Go Thou To Rome

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

Capodanno

capodanno-roma

I don’t care about New Year’s. I think it’s overrated, and am still traumatised by the memory of my one attempt to “go out” in London on New Year’s Eve (fireworks hidden behind buildings; cold; drizzle; horrible drunken crowds; a never-ending queue to get home). I’m quite happy not to do anything at all for New Year’s – to stay in, stay warm.

I told Valeriano that this year, we’d be together no matter what. If he had to work, I’d join him. He works as “welcome staff” for a holiday apartment rental company in Rome, doing check-ins and check-outs at various apartments across the city, and holidays are a busy time of the year. He was working all day yesterday – and all night – and I agreed to join him in the evening. Besides, it’s not like we were really missing out on anything special. The annual New Year’s concert at Circo Massimo had been cancelled (sponsors pulled out due to the usual political scandals) and our friends were scattered all over the place. We would celebrate together, somehow, in our own way.

*

8pm. Valeriano picks me up at home. I stick a bottle of Prosecco in my handbag, grab my helmet, and jump on the back of his borrowed motorino, ready for an evening of rushing around Rome. If we’re lucky, we’ll be finished by midnight. If we’re really lucky, we may even have time for dinner.

First, an apartment in Trastevere. While waiting for the guests to arrive, Valeriano debates whether to whizz over to another apartment near Ottaviano (the Vatican) – the location of the next check-in- just so he can turn on the heating before the guests there, so they won’t complain about the apartment being too cold to stay in and flounce off. Apparently that happens a lot. But going from Trastevere to Ottaviano just to turn on a radiator, and then returning to Trastevere, and then going back to Ottaviano to welcome the guests (Russians), seems like a cazzata, even though I can understand his reasoning, and his reluctance to upset the Russians. I convince him to wait for the Spanish arrivals in Trastevere.

The Spanish arrive, the check-in goes smoothly, and we speed towards Ottaviano to await the Russians. The booking has been made by a Russian woman, so Valeriano thinks she may be a prostitute – many of the Russian guests are. But when she arrives she turns out to be an economist, accompanied by her husband. The Russian Economist speaks charmingly stilted Italian and is delighted with the Christmas decorations in the courtyard, though disconcerted by the fact that two of the light bulbs in the living room are broken. She wants someone to fix it the next day, but there’s not much chance of someone rushing over to replace a couple of light bulbs on New Year’s Day.

As Valeriano and I are leaving the building the Russian Economist rushes after us. What about the wi-fi? Valeriano goes back to the apartment to track down the modem and wi-fi password, and discovers that there is no wi-fi in the apartment. The Russian Economist is distressed – she and her husband are there for a week and want to communicate with family. She starts to cry. It’s one of those awkward situations where there’s nothing Valeriano can do, except apologise for something that isn’t his fault. We leave.

It’s cold on the motorino. Really cold. The streets are strangely empty; everyone must be inside, drinking or dining. We speed along the deserted Lungotevere, watching the blue lights from the bridges criss-cross over the night sky, beaming from the angels of Ponte Sant’Angelo. These blue spotlights are the only sign we see of Rome’s public New Year’s celebrations, and they’re not particularly festive. They’re a little sinister, actually, as though they’re sweeping the sky in search of enemy planes.

Now we’re hunting for the apartment on Via dell’Orso (near Piazza Navona), the final check-in. Valeriano has been given conflicting information about the location of the apartment, and it takes 15 minutes of phone calls, dashing up and down stairs, and inspecting doors before we finally locate it. “We must look like thieves,” says Valeriano.

It turns out to be the apartment we’d dismissed before, because it didn’t look real. It’s hidden away on the ground floor of the palazzo, and looks more like a storage room or a place to leave the rubbish. It’s hardly inviting, and hard to believe that it’s the entrance to a holiday apartment.

Valeriano unlocks the door. Five seconds of an ominous beeping, and a glimpse of unmade beds. Then the burglar alarm goes off.

After the initial shock wears off, we stand outside the apartment, beside the bags of rubbish and the old bicycle, the alarm incessant and deafening, and wonder what to do.

By this point, Valeriano – who has been working 12 hour days for six days straight – is understandably fed up. As he phones various colleagues and bosses, all of whom are at New Years’ parties, I can see the repressed “vaffanculo” written across his face.

Over the next half hour we wander up and down Via dell’Orso, trying to get through to someone at his company to find out what to do. It’s 10pm. The Argentinian guests are arriving in half an hour and the apartment they’ve booked is unusable, because it’s essentially a dirty shed of an apartment with an alarm that can’t be switched off. What to do?

We make the most of the “break” to have dinner – a panino and some pizza from a forno that’s miraculously open. As we eat standing in the street, Valeriano is given his orders – “Go to the office, get the keys for an apartment in Trastevere, and take the guests there instead”.

So it’s back on the motorino, back across the river. Park the bike. Go to the office. Pick up the keys. Get back on the bike. Back to Via dell’Orso.

The Argentinians aren’t answering their phone. That means we have to wait for them on Via dell’Orso, outside the unusable apartment, just so we can tell them, “Sorry, you’re not staying here”. While waiting for the Argentinians I try to keep our spirits up by making Valeriano buy me a light-up pink tiara from an Indian street vendor (not exactly a bargain at 5). We dance in the street to keep warm.

The Argentinians arrive, suitcases in tow. They’re two young women, and they look tired. They got here using public transport, not a taxi. They’re understandably upset when Valeriano breaks the news.

“But we chose this apartment especially for the location! We wanted to celebrate New Year’s in the centre of Rome! Where’s Trastevere?”

I try to convince them of the advantages of Trastevere (“lovely neighbourhood, very lively, really not far out at all”) while Valeriano tries to hail a taxi. After wandering the streets in search of a taxi, we finally find one that’s free, and send the girls off to Trastevere. We walk back to the motorino, and then we’re on the road again.

