Go Thou To Rome

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

In Exile: an extract

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But as she waited for a bus that would probably never come, staring at a cloudless blue sky and rocking back and forth on her feet, she was taken by a random impulse to go to the river. She found herself longing for the sight of green water, the raging torrent that suddenly calmed and became almost motionless.

She could not look at the river without imagining the thousands of bodies that had plunged into it over the centuries. The water had always had a curious, deadly stillness in certain parts. There were no boats and the branches of the trees were filled with rags and tattered plastic, the remnants of winter floods. The river was so far below, so quiet, that at times it hardly seemed part of the city at all. It was merely a ghostly, pale green stream drifting towards the sea.

Concrete paths ran alongside the water’s edge, but they were mostly deserted, apart from the occasional cyclist and the homeless. The river was not a place to linger. Grace gazed at the water, tranquil and shipless as always, and then looked along the length of the riverbank. There were no pedestrians, only a solitary sleeper basking in the softening rays of the late afternoon. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Grace stared at the man and tried to decide if the resemblance was just wishful thinking.

Against her better judgement, she descended the stone steps and left the shade of the trees and the noise of the traffic behind her. She kept her eyes fixed on the figure below, afraid that if she blinked, he would vanish. Of course she would not talk to him; she only wanted to see.

He was dressed in a loose white shirt and trousers, face tilted up towards the sun. As she crept towards him she became convinced that it was the same man, and she felt a shiver of fear despite the heat. Thank God he was asleep, and she could walk past without ever seeing –

“You again.”

He hadn’t even opened his eyes. She stood beside him, mute with shock.

“It was just a matter of time before we found each other. I know you’re afraid, but…”

There was no end to the sentence. He opened his eyes and looked at her.

“Sit down.”

They were utterly alone. Grace looked helplessly at the trees belonging to the world above, and then lowered her gaze. These were the eyes she had tried so hard to forget, and now they were inviting her, drawing her towards him as if they were the only living souls in the entire city. She sat beside him.

“What’s your name?”

“Grace.”

“Tell me, Grace. Do you believe in gods?”

“God?”

“Well, if you can believe in one, surely you have sufficient imagination for belief in another.”

“I don’t know what I believe,” said Grace, trying to avoid his gaze. “I’m only fifteen. I think it’s too young to know what you believe.”

“Belief has nothing to do with knowledge. You know a man cannot draw honey from a stone, yet I gave you no choice but to believe it.”

“Seeing is believing, I guess.” Grace turned towards him, expecting a mocking smile. But his face was utterly expressionless. There was not even the slightest glint of humanity in his eyes. Grace willed herself not to be afraid.

“I read The Bacchae,” she said.

“Ah.”

“The Lydian is Dionysus. God as man.”

“We’re made in each other’s images. For thousands of years…hundreds of thousands. I lose count.”

“You’re a god.”

“Yes.”

“Dionysus.”

“Yes.”

Grace took a deep breath and forced herself to stare at the water. A piece of driftwood was being slowly carried downriver, and it calmed her to look at something so small, so ordinary.

“Have I frightened you?”

“I was already frightened.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, Grace. I have neither the desire nor the power.”

“What do you mean?”

“No one in this city has believed in me for two thousand years. I’m unknown and unloved. And I’m very, very ill.” He sighed, and the sound chilled her blood. “Give me your hand.”

No one had ever held her hand before, and the touch of those fingers, cold like marble, gave her a queer sensation, as if she had been violated in some way. When he let go, she noticed that his palms were smooth and unlined.

“Well,” said Grace, repressing a shiver. “I don’t think I can help you.”

“Oh, but you can. I’ve always been loved by women, so to have one in this city who knows my name…”

“I’m not a woman, I’m fifteen.”

“Close enough. Anyway, I won’t keep you. Run along.”

Grace stood up, scarcely able to believe her good luck at being released unscathed, and only briefly touched.

*

To read the synopsis and first two chapters, and to pledge to buy the book, check out the page on Unbound

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I wrote a novel. Here’s how you can be a part of it.

bacchus simeon solomon

(Bacchus by Simeon Solomon)

In 2015 I wrote a novel. It’s technically my third novel (if we count the one about the Shelley-obsessed teenage boy in post-apocalyptic London, or the one about the king of a fictional European country faking his death and fleeing to Venice). But let’s call it my first.

In Exile is the product of its influences – Greek tragedy, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, obscure short stories from the 19th century, the film Heavenly Creatures – but most of all, it’s a product of Rome.

I first had the idea while sitting on the metro, somewhere on the B line between Bologna and Conca d’Oro. What if Dionysus were re-born in 20th century Rome where no one believed in him? What if he had to start a new following, and converted some vulnerable teenage girls in order to create a modern bacchae? Where in Rome would they have their bacchanals? How would it end?

I don’t know what other people think about when they’re on the metro, but when I’m not staring at people’s shoes or cursing the slowness of the train, these are the kinds of things on my mind.

In Exile took about a year to write. After I finished, I submitted it to lot of literary agents. A lot of literary agents. I stopped counting after about 65 rejections. Then I had a light bulb moment – the book I’d written was good, but it was also tricky to label. It was about teenagers but it wasn’t technically Young Adult. It was about a Greek god but it wasn’t really Fantasy either. Literary agents probably saw my email – one of 200 they’d got that day – and decided it wasn’t worth taking a risk on a debut author who’d written something a bit weird and non-commercial.

So I decided to try independent publishers instead. And after all those generic rejections (“I’m afraid this book isn’t for me”; “Unfortunately, after careful consideration….”) I finally got an acceptance from the UK publisher Unbound.

In Exile is going to be published as an e-book and paperback at some point in the not too distant future (with a little help from friends, family, and a considerable number of total strangers).

