Go Thou To Rome

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

Trieste: cities to see vs cities to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Applying for Italian citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information on citizenship

How to become an Italian citizen

How to obtain Italian citizenship

Do you qualify for Italian dual citizenship?

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

Some blog posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Terme di Roma (Tivoli)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the website:

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

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

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

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

Staying cool in Rome

Where to swim in Rome

Rome facts month

rome drone Mauro Pagliai

(photo: Mauro Pagliai)

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

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

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The decline of Rome: putting things in perspective

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(The scene of the crime)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudio Leporati – a goodbye

In November 2017 I went to my first Italian wedding. My friend Claudio married Konstanze.

Last week I went to my first Italian funeral. It was Claudio’s.

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Claudio was one of the first people I met, when I moved to Rome in 2013. We met at an expat event at Rec 23 in Testaccio. He wasn’t an expat – he was an Italian from Genova – but expat events in Rome tend to be frequented by Italians who are (a) trying to hit on foreign women or (b) genuinely looking for new friends. Claudio was incredibly friendly and sociable, always looking to meet new people, and he belonged firmly in the latter category.

I was 22, he was 48. When I describe how we met, and mention our ages, I know how it sounds. But from the beginning, and for the duration of our friendship, we were only ever platonic friends. Claudio had been single for a long time, and clearly wanted to meet someone, but our relationship revolved around cinema and culture.

Claudio became my “cinema friend”. That was how I referred to him, because 90% of the times we met up, we went to the cinema together. At the Nuovo Olimpia, Quattro Fontane, film societies, or the tiny cinema in the Villa Borghese. Claudio was a rare example of an Italian who insisted on watching films in their original language, rather than the dubbed versions.

I saw so many films with Claudio. A lot of quite terrible films, actually. Well, I don’t want to insult a classic like The Passion of Joan of Arc, but watching a silent film when the captions are only available in Danish is not the most enjoyable film-going experience. Then there was the Ukrainian film in sign language, which was also one of the most brutal, harrowing films I’ve ever seen…I would have walked out if I hadn’t been there with Claudio.

But there were some good films too. Like Under the Skin at a tiny cinema in Trastevere, where we were the only people there. (Most people I know hated Under the Skin, but Claudio and I both loved it). Barry Lyndon at the Cinema Aquila in Pigneto…And sometimes it didn’t even matter what the film was, because the real pleasure was going with him, and listening to his analysis.

Claudio was a voracious consumer of culture – film, music, literature, art, opera. He had eclectic tastes and was willing to give everything a go. There was never any snobbery or pretentiousness, just a real pleasure in absorbing everything he could and then discussing it at length.

He was outspoken, opinionated, and could be a little overwhelming when you met him for the first time. A bit full on. But if you “got” Claudio, he was a wonderful friend. As well as being entertaining and just good company all round, he was such a good person. He was always generous and considerate, and he genuinely cared about you and what was going on in your life. I know that in theory, all friends should be like that, but in my experience people who truly care can be hard to come by. He was always really interested in my writing, always supportive.

Obviously I appreciated his friendship at the time, but looking back, I can see how important he was. He was one of my very first friends in Rome, a consistent presence in my life in the first few years, and as well as introducing me to so many films, he also introduced me to countless people and places. I was lucky to have him in my life.

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One of the first things I learned about Claudio when I met him, apart from the fact that he was from Genova and went to the cinema several times a week, was that he had cancer. He was quite open about his illness, but also had no desire to talk about it. I got the impression that it bored him. Why talk about chemotherapy when you could discuss Kubrick? Although he was often tired, it didn’t seem to stop him from going out and living his life to the full. Even when he left his job (he was an engineer), which should have been a sign, I thought he would be all right. I still don’t know if it was optimism or denial.

I was delighted for him when he met, fell in love with and married Konstanze, in a period of what felt like six months. I guess they thought, “What’s the point in waiting?” She moved from Germany to Rome to be with him, and they seemed very happy together. They had a beautiful, low-key civil wedding at Santa Maria in Tempulo, near the Terme di Caracalla, followed by dinner at a restaurant in their neighbourhood, Pietralata.