The new apartment is in a quiet part of Trastevere, towards the Gianicolo. It’s not exactly party central. The girls arrive a few minutes after us. Valeriano says he’ll cover the taxi fare. “14.50,” says the driver. One of the girls peers at the metre. “But it says 14.20!” The driver rolls his eyes and goes on a very Roman rant at Valeriano about the girls’ stinginess. “I could have charged them 1 for the suitcases and I didn’t, and now they complain about 30 cents…” He’s right to be indignant, given that it’s 11pm on New Year’s Eve. Valeriano gives him 20 and tells him to keep the change.

The apartment – thank god – is pleasant and clean. The girls seem happy, even though they have no idea where they are. After check-in the four of us leave together. I put on my tiara. I had taken it off when the girls arrived at Via dell’Orso, as it somehow seemed in bad taste to be wearing a tacky light-up tiara in the company of irate guests. But now it’s 11.30pm, work is over at last, everyone’s happy(ish) and it’s New Year’s Eve.

After dropping off the Argentinians at a restaurant, Valeriano and I find ourselves a table outside a bar, snuggled up by one of the heaters.

Suddenly, it’s midnight. Our drinks haven’t arrived yet, so I whip out the bottle of prosecco from my handbag, and we swig from the bottle, then kiss, then drink some more. Fireworks. Prosecco. Kisses. Contrary to all expectations, the night has turned into a conventionally enjoyable New Year’s Eve.

If living in Italy has taught me anything, it’s that often, the most beautiful moments are the ones you don’t plan…

 

Death of a motorino

Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom, a princess fell in love with a knight. She loved the knight and she loved his horse too. The knight went everywhere with his horse, which was old and a little slow. He’d had the horse for so many years that he loved it almost as if it were human. When the knight said “My love” or “How beautiful you are,” the princess often wasn’t sure if he was talking to her, or his beloved horse.

They travelled across the kingdom on horseback, to beautiful places the princess had never even heard of before. Whenever she was tired of walking, the knight would immediately help her to mount the horse, and they would gallop off into the night, all the way back to the palace.

They spent a blissful year together – the princess, the knight and his horse. The princess and the knight believed that the horse might somehow live forever, despite his old age. It didn’t matter if he was slow, or if he looked a little more tired and worn than the other horses. He was the knight’s horse – no other animal could compare.

Then, early one morning, the princess awoke and went for a walk in the palace gardens. Turning to the right, she caught a glimpse of what had once been the stables, and gasped. There was nothing left. She rushed towards the blackened ruins of the stables; what she saw was worse than anything she could have imagined. In the middle of the night, someone had set fire to the stables, and all that was left of the horses was their bones. Among the bones and the ashes were the remains of the knight’s horse, but there was so little left that she couldn’t tell one from another.

The princess wept.

*

The story is true, only the magical kingdom is Rome, the princess is me, the knight is Valeriano, and the horse is a motorino.

*

This is what I saw when I left the flat yesterday morning.

motorino-bruciato

That’s where Valeriano’s motorino was parked last night, I thought to myself. But none of those can be his, because he left for work early this morning and I haven’t heard anything.

I called, just to be sure. Valeriano told me that one of the skeletal wrecks in the street was indeed his motorino. He had already filed a police report, and was at work with a rental motorino provided by his company. He probably said some other things too, which I didn’t fully understand, as I was distracted by the awful sight of the motorbikes – so much more awful now that I knew one of them was his beloved bike – and started to get tearful.

People are sympathetic and understanding if you cry over the death of a relative, or a pet. Maybe if it had been my motorino, instead of Valeriano’s, my reaction would have been more understandable. But no one expects you to be in mourning for your boyfriend’s motorino.

“It’s only a motorino,” Valeriano said, trying to calm me down. “It’s not as though it’s a person.”

A motorino is not a person, but Valeriano often talked about it as if it were, greeting it with the same joyous exclamations that he uses when he sees me. “Eccolo! Bello, bellissimo!” The only difference is the gender.

He’d had it for so long that it was a teenager in human years (and a pensioner in motorino years). It was sgangherato (rickety, run-down) and slow to start, spluttering for a minute or so before it finally whirred back to life, but Valeriano always had faith that it would start eventually. It always did, taking us wherever we needed to go – for work, for pleasure. Narrow back streets of Trastevere, snobby streets near Piazza di Spagna, high above the Vatican on Via Piccolomini, the ancient cobbles of the Appian Way, rising above the ruins of the Terme di Caracalla, the far reaches of the Prenestina…

So many of my memories over the past year – the first year of my relationship with Valeriano – involve the motorino, so I think it’s natural to mourn a bit. Valeriano’s even forbidden me from looking in the brown envelope that contains the charred remains of his targa (number plate), in case it sets me off again…

We think that it was probably arson – random vandalism, or the act of a pyromaniac – as similar attacks have happened in this part of Rome. I hope the criminal is caught, but I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, Valeriano – whose insurance doesn’t cover arson, apparently – has to buy a new motorino. Possibly a secondhand Vespa from his mechanic in Torpignattara.

As for the old one, all we’ve got is the targa and the memories.

Il motorino piu’ bello del mondo, riposa in pace

(Il piromane piu’ stronzo di Roma, mortacci tua)

v-motorino

10 reasons to watch Romanzo Criminale

romanzo-criminale

Yes, there’s more to Italian TV than semi-naked women, infantile game shows and politically incorrect ads!

If you live in Rome and hang out with Romans of a certain age, chances are, someone will make a reference to Romanzo Criminale, a hugely popular and critically acclaimed TV series that aired in 2008-2010. (There also a hugely popular and critically acclaimed film made in 2005, but as I haven’t seen that yet, let’s stick to the TV series).

