measure. I had the whole museum to myself. Unsurprisingly, most visitors to Naples would prefer to see the Michelangelo-rivalling “Veiled Christ” at Cappella San Severo rather than canvases smeared in blood.

The paintings (some of which you can see here) didn’t do much for me. What can I say, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to paintings. Gore isn’t a problem. I like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith. But I need more detail, more technique – more to look at, to study. Nothing personal, Nitsch. It’s an issue I have with most late 20th century/21st century paintings…personal taste.

Nitsch’s themes do interest me, though. Religion; ritual; violence; sacrifice. I spent most of the time in the museum looking at the photos and videos of Nitsch’s performance art, including a recent one in Naples. Some naked volunteers are blindfolded, “crucified” and carried through the streets of the city. In a courtyard, volunteers dressed in white throw pig’s blood over the naked bodies, or arrange bunches of grapes, animal carcasses or octopuses. It’s meant to shock, and it does. The presence of the artist himself makes it even more surreal. He sits in the corner, dressed in black. He’s portly, elderly, with a big white beard. Imagine a goth Father Christmas directing a bacchanal.

“That’s me,” said a member of staff. We were the only people in the museum, and he sometimes joined me as I wandered through the rooms, explaining the art and telling me more about Nitsch. Now he was pointing at a figure in one of the photos – there he was, dressed in white, splattered with blood. “You can’t imagine the smell.”

He also told me that in the 70s, Nitsch had been arrested in Naples. “What for?” I asked. “Animal cruelty?” “No, blasphemy.” Very Naples, I thought.

Afterwards he told me to take the lift up to the rooftop. “The roof terrace was designed by Nitsch.” As there was nothing on the roof apart from some plants, I imagine that’s what he was referring to. I guess Nitsch likes giving orders: “Throw the blood over the naked blindfolded woman.” “The begonias a little more to the left.”

But once you’ve looked at the paintings and looked away from the video of the cow’s carcass, do go up to the roof.

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From the darkness to the light. I always think of something another tour guide said to me, on another trip to Naples, years ago. The Chiesa di Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali. Another private tour, because I was the only visitor. “Naples is Purgatory”, she said, and in that moment the idea for the novel was born. I’m still only halfway through writing it, but hopefully one day, The Living Cult will also come out into the light…

Spotted By Locals

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I’m now writing articles for Spotted By Locals – a travel website/app featuring short articles written by locals, highlighting underrated or less touristy attractions.

My first 15 articles about Rome have been published (more to come). I’ve really enjoyed writing and researching them, and revisiting some old favourites, such as the pasticceria in the Jewish Ghetto, where everything looks burnt and not particularly appetising, yet tastes delicious, or the atmospheric aqueduct neighbourhood along the Casilina Vecchia.

I also recommend checking out the Rome recommendations by other writers, and the guides to 77 other cities all over the world. It’s really refreshing to discover places that haven’t been overrun by tourists. (RIP Aventine keyhole)

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Baltimore, Washington DC, NYC

Welcome to my mammoth post on my recent 11 day trip to the US. I didn’t mean to write so much, but this is the result of abandoning my travel journal halfway through the trip. I found occasional moments to write, in the coffee shop in Baltimore and on the train from Washington DC to NYC, but for the most part I didn’t have the time or energy to keep it up. I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t have some kind of exhaustive record of my trip, so this it it. AMERICA. (NB: this song has nothing to do with America)

Baltimore

Apparently no one would visit Baltimore out of pure touristic curiosity – everyone who asked me “Why are you going to Baltimore?” seemed reassured by the explanation that I was visiting friends. I wanted to visit Ryan (who was also an English teacher in Rome, before he returned to the US) and Christian (an Oxford friend who’s now at John Hopkins). Whether I liked the city or not was kind of beside the point. I’d seen a few episodes of The Wire and was aware of the nickname “Bodymore”, which was slightly off-putting, but as long as I planned my trip carefully and avoided dangerous areas, I’d be okay.

Baltimore surprised me. I guess Americans see it differently, but if you’re a European who generally enjoys exploring cities, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. Just as Americans get excited by cities like Paris and Rome and how ~*~European~*~ they are , I got excited by Baltimore and how AMERICAN! it is. Baltimore was the second place I’d ever visited in the US, after NYC, and NYC doesn’t really count because it’s like London in the UK – not really representative of the rest of the country, but rather a cosmopolitan hodgepodge.

I’ll try to stop comparing Baltimore to other cities and just focus on Baltimore. Baltimore. Where to begin? My concern about dangerous neighbourhoods meant that I did my research well, and thanks to some advice from Christian I ended up in one of the nicest Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. Panoramic attic with view of the harbour, on the lovely Aliceanna Street, which goes right through the heart of Fell’s Point (generally regarded as one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods in Baltimore). I loved exploring the area, and even just the street. So many great places, from the Indian restaurant Darbar (where I went for dinner, jetlagged yet buzzing, on my first night) to the hipster independent coffee shop Latte’da (which I thankfully found before I reached a Starbucks) to the restaurant Lobo (where I had baked oysters and crab soup, a Maryland speciality).

I loved the aquarium. I balked slightly at the $40 admission fee, but it was totally worth it. So what if I was the only adult unaccompanied by children? (Why don’t adults go to zoos or aquariums?) I spent three hours there but I have easily spent the whole day. Tank after tank of beautiful, weird fish, jellyfish you could touch, dolphins, sharks, a gigantic green sea turtle. The only thing missing was David Attenborough’s narration.