After the wedding, I only saw Claudio a couple of times. Both times at Indian Fast Food near Piazza Vittorio, I think. He suddenly seemed busy, or unavailable, or not up to going out. I tried not to overanalyse what it meant. When people get into a relationship or get married, they often disappear for a while, and on top of that, he was going through another round of treatment. I would send him messages every now and then asking how he was, suggesting we meet up. Sometimes it would nearly happen, and then for some reason or another our plans fell through. He went from being very active on social media to disappearing completely. Every now and then I would find myself neurotically checking his status on Whatsapp, and being reassured when I saw that he’d been active in the last 24 hours. At least he was still alive. Of course he was still alive.

Until I got the Whatsapp message from Konstanze on a Saturday morning, while I was teaching.

volevo dirti che purtroppo Claudio e’ venuto a mancare questa notte

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In Italy funerals take place only a couple of days after the death. Is it better that way? To get it over and done with? I don’t know. All I know is that I hadn’t come to terms with it, and I was still reeling when I arrived on my own at the church in Pietralata, standing awkwardly apart from the group of Claudio’s friends or colleagues who I’d never met. Talking in Italian to a stranger suddenly seemed like an impossible task. I just stood there silently, trying not to break down when I saw the coffin for the first time, or when I greeted Konstanze. It was a relief to be able to talk naturally, spontaneously in English, instead of having to fumble for the words in Italian: “I’m so, so sorry.”

Valeriano arrived (from Milan) when the service had already begun, suddenly appearing beside me. I can’t remember anything of what the priest said, because church services really do feel like another language to me, regardless of whether it’s in English or Italian. I kept tuning out, and only tuning in again when the priest said “Claudio”. The rest of it seemed to have nothing to do with the person I knew, so I just stood there waiting for it to be over.

Then we were outside, watching the hearse drive away, saying goodbye to Konstanze, disappearing in little groups to continue the day – back home, or in my case, to work. And that was it.

claudio konstanze

I wrote this for the catharsis of writing, and for the memories. But as silly as it may sound, I also wrote this because it bothers me that when you search his name on Google, almost all the results are for an entirely different Claudio Leporati who works in the prosciutto industry in Parma, and I feel like there needs to be some kind of digital trace of this Claudio Leporati. Yes, you could make the perfectly valid point that it’s just the internet, that it doesn’t matter what Google thinks of Claudio’s existence, but I would like him to be remembered in at least one small corner of the internet.

Claudio, you were a great friend and a truly original and wonderful person. I’m sorry I never got to say goodbye in person, and that this will have to do instead.

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza

santa costanza

It’s not just tourists who get caught out by opening hours in Italy. I’ve lived here for more than five years, and it still happens to me on a regular basis. An especially irritating recent example is Tarquinia – a lovely town an hour from Rome, famed for its Etruscan tombs. I’d been there before, and decided to take my parents there on a day trip. We got to Termini, paid for three return tickets (around €30), and got on the train. About 5 minutes into the journey I thought, “Hmm, today’s Monday. Things are often closed on a Monday. Let me check….” 30 seconds on Google confirmed my suspicions. Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia: closed. Museum in Tarquinia: closed.

While there’s more to Tarquinia than the tombs and the museum, there’s not that much more. Going to Tarquinia on a Monday is like visiting Pisa when the Leaning Tower is completely covered in scaffolding. So five minutes after getting on the train, we got off at Trastevere. We had a perfectly pleasant day in Rome, but I still felt like kicking myself. Trying to visit a museum or cultural site in Italy on a Monday is such an amateur mistake. Why do I keep making it?

I’ve also been thwarted by the opening hours at the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza on a couple of occasions, arriving to find it arbitrarily closed in the middle of the afternoon. On my first attempt to visit I wasn’t even able to find the entrance, so just finding the locked door and the opening hours felt like a small victory.

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza is a 4th century church located on the Via Nomentana. Although it’s not far from the centre, it’s off the edge of the tourist map – a short walk from Sant’Agnese metro station on the B line, or the Aprile XXI stop on the 90 bus line.