The series follows the lives and, er, “careers” of a gang of criminals in 1970s Rome (based on the real life Banda della Magliana). The gang is lead by the thoroughly unlikable, thuggish il Libanese, who aims to become the most powerful criminal in Rome through the gang’s domination of the city’s heroin supply. The episodes are focused on internal politics and wars with rival criminals and gangs, and the tireless efforts of the police commissioner Scialoja to bring them to justice. There’s a bit of doomed romance, but mainly it’s just a lot drugs and violence and incomprehensible Roman dialect.

Romanzo Criminale is fantastic, utterly compelling TV. You should watch it. Here’s why:

1. It’s incredibly gripping. I’m not really one for binge-watching TV, but there was definitely a temptation with Romanzo Criminale. Although there’s something kind of predictable – even inevitable – about the pattern of violence and betrayal, you can’t wait to find out what happens next. Will the gang kill their rivals? Will Scialoja have that sad puppy dog look in his eyes after being rejected by Patrizia once again? Will Dandi continue to be an irredeemable stronzo? We all know what the answer is, but it’s addictive nonetheless.

2. It’s an education in the dialetto romanesco. 90% of the dialogue is in dialect so thick that even Italians from other parts of the country struggle to understand it.

Sample quote from Libanese, talking to the gang:

Allora, questa è l’ultima occasione, si nun v’a sentite, è mejo che ve pijate ‘a stecca vostra e ve n’annate. Perché se restate, c’avrete ‘n mese d’inferno, dovrete usa’ le mani e pesta’ parecchi piedi, guardavve le spalle e dormi’ co l’occhi aperti, ma alla fine nun basterà sta borsa pe’ tutti li soldi che ve resteranno. Allora, chi ce sta?

Rough translation (I think): “Right, this is your last chance. If you’re not going to listen, you might as well fuck off. If you’re with me, you’re going to have a month from hell, so get ready. You’ll always be looking behind your back and sleeping with your eyes open, but it’ll be worth it because at the end, we’ll have so much money that it won’t fit in this bag. So, who’s with me?”

I had to watch the series with subtitles (in Italian), because although I live in Rome and understand some dialect, I’m not fluent in it. Watching Romanzo Criminale improved my comprehension of the dialect and made me want to speak it myself, although I can’t really carry off phrases like “Che cazzo stai a di?” in a British accent.

3. You learn about (modern) Roman history. If you’re not Italian, you probably don’t know much about life and politics in Rome in the 1970s. Romanzo Criminale provides a fascinating insight into the world of 70s Rome, from crime to communism to fashion. Yes, it fictionalized, but the main characters are based on real people – Libanese is the Magliana gang leader Franco Giuseppucci, Freddo is Maurizio Abbatino – and it feels authentic. It also features real historical events, from the assassination of Aldo Moro to the Bologna bombing.

bufalo

4. Bufalo. Although he wasn’t one of my favourite characters to begin with, as he became increasingly deranged, I grew increasingly fond of him. Most of the other gang members have a softer or at least a lighter sight, whereas Bufalo is in “insane thug hell-bent on revenge” mode 24/7. He’s like a less romantic, more Roman Heathcliff.

I once saw the actor who plays Bufalo, Andrea Sartoretti, sitting on a bench in Piazza Testaccio. While I’m sure he’s perfectly pleasant in real life, he doesn’t seem like the most approachable of people, so I didn’t ask for an autograph.

5. The soundtrack. Che soundtrack! Romanzo Criminale introduced me to so many wonderful Italian songs, from Patty Pravo’s “Pazza idea” to Antonello Venditti’s “Lilly”. There are also songs by some of my favourite 80s bands, like OMD and the Psychedelic Furs, and even “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks in a 60s flashback scene.

The songs are great in themselves, but the use is spectacular – “Tutto il resto e’ noia” is the perfect choice for a wedding scene interspersed with the gang gunning down an enemy (spoiler alert).

6. The Total Eclipse of the Heart scene. Don’t click the link if you’re not up to season 2, as it’s a major spoiler. It’s a scene where a character steals the coffin of another character, set to Bonnie Tyler’s classic power ballad. Hilarious, pathetic and moving all at once.

fontana-della-tartarughe1

7. The locations. Most scenes in Romanzo Criminale are set in the suburbs of Rome – a world away from the centro storico and the neighbourhoods that tourists are familiar with. It’s actually quite refreshing to see another side of Rome, rather than the beautiful, glamorous world of La Dolce Vita.

There are a few scenes in more familiar locations. Giolitti in Testaccio (not to be confused with the famous gelateria) features a few times, and an important character gets killed in the picturesque surroundings of Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto. There’s also a early morning meeting in the ruins of Ostia Antica. I love the contrast between the bellezza of the centre and the grittiness of the suburbs, the gloomy bar in Magliana and Dandi’s palatial apartment in Via Giulia (2nd season).

8. It’s short and sweet. TV series that have 5+ seasons (ie: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) can be off-putting for a first-time viewer. You might not want to commit yourself to plowing through 23402340 minutes of TV, and then there’s always the chance that it jumps the shark. Romanzo Criminale has just two seasons – 22 hour long episodes – and is consistently brilliant. If you need something to fill the gap after you’ve finished the series, there’s always the film, and the Neapolitan equivalent, Gomorrah, which are both on my to-watch list.

ROMANZO CRIMINALE, La Série

9. The eye candy. There are quite a few attractive people in Romanzo Criminale. Notable mentions include Scialoja, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible moustache, and Dandi, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible personality. My crush on Freddo kind of disappeared over the second season, as he becomes less likeable. Not that he was ever that likeable to begin, but when you compare him to the others…Anyway, then there’s the beautiful Patrizia – the prostitute who becomes Dandi’s reluctant lover. 10/10 for Patrizia.

10. It makes you feel 100 times more tosto. You could be watching Romanzo Criminale tucked up in bed, wearing pink pyjamas, and by the end of the episode you’ll feel like a hardened criminal, ready to fill an infame with bullets from the back of a motorino before whizzing off with a suitcase full of cash.