I loved the food. Christian and Ryan took me to some great restaurants, and introduced me to Old Bay and crab cakes. One of my most memorable meals were with Ryan and his girlfriend at Locust Point Steamers, where we ate crab cakes and fries sprinkled with Old Bay while watching diners at other tables demolishing their steamed crabs with hammers and then sucking out the innards. I was too squeamish to try that myself – I grew up a proper vegetarian, and it’s just…a bit too much. Another great meal was crab cakes (again) at Faidley in Lexington Market, a little oasis of tourism and delicious food in the middle of…

….what, exactly? How to describe Lexington Market? The TripAdvisor reviews are a riot.

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I think they’re exaggerating, but I suppose it depends on the kind of people who are around at the time of your visit. I saw some people who were obviously up to no good, or completely off their heads, but I didn’t feel personally threatened or targeted. The crab cake was so good it was worth the “risk”. The surrounding neighbourhood is certainly not somewhere you’d want to linger. Walk a couple of blocks to the left and you’d find yourself on the map of The Corner, the book behind The Wire, showing one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Baltimore. But Christian said he’d learned to pick up on the energy of a place – there are some neighbourhoods that are objectively more dangerous than others, but at certain times of day everyone’s pretty calm, and any criminal activity that might be going on is low level or at least not likely to involve any random passers by. But then again, the problem with the US is that any crazy person could have a gun. All it takes is one person, one gun.

Anyway, despite Baltimore’s reputation and my initial worries, I didn’t have any problems. I really enjoyed my time exploring the city with friends, and I think some of my most vivid memories of the trip will be from Baltimore – a sunny day at Fort McHenry, morning walks enjoying the breeze at the harbour, watching the sun go down over the city (to a soundtrack of sirens) from Federal Hill…

Washington DC

I spent two nights in DC, staying in an Airbnb in Trinidad (more on that later), mainly exploring downtown and the area around Union Station.  I think the message I sent to Christian while I was there sums it up best:

“Unpopular opinion (and not a very fair one, considering how little time I spent in DC), but I honestly preferred Baltimore. I can see that DC is probably the better place to live, if you can afford it, and it’s pleasant and functional and full of culture, but pretty much everywhere I went downtown just felt bland to me – like a watered down NYC with a generic mishmash of Europe, without the history. At least Trinidad has a bit more character, even if it doesn’t feel as safe! From my perspective Baltimore felt more “American” and therefore more interesting. What I haven’t really found in DC (and this is probably because I haven’t explored beyond the centre) is a real sense of neighourhood – nothing I’d compare with Fell’s Point or Hampden”

I enjoyed my time in DC mainly because I got to hang out with an old friend, Cat. It was only our second time meeting “in real life” – we met as pre-teens on Neopets, stayed in touch online over the years, and only met once in person in London when we were about 15/16. Cat’s from Illinois and is now doing a PhD in Linguistics at Raleigh. I proposed popping down to North Carolina but DC seemed like a better meeting place.

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(some houses)

We did the Mall and a large part of downtown. I can’t say we “did” the Smithsonian as no one can in one visit, but we spent a couple of hours at the National Portrait Gallery. We had some great falafel. I think that’s about it. I had one day alone in DC where I walked all over downtown, saw the White House from a distance (underwhelming) and suffered in the swampy humidity. I have mixed feelings about DC’s summer climate. On the one hand, it’s disgusting. On the other hand, at least gives the city more of an atmosphere. Literal atmosphere. Cities with distinctive climates tend to be more memorable. Memories of DC’s cicadas and stickiness will…stick with me.

My Airbnb was in Trinidad, a not-quite-gentrified-yet neighbourhood east of Union station. I had been so obsessed with staying in a safe neighbourhood in Baltimore that it didn’t occur to me to do any research on DC. If you do some online research on Trinidad, you’ll find an alarming number of results about crime and gun violence. Things are getting better, and there are definite signs of gentrification on the edges of the neighbourhood, but Trinidad feels a little bit rough. It’s borderline. Like, “I’ll probably be okay walking here in the daytime as long as I mind my own business, but I’ll get an Uber at night to be on the safe side.”

As for my Airbnb, I need to learn to read between the lines. I always read reviews before I book and have had good experiences so far, but I could have read the reviews a little more carefully. “It is the bare essentials you are paying for! No more than that.”; “Bathroom could have been cleaner. Bed was cozy.”; “This is a very affordable deal, but be mindful that you will only get the bare simple necessities here.”

I sent a picture of the house to a friend in the UK, who commented, “It looks like the arse-end of Salford!”

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It’s a bad photo because I took it quickly and sneakily, not wanting to draw attention to myself…

This was the view from my bedroom window:

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I made the mistake of sending the picture to Valeriano: “Ammazza amo’ un ghetto…Are you safe?”

I was safe. Although the crayoned scrawl “GUEST ROOM” on the bedroom door didn’t bode well, the room itself was actually fine. Clean, quiet, comfortable. But the sight of the enormous dead cockroach on the kitchen floor was distressing, and I was unsettled by the fact that every available socket seemed to be occupied by an air freshener. What were they trying to hide?

I also had an awkward encounter with my Airbnb host, who lived in the downstairs unit. I was returning to my room after a long, hot day of sightseeing, wanting nothing more than to have a shower and go to bed. The host, J, opened his door when he heard me in the hallway. “I got you a towel,” he said. “Also, why is your friend called Christian?” To explain – I had requested a towel when I checked in, and I had done the check-in with Christian, who had decided to travel up to DC with me before going off and doing his own thing. So J had briefly met Christian.

“Why is your friend called Christian?”
“Er, I don’t know. It’s a common name in Europe.”
“Is he a Christian?”
“No.”
“What about you?”
“I’m…agnostic. I like to keep an open mind.”

