Ciao from some faraway place! Check in, see where I am, post a comment....

Friday, June 30, 2006

Stiletto Dreams

It takes a certain kind of woman, and a certain way of moving, but it really is possible to walk confidently on cobblestones while wearing 5-inch stilettos. I've seen it.

I wonder if they practice when the streets are dark and no one is awake?

I imagine furtive, colorfully clad shapes stumbling through the city in the dead of night, their heels catching between the stones, their toes catching unseen unevenness. I imagine them nodding to each other and offering advice in voices as sharp as their shoes.

Eventually they move from darkness into day, and they walk past the rest of us as though it is nothing, as though anyone could do it.

I wonder if they dream of the nights of stilettos?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Who's Your Team?

In Italy, there’s no getting away from the World Cup.

When Italy’s playing, the shops close down and hang signs on the doors that say some version of “Chiuso, forza Italia!” (Something like “Closed, Go/Be strong Italy!”) Some people call in sick. Others leave work early. And most establishments have a TV right there so their employees can watch if they simply can’t get away.

I at first tried to stay home on those days or nights, tried to avoid the crowds in the streets screaming for their teams, tried to be oblivious, essentially, to the phenomenon of futbol. But here, that doesn't work. When Italy scores, the streets explode with honking horns. People in the apartments around me scream and pound the walls and floors. Firecrackers are set off. And sometimes bells ring (or that might be only in my imagination).

It all floats up to me, through the courtyard outside my window that acts as a funnel for street noises and I finally decided hiding myself behind gauzy curtains wasn’t actually helping me avoid anything at all. So one night for a game I went down to the local bar.

I ordered a cappuccino, found a seat and commenced watching the game. Never having watched futbol I was confused at first about which team was which and what the rules were. But I did know that kicking the ball into the net thing at one end or the other was bound to be a good thing for somebody. I figured out who Italy was, I started cheering at the goals and calling the refs bad names. Slowly, I began to feel at home. I was beginning to like it. In fact, I was getting it… the national pride, the sense of camaraderie, the excitement when the ball made it all the way down the field… the buildup to the kick… hey, I liked fubol!

Until somebody asked me, “Who’s your team?”

My team? Who’s my team? Shit. I didn’t have a team! I had heard that question in bars and restaurants around me for weeks, and it means, “When you are at home, and you watch this on TV like a raving maniac, who do you root for? Who is your home team, your favorite?”

I froze.

You see, this question is generally followed by a trading of often loud opinions on the relative merits of particular teams and then, almost without fail, an argument breaks out. These people are serious about their teams, and in large part they identify themselves by who their teams are. And while it generally doesn’t lead to bloodshed, it does escalate to loud voices, insults, jeers and sometimes quite heated debates. None of which I was prepared for.

I took a sip of my cappuccino, aware that I was in danger of being found out: not a futbol fan at all. An imposter. A wanna be. It was clear to me that the bigger question was, “Who was I without a team?”

Luckily at that moment, Italy scored another goal and the entire room was distracted, screaming and cheering and yelling at the refs… and I got up quietly and left. I made it to the street, into the honking horns and flying Italian flags from the car windows, into the cheers pouring out from every open door... even the opera being performed in the 800-year-old church across the street was drowned out by the sound of an entire city celebrating.

Tomorrow Italy plays again, having advanced to the next level. I have decided to try it again, this futbol thing. I hope they don’t ask about my team again because I still don’t know… who am I without a team?

I’ll be thinking about this one long after the cheering fades.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I've Got a New Attitude

Women in Italy wear clothes beyond sexy. Form-fitting, silky tops with tiny straps… dresses that hug their breasts, their waists, their hips… skirts that flow and drift around their legs as though at any moment they might drift away in an errant breeze… flat stomachs covered in the thinnest lace at the bottom of a shirt with a neckline that not only plunges, as they say, but also shows off to perfection breasts that are inevitably perfect… and while form-fitting, the clothes are not tight, so women’s bodies actually move as they would without clothes on at all. Which is the point

And the colors. Anything goes… the more brilliant the better, to show off to the best advantage every inch of beauty. If possible, an outfit that manages to have every color represented, with every curve and dip and hollow accented, is one to be sought. Top this off with long hair and curls – not perms but big, flowing curls – and earrings that dangle, a lot, and make noise, and bracelets that sparkle in the hot Roman sun.

