Archive | June, 2010

I want you, I “knead” you, oh baby, oh baby

30 Jun

Friends, Romans, countrymen —

I have been wooed. Oh, yes. I have been wooed, and I have been wooed sweetly, and I have been wooed in Italiano.

(Dad, unclench your fists for one moment and keep reading. Trust me.)

It all started with my arrival in Trastevere five weeks ago as a poor, unsuspecting, supermarket-brainwashed American. I spent the first two days so overwhelmed with fruit and cheeses, wines and outdoor markets that I could barely walk straight, instead bumping into the person next to me as I craned my neck towards the closest open food shop. I began cooking, and then I began learning to trust other people’s cooking.

And then, on the seventh day, when even God was busy resting, I found it. My bakery.

I could smell it from down the sidewalk as I entered my neighborhood, exhausted from a day of traversing the city. My stomach grumbled in recognition of a friendly locale. “Pizza,” it said loudly (anyone who has ever traveled to Italy knows that here, your stomach acquires a persona of its own). “I want THAT PIZZA.” Without further discussion, I grabbed Ashley by the arm and pulled her into the open doorway. I saw cookies. I saw full loaves of bread stretched out on open wooden counters. And I saw at least fifteen different kinds of pizza, all waiting for me to devour them. And so it was that on that fateful day of June, I had my first taste of the best pizza in all of Trastevere.

Pictures can't even do this place justice

Of course I came back, at some points almost every other day. When I didn’t buy pizza, I came to buy breads in full loaves, fresh, warm bread to use as bruschetta or eat plain with cheese, apples, or honey. I let the rest of my friends in on the secret, and soon all of the girls began going to my bakery.

The best part about the place is that the workers there speak no English; neither do any of their customers. It is hidden on a side-street away from tourists, and the crowds of locals who jam it for lunch are so big that they have to use a ticketing system during the afternoon to deal with the volume of requests, like the kind we use at the deli. After our first two times of using our fumbling Italian and hilarious hand gestures to order, we began to be recognized by the people who worked there. One man in particular always lit up when we walked through the door and gave our standard greeting of, “ciao!” One night, he snuck an extra cookie into the wrapping of our bread. The next time we came in, he complimented our dresses, asked us to hang around, and gave us two free pizzettes. I had made a good find with my bakery; my bakery and I were getting along swimmingly.

And then, today, I took Frances there for lunch. We were sweaty and hot and tired and anxious for food after a morning of tracing Mussolini’s footsteps across the city. And despite the busy room, as soon as the man saw us enter, he broke into a grin. “Ciao!” he called out and helped us maneuver our way into the line. We both got sandwiches of fresh bread, tomato, arugula, and mozzerella and sat down at the bar to eat. Within minutes, I was thirsty enough to go buy a water (for the record, that was the first time I have ever bought a water bottle in Rome outside of a restaurant meal; the fountains are so plentiful that I just fill up my own bottle in the morning and bring it with me wherever I go), and when I got up to the register, our baker friend put up his finger. “Wait,” he said.

He returned from around the corner cradling the fluffiest, most incredible pastry I had ever seen. “Shhh,” he motioned with a finger over his lips. “For you,” and he slid it across to me with a smile. Never had I eaten a pastry this good — right out of the oven. It had some kind of light chocolatey cream inside and powdered sugar coating its edges. And when he saw that I had split the pastry in half to share with Frances, he ran back and got one for her, too.

Even my talkative tummy was now silent, happy beyond words.

A few minutes later, having made all kinds of inappropriate moaning noises as I inhaled my dessert, I turned back to the counter behind me. “MOLTO bene,” I said, trying as best as I could to get across the concept of heaven through hand gestures. “BENISSIMO.”

He smiled. “One minute,” he motioned again with his finger. And there it was, on the counter in front of me. Two MORE pastries, two more piping hot pastries, filled with raisins and sugar and flaky bread and who knows what other sweet sweet nectar of the gods.

I had thought I was full before I had even made it through the first pastry. How would I ever eat a second? Finally, one of my genetic inheritances kicked in for the win. Yes, Mom, you guessed it — your secret, extra stomach pocket specially evolved to hold unexpected dessert SAVED THE DAY. And oh, it was so. so. SOOOOOO. good.

Close-up.

And that's when I knew: I'd been training for this moment my whole life. Pastry, PREPARE FOR DOMINATION.

