Tag Archives: italia

I’m Feeling Those Good Migrations

10 Jul

At approximately 9pm on Thursday, Ashley and I learned that we were trapped in Genova. Genova, the city of Colombus, of explorers, of port-induced wanderlust, became our captor just as quickly as it had been our vacation destination.

More specifically, we learned that all of Italy’s transportation workers had gone on strike. For a full 24 hours, from 9pm on Thursday to 9pm on Friday, not a single train ran through Genova Brignole station…including the train that we had planned on taking to Bologna, our next destination, where we had pre-booked and paid for a hotel for that night.

For a moment, we allowed ourselves to worry and to descend into a flurry of “this could never happen in the U.S.” thoughts. Then, we laughed, long and hard. Sure, a national train strike would be much more unlikely in America, but so would the three hours of lingering each morning over our caffe lattes, and the full day of hiking between mountains and sea that we had done the day before. Italy has its quirks (strikes, the lack of breakfast food beyond cornettos and coffee, the fact that each business closes whenever the owners deem it necessary without regard to its scheduled hours…), but it also has a magnificence of presence that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

That being said, we still had to deal with the strike. And we had to deal with it without Italian skills other than food words (knowing how to ask for extra extra EXTRA parmesan cheese doesn’t get you very far at the ticket counter) and without access to Internet, because we did not bring our computers along for the trip. So, we decided to take the first train to Bologna after the 9pm reopening of the station, and, after a brief layover and four hours of traveling, arrived at our hotel at 3am in the morning instead of noon the day before. In the meantime, we used our unanticipated (and, honestly, given the city, a bit unnecessary) time in Genova to do the things that most people don’t make enough time for on vacations: have a two-hour lunch (of PESTO), window shop, wander the streets, buy lingerie (I kid you not…we surprised even ourselves with that purchase, but we had been seeing stores everywhere for six weeks, and we decided that it was time to invest in a different type of Italian luxury), drink glasses of prosecco with aperitivi outside on sunny tables, purchase new books (we are both on our second one in a week; I have finished a total of 1135 pages since Sunday), and read for four hours with our empty glasses in front of us. It was a day of surprising vigor, and one that worked out in our favor, as I write this now in the morning from our hotel in Bologna.

I also write this in the middle of the trip that Ashley and I are on through the north of Italy. It is the first trip I have ever planned alone, and the first with such little contact and great independence. All we have are our backpacks for these ten days — that, and a determination that we will take these moments, paid for in part by money that we have been saving since we were ten and had our first change in a piggy bank, and out of them mold experiences that we can return to again and again for the rest of our lives. We have been grateful, adventurous, and scared. And we have been doing, every moment we have been doing: climbing the dome in Florence, renting bikes and cycling through tiny hill towns in Tuscany, hopping trains up the coast, wine and olive oil tasting in medieval fortresses, hiking between all five towns of Cinque Terre, deciphering statues in Genova, taking goofy pictures at every opportunity, feasting on local fish and wines or having our own quiet picnics of fruit and peanut butter, devouring recommended books each night before bed, swimming in desolate rocky coves along cliffsides, and, in just a few moments, exploring Bologna.

We still have this city and one more, Venice, before we return to Rome and then to the place and people that we miss dearly back in America, and I promise to write the entries that this trip (and the end of our Rome course) deserve when we get home. Until then, kisses from the road; go have some adventures of your own.


Work It

1 Jul

I woke up this morning, rolled over to face my windows, and was buried in sadness. I will only wake up here, in this bed, in this apartment, in Trastevere, in Rome, on two more mornings. I have had this feeling before, leaving Andover for good at graduation, but then I at least had been preparing. I counted down the days and, with friends, savored the last moments. Here, though, this way of life has become so natural (and we have been kept so busy) that I forgot to mark time. The fact that I would need to leave slipped my mind entirely.

I do have some buffer trips to take the edge off of my departure; on Saturday, I will set out from Rome on a 10-day set of adventures around the north of Italy (more info on that to come). But as I wallowed in my sheets a few hours ago and thought about my last two classes (today and tomorrow), I realized that I haven’t shared almost anything about the work that I’ve been doing while here. Somehow, my bakery‘s cannoli managed to steal the day.