These women, breathtakingly gorgeous, walk through Rome every day.

Let me tell you about one I saw today. She was tall, wearing a silk or rayon, form-fitting white jumpsuit covered with small, brightly colored, intricately woven shapes… thin spaghetti straps over her shoulders, perfect tiny waist, perfect long legs, perfect butt. She had on high heels. Her hair was long and black and thick and fell down over her shoulders like a waterfall, and it was pulled up on one side with a glittering barrette. Her earrings were silver hoops that hung halfway to her smooth bare shoulders. And she was walking along the bridge of angels (of course) over the Tiber River toward the center of Rome.

Men literally stopped in their tracks to watch her go by. Comments of “Chè bella” came from every corner. Following her was a bit daunting. While I am not, in Rome, a woman who gets tons of attention, I usually get at least some. Today, no one even saw me go by.

And she might have been alone, for all the attention she paid to the people who couldn’t stop staring. I followed her for a while, watching the flow of people part to let her walk by as she moved through the crowded streets, and I marveled at the way the world seemed to mold itself to fit her presence. And she didn’t acknowledge anyone.

Wow, I thought. What an attitude. What’s that about?

I finally passed her and saw that she was just as beautiful from the front, and on her face was a tiny pout. The kind that European models seem to cultivate. The kind that does not invite conversation but indeed, instead, discourages it.

Feeling slightly intimidated but determined, I approached her and asked her if she spoke English. She shook her head and kept walking so I told her in Italian that her outfit was gorgeous. She slowed and for a split second she looked surprised, and then she smiled radiantly and thanked me. As she walked away I saw her smile again to herself, as though she had heard something she hadn’t expected. I got the impression she didn’t know how beautiful she was, or was surprised that somebody had noticed. Impossible, but it gave me pause.

I realized something. There’s an attitude going on here… but it’s not about being a bitch, or being conceited, or being superior. It’s about simply existing and being beautiful. And the women who have this attitude glow in the sun, and they don’t care who notices.

I have a theory now. While I will never be tall, or able to wear a form-fitting silk or rayon jumpsuit quite like that one, and my hair will never be black and thick like a waterfall of curls… I think I can manage the pout. I can get the walk. I can buy some new clothes.

And if I work at it, I might be able to get the attitude. I am thinking that if I do, I might be able to glow, just a little bit.

So when people wonder what I’m doing in Rome, I tell them… I’m working on my attitude. When I get it down, I’ll let you know.


Roman traffic is like Australian Football... no matter how hard I try, I cannot understand the rules.

Monday, June 26, 2006

All that Glitters

Rome echoes with the honking of horns from all quarters as Italy scores in the latest World Cup game. Ambulances rush by in the street five stories down. People in the apartments across the courtyard are listening to… opera, the game, top-40 on the radio… an Italian talk-show… and again, the game. Cheering… calling… rushing… coughing… lives lived too close to my window.

I forget how much I like solitude and silence until a day like this hits, when the noise is incessant and I realize suddenly why I am unsettled, restless, and feel this need to escape.

I forget how much my heart feels at peace when it hears the breeze in the trees outside my office window at home.

I forget the joy I feel in sitting outside in my own back yard, watching my dogs chase birds they will never catch, and how the roses bloom red and orange and blue and white, and send their scent into the air, and how I can almost hear them turn to follow the sun.

I forget, when Rome surrounds me, what silence sounds like.

And then one day I find myself walking before the sun rises, before Rome is awake, when the dust in the Forum is undisturbed and I can pass through it and make no impression, as though I don’t exist at all. In the piazzas it is possible to hear the water tumbling from Bernini’s sculptures… and I hear my own soft footsteps echo in the Pantheon as I walk to the center of the multi-colored marble floor to watch the circle of light slowly traverse the ceiling.

I find the one open cafe in the city, and sit at a table surrounded by empty tables, and drink cappuccino slowly, and remember… silence sounds like this.