Enter the Sant’Agnese complex through the main entrance on Via Nomentana, cross the courtyard, turn left down the hill at the statue, and then continue along the path until you reach the mausoleum entrance on the left. Assuming you haven’t made the mistake of trying to visit between 12pm and 3pm, the mausoleum is open. Go through the door and marvel at the…gloom?

You don’t have to pay to enter the mausoleum, but you do have to pay to turn the lights on. Don’t be stingy, wandering around in the dark and hoping that someone else will put 50 cents in the box. I noticed the other visitors slowing their pace or changing direction as they walked around, hoping that someone else would be the first to reach the box, and thus feel obliged to pay. If you’ve made the trek all the way to the inner suburbs of Rome, you might as well fork out a couple of euros so you can actually see the place you’ve come to visit.

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(photo credit Tesori di Roma)

With the lights on, Santa Costanza is beautiful. I got neck-ache from staring up at the ceiling, which is decorated with 4th century mosaics. Vines, flowers, fruit, birds, cherubs harvesting – not the kind of imagery you associate with churches, but in the early days of Christianity in Rome pagan symbolism was much more common. The frescoes of the Case Romane on the Caelian Hill are another example. I find this blend of pagan/Christian fascinating, and of course the Dionysian element is especially appealing. As I walked around in circles, gazing at the ceiling and following the foliage, I thought of In Exile…the perfect (inappropriate) setting for one of their bacchanals…

Santa Costanza is technically a church, but was believed to have been constructed under Constantine I, as a mausoleum for his daughter Constantina (hence Costanza). However, it’s now believed that the mausoleum was built slightly later, under the orders of Emperor Julian, as a burial place for his wife Helena. Helena was also the daughter of Constantine. Confused? Then don’t think too much about the fact that the nearby ruins are the remains of the 4th century basilica of St Agnes, or that the church next to the mausoleum is the new basilica of St Agnes. Both St Agnes’s were built over the catacombs where the saint was buried. Essentially, what you can see at the site today are (a) a church that was originally a mausoleum (“Santa Costanza”), (b) the ruins of the 4th century basilica of St Agnes and (c) the current basilica of St Agnes (“Basilica di Sant’Agnese fuori le mura”), which dates back to the 7th century but is Baroque in style.

There’s a replica of an ancient sarcophagus at the back of the mausoleum, which will be familiar to anyone who’s visited the Vatican Museums. Or maybe not? I can imagine dazed, art-saturated tourists stumbling past the sarcophagus without giving it a second glance, which is a pity.

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By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The sarcophagus in the picture is known as the Sarcophagus of Constantina (though it may have actually been Helena’s) and is located in the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican Museums. It used to stand, along with another, less impressive sarcophagus (that was either Constantina’s or Helena’s) inside the mausoleum. It’s made of porphyry – an honour reserved for members of the imperial family. Purple was the royal colour, and porphyry was quarried only in Egypt. The imagery on the sarcophagus is similar to the ceiling mosaics – vines and harvest scenes. It could be related to the wine of the Eucharist, but I’d prefer to think of the images as being Dionysian. The last of the pagan imagery, before Christianity took over once and for all…

After you’ve seen the mausoleum, it’s worth popping into the Basilica of Sant’Agnese and visiting St Agnes (buried under the altar), and the catacombs. For a place that’s ignored by the majority of guidebooks and tourists, there’s a lot to see.

Some other recommendations for “off the beaten path” attractions in Rome, which are all easy to get to despite not being central:

  • Basilica di San Paolo fuori le mura (San Paolo neighbourhood) – the most modern and least visited of the four papal basilicas, but it’s pretty spectacular. It’s decorated with a series of mosaic papal portraits; apparently, when the last spaces are filled, the world will end. We’re just a few popes away from the apocalypse!
  • Villa Giulia (north of Villa Borghese) – the national Etruscan museum is so underrated. Even if you think you’re not particularly interested in the Etruscans, you will be after a visit to the museum. The collection is great, the building is beautiful, and you’ll probably have the place to yourself.
  • Centrale Montemartini (near Garbatella) – part of the Capitoline Museum’s statuary collection is housed in this former power plant. Greek gods and fragmented torsos are displayed among the machinery.
  • Parco degli Acquedotti (close to metro station Giulio Agricola on the A line) – if this park were more central, it would be swarmed with tourists. But thankfully it’s located in a residential neighbourhood, a 15 minute metro ride from the station, which mean that the aqueducts can be enjoyed in peace.

