Go Thou To Rome

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

Category: Uncategorized

The new Rome: a city of solitary walkers

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On Monday I went for one of the most poignant walks of my life – a walk I had literally been dreaming about for weeks.

On Monday, phase 2 of the lockdown began. After two months of not being allowed to go outside for non-essential reasons, and not being allowed to go more than 200 metres from our homes, the restrictions were finally relaxed. We can now exercise in other neighbourhoods without risking a fine, as long as we respect social distancing rules.

I knew exactly what I was going to do on the 4th of May. I was going to walk 6 kilometres to Piazza Navona, buy a book from Otherwise, and then walk 6 kilometres back home to Torpignattara. I daydreamed about the walk. I actually dreamed about the walk. Fifty days into the lockdown and feeling the strain, it was the thought of the walk that kept me going. The exercise, the change of scene, the chance to buy a book, and the reunion with the rest of Rome. The streets I fell in love with.

*

I woke up early and excited. The feeling you get on Christmas morning as a child, or before a long journey. A little embarrassing, I thought, to be so excited and emotional for a simple walk, but perhaps it was understandable after weeks confined to a small flat and the same old streets. I downed the contents of a 4-cup Moka, made a half-hearted attempt to look sporty when choosing my clothes, so I could justify my presence far from home as “attivita’ motoria” if stopped by the police, put on my face mask, then set off.

The initial stretch was one I’d done many times before – pacing up and down the same backstreets by the railway most days of the quarantine, constantly searching for a new detail to appreciate, from wildflowers to graffiti. I even became interested in laundry drying on balconies, and rubbish in the vegetation. But seeing it as the beginning of a walk, rather than the entirety of the walk, I gained a new appreciation for the area. The weather helped – glorious sunshine, and the deep blue sky that hints at a long, hot, cloudless day ahead.

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The Casilina Vecchia has become one of my favourite streets in Rome. It’s an evocative tangle of houses, railway tracks and the aqueduct. Long grass, poppies, and quiet murmurs of life from the houses nestled between the ruins…Or not so quiet, in the case of the house called “La casa di glicine e musica” (“the house of wisteria and music”), where there seems to be a permanent party in the garden.

The beauty of the Casilina Vecchia is that it always feels peaceful. A little eerie at times, but peaceful. Hidden. During the first phase of the lockdown I enjoyed many illicit walks along the the aqueduct, knowing that the police were unlikely to spot me here. They did, once, but I avoided making eye contact and walked on. If you don’t see them, they don’t see you. Hopefully.

This time, I went further – beyond the workshop that makes replicas of famous statues (a garden full of nymphs and heads), past the fake Colosseum, under the arch, all the way to Via La Spezia – crossing the neighbourhood boundary.

La Spezia is a long, wide street that leads to San Giovanni. It’s usually choked with traffic, but there were hardly any cars – just a few locals going for socially-distanced strolls and queuing up at the supermarket. Almost normal.

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It was around here that I started regretting drinking the whole of the 4-cup Moka. I needed the toilet. Public toilets are virtually non-existent in Rome in normal circumstances, so I wasn’t sure what to expect during quarantine. Then I walked past a bar and remembered that as part of phase 2, bars and restaurants are now allowed to open (for takeaway only).

I entered through the designated “entrance” door and greeted the man behind the bar, who didn’t seem particularly happy to have a customer (though it’s hard to read expressions when everyone’s wearing a mask). I asked for a bottle of water, and then asked if I could use the toilet.

“Sorry, no. It’s against the law.”

What strange times we live in. Once, it was against the law for bars not to provide access to the toilet for paying customers (I think). Now, it’s apparently illegal to let customers use the toilet.

In the meantime, I bought the bottle of water. I only had 60 centesimi or a 20 euro note. The depressed barista shrugged and said I could come back later to pay the remaining 40 centesimi. I left, feeling inexplicably sad, guilty, and increasingly desperate to pee.

What were my other options? The metro station? No, there was a queue to enter San Giovanni and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to use the toilet there. The newly opened tourist information centres with toilets? No, closed. Behind a bush? Not really an option.

Then, as I reached the twin landmarks of the Coin department store and the Basilica of San Giovanni, and felt moved to see these familiar buildings for the first time in weeks, I saw something even more exciting – a pink portaloo by the taxi rank.

There are no words to describe the horror of that toilet. Think Glastonbury toilets on the last day of the festival. Think plane toilets at the end of a long-haul flight where half the passengers have had food poisoning. Think the only public toilet in Rome, used by the entire population of Rome. I’ve never been so grateful for my face mask.

Moving on…away from my toilet trauma and onto the beauty of a silent San Giovanni….

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From here it was a straight line down Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, with a view of the Colosseum at the end of the street, getting ever closer. I’ve always loved this road, as a direct route from one monument to another. It’s shady and peaceful despite being so central, and not as thronged with tourists as you would expect. On Monday there were no tourists, of course. No workers. No groups enjoying a drink at the gay bars at the end of the road.

But the Colosseum, at least, is eternal.

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This was the most surreal part of my walk. There was practically no one. It makes you appreciate which parts of the city centre are shared by tourists and locals, and which are truly touristy. While other parts of the city centre were comparatively “busy”, the area around the Colosseum, the Palatine and the Forum was deserted. I felt privileged to be there, and to enjoy a tranquil atmosphere that would usually be unimaginable on a warm morning in May. No tourists, fake gladiators, or men thrusting selfie sticks in your direction. Just me and the monuments.

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Via dei Fori Imperiali was mostly deserted too. The only people were joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists. Ancient Rome transformed into a giant park. From this point on there was a heavier police presence, though they didn’t seem to be stopping many people. I’d been worried about the police interrogating me and interrupting my walk, but I clung to my old belief: “If you don’t make eye contact, you’re invisible”. It worked.

I walked on, across a disappointingly chaotic Piazza Venezia (the chaos of traffic replaced by the chaos of building work for Metro C), down Via del Plebisicito to Largo Argentina.

Then the Pantheon. A sinkhole opened up here recently, revealing Ancient Roman paving. Obviously there were no tourists here either, just some men at work around the sinkhole, and – very exciting – an open bar. In normal circumstances, I would never dream of having a coffee or cornetto in such a touristy location, but I couldn’t resist. Well, I resisted the coffee – didn’t want to risk another toilet dilemma – but I bought a cornetto to take away. The waiter came outside to take my order, and we had an awkward interaction behind masks, trying our best to maintain a distance while exchanging the money and cornetto. All social interactions have become awkward, fumbling dances, as we try to be polite and friendly while also respecting the rules. Still, I think he was relieved to have a customer, and I was happy to be purchasing my first pastry in weeks. When I first moved to Rome and lived in Testaccio, I would go to Linari literally every single morning for a cappuccino and cornetto. I miss it. I miss Testaccio. But that’s a topic for another time…

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From the Pantheon it’s just a two-minute walk to Piazza Navona – my goal. I think lots of other people must have had the same idea, because there were quite a few solitary walkers, gazing up at Bernini’s fountain, or gazing down at the grass growing between the cobblestones (a novelty). An atmosphere of subdued joy and wonder. Everyone seemed happy to be there, enjoying the sunshine in what is arguably one of the most beautiful squares in the world, and yet…everyone was alone. Walking alone. Sitting alone. Taking photos alone. The restaurants were all closed, as was the church and nearby museums. An unnatural kind of peace. A little bit like the sitcom The Good Place, set in a sunny, pristine afterlife, where everyone arrives alone. Or like the song “Heaven” by Talking Heads – “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. It’s beautiful beyond words, but not quite right.

Was that too dark? I can’t help myself. Lapses into reflections on death and the afterlife are inevitable when you’re writing a novel set in Purgatory. I was actually very happy to be standing alone in the middle of Piazza Navona. An ordinary dream come true.

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After savouring my cornetto on a bench by the fountain, I went to Otherwise on Via del Governo Vecchio and then Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina to buy books. Buying books is exciting at the best of times, but even better when you haven’t been inside a shop (supermarkets don’t count) in two months. The choice! The possibilities! I had the extra satisfaction of knowing that as a customer, I was helping local businesses. The same justification I used to order 6 bottles of wine from the enocteca Les Vignerons at the beginning of the lockdown. Buy books and wine! Save the Italian economy!

After this selfless act of charity, I began the long walk back. My feet were aching, my legs burning, but it was a good kind of pain. It’s a pain I associate with being a tourist – long, aimless walks in unfamiliar cities. The difference with this walk, though, was that it felt more like a pilgrimage. I know it’s laughable to compare myself to my friend Julia, who did the Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome on foot), but I thought of her when I arrived at Piazza Navona, wondering how she felt when she walked into Rome after her 10 week journey. Sometimes, there are no words.