So here’s a tribute to the work that I’ve done, and to this class – the reason that I am here in Rome in the first place. Through “The City of Rome,” I have met two knock-your-American-socks (or, more accurately, your American flip flops!)-off professors; had three guest lecturers who are all experts in their fields; read the vast majority of 16 different books (page count to come later); seen one parade and one set of fireworks; visited about 35 different assigned sites around the city outside of class (never mind the ones during class); written three writing assignments; and (drum roll please) completed a final project and its corresponding 14-page paper. In other words, for those who have been secretly assuming otherwise, yes, I have been doing work.

Final project, you say? What was your final project, Jess? Well, that’s a great question, because I am a very big dork and would love to tell you all about it. However, I am telling you now, if you are NOT a big dork (or are merely reading this blog to laugh at me and my cross-cultural foibles and fumbles), STOP HERE. THE LAND OF ACADEMIA IS FAST APPROACHING. U-TURNS FULLY ALLOWED. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyways, as I was saying, each person in the class had to do a big research project that culminated in a 20-minute-long presentation and a large paper. We had a lot of leeway about our topic with the major stipulation being that we had to study something that could not be easily learned outside of Rome. In other words, the place and the physical resources of Rome had to be integral to our work.

From the beginning, I was torn about what to do. I researched everything from modern politics and social services to graffiti and the histories of specific roads. I then proceeded to rule out all of my initial options because we were either already covering them as part of our seminar or because they were too hard to do with my minimal skillset (in other words, without speaking Italian). I ended up between two ideas — one, a complicated retracing of Rome as a literary landscape through the words of some of my favorite poets, and two, an urban studies zeroing in on one particular moment of Rome’s urban planning. My professor made the final decision easy from there: I would get to do a mini-presentation on Byron during the fourth week of class (thus my late night expeditions with Childe Harold), and I would focus on my urban studies approach.

I researched feverishly until I narrowed down even further — I decided to do my project on the urban planning that happened in Rome as a direct result of it becoming the national capital of unified Italy in 1871. Prior to that time, Italy was just a collection of disparate regions and Rome was known as the Papal States; after it, Rome was once more on the international map. In truth, though, I chose the city planning underdog. Almost no one agrees with the decisions that were made during those years, and even fewer like the monuments erected to the new nation within the city walls. So I set out to make them care about it anyways.

I was the second person out of our group of thirteen to give my presentation. I did it on-site, right in front of the Victor Emmanuel II monument, a huge and generally abhorred building in the middle of Rome commemorating the national unification and the second king of the new Italy. I used that building as a jumping-off point to explain the rest of the urban planning changes between 1871 and WWI; you might remember it as the huge white building from the day of the parade. It made for a pretty impressive backdrop.

Me in the process of presenting. Note that no rotten tomatoes have been thrown at me yet - a clear sign of success.

And, again with my warning firmly established, I am attaching here a full version of my 20-minute-long class presentation. These were my notes. Obviously, I lightened them up, made a lot of silly hand gestures, departed from the script in many places, and answered questions as they occurred, but if you are at all interested (or if you need something to read to help you fall asleep! My blog is happy to help in ALL situations), here’s the gist of my research during these five weeks.

For this presentation, I’m going to ask all of you to do something a little cheesy, perhaps, and move with me to the year 1871. I can now address all of you, as citizens of Rome, for the first time since the days of empire as “friends, Romans, and countrymen,” for you are all now part of the newly unified nation of Italy. You are also already residents of the nation’s capital city: that is to say, Rome.

You’ve been anticipating Rome’s new status for a while now. After all, you heard the reports from Cavour’s speech to the Florentine House of government back on March 25, 1861, in which he said:

“The choice of the capital has been determined with great moral reasoning. Here, oh gentlemen (and ladies), agree that in Rome there occurs all the circumstances of history, intellect, and morality for it to be determined as having the condition of the capital of a great State. Rome is the only city of Italy whose memories are not exclusively municipal, as all the history of Rome, from the time of Caesar through the present day, is the history of a city whose importance extends infinitely to all the territories; of one city, that is, destined to be the capital of a great state. I am convinced, deeply convinced, of this truth.”