Before leaving, I had a long conversation with my friend-turned-dessert-superhero. Or at least as long of a conversation as I could have in broken Italian, French (he didn’t speak much outside of “oui, francais!” which made me temporarily very excited), and fragments of English. In fact, I’m not really sure what I actually said to him during those few minutes. However, I do know that he got very sad when I said I would be leaving on Saturday and that he called me “bella, bella, bella.” When Frances and I started to leave the store, saying “A domani!” or, “‘Til tomorrow!” he shook his head. “Venerdi, come venerdi,” (Friday). “Okay, venerdi!” I nodded back. He motioned at my camera, then at Frances for a moment. “Picture with her,” he said, pointing at me. “Happy, happy me,” I said, pointing at my stomach.

Readers, I warn you now. I am going back on Friday, and if he gives me so much as one more cannolo, I may not make it home.

(You’re all invited to the wedding.)

Notebook Excerpt: I knew it was not a real poem

25 Jun

I knew it was not a real poem

the moment my mother finished the crisp “t” on

“I must not have been smart enough to understand it-t”

*

Not a poem of a red wheelbarrow,

the way two roads diverging can be,

nor a people poem, not a pocket full of lines that

can be emptied onto the table when company

comes over, not a

real poem.

*

My father would disagree, would say

“We just don’t know this stuff

like the rest of the world does,” would

sit for hours in a too-small chair in the back of a school

auditorium just to hear me carve unfamiliar words from air,

but here, he is wrong.

*

A real

poem (I remind myself) lingers

in the eardrums of more than “the rest of the world,”

requiring no taste for expensive wines nor Latin diplomas (no

afternoons in church, or on an open lake) to make a mother fall in love.

*

Just a reading and a place in your memory and a repetition

the day you realize the world goes on forever and you have

no other words.

Letter to my Archivist

24 Jun

Dear Memory,

I know you are cluttered and stuffed to the brim with all sorts of knick-knacks – puns and conquests and the smell of my Grampa’s French toast – but I would like to file a request.

Please clear out a corner, preferably on a high shelf that won’t need to be disturbed for a while (and where those pesky short-term reminders can’t reach), and open a file entitled:

NIGHT WALK OUT LOUD, JUNE 23-24, HANDLE WITH CARE.

In this file, with utmost precision, I would like you to record every moment of last night between the hours of midnight and 4am. I want pictures, audio, press clippings if you can find them. This ought to be a veritable archive.

I know you are already overworked processing the Colosseum and that you have a backlog of Bernini statues. But trust me, this is a memory that I will want to come back to for the rest of my life. Push it to the front of the line, would ya?

And just because I’m so grateful for your hard work, I’ll start you off with a collection of the best moments of the evening. You take it from there.

Ashley and I were washing dishes and singing. This was not unusual in itself; however, this time it went on for a long time because we were doing dishes from both the group dinner and the wine tasting. I had already started making a mental map of the rest of my evening like I always do when I am stressed out, weighing the different possible combinations of study and sleep and realizing that sleep would yet again come up short. I had a presentation the next morning on Byron and wanted to knock the socks off of my teacher (I had been talking to her since arriving in Rome about my love of poetry) and so I knew that after dinner, I would hunker down with the eighteen open tabs on my web browser to read more and more about this crazy, violent, passionate, supremely talented man.

Until, that is, Nick, Hannah’s friend who was visiting and who did the program last year, walked into the kitchen. “I’m taking a walk tonight,” he announced. “Anyone else in?”

Hannah nearly choked on her laughter: “Seriously? I am going to SLEEP.” But Ashley and I made eye contact once, twice, shook our heads, rolled our eyes at each other knowing the futility of our situation, and answered together, “We’re coming.” Completely cuckoo or not (not to mention academically irresponsible), we would never say no to a night walk in Rome.

We left the apartment at 1am. It was Nick’s last night in Rome, but Ashley and I had class the next morning at eight thirty, and I still had my presentation to plan. Feeling a sudden pang of worry on my way out the door, I grabbed my Byron printout from the table and told them, “I’m still coming. But I’m going to read Byron from wherever we stop.” They shrugged their shoulders and we walked out into the piazza, still packed with 20-somethings laughing and leaning inwards in flirtation. The cobblestones echoed with Italian.

Before leaving Trastevere, Nick grabbed a cappuccino from S. Calisto despite the fact that everyone else at the bar was ordering a harder beverage. “Ciao!” I announced into the night air when we entered, as usual. “Ciao,” the older man at the cashier nodded back to me as he handed Nick his change with one hand and cleared Peroni bottles off the top of the glass case of pastries with the other.