WHAT I HAVE TO DO

  • I have to fund the publication (editing, cover design and initial printing costs) by securing pledges – advance orders of the book – during a 3-month period. This is called crowdfunding.
  • I’m counting on the support of pretty much everyone I know, as well as lot of people I don’t know. That means telling everyone about my book, and encouraging people to buy it.

WHAT  YOU HAVE TO DO

  • Do you like original new novels? Do you want to help me achieve a life-long dream? If the answer to either question is “No”, you can stop reading now.
  • Read the synopsis and the first couple of chapters, if you’re interested.
  • Sufficiently intrigued? Good. Please pledge to buy a copy of the book by clicking the big blue “pledge” button on the website.
  • Bask in the satisfaction of having done a Good Deed and then win extra points by sharing the link on Facebook/Twitter and telling all your friends about it.

WHAT YOU GET

  • A shiny new novel delivered to your door at some point in 2018, with your name included in the list of supporters in the back of the book.
  • An exciting and atmospheric novel about a melancholy Greek god creating chaos with his new teenage cult in modern Rome. I don’t want to give away the ending, but there will be blood.
  • That warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you’ve done something nice for another person.
  • Drinks on me if you happen to be in Rome. Given that the novel is about the god of wine, a visit to an enoteca seems appropriate.

So, there you have it. Please check out the page on Unbound and see if it sparks your interest. Or, in the word of my aunt: “Come on folks! This is how publishing works nowadays. Support the arts!”

Support the arts! Support my dream! I don’t want to beg but

Ahahah (translation: “Hahaha”)

The Far Side Gallery 4

Italians laugh backwards – ahahah instead of hahaha. But making them laugh at an English joke – or even smile politely – isn’t always easy.

The other day I was preparing material for a conversation lesson at the language school where I work. The topic was “fear/phobias”, so I printed out this well-known Far Side cartoon. I showed Valeriano, who didn’t find it remotely funny. “E’ divertente,” I insisted. “Ma perche’?” asked Valeriano.

I didn’t bother trying to explain, but had a similar reaction from my students. “Ah, English humour,” said one woman, knowingly. Although Gary Larson is American, I knew what she meant. In Italian “umore inglese” doesn’t only mean “English humour”, but also “humour that isn’t funny”. Italians view English humour in much the same way as English food – with cynicism and mild embarrassment.

“But why is it funny?” another student asked, frustrated that she didn’t understand.

“It just…is,” I said. “It’s an absurd situation. The idea of a duck watching someone is ridiculous, and the idea of someone having a phobia of being watched by a duck is even more ridiculous.”

She still didn’t get it. I grew up reading The Far Side and was determined to find a cartoon that they’d find at least mildly amusing. So I showed the class this one:

larson mosquito

They all agreed that this one was funny. Valeriano had the same reaction. So, according to the results of my not very scientific survey: 100% of Italians are amused by mosquitoes, but not by ducks. Why?

Although sense of humour is often personal, depending more on the individual’s personality than their nationality, I’ve noticed some general patterns. Surreal/absurd humour doesn’t go down well in Italy. I’ve tried Monty Python on Italians, for example, and they generally don’t get it. They prefer humour that’s more accessible and situational – US sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory.

Physical humour is also much easier to understand. For example, Mr Bean is more popular in Italy than England. Physical humour is more universal and nothing is lost in translation. Even if you basically understand the language of a joke in a foreign language, a delayed reaction – taking a second to translate – can somehow make it less funny.

For an Italian, the mosquito cartoon is funny because the humour is mostly visual and it’s a “logical” joke. It makes sense. The duck phobia cartoon is not funny because the humour comes solely from the absurdity of the situation. While an American might find the cartoon funny because it doesn’t make sense, the lack of sense is the exact reason an Italian won’t get it.

So, what about Italian humour? What do Italians find funny in their own language? I started by thinking about the things that Valeriano and I laugh about, before realising that coupley in-jokes don’t really count. We laugh about the silliest things, such as saying the name “Pasquale” in an exaggeratedly Neapolitan accent. Aside from that, I can only give a few examples of Italian humour I’ve discovered through Valeriano. This is just a random selection, and not intended to be representative of the best or most famous Italian humour.

La Settimana Enigmistica

Settimana enigmistica

“I’m very sorry that your relationship ended so badly, but please, tell me which archive system you used!”

A fairly conventional newspaper comic strip – not really Italian-specific humour. If you understand the language, you get the joke.

Boris

A TV series that takes the piss out of TV series. It’s set in Rome and follows the making of a truly terrible soap opera called Gli occhi del cuore 2 (“The eyes of the heart 2”). I’ve seen a few episodes and while I find it funny, it’s not laugh-out-loud-funny like my favourite UK/US comedy (ie: Arrested Development). I don’t know if that’s a reflection of personal tastes, cultural differences or just Boris as a series. I intend to keep watching and find out.

Barzellette sui Carabinieri (Carabinieri jokes)

Un carabiniere preoccupato incrocia un suo collega che gli chiede: “Perché sei così preoccupato?”. “Domani ho l’esame del sangue e non ho studiato nulla!”

A worried Carabiniere bumps into a colleague who asks him, “Why are you so worried?” “I’ve got a blood test tomorrow and I haven’t studied at all!”

Un carabiniere fa a un altro: “Gianni la vuoi una birra?” e l’ altro: “sono astemio” e lui: “Astemio la vuoi una birra?”

A Carabiniere asks another, “Gianni, do you want a beer?” The other: “I’m astemio (tee-total)”. The first Carabiniere: “Astemio, do you want a beer?”