Rome breathes softly on mornings like this, waiting on the edge of day. Soon, it will remember what it has always been – a city of life and death and movement and sound – but for now, for a moment longer, I hear nothing but the sound of my own heart.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Underwear Etiquette

Some of the more colorful aspects of Rome are the things people hang from their windows.

Flowers, of course, pour over wrought iron balconies and hang into space. Ivy-type leaves crawl across the building fronts with profusions of pink and white and yellow blooms. Purple and orange petals twist from flower pots anchored somehow onto tiny shelves beside the windows, while blue and all shades of gold spring from flower boxes that sit closely underneath. Pansies of pink, and mimosas of gold seem to come from nowhere.

Bicycles sometimes dangle from large hooks anchored into the wall. Pots and pans dry in the sun. I once saw what looked like a couch somehow affixed to an apartment wall, as though in the evenings people might sit there, enjoying a glass of wine while kicking their legs out over the street 60 feet below. I did a double take… then the train whooshed me along and I couldn’t go back and check. It might really have been a couch….

And then there’s laundry. The buildings all have white laundry cord strung outside the windows – most people have washing machines, hardly anyone has a dryer – and the cords themselves create patterns against the walls when the lines are empty. But they’re not empty often. Laundry gets hung out to dry in the hot afternoons.

Towels of bright, primary colors hang heavy with moisture. Huge sheets of white, or printed with flowers or stripes, slowly billow, lifted by errant wind currents or just the heat rising from the sidewalks. Blouses of green and blue and orange and white. Pants and shorts – tan, blue, black, white, yellow, red. Socks in every color imaginable. And if there’s a baby in the apartment, the tiny hats and socks and jumpers resemble a box of crayons left in the sun too long and run together, with cartoon characters laughing and bouncing in time to the breeze.

And underwear… uh… wait. Really? Do people really hang their underwear out to dry in public? I’d never noticed it in particular, and one might think I would have if it had been there. In fact, I’d never really thought about this until today while I was hand-washing my own.

So as I wrung the extra water from my light orange and yellow and white underwear, and the ones with the tiny yellow flowers, and my blue and purple and black and white bras, I wondered, what exactly is the etiquette for hanging underwear on a clothes line that can be seen by everyone who chances to look up, or in the case of the apartment I’m staying in, everyone who looks into the courtyard from their own windows as they hang their own laundry or cook their dinner?

I wrung out the last of the water, piled all the items in question into a towel, and headed to the closest window. I looked out, hoping to find a clue in what others had hung that day. There on the right, the lady who cooks dinner in her blue housecoat every night had hung out dish towels with stripes, and a stuffed bunny (yes, really)… but no underwear. There, on the left, the man who smokes cigarettes every morning after lighting them at his stove… he had hung out a series of off-white T-shirts (not sure if they were off-white to start with or had grayed over the years). And there, the woman across the way who listens to opera day and night at various decibels depending on her wine consumption, she had hung out a brilliant vermillion lace shirt and matching pants.

But no one had hung their underwear out. Was that because no one had any underwear to hang that day? Was it all clean already? Or maybe did they do underwear on some special underwear day?

What if underwear isn’t hung outside during the day but only after dark… or what if you’re not even supposed to wash it on Sundays… or what if you can wash it on Sundays but not hang it on Sundays… or what if you’re only supposed to hang your underwear behind other things – the lines are double-layered so it was possible that a tiny pair of lace underwear might be hiding behind the stuffed rabbit across the way….

What is the etiquette of underwear?

This was definitely a conundrum. But, no way around it, I couldn’t let it sit on the floor in a pile any longer so I decided to take my chances. I chose the very colorful plastic clothes-pins provided to me by my landlord over the boring wooden ones, figuring if I was going to break some kind of silent clothes law, I might as well do it brilliantly, and I hung my underwear out to dry in full view and in living color, five stories up and against a yellow wall that highlights it well.

That was two hours ago. I’ve been sneaking looks out my window to see if anyone has noticed. So far it appears that things are quiet in the courtyard.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Abandoned Houses

Last weekend I went to Siena and the Chianti region of Italy for the first time.

I had gone to the area in large part to see what the fuss was all about. With the publication of Under the Tuscan Sun (which I read and enjoyed) and then the movie of the same name which was completely different, the U.S. has entered into a rather odd love affair with the Tuscany region of Italy. Not wanting to fall prey to the trap of following the masses, I have avoided Tuscany for my last two visits to Italy… a silly reason, maybe, but valid in my eyes at the time.