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(scene from La Grande Bellezza)

Do you have any other suggestions for underrated sites located in less touristy neighbourhoods? Let me know in the comments.

BOOK LAUNCH

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I haven’t updated in a while because I’ve been too busy with life – teaching, adjusting to a temporary long-distance phase of my relationship (Rome-Milan), and….-drum roll-…publishing my debut novel!

In Exile was published as an e-book and paperback by Unbound on 24 January. On 24 February, I’m celebrating with a book launch at Altroquando bookshop in Rome. As part of Otherwise’s “Women Under the Influence” series, I’ll be talking to Tiffany Parks, author of Midnight in the Piazza, about our novels, influences, and Rome. Please come!

In Exile book launch/Women Under the Influence
Altroquando
Via del Governo Vecchio 82
Sunday 24 February 5pm
Drinks at Ex-Circus afterwards

Rome: a reading list

Are you interested in Rome? Do you like to read? Presumably the answer is “yes” to both questions, given that you’re reading my Rome blog…

This is not a definitive list, just a personal selection of some of the books I’ve read (or want to read) that are set in Rome, or about Rome.

 

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The Aeneid – Virgil (29-19 BC)

Where it all began. I remember hating the Aeneid when I first started studying it at school (in translation, for A-level Classical Civilisation), but it grew on me. Feeling sorry for Dido was the way in. Anyone with an interest in Rome really has to read it, at least for an appreciation of the epic story behind the city’s foundation. It may be fiction, but knowing the Aeneid helps you to understand Rome and the Romans – their sense of importance and belief in ancestry.

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La romana – Alberto Moravia (1947)

A dark, somewhat depressing novel about a prostitute in fascist Rome. I read it several years ago and don’t remember it very well, apart from the fact that the characterisation was good, and it was an interesting depiction of working class life in Rome.

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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – Tennessee Williams (1950)

The story of a American actress who lives a lonely, aimless life in Rome, coming to terms with the end of her career and her aging, as she drifts into an affair with a younger man. The film with Vivien Leigh is better known than the novella, but it’s well worth a read, and interesting to compare with Williams’ plays.

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La Storia – Elsa Morante (1974)

A family saga set in San Lorenzo during and after the Second World War, regarded as a modern classic. Elsa Morante was from Rome (there’s a plaque for her in Testaccio) and she was married to Alberto Moravia. I’ve wanted to read this for ages, but it remains on my TBR pile because my Italian is not quite there yet. I’ve read books in Italian, but 500+ pages is a challenge. I’ll get there one day.

Artemisia – Alexandra Lapierre (2001)

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A Christmas present in my TBR pile. Apparently this is one of at least two novels about Artemisia Gentileschi (the other is The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more, as Gentileschi is the ideal subject for a book – a talented artist who overcame trauma and scandal to forge a remarkable career across Europe. She grew up in Rome – the scene of the infamous rape and subsequent trial – and returned to the city later in her career, after a period in Florence.

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Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006)

I think I discovered this gem of a novel entirely by chance, picking it off the shelves in a bookshop. A day in the life of a young, pregnant German woman who walks through Rome in 1943, contemplating the return of her husband. It’s the perfect book for someone who knows Rome well, as you can visualise her exact route, through the streets of Prati, over the Tiber to Piazza del Popolo. The novel takes the form of a single sentence, which sounds daunting, but it works surprisingly well.

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Five Quarters – Rachel Roddy (2015)

It’s more than a cookbook – it’s the story of a Roman neighbourhood. Rachel has lived in Testaccio for years and writes beautifully about daily life in the neighbourhood, in the market, piazzas, restaurants and courtyards. The recipes – for Roman dishes from pasta to polpette – often come with a glimpse of local life, just like her Guardian column. The photos are gorgeous too, and make me homesick for Testaccio.