I suppose these are the equivalent of dumb blonde jokes in English? Carabinieri (policemen) are generally regarded as being a bit dim. Obviously the two jokes I’ve given as examples are pretty dreadful, but so are the equivalent jokes in English.

Luca Fiorentino

oroscopo del duemiladiciassette per tutti i segni.

gemelli.
grande fermento a inizio anno in ambito lavorativo, ti intesteranno una pizzeria gluten free a mogadiscio.
chiuderai a novembre per controlli asl, gli ispettori somali busseranno a denari ma tu non ti genufletterai a cotali richieste estorsive, denunciando tutto al questore.
ti faranno trovare all’immacolata sgozzato in una toyota rav4, col pesce di un missionario comboniano sistemato ad arte nella tua bocca per la foto di rito sull’articolo di cronaca nera.

vergine.
la gente continuerà a fare il pizzo a riso quando dici che sei vergine, augurissimi.

2017 horoscope

Gemini

A great start to your career this year: you’ll get a gluten-free pizzeria in Mogadishu, which will be closed down by the health inspectors in November. The Somalian health inspectors will try to get money out of you, but instead of giving into their demands you’ll report them to the police. You’ll be found with your throat cut in a Toyota RAV4 with the fish of a Colombian missionary placed artfully in your mouth (?!) in the cronaca nera (crime pages of a newspaper).

Virgo

People will continue to laugh when you say that you’re a vergine (virgin). Augurissimi.

Luca Fiorentino is an untranslatable Neapolitan writer who is prolific on Facebook, updating almost daily with stream-of-consciousness satirical ramblings in dialect. It’s incredibly sharp, often extremely vulgar satire – not mainstream Italian humour. You also need to be Neapolitan (or know a Neapolitan) to understand most of it. Out of all the Italian humour I’ve been exposed to so far, I think Luca Fiorentino might be my favourite. Perhaps because there’s that streak of the surreal that resembles some British humour. Or perhaps there’s something distinctively Neapolitan about it, which is different to more mainstream Italian humour. Sometimes when I say something sarcastic or dry that seems particularly British (to me, at least), Valeriano says I sound Neapolitan. I’ll have to investigate some more conventional Neapolitan comedy (starting with Toto’) and see if there’s a link…

Roman ruins and imaginary prisons: Piranesi at Palazzo Braschi

While frantically trying to find a plumber – the toilet flush panel on the wall had turned into an unstoppable waterfall – I reflected that I’d been spending a lot of time hanging around at home, being domestic and unsuccessfully attempting to fix various problems, and relatively little time out and about in Rome.

So, after a visit from Alessandro the idraulico and a bill for 140 I decided that I would treat myself in the afternoon. Instead of hanging around at home doing laundry and half-heartedly tidying my room, I’d get the bus into the centre and go to a museum instead. The fact that it’s now cool enough to consider venturing outside at 2pm is a cause for celebration in itself, and I felt I should make the most of it.

I visited the Piranesi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi (Museo di Roma), which was my second time at the museum this year. When I went to the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi back in February I had to queue for an hour to get in, whereas I was practically the only person looking at the Piranesis. Is this the difference between a Saturday afternoon vs a Wednesday afternoon, or does this reveal something about the popularity of the artists? When I mentioned Piranesi to a couple of people, they’d never heard of him.

I didn’t know a great deal about Piranesi – I just knew enough to know that I liked him. His evocative prints of Roman ruins and labyrinthine prisons had captured my imagination when I was a teenager, drawn to anything old or remotely Gormenghastian. I have a particular soft spot for his spectacularly over the top Appia Antica, which is like something from a dream:

piranesi appia

The Piranesi exhibition is very comprehensive, with hundreds of prints on display. I’d had no idea that he was that prolific, as I was only really familiar with a handful of his most famous works. During his life he was best-known for his images of Rome – a mixture of conventional pictures of sites such as St Peter’s and the Pantheon and some more obscure ruins.

piranesi forum

The Roman Forum

piranesi pyramid

The Pyramid of Cestius

piranesi minerva

In Piranesi’s time it was known as the Temple of Minerva Medica, but it’s actually a 4th century nymphaeum. It’s visible from Via Giolitti, and a familiar sight for anyone arriving at Termini.

Piranesi was a Venetian obsessed with Ancient Rome and its architecture. In fact, although he’s known as an artist, his way of seeing the world was more architectural than artistic. When confronted with hundreds of images of Roman buildings, pictures dissecting the details of Castel Sant’Angelo’s buttresses, and a whole series of etchings of columns created to refute a claim that Greek architecture was superior to Roman architecture, you begin to understand just how dedicated Piranesi was. A little fanatical.

And fantastical, too. I share Piranesi’s adoration (and idealisation) of Rome, and his tendency to see the more magical side of the city. His images evoke the feeling that I often experienced as a tourist in Rome – feeling completely dwarfed and overwhelmed by the size, grandeur and antiquity of the buildings. Looking at a church or a ruin once is not enough, but you feel like even if you kept staring, trying to take in all the details, you could never see it all.

Although Piranesi’s art shows a meticulous attention to detail, in some cases he plays with dimensions and perspectives to make buildings seem even more awe-inspiring. An article on the Paradoxes of Piranesi explains how the artist creates “an impossible panorama” of the Colosseum: “the section of ranked arcades nearest the viewer swells like something in a convex mirror, while on both sides the arches run off in vertiginous perspective”.

piranesi colosseum

Even more mind-bending is the series known as the Carceri (“Prisons”), apparently completed while Piranesi was in a malarial daze. Stare into the background of never-ending bridges and stairs and you begin to feel dizzy. Before Escher there was Piranesi:

piranesi carceri 1

piranesi carceri 2

The one area of the exhibition that fell flat for me was the 3D video of the Carceri. Unlike the 3D experience at the Domus Aurea (a brilliant use of technology that completely changes your perspective), the 3D re-imagining of the Carceri doesn’t really work. Piranesi’s hallucinatory prisons are stripped down to the bare bones of their architecture using rather beige computer graphics. All the magic disappears. Even the soundtrack – some relaxing plinky-plonky piano music – is all wrong. The unnerving industrial sounds of the Eraserhead soundtrack would be better suited.