Then I read Too Much Tuscan Sun and was enchanted, not just with the region but with the author’s way of speaking about it. Unlike outsiders, Dario Castagno grew up in those hills. He spent his childhood exploring the creeks and the forests, the vineyards and the olive groves, and the abandoned buildings he and his friends discovered. I felt that this book gave me a new window into the area, some glimpse into the reality of it, not into the dreams of what foreigners hope to see. And while much of the book is made up of wonderful stories about the tourists that frequent the region, what stood out most was the author’s love for the hills he knows intimately.

He seemed to relate to the Chianti area as though to a loved one, a woman perhaps. Every hill, every field of poppies or Spanish broom, the cemeteries and the winding roads, the vineyards and stands of olive trees, and the wine and olive oil that come from them… he spoke of them all in words that seemed molded softly around the very subjects he spoke about, as a caress might touch lightly the hair or the face of someone whose heart one knows – with gentle possession.

I wondered what brushing up against those hills might feel like, and I wondered if I would be able to see it separately from the preconceptions I inevitably had about it.

And so, I boarded a train last Friday afternoon and headed north. Siena was the last stop and from the station I took a taxi to my hotel. I began to notice the beauty of the area within moments of leaving the train station, and as we climbed farther away from Siena and the roads got narrower and more twisted, I felt my heart lighten. After the rush that is Rome, Chianti was a more then welcome respite.

The hotel was gorgeous by any standards – built of stone, much of it from the original borgo (sort of a neighborhood/fiefdom) that once stood there – and I settled into my room, had an exquisite dinner at the hotel dining room, and went to bed to the sounds of tinkling glasses, muted conversation and a soft wind through the trees outside my second story window. That window, by the way, revealed a view all the way to the walls of Siena in the morning.

Morning brought with it as well… Dario, the author of the very book I had enjoyed so much. He spent three hours showing me the area, and that will be the subject of an actual interview (to be published on the Lifeinitaly website). I learned why he was such a successful tour guide. He spoke knowledgeably about the history of the area and of the age-old tensions between Florence and Siena. He told me of the Palio, the horse race run every year in Siena’s main square, and recounted stories of buildings and hills as we passed them. We walked through his small town and I met locals both alive and passed on, and I spent a bit of time in his office – the view is spectacular.

In many ways, Chianti is unlike other places I’ve been. Cypress trees tower over the narrow roads, shading them at all hours of the day, leaving shafts of sunlight to slice their way through to the ground. Vineyards recede up hills, and large stone houses sit high, surrounded by mulberry trees and terraced olive groves. And Spanish Broom – bright yellow and moving slightly in a breeze too gentle for me to feel – does indeed grow in bright patches, as do poppies and other flowers I don’t know the names of.

But more than any of that, what struck me was the walk we took to an abandoned house. Set off the road and reachable only by walking through rough fields of a crop I don’t remember, the house is part of an entire abandoned village. It is made of stone, as old houses in Tuscany are, and has attached stables and a hay barn, also made of stone. The ceilings in those buildings are low, and the feeding troughs still stand where countless animals have worn slight indentations in the floors.

The house itself is two-storied with tall narrow windows every few feet. The roof was once red tile – it has fallen prey to both time and theft, and broken tiles are scattered through the ground cover, and litter the top of the house itself.

Outside stairs, narrower than those of today and made of stone, and covered with ivy and prickly green leaves, led us up to a locked door through which could be seen a floor that would not support the weight of a man in many places. The wooden door, though old, was sturdy enough to keep us out.

We descended and stood in the courtyard between the house and the stable area. I turned in a circle, trying to imagine what the house must have looked like, and what it could be again. For a moment, I saw it… lovely walls of red and beige and brown stone… the courtyard without the ground cover of ivy, paved with wide stones that felt soft against bare feet… the red roof visible for miles… flowers climbing the walls outside, roses of pink and yellow and red and white, and purple hollyhocks and brilliant orange and yellow blooms for which I have no names… and the windows with brightly colored shutters, open to the air.