That was the wrong thing to say. For the next 15 minutes I was trapped in the hallway, nodding and smiling (well, more of a grimace) while J talked about God and Jesus and death. I won’t go into the specifics because I don’t remember – I tuned out after a bit –  but it was all pretty generic. J had just come back from church and he had that spiritual buzz.

Because I was tired and feeling vulnerable as a solo female traveller in a cockroach-infested house in a dodgy neighbourhood, I overreacted. While he was talking, I was panicking, mentally planning my escape. Could I flee to a hotel room for the night? Could I afford it? Could I get out the house without J noticing? He was probably a harmless religious maniac and I didn’t like to judge people, but my own sense of safety and well-being had to come first.

In the end I convinced myself that just because he was inclined to go on religious rants to strangers didn’t mean that he was a threat. I made my excuses and dashed upstairs. I decided to risk it for one night, and if anything happened, move to a hotel for the second night.

Nothing happened. But thank God – God who may or may not exist (I’m open-minded) – it was only two nights.

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(Preamble by Mike Wilkins, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

New York City

I went to New York on a family holiday in 2015 and loved it, so I was looking forward to coming back, revisiting places and exploring some new neighbourhoods. I stayed at an Airbnb on West 144th Street, upper Manhattan, which gave me the opportunity to explore Harlem and Manhattanville, and see a less touristy side of the city.

As a lifelong Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fan, I decided I would make a pilgrimage of sorts to the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th street (“Up to Lexington, 125” – where Lou Reed meets his drug dealer in “Waiting for the Man”). The song was written in the 1960s, and I was fully expecting to find a gentrified area, full of Caroline Calloway types clutching Starbucks cups and a Whole Foods on the corner. What I found was quite different – after walking through the fairly normal, serene streets of Harlem, I found myself in a kind of purgatory. People slumped over in the street, totally out of it, every other person with crutches or a wheelchair, slurred arguments, the smell of urine, some indifferent policemen loitering by the station. This article explains some of the reasons for the intersection’s chaotic atmosphere, including the presence of several homeless shelters, a methadone clinic and the bus stop where newly released prison inmates get off.

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While in NYC I mainly just walked and walked. I crossed most of Manhattan on foot, east and west, Central Park, right down to Brooklyn Bridge (where I was coerced into buying a mysterious mix CD from a group of young black men, one of whom assured me, “You’re black really”). I planned to explore Brooklyn more thoroughly, but I’d naively thought of Brooklyn as a single big neighbourhood, rather than a vast city within a city. I also failed to make it to Coney Island (another part of my Lou Reed pilgrimage), because after getting on the subway I realised just how long it would take, and gave up. I got off near Prospect Park, decided to walk across the park, realised how gigantic the park was, and got a Citibike to the other side, where I got the subway back to upper Manhattan. There were times when I felt defeated by the sheer size of the city, which I continually underestimated.

If I had to pick two highlights of my time in NYC, I’d choose Sleep No More and the Metropolitan Museum. I’d always been vaguely interested in Sleep No More (an immersive theatre experience loosely based on Macbeth), but when I met a super-fan whose social life seemed to revolve around the show, I made up my mind. Never mind that the ticket was $100, and the cocktails at the rooftop bar cost $20. I was going to treat myself. And what a treat it was…

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Sleep No More is an immersive theatrical experience set in the McKittrick Hotel – an abandoned warehouse transformed into a multi-level theatre space with two themed bars. After my cocktail at the rooftop bar, Gallow Green, I went to get my ticket and my mask, and leave my bag in the cloakroom. Not being allowed to carry your handbag or phone is the most liberating thing – I wish it were a rule in more places. In Sleep No More you’re free to explore the graveyard, bloodied children’s bedroom, forest, asylum, sweet shop and banquet hall without feeling like you have to take a picture of anything. It’s all so beautifully done and atmospheric, from the 1930s decor to the music to the sudden changes in temperature that your normal instinct would be to take out your phone for some pictures and videos. But because it’s not an option you’re free to just…experience. It’s so much fun, like being a child again. Only Sleep No More, with its “scenes with nudity and depictions of violence, sexuality and intense psychological scenarios”, is definitely not suitable for children.

Having been once, I understand why people go again and again. The show lasts something like 2 hours, maybe a bit more, but I heard someone say that there’s 14 hours of material, so every experience is different. One time you might follow Macbeth, another time Lady Macbeth. I’m sure there were rooms I didn’t see, characters I never encountered. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book in theatrical form. Such fun.

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I had been to the Metropolitan Museum on my previous trip to NYC, and felt like I should probably try another museum, but then again…I’d been so impressed before, and it’s not like a single trip can do it justice. So I went back. Twice. The $25 ticket gives you entry to the Met for three days in a row. I spent at least 5, maybe nearly 6 hours over a couple of days. I did the Byzantine and Medieval collections, some Greek and Roman art, the Robert Lehman collection, some of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, some European painting, and the temporary exhibition on “Camp” (pictured). I would have seen more, but I literally couldn’t take in any more. It’s an extraordinary collection, and a great museum experience, especially when compared to other big museums like the British Museum or the Vatican Museums. The British Museum is disgustingly overcrowded (because it’s free), and unless you’re clever with booking in advance and going at the right time, the Vatican Museums can also be unpleasant to visit. In the Met I saw so many beautiful things, from Byzantine jewellery to Van Gogh paintings to ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, and I had space. No crowds, no elbowing. Next time I’m in NYC, I’ll be back.