Despite considering himself an architect, Piranesi was only responsible for one building in Rome – a building that the average tourist is probably completely unaware of. Behind a wall on the Aventine Hill is the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which Piranesi rebuilt for the Knights of Malta. It’s difficult to find good quality images online, but the Piranesi exhibition has a whole room dedicated to photos of the church. The monochrome interior is all the more beautiful for its relative simplicity. “Simple” when you compare it to other churches in Rome, at least:

piranesi church

When Piranesi died in 1778 at the age of 58 he was buried inside the church. Belonging to the Knights of Malta, the church remains something of a secret, and almost impossible to visit. If you’re not friends with a Knight of Malta, you’ll have to settle for a stroll around the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, the walls of which were designed by Piranesi, and a peek through the not-so-secret keyhole.

All in all, an excellent exhibition. Someone complained in the visitors’ book that there were “too many prints, not enough statues”, which is rather like going to the Sistine Chapel and complaining about the excessive quantity of frescoes, but you can’t please everyone.

The Piranesi exhibition ends 15 October. More information here.

Becoming Italian: un colpo d’aria

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After four years of living in Italy, I’m starting to become a bit less English, un po’ piu’ italiana. Here are some examples:

a) August turned me into an Italian housewife. I wasn’t working and had nothing else to do, so while Valeriano worked I did most of the cooking, food shopping, laundry and “gardening” (ie: trying to keep our pot plants alive). One evening I prepared a Sicilian pasta dish (sardines, raisins, herbs, pine nuts) and peaches with wine and we had dinner on the terrace with our flatmate Tom, and then ended up having a conversation about parenting techniques with our neighbour Florinda. I felt as though I’d aged twenty years and changed nationality.

b) I made a deliberate choice not to buy a train ticket. I was coming back from the beach at Santa Marinella, and I got to the station 10 minutes in advance. With only one ticket machine, a long queue and the prospect of waiting an hour if I missed the train back to Rome, I decided to chance it and get on the train without a ticket. If I got caught by an inspector, I would try to negotiate with him. The inspector didn’t come, and I got away with it. A risk I never would have taken in England…

c) I got angry with a bank and threatened to report them to the Carabinieri. CheBanca! (CheBancadimerda!) deserves an entry of its own, but long story short, their cash machine stole 250 euros from me three months ago and I’m still trying to get the money back. The Italian way to get things done is to be persistent, make a fuss, and if all else fails call the Carabineri. Sto imparando.

d) I understand the point of bidets and have even used them on occasion.

e) I experienced a colpo d’aria.

What is a colpo d’aria? Literally, it’s a hit of air. If you’re not Italian, I imagine you’ve never experienced this before, and are puzzled by the idea of air being dangerous. But once you know what a colpo d’aria is, a lot of Italian behaviour makes sense. Closed windows on hot buses? Refusal to sleep near a fan? A scarf in summer? All ways to prevent the dreaded colpo d’aria…

Until recently, I never took it seriously. I thought of it as an example of Italian hypochondria, as imaginary as la cervicale (neck pain only suffered by Italians) or male al fegato (liver pain only suffered by Italians). While there are hypochondriacs of every nationality, it seems to be particularly pervasive in Italy. An extreme example is a woman I once heard of – a friend of a student – who thinks that sweating is dangerous. Before her son and husband go to bed, she blasts them with a hair-dryer to make sure they’re sweat-free. She’s also been known to creep into people’s rooms while they’re sleeping and hold a mirror under their nose to check that they’ve haven’t died during the night, so she’s obviously fulminata and not representative of the average Italian, but still.

While the dangers of sweating are still up for debate, there’s no doubt about air. Drafts are dangerous. Changes of temperature can practically paralyse you. Sceptical? So was I, until I woke up one morning and couldn’t move.

I was staying at Valeriano’s family home in Cassino. When I woke up and tried to get out of bed I felt an excruciating back pain, centered around my shoulders and upper back. More disturbing than the pain was the lack of obvious cause. I’d never had backache in my life, so why should I have it now? It wasn’t as though I’d been lifting heavy things or straining my back in any way.

Valeriano, of course, had the answer. “Colpo d’aria,” he said. “All the changes of temperature. Yesterday was really hot, but the windows were open in the taxi on the way to Termini and there was some wind, and then there was the air-conditioning in the station, then the heat as we walked down the platform, then the air-conditioning on the train, then heat again as we arrived in Cassino…”

Valeriano’s father was similarly unsurprised by my condition. “You slept with the windows open,” he said, as if that explained everything. It was August. Of course I was sleeping with the windows open and spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned spaces.

I wanted to find something else to blame – the mattress, perhaps – but could think of no logical explanation for the pain. I shuffled around the flat in agony, and when I was offered a shawl to protect me from the air-conditioning, I accepted instead of scoffing. I had no choice but to believe. Colpo d’aria is real.

This month marks the four year anniversary of my move to Rome. While I’ll always be a straniera, I’m starting to feel more integrated, speaking the language more fluently and gaining a deeper understanding of the culture. If that means experiencing Italian illnesses too, so be it.