I turned and it was gone, and we stood once more in the courtyard of an abandoned, crumbling stone house. As we walked around one last time, and ate juicy mulberries from trees that seem to protect the house from view, I realized I had been given a gift.

This house represented all that this man has been saying in his books about Chianti, and all he had shown me that day. The area he loves is multi-layered. For casual visitors it is pretty, with softly receding hills and towers, and picturesque vineyards in neat rows. A day or two spent here can make the heart feel good, and after leaving one can talk about the lovely hills of Tuscany and how great they are, just like everyone says.

But in that abandoned house I caught a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of these hills. Chianti is all those things, yes. But it is also ancient, with the scars of its long history showing. The reality of it is covered in ivy and not easily reached by outsiders… and it is like the taste of a ripe berry on the tongue. Tangy and sweet with a touch of something wild, and it slides into your heart in a moment.

The taste of that moment will stay with me for a very long time.

(And for those of you who have already asked, and those who might, the answer is... no, but I'm still thinking about it.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Normal Coffee

From half a mile away, the Coliseum glowed.

It was just after 9 PM. I had finished an afternoon of writing and it was time for a bit of exercise, a cafè, and the company of strangers. I left my apartment – down five flights of stairs (in Italy, 5th floor means five floors, not four… the bottom floor is 0) – and began walking.

As seems to be the case more often than not, my feet took me toward the most ancient part of Rome – the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Trajan’s Market – and I strolled rather leisurely along Via San Giovanni in Laterano. From cafès along the streets came the sounds of – what else – the World Cup. Cheering, jeering, the rapid-fire sharing of insults and congratulations in all languages – mostly Italian, yes, but also French, German, English… I even recognized Turkish in the mix.

I bought a banana in one of the many fruit shops along the Via, talking to the vendor in (what is becoming more comfortable but still very slow) Italian, and continued walking, proud of myself for my accomplishment. The fact that a three year old Italian child could have accomplished the same transaction in probably much more ‘correct’ Italian didn’t faze me one bit.

Five minutes more along the Via and I chose a small caffè the way you choose most things in Rome until you learn the good from the bad: because it’s close when you get thirsty… or hungry… or tired. Café San Clemente. (Names here often come from proximity. Directly across the street is the church of San Clemente, the subject of my first Rome entry.)

I sat at a table outside – careful first to ask the price of a cappuccino WITH a table) – and in less than five minutes I was quite contentedly watching the World Cup match on a small TV dragged out and placed on a chair specially for this event, sipping cappuccino across the street from an 800 year old church, and soaking in the sight of the Coliseum half a mile away, glowing in the early night sky.

If the Coliseum looks almost other-worldly in the daytime, at night it is even more so. It is lit from all sides, making the night sky and surrounding streets darker by comparison – as though the ancient edifice floats, somehow, inches above the city.

Confident after my banana-buying experience, I had a brilliant conversation with the waiter in Italian. I asked what time it was, he told me 9:40 PM. I asked him what the score was, he told me (I don’t remember). I asked for my check, he brought it and thanked me. I thanked him and had a sip of cappuccino in satisfaction. Another successful conversation concluded.

After a few more minutes of trying to think up things I could say in Italian to the waiter and coming up with "I would like two tickets to Milan, please," and "Please can you show me where we are on this map," neither of which I thought appropriate at the time, I was ready to go. Just as I stood up I heard a woman at the next table order coffee.

She said, in English, “I would like a coffee, please, a normal coffee. Not an espresso, not a cappuccino, not a café latte. A normal coffee, with cream and sugar.”

A normal coffee. As though anything different than what she knew was aberrant, wrong.

I turned in time to see the waiter give her a dirty look and walk away. I waited to see what would happen. He did indeed bring her a coffee, with cream and sugar. And when he dropped it onto her table from a few inches high, he apologized for the drops that splashed onto her purse. When she thanked him, he glared at her again and walked away. She looked at me and said “what’s his problem?”

I didn’t bother to explain. Maybe I should have, but I don’t think it would have done any good. Instead I said “Non parlo l'Inglese” and walked away.

I’m in the middle of revising my perspective on the rudeness of Italian waiters.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Romance, or Roma/n’/c’è?