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Midnight in the Piazza – Tiffany Parks (2018)

Another one from the TBR pile – an art history mystery by local author Tiffany Parks, one half of The Bittersweet Life podcast. In children’s book Midnight in the Piazza, 13 year old Beatrice witnesses the theft of one of the turtles of the Fontana delle Tartarughe from her bedroom window, and gets drawn into the mysteries of the aristocratic Mattei family. A book for art lovers and anyone who is fascinated by the Jewish Ghetto, in particular the atmospheric Piazza Mattei and Palazzo Mattei di Giove.

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Agrippina – Emma Southon (2018)

I’m reading this unusual biography right now and thoroughly enjoying it. Agrippina was the sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. She was, and continues to be, defined by her relationships with powerful men, but she was also a fascinating character in her own right. Emma Southon puts together the pieces of the puzzle to assemble a portrait of the Roman empress, from her birth in Cologne to her death (by execution) in southern Italy. As you would expect, Rome is where lots of the action takes place. Memorable scenes so far include the 13 year old Agrippina’s wedding day on the Via Sacra and New Year’s Day in the year 38 AD, when a slave entered the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill carrying a puppy and a knife, made some terrible predictions, then killed the puppy, then himself. I’m expecting many more memorable scenes before Agrippina meets her violent end…

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In Exile – Alexandra Turney (2019)

My book! This is what a NetGalley reviewer said: “Turney deals with the absolutely riveting question “What would happen if Dionysus were re-born in a 20th century Rome where no one believed in him?” in a Tartt-esque novel that is well-written, fast-paced and engrossing; a read ideal to start the new year off.” You can request the e-book from NetGalley, pre-order from various places, or buy it when it comes out on 24 January. Read it now so you can be smug about discovering me early on. (Please, someone – discover me. I want readers!)

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I’m aware that this list is lacking in pre-20th century literature, Italian authors and non-fiction. The Culture Trip and An American in Rome have good alternative lists. If you have any recommendations, please comment – I’m always looking for new books to read.

Moments from the Metamorphoses – Ovid at the Scuderie del Quirinale

I was a teenager the last time I read (and adored) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the characters and stories still so feel so familiar. Walking around the Scuderie del Quirinale, at the exhibition of artworks inspired by Ovid (Ovidio. Amori, miti e altre storie), it was like bumping into old friends. “Ah, it’s Icarus again …Marsyas challenging Apollo to a competition on the lyre, we all know how that ends….a distressed woman and a cow, must be Zeus and Europa.”

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(‘The Abduction of Europa’, Antonio Caracci)

I know Ovid because I’ve read Ovid, but I know him best through art. If you start looking, the myths of the Metamorphoses are everywhere – countless paintings, frescoes and sculptures in churches, museums and galleries, returning obsessively to certain moments.

Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo:

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(‘Apollo and Daphne’, Bernini)

Zeus turns into an eagle to abduct Ganymede:

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(‘The Rape of Ganymede’, Damiano Mazza)

The massacre of Niobe’s children by Apollo (and in some versions, Artemis):

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(‘The Punishment of Niobe’ by Tobias Verhaect)

Most art inspired by mythology seems to be focused on a moment of suffering – death, mourning, rape, abduction. The crucial, dramatic moment of the story is almost always a terrible one, and yet generations of artists (and gallery-goers) delight in them.

There’s just something morbidly fascinating about these moments – often a fateful encounter between god and mortal. They’re turning points – the lives of Daphne, Ganymede, Niobe and Europa will never be the same again.

I like the amorality of these stories. There are a few exceptions, such as the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, or the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, which have a clear moral message – a warning against arrogance or hubris. But for the most part there’s no message, no lesson. What I love about mythology, and the Metamorphoses in particular, is the acceptance of things as they are, without judgement. Beautiful things happen. Terrible things happen. Life is random. People live and then transform. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (‘Everything changes. Nothing perishes.’)