Newly caffeinated, Nick decided on our destination: Piazza del Popolo. In Italian, this means “Piazza of the People”; in the language of night walks, this means “Hold on to your sandals, kiddos, this is going to be one heck of a journey.” But we went anyways, along the Tiber (dark with no sun to filter through its trees), through Piazza Navona (bodies mixed with bodies in the blackness in front of me. I could only see those closest to the fountains clearly), across the broken glass bottles of Campo de’ Fiori, and into alleyways that confused the compass that I always keep at the top of my mind. I don’t know how long it took for us to reach the piazza, just that it was long enough to weave in and out of narratives of Rome, everything from our independent project topics to the story of deceit behind one of Michelangelo’s window trimmings.

When we did find Piazza del Popolo, it was deserted. Beyond deserted. Echoing and dusky and much vaster than I had realized back when I saw it clothed in hundreds of sneakers, it met us with its central fountain with four lions shooting water down through their jaws.

“I’m reading Byron,” I said. Then, pausing, “Is it okay if I read Byron?”

“We’re listening,” Nick said, and leaned into the bottom curve of the fountain. I took the folded paper out of my purse, looked up at the top of the fountain, and began to climb. One narrow step at a time. My sandals were not made to grip marble against water but I pleaded with them to succeed, and within a minute, I was straddling a lion, facing a deserted piazza, holding Byron in an 8.5 x 11″ message on my palm.

“Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,

Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse

To understand, not feel thy lyric flow.

To comprehend, but never love thy verse…”

I trailed off. I had chills. I had two people with closed eyes listening to me read Byron into the marble ruins around me. I was getting wild and romantic, and Lord B. himself would have been proud. On to later stanzas, and,

“Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!

The orphans of the heart must turn to thee…”

Without acknowledgment I stopped mid-poem and passed the paper off to Nick, who also said nothing but clambered up the adjacent lion. And I stood on the center staircase, listening to words written in that place two hundred years ago. Then Ashley, who had initially shied away from our declamations, pulled herself up onto the central platform, and from above us, looking out, she finished the piece.

“Wow.” Nick said after a few moments. “I think that’s one of the coolest things I have ever done here.” “Wow,” I responded, quietly. “Wow.”

Piazza del Popolo at night. The four lions can be seen, barely, surrounding the base of the obelisk.

By the time we left the piazza, Ashley and I had red roses on our laps from a wandering vendor (“No grazie!” we told him. “No pay — you beautiful,” he argued back, and thrust them onto our laps.) We held them awkwardly in one hand as we followed Nick to our next destination, a “surprise,” we were told.

The surprise was at the top of a hill climb and past scattered Roman couples making out. It was first, a fountain, hidden behind stairs and walls, and second, a view through the Borghese gardens, one that looked out over all of Rome in its quiet repose. “We should recite something else,” we thought. And so, because it was the most firm text in his memory, Nick began the Gettysburg Address from this ledge in Rome in Italy in Europe across an ocean from its initial composition. At the end, we moved on. Each moment of the night cleared the paths of more people until, almost spookily, we were alone on most of our sidestreets. We were deep in the city by this point, and far from home.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. "

So far that our next stop was a climb down – down the Spanish steps. Here, we shared from memory the opening few pages of the Canterbury Tales (yes, Ms. Haag, I still do remember those, Old English emphases and all) and snippets of Shakespeare. By the end, we were sharing every poetic line that had ever stuck to the walls of our minds. We shook them free of their cobwebs and loosed them into the night.

The Spanish Steps

The walk back could be described as uneventful, except that we were walking in the footsteps of emperors and popes. We got lost, used churches as landmarks, and finally stumbled up the stairs more than three hours after our departure. Everyone in the apartment was sleeping, and so we put on pajamas, too; brushing my teeth felt strange after all of those mouthfuls of remembered words.

In the morning, we were tired, but not enough. We had already forgotten moments, but not too many. And we will remember, just for this long.

A rose (and a view) (and a city at rest)

( Now go work your neuron magic, mind. I want – no, I need – this file done right.)

