Go Thou To Rome

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

“Go thou to Rome” said Shelley – so I went

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It’s strange to think, during the more mundane moments of my life in Rome – sitting on the trenino, or taking orders from the loudspeaker in the supermarket queue (“Cassa…numero…sette“), that if it weren’t for two long-dead Romantic poets, I probably wouldn’t be here at all.

Indirectly, in a myriad of ways, Keats and Shelley influenced my decision to come to Rome. It all started as a teenager, re-reading their poems obsessively, devouring every biographical detail, and even writing a Shelleyan novel (finished and then abandoned). Apart from the fact that I adored their poetry, I was also deeply inspired by their lives – how Keats turned his back on a career and devoted his short life to poetry; how Shelley rejected his country, wealth and social norms to pursue his ideals in Italy. They burned so brightly, creating such an astonishing body of work in the space of just a few years, and then they were gone – Keats from tuberculosis at 25, Shelley drowned at 29. Both were buried in Rome.

They were my heroes. When I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer at Keats House in Hampstead, it was a dream come true – giving guided tours, closing the shutters at the end of the day and imagining how Keats himself would have stood at those windows, watching Fanny Brawne in the garden. For many visitors, coming to Keats House was a kind of pilgrimage – a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to do it weekend after weekend.

Then, while at university, I found myself wondering what to do with the summer. On an impulse I wrote an email to Keats-Shelley House in Rome, asking if I could do some work experience in the museum. They said yes, and I began to plan a 3 week trip to Rome . This would be my poetic pilgrimage, a chance to pay my respects to Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery and to spend time in the building where Keats had spent his last months. On top of that, of course, there would be sightseeing and copious amounts of pizza and pasta. The only thing that prevented it from being a perfect holiday was that I would have to rough it in a shared hostel room and limit myself to a budget of 20 a day. It wouldn’t exactly be a luxury experience, but it would be an adventure.

Re-reading old blog posts from that time (September 2011) makes me nostalgic:

11 September

Things I did today:

-Visited the Protestant Cemetery, found Shelley, Keats, Severn, Trelawny and Wilmouse. A kindred spirit had already put some little blue flowers there. I didn’t bring any flowers, as I couldn’t find anywhere selling them nearby, but I plan to go back on my own after Rachel’s left, so I don’t bore her with my dead poet love.

-Spent ages at the Baths of Caracalla, which are spectacular. Possibly one of the best things I’ve done so far. Shelley used to walk there all the time, and sit there writing poetry.

-Accidentally spilt water all over the 1890s edition of Shelley’s poetry that was in my bag, and started to get upset, but then stopped when I realised that there was something quite poetic about a Shelleyan day ending with his poetry being drowned. It’s only the cover of the book that’s damaged, thankfully – the inside is all right.

Other posts romanticise every aspect of working at Keats-Shelley House, from sitting in the the office in the attic and poring over Severn’s letters to wandering around barefoot in the library, cataloguing books and dusting shelves.

Those three weeks in Rome would define my life. I remember the exact moment I made the decision, sitting on a bench beneath the umbrella pines in Villa Borghese: “I want to live here”.

When I came back to England, I told everyone my new life plan: “Move to Rome and write novels”.

7 years later, I’ve been living in Rome for 5 years, my debut novel is due to be published, and I’m in the middle of writing another one. As Valeriano says, “If you say you’re going to do something, you do it”.

This sudden wallowing in nostalgia isn’t completely out of the blue. It was prompted by a return to Keats-Shelley House yesterday, for a poetry reading by the actor Julian Sands. One of those things you book impulsively without really thinking about it, and then the moment arrives and you suddenly realise how perfect it is, how you’d have been mad not to go.

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Julian Sands is best-known for his performance in A Room with a View, but he also played Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic, and is a long-time fan of Keats and Shelley. He reminisced about taking girls on dates to Keats House in Hampstead back when he was a drama student and, like me, he has fond memories of his first trips to Rome and visits to the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery.

At Keats-Shelley House he read a selection of poems by both poets – poems that I know by heart, like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Adonais” – and, I have to admit, it was moving. Aside from the fact that I find Keats and Shelley moving in themselves for so many reasons, it was a profound experience to sit in that room and reflect on changes in my life. At 15 I was studying “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” for GCSE English in a classroom in London, and at 26 I was listening to Julian Sands recite the poem I loved so much in Keats-Shelley House, Rome, the city I’d made my home.

