Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: August, 2016

Rome is home

piazza testaccio

You know you’ve well and truly settled in your adopted country when you get culture shock going back home.

I spent ten days in England, and although it was lovely, it made me realise that I’m very much an ex-Londoner now. I used to love London and Rome more or less equally, but that’s no longer the case. It’s English people I love – my friends and family – rather than England itself.

It’s strange how foreign England feels now. Standing in a massive supermarket in Southport (up north, where my grandmother lives), surrounded by elderly English people and tasteless looking vegetables, I felt out of place, just as I had once felt out of place as a tourist in Rome. The constantly changing temperature, the rain, the cold and the grey skies all made England feel slightly unfriendly. (“I can’t believe you didn’t bring tights with you,” said my mother. “What were you thinking?” “But it’s August” “Yes, but it’s England”).

I felt overwhelmed by the crowds in the West End, a part of London I once loved, and disheartened by the number of chain stores – crap coffee shops and countless Prets. I was amused by the Englishness of certain signs, such as a noticeboard at a train station warning passengers about the hot weather forecast in four days’ time (“Make sure you bring a bottle of water with you”). You just wouldn’t get that kind of public nannying in Italy.

Coming back to Rome, I really felt like I was coming home. An ecstatic reunion at the airport, and a return to sunshine, excellent coffee, delicious food and beauty everywhere.

Rome is spectacular at this time of year. I was dreading August, but it’s turned out to be one of the best months of the year. There’s hardly anyone here – no crowds, no traffic, most shops shut – and Rome has a pleasant ghost town atmosphere. It generally has a more relaxed pace of life than other capital cities, but in August it slows down even more, taking a month-long pisolino (nap). In Trastevere I often find myself alone in the street, while the other night, speeding across the notoriously busy Piazza Venezia on the back of a motorino, I was amazed by how much space there was on the road – practically pedestrianised.

I’ve come back to Rome savouring not only the warm weather and empty streets, but also the sense of belonging. Being surrounded by people speaking Italian was something I once found alienating, but now that I understand what’s being said (most of the time), it’s comforting. I treasure the little things, like the smells of neighbours’ cooking – even the smell of my local supermarket, strangely enough – or the light as the sun goes down. I get sentimental about Piazza Testaccio, watching children playing football or dogs drinking from the fountain, as I sit on a bench with Valeriano, eating gelato.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I’d stayed in London. Technically, I’d be much richer. Friends my age are generally earning £25,000-£35000 a year – more than double what I earn in Rome – yet they don’t seem to have any more expendable income than I do, spending a huge proportion of their salary on rent and transport.

Despite earning next to nothing in comparison, I still have the money to eat out regularly and go on holiday, while an annual metro card costs a paltry 250 euros. And then there are things that are free (or very cheap) like sunshine, gelato, home-cooked meals, beer on the terrace, motorino rides, and walks through the city.

Rome is far from perfect, and Romans are always incredulous when I tell them that I left London behind to come and live here instead. But three years on, it still feels like the right choice. When I remember the friend who once predicted that I would stay for a year, or stay for the rest of my life, I wonder whether she was right…

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The Aventine Hill

Aventine

Although I live approximately five minutes away from the Aventine Hill, I don’t go there that often. I suppose I never have a reason to. I might go to other parts of Rome to go shopping, or to see a friend, or to go to a bar or restaurant. I don’t know anyone who lives on the Aventine, and there are are no shops, bars or restaurants on the hill (apart from the monastery shops, and possibly restaurants in the hotels). Going to the Aventine never serves a practical purpose, which is part of its charm.

The Aventine is quiet. There are churches, embassies, villas, gardens, and not much else. It generally feels half asleep, even more so on a summer’s day. It’s a good place to escape from the heat, as there’s a lot of shade, fountains, and places to sit. Sometimes I find a bench in the Giardino degli Aranci and try to imagine what the Aventine would have been like in Roman times.

A bit of history:

The Aventine is named after King Aventinus, the mythical king of the pre-Roman city of Alba Longa. Like the Palatine, it plays an important part in the founding myth of Rome. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus had an augury contest and used the two hills to look for auspicious birds. Remus, who was on the Aventine, lost the contest and his life, while Romulus went on to become the founder of Rome.

Ever since Romulus’s victory, the Palatine has been one of the most prestigious places in Rome, the home of aristocratic families and Roman emperors. The Aventine was comparatively marginal, and associated with outsiders – not only the unsuccessful Remus but also plebeians, foreigners and cults. As well as a Temple to Diana, the hill was also home to the gods known as the Aventine Triad – the Roman deities Ceres, Liber and Libera, who were mainly worshipped by the plebeians.

According to Livy, wild bacchanals took place in the sacred grove of the Aventine, involving people from all levels of Roman society. The senate quickly suppressed the cult and executed many of those involved. More temples to foreign deities were built on the hill over the following centuries, but after the bloody climax of the bacchanal scandal, the Aventine became comparatively peaceful.

(from The Secrets of the Aventine, an article I wrote for L’Italo-Americano)

Although the Giardino degli Aranci has – unfortunately – been well and truly discovered by tourists (and segway tour groups), it’s still one of my favourite places in Rome. It’s also, in my opinion, perhaps the most romantic. Come here at sunset and you’ll find the terrace lined with amorous couples. The views are some of the best in the city. Straight ahead, there’s the river, Trastevere, and the distant dome of St Peter’s. Look to your right for umbrella pines and a panorama of Roman rooftops, from wedding cake of the Vittoriano to the Synagogue.