(She says, after 2,000 words)

*

The closest thing to the truth – the best way I can explain it – is like this.

I often dream of Rome and Venice – two cities I love and know well. In my dreams, the cities have completely different architecture and geography, and are nothing like the real cities. They’re like Rome or Venice imagined by someone who’s never been there, or even seen a picture, but only read about them. My dream self knows that they can’t really be Rome or Venice, and yet I’m also convinced that they can’t be anywhere else. They’re parallel universes.

That’s how Rome feels at the moment. Beautiful but uncanny. Familiar but different. Eternal but changed beyond recognition.

Will Italy go “back to normal”? It’s hard to imagine it ever being exactly the same again. But Rome has been through a lot over the centuries. It even went through a brief phase (as a result of the Gothic Wars in the 6th century) when there were virtually no inhabitants. Rome’s history has been turbulent, to say the least. It’s survived plagues and invasions, fires and floods, and all manners of death and destruction, to rise again.

Rome is the Eternal City, after all.

 

“Look, girls – wisteria!”

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We’ve been in lockdown for nearly a month. It’s the 7th of April, but it feels like the 739th of March.

I went for a walk in a different direction for a change – one of the few things I have the freedom to change at the moment – and passed a house with wisteria growing in the garden. I took off my mask to breathe it in.

The scent was one of the highlights of my day – a symbol of spring and the contact with nature I’ve missed in the past month. It also brought back memories of a very different springtime in Italy – April 2006, and a school trip to Rome, Sorrento and Pompei.

I was 14 years old. Superficially interested in Latin and Italy, but mainly excited to be on holiday and having fun with friends. My main memories of the trip involve endless in-jokes, giggling, making fun of each other and of course the teachers. Now that I’m a teacher myself, it’s disconcerting to remember how we used to view our teachers – sometimes with disdain, sometimes with fondness, but rarely as fully human.

We kept a notebook full of memories and in-jokes from the trip, many of which have become mystifying with the passing of time. Some still make sense though, like #101 – “The joy of being able to go out in a 2.” I have a vivid memory of being given the freedom to walk down Via Nazionale, as long as we didn’t cross the road, or the greater joy of exploring Sorrento without teachers, in twos or threes. Our trip to Montecassino gets a mention in #80 as “The monastery where you can’t sit down”.

Many other notes relate to teachers, such as #8 (“Mrs Foster falling over. Mrs Foster loving everything. Mrs Foster loving everyone even the old man guide. General enthusiasm for everything.”), or #25, a summary of our Latin teacher’s commentary on the coach as we travelled from Rome to Sorrento:

“Mrs Hay’s voice blaring out to talk about Latin, occasionally interrupting herself to comment:

“Oh look some wisteria”
“Oh look a dog with its head out of the window”
“Oh look someone’s washing”
“Oh look some artichokes on your left”

Wisteria? Her commentary seemed worthy of light ridicule, at the time.

But now? I see things in a different light. Enjoying my short walk on a warm spring afternoon during lockdown, I was delighted to see the wisteria. I rushed towards it as though it were a nasone in August. If anyone else had been around, I might well have said, “Look, wisteria!”

When you’ve been stuck at home for a month, your world reduced to your small flat, the roof terrace, the supermarket, and nearby streets, you start to notice the details, and gain greater appreciation for them. It’s not just the wisteria.

Here’s a list of the little moments or details I’ve appreciated in the last few weeks:

  • Sheets set out to dry from balconies and roof terraces, blowing in the wind like ship’s sails. They feel hopeful somehow. Life goes on…
  • The colours of walls – burnt oranges, sandy yellows, terracotta reds, and so many other shades. The colours of the buildings in Rome used to seem exotic, but I’d been taking them for granted.
  • Voices. Voicing shouting, arguing, singing “Tanti auguri“, complaining, gossiping.
  • Dandelions growing by the roadside. The Italian name is dente di leone (lion’s teeth).
  • Blue hills in the distance – the world beyond Rome, which I’ll visit again when this is all over.
  • Hearing Don’t You (Forget About Me) on the radio as I stood alone in Acqua & Sapone (shop selling toiletries and cleaning products – feels sad and old-fashioned even at the best of times). Nostalgia and a slight sense of melancholy.
  • The shadow of a bird flying over an umbrella pine.
  • Buying flatbread from the Iraqi bakery and eating it while it’s still warm. Delicious.
  • Strangers waving from neighbouring roof terraces.
  • Catching glimpses of little madonnine (shrines to the Virgin Mary) that I’d never noticed before, as they’re slightly hidden from view – you have to stand in a certain position to be able to see them. But once you start looking, you realise they’re everywhere.
  • Watching a father help his daughter to set up a game of campana (hopscotch) on the terrace, making the numbers out of tape. Her excited cries of “Campana! Campana!”

They say that part of growing up is turning into your parents, but I didn’t realise that it also involved turning into your Latin teacher. I’m learning to appreciate the little things.

So, in addition to the advice from my last post on the lockdown, I’d add another tip –

Look.”

 

Lockdown coping strategies

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Since my last post, other countries have also gone into lockdown. Even Boris Johnson has woken up to the fact that letting people do whatever they want and shrugging off potential deaths is not the brightest idea. This is not the time to go the pub.

There are still ups and downs to life in lockdown, but I find that my mood is stabilising, and I’m even getting used to it. When I go back to teaching English, I’ll use this situation to teach grammar:

“Day 1 of the lockdown – we’re not used to it. It’s new and difficult.”

“Day 10 of the lockdown – we’re getting used to it. It’s becoming more normal, and so easier.”

“Day 50 of the lockdown – we’re used to it. It’s normal for us. We can no longer remember what sunlight feels like. Face-to-face interaction is a distant memory. The thought of going outside scares us.”

Anyway, in Rome we are currently at day 12. We’re getting used to it. If you’re in a similar situation, or think you will be soon, here’s some advice for surviving your time at home.

1- Have a routine. Plan your day.

Going to bed at random times, waking up in the afternoon and binge-watching Netflix is okay when you’re ill, or for a couple of days during lockdown, but I think the trick is to have a structured routine. It’s easier if you’re working from home, as work gives you something to structure the rest of your day around. If you’re unable to work, create a project (see #3).

Having a routine makes it easier to pretend that life is going on as normal. Wake up at regular times, think of activities (literally any activity) to fill the time, and plan what you’re doing next: “I’m going to clean the kitchen. Then I’ll have a coffee. Then Skype with a friend.” That way of thinking comes naturally to me, and I appreciate it may not be as easy for everyone else, but I’m convinced it’s the solution to keeping sane during lockdown. If you have endless empty hours, of course you’re going to end up getting bored and restless, and probably fall into the trap of constantly checking the news and social media. Not great for your mental health. Which brings me on to the next point…

2 – Limit time checking social media and the news

Resist the urge to spend hours reading the news, googling “do I have coronavirus”, and getting into arguments with conspiracy theorists. If you must check the news, choose a website that reports things more neutrally, like the BBC. Avoid the sites that tend to exaggerate news for clicks. The world isn’t ending, though it may feel like it at times. So restrict yourself to getting news from the same, reliable sources at certain hours of the day. Do the same thing with social media, if you notice that it’s getting you down.

Stick to memes and positive content like this page, which I won’t attempt to explain.

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3 – Create projects

Humans need projects. We’re happiest when we have a to-do list. I think that’s one of the facts I came across in Selfie by Will Storr, but don’t quote me on that. I don’t have the book to hand, because I gave my copy to a friend who’s currently quarantined on the other side of the city. Hopefully it’s helping her to pass the time.

A project can be anything. Examples of things on our to-do list (on display next to the calendar where we count the days till…whenever this finishes): do puzzle, make salame al cioccolato, sort out drawers, use exercise bike every day, try new wine and pretend to be sommelier. Not very thrilling, but you do get a sense of satisfaction when you tick something off. You feel like you’re making progress. Moving forward. Even when you’re stuck on the spot on an exercise bike.

But actually,  using the cyclette every day really makes a difference. To make it less monotonous I’m working through discographies of favourite bands in chronological order. It’s Talking Heads at the moment, starting with 77 and listening to a different album every day. I think we’ve lost the habit of listening to albums in their entirety, so it’s a nice change. I’m enjoying the combination of 45 minute bursts of exercise and the energising yet unsettling music of David Byrne. A road to nowhere indeed.

It helps to have some kind of creative project too. People who paint, write, make music etc are lucky. I’ve made a habit of going up to the roof terrace on sunny afternoons to work on my novel – something I never seem to have time for normally. I’m finally – finally making progress, because I can no longer make excuses about not having time. The general atmosphere of fear and paranoia also turns out to be conducive to my creativity.