It might be a good idea to watch an episode before heading out to take on a round of Italian bureaucracy, or battling your way through the crowds on the metro. If the characters of Romanzo Criminale can survive a couple of decades of drugs, guns, arrests and attempted murders, you can survive the queue at the Anagrafe or a journey on the B line at rush hour!

Romanzo Criminale is probably easy to find online, but I’m not sure about subtitles. Unless you’re familiar with Roman dialect, you’ll probably struggle, so look out for the DVD instead. It’s been released with English subtitles too and is available on Amazon.

Canzone #5: “Amandoti”by CCCP (1987)

Amarti m’affatica
Mi svuota dentro

(Loving you wears me out
It empties me)

“Amandoti” (“Loving you”) is a song by the Communist post-punk band CCCP. From what I’ve heard so far, it seems like CCCP mainly produced relentlessly bleak, nihilistic post-punk mixed with chamber music and the odd Middle Eastern influence thrown in for good measure. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t have much commercial success.

The cover version of “Amandoti” by Gianna Nannini is better known, and easier to listen to, if we’re honest. At least, it’s less inclined to make you want to self-harm.

But although I like Nannini’s version – one of the only decent songs I’ve ever heard on Radio Italia – the original has the edge. It’s dark, it’s dirgey. On a goth scale of 1-10, where 10= “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, “Amandoti” is probably a 9.

The singer, Giovanni Lindo Ferretti, is an interesting character. A former psychiatric nurse from Reggio-Emilia, Ferretti used to be a fervent communist. But after CCCP broke up he abandoned his communist beliefs, returned to the Catholic Church, and now votes for Lega Nord and breeds horses in his native village. He still performs live occasionally, probably in the crypts of churches in the mountains, in the middle of the night.

Returning to Rome from the Appian Way

appian-way-2

Once you start travelling down the Appian Way, it’s very difficult to turn back. A few miles down the road, the people begin to disappear, and the city feels like a distant memory. As you walk beneath the shade of the cypresses, passing medieval towers and fragments of Roman statues, you seem to be travelling through a strange, enchanted place that exists somewhere between city and country, past and present. You can enjoy the illusion of living in the past, walking in the footsteps of Roman soldiers and emperors, until you suddenly reach a break in the road, and have to wait at the intersection for the cars to pass before you can cross to the other side, continuing your journey on timewarped cobblestones.

The Appian Way once stretched from Rome to Brindisi, and was referred to as “the queen of long roads”. Built in 312 BC, it was originally intended for the transportation of military troops and supplies, running in a straight line until it hit the coast, and then snaking its way across the south of Italy. Although many sections of the road have disappeared or been interrupted, it’s possible to follow the road for the first 10 miles, beginning at Porta San Sebastiano in the southeast of Rome.

Trips along the Appian Way have become part of my weekend routine. On a Sunday morning I’ll often endure a tedious wait for the 118 bus, which has several stops along the beginning of the Appian Way. Then, more often than not, I’ll rent a bike and begin my ritualistic journey out of Rome, speeding past the shattered statues that watch over the ancient road.

appian-way-cycling

For me, the Appian Way is the most magical place in Rome, perhaps because it’s not only a place, but a journey in itself. The road is lined with intriguing sights – the Catacombs of San Callisto, the Tomb of Caecilia Metella, the Villa dei Quintili – but it’s impossible to visit the Appian Way and restrict yourself to a single destination. After exploring the dark tunnels of the catacombs or clambering over the ruins of a Roman villa, all it takes is a glance down the road, and you’re compelled to continue, to see what lies beyond the tunnel of trees.

The Villa dei Quintili is my landmark. When I see the huge brick tombs on my left and catch a glimpse of the ruins across the field, I know where I am, and how far I’ve come. I’ll never forget my first visit to the villa, when I stumbled across it by accident on a hot May morning. I bought my ticket at the gate, from an old man who seemed to be half asleep, and strode through the long grass until I reached the sprawling ruins.

The villa belonged to two brothers, until the emperor Commodus had them killed, and took the house for himself. Now the only indication of the villa’s former luxury is its size – the walls are enormous, and the ruins are scattered across a large meadow – but a visit to the villa is still an evocative experience. On my first visit I had the place to myself, and could hardly believe that I was walking on the original floor of a Roman dining room, where Commodus had once hosted his banquets. Despite its deteriorated state – or perhaps because of it – the Villa dei Quintili is one of the most atmospheric places I’ve ever been to. When I stand on the mosaic floor of a ruined room and watch a plane fly overhead, the villa seems to be the perfect symbol of the spirit of the Appian Way – a remnant of an ancient past that lingers uneasily on the threshold of present.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once, during a misguided attempt to reach the Appian Way from the Parco degli Acquedotti (Park of the Aqueducts), I got hopelessly lost. I had to climb under a barbed wire fence, and narrowly missed getting hit by a car on a busy road before I finally reached found the Appian Way. Relieved to finally know where I was, I began the long walk back towards the centre of Rome. After about half an hour I recognised the familiar ruins of the Villa dei Quintili on my left, instead of my right, which meant that I was walking in the wrong direction. When you’re tired and disorientated, there are few things more dispiriting than seeing ruins on the wrong side of the road.

Getting lost on a straight road which I’d travelled down countless times before was not one of my finest moments, but the Appian Way can be strangely disorientating. Once you go beyond the villa and reach the sixth or seventh mile, people seem to vanish, and you’re left alone with the birds and the sheep. The most famous monuments on the Appian Way, which attract the majority of visitors, are dotted along the first five miles of the road. When you reach the sixth mile there’s only a 12th century tower, and the tombs and mausoleums of the nameless dead.