In fact, despite your pride in your home city, you may have laughed in hearing that. For as noble as your history is, you also know the truth of your hometown, and that is one of grime, decline, and an insular way of life. In fact, just last year, on December 27, 1870, the Tiber had its worst flood in a long time, so intense that it was recorded on the walls of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and 46 other buildings with red lines at the high water marks, a calamity that our dear Pope Pius IX called divine punishment for the sacrilege which had deprived the Church of its worldly possessions. When our king, Vittorio Emanuele II, entered his new and shining city on December 31, he found it with flood waters covering the low-lying streets, stinking with mud and refuse. A police officer from Genoa, one of the first government servants to arrive in Italian Rome, came with high expectations during his first visit, and left sating, “The impression [the] environment made on me was disastrous. I was confused to see the entrances of the [train] station full of filth, the streets leading to the centre almost dark and blocked by ruins and hedges of vegetable gardens, people laying on the steps of the churches.” You also know the truth of its size – the fact that it no longer reaches anywhere near to the Aurelian Walls, that most of you live crowded in the bends of the Tiber, and that, despite the recent construction of a transportation station called Termini far away from you, most of the surrounding area is full of farmland and ruins; there is a cattle market in the Forum. And then there’s the fact that Rome is only the fifth largest city in Italy at this point without much in the way of infrastructure; because the physical reasons for making this into the capital city are so lacking, you know already that it is the symbolic weight of your city that has propelled it to a position of such importance.

Alright, so why start my presentation at this moment? Why ask you to think as a Roman?  Why do a presentation on Rome turning into the capital of unified Italy at all? As an urban studies student, I knew that I wanted to research Rome at a point of physical transition. The changes made to the city after unification fit that criteria, but they also appealed to me for other reasons. First, unlike perhaps the changes under emperors, popes or Mussolini, they happened without the guidance of one central ruler and instead were the results of a series of compromises among various parties. Second, and probably more importantly in my own mind, the vast majority of the literature on Rome’s urban planning treats this time period as open space, junk time, a mere filler between the Church and Il Duce. I disagree. I find this to be one of the most interesting eras of Roman planning because it catches Rome right in the act of juggling its multiple identities – here, a mere municipality with the responsibility to house and feed its citizens. Here, a ring around the newly retreated center of Christendom that needs to deal with a void of authority. And here again, a national capital with international import that needs to live up to its history on the world stage.

During the years that we are talking about today, Rome tripled in size – from a little pocket of 212,000 people in 1871 to a bustling and sprawling city of 660,000 in 1921. On the bottom of the first page of your handout, you can see some of the proposed changes during that time, and get a sense of the overall volume of growth.

This is the second draft of a plan for Rome, made in 1883. All of the shaded areas are designated for construction. This shows you just how tiny Rome had become under the popes and how much it was about to grow in its quest to become a major European capital city. (Wait? Serious and scholarly captions from Jessica on her blog? Yes, indeed. The world must be ending.)

I’d like to spend today talking about what else changed in the city during that time and the ways that those changes broke with tradition, sometimes to the detriment of the native Romans. I want to argue that the city changed from one thinking about its own immediate well-being to one concerned more with the nation’s ambitions, and articulate some of those ambitions more specifically. I will do this through the lens of this monument and, though the changes that were made here, extrapolate about the changes going on in other parts of the city.

The monument that I studied.

We have talked about this monument before in class and referred to it by its proper set of names – Vittorio Emanuele II, Il Vittorio, the monument to Victor Emmanuel II. But outside of class, we have also heard it referred to by a different set of names: the wedding cake, the typewriter, the confection, the eyesore. Even our beloved Blue Guide calls it “rather ugly” and states, “It can only be described as a colossal monstrosity.” Now, assuming that no nation aims to have its core monument be compared to a pastry shop, let’s step back from our criticisms for a moment to examine why anyone thought this structure was a good idea in the first place. Let’s think about the message that it is trying to send.

When Vittorio Emanuele II, the king of unified Italy, died in January of 1878, a commission was immediately established to raise a monument in his memory. It held an international competition, which, the first time around, was won by a French architect who proposed an arch of victory close to the new train station. Cries of dismay from citizens about the fact that a Frenchman would be designing the Italian national monument quickly led to a revocation of his victory and a reopening of the competition in 1882.