Being in Rome is like being in a relationship.

When I first met Rome in 2000, I was enchanted. I stumbled, clutching my unwieldy bags, off the metro right into the city’s heart. The first thing I saw was the Coliseum and I stood in its shadow for an hour or more, unable, unwilling to make a move lest it somehow turn out to be a dream. It seemed as though my entire life had led to that moment and I could at last touch every inch of the city I had so often imagined.

And touch I did, everything I could reach. I drank water welling up from ancient waterways, I ran my fingertips lightly over smooth marble in the Pantheon. I walked across the stunning piazza to the doors of St. Peter’s and went inside to lose myself in the third largest building on earth, and I feasted my eyes on sculptures that made stone look like liquid, rippling to drape bodies only hinted at by the hands of masters. I walked up the more-than 700 steps to the highest point of the dome, and I walked the streets of city as far as I could see. And then kept going, trusting that Rome would reveal more and ever more intimate details as I went.

I rounded a corner once and the crooked alley-like streets opened to reveal La Fontana Trevi – I’m not sure there’s a better way to discover a sculpture so vast… it sparkled in the afternoon sun, and I’m sure Poseidon laughed at my stunned amazement.

The entire trip was magic itself, and I found not one blemish. I loved everything about Rome, and I wanted nothing more than to lose myself in it forever.

This, then, was what falling in love felt like.

Trip two, in the summer of 2005, was almost as spectacular. Almost. I walked the same streets, I rounded the same corners, I found new and just as spectacular vistas and sculptures and churches. But… I began to see the things I hadn’t noticed before. Rome was dirtier than I remembered – had these monuments always had this dark patina? Had the Forum been this crowded? Had cappuccino cost this much? And had the line for the Vatican museum been two hours long?

Despite these things, I still loved Rome. I looked past its flaws, noticing them but paying no attention. I ignored them, I pushed them to the back of my awareness, and I continued to walk the streets, seeking – and finding – new and always exciting pathways through the city I was beginning to know well. I found ways around the disquieting questions, and I felt only slight twinges of uncertainty.

By the time I left I was sure I still loved Rome, and I looked past the cracks I had begun to see in its perfection.

This year, I am beginning to see Rome the way it truly is. It is crowded. It is loud. It is full of people who can sometimes be rude. It is dirty, and expensive, and it never slows down… yet it is achingly slow when I want to do something quickly, and it is frustratingly unhelpful when I need to be helped.

It hit me today, upon my return from Siena, that – as in a relationship – Rome and I have changed the way we approach each other. We have passed the stage where everything is perfect. We have passed the point where everything bad can be glossed over. We are now at the place where the bad things are front and center, and the choice becomes…

… do I fall in love all over again, now that I have seen beneath the veneer of my own expectations? Or do I walk away before I am in too deep and fall into an unhealthy spiral that leads forever downward?

The answer has built in me slowly. This first week in the city has been both a reminder of what I loved, and a window into what I have learned to dislike. I have teetered on the fine line between giving my heart again, or leaving and not looking back. It took going away for the weekend and coming ‘home’ to know for sure.

Rome is ancient and brooding, modern and loud, and it is perfect only in the dreams of those who don’t know it well. And yet it is still lovely. Every day, I make the same decision: I enter it with joy.

I think there is no other way to be in Rome. If you’re not in love, it will drive you crazy.

If that’s not a relationship… I don’t know what is.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

It's Probably the Pope

A few days ago I decided to walk into an area of Rome I have never been to before. I took a map, extra clothes, sunglasses, my camera, provisions (water, a banana, bread and cheese, a bottle of wine... okay, not really the botle of wine) and headed north-ish from Piazza San Giovanni, along Via Murilana toward the Spanish Steps. In a roundabout kind of way. This is one of my favorite things to do here -- walking with no real plan, taking a turn now and then if something looks interesting, and eventually ending up in some area of the city I know. (This sort of backfired on me one day earlier in the week... but we won't talk about the four mile detour or the length of time it took me to walk back to where I thought I was going, or why I didn't take the metro. At least not now.)