If you’ve been online in the past week you’ll probably have seen people discussing the fact that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Isaac Newton discovered gravity while the plague raged. Let that inspire you, but ultimately, just do something. Whatever you enjoy, whatever you’ve been putting off for ages.

4 – Think of yourself as a Sim

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This one may need some explanation, unless you fit into the category “female who played computer games some time around 2000-2009”.

The original version of The Sims involves controlling the lives and looking after the well-being of people who can’t leave the house. True, you can build them a mansion if you want, but in the original game there’s no way to leave the house. Your Sims are stuck at home. They have “needs”, including hunger, hygiene, energy and social. If their hunger bar is going into the red, make them eat something. If they’re low on social, make them talk to their family members or have an inappropriate romantic interaction with whoever happens to be in the room. You get the idea.

In this period, we are essentially Sims. We can’t leave the house. We can only take care of our needs. So stop thinking about outside – for now, it doesn’t exist. The expansion pack that lets you go to the bar or the shops will arrive eventually, but forget about it. Live in the moment. Just concentrate on taking your care of yourself, and you’ll be okay. Get lots of sleep, eat well, and make sure you talk to people regularly. Maintain good relations with the people you live with. Look after each other.

5 – Listen to this song

 

It is literally impossible to feel sad while listening to this. Unless you start thinking about what happened to Michael Hutchence. Then Paula Yates. Then Peaches Geldof. Shh, brain. Just enjoy the music.

*

Finally, if you’re in a position to do so, something that might make you feel less helpless is donating. I gave some money to a hospital in Bergamo that needs funds for ventilation units and other equipment and bought a gift card to support the Beehive in Rome. Keep an eye out for other fundraisers for hospitals and medical staff, and try to support small businesses in any way possible.

Be kind to yourself and others. Don’t panic. Non so se andra’ tutto bene, ma non puo’ andare molto peggio di cosi.

Keeping the safety distance: life under lockdown in Rome

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(People queuing to enter the supermarket, respecting the safety distance. I had to wait for 45 minutes.)

After 6 years of living in Rome, perhaps I was starting to take things a little for granted. Things that would have once seemed thrilling – a walk in the Forum, going for a drink in Trastevere, speeding through the streets on the back of a Vespa – were still enjoyable, but no longer quite as exciting.

Want to know what I get excited about now? The 3 minute walk to buy bread at my local bakery. It’s the highlight of my day. I take my place in the queue outside – respecting the 1 metre safety distance of course – feeling conspicuous as one of the few people without a mask. I enjoy my 30 second conversation with the lady in the bakery, as it’s currently the only face-to-face interaction I have with anyone (except for Valeriano). I buy the bread, then sneakily extend my walk through the Certosa neighourhoood, trying to absorb as much fresh air and sunlight as I possibly can before I have to go home. I’m living life on the edge, without a mask and without carrying the obligatory Autocertificazione, a form you’re supposed to take with you whenever you go outside, and show to the police on request, to prove that you have a valid reason to be outside.

All as a result of the coronavirus. Although it didn’t exactly happen overnight, that’s what it feels like. In the space of not much more than 24 hours, my life – and the lives of everyone in Italy – turned upside down.

Essentially, until 3 April – at the earliest – Italy is under lockdown. 60 million people are not allowed to leave the house unless it’s for work, to buy food, for medical reasons, or to take the dog for a quick walk. All shops are closed, apart from supermarkets (and other shops selling food), pharmacies and tabaccherie. Parks are closed. You must keep a 1 metre distance from other people, and gathering in groups is strictly forbidden. If you break the rules you risk a fine or even a prison sentence.

Some people are still working, but it seems like the vast majority of the population is being forced to work at home, or not at all. The school where I work has been closed since last week, and won’t open again till April. Online teaching has been ruled out for various reasons, so none of us can work for the time being. However, we’re some of the lucky ones. We have contracts and will be paid regardless. I also do freelance writing work that shouldn’t be affected by the lockdown.

In the moments when I’m not feeling self-pitying, I make a list of “What about…?” questions. What about people who live alone? What about everyone working in the tourism industry? What about people working “in nero” who won’t have any income for the next few weeks? What about people struggling with their mental health? What about drug addicts? What about people trapped in domestic violence situations? So many people in desperate situations. I think – hope – the government has made the right decision and that it will be worth it in the end, but it’s going to have catastrophic effects for huge swathes of the population. This is just the beginning.

*

“What’s it like?” friends abroad ask me. I feel like one of the lucky ones – healthy, living in a comfortable flat with my boyfriend, a secure job contract. I’m also quite good at keeping myself busy. Little did I know that having a dull social life as a teenager would stand in me good stead for life under lockdown in another country, years later…

But what’s it really like? The most truthful answer is: “There are ups and downs.”

Downs

The claustrophobia. Our flat is on the ground floor, with no outdoor space and very little natural light. It’s small, too, but I don’t know if living in a bigger flat would make much of a difference. It’s not about indoor space. Having a terrace or garden is the dream. And even then…the claustrophobia comes from knowing that you can’t go beyond your home.

Not being able to exercise. Thank god for my exercise bike, but what I really want is to walk. I keep reading conflicting articles about whether you’re actually allowed to go for a walk for no reason other than wanting to go for a walk, but I’m erring on the side of caution. If only we had a dog, and the excuse of having to take the dog out. Some people are coming up with creative solutions:

fake dog walk (source)

The threat of boredom. After 4 days of lockdown I haven’t really got bored yet, as I’m always able to find something to do (reading, writing, cooking, cleaning, Netflix) but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before both of us get seriously bored and restless. We have to constantly make lists and think of things to do. It’s like a mental game.

Having to keep a distance. When I go out I’m careful to respect the safety distance, which means having to awkwardly swerve out of people’s way. Whenever I encounter someone wearing a mask I’m even more careful not to get in their way. I find myself avoiding eye contact too. It’s not that I’m scared of catching the virus, but rather that I don’t want to risk making anyone uncomfortable. We’re all trying so hard to follow the rules, but it’s hard, and lonely. Also, ironic. I’ve studied the importance of maintaining the distanza di sicurezza when driving, but my theory exam (scheduled for 11 March) has been postponed indefinitely. Instead of worrying about crashing into the car in front, I’m taking care not to come too close to other people.

Not knowing if/when things will go back to normal. I think this is the hardest part. We’re all clinging to 3 April as the date when everything might start re-opening, but there’s no guarantee. Who knows? Living like this for another couple of weeks is bearable, so I’m trying to believe that the situation will have improved by then, but if it hasn’t? Then what? We just don’t know. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Ups

Having time. I’ve been complaining for months about not having enough time. Well, be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Now I have time for everything. Everything that I can do at home, that is. So catching up on my reading and writing, sleeping as much as I want…I finally got round to learning how to play scopone scientificio (a Neapolitan card game). Valeriano made croccante alle mandorle (sugared almonds) today. It’s nice knowing that we have the time to experiment in the kitchen and learn new things. I’m especially excited about working on my novel. Boredom is good for creativity.

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Putting things in perspective. Yes, everything’s shit, but it could be worse. Other people have to live through wars. I have a roof over my head, food, water, and internet. And I’m not alone.

Appreciating the little things. Like being outside. We’re making a habit of going up to the roof terrace for some sun and air. Yesterday we had a “picnic”. It’s eerily quiet outside, but standing on the terrace and looking across the city I feel more connected, catching glimpses of life through windows, on distant rooftops and balconies.

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Wherever you are in the world, stay safe, and try to find whatever positives you can in a surreal situation.

*

Apart from following the news, if you want to keep up-to-date with what’s going from a local perspective, I suggest following An American in Rome, Tiffany Parks and Gillian McGuire (Rome), Girl in Florence and Questa Dolce Vita (Bergamo) on Instagram. They regularly post news and videos from their stories. I’m also on Instagram here.

Scooterino: a solution for getting around Rome

Getting around Rome is often a nightmare. Here’s one of my recent Facebook posts:

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There is only one form of transport in Rome that hasn’t let me down – Scooterino. This app is essentially Uber but with a scooter instead of a car, and it’s been a lifesaver on multiple occasions. Given the state of Rome’s public transport, I’m surprised Scooterino isn’t more popular and well-known. Anyway, before you spontaneously combust from stress, here’s all you need to know about using Scooterino in Rome.

