Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: December, 2017

Helping the homeless in Rome: Nico’s story

pyramid

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.

post office

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

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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

IMG_20170113_155251_405

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.

bacchus simeon solomon

(Bacchus by Simeon Solomon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT I HAVE TO DO

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

WHAT  YOU HAVE TO DO

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

WHAT YOU GET

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

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

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