Where to swim in (or near) Rome

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I’m at a loose end. It’s too hot to do anything during the day. My boyfriend is at work, and most of my friends are out of Rome. I should be grateful I’m not working, but instead I’m spending hours feeling bored and hot and restless, filling the hours with Netflix and subpar Jackie Collins novels until there’s enough shade on the terrace to sit outside.

August in Rome becomes much more manageable if you’ve got a holiday planned. The next best thing is to treat yourself with occasional trips to the beach or pool, which is what I’ve been doing. A couple of times a week I go to the Piscina delle Rose in EUR, balk at the price of getting a lettino and ombrellone and do it anyway, or go to one of the beaches near Rome.

My usual beach of choice is Santa Marinella, but the general consensus is that nearby Santa Severa is superior, so I decided to spend the day there for a change. It’s just 3.60 and an hour from Ostiense, and when you arrive at Santa Severa there’s a little shuttle bus that will take you to the spiaggia libera (free beach) near the castle or one of the private beaches further up the coast.

I was planning to stay on the bus until we reached the private beach, but as we stopped at the castle a lady nudged me and advised me to get off there instead. “E’ bello,” she said simply. So I got off the bus and walked past the 14th century castle of Santa Severa, across the ground that was once the Etruscan port town of Pyrgi, until I reached the beach.

Historical setting aside, the beach of Santa Severa didn’t strike me as being obviously superior to other Roman beaches. The beach was pretty crowded and – the inevitable downside of being a spiaggia libera – not the cleanest. But I was there now, and I thought I might as well give it a try. Apart from anything else, it was too hot to consider traipsing up to the private beaches.

I paid 12 for a lettino and ombrellone and approached the group of young men who ostensibly worked there. They were lounging in deckchairs and paid no attention to me as I stood there with my receipt. When I asked for my lettino they shrugged and looked at each other.

“I think they’re finished,” said one of them.

“But I’ve already paid.”

“Ah.”

Silence.

“Are those lemons on your bag?” said another one.

“…yes.”

Silence.

The first guy finally dragged himself out of his deckchair and went to look for a lettino. Far from being finished, there were actually about 200 of them stacked up just metres away from where they were sitting.

Good customer service is hard enough to find at the best of times, and I probably shouldn’t have expected it from a half-asleep 19 year old on an August afternoon. But to his credit, he did actually carry the lettino and ombrellone instead of getting me to do it myself, and set them up a few feet away from a noisy family.

In my experience, when on a beach in Italy you’re never more than a few feet away from a noisy family (the adults making more noise than the children), or an amorous couple (the woman plucking her boyfriend’s eyebrows), or a group playing Neapolitan card games and tossing their cigarette butts in the sand.

The sand was not particularly clean. Neither was the sea. I spent most of the afternoon reading and listening to music on my lettino, enjoying the breeze. Because while Santa Severa may not be the most spectacular of beaches – it’s certainly no Sardinia – it’s without a doubt meglio di niente. Given the choice between a so-so beach and another afternoon of boredom in my stuffy bedroom, I’ll take the beach every now and again.

Here’s a brief guide to pools and beaches near Rome, all accessible by public transport. I can’t drive – learning is next on my to-do list – so I have to make do with the metro and regionale trains instead.

POOLS

Swimming pools in Rome are not cheap. Unless you’re a member of a gym, expect to pay anywhere from 10 to 80(!!) euros for the privilege of using a pool. The nicest pools are the ones belonging to hotels, but unsurprisingly they also tend to be the most expensive.

I go the Olympic swimming pool in EUR known as Piscina delle Rose. It’s a 5 minute walk from the metro (EUR Palasport) and there’s a lovely big pool with decent facilities. If you just want to swim it’ll cost you 10, and if you want to include a lettino and ombrellone it’s around 20.

A more in-depth outdoor pool guide at Romeing

BEACHES

Ostia – The closest beach to Rome. It’s about 30 minutes on the train from Porta San Paolo (next to Piramide) with a 1.50 metro ticket. There’s a range of private and free beaches, including the Cancelli (a short bus ride from the station). It’s the most convenient option, but downsides include water quality and crowds. As Cosmopolitan notes, the water hasn’t been crystalline since the time of Romulus and Remus, and the beach resembles the Grande Raccordo Annuale (ring road) at rush hour.

Santa Marinella – about 45 minutes on the train from Termini/Ostiense/Trastevere. The great advantage of Santa Marinella is that when you step off the train it’s just a 5 minute walk to the private beach. The beach is clean, the water variable. Expect to pay around 20 for a lettino and ombrellone, and don’t make the fatal mistake of arriving at midday on a Sunday in summer.

Santa Severa – about an hour on the train from Termini/Ostiense/Trastevere. The beach is technically walking distance from the station, but it’s not a particularly pleasant walk (no shade, no pavements), so I’d recommend taking the shuttle bus. Santa Severa is a good option if you don’t want to pay for a private beach, and you can still get a reasonably priced lettino and ombrellone if you want. Facilities are pretty basic but okay.

Anzio/Nettuno – about an hour on the train from Termini. There’s a range of private and free beaches, all of which are pretty average. Anzio’s selling point is that it’s a nice little town in itself, with some decent restaurants and interesting history.

These beaches are the ones I consider to be the closest to Rome, or the easiest to access using public transport. If travel time or transport isn’t an issue, beaches such as Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta are generally considered to be much nicer.

A final word of advice – if at all possible, avoid pools and beaches on weekends in July and August. The crowds can be horrific. Not quite as bad as the generic overcrowded-pool-in-China picture that does the rounds in the media every summer, but still. Not pleasant.