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How Scooterino works

  • Download the app for free and create a profile. Add your preferred method of payment (card or PayPal). It only takes a few minutes to get started.
  • When you want to book a ride, you can either request one immediately, or book for later, specifying the day and time. The app will suggest a price for the route. You can choose to offer more.
  • You’ll get a notification when a driver accepts your request. You can see the driver’s name, photo, rating/reviews and vehicle. You’ll also be able to contact each other directly.
  • The driver meets you at the pick-up point. You show the driver the code that’s appeared on your app. Then you put on the helmet (supplied by the driver), hop on the back of the scooter…then off you go!
  • Once you’ve been dropped off, you pay via the app (tipping if you like) and rate/review the driver. The driver also has the option to rate and review you.

It’s essentially the same as using Uber, Lyft or other taxi apps. The only real difference is the vehicle.

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PROS

  • It’s a lifesaver, especially on strike days. Need to get from A to B quickly? No public convenient public transport route? Scooterino saves the day. And it’s by far the quickest way to get around Rome. A journey that takes an hour with public transport (including changes and waiting) could take just 15 minutes with Scooterino.
  • If you request a ride at a normal time (ie: not 4am), and especially if you book in advance, you should always be able to find a driver. Again, more reliable than public transport.
  • It’s good value for money. I usually end up paying around €7-8 for a journey that would cost €20 in a taxi. When I’m travelling on my own, Scooterino makes so much more sense than a taxi.
  • It’s scenic and fun. Sitting on the back of the scooter is the best way to see Rome. I use Scooterino when I need to get somewhere in particular, but if I were a tourist I would use it just for fun. You haven’t truly experienced Rome till you’ve whizzed around the Colosseum on a Vespa.
  • It’s safe. The drivers and their vehicles all have to be approved by the app, and drivers are required to provide passengers with a helmet (and a hygienic hair net).
  • The drivers are great. Rome’s taxi drivers tend to be grumpy at best, and downright rude and incompetent at worst. Scooterino drivers are polite, friendly, punctual, and, unlike taxi drivers, don’t seem to hate life. I’ve given a 5 star rating to every Scooterino driver so far. Also, while all drivers should speak at least basic English, it’s a fun opportunity to practise your Italian. A lift and a language lesson!

CONS

  • There’s a limited number of drivers. You might get unlucky and not find a driver when you need one. As I said before, you probably won’t find a driver who’s willing to pick you up at 4am. Or perhaps there’s just a shortage of drivers at the time, or it’s not convenient for a driver to do that particular route, so no one accepts you request.
  • Obviously Scooterino is not really an option when it’s raining heavily. A driver won’t want to drive you, but you wouldn’t want to be a passenger either.
  • Again, stating the obvious, but you can only fit one passenger on the back of a bike! (We’re not in Naples, where a family of 4 somehow manages to squeeze on a scooter). You could try to co-ordinate multiple drivers coming to pick up one person each, but at that point you might as well just get a taxi.
  • I suppose if you’ve never been on a scooter or motorbike before, it could be a bit nerve-wracking. As I’m used to being on the back of a Vespa, I was slightly daunted when my first Scooterino ride turned out to be a big Honda Integra. But the drivers are nice and patient, and you can tell them if you want to slow down.

For €3 off your first ride, use the discount code “alexandratur“. If I remember correctly the code “sticazzi” gets you an even better discount. Download Scooterino and you too can say “Sti cazzi” when someone tells you there’s yet another strike scheduled…

More information:

Scooterino official website

The Best Way to Beat the Traffic in Rome

 

Venice in January

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I love Venice. I’ve always dreamed of visiting in the low season, when it’s cold and foggy and there’s a fraction of the usual crowds. 2020 got off to a good start – three dreamlike days (and two atmospheric nights) exploring the city on my own.

I’ve been to Venice six times. A summer family holiday as a child, where we all had such a good time that we went back in the spring a few years later. When I was 17 I was so keen to return and to have my first grown-up holiday (without parents) that I got a part-time job stacking shelves at Waitrose to save up for the holiday; I went with one of my best friends the summer after we finished school. Then again with another friend in 2014, to experience Carnevale for the first time. My first solo trip in 2015 – a couple of nights en route to Trieste and Slovenia. And then another solo trip on 2 January this year, booked impulsively just because I wanted to. I had the time and the money, and it had been too long since my last visit, so why not? Reading about the floods and the hotel cancellations were added incentives. If everyone else was cancelling their bookings, it was the perfect time to visit, making my own small contribution to the economy, while avoiding peak tourist season.

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Venice in January was both more crowded and colder than I expected. The crowds near the Rialto and Piazza San Marco are a permanent fixture, unfortunately, although there were plenty of quiet streets in Cannaregio and the backstreets of Santa Croce. I also spent a very relaxing day on Giudecca, perhaps the least touristy part of Venice. As for the cold…my advice for anyone visiting Venice in winter for the first time is not to get misled by degrees. 5-10 degrees doesn’t sound that cold, but in Venice it’s really cold. A damp cold that gets into your bones. I was baffled to see some tourists in shorts, and a girl take off her coat to pose for photos in just a t-shirt on the terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

If I could afford it, I would visit Venice several times a year. Every season is beautiful in its way. But Venice is expensive, and I’m always aware that a trip to Venice means missing out on a trip to somewhere new. One consolation is the novel I wrote. When I was 22 I finished writing Hyacinth I, which unfortunately had no luck with literary agents. It’s the story of Hyacinth, the king of a fictional European country, who fakes his death and goes to live in peaceful, luxurious anonymity in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, until his world is turned upside down by an encounter with a woman who recognises him. Writing Hyacinth was the next best thing to actually living in Venice for a year.

The next morning, drowsy and disorientated, he found himself in a new world. Walking down the station steps, the blast of heat was like nothing he’d ever known. He walked without thinking, drawn into the maze of streets and canals where he would be lost for the rest of the day. It was like a picture in a book he’d read as a child, a kingdom by the sea in dreamy watercolour, filling the entire page. Only this was a kingdom in the sea, rising up out of the water. Crumbling buildings the colour of sunsets, of cakes, of death. He couldn’t decide what they most reminded him of, and so he gave up trying to make comparisons. Some buildings looked so old that he could imagine them collapsing and being reclaimed by the ocean. It was only an act of magic, or some optical illusion, that held the city together at all.

He was lost from the second he left the station. Ordinarily he would have been terrified, but he could not be afraid in the presence of so much beauty. The sun burnt him and the streets exhausted him, but he walked on and on, driven by a nameless compulsion. He reasoned that it didn’t matter where he went, because it was impossible to leave an island without knowing it. From now on, he would always be in Venice. Somewhere beyond this impenetrable labyrinth of walls was the open ocean. Hyacinth, who had never seen the sea, felt almost sick with excitement.

On my most recent trip to Venice I was happy to discover a street named Calle Giacinto Gallina (Giacinto is Hyacinth in Italian). Then I found Calle Santa Lunga Caterina (Caterina is one of the main characters in my work-in-progress). Shortly afterwards I eavesdropped on a conversation between a mother and her daughter, Caroline (the name of one of In Exiles main characters). Not a remarkable coincidence for anyone else, but it was nice – a symbol of what Venice and Italy have meant to me as a writer.

There was another good omen of sorts as I walked back to the hostel one night. Dark, cold, foggy, hardly anyone in the streets. On a backstreet I came across a group of Venetian men walking towards me, talking in dialect. The dim street lighting in Venice means that at night, you often only have a vague idea of the people walking past you. One of the shadowy figures turned to me, quite unexpectedly, and said “Buon anno signora.

Buon anno indeed. May the next year (and decade) be full of travel and inspiration!

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Tips for visiting Venice

  • Visit in low season (November-January). Unfortunately, with 30 million visitors every year, Venice is busy all year round, but it’s easier to get away from the crowds in low season. January is probably the quietest month. Visiting during Carnevale (February) is fun, but the city’s extremely crowded.
  • Stay overnight. There are so many reasons to stay overnight rather than doing a day trip. For a start, you can’t possibly do justice to Venice in a single day. Then there’s the atmosphere – Venice is at its best early in the morning and after dark, without the hordes of day trippers and cruise passengers. By booking a hotel room you’re supporting the local economy. And if that’s not enough to convince you, there’s the introduction of the tourist tax for day visitors.
  • Choose your accommodation carefully. Locals are unhappy about the number of “b&b abusive” – illegal B&Bs that don’t pay tax and occupy apartments that could otherwise be used as housing for locals. And while I’m a regular Airbnb user, I’d be wary of booking an Airbnb in Venice. I think the most ethical thing to do is stay in a hotel or hostel on the main island. My family loved Hotel San Cassiano and I was happy with my recent stay at Ostello Santa Fosca. Staying in Mestre (on the mainland) is another option if you want to save money, but personally I prefer being able to enjoy central Venice early in the morning and after dark, which is harder to do if you’re based in Mestre.