I don’t know if I could live in NYC. Walking around the Upper East Side, I reflected that it must be wonderful if you’re rich. If you’re not, I imagine it being exhausting. It’s so enormous, so expensive. On my last day, I gave my fries and $5 to a man who said he was a veteran from Virginia. “I can’t believe how expensive everything is here,” he said. “$100 just for a hotel room…” Another time, waiting for the subway on 14th street, a smartly-dressed woman brushed her hair while standing literally two inches away from a man sleeping on the platform, his head by a bag of rubbish. I know that when you live in a city, you become somewhat desensitised to poverty and homelessness, but I was shocked by how the homeless man seemed to be literally invisible to her.

Anyway, every city has its problems, my cities (London and Rome) included, so I don’t want to judge. I understand people who adore NYC, and the people who hate it. For the average person to live, I don’t know, but it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit.

I wanted to end with a quote that I saw a few times around the city, but which I may have imagined, because now I can’t find it anywhere online. I could swear that the quote was from John Steinbeck, and that it went something like this: “New York can destroy a man, but if his eyes are open, he’ll never be bored.” I feel like I’m losing my mind, because I can’t find any trace of this quote online. Did I dream it?

Finally, some notes on “cultural differences” – a few things that struck me as being particularly American, or at least different to life I’m used to in European cities. I’m sorry that many of these are negative differences, but that’s just the way I see it.

  • Everything is so big. The cars, the roads, and above all the cups. How can you drink a cup of Coca Cola the size of your head and then want a refill? I always asked for a small coffee, and it was always too much – triple the size of any coffee I’ve had in Italy.

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  • The air conditioning blast. I appreciate a bit of air conditioning now and again, but some rooms and restaurants had the temperature level set to “Arctic”. When I got off the Amtrak train from DC to NYC, my skin actually felt icy. But I suppose some Americans must really suffer from the heat in Europe, with our comparative lack of air conditioning.
  • Friendliness. I always defend the British from accusations of being cold and unfriendly, but I have to admit, it’s true. Northerners aside, we are cold and unfriendly compared to Americans. People were especially nice in Baltimore. But…
  • Fake friendliness. I think it’s reasonable for shop staff and restaurant workers to ask “How are you?” in a small town, or to chat with a regular customer, but I got impatient with being asked how I was in big city shops and restaurants. It’s not a sincere question. And then I feel obliged to ask you how you are, and you have to answer, and we’ve wasted 30 seconds with a fake conversation.
  • Compliments. I got so many nice compliments on my clothes from total strangers. When I was waiting uneasily near the entrance of Lexington Market in Baltimore a young guy stopped and looked at me. I was fully expecting to be catcalled, mugged or offered drugs, and instead he just smiled, said “I like your dress!” and walked on. Compliments are great. The British can be awkward about giving and receiving them, so we could learn from Americans.
  • Water in restaurants. Being given iced water as soon as you sit down in a restaurant is very civilised. I’m so over Italy’s obsession with bottled water – tap water please.
  • Tipping. I struggle with basic maths, and panicked whenever I was expected to calculate a 20% tip when presented with the bill. I was grateful whenever I encountered one of those swivelly screens that let you choose which percentage to add and do the calculation for you. I prefer the tipping system in the UK, where it’s simpler, or in Italy, where no one really cares.

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  • Prices before tax. Confusing. You read one price, pay another. Makes everything feel more expensive.
  • Public toilet door gaps. Everyone can see you on the toilet, and apparently that’s normal in America. Why? The debate goes on.

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  • The ubiquity of Uber. Yes, Uber exists in Europe, but it’s not quite the same. In Baltimore I sometimes used Uber multiple times in a day due to the lack of safe/convenient public transport. Which is I suppose is not a great thing. But Uber was invaluable – 2 minutes after you decide you want to go home, a driver in an air conditioned car is there for you. It’s not cheap, but it often feels like good value for the sheer convenience. I’m a convert.
  • The ethnic divide. I come from a cosmopolitan city (London) and live in perhaps the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Rome, Torpignattara. I know that in any city, there will be areas with a higher than average proportion of a certain ethnicity. What I’ve never experienced in Europe, however, is the stark divide between “black neighbourhood” and “white neighbourhood”. In Baltimore, for example, I was staying in Fell’s Point, which felt overwhelmingly white. In the streets around Lexington Market I was literally the only white person. I was also pretty much the only white person walking the streets in the area around my Airbnb on West 144th street, NYC. I can understand areas being predominantly white, black, Hispanic, whatever. But the way the ethnic mix changed so radically in the space of just a couple of blocks was bizarre to me. The average European city feels much more blended.
  • Food deserts. I knew they were a thing, but it was eye-opening to experience it first-hand. I remember walking around Trinidad in DC looking for a shop just to buy a bottle of water – nothing. Or in Baltimore, finally coming across shops selling food, only to find that the shelves of both the 7-Eleven and Royal Farms consisted entirely of junk food. It felt like my only option to eat healthily was to find a Whole Foods. Which I appreciate is not an ideal option for an American who doesn’t live near a Whole Foods, or who can’t afford to shop there. I also had what I’d describe as an almost dystopian experience at the Whole Foods in Baltimore, when I wanted to buy some apples. I bagged them and went to the scales to weigh them and get the price, but there was a label on the machine that said “For Amazon Prime Customers only”. I mentioned this label to a Whole Foods employee. “Don’t you have Amazon Prime?” he asked. “No. I have an Amazon account…” “Then you probably have Amazon Prime even if you don’t realise it.” “But…how do I pay for the apples? Can I just take them to the counter like this?” “Yes.” “Oh. Okay.” Surreal, discussing the status of my Amazon account when I just wanted to buy some fruit.

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  • Patriotism and gun culture. Two aspects of the US that I find alienating. There’s so much to say I’m not even going to get into it. Let’s just say that they’re the most significant differences and leave it at that.