Yours,

Jessica

Things That Are Great

23 Jun

Tonight –

wine-tasting, Sicilian grapes

night soccer on one of the hills of rome

the boys making us all an incredible dinner as I type this – sausages, garlic bread, mushroom and olive sauce, strawberry dessert, MMMM (i can say it here even if its not sophisticated enough for the wine tasting)

studying byron extra hard for my class presentation tomorrow

reading byron aloud, playing “she walks in beauty” over and over on youtube

meeting someone new

drinking straight from a fountain after soccer and getting water from Roman aqueducts accidentally sprayed across my face

seeing some of the most famous Bernini statues (and the most famous statues, period) in person during class today

Bananagrams in pajamas (like the show “Bananas in Pajamas,” but better!)

two yellow roses on our dinner table

Wine Tasting and The Art of Living

23 Jun

Step one: Pour the wine.

Step two: “Waft” the wine. Smell its “bouquet,” or the light odor that comes from moving it around.

Step three: Wiggle your glass. But don’t wiggle it wiggle it, wiggle it with some grace. Check the sides of the glass to see how many “legs” follow the bulk of the wine in its circular journey. These little lines dictate the alcohol content of the wine.

Step three: Sip. Hold the wine lightly in the front of your mouth and swish it around a bit. Kind of like gargling, but much more elegant, of course. Optional addition: make weird sounds that your mother would kill you for but that somehow become part of a sophisticated wine tasting.

Step four: Attempt to say something intelligent. “Mmmmmm….” does not cut it. “Ah, this is a nice dry combination of flavors with – is that a hint of? – yes, an apple and pomegranate bouquet” does.

(Secret step five: Eat lots of cheese and prosciutto in between each bottle. If not, after your ninth tasting glass, you will be sloshed in front of your teachers, and you will have to sneak off into the kitchen to gulp down four glasses of water. On your way, your friends, all of whom are in similarly compromised situations, will wink at you and giggle amongst themselves because “we’re getting two credits for this.”*)

*For the record, the professors are the ones who tell us to finish each of our glasses. And who are we to argue and cause trouble? I have the utmost respect for my instructors in all situations and wouldn’t dare go against their wishes; clearly, they have our best academic interests in mind.

Christoph setting up for the tasting.

From the above preview, please deduce the following:

1. We are having our second of two wine tastings tonight, both as a full class, both conducted by a wonderful man who wrote a book (in Italian) on how to teach your children about wine.

2. I am an extremely inexperienced socialite. So inexperienced, in fact, that when Christoph (the wine author) started doing his swishy-sucking noises to decipher the flavors in his mouth, all I could think about was my brother when he was really young getting chastised for slurping milk at the breakfast table – the sssslurrrrpppp, sssssipppp were too reminiscent for me to handle.

3. I will use this experience for the rest of my life.

By #3, I don’t mean that I will be sniffing my beverages ’til the day I die (in fact, I really hope I don’t — that’s a surefire way to get myself tagged as “that weird nose-in-drink girl,” and I could do without that particular title). Instead, I’m talking about what’s at the heart of our wine tastings – the slowing down, the attention to sensory detail, the appreciation of artistry. I am so accustomed to eating without emotional attachment, to walking without attention to surroundings, that this wine tasting is a gigantic, and welcome, stop sign. And whether or not I am able to take it all seriously (and, to be frank, I just can’t; while I can tell you what I like or don’t like about a wine, I don’t think I will ever have the desire to dissect its makeup piece by piece or wax poetic about each gulp), I am able to appreciate the act of thinking while consuming, of conversing about the process of consumption.

Because, at a wine tasting, you pause constantly. You look at the label of what you are drinking. Not for prestige, but for knowledge. What region is it from? What does that mean? How is it classified? What do you think of this classification? Only then do you pour. Then, before even bringing it to your lips, you examine it with your other senses. What does it look like? What season does the smell remind you of? You are fully engaged with this one little glass in a way that few people engage with entire steak dinners. It is amazing the depth of observation that we are capable of when we focus only on the tiniest sip.

Our cooking classes have similar lessons. We spent a morning making tiramisu last week, and only two of us decided to go, so we had a lot of time to talk with our instructor as we worked through the recipe. “You just have to always taste it,” she kept telling us. “Taste and then adjust. Cooking is like being in a play — if you botch up a line here or there, you fill in with your own; as long as you deliver the right ending, the audience will clap.” It reminded me of learning how to make meatballs with Nana (hi, Nana!), when the sauce on the stove simmered for hours and hours but we, in passing, would always stop to lick the spoon and throw in a spice here or there. Were we too rushed to decipher each spoonful, the depth of the end product would suffer. In this way, to cook and to drink well requires an embracing of the ingredients and an embracing of the moment…a sense that this act of consumption is an individual one and worthy of its own itty-bitty mental pedestal.