In Venice there’s a tiny alleyway named Calle dei Morti ( “Street of the Dead”). It would be an even more appropriate name for the Appian Way, which was once lined with the crucified bodies of Spartacus’s army – 6,000 crosses from Rome to Capua. Even today, reminders of death are everywhere. The Catacombs of San Callisto stretch for miles, and although the popes and martyrs have been transferred elsewhere, they still hold the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Romans. The vast fortress of the Tomb of Caecilia Metella honours the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Other mausoleums are marked by plaques and fragmented faces, or sit beneath farmhouses, or are nothing more than small hills by the roadside – unmarked, unnoticed, forgotten.

Even after repeated journeys down the Appian Way – slow walks and ecstatic bike rides – I’ve never made it beyond the seventh mile. I could blame the heat, or lack of time, or my anxiety about missing the bus back to Rome, but the real reason is that I’m reluctant to travel too far, and risk spoiling the illusion. The map suggests that within a couple more miles, the road comes dangerously close to Ciampino airport, and then gets swallowed up by suburbia. The Appian Way of my imagination has more in common with Piranesi’s Baroque fantasy than reality. I feel compelled to explore, but I’m also compelled to turn back before I go too far, because my Appian Way is a road that never ends.

appian-way-piranesi

Terremoto

rome-earthquake-cracks

Growing up in England, I never thought about earthquakes. The closest I came to an earthquake was the simulator at the Natural History Museum in London – you walk into a replica of a Japanese supermarket, the floor shakes and the shelves collapse. Earthquakes seemed as unreal as the animatronic dinosaurs in the neighbouring rooms. They happened in other times, in other places.

When I grew up, I moved to Rome.

August

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling seasick . My bed was swinging backwards and forwards, and everything seemed to be shaking. My windows were open, and in my confused, half-asleep state, I reasoned that the cause must be some kind of wind. A strange, supernatural wind. Perhaps it was an omen. What if Valeriano had had an accident? What if he’d fallen off his motorino and the “wind” was a spiritual message?

The shaking stopped, and I went back to sleep. The next morning, I discovered that while I had been speculating about supernatural winds, my flatmate Tom had immediately realised that we were experiencing an earthquake, and started planning possible escape routes.

I spent the rest of the week reading the news, and getting tearful over the stories of the people who had died in towns like Amatrice and Pescara del Tronto. The fireman’s letter to the child he had been unable to save was one of the most heartbreaking things I’d ever read.

I donated some money to the Red Cross, and prayed that it would never happen again.

Wednesday 26 October

I was in the middle of teaching an English lesson when I started feeling dizzy. I thought it was all in my head until I heard my students talking amongst themselves – “terremoto”. Another earthquake? I wasn’t sure how to react, and was too confused to panic. The shaking was less violent this time, and stopped quickly. Should we leave the building anyway? My students shrugged. “It’s nothing, it happens all the time.” The lesson continued.

Downstairs, a colleague’s class was less laidback – the students immediately rushed out of the school.

Just under two hours later, there was another scossa (tremor), but I didn’t feel it, perhaps because I was in a car at the time, being driven home.

Sunday 30 October

I was woken up by the bed shaking. I immediately got out of bed, and saw that my friend from London (who was sleeping on the sofa bed in my room) had woken up too. The whole room seemed to be shaking from side to side, and there was the most horrible noise – as if the entire building was creaking, shifting.

As I live on the fourth floor, evacuating the building wasn’t really an option. I crawled under the desk and told my friend to do the same. We crouched there for a few seconds until we were sure the shaking had stopped. Then, still feeling shaky, we got back in bed, and tried to make the most of the rest of our Sunday lie-in.

On a conscious level, I’m not afraid of earthquakes. At least, I’m not afraid for Rome. Although we felt the effects and there was some minor damage – cracks in churches, walls and roads – nothing collapsed, and no one was injured. It’s the communities in smaller towns in Lazio, Umbria and Le Marche that I worry about. I can’t imagine what it must be like, living under constant stress and not knowing if you’ll ever be able to return to your home.

Nonetheless, the earthquake has had an unexpected physical and psychological toll. I’ve been sleeping badly, imagining that the bed was shaking, and experiencing occasional moments of dizziness. I’m not the only one.

There’s something quite unsettling about sleeping in a broken bed (broken for reasons unrelated to the earthquake), in a country that seems to be constantly shaking. I’m looking forward to the arrival of my new bed, and the terra settling down, so I can finally get a good night’s sleep…

Villa Farnesina

villa-farnesina

No one goes to Villa Farnesina.

By “no one” I mean “far fewer people than you would expect, considering its beauty, historical importance, and central location”.

When I finally visited Villa Farnesina, after years of thinking “I should really visit Villa Farnesina”, I practically had the place to myself. Where else in Rome can you find yourself alone with a Raphael?

This Renaissance villa in Trastevere was once the home of the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi – at the time one of the wealthiest men in Europe. His lover was the celebrity courtesan Imperia; after he dumped her, she died in mysterious circumstances (she may have poisoned herself), and Chigi paid for her lavish funeral. He then married his Venetian mistress, and had the wedding banquet in the sumptuous surroundings of Villa Farnesina.

villa-farnesina-2

You would expect a supremely wealthy banker to live in luxury, but what makes Chigi’s house unique is that it was decorated by none other than Raphael. One room has a fresco of the nymph Galatea – bearing an uncanny resemblance to Chigi’s former lover, Imperia – while the most famous room, the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, has an extraordinary ceiling decorated by Raphael and his workshop. Cupid and Psyche celebrate their wedding feast on Mount Olympus, surrounded by gods, cherubs, and festoons of fruit and flowers.

Upstairs is the Hall of Perspectives – a room painted by Baldassare Peruzzi, where the walls depict colonnades and distant landscapes. One landscape is defaced by some graffiti from 1527, commemorating the Sack of Rome. Then there’s Chigi’s bedroom, which celebrates the theme of marital bliss (much like the Cupid and Psyche fresco downstairs) with a fresco of Alexander the Great’s wedding night.

I like the fact that Villa Farnesina is such an obviously personal project. The paintings clearly represent Chigi’s artistic tastes, as well as his life and loves. There’s even a representation of his horoscope on the ceiling.