I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions, especially from Europeans who live in the US or Americans who live in Europe. What are the differences that you notice the most?

 

Will the real Bassano please stand up?

Part of the fun of living in another country is discovering memes and viral videos that you would never watch otherwise. I guess you could argue it’s part of the culture, or at least that’s the excuse I use when I watch them. Valeriano’s favourites are Saluta Andonio and NAPOLETANO TRUFFA 2 NERI A MIAMI VENDENDO OROLOGI E PROFUMI FALSI, which I won’t attempt to explain.

The latest viral video is BASSANO SEI TU, which takes place in a high school somewhere near Salerno, I believe. If you understand Italian and feel like wasting four minutes of your life, watch the video:

The teacher is taking the register, calling out the students’ names. She reaches Bassano and gets stuck. A rough summary:

Teacher: “Are you Bassano? Bassano? Let me see you. Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?
Bassano:“Yes.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
(This continues for a while.)
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “No.”
(This continues for a while.)
Teacher: “Answer me. Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
(This continues for a while. Teacher looks at watch. Students encourage her: “Come on, Prof!”)
Teacher: “Answer me. Only the boy or the girl. Bassano?”
Bassano: “YES.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “YES.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
(Random student: “OH MADONNA MIA”. Teacher picks up her bag, looks as if she’s about to leave, then returns.)
Teacher: “Just answer me. Bassano?”
Entire class: “YES.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Entire class: “YES.”
(Teacher picks up bag and leaves class.)
Random student: “No, don’t go! Please!”
(Students laugh)

It’s absurd. Reminiscent of Murray’s roll call in Flight of the Conchords, only that’s a comedy, and this is real life, apparently. Some of the more coherent comments on YouTube express shock and disbelief that a person in such a state could be allowed to teach. It’s sad, obviously. The poor woman could do with a long, paid holiday.

The video struck a chord with me because I’m also a teacher, and most of my students are about the age of those in the video.  The teenagers in the video remind me of my own students – loud and occasionally exasperating but basically good natured. I genuinely love teaching Italian teenagers. 13-18 is my favourite age range. I teach at a private language school and have also taught at state high schools, and 99% of my students are delightful – funny and bright and just the right amount of cheeky.

So, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for Italian teenagers. You need a lot of patience to be a teacher, but sometimes the students need to be patient too.

(I probably shouldn’t over-praise the class in the video – you could question the ethics of sharing a video of your clearly unwell teacher on YouTube. But teenagers are teenagers and we’re living in strange times…)

 

Trieste: cities to see vs cities to be

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“See Naples and die.” “Must-see sights in Rome.” What about Trieste?

Reflecting on the last few days spent in Trieste with Valeriano, sipping white Spritzes and strolling along the Molo Audace, I realised that Trieste isn’t so much a city to see as a city to be. Other people obviously feel the same way, as tourism feels almost non-existent. Most people, when you tell them you’re going to Trieste, respond with lukewarm enthusiasm (compared with the envious “ahhhh” when you say you’re going to Venice). In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris describes Trieste as a “middle-size, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 per cent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.”

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I went to Trieste for the first time a few years ago, on a solo trip. I don’t have great memories. After a few days feeling blissfully happy in Venice (as I always do), I spent a cold, lonely Easter weekend in Trieste before continuing to Piran in Slovenia, where I felt better at once. There were a few problems in Trieste. Firstly, the dismal affitacamere near the station where my window was entirely blocked by scaffolding, which rattled every time the wind blew, keeping me awake at night. Then there was the weather – the bitterly cold wind that somehow took me surprise, even though the bora is Trieste’s most famous characteristic. I spent the weekend shivering, debating whether I could afford to buy a warmer jacket (I couldn’t and I didn’t). I was also struck by the anxiety well-known to the solo traveller about where to eat alone without feeling self-conscious and ended up eating at the pizza chain Rossopomodoro – perfectly nice but not characteristic – and feeling like I was missing out on typical cuisine. The lack of obvious things to see or do in Trieste added to my sense of loneliness and aimlessness.

I was in a strange mood, my first time in Trieste. I wanted to blame it on the city’s famous melancholic atmosphere, but I knew that it was mostly the cold and the fact that I was on my own. I vowed to give the city another chance, but in company, in the summer.

So I returned to Trieste 4 years later, with Valeriano in August. These are the things and experiences that struck me the most.

Weather – Trieste is glorious in the summer. While we were there it was about 25-31 degrees with a strong sea breeze. After the stifling airlessness of Rome in the summer, Trieste feels like paradise. I’m not sure I could cope with the winter though, when the bora rages and ropes are strung up in the streets to give people something to grip on to. This video shows you just how windy it gets.

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Barcola – Trieste’s “beach”. A beach formed of a long promenade and the occasional patch of pebbles. It’s an easy 10 minute bus ride from the centre, and it’s the perfect place to spend a summer afternoon – sunning on the concrete and swimming in the Adriatic, where the Castle Miramare seems like a mirage in the distance, or, to use Jan Morris’s beautiful expression, “a castle in a trance”. Then, when you’ve had enough of the sun, you can retreat to the shade of the pine trees or get a cocktail from the kiosk. It would be easy to sneer at Barcola for its lack of sand, but it really is pretty idyllic.

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Osmize – High up in the hills surrounding Trieste are osmize – family-run restaurants serving local food and wine, open in the summer months. Some of them are hard to reach, but Osmiza Stoka is accessible by bus from central Trieste, and was one of the highlights of our trip. A giant platter of cheese, cold cuts and olives and a mezzo litro of red wine; a garden with a sea view; the ominous rumble of thunder and the threat of rain adding to the atmosphere.

