Tag Archives: trastevere

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.)

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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:

Before.

After.

Before.

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.

Caesar’s Notes: Monday, May 31 – “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s.”

5 Jun

Again, a belated and abbreviated post for Monday, May 31, our first full day in Rome.

When it comes to Trastevere, that old expression of “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” rings pretty true. Down every street, there are small shops with fresh fruit, just-baked bread, wheels of cheese, and more kinds of pizza than I have ever seen. And that doesn’t even include places to get wine! In large part because of this bounty and accessibility, being in Italy for just a week has already completely changed my outlook on food (more on that in a future post…lots more on that in a future post.)

We are introduced to all of these new shopping options in a special tour given by Emanuela, a woman from our building who has lived in Rome for years and years. She is an Italian teacher and an expert at fresh produce; she is also seriously quirky. We begin our day by meeting her in the piazza and marching through the streets. She shows us the supermarket (yum, yum, yummm — and, believe it or not, CHEAP! Our last three dinners, all home-cooked, have cost us seven Euros total each, and that includes wine.), the best places to get our cheese and meat and fish and bread, the local market that happens just a few minutes away from our apartment and sells fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers every day from 9am-2pm, and my personal favorite, the fresh springs of water all around the city. She even squats down to drink the water in front of us to prove how safe and delicious it is. And as a New Hampshire native and water aficionado, I have to say, she is completely right. Since then, I have not bought a single water bottle here in Rome.

Emanuela manages to introduce us to fountains without putting a "damp"er on our first day in Rome. (The groans for cheesiness should come naturally by now)

It doesn't take me long to follow suit. The Romans know their water.

When we visit the outdoor market, the produce is so bright and fresh that we all, without thinking or consulting one another, buy something different and immediately stick it into our mouths. I buy strawberries from a renowned growing region in Italy (or so says Emanuela), and they are so rich that, raw, they taste just as sweet as when our strawberries at home are pressed into syrup. I try raw cherries for the first time, deep purple grapes the size of golf balls, oranges, apples, and grape tomatoes that I savor on my tongue for a few seconds each bite. We are all stuffing ourselves full of this freshness like it will never happen again when we realize that it will happen again, every day. At least for the next five weeks. And that’s when I realize that we are going to be doing a lot of cooking.

We finish our tour, have some lunch (fresh bread from the baker, toppings from the grocery store, the remainder of the strawberries, a bite of fruity yoghurt), and realize that we have a few hours free before our next meeting. We could take a nap to combat our jet lag. We could Skype friends at home, or go for another stroll around the neighborhood.

Or, we could walk to the Vatican. So of course we opt for…the nap.

Not.

The Vatican is about a 20 to 25-minute walk from our apartment. To get there, it’s a fairly straight shot up the bank of the Tiber River and then a diagonal to the left at the very end. Luckily, despite the Vatican being its own country, we don’t have to do anything special when we crossed the border. Except perhaps gape.

We gape because we turn a corner, chatting to each other and thinking about how much we still needed to break in our new sandals, and all of a sudden, there it is: St. Peter’s Basilica. No fanfare, no lightning, not even a face in the clouds like something out of Monty Python. Just one of the most famous buildings in the world.

We all stagger to the nearest sidewalk and burst out laughing. It isn’t even funny, just too much for our minds to process. Suddenly something we have heard about, read about, watched awkward non-accented news reporters talk about, is right there in front of us, and it is like we hadn’t even had to try to summon it. It just appeared, majestic and wide, and one of us looks at the rest of the group and says, “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Here’s a video I took of the outside of the building and of the piazza at the Vatican. Feel free to say hi, too.

"My name is Jessica. I hope you don't think it's creepy if I already know your name? Maybe we can be friends on Facebook!"

Because we have to take an official tour of the Vatican for class next week, we don’t try to go inside. We just walk, talk, and observe the keen fashion sense of the Vatican guards (hint: sexiness is a bit less important than ceremony. Or a LOT less important.)

Poofy streamer pants! They're all the rage here at the Vatican!!