Chigi has been more or less forgotten, but his house remains, as a testament to his wealth and taste for luxury. And we’ve got to feel grateful for him hiring Raphael, resulting in some rare examples of the artist’s secular work.

Although there are lots of Christian paintings that I admire – even love – some of my favourite works by Raphael are the secular ones. His painting of his mistress, La Fornarina (displayed in Palazzo Barberini, Rome), or even his self-portrait at the Uffizi. Of all the Renaissance artists, Raphael is the one I’d most like to have met. By all accounts he was charming and good company, and he just looks like a nice guy.

raphael-self-portrait

Don’t you think?

Villa Farnesina is open 9.00-14.00, Monday-Saturday, and there are occasional guided tours. Go early on a weekday morning, as I did, and you too might find yourself alone with a Raphael.

Praying to skulls: the Cimitero delle Fontanelle in Naples

fontanelle

(the Captain’s skull)

I’ve visited Naples about seven or eight times now. (Much to the confusion of friends, family members, and Italians from other parts of the country, I really, really love Naples).

When I go to Naples, I tend to do the same things over and over again. Walking up and down Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali. Enjoying the view of Vesuvius from the seafront. Eating pizza at Da Michele. Getting lost in the Quartieri Spagnoli. Gazing at gigantic statues in the Archaeological Museum.

This time, I spent one day doing all the usual things – and wearing myself out in the process, as I always do. When I returned to my room at the hostel that evening, absolutely exhausted, I picked my copy of Secret Naples and started flicking through it, looking for inspiration for the next morning. Within seconds of turning to the page on the Cimitero delle Fonantelle, I’d decided. A purgatory cult in a skull-filled cemetery where criminals made blood oaths? You don’t get much more Neapolitan than that.

Fontanelle is slightly on the edge of the city centre. Getting there involves taking the metro (and, if you’re me, having to buy your ticket twice because no one understands your English pronunciation of the station name “Materdei”). From Materdei, just follow the signs. Strangely, the cemetery is the best-signposted place I’ve ever been in Italy.

When I found Fontanelle, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. When I think of cemeteries, I think of grass, trees and overgrown tombstones, not ominous looking caves. But there was a sign, and a custode to welcome me in and give me a guided tour in enthusiastic, very Neapolitan English.

Centuries ago, the Neapolitans used to bury their dead in a quarry on the outskirts of the city. The plague in the 16th century had killed 250,000 people – more than half of the city’s population – and the church cemeteries were overflowing, so the quarry seemed like a convenient dumping ground/burial ground. But then the quarry too began to overflow. According to the authors of Secret Naples, “they were so numerous and so crudely buried that whenever there was a heavy storm, the torrents of silty water flowing down from Capodimonte hill washed out the corpses that the terrified residents then saw floating down the streets”.

In the 19th century Father Gaetano Barbati redesigned the ossuary, with some help from local women, which is the section of the cemetery that can be visited today. After fervently crossing himself in front of a shrine made of bones, Antonio showed me the different sections of the ossuary, which has been designed to vaguely resemble a subterranean church. Only this church is filled with skulls – skulls of men, women and children, which have been neatly stacked up or placed in special glass cases, known as scarabattole (mini-chapels).

fontanelle-gnocchi

Some skulls come with a skeleton intact, displayed in a sort of glass coffin, such as the rather ghastly-looking woman with a gaping mouth (“they say she died choking on her gnocchi”), or the child who lies beneath a mountain of offerings – cuddly toys, coins, candles, jewellery, flowers and a bus ticket.

The most famous skull is known as the Captain’s Skull, and stands out for the number of candles and rosaries surrounding his scarabattola. Here’s his story, taken from Secret Naples:

A feisty local youth, who was an incorrigible womaniser, used to meet his conquests in the cemetery. One evening, after that day’s lover had left, he wanted to smoke a cigarette. All of a sudden the eye-sockets of the skulls around him lit up like eyes of fire and stared at him as a sign of reprobation. The young man laughed and challenged death, inviting it to his coming wedding. On the wedding day, during the feast, a carabineer dressed in black arrived and sat at a table without speaking or eating. Asked who he was, he replied that he’d only reveal that in private to the married couple. So they went with their carabineer to a room away from the crowd and he asked the youth if he remembered the invitation he had issued in the cemetery. Once again the miscreant laughed at the stranger and even offered to shake his hand. The captain took off his uniform, revealing his skeleton, and struck the couple down on the spot.

Antonio interspersed these stories with questions about me – where was I from, what was I doing in Italy, did I have a boyfriend etc. Then he would casually point out another site of interest – “This is where the Camorra used to make oaths of allegiance in blood”.

He didn’t, however, explain the salt. One otherwise empty cave room had a thick of line of what appeared to be salt on the floor. Anywhere else, you might not think much of some “salt” on the floor, but in the context of a cemetery with a history of cultish rituals, such things seem sinister.

“What’s this?” I asked Antonio. “Is it for some kind of event?”

“Yes,” said Antonio. He didn’t elaborate, but walked on, leaving my curiosity unsatisfied.

Fontanelle is also one of the centres of the Neapolitan purgatory cult. A believer will choose a skull belonging to a soul in purgatory and pray for it, in order to help the poor soul escape from purgatory. The chosen skull might receive offerings – flowers, coins, images of saints – in addition to prayers. Once the soul eventually reaches heaven, they will return the favour for their living patron, healing illnesses, husband-hunting, and even passing on winning lottery numbers.

In the 1960s the Catholic Church banned the cult, calling it “superstitious, arbitrary, and therefore inadmissable”. But the ban didn’t last long, and the cult lives on.

At the end of the tour, Antonio told me that I was “very nice, very beautiful”, and said he would get in touch with me when he was next in Rome. An interesting trend in my travels is that the highlight of my trip is often a visit to an obscure, off-the-beaten-path site where the elderly male guardian hits on me. (See also: a visit to the Islamic teqe in Kruje, Albania).