Restaurants – Trieste isn’t famous for its food, but we ate very well. Apart from the osmiza, the places that stand out are two fish restaurants – Trattoria Nerodiseppia and the Antica Ghiaccetteria. The latter was expensive, but the quality was exceptional. Calamari in fennel cream, insalata di polpo with apple, linguine with swordfish, tomatoes and olives…I imagine it’s difficult to eat badly in Trieste, especially as the low levels of tourism means that there are no tourist trap restaurants.

Drinks – A typical Trieste drink is a Spritz – not the ubiquitous chemical orange Aperol Spritz, but a Spritz Bianco, which is white wine with mineral water. Equally refreshing is the Hugo cocktail, which is Prosecco with elderflower syrup and a sprig of mint.

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Cafes/Coffee – Trieste has some lovely old cafes, the most famous of which are the Caffè degli Specchi in Piazza Unità d’Italia (the Trieste equivalent of Florian in Piazza San Marco), Caffè San Marco, and Caffè San Tommaseo. They’re lovely places to sit with a coffee and read, write, or simply watch the world go by. Trieste is the home of Illy coffee and has a whole other language – an espresso is a ‘nero’, a cappuccino a ‘capo’.

Language – Italian is the main language, but Slovene is also widely spoken, and many signs are in both languages. I’m also intrigued by the Trieste dialect, which has a mix of influences. Jan Morris: “Triestino was descended from the Venetian dialect, and was similarly rich in slur and sibilant, but it had absorbed words and idioms from the many other languages of this municipal melting-pot (sonababic meant ‘son-of-a-bitch’).” The word volentieri, which means “Yes, of course” for the average Italian, is a polite “No” in Trieste. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for several years while writing his novels and working as an English teacher, was apparently fluent in Triestino and even used it in Finnegan’s Wake.

People – Almost unfailingly polite, well-dressed, respectful of personal space. I say “almost” because there was an exceptionally surly bus driver. But on the whole I really liked the people in Trieste. The city is clean, functional, oh-so-civilised compared to Rome, and that’s thanks to the Triestini.

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So, while I don’t have recommendations for anywhere in Trieste you absolutely must see, or anything you have to do before you die, I do recommend it as a city to experience. I”m sure I’ll be back, but in the meantime I’ve got my memories of gazing at Miramare while floating in the sea, and windswept walks along the seafront, which were all the more enjoyable because they were spontaneous moments, rather than “musts”.

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Further reading, courtesy of my friend Tara, who I believe was the first person to make me aware of Trieste’s existence. This article is also a fascinating read.

Applying for Italian citizenship

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I’ve almost stopped caring about Brexit – I can’t keep up, and there’s not much point in worrying about something that’s completely out of your control, or getting hysterical when it might not be that bad after all. But every now and then I have little moments of panic. What if a no-deal Brexit messes up my residency status? Is having residency enough? Should I try to get Italian citizenship?

I wrote about my experience of getting residency in Rome three years ago. Although I’ve lived in Rome for six years, I’ve only had official residency for three. As I’m living in Italy legally I’m protected and should probably just relax, but it’d be nice to have citizenship too. I’d like to have that extra level of security, and to continue using the line for EU citizens at passport control.

So, I started doing some research. There are three routes to Italian citizenship:

Residency – If you’re an EU citizen, you can apply for citizenship after 4 years of official residency in Italy. If you’re a non-EU citizen, you can apply after citizenship after 10 years.

Marriage – You can apply for citizenship after 2 years of marriage to an Italian.

Descent – If you have Italian grandparents or great-grandparents you can apply for citizenship. You need to be able to prove that your ancestor was born in Italy and never renounced their Italian citizenship.

The residency and marriage routes also require a language certificate – B1 (pre-intermediate) Italian. You can see some examples of official Italian exam papers here, if you’re curious. I thought some of the B1 questions were quite tricky, but that’s because my grammar is appalling.

I’ve been weighing up the pros and cons of seeking citizenship through these routes, and they all come with complications.

Residency – I only have 3 years of residency, not the 4 years required to apply now. Of course, post-Brexit, I’ll no longer be an EU citizen, which means I’ll have to wait till I have 10 years of residency. If only I’d got official residency sooner! If only Boris Johnson had never been born! We’d all be better off. Oh well. Too late…

Marriage – An option, but Valeriano and I are toing and froing on this – if, when, how. He also thinks it’s unfair that I could get Italian citizenship through marrying him, but he couldn’t get British citizenship through marrying me. Anyway, even if we do go down this route, I’ll still have to wait a couple of years before I can even apply.

Descent – My great-grandparents (on my mother’s side) were from Naples. I’m pretty sure I would qualify for citizenship, but proving it might be difficult. My mother thinks the records office in Naples was bombed during the war. I have to do more research on exactly what documents are required before going ahead.

At this point, I should probably just wait and see what happens after Brexit. I’m not going to suddenly be kicked out of the country, so I might as well relax. I’m a legal resident of Rome. I have British and Canadian citizenship. I’m all right.

(On a side note, citizenship might also be an issue in the future, if we have children. My parents were born in Canada and Kenya, and I was born in Australia. My mother applied for me to have British citizenship by descent, rather than the regular kind. This means that if I give birth abroad and the father of the child is not British, my child will not have British citizenship. Which is a problem. Or is it? I don’t even know any more.)

Anyway, if I’m honest with myself, all of this research on citizenship is probably just a way to procrastinate, instead of tackling the next big challenge of living in Italy – learning to drive. We’ve just got a car, so I don’t even have that excuse any more. Also, if I have to do the Italian language exam to get citizenship at some point in the future, I’m sure the experience of learning to drive in Rome will be excellent preparation. Incrocio, semaforo, mortacci tua. All that useful driving vocabulary.