This time, just to be safe, the commission put forth a set of requirements for the monument, all carefully thought through. First, the monument had to be situated in Piazza Venezia, the piazza we see in front of us now, and located on the northern slope of the Capitoline Hill. By doing that, the monument was guaranteed to sit – thwump! – right next to all kinds of symbolic centers of the Roman empire such as the Forum and the Colosseum. Not to mention the importance of siting it on the Hill itself, the place that had hosted the unsuccessful Roman Republic in the mid-fourteenth century when it tried to resist the Papacy. The national government was establishing continuity between the monumentality and success of the Roman empire and the monumentality and success to come of the unified Italy, and it was also creating a clear divide between its own rule and that of the papacy. Sure enough, other aspects of the monument’s location also help to minimize the Church’s authority over the city. It quite literally severed part of the city’s attachment to the Church by demolishing the medieval cloisters of the church of Ara Coeli to allow it better access to the hill. This is one of the instances where we can see a trend across the city during this point in time of church buildings being commandeered, converted, or razed for nationalist planning under the Expropriation Act of 1865, which awarded the municipality of Rome with about 17,000 acres of Church land and about 80 buildings. When the Vatican registered its formal complaint against this practice during the public debate over the city’s Plan of 1873, stating that because churches were public spaces, they were not subject to that law, the council ignored it.

To further illustrate its superiority over the church, the monument placed itself in the main travel artery, Via del Corso, that pilgrims traditionally used to get into Piazza del Popolo and across to what was now the independent Vatican. This reminded pilgrims, or so thought the king, of the secular power of the Italian government before they came into contact with the claimed temporal supremacy of the Pope and provided a tall, corner-filled alternative on the skyline to the dome of St. Peter’s. The monument quite literally put the history and goals of the new Italy on the map.

This placement on the roadways also did something very clever to the overall balance of the city. If you’ll look at the second page of your handout for a moment, you can see the traditional axis of power in Rome under the Church – the cross of the basilicas and the Pope’s major seats in the city.

The cross-shaped axis of the major sites of Papal power in Rome.

Now, look below it. Look at where members of the government choose to place their new buildings – as a direct challenge to the prior axis. Here, we have a trinity that recenters the city with Victor Emannuel at the center, government buildings in the East, including the Quirinal Palace, which the government took from the pope, and Palazzo di Giustizia near the Tiber, right on the heels of the Vatican.

See how the nationalists built into the corners of Rome (see the Vittorio Emanuele in the south, the Quirinale Palace in the East, and the Palazzio di Giustizia or Palace of Justice in the West)? Does anyone else think this is SO INTERESTING??? No? Okay. Well, I guess this is why I am one of very few people concentrating in urban studies...Trust me, though, it's actually pretty crazy. (DORKFEST)

This new axis was reinforced through the building of roads; Via Nazionale, which was originally begun by Pope Pius IX as Via Nuova Pia, made a large pathway between the area of the government buildings and the train station and the monument, while Via XX Settembre, converted from another road started by Pope Pius, would create a similar radius across the city. These roads did much the same as ancient Roman roads in reminding the populace through improved traffic and strategic redirection of the power of the authorities. Further infrastructure was built as walls along the Tiber, which I won’t talk much about now but am happy to answer some questions about at the end if you are interested, and bridges across the river, and there were excavations and recovery of many antiquities along those roads. This is the beginning of this monument as the center of traffic in the city. As a sidenote, this is also a great moment to talk about one of the negatives of these changes for the residents of Rome itself; Via Nazionale was the result of a lot of land speculation by the Belgian cardinal De Merode, who acquired these lands in about 1867 and then came up to the Italian administration to suggest building a road there. This kind of speculation went unregulated by the overwhelmed municipal authorities and meant that many of the basic services that the populace needed, like affordable housing, went unbuilt.