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  •  To escape the crowds, walk away from tourist attractions. This may sound obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out, considering the enormous difference between the streets near Piazza San Marco and the backstreets of Cannaregio. If you’re getting sick of crowds and you see a yellow sign for the Rialto, for example, walk in the opposite direction. The tourists who complain about Venice are probably the ones who never managed to escape from the tourist scrum around Piazza San Marco. But it’s really easy to get away the crowds, just by walking in streets where there are no major tourist attractions. Also, if you have a choice between two streets, choose the one that fewer people (or no people) are choosing. It may lead to a dead end – so many streets in Venice are dead ends – but it may also lead to a peaceful piazza or a quieter, more residential area.

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  • Visit Giudecca. On a related note, Giudecca is ideal for getting away from crowds and enjoying a more peaceful side of Venice. Giudecca is an island to the south of central Venice, so it’s only accessible by vaporetto or water taxi. The absence of major tourist attractions means that the majority of visitors don’t bother going. I did see tourists when I spent a day on Giudecca, but refreshingly they were outnumbered by locals. More people speaking with a Venetian accent than speaking in English! Also, while not exactly a must-see, it’s interesting to visit Sacca Fisola (an artificial island to the west of Giudecca, connected by a bridge). This residential neighbourhood is completely different to the rest of Venice – airy and green with modern architecture.

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  • You don’t have to go on a gondola. I’ve visited Venice six times and don’t feel like I’ve missed out by not going on a gondola. The vaporetto is cheaper (and the journey lasts longer and if you do the whole route), and the water taxi is more fun – one of my best memories from a family holiday was whizzing across the lagoon in a speedboat. The advantage of a gondola ride is that you get to go down the smaller canals, but at €80 for 30 minutes…I would only go on a gondola if I really felt like splurging – some special occasion like a honeymoon, for example – or if I could split the cost with several other people. If a couple shares a gondola with two other couples, it’s just over €25 per couple. Not so bad.
  • Be a respectful tourist. Don’t make coffee in the street, or take your exotic bird for a walk. Just try to be as polite and unobtrusive as possible, keeping in mind that Venetians are really, really sick of mass tourism. Yes, their economy depends on tourism, but that doesn’t mean locals should have to put up with rude behaviour.
  • Get tips on where to eat. Eating well in Venice is tough. There are lots of tourist traps, and lots of restaurants that are just so-so. This probably sounds snobby, but you can’t even trust a high average on Tripadvisor or Google, because a lot of ratings are probably from tourists who don’t know the difference between ok Italian food and good Italian food. As a general rule, I’d avoid eating in restaurants located too close to tourist attractions, or eating pizza. Venice is not famous for pizza. On my latest trip I got some recommendations and ate well – paccheri with shrimp, tomatoes and courgette at Casa Bonita (Cannaregio), baccalà and polenta and bigoli alla salsa at Trattoria Casa Mia (Cannaregio), spaghettia al nero di seppia at Osteria Nono Risorto (Santa Croce), and baccalà and polenta at Osteria Al Pontil (Giudecca).


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  • Indulge in cicchetti at every possible opportunity. Cicchetti are snacks served in traditional Venetian bars, usually accompanied by an Aperol spritz, glass of wine, or another alcoholic drink. My favourite is the baccalà mantecato (bread with a creamed cod spread), but there all kinds of varieties. There are few things in life more enjoyable than sipping a glass of white wine and nibbling on cicchetti, watching the world go by from the side of the canal. There are cicchetti bars all over Venice – just look for signs in the window that say “cicchetti” – but I can recommend a few I went to: Vino Vero, Paradiso Perduto and Santo Bevitore, all within a 5 minute distance of each other in Cannaregio. I have mixed feelings about the fact that Santo Bevitore doesn’t serve wine (only beer and gin), but it’s a cosy little bar and both the G&T and the cicchetti were excellent, so…

For more recommendations, check out Spotted By Locals Venice. And finally, if you want to understand the problems faced by residents, here’s an article from the Guardian today.

 

Dark Naples

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There are many reasons why I love Naples – the chaos; the energy; the sea; the people. The pizza, obviously. I also love the dark side of Naples, which appeals to a certain darkness in myself.

It’s not that I’m dark or depressed in any way. But my tastes, interests and creative inspiration have always had a macabre streak. My grandmother was shocked when she read my novel, In Exile, with its scenes of bacchic violence. “But I’d always thought of Alex as such a cheerful person!” I am a cheerful person. I just happen to be a cheerful person who enjoys reading about true crime, listening to Bauhaus, visiting cemeteries, and writing about suicidal gods and Purgatory. I’m an optimist who looks on the dark side of life.

One of the myriad reasons why I adore Naples is that the city also seems to have a split personality. It’s beautifully, intensely alive – streets like Via dei Tribunali are pulsating with energy – but it’s also obsessed with death. Seemingly every street has its memorial stuffed with photos of the dead, or a dusty shrine dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. Naples is an extremely Catholic city, which partly explains the obsession with death and the afterlife. Then there’s the fact that Naples has been scarred by mass deaths – the plague in the 17th century that wiped out half of the city’s population, the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians during the Second World War. And then there’s the fact that for years, the dead were buried a little too close for comfort. During the 17th century there was a great flood that washed the bodies out of the Fontanelle Cemetery; horrified locals watched as corpses floated down the street.

On a trip to Naples earlier this month I explored a couple of “dark” attractions. You don’t have to be morbid to appreciate them, but it helps.

Catacombs of San Gennaro

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If you’re into underground death stuff, there’s so much to see in Naples – a city beneath a city. I haven’t ventured underground that much on my jaunts to Naples because I keep myself busy overground. I’m addicted to Neapolitan streets, and exploring all the neighbourhoods non-Neapolitans tell you to avoid, like the Quartieri Spagnoli, Montesanto, Forcella, Materdei, La Sanità. Then I have to do Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali at least twice each. Not to mention the Lungomare. So normally I don’t have time to go underground.

But this time, it was time. I visited the Catacombs of San Gennaro, located north of the city centre towards Capodimonte. These vast paleochristian catacombs no longer have any bodies (you’ll have to visit Fonantelle if you want to see skeletons), but they’re fascinating to explore. There are guided tours in English and Italian that last about an hour, and the guides are great – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and impressively patient with groups of over-excitable small children. They’re locals who are passionate about the catacombs and the role they play in the regeneration of the neighbourhood. From death to rebirth…very Naples.

I did the tour in Italian with Flora, who led us deep into the catacombs, then out into the Sanità neighbourhood (via a church, a frescoed courtyard and a hospital – not the way you expect to exit catacombs). The tour is a journey through the history through the city, from the burials of the earliest residents of Naples and their patron saint, San Gennaro, to the removal of the bodies, the transformation of certain areas into underground churches, and eventually the role of the catacombs as a tourist attraction and a path to a better life for some of the locals. Sanità is a challenging place to live, with high levels of crime and unemployment. The success of the catacombs as a tourist attraction has turned volunteers into paid employees, led to the opening of the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, and encouraged tourists to spend time and money in a neighbourhoood they would never have visited otherwise.

Hermann Nitsch Museum

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This museum was one of many discoveries I’ve made thanks to Secret Naples. The Museo Hermann Nitsch is owned by Giuseppe Morra, a modern art enthusiast who collects works by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. If you’re unfamiliar with Nitsch and his gory performance art, here’s an interview with Vice (warning: graphic images) and a Guardian article. He’s fascinated with blood and the human instinct for violence. I read an article in Italian where he explains his philosophy, and it’s remarkably similar to what Dionysus says in my novel. So much so that I’m almost tempted to send him a copy of the book.

Nitsch:

“È solo passando attraverso i più bassi istinti dell’uomo che può avvenire la catarsi. Quando squartiamo un animale, sentiamo le sue viscere calde, beviamo il suo sangue, ritorniamo in contatto con qualcosa di primitivo che ci appartiene. È in questi momenti che esce fuori la nostra natura, che non è né buona né cattiva, è semplicemente il nostro istinto. Può essere anche violento, ma la violenza fa parte del mondo ed è meglio esorcizzarla in un rito collettivo che reprimerla. Viviamo in una forma di depressione latente, siamo anestetizzati. Le mie Azioni sono un modo per avvicinare la vita alla morte ed è da questa esperienza che usciamo più forti. Ecco perché la gente che partecipa mi ringrazia.”