More information on citizenship

How to become an Italian citizen

How to obtain Italian citizenship

Do you qualify for Italian dual citizenship?

Facebook groups can also be helpful – I’m a member of Applying for Italian citizenship – British in Italy.

Some blog posts

Kristen Suzanne – applying for Italian citizenship through descent as a US citizen living in Italy

Ciao Bologna – applying for Italian citizenship through descent as a US Citizen living in Italy

Traveling Jersey Girl – applying for Italian citizenship through descent as a US citizen living in the US

Our Italian Journey – applying for Italian citizenship through descent as US citizens living in the US

The Limonata Lounge – applying for Italian citizenship through marriage as a US citizen living in Italy

Italian Belly – applying for Italian citizenship through marriage as a Canadian citizen

Mums Do Travel – applying for Italian citizenship through marriage as a UK citizen living in the UK

I haven’t come across any posts about people applying for citizenship as residents – everything seems to be through marriage or descent. Please share your own experiences in the comments!

 

Terme di Roma (Tivoli)

I haven’t updated in a while. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been busy lying on beaches or sipping wine in picturesque Tuscan towns (really must get off Instagram), but the reality is less glamorous. I’ve been swamped in work, writing and proofreading countless SEO articles on super glue, and dealing with some health issues. This year has been my introduction to the Italian health system – a post for another day.

I also need to write about Rome’s rubbish crisis, and how people are literally wading through filth and setting bins on fire, but first, let’s start with something more positive. I don’t want this blog to turn into a cynical expat blog. A bit of balance…

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I spent my Sunday here, and am feeling a hundred times better for it. I’m also delighted to have found a beach alternative. I love going to the beach, but getting to a decent beach from Rome can be an ordeal (especially with public transport, and especially on a Sunday).

So, if it’s 37 degrees and you want to swim in clean, cold water without having to sit in traffic, spend hours looking for a parking space, or deal with train/bus timetables? The Terme di Roma are the answer.

If you’ve ever endured the Cotral bus from Rome to Tivoli, you’ll have passed a huge, bland hotel called the Victoria Terme Hotel. If you’re prepared to pay (more on that later), you can use the hotel’s complex of thermal pools. There’s a spa too, though we didn’t use that, because unfortunately, even with the sales of my novel and the earnings from my super glue articles, we can’t afford both pool and spa. One day…

All right, let’s get the cost out of the way. It’s the only real downside of a day at the terme. It’s €14/17 per person just to enter. €5 for a sun bed. €25 for an umbrella! Granted, they’re really big umbrellas, but it still seems extortionate. If you don’t want to pay, you can grab a bit of shade under the palms, and make do with a towel on the grass. However, if you’re paying €17 just to enter, I’d argue that you might as well make a day of it – pay a bit extra and be comfortable.

Our friend Eleonora predicted that there would be “una pipinara di gente” (a lot of people). There certainly was a pipinara, but the complex is so big, with so many pools, that it didn’t feel too crowded. Of course, the ideal would be to go on a weekday, but if that’s not an option, weekends are bearable. The range of pools also means that you can avoid children, if that’s your preference. Families tend to stick to the shallower pools.

We arrived at about 11:30, and discovered that the umbrella we’d booked was no longer available, so we were moved to another pool area. The bagnino reassured us that this was “the VIP area, where Mussolini used to go”. Firstly, I bet he just made that up, and secondly, even if it were true, would that really be a selling point?

But once we were settled under our giant luxury umbrella, we were happy. We spent the next six hours going back and forth between the sun loungers and the sulphur pools:

From the website:

The waters from the Acque Albule spring are sulphurous and hypothermal. They retain the name that was given to them back in ancient times due to their whitish colour (from the Latin word “albula” = chalky-white coloured water), caused by the gaseous emulsion that forms on the surface when there is a decrease in pressure, releasing the dissolved carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide from the water. Water arrives at the spa from Lakes Regina and Colonnelle, north of Via Tiburtina, at a speed of 3,000 litres per second. The mineral water maintains a constant temperature of 23°C throughout the year. Chemical analyses in the 19th century confirmed the therapeutic capacity of the Acque Albule waters. We now know that sulphur is a powerful natural antibacterial ingredient with major anti-inflammatory effects.

(If only the solution to my health issues were simply spending time in the pool, instead of a bewildering array of medication and tests. Can I have a prescription for the terme please?)

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The Terme di Roma are just a short drive from Rome (about 25 minutes), and there’s plenty of parking. You can also take the Cotral bus, which departs from Ponte Mammolo metro station, or the train from Tiburtina station, which takes 30 minutes.

For more suggestions on surviving the summer in Rome, here are a couple of old posts:

Staying cool in Rome

Where to swim in Rome

Rome facts month

rome drone Mauro Pagliai

(photo: Mauro Pagliai)

For no particular reason I’ve decided to make this month my “Rome facts month” – each day I’ll be sharing facts, trivia and recommendations for places off the beaten path.

I’ll be posting on social media (not here), so if you’re not already following me and would like to find out about Rome’s optical illusions, talking statues and underground temples…

Instagram

Twitter

Facebook

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The decline of Rome: putting things in perspective

termini metro

(The scene of the crime)

I was waiting for the metro at Termini the other day (see my post here on why Termini is allucinante) when I had a disturbing encounter. I noticed an agitated woman shuffling along the platform in flip-flops. As a general rule, if you see someone wearing flip-flops in central Rome they’re either a) a tourist or b) homeless and/or mentally ill. This woman belonged to the second category, and was shouting.