Santa Sabina is one of my favourite churches. Built in the 5th century, it makes a refreshing change from some of the OTT Baroque churches (as much as I love a bit of Baroque). It’s beautifully understated, and always feels airy and uncluttered. I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Santa Sabina, gazing up at the stars on the wooden ceiling. Compared to other churches, I suppose the ceiling of Santa Sabina is nothing special, but I love it for its simplicity.

Look out for some interesting details, such as the 5th century wooden door (which has one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion), and the polished black stone at the back of the church. This stone was supposedly thrown at St Dominic by the devil. Apparently there’s also an orange tree in the convent garden (generally closed to the public), which was planted by St Dominic.

I like to pretend that the Aventine keyhole is a secret. It isn’t really, not any more. There’s often a long queue of people waiting for a glimpse through the keyhole. I once saw a young girl hold up her dog to the keyhole, to give him a look. But if you get your timing right, it can be a magical experience. When I have visitors in Rome, I like to take them to the Aventine and tell them to look through the keyhole, without telling them what’s on the other side, as it’s better with an element of surprise.

I refuse to queue for the keyhole, just as I refuse to queue for La Bocca della Verita’ (the view through the keyhole is much more special though). Try visiting early in the morning, late at night or off season. My best visit was on a memorable second date, on a cold night in November.

When I first moved to Rome, one of my weekly rituals was a Sunday visit to Sant’Anselmo. I’ve been agnostic all my life, and this was the first I came close to being a regular church-goer. Not for religious reasons, but for the music. I’d read this entry in a book called Rome: The Essential Insider’s Guide:

“At the recommendation of someone who knows Rome well, I went with a few friends on a Sunday evening (at 7:15 p.m.) to Sant’Anselmo. The church is quite new (late nineteenth century) but in the Romanesque-Lombard style. Reached by a short walkway from the piazza, it is fronted by a beautiful courtyard, gently illuminated in the dark of a winter evening. A central fountain sparkled and babbled as we made our way into the church. as the evening bells began to ring, the monks – about sixty-five in all, and of all ages (arranged, it seemed, by seniority) filed in.

For the next hour we listened to the liturgical singing of a community that places itself within a larger and much older community of Benedictine monks by singing the Vespers each evening at the same time. The voices were beautiful and tranquil. At the end of, the monks filed back out, donning cowls at the sanctuary door. As they exited, someone began to extinguish the candles and other lights in the church, which had, as we made or way out, turned quite dark, mimicking the dimming of nature’s light and the beginning of a time of rest, more prayer, and quiet. We walked, silently, out into the courtyard, which had, by now, darkened. We hardly spoke. It wasn’t “entertainment”, but it was, as my friend had assured us, very special.”

It’s a lovely way to end the week – sitting in a church in the Aventine Hill and listening to the monks singing. The Aventine in general is a very Sunday place. Somewhere to go to walk, to rest, to gaze and daydream for an hour or two. If I ever get rich, I’d like to buy an elegantly decaying villa with an overgrown garden, and spend my days reading books on the terrace and walking my dog in the Giardino degli Aranci…

Canzone #3: “Far l’amore” by Bob Sinclair & Raffaella Carra (2011)

This is a trashy cover of an already trashy cover song (here’s the original by Raffaella Carra), which you may recognise from La Grande Bellezza.

La Grande Bellezza has a split personality. There are the sleepy, lingering scenes of Rome – the empty streets of the Aventine in the early morning, or the gardens of the Villa Medici after dark. The song from the soundtrack that fits this part of the film is the haunting My Heart’s in the Highlands.

Then there’s the other Grande Bellezza – slightly nightmarish parties on the Via Veneto, plastic surgery, strip clubs. “Far l’amore” has this feverish, danceable quality, yet there’s also something kind of monotonous about it. I can’t think of a better song for capturing the empty hedonism of the film.

I first saw La Grande Bellezza at a cinema in London, a few weeks before I moved to London. When I walked out into the streets of Mayfair afterwards, London had never seemed greyer.

I recently saw the film again – this time the director’s cut at a tiny cinema in Trastevere. I liked and disliked the same things. Like: the soundtrack, the cinematography, certain memorable scenes. Dislike: the length, the sense of style over substance.

It’s a film that tends to divide opinions in Rome. I know some people who really love it, and others who are indifferent, or who loathed it. You can complain that it doesn’t reflect “the real Rome”, but I like to imagine that it does, for a certain kind of Rome. I believe that those characters exist. They’re not the kind of people I know, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there, living in ridiculously beautiful apartments and going to decadent parties. I don’t think it’s any more unrealistic than another recent hit film set in Rome, Jeeg Robot, which depicts the grim existence of a reluctant superhero in the suburbs of Tor Bella Monaca.

Anyway, I digress. Aha, aha, a far l’amore comincia tu. You’ve got to admit it’s the perfect song for a hedonistic rooftop party in Rome.

Bonus songs from La Grande Bellezza:

Fabulously monotonous synth-disco song. Good for learning the days of the week in Italian.

Lunedi sera alla discoteca, martedi sera alla discoteca, mercoledi che mal di testa, ma sono andata alla discoteca…

Not in Italian, but I had to include this Eurythmics cover because it’s my favourite song on the soundtrack (apart from “My Heart’s in the Highlands”). Euphoric. If I remember correctly, it’s from the dance scene at the garden party before the little girl starts throwing paint everywhere.