One of my favourite myths is the story of Ariadne. After helping Theseus to defeat the Minotaur, she’s abandoned on the island of Naxos. There are lots of paintings and sculptures depicting either the sleeping Ariadne (unaware that she’s been abandoned), or showing the moment that she wakes up alone on the beach and weeps for Theseus.

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(Head of sleeping Ariadne)

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(‘Ariadne in Naxos’, Evelyn de Morgan)

I understand why these moments are popular artistic subjects – beautiful sleeping woman, beautiful sad woman.

But the best, most dramatic moment of the story is this:

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(‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, Titian)

This is the moment when Ariadne meets Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine, and his entourage. The moment when she meets her future husband, and realises her life is about to be transformed:

Here’s an extract from one of my novels, where two characters look at a painting of the Annunciation during a visit to the Accademia in Venice and then discuss Bacchus and Ariadne:

“Look at this,” she said.
The angel Gabriel had swept into a palace of marble, an elegant building of columns and archways. To the right, the Virgin Mary regarded her visitor with an expression of mild curiosity.
“Mary always looks so serene, doesn’t she?” said Hyacinth. “But it must have been a frightful shock.”
“That’s what I always thought. When I was younger I was so enthralled by these Annunciation paintings, staring at them for ages in the Gallery. My sisters had to drag me away.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the most dramatic, life-changing moment, and there’s always this space between the angel and Mary, as though there has to be this divine distance and he can’t come too close. I find it fascinating. I dreamt of the same thing happening to me.”
“You never struck me as the type that craved divine visitations.”
“Of course. It seems like the most strange and beautiful thing in the world, especially when you’re twelve years old and you think your life is going to stay the same forever. I wanted to be someone special, to have my life changed in an instant by an angel coming into my bedroom in a blaze of glory. I know it sounds absurd, so you can laugh if you like.”
“No, I think I understand what you mean.”
“I’ve always loved the paintings which show the second when someone’s life changes. Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ is another one – the moment when she’s rescued, and she sees her new life coming towards her, Bacchus leaping from his chariot beneath that perfect sky.”

The character’s feelings about Bacchus and Ariadne are my own. The painting, which I first discovered through an art book I had as a child, and then through repeated visits to the National Gallery in London, is also one of the sources of my fascination with Dionysus/Bacchus.

So many paintings focus on a divine encounter. Not just mythological art, but also all the scenes from the Bible. The moment when a mortal captures the attention of a god, for better or worse, or when an ordinary person finds themselves in the presence of Christ or a saint or an angel.

Which scene from my novel, In Exile, would I choose to be represented in a painting? The first moment that the teenage girl meets the melancholy, exiled god of wine in a backstreet of the Jewish Ghetto, and mistakes him for a homeless man? Dionysus’s unsettling appearance at a sleepover, and the first taste of divine wine? A scene from one of the later bacchanals near the Appian Way, when they realise there’s no going back? It’s a pity it’s too late to commission Titian…

As much as I love these freeze frames – the scenes that make me think of the beauty and frustration of stillness in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – I always want to know what comes next. What about the rest of the story? I suppose that’s why I write novels instead of creating art (well, there’s also the fact that I can’t even draw a decent stick figure…). Maybe that’s also the reason why of all the mythological paintings, it’s Bacchus and Ariadne that captivates me the most. Somehow it feels like more than a moment, hinting at the rest of the story – leaving Naxos to begin a new life as a goddess, wife of Dionysus. In myth it’s considered the end of the story, but it’s actually a beginning. A life on the verge of transformation, and a glimpse of a new world.

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I originally intended to write a proper review of the exhibition, but I got sidetracked…I do recommend Ovidio, which is at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January. I liked the way it was organised, beginning with an introduction to Ovid and his life and times (the age of Augustus), and then guiding you through the myths. Even if you choose not to use the audioguide, the myths are explained (in well-translated English, for once!) for each section, which has several artworks depicting a character or scene from the story. Some of the artworks are not the best or most famous interpretations of the myth, but there’s still a good selection of paintings and sculptures, including some beautiful frescoes from Pompeii and a striking, lesser-known Venus by Botticelli.

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As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.

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