Afterwards there was prosecco on the terrace. I had a brief chat with Julian Sands, as I wanted to thank him and try to articulate exactly what the reading had meant for me. How to say to a stranger, “This is one of those unexpectedly meaningful moments that make you reflect on your life – past, present and future – on who you are, on who you want to be, and your relationship with your idols…so thank you”?

I didn’t say that, exactly, but something like it. Then I finished my prosecco and left, passing through the hordes of tourists in Piazza di Spagna to get the metro, and resume my normal Roman life.

Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness…

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From Testaccio to Torpignattara

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The past five months have been frantic – a lot of work, crowdfunding taking over my life, and then moving flat…I’ve been wanting to write about a million different things, but I never seem to have the time.

I no longer live in Testaccio. I’ve mostly accepted this, although I still get a pang when I go back, or even pass Viale Aventino (“That used to be the way home!”) For various reasons (mainly financial), Valeriano and I are now living in Torpignattara.

Where is Torpignattara?

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Answers: “Near Pigneto”; “about 5 km east of Termini”, “it’s not on the metro, so you wouldn’t have heard it”.

Responses when I told people I was moving to Torpignattara:

Most people in Rome: “Where?”
The guy at the fruit and vegetable shop in Testaccio: “Brutta zona. Brutta, brutta zona. You couldn’t pay me to live there.”
Someone who lives in Montesacro, with a concerned expression: “…really? But do you…want to live there?”
A teenage student in Montesacro: “You can find the best weed in Rome in Torpignattara.”

Prejudices and preconceptions aside – Torpignattara is a left-wing, working-class neighbourhood in the east of Rome with a high population of immigrants. It’s right next to Pigneto, which is better-known (and gentrified). Torpignattara will probably be gentrified eventually, given its relatively central location, but not for at least 5-10 years. At the moment, the only hints of its destiny are the craft beer place and the street art.

In order to become gentrified, it’ll have to become a bit more accessible. Despite the fact that it’s just a few kilometres from Termini, getting to Torpignattara can be an ordeal. It’s technically on the metro (Malatesta), but metro C doesn’t count. There’s a bus, the infamous 105, which comes twice an hour if you’re lucky and has made me consider dousing a handkerchief in perfume to hold over my nose for the duration of the journey. Then there’s the trenino, which not exactly a train or a tram, but something in-between.

Here’s the trenino on a good day:

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And on a bad day:

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A colleague said the trenino, when full, reminded her of the trains for Auschwitz. But in the trenino’s defence, when it works, it’s pretty good. It’s comes regularly and rattles along in a charmingly old-fashioned way, making a genuine “choo-choo” noise every now and then (I can hear it from my bedroom window). Yes, when it arrives at Termini it will unfortunately deposit you at the end of Via Giolitti, meaning you have a long, brisk walk past dazed tourists, rows of rough sleepers and the occasional puddle of fluorescent vomit if you want to get anywhere. But the trenino does connect you with the centre. Sort of. Most of the time.

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So, imagine you’re going the other way. You take the trenino from the wrong end of Termini, rattle through the surreal transport hub that is Porta Maggiore – a vast Ancient Roman gate and aqueduct surrounded by trams, buses, and greenery used as a picnic spot by gypsies – and arrive in Torpignattara. What next?

Here are some options for the adventurous tourist:

  • Visit the gigantic Carrefour. It’s open 24 hours and is so huge that every time I visit I get lost trying to find the eggs, and end up having a minor existential crisis.
  • Take a walk along Via di Torpignattara, where pretty much everyone is an immigrant (myself included). It’s a little bit like Brick Lane pre-gentrification.
  • Have lunch at Betto e Mary, a famous Roman trattoria where approximately 40% of the menu is horse meat and men with ties are not allowed.
  • After Betto e Mary, keep going along the street to explore the neighbourhood-within-a-neighbourhood known as La Certosa. There’s a fish restaurant with plastic tables right in the middle of the road, an Amy Winehouse mural, a tribute to the young Communist Ciro Principessa who was murdered in a politically-motivated attack, and various illegally-built houses backing on to the train tracks. If you’re not from the neighbourhood, you’ll get stared at.
  • Check out the street art. There are spectacular murals all over the place.
  • Visit the park with the Roman aqueduct (Parco Sangalli).
  • Have aperitivo at Shakespeare & Co or Chourmo, both of which are tiny literary bars on the same street. There’s live jazz at Chourmo on Sunday nights.