When we look at the actual monument itself, we immediately observe the aspects of it that remind us of ancient Rome. The statue on the horse, which Ashley began her presentation by referring to, indeed echoes a series of heroes in Roman culture, and this is not an accident – the commission required that the monument contain “an equestrian statue with architectural backdrop and suitable stairs.” Giuseppe Sacconi, the Italian architect who ended up winning the commission, recognized this as a desire for a return to Roman ideals and set up the remainder of the space in a massive echo of the most successful monuments of years past. On the first level, he places an altar to Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome, in a nod to the same figure on the top of the Capitoline Hill. The second level continues that acknowledgement of Michaelangelo’s design with the equestrian statue. On the third level, he brings back the portico and columns that mirror those in the nearby Forum and inscribes secular declarations saying “Of the citizens” and “Of the nation.” There is purposefully no inclusion of God here, nor saints; instead, at the top of the columns, where the saints stood in the piazza outside of the Vatican, a series of classical figures in togas strolls by. And, since we have talked so much about building materials, I have to mention that the whole building is made out of white Brescian marble, material quarried in Italy and going back to the blazing white color of the old monuments in the face of hundreds of years of colorful medieval and Renaissance streets. Local materials, local architect, local symbols – this is pure nationalism.

The irony of the architecture is that much of it comes from a Beaux Arts style that was all the rage in Europe at the time. This mixed Renaissance, Baroque, Greek, and Italic motifs in an over-the-top fashion that can be seen here as well as on the Palazzo di Giustizia. Thus, despite the authorities getting into a tizzy over accidentally letting a French architect win the first contest, this “authentic Italian monument” still ended up being an agglomeration of other nations’ influences.

Once they were in the process of building this monument, Italian officials began immediately to think of how best to show it off. After all, as we mentioned before, if you want to make the new state of Italy the center of everyone’s thoughts, the best way to do that is to place it at the center of their physical space. Prior to this monument, Rome was a city with several concentric hubs of activity, all pushing forward at different periods in time – St. Peter’s Basilica crossing over to the other three major churches in the city, the Tiber River, the Forum, the Capitoline. When the committee in charge of this monument opened their second competition, they knew that they wanted to do from a city planning standpoint what they had already done politically and unify the corners of the city into one place. This needed more than the aforementioned roads – it needed a red carpet runway that would emphasize the grandiosity of the space. To create that, they took what was little more than a narrow opening in this space and started demolishing with a vengeance. They knocked down much of the immediate district, including a medieval tower of Pope Paul III. They took apart the Palazzo Torlonia and the Palazzo Venezia, both of which stood in the area of the desired Piazza Venezia, and rebuilt them with the Torlonia on the eastern side as a mirror of the Palazetto Venezia, which was rebuilt brick by brick one hundred yards to the west. The only two buildings that survived were a part of an ancient tomb on the northeastern corner and an old House of Giulio Romano. Both structures are ancient Roman in origin and thus we can see that through their choice of what to preserve, the new leaders of Italy wanted to establish that line between themselves and the last days of strong and vibrant government in Rome.

It is important to note, once again, the negatives of these choices. For the Romans lost, rapidly and without any kind of collective permission, much of the city’s character during those years, and much of its antiquities. Rodolfo Lanciani, an archaeologist who served as Director of the Excavations of Rome in the 1870s, admitted in response to the disappearance of porticoes, temples, basilicas, and villas across the city, “It would be of no use to deny that all these great conquests in the artistic and scientific field have been obtained with a certain amount of loss and sacrifice. But we must always remember that Rome has always lived at the expense of the past.”