Some more links:

The best beaches within easy reach of Rome

Rome’s 8 best beaches easily accessible by public transport

Top 10 beaches near Rome

A day from Rome: 4 beaches in Lazio worth visiting

Reverse reverse culture shock

After four years Rome has become home, so when I return to my other home – England – I experience the occasional moment of reverse culture shock. Expecting to hear Italian, my brain shuts down when the man at the till in M&S speaks to me in rapid English. Used to the anarchy of driving and road-crossing in Rome, I dither on the side of the pavement in London. Forgetting just how cold the English summer can be, I shiver despite my multiple layers of clothes and tights, and wonder where I can buy an umbrella (no useful umbrella-men pop up in the street when it rains England).

I’ve just spent five weeks in England, mainly working at a summer school in Cambridge. I overcame my initial reverse culture shock and adjusted to a routine of canteen meals, long coach journeys, and shepherding large groups of teenagers through national treasures such as Warwick Castle, King’s College Chapel and Westfield.

I was ready to return to Rome. I’m always ready to return to Rome, craving sunshine and pasta after just a couple of days away. But I wasn’t prepared for the reverse reverse culture shock.

Culture shock was when I came to Rome for the very first time as a tourist and was overwhelmed by the heat, the traffic and the language barrier. Reverse culture shock was when I returned to England after a year of living in Rome and felt like a foreigner. Reverse reverse culture shock happened for the first time after four years of living in Rome when I stepped out of the plane and into an oven.

I’d spent the past month reading about heatwaves and droughts, listening to Valeriano complain about the heat during every Skype conversation, and seeing this kind of content on Facebook:

roma sole

Yet somehow, sitting in my spider-filled room in Cambridge and watching the rain slide down the window, it just didn’t feel real to me.

I spent my first evening in Rome in a state of shock, opening up all the windows and shutters in my flat and wondering where all the air had gone. We have no air-conditioning, only fans that have little effect when the temperature hits 40 degrees. “Potremmo comprare un pinguino,” said Valeriano. Buy a penguin? Had the heat caused him to lose his mind already? But then I understood that he was referring to a Pinguino with a capital “P” – a kind of portable air-conditioning unit. Not an actual penguin.

The following morning a monstrous insect flew into our kitchen – a nightmarish cross between a dragonfly and a wasp – and we discovered a gecko living under the cooker. For a moment it felt like Rome had become another planet – a burning rock with no air, alien creatures emerging from the cracks.

I’m starting to adjust. The heat is intense, but it’s a little less humid today and I’m finding cheap solutions. The Pinguino is too expensive, but I can hang out in air-conditioned bars, supermarkets and restaurants, and plan emergency trips to the swimming pool or beach.

As much as possible, we avoid going out during the day, and live for the evening. Late at night we sit on the terrace, watching the stars, the planes, the shadow of a woman doing her ironing on a neighbouring terrace. Last night we waited for the full moon to cross a TV antennae and savoured the last tiny breath of wind before returning to the furnace of our bedroom to watch Pranzo di Ferragosto, the ultimate August-in-Rome film.

If you’re in Rome this summer, I hope you manage to stay cool. If you’re not in Rome and you’re thinking of visiting, I recommend waiting a bit. Here, we’re all dreaming of October, or – quite unexpectedly – missing the wind and rain on Southport Pier.

Walking from Rome to Castel Gandolfo

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My friend Julia likes walking. She walked from Canterbury to Rome once (and wrote about it here) – a journey of 3 months and 1,600 km. I was there to meet her when she arrived in Piazza San Pietro, looking surprisingly well for someone who had spent more than 80 days trekking across France and Italy with a heavy backpack.

Last week Julia walked from Rome to Terracina (southern Lazio) on the Via Francigena with a group of students from her university. The journey is 140 km and takes only 6 days. Compared to the Canterbury-Rome journey, it’s a breeze.

I agreed to join Julia on the first stretch of the walk, starting at Circo Massimo and ending at the hill-town of Castel Gandolfo. 24 km is manageable, I thought. I occasionally walk to work (Testaccio to Montesacro – 11km in 2 hours), and doing just over double didn’t seem too ambitious. Although my boyfriend, friends and colleagues thought I was mad for wanting to spend my entire Sunday walking, I was sure I could do it. If Julia could walk for an average of 20km a day every day for three months, I could certainly cope with a single day of walking.

The route was another incentive. Most of the walk is along Appia Antica, perhaps my favourite place in the world. I usually reach a certain point of the road and then turn back, resisting the temptation to keep going on forever. This was a chance to discover what lay beyond…

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We met at Circo Massimo at 9am on Sunday – Julia and her fellow Kent students, miscellaneous friends, and me and my flatmate Tom. We walked past the ruins of Terme di Caracalla and through the ancient gate of Porta San Sebastiano which now marks the beginning of Appia Antica. The first part of the road was surprisingly busy, filled with Ancient Roman soldiers and people handing out flyers. There was a kind of “open day”, with everything from fancy dress to folk music to food stalls. On any other day I would have stayed to check it out, and spent more time exploring the archaeological sites, but we had to stay focused and keep walking. There was a long way to go…

We went past the familiar landmarks – the enormous, castle-like mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman general), headless statues, the lonely ruins of Villa dei Quintilli, the farmhouse that sits surreally on top of an overgrown tomb – until we reached a stretch of the road I’d never been to before.

Approaching Ciampino, there’s a strange blend of city and countryside. The road is lined with olive groves and fields, but you can see warehouses and the airport in the distance. When the planes are landing, they drown out the birdsong and the bleats of the sheep.

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(A side note – while most of Appia Antica is kept clean and well-maintained, part of the road near Ciampino is absolutely filthy. Beer bottles, paper plates, plastic bags and condom wrappers everywhere. It’s almost as if someone’s torn open a hundred bin bags and scattered the contents along Rome’s most beautiful road. Very sad…)

Beyond Ciampino, Appia Antica became more rural. In some parts the ancient cobblestones disappeared, and the road became a mere dirt track. Nothing but long grass, dirt, wildflowers, wind, and the midday sun. No other people, apart from the occasional cyclist. The last group we’d seen – a yoga class stretching on the grass in front of an ancient wall – seemed like a distant memory.