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Adjusting to Torpignattara hasn’t been easy. Nothing against Torpignattara – moving anywhere was going to be a struggle after Testaccio, a neighbourhood where I’d lived for more than 4 years, and felt so at home. All of Testaccio felt like an extension of my apartment, so moving to Torpignattara was a bit of a shock. It was like starting all over again – feeling like a foreigner, not knowing where to buy anything or how to get to work. I lost my beloved Linari and to find a new bar to have coffee every morning. Not easy.

But, piano piano, I’m settling. I’ve found a bar. I think I remember where the eggs are in Carrefour. And I’m getting to know people. As I waited to cross the Casilina an African boy of about 7 or 8 years old randomly insisted on giving me one of his toys because “I’ve got too many”. The guy at the market calls me “Principessa”. The woman at the bar serves me a cappuccino without me needing to say anything. In this most Roman, most diverse of neighbourhoods, I’m starting to feel at home.

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*

One of the main reasons for the lack activity on this blog is that I’ve been busy with the crowdfunding for my novel In Exile (85% funded). The book is set in Rome and tells the story of Dionysus and his new teenage following. If you’d like to bring a new novel about Rome into existence and help a debut author to achieve a lifelong dream, please take a look…

Helping the homeless in Rome: Nico’s story

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I ignored Nico for at least six months. I walked past him like I walked past other homeless people – always with a pang of guilt and pity, but not enough to make me stop. The fact that I walked past him every day on the way to work made me feel more guilty about ignoring him, but also less inclined to stop. Once I acknowledged his existence, I would never be able to go back to ignoring him again.

Having lived in London, Oxford and Rome – all cities with a huge homeless population – I suppose I’d become desensitised. I was so used to seeing people sitting on the pavement that it was easy to walk past, using one of the usual excuses (“I’ll give money to a charity instead”; “I’ll be more generous in the future, when I’m richer”). I would buy the occasional Big Issue and donate to other charitable causes to ease my conscience.

But Nico changed all that. After hurrying past him day after day, trying to ignore the growing sense of guilt as I made my way to Piramide, I suddenly reached a point where I couldn’t ignore him any more. I think it was a combination of two incidents. The first was seeing a young man stop to talk to Nico, and the realisation that it was possible to break this invisible wall. The second was walking towards him and noticing that he was reading something intently. He was hunched over, reading some kind of magazine spread out on the ground. As I got closer, I saw what it was – an empty sticker book. Pages of empty boxes with footballers’ names beneath. The idea of reading an empty sticker book to pass the time was just too tragic. I resolved to talk to him.

Nico’s usual spot lies at the end of via Marmorata. He sits with his back to the wall of the Protestant Cemetery and the Pyramid. He has a little cardboard box in front of him with a few coins, but he never asks for anything. He never looks up. He always seems to be in his own world, gazing at nothing in particular.

Scusa…” When he realises I’m talking to him he seems startled, almost frightened. What do I want from him? Overcoming social awkwardness and a language barrier – we speak in Italian, which is not his native language either – the conversation is short. I tell him that I want to help him, and that he should feel free to ask me for anything he wants. He thanks me warily, eyes fixed on the ground.

Over the following weeks, as I brought him food and toiletries and asked “Come stai?” he gradually began to open up. Although he never asked for anything, he gratefully accepted anything I gave him. He also complained bitterly about the place where he slept – in front of the post office on the other side of the road – where at least 20 other homeless people slept every night. Nico, himself a Romanian immigrant, complained about the Arabs who smoked and talked, making so much noise that they kept him up all night. Sometimes they stole from him.

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In the early stages of my relationship with Nico, I was determined to get him off the streets. Naively optimistic, I thought that if I could get him in touch with the right people, I would be able to get him into a shelter. He didn’t seem to have any addictions or any obvious signs of mental illness, and given his age (60s?) he had a more urgent need for shelter. But every time I mentioned it to him, he just shrugged, and showed no interest in pursuing the subject.

I sent an email to Sant’Egidio, a charity that helps the homeless in Rome. They replied saying that they knew Nico, but that they had never been able to convince him to come to a shelter. He would accept donations of money, food and clothes, but he refused the offer of a bed.