This is the act of savoring — and this, to me, is the integral art of living.

"If you truly want to share Italy with your family," Pauline, one of our professors, told me last night from across the table after I told her about my blog, "Let me take a picture of you eating those strawberries. That's all they need to see to understand how much you are getting out of every moment here." And so she did. (And let me tell you...those were SOME strawberries)

Notebook Excerpt: Beach at Ostia

22 Jun

Who tries to write a poem

on the beach at Ostia?

As if the waves are not proof enough that forward movement transitions (always)

to floating back

As if the sand here hasn’t been made from rocks collapsing

into finer and finer versions of themselves over ten thousand years –

as if my half hour stanzas won’t get buried here, too.

(As if the language of heartbreak – the poetry of it, the tight collapsing phrases, the staccato moment of letting go – exists even through the disappearance of the shade.)

And City By Morning

22 Jun

I wake up fourteen minutes before my alarm to a combination of light soaking my bed from my massive storybook windows and the talking going on outside of my doors. It is, barring one dim morning, always sunny. There are, barring three quiet nights, always accordion players who played me to sleep the night before. And I am, barring nothing, always pinching myself I’m in Rome I’m in Rome I am waking up in Rome.

Some mornings it is a drag to get out the door, generally due to wine-happy antics the prior evening and an early class time. Most mornings, though, are like this one: we emerge from our rooms slowly, we slip into clothes (it is now our fourth week of the trip, so the girls have started swapping dresses. Also, we are all out of appropriate-length church clothes), we put our bags together with whatever syllabi and guides and water bottles and sunscreen we will need for the day.

Then, breakfast. This morning, we made crepes filled with honey and fresh cherries, sugar and cinnamon. Often, I eat whatever I’ve bought from the outdoor fruit and vegetable market down the street. The first time we went there as a group, we turned into humans who had never seen fresh strawberries before – we bought buckets of fresh figs and grapes half the size of my palm and fed them to each other like couples in love, juice dribbling all over our faces. More than the ruins, perhaps, I will miss this fruit.

Other mornings, we eat breakfast at San Calisto, our bar (bar in Italy is a multifaceted institution – it acts as cafe, gelatteria, and permanent home to old men playing briscola.) Another morning, I will give San Calisto the homage it deserves. But for now, think of a group of four girls crowded around one rickety table outside, licking creme off of the pastry that the only-Italian-speaking owners now anticipate us ordering and hand us right when we arrive. Imagine drinking espresso out of cups that, to us, seem doll-sized and making it last for an afternoon. Imagine the unspoken rule of saying “ciao” into the air of the bar as you walk in and “ciao” into the air of the outdoors as you leave. This, too, I know I will miss. It is a morning ritual for me, someone who has never had morning rituals, and it offers far more to me than the coffee shop clusters around campus.

Good morning, Italia

And then – or, for this morning, “and now” – it is time for work or class or explorations. Yesterday I walked around the city and saw the innards of five churches; today I have a writing assignment due and a reading about St. Peter’s before seminar tonight outdoors on the Aventine Hill and our final fancy class dinner.

By this, my fourth week in Rome, it is a way of living that has embraced me, and I am glad.

City By Night

22 Jun

Just returned from another night walk after an evening of dressing up and eating out. I can’t speak for it in the daytime, but tonight was my first time ever seeing the Trevi Fountain, and when it is lit up against the depth of the sky, it is beautiful. Someone carved that, someone carved each stone, and now it means so much to so many people (each of us with our stolen moments in its presence; each of us with our custom memories)…one visit a postcard can’t quite capture.

Tossing our coins in. Now we have to come back to Rome. (I like superstition when it means more travel!)

Climbing the edges of the fountain, moments before a guard told us to get down. That's one small step for us, one giant potential Trevi belly-flop for mankind!

And, because I am already talking about art, I’ll end with a quote from artist Tullio Pericoli’s personal statement in an exhibit at the Ara Pacis museum:

Our face is a page we always carry with us, a page that we write and rewrite day after day. Faces are individual stories, landscapes are collective stories. Hidden in each of these stories is an accumulation of past events, ideas and cataclysms. I feel all this very intensely, and like so many other people I often wonder what’s inside us, what’s below us. I like to think of the earth’s surface as if it were a page in a story, the continuation of a story that began on earlier pages, and I imagine that the future pages will depend on the one I’m reading now. What we see around us today is the result of what happened a million years ago, or a hundred years ago, or yesterday: ground broken by the plow, woods cut down, a drought, a flood, a road laid out, a geologic cataclysm. The same kind of thing happens on the canvas. The surface we see speaks to us of the layers it conceals, of the history of that canvas, of the layers of paint over it, but it also speaks of the history of painting, which has settled intangibly on the work and in our minds.