This is the note on which I want to begin ending my presentation – right with that statement of ambiguity. Indeed, Rome has always had to stand over its own shadow, and this monument was just one more attempt at a specific moment in time to conquer the past and make it serve the present. Why did this particular monument fail to inspire? I’ve thought a lot about this, and a lot about why the urban planning happening around the monument also failed to make the impact that the nascent Italians were hoping for. Certainly, part of it has to do with the fact that it seeks to establish continuity not with its neighboring time periods or buildings, those of the medieval period and the Renaissance, but with the ancient empire; thus, its use of white marble, which would have been so appropriate back then, sticks out like a sore thumb. One article called this inability to create continuity with the historical pieces around it the monument’s “myth of a unified past underwriting a unified future.” It reminded me, in fact, of ill-fated Cola di Rienza in his attempts to revive an old glory that ended in failure with him memorialized halfway up this neighboring hill. Moreover, this monument is one that seeks to try to prove something not just to its citizens but to Europe at the time; it wants to fit itself in with a collection of changing capital cities, especially Paris with its famous boulevards and triumphal arches, and for this, it gets constructed in a style that is too overwrought for its size. It made me think of Hadrian’s villa, and his understanding that his worldly influence could go wild in his own space but must be tempered in his other buildings to fit in with the urban landscape; I don’t think that Giuseppe Sacconi had this insight. Third, despite being placed on the Capitoline Hill, the monument is just that: a lump of decoration placed on top of a hill. Unlike the famed fountains of Bernini, which used the varying elevation of the city to create different types of fountains, or the Capitoline Hill, which makes space with Romulus and Remus visible right next to a view of the city, I don’t feel as though this monument works with the natural landscape or the topography of the city well at all.

The "lump" of the monument as seen from above. Note how it doesn't fit in with the surrounding landscape, and also check out its strategic positioning in the imperial core of the city, with the Forum and Colosseum right next door. Mussolini would later take advantage of this and build a road from the monument straight through to the Colosseum as a sign of empire.

Finally, I’d like to argue that much of the frustration with this building started with frustration with the national government at the point in time when it was built. As Rome’s municipal authorities were working to put forth two city plans, the second in 1883, the national government refused to give them the necessary funding to carry out the changes. Instead, it paid only for the buildings (such as the palace of justice) that it desired and not those that would benefit the city as a city instead of the city as a capital. You can see this sense of frustration echoed in a contemporary cartoon depicting Rome being raped by the national government:

A personified Rome being stripped of its dignity by the national government

This, combined with the land speculation that I mentioned above, meant a lack of affordable housing, at least forty thousand slum dwellers who had been driven off by clearing, and a sense of minimal progress on the larger city picture. All of this as this monument and the destruction preceding it was taking place right before the city’s eyes.

I want to conclude by reemphasizing my belief that this small chunk of history, the period between 1870 and the start of World War I, is a time of crucial change for Rome. Through this monument, we can see that even the smallest choice was ripe with reasoning and consequences, and we are reminded that urban planning – and the planning of monuments – is one giant attempt to turn space into power.

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.


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.)

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.

Caesar’s Notes: Wednesday, June 2 – Parades, pizza, poetry, pub

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for this past Wednesday

Our syllabus for Wednesday reads as follows:

“June 2 – ITALIAN NATIONAL HOLIDAY: FESTA DELLA REPUBBLICA. Enjoy the parade! Think about Roman triumphs! Nationalism! The role of the military in the identity of the state! This is an assignment; you will be expected to share your astute observations as they relate to the themes of the course. Please note that stores, markets, banks, etc. will be closed.”

Okay. So. That’s our day, then. I put the assignment sheet down, roll out of bed, look at my wardrobe, and immediately wonder what I should wear to a national parade. Do I go all “Jessica-on-the-fourth-of-July” on them and smother myself in the colors of the Italian flag? Do I dress up and put on impeccable make-up to compete with the bella Italian girls who will be surrounding me? Or do I not care about any potential traditions and put on my shorter dress so I can save the longer ones for our church visits all next week?

I go with the latter option and a pair of crossed fingers and end up doing just fine. The piazza is packed by the time the ceremonies and the parade start, and the band tries to warm the crowd up with a rendition of the national anthem, but only a few of the people there know it well enough to sing along.

This is where the ceremony takes place. It is one of the biggest and newest monuments in Rome; visitors adore it, while locals call it "the birthday cake" with a complete look of disgust. As in, "tomorrow we will be meeting at - ugh - the birthday cake." Does this make anyone else's stomach growl?

Important people arrive for this parade, including Silvio Berlusconi, who walks up the gigantic steps of Italy’s memorial commemorating the republic and places a wreath in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He descends to watch the parade, which starts at that moment with tank after tank of military officials. Then the soldiers. And more soldiers. And a marching band. And more soldiers. I am beginning to see why we are supposed to think about the relationship of the military to this whole celebration. Best of all, the soldiers sing as they march, which makes a nice counterpart to the stiffness of some similar American processions. Here’s a video I took of the singing soldiers during an excerpt of the parade. And here’s a random but necessary picture of soldiers wearing pompoms:

"Timmy, what did I tell you about jousting with feather dusters? Not inside the house!"