A rough translation:

“Only by exploring our baser instincts can we attain catharsis. When we slice up an animal, feel its warm guts, drink its blood, we return to that primitive part of ourselves. It’s in these moments that our true nature emerges – neither good nor bad, but simply instinct. It might be violent, but violence is part of the world, and it’s better to exorcise it in a collective ritual than to repress it. We live with a kind of latent depression; we’re numb. My art is a way to come closer to death. After this experience, we’re stronger than before. That’s why the people who take part thank me.”

The Museo Hermann Nitsch occasionally has displays of work by other contemporary artists, but it’s mainly all about Nitsch. The museum is housed in an old power station high up in the Montesanto neighbourhood, with spectacular views across the city, the sea and Vesuvius. Even if you’re not interested in entering the museum, I’d recommend going for the view.

I have to admit, I very nearly didn’t enter the museum. I strolled along the terrace, took some pictures, and then contemplated continuing on my way. I wasn’t feeling that well, and I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for photos and videos of performance art involving animal entrails.

My visit to the museum was thought-provoking and nausea-inducing almost in equal measure. I had the whole museum to myself. Unsurprisingly, most visitors to Naples would prefer to see the Michelangelo-rivalling “Veiled Christ” at Cappella San Severo rather than canvases smeared in blood.

The paintings (some of which you can see here) didn’t do much for me. What can I say, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to paintings. Gore isn’t a problem. I like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith. But I need more detail, more technique – more to look at, to study. Nothing personal, Nitsch. It’s an issue I have with most late 20th century/21st century paintings…personal taste.

Nitsch’s themes do interest me, though. Religion; ritual; violence; sacrifice. I spent most of the time in the museum looking at the photos and videos of Nitsch’s performance art, including a recent one in Naples. Some naked volunteers are blindfolded, “crucified” and carried through the streets of the city. In a courtyard, volunteers dressed in white throw pig’s blood over the naked bodies, or arrange bunches of grapes, animal carcasses or octopuses. It’s meant to shock, and it does. The presence of the artist himself makes it even more surreal. He sits in the corner, dressed in black. He’s portly, elderly, with a big white beard. Imagine a goth Father Christmas directing a bacchanal.

“That’s me,” said a member of staff. We were the only people in the museum, and he sometimes joined me as I wandered through the rooms, explaining the art and telling me more about Nitsch. Now he was pointing at a figure in one of the photos – there he was, dressed in white, splattered with blood. “You can’t imagine the smell.”

He also told me that in the 70s, Nitsch had been arrested in Naples. “What for?” I asked. “Animal cruelty?” “No, blasphemy.” Very Naples, I thought.

Afterwards he told me to take the lift up to the rooftop. “The roof terrace was designed by Nitsch.” As there was nothing on the roof apart from some plants, I imagine that’s what he was referring to. I guess Nitsch likes giving orders: “Throw the blood over the naked blindfolded woman.” “The begonias a little more to the left.”

But once you’ve looked at the paintings and looked away from the video of the cow’s carcass, do go up to the roof.

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From the darkness to the light. I always think of something another tour guide said to me, on another trip to Naples, years ago. The Chiesa di Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali. Another private tour, because I was the only visitor. “Naples is Purgatory”, she said, and in that moment the idea for the novel was born. I’m still only halfway through writing it, but hopefully one day, The Living Cult will also come out into the light…

Spotted By Locals

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I’m now writing articles for Spotted By Locals – a travel website/app featuring short articles written by locals, highlighting underrated or less touristy attractions.

My first 15 articles about Rome have been published (more to come). I’ve really enjoyed writing and researching them, and revisiting some old favourites, such as the pasticceria in the Jewish Ghetto, where everything looks burnt and not particularly appetising, yet tastes delicious, or the atmospheric aqueduct neighbourhood along the Casilina Vecchia.

I also recommend checking out the Rome recommendations by other writers, and the guides to 77 other cities all over the world. It’s really refreshing to discover places that haven’t been overrun by tourists. (RIP Aventine keyhole)

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Baltimore, Washington DC, NYC

Welcome to my mammoth post on my recent 11 day trip to the US. I didn’t mean to write so much, but this is the result of abandoning my travel journal halfway through the trip. I found occasional moments to write, in the coffee shop in Baltimore and on the train from Washington DC to NYC, but for the most part I didn’t have the time or energy to keep it up. I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t have some kind of exhaustive record of my trip, so this it it. AMERICA. (NB: this song has nothing to do with America)

Baltimore

Apparently no one would visit Baltimore out of pure touristic curiosity – everyone who asked me “Why are you going to Baltimore?” seemed reassured by the explanation that I was visiting friends. I wanted to visit Ryan (who was also an English teacher in Rome, before he returned to the US) and Christian (an Oxford friend who’s now at John Hopkins). Whether I liked the city or not was kind of beside the point. I’d seen a few episodes of The Wire and was aware of the nickname “Bodymore”, which was slightly off-putting, but as long as I planned my trip carefully and avoided dangerous areas, I’d be okay.

Baltimore surprised me. I guess Americans see it differently, but if you’re a European who generally enjoys exploring cities, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. Just as Americans get excited by cities like Paris and Rome and how ~*~European~*~ they are , I got excited by Baltimore and how AMERICAN! it is. Baltimore was the second place I’d ever visited in the US, after NYC, and NYC doesn’t really count because it’s like London in the UK – not really representative of the rest of the country, but rather a cosmopolitan hodgepodge.

I’ll try to stop comparing Baltimore to other cities and just focus on Baltimore. Baltimore. Where to begin? My concern about dangerous neighbourhoods meant that I did my research well, and thanks to some advice from Christian I ended up in one of the nicest Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. Panoramic attic with view of the harbour, on the lovely Aliceanna Street, which goes right through the heart of Fell’s Point (generally regarded as one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods in Baltimore). I loved exploring the area, and even just the street. So many great places, from the Indian restaurant Darbar (where I went for dinner, jetlagged yet buzzing, on my first night) to the hipster independent coffee shop Latte’da (which I thankfully found before I reached a Starbucks) to the restaurant Lobo (where I had baked oysters and crab soup, a Maryland speciality).

I loved the aquarium. I balked slightly at the $40 admission fee, but it was totally worth it. So what if I was the only adult unaccompanied by children? (Why don’t adults go to zoos or aquariums?) I spent three hours there but I have easily spent the whole day. Tank after tank of beautiful, weird fish, jellyfish you could touch, dolphins, sharks, a gigantic green sea turtle. The only thing missing was David Attenborough’s narration.

I loved the food. Christian and Ryan took me to some great restaurants, and introduced me to Old Bay and crab cakes. One of my most memorable meals were with Ryan and his girlfriend at Locust Point Steamers, where we ate crab cakes and fries sprinkled with Old Bay while watching diners at other tables demolishing their steamed crabs with hammers and then sucking out the innards. I was too squeamish to try that myself – I grew up a proper vegetarian, and it’s just…a bit too much. Another great meal was crab cakes (again) at Faidley in Lexington Market, a little oasis of tourism and delicious food in the middle of…

….what, exactly? How to describe Lexington Market? The TripAdvisor reviews are a riot.

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I think they’re exaggerating, but I suppose it depends on the kind of people who are around at the time of your visit. I saw some people who were obviously up to no good, or completely off their heads, but I didn’t feel personally threatened or targeted. The crab cake was so good it was worth the “risk”. The surrounding neighbourhood is certainly not somewhere you’d want to linger. Walk a couple of blocks to the left and you’d find yourself on the map of The Corner, the book behind The Wire, showing one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Baltimore. But Christian said he’d learned to pick up on the energy of a place – there are some neighbourhoods that are objectively more dangerous than others, but at certain times of day everyone’s pretty calm, and any criminal activity that might be going on is low level or at least not likely to involve any random passers by. But then again, the problem with the US is that any crazy person could have a gun. All it takes is one person, one gun.

Anyway, despite Baltimore’s reputation and my initial worries, I didn’t have any problems. I really enjoyed my time exploring the city with friends, and I think some of my most vivid memories of the trip will be from Baltimore – a sunny day at Fort McHenry, morning walks enjoying the breeze at the harbour, watching the sun go down over the city (to a soundtrack of sirens) from Federal Hill…

Washington DC

I spent two nights in DC, staying in an Airbnb in Trinidad (more on that later), mainly exploring downtown and the area around Union Station.  I think the message I sent to Christian while I was there sums it up best:

“Unpopular opinion (and not a very fair one, considering how little time I spent in DC), but I honestly preferred Baltimore. I can see that DC is probably the better place to live, if you can afford it, and it’s pleasant and functional and full of culture, but pretty much everywhere I went downtown just felt bland to me – like a watered down NYC with a generic mishmash of Europe, without the history. At least Trinidad has a bit more character, even if it doesn’t feel as safe! From my perspective Baltimore felt more “American” and therefore more interesting. What I haven’t really found in DC (and this is probably because I haven’t explored beyond the centre) is a real sense of neighourhood – nothing I’d compare with Fell’s Point or Hampden”

I enjoyed my time in DC mainly because I got to hang out with an old friend, Cat. It was only our second time meeting “in real life” – we met as pre-teens on Neopets, stayed in touch online over the years, and only met once in person in London when we were about 15/16. Cat’s from Illinois and is now doing a PhD in Linguistics at Raleigh. I proposed popping down to North Carolina but DC seemed like a better meeting place.