Until tomorrow —

ciao,

Jess

Mi Casa, Su Casa, What Casa?

20 Jun

I don’t understand homelessness here, and I hate it.

Whoa! You are saying. Whoa, Jess! I was expecting another cute post about flowery villas! What’s the deal with homelessness?

I agree with you. I was expecting another post about villas, too. And then I saw a man outside, sleeping in the rain, and now I am writing about homelessness.

First of all, it exists here. This is an obvious statement. But I realize that in my (well-deserved) hyperbolic raptures about fresh olive oil and charismatic guest professors, I have yet to mention this. This is, in part, because it impacts my own life very little. I have a beautiful apartment and enough money to cook a nightly feast. It is also because my last international trip was to India, and seeing a single beggar on the street every three or four hours does not smack me across the heart the same way the slums full of children with no shoes and sand-caked hair did – that is to say, the difference on the scale of poverty between the two trips is immense, and without being conscious of it, it has dulled my shock. But, more than anything else, it is because of the specific way that I am approaching this city.

I do not come as a citizen, and as a scholar, I come only to study the past. I am here as a guest — a guest who, out of politeness, should not go rummaging around in the medicine cabinets of my host the first chance I get to see what ails her. Complexity is for class discussion. (Tiramisu is for dessert.) And Italy is, for me, an academic vacation.

Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been avoiding tough issues entirely. I have had four-hour-long discussions sitting on the steps outside of Santa Maria Maggiore about the role of the Church as a political entity as opposed to a religious institution. I watched a military parade and thought hard about the proper values for a state to celebrate. I’ve heard from experts about preservation, demolition, and the ethics of displaying restored or commandeered pieces in museums. As a student in the course “The City of Rome,” I can even tell you about why there was a public housing crisis after Rome became Italy’s capital in 1871 (in fact, that’s part of my final project…details to come.) So it’s not the fault of the course – one that specifically looks at the history of the city and ends right after the fall of Mussolini – that I don’t know about homelessness.

It’s the fault of me. I use the term “fault” loosely here, and not in an accusatory sense. “It’s my own doing,” might be a better way of phrasing it. I decided before coming here that I would treat Italy, as mentioned above, much like a fascinating, school-filled vacation. I was not moving somewhere for five weeks; in my mind, I was just residing there. Unlike India, where we paired with a non-profit and worked for them for half of our total stay, my time here would be very much a one-way absorption of culture. Unlike New Haven, where from day one I tried to memorize the names of elected officials, here I delight in picking up phrases in Italian for a few minutes and then letting them slip out of my mind that night while sleeping. And unlike my time in New Hampshire, where I pull over to ask workers why they are out in front of a grocery store striking and then phone in a tip to the local paper, I pay more attention to the scores of World Cup games in Italy than to national headlines.

This is probably not an awful thing. Even if I am not learning the location of every government meeting, I am doing a different kind of learning. I am using all my energy to study more abstract things (have you ever been able to figure out the history of a church just by deciphering papal insignias and the placement of statues, and then used that history to extrapolate more details about the state of Rome at that point in time? or stood in front of a building and unwrapped its epochs by knowing which windows must be medieval and which carvings would only have been added in the late Renaissance? these are learning experiences that i will probably never have again), and to learn how to take care of myself within a new city. I know how to get around, I know the neighborhoods, I know the rules about how to weigh vegetables properly in the grocery store so I don’t get frustrated looks at the register.

But it does teach me something about myself, and the way that I would like to approach cities in the future. I need a point of modern entry; some portal to make me feel a bit more as if I am straddling two worlds instead of just looking into one from the outside. I’ve tried that, briefly, here; during our long walk down Via Appia Antica, I caught the professors while they were alone and asked them what the state of social services is in Rome. I mentioned that my first afternoon in Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, I had seen a half dozen men sleeping outside of the church in the square. And I wondered out loud about the interaction between Church and state in caring for them.