If you’re interested in learning more about the Neapolitan purgatory cult but don’t fancy making the trek to Fontanelle, I recommend a visit to the fascinating Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali. It’s open on weekdays and there are guided tours. I found the experience so inspiring that it even gave me the idea for a novel – my current writing project.

In Rome there’s the tiny Museo del Purgatorio, located in the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio (Lungotevere Prati), which has an odd display of objects supposedly touched by the burning hands of souls in purgatory. The man who showed me the museum – much less simpatico than Antonio – put his hand on my bum not once but twice, so if you’re a lone woman, enter at your own risk.

 

Milan: an apology

milan-duomo

Some people are Naples snobs. You know the ones I mean – people who have been once, briefly (or never been at all), and hate it. “Ugh, Naples. It’s so dirty, chaotic and crime-ridden.” I’m definitely not one of those people.

I was, however, a Milan snob. I had never been, but I was sure I would hate it. “Ugh, Milan. It’s so clean, orderly and boring. Full of stuck-up, well-dressed northerners. Like a less interesting version of London, with a similarly depressing climate. Probably.”

I spent a brief weekend in Milan, and I feel I owe the city an apology.

Mi dispiace, Milano. I only got to spend a few hours exploring your streets (most of my time was spent with Valeriano’s friends in the nearby town of Carate Brianza for a surprise birthday party), but you were much better than I’d expected.

Milan does feel clean and orderly, at least compared to Rome (and even more so compared to Naples), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The colours and the sense of space reminded me of non-Italian cities such as London, Paris and Vienna. It seems more functional, more prosperous. No, it doesn’t have the charm and character of the cities I love most – the sun-soaked, crazy, ancient cities that seem to be on the verge of collapse – but it’s still a pleasant place to visit. More beautiful than I expected, too. I saw plenty of attractive architecture, and there’s lots of greenery. I also liked the fact that it was lively. Not as lively as Naples, but with much more of a buzz than Florence, for example.

We went for a lengthy walk around the city centre – the area with all the designer shops, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and the Duomo. Although a few hours is clearly not enough to do justice to the city, it was enough to give me a taste for more. I’ll be back.

I was even pleasantly surprised by the pizza. Living in Rome and making regular trips to Naples, I have very high standards when it comes to pizza. Northern Italy is not renowned for its pizza, but the takeaway pizza we had in Carate Brianza was delicious (and enormous). After pizza we played Time’s Up- a game similar to Taboo, where you have to describe famous people for the rest of your team to guess. (“Principessa. Inglese. Incidente“) Quite challenging to play in a foreign language when you’re absolutely exhausted (from hours of train travel, walking, and constant socialising). But overall, it was a great weekend.

You can get the train from Rome to Milan with Trenitalia or Italo. The journey takes 3-3.5 hours, with prices starting at €39.50 one way. (Incidentally, Milano Centrale puts Roma Termini to shame. It’s a bit like comparing a cathedral to a public toilet).

Getting residency in Rome (as an EU citizen)

carta-identita-gesu-di-nazareth

(as a non-EU citizen, Jesus would probably have a tougher time getting residency)

After the shock of Brexit, I decided that I really needed to get myself sorted out in Rome. Brexit left me feeling quite vulnerable, as though I might suddenly be kicked out of Italy. Although I knew that realistically, that was unlikely to happen, I felt it was time to let the authorities know that I lived in Rome, and get some kind of document confirming my residency.

So, over the past couple of months, I’ve been going through the slightly stressful and tedious process of becoming an official resident, which culminated in getting my carta d’identita.

Information about the process tends to be lacking, or contradictory. I used this article on the Expats in Rome website as my guide, and asked for advice from various friends and strangers on the internet, before finally taking the plunge and going to my local Anagrafe (Municipio I, via Petroselli) to begin the process.

NB: I’m writing from the perspective of an EU citizen in Rome. If you’re an American in Florence, for example, the process of getting residency may well be different.

1st visit – 20 July

I arrive at the Anagrafe at 8am, already feeling anxious and stressed, and ready to argue my case. (“I’m still an EU citizen! Article 50 hasn’t been triggered yet! I have a home and a job! Give me residency!”) Much to my surprise, there’s no queue. After walking around in confusion, I find a member of staff, explain that I want to apply for residency, and ask him what I need to do. He gives me a form to complete, and books me in for an appointment later that day. Although it’s annoying being told to come back at 3pm, I’m pleasantly surprised by the absence of a chaotic queue, as this goes against everything I’ve read. Has the system been improved, or is it just because it’s the summer and there are fewer people?

Later that day

I arrive early, and discover that they’re already ready to see me. It’s almost too good to be true. The lady at the Anagrafe is, contrary to all expectations, not a stronza. She looks through my form and documents, and says that everything is in order, except for one thing. Bizarrely, I need to supply some information about the floor plan of the flat where I live. I had no idea I needed this.

I call up my landlady, who’s on holiday. She doesn’t have the information, and says she won’t be able to give it to me until next week. I book another appointment at the Anagrafe for the following week.

2nd visit – 26 July

I’d booked the first possible appointment (8.15), but they’re already running half an hour late. I’ve got the information from my landlady, and am feeling as prepared as I can be. I still don’t really understand why they want this information about the apartment size and floor plan. It makes sense to Valeriano, who explains that the Anagrafe want to check that I’m living in a legitimate apartment, rather than some kind of hovel.

The man at the sportello is sitting at a desk surrounded by pictures of saints and popes, and inspirational Catholic quotes. I begin by explaining that I now have the apartment information, but he doesn’t seem to care. As he looks through my documents he points out that I haven’t written the scala number. Some apartment blocks have numerous buildings (so numerous scale – A, B, C) etc. I explain that there’s just one building, so one scala, and he seems satisfied.