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It was around this point that I began to suffer a catastrophic hayfever attack. “Catastrophic” is not an exaggeration. It was an hour of sneezing my head off, sneezing until my throat hurt and my head ached and I could barely see the road in front of me.

Appia Antica comes to an abrupt end in the town/suburb of Santa Maria delle Mole. We stopped at a bar for lunch, though none of us were hungry. The heat meant that an ice-cold Fanta was a much more tempting option. Still sneezing, I considered the possibility of ending the walk and returning back to central Rome. I was such a wreck that I couldn’t imagine getting any enjoyment out of the rest of the walk, and the combination of physical tiredness, mental tiredness and the heat meant that I was reluctant to continue, especially as the rest of the walk would be uphill.

But it was obviously fate. Julia had Claritin, and I would have had to wait an hour and a half for the next train to central Rome. “Besides,” said Julia, “we’re nearly there. Only a few more kilometres.”

Those last few kilometres were the hardest. We were in the rural hinterland of Rome, an area that’s too close to the city to be considered true countryside, but which nonetheless feels like the middle of nowhere. We trekked through pseudo-country lanes, past sort-of-farms, very vicious dogs and countless signs giving directions to Damiano’s birthday party. At one point we reached a dead end that shouldn’t have been a dead end; the farmer had decided to block access to the main road by arbitrarily constructing a high fence. Half the group decided to take the risk and climb the gate, while the more cowardly half (me included), fearing possible dog attacks/angry farmers/fence accidents, turned back and went the long way round.

We climbed. We passed the villa where Damiano’s birthday party was being celebrated. Then we climbed some more. And then, at last, we saw the sign that said “Castel Gandolfo”, and we crossed the road to admire the view of Lake Albano – a very inviting shade of blue.

Then, because Castel Gandolfo was built by sadists, we climbed some more to reach the historic centre, before collapsing in the piazza and drinking some very well-deserved beers.

After nearly seven hours of walking, none of us really had the energy for sightseeing, but Castel Gandolfo is a pretty little place – the Pope’s summer retreat – and easily accessible from Rome. If you don’t fancy walking, you can get the train from Termini (40 minutes).

Those of us who weren’t continuing to Terracina got the train back to Rome. Typically, there was no ticket office, only a broken ticket machine. We explained the situation to the guard on the train, who sold us tickets with a mandatory 0.50 fine per ticket. He acknowledged that it wasn’t our fault, but apparently there was no way of selling us the tickets on board the train without including the fine.

That’s Italy for you. Dysfunctional, beautiful.

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Bring on the next adventure…

Canzone #7: “Tammurriata Nera” by N.C.C.P. (1981)

Music is everywhere in Naples. There are street performers all along Spaccanapoli, and shops blasting music at full volume on a Sunday morning, even in the sleepiest streets. There’s a piano at the central train station, and on my last visit a group of men – strangers, as far as I could tell – were gathered around the piano, singing traditional Neapolitan folk songs.

“Tammurriata Nera” is a Neapolitan song from the 1940s. Written during the war, it’s an ironic account of a local woman’s affair with a (black) American soldier. She then gives birth to a baby boy. The central theme of the song is the colour of the baby’s skin, which can’t be denied:

Ca tu ‘o chiamme Ciccio o ‘Ntuono,
ca tu ‘o chiamme Peppe o Giro,
chillo, o fatto, è niro, niro,

(Call him Ciccio or Antonio,
Call him Peppe o Giro,
Whoever made him is black)

In other words, you can call him whatever Italian name you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that his father was black.

Is it racist? Well, yes. According to James Senese, child of a Neapolitan woman and a black American solider:

Tammurriata nera è una canzone razzista, fai attenzione, non sentire la musica, ascolta le parole: offendono una donna bianca che fa un figlio con un nero. Insomma dice che ‘o guaglione è ‘nu figlio ‘e zoccola. Ti dicessi che è stato facile direi bugia. Dovevi conquistarti una tua dimensione e quando sei bambino non è automatico, te lo devi imparare a forza. Io mi guardavo e lo vedevo che non ero come gli altri. Figurati gli altri: “Sî niro”, sei nero, questo era.”

It’s a song where all the focus is on the child’s blackness, and so “otherness”. Yet it’s not entirely negative – although society’s response is to raise a collective eyebrow, there’s no sense of rejection. Just acknowledgement of an undeniable difference.

The lyrics are all in Neapolitan dialect, so unless you’re from Naples you probably won’t understand the majority of it. But even without any knowledge of Neapolitan (or even Italian), you can appreciate that it’s a powerful performance.

This version of “Tamurriata Nera” is performed by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, a group that’s been performing traditional Neapolitan songs since the 1970s. I haven’t really explored their discography yet, but when I first discovered them – listening to a record a palla during a visit to Valeriano’s family home in Cassino – this song also caught my attention. Most of my favourite Italian music tends to be at the poppier end of the spectrum, so it makes a change to listen to something darker, stranger, almost Arabic. Can’t beat a bit of incomprehensible wailing in dialect, where virtually the only word you understand is baccala’ (cod)….

Mortacci tua, Carlone: restaurant adventures in Rome

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Valeriano and I agree about most things.