Also part of the parade (probably one of the most famous parts) is the flyover of military planes streaming the colors of the Italian flag behind them. If that sounds crazy to you, check it out:

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a -- no, wait. That really is a plane.

While the rest of the group leaves to grab an early lunch, Frances and I stick around for a concert of national songs sung by a children’s choir and a military band. And at that moment, I really start to ponder the assignment.

This parade began to commemorate the founding of the Italian Republic. In 1946, a referendum was held for the people of Italy to decide between a monarchy and a republic for their government, and after a (quite close) vote, they decided on a republic. This was exciting, but also meant that Italy had a ton of catching up to do; it is, in this sense, a very young nation, and one that still doesn’t have a strong sense of Italian national identity in the ways that we think are customary for patriots. For example, the flag, songs, parade, holidays, etc. all kicked in within the past 50 years, so many Italian teenagers don’t know the words to their own national anthem and instead just mouth along to the tune. From the point of view of an American, this seems strange. After all, don’t we see Italian flags all over the place? And what about “Jersey Shore”? But here, there is a much stronger sense of regional or metropolitan identity than a national one. Even the language varies so much from region to region that my professor, who is completely fluent and has been translating Italian for years, has trouble understanding some of the people she meets from the south of Italy. According to her, it is only through television that any sense of common language and traditions is shared.

So this explains the lack of little flags and some of the mumbled singing. But what about the military? Italy on the whole teeter totters on its past; it wants to diverge from the brute force of Mussolini while still maintaining its ancient tradition of battlefield valor, and so it constantly runs up against the question of how to build national pride without stepping into bad memories. When it came to the parade, this meant that the military was the focus, but no epic, battle-ready speeches were made, and it ended with a children’s choir. It meant that tanks with exposed guns rolled through the streets, but so, too, did nurses and firefighters. It meant that despite the fact that they had assigned the parade as our daily class, our professors did not go themselves; they said that no one they knew would be caught dead going to such an elaborate but empty display of state power. For me, the whole shebang felt very distant from the town parades of my youth. There were no local performers, no young children dancing, no wives or floats. Just orderly marching, and the soldiers’ songs.

A tank rolling through the parade.

After the parade and the mini-concert, Frances and I walk back to Trastevere. I haven’t gone out yet for a sit-down lunch, and she is in the mood to enjoy the afternoon, so we look around for a place to eat. Thankfully, Frances speaks Italian, so we go with my favorite method of finding food here: avoiding any place that speaks English (this includes bakeries and supermarkets, a tactic that has turned every one of my solitary shopping expeditions into an adventure and/or debacle). After darting down a few side streets, we find it, and boy, do our stomachs (and our wallets – the prices drop the farther you get from piazzas) thank us. We have bruschetta (correctly pronounced brus-KET-a in Italian) and fried artichokes for appetizers and split a pasta and a pizza dish between us. Here’s the damage done:




After. And yes, we do give autographs.

Just as we are about to head out (rolling ourselves all the way home), a musician walks up and starts performing at the front of the restaurant. Watch my video to check it out. And no, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore.

That night, I head out with some people from the group to my second poetry-related experience in two days. This time, Mark Strand is giving a reading of his work instead of a workshop, so I grab my notebook and go. He is phenomenal – down to earth with his phrasing and incisive with his words, and I am soaking up the language as quickly as he can release it with his tongue. After each poem he reads, his translator steps forward and delivers the translation, and that’s when I really start to get goosebumps. Since I can’t understand the Italian, I am reduced to measuring his success in sounds, in tumbles, in crispness and reverberations. I let myself be carried by the dips and curves between consonants; I am imbibing, and tucking it within me. In short, I am remembering and reawakening myself as a poet, and oh — oh, the pen feels nice between my fingers.

At the end of the reading, I buy the book. I buy it in Italian, on purpose, where the original English is on the less dominant page, and I read it aloud to myself at the reception. I roll my “r’s” into the air like a fool, and I am so resonant with that sound that I am buzzing. Mark Strand signs my book before I leave. I already know I will keep it on my permanent bookshelf.