Then we take the bus (ushered by Professor Fry, one of our two professors for the summer) to what will be our classroom from now until the program ends on July 3rd. After a brief orientation (I now know eight different ways to hold my purse to hinder pickpockets, as well as the precise Italian derogatory terms for anyone who dares to wear flip-flops within city walls – these teachers are thorough), we turn around and go back to the banks of the Tiber for a special modern art/musical performance combo with an orchestra playing right beside the river. The scene is free for mingling, so I end up spending most of my time having a long conversation with one of the professors about local urban renewal groups. I had done a bit of research before arriving about anti-graffiti activism (graffiti is worth a whole ‘nother post in itself), but I also learn about attempts to reinvigorate the river as a social hub. Plus, since Pauline (the first name of Professor Fry – we interchange the two based on whether we are inside or outside of an official classroom) is an expert on literature and Rome and quickly learns how much I love poetry, I also leave with a page full of writers to check out.

Then (and if you are getting tired just reading this, you are beginning to understand how long and jam-packed our days are here), we go home to our apartment (all of the guys come over to ours, too — this will be our main gathering spot for the summer, as we have the largest dining area and the most comfy couches, not to mention the best cooks) and make dinner. Two of the guys take charge on this one, believe it or not, and make a DELICIOUS spread of (brace yourself): cheese, bread, wine, salad, al dente pasta with fresh-cooked tomato sauce and another pot of pasta tossed with fresh basil, pecorino cheese, and olive oil, and eggplants sauteed with onion, garlic, wine, and olive oil. For less than five Euros a person, might I add. And with that, our first full day in Italy ends with us stuffed with good food, rosy with good wine, wallet-heavy, hearts-light. Just the way it ought to be.

Caesar’s Notes: Sunday, May 30 – “Che paradiso!”

3 Jun

I figured this would be a more appropriate title than Cliff’s Notes, but that’s pretty much what this post has to be. Our days have been SO packed so far – and I have had such an overwhelming desire to explore out in the Roman sunshine (maybe too much of a desire…I am a bit of a tomato at the moment. At least everyone in Italy loves tomatoes!) – that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and put it all into words. So, here’s a brief picture-list of day one with the rest of the week on its way.

Sunday, May 30: We arrive in Rome after a red-eye flight. I have not slept. I have been listening to blaring Italian opera for seven hours and (this is beginning to become a pattern) taking bad pictures outside of plane windows.

Gee, whiz! I'm so good at capturing blurry landscapes during a flight!

I land ecstatic, as well as with a very heavy, very book-filled bag. Though thanks to my grandma, at least it is a very well-packed, heavy, and book-filled bag! We manage to scramble together five of us and split up in taxis to head to Trastevere (one of the neighborhoods of Rome). Our instructions are literally to “Meet Professors Jewiss and Fry and Richard Piccolo at the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria at 5:30pm.” Meeting at a fountain? This sounds like a good start.

Our designated meeting spot. Only, yknow, a tad romantic.

Of course, because my mother is the one who booked my plane ticket, I arrive at the piazza with six hours to spare. In this case, the early (and very tired and jetlagged) bird may not have caught the worm, but it definitely caught the gelato. We grab lunch at Caffe di Marzio – I get a panini and limon gelato – and we continue to “grab” lunch for three hours sitting at the same cafe table and crowd watching (there is no such thing as a quick meal in Rome unless you don’t even bother to sit down.)

The site of my first meal in Roma. Also the site of my first sunburn in Roma, though definitely not my last.

I discover that this little piazza in Trastevere is a wonderful, wonderful place. It also happens to be EXACTLY WHERE I AM LIVING, about five floors up. See for yourself:

A video of the piazza

A video of a walk around the neighborhood

A video of nightlife in Trastevere as seen from my windows, and a mini-tour of my apartment! Sidenote: NO ONE EVER SLEEPS IN ROME. As you can see from the time of this posting, this is one instance where I am indeed “doing as the Romans do.”

Since we STILL had time before everyone else arrived, my little group decided to go into the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (right on the corner of the piazza). Little did we know that when we stepped inside the doors, we would see this kind of majesty:

Not bad for the neighborhood church, huh? Click on this picture (or any other on the page) to see the full version.

We also did a bit of walking and side street exploring, though nothing compared to our walking excursions of the last few days.

Three of the early birds. You might not be able to tell from far away, but our jaws are on the ground...

A street in Trastevere: Home sweet (laundry-filled) home.

Fast-forward to 5:30pm, we all meet, we go to our apartment (see the link above about Trastevere nightlife to get a peek at it!) which just so happens to be directly above this incredible square, we get a ton of fresh pizzas and wine and all hang out at our place (there are 13 of us total, by the way: six girls and seven guys) until eleven, when we crash and don’t wake up until morning.

I’d say it was worth the flight.