There are a few exceptions: Brexit; dogs wearing coats; whether Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize; the dangers of electric fans; what causes various illnesses; bidets; eating out at restaurants

Valeriano is not a fan of restaurants. He prefers cooking, eating at home, and not being ripped off for a plate of pasta. It’s an attitude shared by many Italians. During a discussion with my teenage students about whether eating out in Rome was good value, I suggested that it was, “As you only pay something like €10 for pasta.” “10!” they cried, “That’s too much!” Their reasoning is that you shouldn’t waste money on a basic pasta dish with cheap ingredients. If you can make it at home for a fraction of the price, why order it at a restaurant?

But I live in Testaccio, where paying 9-13 for a primo is standard, and it doesn’t bother me. As an ex-Londoner, restaurant prices in Rome generally seem reasonable. 20 for some pasta, bread, a side dish of vegetables, wine and water? Sounds good to me.

On average, I probably eat out 2-3 times a week. Sometimes I drag Valeriano with me.

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This trattoria in Trastevere was recommended by a friend of Valeriano’s, who enthused about the enormous portions of pasta. It’s a smart, old-fashioned little restaurant in the quiet part of Trastevere, and we were lucky to get a table without booking. The waiter referred to Valeriano as my “marito“, which was a first.

Of course I was going to order cacio e pepe – the delicious, extremely comforting combination of pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper that I practically live off. Valeriano decided to order it too, and for 26 (“mortacci tua, Carlone”) the waiter brought us an absurdly enormous dish of pasta to be shared. It was for two people, but it could easily have been shared by four.

Because cacio e pepe is such a simple dish, its few ingredients tend to be added in lavish quantities. Un sacco di cacio, un sacco di pepe. I always say there’s no such thing as too much cheese, but there is such a thing as too much pepper, as we discovered at Da Carlone. It seemed like the cook had taken inspiration from the videos on Tasty, dumping fistfuls of pepper into the dish.

Mortacci tua**, Carlone,” said Valeriano, gulping down water in-between mouthfuls. And to the waiter: “C’e’ tanto pepe.”

Si chiama cacio e pepe,” the waiter shrugged. “Senza pepe sarebbe…” Yeah, we get it. As the name suggests, pepper is a fundamental ingredient of cacio e pepe. But in this dish, Valeriano joked, there was enough pepper to hospitalize someone.

20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived. An elderly lady at another table was taken out for a check-up. Meanwhile, a band squeezed themselves between the tables and performed traditional Roman folk songs, serenading us as Valeriano coughed and I inhaled the remaining pasta.

Would Valeriano eat there again? No. Would I? Probably. I recommend Da Carlone if you’re extremely hungry and feel like a challenge.

A Japanese restaurant, Prati

Japanese food is very popular in Rome. For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. Why were there so many Japanese restaurants in Rome when there were hardly any Japanese immigrants? Chinese restaurants made sense – lots of Chinese people living in Rome. But as Japanese food is no better than Thai or Indian food, for example, the Japanese restaurants popping up all around the centre didn’t make much sense to me.

Even the Italian teenagers I know – those who firmly believe in the supremacy of Italian food, even distrusting foreign food as pleasant and inoffensive as hummus – can’t get enough of sushi. Why?

Another student of mine explained that the sushi trend began in Milan. One good Japanese restaurant opening in Milan was enough to create a trend in Milan, which has since been copied in Rome. Although I don’t deny that Japanese food can be really good, it seems that the prevalence of Japanese restaurants in Rome has more to do with fashion than the superiority of the cuisine.

Late last night, on a whim, Valeriano and I decided to try a Japanese restaurant. We were in Prati – the upmarket neighbourhood near the Vatican – and felt like splashing out, and trying something else for a change. I eat Japanese food occasionally, but Valeriano had never even tried sushi.

I was a little apprehensive, convinced that he wouldn’t like it. While he appreciates Indian and Lebanese food, somehow I just couldn’t see him enjoying sushi. I couldn’t see him appreciating the restaurant either. It was a stylish, slightly pretentious place with black walls, dim lighting and an indoor fountain. In the toilets there was a fancy, waterfall-style tap and 360 degree mirrors that gave you a view of yourself from every angle. Seeing yourself in profile can be a bit disconcerting sometimes, and I’m not sure it’s the ideal bathroom experience, having a minor existential crisis while you wash your hands. (“Is that what I really look like from the side? Is that how other people see me? Who am I?”)

We were both a bit out of place, with our scuffed motorbike helmets, me accidentally wearing my cardigan inside out, Valeriano in his Joy Division t-shirt. He had no idea what to order, and I wasn’t sure either. I’m not used to sushi menus without pictures.

In the end we ordered miso soup, edamame beans, a rice dish with vegetables and fish, a sushi/sashimi mix and a bottle of white wine. Valeriano found everything disgusting apart from the wine, and, much to my surprise, the miso soup, which he declared buonissima. I thought everything was just about okay, but not exceptional. I’ve had much better sushi in Rome, and given the restaurant decor and prices, I’d been expecting something a bit more special.

Mortacci tua,” said Valeriano when he saw the bill. We saw our waiter not-so-discreetly snorting cocaine behind the bar. “No wonder it’s so expensive. Our money pays for the furniture, the fountain and his cocaine habit…”

To conclude: Valeriano’s first and last sushi experience. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant, but Temakinho (Prati and Monti) and Sampei (Viale Regina Margherita) are very good for sushi. If you like that kind of thing…

** “mortacci tua” is a very Roman expression that could be translated in a myriad of ways – “fuck you”, “son of a bitch”, “bastard”, “motherfucker”. More literally, it means “fuck your dead relatives” and it ranges from extremely offensive to comical depending on the context. As an exclamation, it’s “mortaaacci tuuuuua”, uttered in a tone of outrage and disbelief. If you want to say “fuck their dead relatives”, it’s “mortaaacci looooro”.