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(some houses)

We did the Mall and a large part of downtown. I can’t say we “did” the Smithsonian as no one can in one visit, but we spent a couple of hours at the National Portrait Gallery. We had some great falafel. I think that’s about it. I had one day alone in DC where I walked all over downtown, saw the White House from a distance (underwhelming) and suffered in the swampy humidity. I have mixed feelings about DC’s summer climate. On the one hand, it’s disgusting. On the other hand, at least gives the city more of an atmosphere. Literal atmosphere. Cities with distinctive climates tend to be more memorable. Memories of DC’s cicadas and stickiness will…stick with me.

My Airbnb was in Trinidad, a not-quite-gentrified-yet neighbourhood east of Union station. I had been so obsessed with staying in a safe neighbourhood in Baltimore that it didn’t occur to me to do any research on DC. If you do some online research on Trinidad, you’ll find an alarming number of results about crime and gun violence. Things are getting better, and there are definite signs of gentrification on the edges of the neighbourhood, but Trinidad feels a little bit rough. It’s borderline. Like, “I’ll probably be okay walking here in the daytime as long as I mind my own business, but I’ll get an Uber at night to be on the safe side.”

As for my Airbnb, I need to learn to read between the lines. I always read reviews before I book and have had good experiences so far, but I could have read the reviews a little more carefully. “It is the bare essentials you are paying for! No more than that.”; “Bathroom could have been cleaner. Bed was cozy.”; “This is a very affordable deal, but be mindful that you will only get the bare simple necessities here.”

I sent a picture of the house to a friend in the UK, who commented, “It looks like the arse-end of Salford!”

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It’s a bad photo because I took it quickly and sneakily, not wanting to draw attention to myself…

This was the view from my bedroom window:

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I made the mistake of sending the picture to Valeriano: “Ammazza amo’ un ghetto…Are you safe?”

I was safe. Although the crayoned scrawl “GUEST ROOM” on the bedroom door didn’t bode well, the room itself was actually fine. Clean, quiet, comfortable. But the sight of the enormous dead cockroach on the kitchen floor was distressing, and I was unsettled by the fact that every available socket seemed to be occupied by an air freshener. What were they trying to hide?

I also had an awkward encounter with my Airbnb host, who lived in the downstairs unit. I was returning to my room after a long, hot day of sightseeing, wanting nothing more than to have a shower and go to bed. The host, J, opened his door when he heard me in the hallway. “I got you a towel,” he said. “Also, why is your friend called Christian?” To explain – I had requested a towel when I checked in, and I had done the check-in with Christian, who had decided to travel up to DC with me before going off and doing his own thing. So J had briefly met Christian.

“Why is your friend called Christian?”
“Er, I don’t know. It’s a common name in Europe.”
“Is he a Christian?”
“No.”
“What about you?”
“I’m…agnostic. I like to keep an open mind.”

That was the wrong thing to say. For the next 15 minutes I was trapped in the hallway, nodding and smiling (well, more of a grimace) while J talked about God and Jesus and death. I won’t go into the specifics because I don’t remember – I tuned out after a bit –  but it was all pretty generic. J had just come back from church and he had that spiritual buzz.

Because I was tired and feeling vulnerable as a solo female traveller in a cockroach-infested house in a dodgy neighbourhood, I overreacted. While he was talking, I was panicking, mentally planning my escape. Could I flee to a hotel room for the night? Could I afford it? Could I get out the house without J noticing? He was probably a harmless religious maniac and I didn’t like to judge people, but my own sense of safety and well-being had to come first.

In the end I convinced myself that just because he was inclined to go on religious rants to strangers didn’t mean that he was a threat. I made my excuses and dashed upstairs. I decided to risk it for one night, and if anything happened, move to a hotel for the second night.

Nothing happened. But thank God – God who may or may not exist (I’m open-minded) – it was only two nights.

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(Preamble by Mike Wilkins, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

New York City

I went to New York on a family holiday in 2015 and loved it, so I was looking forward to coming back, revisiting places and exploring some new neighbourhoods. I stayed at an Airbnb on West 144th Street, upper Manhattan, which gave me the opportunity to explore Harlem and Manhattanville, and see a less touristy side of the city.

As a lifelong Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fan, I decided I would make a pilgrimage of sorts to the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th street (“Up to Lexington, 125” – where Lou Reed meets his drug dealer in “Waiting for the Man”). The song was written in the 1960s, and I was fully expecting to find a gentrified area, full of Caroline Calloway types clutching Starbucks cups and a Whole Foods on the corner. What I found was quite different – after walking through the fairly normal, serene streets of Harlem, I found myself in a kind of purgatory. People slumped over in the street, totally out of it, every other person with crutches or a wheelchair, slurred arguments, the smell of urine, some indifferent policemen loitering by the station. This article explains some of the reasons for the intersection’s chaotic atmosphere, including the presence of several homeless shelters, a methadone clinic and the bus stop where newly released prison inmates get off.

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While in NYC I mainly just walked and walked. I crossed most of Manhattan on foot, east and west, Central Park, right down to Brooklyn Bridge (where I was coerced into buying a mysterious mix CD from a group of young black men, one of whom assured me, “You’re black really”). I planned to explore Brooklyn more thoroughly, but I’d naively thought of Brooklyn as a single big neighbourhood, rather than a vast city within a city. I also failed to make it to Coney Island (another part of my Lou Reed pilgrimage), because after getting on the subway I realised just how long it would take, and gave up. I got off near Prospect Park, decided to walk across the park, realised how gigantic the park was, and got a Citibike to the other side, where I got the subway back to upper Manhattan. There were times when I felt defeated by the sheer size of the city, which I continually underestimated.

If I had to pick two highlights of my time in NYC, I’d choose Sleep No More and the Metropolitan Museum. I’d always been vaguely interested in Sleep No More (an immersive theatre experience loosely based on Macbeth), but when I met a super-fan whose social life seemed to revolve around the show, I made up my mind. Never mind that the ticket was $100, and the cocktails at the rooftop bar cost $20. I was going to treat myself. And what a treat it was…

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Sleep No More is an immersive theatrical experience set in the McKittrick Hotel – an abandoned warehouse transformed into a multi-level theatre space with two themed bars. After my cocktail at the rooftop bar, Gallow Green, I went to get my ticket and my mask, and leave my bag in the cloakroom. Not being allowed to carry your handbag or phone is the most liberating thing – I wish it were a rule in more places. In Sleep No More you’re free to explore the graveyard, bloodied children’s bedroom, forest, asylum, sweet shop and banquet hall without feeling like you have to take a picture of anything. It’s all so beautifully done and atmospheric, from the 1930s decor to the music to the sudden changes in temperature that your normal instinct would be to take out your phone for some pictures and videos. But because it’s not an option you’re free to just…experience. It’s so much fun, like being a child again. Only Sleep No More, with its “scenes with nudity and depictions of violence, sexuality and intense psychological scenarios”, is definitely not suitable for children.

Having been once, I understand why people go again and again. The show lasts something like 2 hours, maybe a bit more, but I heard someone say that there’s 14 hours of material, so every experience is different. One time you might follow Macbeth, another time Lady Macbeth. I’m sure there were rooms I didn’t see, characters I never encountered. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book in theatrical form. Such fun.

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I had been to the Metropolitan Museum on my previous trip to NYC, and felt like I should probably try another museum, but then again…I’d been so impressed before, and it’s not like a single trip can do it justice. So I went back. Twice. The $25 ticket gives you entry to the Met for three days in a row. I spent at least 5, maybe nearly 6 hours over a couple of days. I did the Byzantine and Medieval collections, some Greek and Roman art, the Robert Lehman collection, some of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, some European painting, and the temporary exhibition on “Camp” (pictured). I would have seen more, but I literally couldn’t take in any more. It’s an extraordinary collection, and a great museum experience, especially when compared to other big museums like the British Museum or the Vatican Museums. The British Museum is disgustingly overcrowded (because it’s free), and unless you’re clever with booking in advance and going at the right time, the Vatican Museums can also be unpleasant to visit. In the Met I saw so many beautiful things, from Byzantine jewellery to Van Gogh paintings to ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, and I had space. No crowds, no elbowing. Next time I’m in NYC, I’ll be back.