This was something of an eye-opener for me. I had always assumed that any bed was better than the street, and that Nico would have been been eager to accept anything. When he said no (or rather, stared into the middle-distance whenever I brought up the subject), I was finally forced to give up and set more realistic expectations.

If I couldn’t get him off the streets, I could at least help to make his life more bearable. Over the following months Valeriano and I gave him: pizza, sandwiches, cornetti, fruit, chocolate, tissues, toothpaste, cigarettes, painkillers, underwear, shoes, t-shirts, jumpers, a warm winter jacket, a sleeping bag. And a few euros here and there.

Our conversations were always short and a little formulaic, going something like this:

Me: “Ciao! Come stai?

Nico: -a smile and a shrug, or else the usual complaints about the other homeless people who sleep in front of the post office-

Me: “I brought you some pizza/bread/fruit. Is there anything else I can get for you?”

Nico: -says no, or mentions that he could do with a new pair of shoes, but only if they’re second-hand of course-

Me: “Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Anyway, I’ve got to dash…”

Nico: “Buon lavoro, signora. Arriverderci…

One day, something changed, and no one was allowed to sleep in front of the post office any more. It turned out to be something of a blessing for Nico, who found a new place to sleep – in front of a restaurant on Viale della Piramide Cestia – where he was no longer disturbed by other people. His mood improved, and his only complaints were about how the bench was hard on his back, or how it had rained heavily the other night. He seemed as happy as he could reasonably be expected to be.

But then he disappeared. For a while there was no sign of him at all, and Valeriano jokingly tried to reassure me that he was probably on holiday (“maybe the Maldives”). Then Nico reappeared under the post office arcade, far away from the stream of people on the opposite side of the road who might occasionally stop to give him money. Then he disappeared again.

On 22 December, the day I flew back to London for Christmas, I decided to look for him. I hadn’t talked to him for at least a couple of weeks, and as I’d ended up with an extra Panettone, I thought I should make an effort to find him, see how he was, and give him the cake and some oranges.

There was no sign of him by the cemetery wall, or anywhere near the post office. The only other place I could think of was the place where he’d told me slept, on Viale della Piramide Cestia. And that’s where I found him, curled up on the ground while two women swept up the leaves around him.

He looked terrible. Emaciated, barely conscious. I noticed that among his possessions was an un-opened Pandoro – I wasn’t the only person who’d thought to give him a Christmas gift.

He didn’t really seem to register my presence, so I spoke to the women who were sweeping leaves. They lived locally and seemed to know him well. “He’s not eating,” said one, “We brought him some chicken but he won’t eat anything. There’s not much we can do.” Alarmed by his state of health, I asked if we should call someone.

“He doesn’t have any family. He had a brother – they had a business together, but it failed, and they fell out, and now he has no one. He won’t go into a shelter. If it gets bad he’ll have to go into hospital again, like he did last year, but afterwards he’ll be out here again.”

The night before had been the coldest night of the year, and I couldn’t stand the thought of him spending another night on the streets when he was in such a bad state. I put the Panettone and the oranges next to his belongings and bent down to say goodbye, not sure if he even knew who I was. He raised his palm, as if to wave, and then took my hand and kissed it, tears in his eyes.

When I walked away, I was crying too. The situation seemed hopeless, but I couldn’t leave Rome without at least trying to get him help. Valeriano and I tried a few numbers until we found an organisation that checked up on homeless people during the winter. We told them where Nico was, and a couple of hours they called back.

“He doesn’t need to go into hospital yet. There’s not much we can do for him. He’s an alcoholic, you know.”

I didn’t know. Having never seen him drunk, drinking, or with a bottle of alcohol beside him, it had never occurred to me that he might be an alcoholic. Suddenly, his refusal to go into a shelter made more sense.

“We’ll check up on him again tonight,” said the person on the phone.

*

There will be no happy ending for Nico. A year ago, I naively thought – hoped – that with a bit of help he could get off the streets. Now, I know that the best he can hope for is to not suffer too much in the remaining months or years of his life, and that when he does die, it will be in a hospital bed and not on the pavement.

When I think about Nico, I also think about all the other homeless people that we ignore every day. People who are less approachable, because they’re mentally ill or addicts, or because they don’t look sweet and non-threatening like Nico. People who hide away in parks or under bridges, rather than sitting on the busy street that leads to the metro station.