He then queries the fact that I claim to be British, even though I was born in Australia. Most Italians have a problem with this. I insist that I’m British and grew up in London, and decide not to tell him about the rest of my family (father born in Canada, mother in Kenya, brother in Singapore).

I wait while he enters all my information on an archaic computer programme. He shows no interest in the apartment information I had to get from my landlady, even though the woman at the Anagrafe the week before insisted that it was essential. Boh.

The man gives me a document known as the fascia (to confirm I’m in the process of getting residency) and tells me to come back in 45 days, making sure to bring my work contract and the marche da bollo (stamps), which cost €16 and can be bought at the tabaccheria. He also tells me to expect a visit from the police within the next 10 days; they need to check my address.

“What if I’m not there?” I ask

“They’ll see if they can find someone in the building to confirm you live there. Otherwise they’ll leave a message in your postbox, and you’ll have to go to the police station in Trastevere.”

I leave the Anagrafe, making a mental note to tape my name to the postbox, tape an explanatory note to my front door (along the lines of: Sorry I’m not here, Mr Policeman – but I promise I live here. Here’s my phone number), and prepare my flatmates for the police visit.

3rd visit – 12 September

Two months have passed, and there’s been no sign of the police. I go back to to the Anagrafe, queue up at the information desk, explain the situation, and am sent to a sportello to talk to the man from my previous appointment, whom we’ll call Carlo (for that is his name).

“The vigile hasn’t come,” I tell him.

“Don’t worry, the vigile will come,” says Carlo.

“You said in July that he would come within 10 days. It’s been two months.”

Carlo checks on the computer, and announces that the vigile did in fact come to check up on me.

Tutto a posto.”

“Really? But I didn’t see the vigile. He didn’t leave a message.”

“He must have checked with one of your neighbours. Anyway, now you can finish the process and get your carta d’identita. But wait…” He looks down at my document. “Are you Australian?”

“No, British. I was born in Australia.”

Italian bureaucracy really can’t handle the fact that my nationality doesn’t match the country of my birth.

Carlo tells me to make two more appointments at the Anagrafe – one to finish the residency process, and one to get my carta d’identita. I need to bring my last pay slip, my work contract, the marche da bollo and a passport photo. I go back to the information desk, book the two appointments for the following Monday, and walk out into the sunshine, relieved that the end is in sight.

4th visit – 19 September

Back to see Carlo, who remembers me. “Nata in Australia, ma sei inglese.” Then he comments that after Brexit happens, being British will basically be the same as being Australian. He’s right, cazzo. (A big vaffanculo to everyone who voted for Brexit, and all the lying politicians).

Carlo looks through my documents again, but doesn’t bother to check my new work contract, despite having asked me for it last time. (Which is a relief – given that my new contract is British, rather than Italian, I’d worried that it might be a problem). He prints something off, stamps it several times with great force, and tells me to keep it in a safe place. This is my attestato – a document that confirms my residency in Rome, and lasts five years. At last, I’m officially a resident!

I wait an hour for my next appointment, to get my carta d’identita. Apparently I’m going to get one of the new ones – an electronic card rather than the old paper form. I go to a different sportello, show my documents, and get my fingerprints and height checked. They print off a draft copy of the carta d’identita so I can check that the details are correct. But there’s a mistake…

No, non sono australiana. Sono nata in Australia ma sono inglese.

The man and woman spend ten minutes trying to enter the correct information on the computer. The computer system, as a product of Italian bureaucracy, is reluctant to accept that my nationality and country of birth don’t correspond.

After they’ve corrected my nationality, I’m sent upstairs to pay an arbitrary amount of money (€22.21), then return to the sportello with the receipt. I’m asked whether I want the carta d’identita to be sent in the post, or whether I’d prefer to collect it at the Anagrafe. I choose to return to the Anagrafe the following week, as I have absolutely no faith in the Italian postal system.

5th visit – 26 September

I arrive at the Anagrafe and pick up my shiny new carta d’identita senza problemi. The card expires on my 36th birthday (in 2027).

I’ve survived this round of bureaucracy. Next step – tessera sanitaria (health card)!

TIPS

-Be prepared. Do all your research beforehand, and try to bring all the necessary documents to your first appointment. If you turn up to the Anagrafe without your codice fiscale, for example, you’re just wasting your time.

-Don’t obsess over the details of other people’s application experiences. If you talk to someone who applied at a different municipio five years ago, they may well have had a very different experience, and been asked for different documents. Accept that the situation really depends on the municipio, your personal circumstances, and the mood and personality of the Anagrafe employee.

-Make sure you can speak Italian. If you’re applying for residency, presumably you’ve been living in Rome for a while and have a reasonable level of Italian. The application process will be ten times more confusing and stressful if you can’t communicate with the Anagrafe staff. You can’t really count on an Italian friend doing you a favour and accompanying you to every Anagrafe appoinment, so you’re on your own.

-Bring all the documents you might possibly need to every appointment. And photocopies.

-Be patient. Expect to return to the Anagrafe multiple times over a period of a couple of months.

DOCUMENTS

Try to have all of these, but expect Anagrafe staff to randomly lose interest in the documents, having previously insisted that they were essential.

  • Passport
  • Codice fiscale
  • Work contract
  • Letter from landlord confirming your address, and a photocopy of their carta d’identita (obviously if you have a real rental contract, that’s preferable)
  • A certificate confirming your civil status. I found a document published by the UK government, written in English and Italian, stating that there is no document to confirm whether a citizen is married or single. I don’t think the Anagrafe ever actually looked at it, but someone on the internet told me they might ask. Don’t worry too much about this one.
  • A copy of your last payslip
  • A copy of your bank statement, to prove that you have some kind of savings. (I didn’t have enough money in my Italian bank account – I think they want to see that you have at least a few thousand euros – but they accepted a statement from my British bank account. However, I did bring some documents from my Italian bank account, just to show that I had one.)