I was right in my hunch and observations, they told me. The Church has historically had a huge role in caring for the destitute, which is one of the main reasons that it grew so fast, and that church in particular offered a regular soup kitchen. But as for more specifics, they told me they didn’t really know, and that, as with everything in the Italian government, the whole situation is complicated.

Well, I guess I want complications. More than that, I want knowledge. This is, of course, a controversial statement in itself; the mere fact of knowing where the shelters are does not mean that I am helping society any more than before. And I do believe that information can be a false comfort, one that makes me, as an individual, feel like a better citizen without having had to get off my butt and actually do something. Because, of course, I can’t understand homelessness to its full extent, no more than I can fully understand any other aspect of the human experience without living through it myself. But it’s a start, and from now on, when possible, I want to connect more with the daily complexities of anywhere that I go for longer than a month.  I think it’s enormously important to have a hometown that I understand, and to stop ignoring inner questions just because I’m not a local. After all, these women with the thousand years of lines on their faces and outstretched palms are vagabonds, too; both types of us, tourists and beggars, without proper roots here, both of us coexisting in a world where we are constantly bumping into strangers.

After I wrote this post, I spent some time researching services for those without a home in Rome. This is a very surface-level list, but if you, too, are curious, here are a few links to check out:

A NYTimes article on the homeless in Rome in 2000, after the government renovated the city’s train station

The Pope’s visit this year to a homeless shelter

Contact information for many social services in the city

An old news blurb with some statistics

Men sleeping outside of my local church the morning that I arrived in Rome.

And sometimes, you find paradise.

19 Jun

I’ve gotten good at this. Finding paradise, that is. It’s not all that hard when I’m in Italy. It just requires letting go of my normal thoughts for a moment – the physical aches of my shoulders and feet or the technological zips of Facebook alerts – and letting my senses take over. No planning ahead, wearing watches, or using maps. Just wandering, observing, touching, and trying to consume as much as possible in real-time memory-making.

Urban studies has a term for this method of approaching cities: the dérive. Students abandon their normal methods of navigation and, it is hoped, their native misgivings and instead journey based on instinct and emotional response to their surroundings. If a certain street looks inviting, they walk down it. If they turn back and switch direction, they note it and later try to determine why. Why enter this piazza? Why not put your hands in that fountain? Why are some parts of the city magnetic and others repulsive? It is a technique that gives weight to the individual experience within the context of the urban whole.

I bring this up because I have spent several of the past few days going on my own dérives. Finally, I feel as though I have gotten to the point where I don’t need a map here (which doesn’t mean that I know my way around, it just means that I’ve gained a certain familiarity with the north-south-east-west bearings of the landscape), and I’ve started taking some solitary afternoon walks (mainly to the computer repair shop, which is how I am typing again. YAY.). From this perspective, the city feels completely different. I pay no attention to street signs and instead orient myself based on gut feeling (“where is the Tiber? where should I be in relation to the river right now?”). I don’t take pictures. I don’t slow down to read the plaque on every building. Instead, I make eye contact with the trees and the drivers, and I shake my head with a smile at all of the “bella! bella! ciao, bella!” from Italian men, and I let myself be drawn into the everyday bowels of this eternal city.

But back to paradise. The one that I visited most recently was a series of villas during our big class day-trip to Tivoli yesterday. Tivoli is about an hour away, so we were on the bus at 8:30am and back in Rome by 7pm. Within that time, we visited Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Villa Gregoriana, and the best way of describing the landscapes that I saw is to think back to those old puzzles – yknow, the ones with vibrant greens and distant mountains and always a waterfall, that have at least 500 pieces in them that all blend together because everything is so lush, and you are convinced it’s just a painting after all? yeah, those puzzles – and imagine walking through them, and realizing that they are real, and that your feet – those same dirty feet that played soccer on New Hampshire fields and tottered for hours the night of prom – are touching that painted earth. It is a landscape that forces poetry or prostration, perhaps both. If you are ever in Rome with the chance to take a day trip, this is it. The big and beautiful kahuna.

First, Hadrian’s Villa. We just finished reading an exquisite book called “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar – one of my all-time favorite books, please please go add it to your list – and so I had some background heading into the day. I knew, for example, that Hadrian had been a Roman emperor right after Trajan, and that he lived from 76-138 AD. I knew that he was an extremely well-traveled man who barely spent any time in Rome and instead slept at the edges of his empire, trying to keep it secure. I knew that he had a love affair with a young boy named Antinous, of whom he had many statues made. And I knew that he was rumored to be an amateur architect.