You can’t always save someone, no matter how good your intentions are. But you can make a difference. You can choose to acknowledge a homeless person as a human being, to ask how they are, to buy them a cup of coffee or a sandwich. Talk to them.

The easiest option is to walk past, and pretend that it’s not your problem. But try not walking past, for a change. Stop, talk to him, and see what happens.

*

Resources:

Project Rome – their website is currently down, but check out their Facebook page. Run by British expat Mary Stuart-Miller, Project Rome distributes food, clothes and sleeping bags to the homeless in Rome, and organises “Tiburtina Tuesday” – a weekly event near Tiburtina station where volunteers provide home-cooked meals.

Sant’Egidio – this charity offers food, shelter and other services for the homeless community in Rome.

If you see a vulnerable homeless person in Rome during the winter months you can call 800440022

Canzone #8 “Amanda Lear” by Baustelle (2017)

“Amanda Lear” is a rip-off of a superior song. The lyrics are laughable.

But it’s also my favourite (Italian) song of 2017.

You only have to hear about 3 seconds of “Amanda Lear” to realise that it’s a blatant rip-off of Pulp’s Common People. The melody is identical – I’m surprised Jarvis Cocker hasn’t sued. So the first couple of times I listened to “Amanda Lear”, it was mainly out of incredulity: “What a ridiculous song! A crap Italian version of Common People!”

Then I listened to it again…and again…and again. And eventually I realised that I was no longer listening to it ironically. By the summer of 2017 it had become a guilty pleasure. Now, at the end of 2017, it’s just a pleasure. I unashamedly love “Amanda Lear,” in all its derivative pretentiousness.

The Pulp plagiarism is self-evident and needs no further explanation, so let’s have a look at some of the lyrics:

Colpa mia
se quest’anno ti hanno visto, mi dicono,
vomitare gli occhi e l’anima a un concerto rock
abbracciata ad una testa di cazzo
un regista un coreografo, che ne so
un lavoro come un altro, una droga
per illuderci e credere di essere uomini

(My fault
if this year they saw you, they tell me
vomiting your eyes and soul at a rock concert
hugging a dickhead
a director, a choreographer, I don’t know
a job like any other, a drug
to delude ourselves and believe that we’re men)

dicevi
I wanna be Amanda Lear
il tempo di un LP
il lato A, il lato B
non siamo mica immortali, bruciamo ed è meglio così
Amanda Lear, soltanto per un LP
il lato A, il lato B
che niente dura per sempre nemmeno la musica

(you said
I wanna be Amanda Lear
the time of an LP
the A side, the B side
we’re not immortal, we burn and it’s better that way
Amanda Lear, only for an LP
the A side, the B side
nothing lasts forever, not even music)

My nomination for the worst line is “ti ho dato in pasto agli avvoltoi/all’olocausto e ai marinai” (“I fed you to the vultures/the Holocaust and sailors”). It’s the kind of song where he sings “fotografia” and it could easily be replaced with “democrazia” or “osteria” and it wouldn’t make a difference.

So, all that said, why am I in love with “Amanda Lear”?

  • the melody (even if it’s copied)
  • the synths (anything with synths)
  • the reference to “Enola Gay” (also a superior song)
  • the reference to Amanda Lear (which makes me feel nostalgic even for the 70s, even if I was born two decades after)
  • the Roxy Music vibe
  • Francesco Bianconi’s voice
  • the general mood and atmosphere – nostalgic, glamorous, wistful but bitter.
  • the catchy chorus which begins with “dicevi” (“you said/you used to say”). Whenever Valeriano or I begin a sentence with “dicevi“, the other person has to say “I wanna be Amanda Lear”. That’s the rule.
  • a certain je ne sais quoi, ma che ne so

I do have a soft spot for Baustelle. They’re a bit silly, a bit radical chic, but that’s all part of their charm. My other favourites are La guerra e’ finita (with the unforgivable line “Malgrado Belgrado, America e Bush“) and Le rane (lyrics actually quite good for once).

But you don’t have to know Italian to enjoy Baustelle. In fact, perhaps it’s better if you don’t. Just listen to “Amanda Lear”, laugh at it, and, if you have a weakness for synth pop like me, let it worm its way into your head and heart….

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

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

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(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

IMG_20170811_111728_884

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

IMG_20170825_171121_322

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