Post-poetry-reading, we are all full, some of us with words, some with the hors d’oeuvres from the reading, so we whip up some light bruschetta, grab a quick pint at a local pub, and call it a night. And that’s what I call an inspired evening.

In Flight

31 May

(Though I am already in Roma – or, as Lady Gaga would say, “Roma, Roma-ma-a” – I am catching up on posting after two days without Internet access, so this post is one that was written in my journal on May 29 while I was midflight. Stay tuned for more from our abode in Trastevere! Hint and non-spoiler: Rome is AMAZING. I’m still trying to find the right words.)

There is something about this trip that makes me feel as though I am in decisive forward motion all the time, shedding layers of weighty thoughts with each mile of my approach. But, as I sit here on AlItalia’s plane, whizzing through space towards this country, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the mental magic comes from.

What are you, Italy? What are you that makes me want to open my whole heart to you, and my ears to your language, and my mouth to your nourishment, and my eyes to your sun, without hesitation? I am back in childlike mode, accepting and appreciating based purely on sensory experiences, in the face of this mother of all locales. What are you that your native tongue reverberates so full in my diaphragm and eases off of my curling tongue? What are you, Italy, that makes so many of us sigh and draw the earth into our lungs with deep nods of recognition when your name comes up, even if we have never visited you? What are you, that your politics are falling apart and your rough leaders allow even rougher rings to lead some of your cities, and yet we still lend you our support and black out that section of history involving Il Duce? What are you, that makes me sit here like the crazy protagonist of a quirky romantic comedy, listening to blaring Italian opera through my headphones and insisting on requesting things from the stewardesses in phrasebook Italian rather than English, just to feel myself further embedded in your culture? (For the record, “acqua” means water, and stewardesses are incredibly patient people.)

I really have been trying to absorb the sounds of Italy as much as possible, if not the entire language. For the past two days I have listened to more than 20 Italian language podcasts, tried to sing through my old Italian sheet music again (Che Bella Cosa from Treble Choir Days being my favorite shower tune – sorry, housemates), and walked around the room with my phrasebook glued to my hand. The language is so immediate to me, so unadulterated  by rules or odd vocal contortions, that speaking even the simplest phrases out loud gives me that sense of forward movement again. This is different than French – with French I feel more regal, perhaps, or as if I am part of some sophisticated secret, but never boundless.

I realize as I write this now that perhaps this is the reason Italians are known for gesticulating so wildly: their language removes the bounds and bonds between emotion and tongue, makes words fly, and loosens their thoughts so thoroughly that their joints loosen, too. It leaves them flapping their nerve endings at the sky, this feeling, and signals, “I am raw and open and tumbling with things to say — world, come meet me, cheek to cheek.”

…Okay, so I get overly poetic about Italy. Even I’ll admit that I descend into prose usually reserved for Hallmark anniversary cards. But what so much of this journey is about is finding out why I react this way – what makes these phrases pour out of me with no regard to traveling propriety (i.e. being realistic instead of overwrought about my destination.) This is just another place, after all. So why does it keep so many of us under its spell?

Even the idea makes us giddy. Mixed in among the interpretive gestures of the past few days have been some hilarious turns of phrase, fueled purely by the pleasure of trills on the tongue. A few days ago, I learned (thanks to the Dating and Socializing section of my phrasebook) that I could proposition an Italian with the simple phrase, “L’accompagno a casa?” or “May I take you home?” (My father, upon hearing this, promptly requested that I learn to translate “My father is from Texas and owns a large shotgun;” I’m still working on that one.)

And my mother – well, my mom has spent her past few days stringing together the only three Italian words she knows (“Ciao!” “Bella!” “Mangia!”) into exclamatory phrases, despite the fact that she has no idea what she is saying. “Prego!” I yelled to her from upstairs as I was packing. “Buon giorno!”

“Ciao!” she yelled back. “Ciao, bella! Ciao…bella, ciao, MANGIA!”

And on that note, now that the in-flight meal has arrived, I must say ciao, my bella readers, so that I can, indeed, mangia.