What I didn’t know was that his villa (and here’s an important point – unlike our connotation in English, the word “villa” in Italian does not refer solely to a house, it refers to an entire estate) is cradled by hills out in the countryside, and that he had built houses, as the guide said, “capable of architectural flirtation.” I didn’t know that his admiration of everything Greek led him to build pools that reflect water in moving ribbons across marble columns, or that I would be surrounded by the remnants of curves and shadows, pillars and grids. “Get drunk on art,” the museum there encouraged us. And so I did, imagining what the tumbling down brick halls looked like when they were first painted with their frescoes or lined with colored marble statues. And we all did, as we delighted in Hadrian’s ability to fuse the organic and the constructed by building man-made fountains in the natural curvature of a valley.

Then, we piled onto the bus and back out at Villa d’Este. Built much later and with the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in mind (and in hand – many of the decorations at d’Este were in fact stolen – er, scavenged – from Hadrian’s original structures just a few miles away), Villa d’Este is a place where luxury and whimsy gave themselves permission to run rampant across a hillside. It is home to sun and shade and oasis and retreat and olive trees (with the most unbelievable, gnarled and time-wizened trunks) and above all, WATER. Edith Wharton wrote about the gardens here, as do the guidebooks, because of the fountains within them. More fountains than you can imagine, about 500 individual jets of water, all celebrating their surroundings through reflections. I am aching with the beauty of the space before I even make it down the first staircase. This is a planned place, a scripted place, meant to be romantic and evocative, and it succeeds; there is a marking in the exact center of the gardens, and when I get there, I lay down on my back and closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I said something silly and romantic and exactly like what the architects wanted me to say, something like, “I am waking up from a dream and seeing through my heart.” I was actually exhausting myself with my lofty odes. We picnicked in Villa d’Este and ate a cake we had brought with us for someone’s birthday, and as we left, I spoke with someone about how much more disciplined this villa had seemed than the crumpled one before. “That’s true,” she agreed. “But think about it – even with this planning, the water is still slowly wearing down its stone fountain containers every second of the day. At some point, it, too, will go back to nature.” And it’s true – in one hidden corner, I found a dormant statue so covered with moss that it seemed to be clenched by the greenery. It all circles back into itself in time.

Finally, we arrived at Villa Gregoriana. Unlike the other two sites, Villa Gregoriana has no house within its walls; it is a villa of nature, but is well-known for human engineering in addition to its beauty. That engineering diverted the Aniene River from its normal flood path (right through town) and to a safer set of tunnels and pools within the hills. Pope Gregory XVI turned the space into a public park in 1826, and Pliny and Goethe, to name just a few, both mentioned it as one of the most beautiful spaces they had ever seen. I have to agree, if only because so many of the signs used the term “grotto,” and that word in itself connotes a place of splendor, doesn’t it? Either that or the Little Mermaid, who would have been proud of the way I clambered down rock steps and over barriers to dip my feet in waterfall pools.

In all of these places, we wandered. Yes, we talked, and at Hadrian’s Villa, we were taught in a linear fashion by our on-site professors, but we were walking differently than normal, allowing our feet to drag just a bit longer in the ancient dirt and actually reaching out to touch the evidence around us. In the boys’ case, of course, this also meant reaching out to touch every lizard and bug they could find, but it was all part of the classroom experience. Again, if you get the chance, go see them. And if you don’t, well – here it is in pictures. My little slice of paradise.

Hadrian’s Villa

A guesstimated model of what Hadrian's Villa looked like during Hadrian's lifetime. My reaction: "Well...I guess I wouldn't mind living here. If I HAD to..."

The class at Hadrian's Villa. Our professors are the two women in sunglasses.

Olive trees. I am beyond positive there are mythical creatures living within these trunks.

I am a pillar of strength! Also, a dork.

Villa d’Este

The entrance hallway at Villa d'Este

Me in front of the first fountain I encountered. And no, you are not the first one to poke fun at me for not being able to touch my feet to the ground.

Mo' fountains.

Group fountain photo! These are the best girls. We explored together (read: splashed each other with water) all afternoon.

Villa Gregoriana

First view of the Villa. Can you really blame me for my overt romanticism in these situations?

There were rainbows. No pots of gold, though. But definitely rainbows.

And there were waterfalls. (Hearts and stars and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons!)

Annie and I on the descent. Note the backdrop.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...and I, I took the one - well, I took the one that gave me the viewpoint over the Valley of Hell. And that has made all the difference.