I moved away from the edge of the platform (too many horror stories about people being pushed) and watched her approach a rubbish bin and start rummaging around. She pulled out a few things, including a stick of corn on the cob, and then turned to glare at me. I don’t know if she’d noticed me watching her, or if I just happened to be the nearest person. “Fatti cazzi tuoi!” she shouted at me, waving the corn as if it were a knife. And then, still thrusting the corn in my direction, she said something so vulgar it doesn’t bear repeating. I quickly sidled away, and was relieved when a friend arrived out of nowhere – coincidentally she had been at the other end of the platform, and watched the bizarre scene unfold.

I know there’s nothing particularly significant about what happened. These things happen. (Especially at Termini). But I’ve been feeling increasingly cynical about Rome recently, for various reasons, and this incident is one of many that seems to represent the absurdity and degradation of Rome. There are many others. Valeriano having to call the police in order to make the security guy let him into the INPS office. The group of citizens who “illegally” fix some of Rome’s 10,000 potholes. The inexplicable, long-term closure of three of the most central metro stations.

atac linea a

I don’t want to become one of those bitter, moaning expats, but when nothing works, it can be difficult. Usually, when an Italian asks me why I chose to leave London for Rome, I launch into the story about how I fell in love with the Eternal City as a student – the weather, the food, the art, the history, Keats and Shelley and Testaccio…But most recently, when a teenage student asked me why I’d moved to Rome, I replied, “Oh, you know. Pizza, pasta, mandolino.” (Italians joke about these stereotypes. It’s like someone saying they moved to the UK for tea, Big Ben and the Royal Family).

I needed something to put things in perspective, to stop this slide into cynicism, and it came in an unexpected form.

rome history

I finally got round to reading one of my Christmas presents – Matthew Kneale’s alternative history of Rome. This book has seven chapters, each focusing on a moment that Rome was attacked, from the Gauls in the 4th century BC to the Nazis. As well as explaining the context and main players of the battle, Kneale gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Romans at the time. What did they eat? How often did they wash? What were the streets like at night? So many books focus on Ancient Rome and Renaissance Rome, on emperors, popes and artists. It was refreshing to read about living conditions for ordinary Romans in the Middle Ages for a change.

Kneale is also a novelist, which might be why he’s so successful at bringing the past to life. The most moving section was on the Nazi occupation, probably because it’s so recent, and feels so real – the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, or the Jews being rounded up in the Ghetto – but the whole book is filled with vivid anecdotes, humour and tragedy. One fact that really stuck with me is that in Renaissance Rome, with the ancient aqueducts no longer in use, Romans were forced to drink the filthy water of the Tiber. Drinking the water of the modern day river doesn’t particularly appeal, but it was even more foul then – the Tiber was essentially an open sewer, filled with corpses. Visitors were disgusted, but Romans were proud of their water. Pope Clement even brought a barrel of Tiber water with him when he left the city, claiming he couldn’t drink anything else.

I was shocked by the descriptions of the Sack of Rome in 1527, which Kneale describes as “Rome’s 9/11”. People were thrown alive into the river. Ordinary people – women and children – were slaughtered in the street. There are reports that men were tortured, castrated, made to eat parts of their own body. As if the violence were not enough, the plague arrived. Food was scarce. And then the Tiber burst its banks, and more died in the flood. Literally the only person who was having a good time was Benvenuto Cellini: “My drawing, my wonderful studies and my lovely music were all forgotten in the music of the guns, and if I told all the great things I did in that cruel inferno, I would astonish the world.”

1527 is obviously an extreme example – Rome at its most miserable. But as I turned the pages, I was forced to reflect on the fact that the average Roman, over the course of history, has had a pretty grim existence. Even if you were lucky enough to avoid war, your chances of being a slave, being raped/tortured/murdered, dying of the plague, dying in childbirth, dying of starvation, or just suffering the general pains of existence, were very high indeed.

So, what’s my point? Not that we should stop criticising modern Rome’s shortcomings, or that we should shrug off our problems, constantly telling ourselves that it could be worse. (“Sigh! Another sciopero! But least I’m not an orphan in 1527, hoping to die of the plague before the marauding troops arrive.”)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything was better in the past.* To hark back to the good old days, when Rome wasn’t covered in rubbish, when the trains ran on time, when the city was shiny and beautiful, one of the wonders of the world. But what do we mean when we talk about the decline of Rome? Was everything so much better before? Perhaps for a brief period – from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s – things were to some extent “better”, compared to today. It’s debatable. And even if it is true, that period covers just a few decades, a mere blip in Rome’s 3,000 year history.

Rome has a multitude of problems that need fixing, from the decrepit public transport system to the rubbish crisis, but let’s try to keep things in perspective. Focus on the positives. I recently watched a video about how it’s human nature to fixate on the negatives while ignoring the positives. (Caveman brains in the 21st century). When you compare Rome in 2019 to almost any other year in the past, it’s actually pretty wonderful. No war, plague, flooding, slavery or starvation. For the minority that are suffering, help is available, whether from charity, the church, or just ordinary human kindness. And I’m one of the lucky ones. My equivalent in Rome of the past – a foreign, unmarried woman – would not have felt as safe walking the streets, and would not have had my rights. I have a job and a roof over my head, and I don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. I enjoy modern luxuries like a washing machine, air conditioning, and a bathroom. (In 1931, only 1 in 10 Roman apartments had their own bathroom).

Rome is far from perfect, but I would argue that there’s really no such thing as a perfect city, in any time, in any place. It’s all relative.

So, my advice? Go and read a history book, and then enjoy a gelato in the sunshine. It could be better, but really, it could be so much worse.

vandals rome

*

I originally wrote “better in the pasta” before I realised my mistake. See what living in Italy has done to me?