I don’t know if I could live in NYC. Walking around the Upper East Side, I reflected that it must be wonderful if you’re rich. If you’re not, I imagine it being exhausting. It’s so enormous, so expensive. On my last day, I gave my fries and $5 to a man who said he was a veteran from Virginia. “I can’t believe how expensive everything is here,” he said. “$100 just for a hotel room…” Another time, waiting for the subway on 14th street, a smartly-dressed woman brushed her hair while standing literally two inches away from a man sleeping on the platform, his head by a bag of rubbish. I know that when you live in a city, you become somewhat desensitised to poverty and homelessness, but I was shocked by how the homeless man seemed to be literally invisible to her.

Anyway, every city has its problems, my cities (London and Rome) included, so I don’t want to judge. I understand people who adore NYC, and the people who hate it. For the average person to live, I don’t know, but it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit.

I wanted to end with a quote that I saw a few times around the city, but which I may have imagined, because now I can’t find it anywhere online. I could swear that the quote was from John Steinbeck, and that it went something like this: “New York can destroy a man, but if his eyes are open, he’ll never be bored.” I feel like I’m losing my mind, because I can’t find any trace of this quote online. Did I dream it?

Finally, some notes on “cultural differences” – a few things that struck me as being particularly American, or at least different to life I’m used to in European cities. I’m sorry that many of these are negative differences, but that’s just the way I see it.

  • Everything is so big. The cars, the roads, and above all the cups. How can you drink a cup of Coca Cola the size of your head and then want a refill? I always asked for a small coffee, and it was always too much – triple the size of any coffee I’ve had in Italy.

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  • The air conditioning blast. I appreciate a bit of air conditioning now and again, but some rooms and restaurants had the temperature level set to “Arctic”. When I got off the Amtrak train from DC to NYC, my skin actually felt icy. But I suppose some Americans must really suffer from the heat in Europe, with our comparative lack of air conditioning.
  • Friendliness. I always defend the British from accusations of being cold and unfriendly, but I have to admit, it’s true. Northerners aside, we are cold and unfriendly compared to Americans. People were especially nice in Baltimore. But…
  • Fake friendliness. I think it’s reasonable for shop staff and restaurant workers to ask “How are you?” in a small town, or to chat with a regular customer, but I got impatient with being asked how I was in big city shops and restaurants. It’s not a sincere question. And then I feel obliged to ask you how you are, and you have to answer, and we’ve wasted 30 seconds with a fake conversation.
  • Compliments. I got so many nice compliments on my clothes from total strangers. When I was waiting uneasily near the entrance of Lexington Market in Baltimore a young guy stopped and looked at me. I was fully expecting to be catcalled, mugged or offered drugs, and instead he just smiled, said “I like your dress!” and walked on. Compliments are great. The British can be awkward about giving and receiving them, so we could learn from Americans.
  • Water in restaurants. Being given iced water as soon as you sit down in a restaurant is very civilised. I’m so over Italy’s obsession with bottled water – tap water please.
  • Tipping. I struggle with basic maths, and panicked whenever I was expected to calculate a 20% tip when presented with the bill. I was grateful whenever I encountered one of those swivelly screens that let you choose which percentage to add and do the calculation for you. I prefer the tipping system in the UK, where it’s simpler, or in Italy, where no one really cares.

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  • Prices before tax. Confusing. You read one price, pay another. Makes everything feel more expensive.
  • Public toilet door gaps. Everyone can see you on the toilet, and apparently that’s normal in America. Why? The debate goes on.

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  • The ubiquity of Uber. Yes, Uber exists in Europe, but it’s not quite the same. In Baltimore I sometimes used Uber multiple times in a day due to the lack of safe/convenient public transport. Which is I suppose is not a great thing. But Uber was invaluable – 2 minutes after you decide you want to go home, a driver in an air conditioned car is there for you. It’s not cheap, but it often feels like good value for the sheer convenience. I’m a convert.
  • The ethnic divide. I come from a cosmopolitan city (London) and live in perhaps the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Rome, Torpignattara. I know that in any city, there will be areas with a higher than average proportion of a certain ethnicity. What I’ve never experienced in Europe, however, is the stark divide between “black neighbourhood” and “white neighbourhood”. In Baltimore, for example, I was staying in Fell’s Point, which felt overwhelmingly white. In the streets around Lexington Market I was literally the only white person. I was also pretty much the only white person walking the streets in the area around my Airbnb on West 144th street, NYC. I can understand areas being predominantly white, black, Hispanic, whatever. But the way the ethnic mix changed so radically in the space of just a couple of blocks was bizarre to me. The average European city feels much more blended.
  • Food deserts. I knew they were a thing, but it was eye-opening to experience it first-hand. I remember walking around Trinidad in DC looking for a shop just to buy a bottle of water – nothing. Or in Baltimore, finally coming across shops selling food, only to find that the shelves of both the 7-Eleven and Royal Farms consisted entirely of junk food. It felt like my only option to eat healthily was to find a Whole Foods. Which I appreciate is not an ideal option for an American who doesn’t live near a Whole Foods, or who can’t afford to shop there. I also had what I’d describe as an almost dystopian experience at the Whole Foods in Baltimore, when I wanted to buy some apples. I bagged them and went to the scales to weigh them and get the price, but there was a label on the machine that said “For Amazon Prime Customers only”. I mentioned this label to a Whole Foods employee. “Don’t you have Amazon Prime?” he asked. “No. I have an Amazon account…” “Then you probably have Amazon Prime even if you don’t realise it.” “But…how do I pay for the apples? Can I just take them to the counter like this?” “Yes.” “Oh. Okay.” Surreal, discussing the status of my Amazon account when I just wanted to buy some fruit.

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  • Patriotism and gun culture. Two aspects of the US that I find alienating. There’s so much to say I’m not even going to get into it. Let’s just say that they’re the most significant differences and leave it at that.

I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions, especially from Europeans who live in the US or Americans who live in Europe. What are the differences that you notice the most?

 

Will the real Bassano please stand up?

Part of the fun of living in another country is discovering memes and viral videos that you would never watch otherwise. I guess you could argue it’s part of the culture, or at least that’s the excuse I use when I watch them. Valeriano’s favourites are Saluta Andonio and NAPOLETANO TRUFFA 2 NERI A MIAMI VENDENDO OROLOGI E PROFUMI FALSI, which I won’t attempt to explain.

The latest viral video is BASSANO SEI TU, which takes place in a high school somewhere near Salerno, I believe. If you understand Italian and feel like wasting four minutes of your life, watch the video:

The teacher is taking the register, calling out the students’ names. She reaches Bassano and gets stuck. A rough summary:

Teacher: “Are you Bassano? Bassano? Let me see you. Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?
Bassano:“Yes.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
(This continues for a while.)
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “No.”
(This continues for a while.)
Teacher: “Answer me. Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “Yes.”
(This continues for a while. Teacher looks at watch. Students encourage her: “Come on, Prof!”)
Teacher: “Answer me. Only the boy or the girl. Bassano?”
Bassano: “YES.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Bassano: “YES.”
Teacher: “Bassano?”
(Random student: “OH MADONNA MIA”. Teacher picks up her bag, looks as if she’s about to leave, then returns.)
Teacher: “Just answer me. Bassano?”
Entire class: “YES.”
Teacher: “Are you Bassano?”
Entire class: “YES.”
(Teacher picks up bag and leaves class.)
Random student: “No, don’t go! Please!”
(Students laugh)

It’s absurd. Reminiscent of Murray’s roll call in Flight of the Conchords, only that’s a comedy, and this is real life, apparently. Some of the more coherent comments on YouTube express shock and disbelief that a person in such a state could be allowed to teach. It’s sad, obviously. The poor woman could do with a long, paid holiday.

The video struck a chord with me because I’m also a teacher, and most of my students are about the age of those in the video.  The teenagers in the video remind me of my own students – loud and occasionally exasperating but basically good natured. I genuinely love teaching Italian teenagers. 13-18 is my favourite age range. I teach at a private language school and have also taught at state high schools, and 99% of my students are delightful – funny and bright and just the right amount of cheeky.

So, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for Italian teenagers. You need a lot of patience to be a teacher, but sometimes the students need to be patient too.

(I probably shouldn’t over-praise the class in the video – you could question the ethics of sharing a video of your clearly unwell teacher on YouTube. But teenagers are teenagers and we’re living in strange times…)