So anyhow, there I was, walking north-ish. I found a Museum of Oriental Art (meaning Muslim and Middle Eastern) which I of course made note of to go back to when I could devote enough time to it. Then I found a Museum of Ancient Art... ditto. Then I ran smack into the piazza around Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most famous churches in Rome. I oohed and ahhed around the outside for a while, then walked around the numerous barriers toward the open 30-feet-tall doors. Barriers. Hmmm.

I reached the doors and suddenly it occurred to me that they also had barriers around them and I couldn't get inside. Many men were working on setting up a sound stage and a sound system, as though for a concert. I thought 'cool, I get to hear some great Italian music in a cool church.' I waited around for a while for the music to start and then finally figured it was taking too long, and left. (I have been to Rome three times and have yet to see the inside of that church.)

Much later that day, after successfully finding the Spanish Steps, a music store where I bought the soundtrack to the movie 'Amelie' (don't ask me, I don't know why), and eating prosciutto and buffalo mozzarela in a restaurant off the Via del Corso, I walked home. I arrived in Piazza San Giovanni (where my apartment is) just as evening was settling over Rome, and lo and behold, at the church in the piazza, the same guys were setting up the same sound stage and the same sound system and barriers! I thought, hey, cool, I get to hear the cool Italian music in a DIFFERENT cool old church.'

As I walked closer, I indeed heard exquisite music -- very rich, very harmonious, very (of course) Catholic, gorgeous music -- coming from inside. I stopped walking, bought a gelato and sat down at a table along the street and listened, quite content.

The music went on for quite some time. I heard my fill, went to my apartment and worked while the music continued drifting up past my 5th-floor apartment window. Eventually, it faded... faded... and was gone.

Then the bells starting ringing.

It was a beautiful night and I was content, very glad I had after all gotten to hear the music I had missed out on earlier by being impatient.

The next day I read the paper (in Italian!) and found out that the pope... the very pope himself, the German one... had actually done a procession between the two churches, accompanied by the music... which was actually a famous opera singer accompanied by probably a full orchestra. The procession was apparently quite beautiful, and rather exciting to see.

In other words, the pope walked past my apartment, followed by a famous opera star and an orchestra -- and for all I know, the Italian football team -- and I missed it.

So the moral of the story is... when in Rome, when you see barriers and a sound stage being assembled at a church... wait around for a while.

It's probably the pope.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Forget About It

When in Rome, forget about...

  1. ...standing in lines -- just push to the front. If you are polite, you'll go hungry.
  2. ...pricing that stays the same from day to day -- the price of anything depends entirely on who is charging you, whether he or she knows you, what kind of mood s/he is in, what key s/he happens to hit, or whether you asked in English or Italian. I get better prices when I speak Italian. Which is problematic when I want something I don't know the word for. Pointing doesn't work.
  3. ...Vespa drivers who give a shit about hitting you. Crossing any street here is an adventure. "Rules" is a term applied loosely at best to traffic and driving, and when you need to get from one side of any road to the other, you simply step into traffic. Literally. Cars will come to a screeching halt, the drivers will wait patiently, and then they will stomp on the gas pedal the moment you are past their bumper. Vespa drivers, however, are a different story. They will do nothing to avoid you other than honk loudly and yell curses as they careen by, inches from your toes. It is marginally appropriate at this point to yell back at them, preferably in Italian, although the understanding here is that cars stop, scooters don't, so effectively, you are in the wrong. Still, if they almost kill you, it's okay to yell.
  4. ...a relaxing coffee break for a decent price. Romans do not take coffee breaks. They stand at coffee bars and slam down their caffeine while munching on something sweet. They do this every morning. If you want a nice relaxing coffee, at a table, with a paper or a book, expect it to cost at least twice as much as a simple coffee at the bar.
  5. ...being in a hurry. Everyone drives fast, everyone walks fast, but once they get to where their going, they stop hurrying. Sending a package overseas can take an hour. Getting money at a bank can take 40 minutes.
  6. ...eating good food at any tourist attraction. Never eat anything (unless you simply will fall over if you don't) at the restaurants or bars (food/gelato/coffee bars, not 'bar' bars) surrounding the big sites here. You're paying for location only, kind of like the apartments and hotels here which can cost up to 700€ for 300 square feet in the center of the historical center.
  7. ...showers with shower curtains. This one I can't figure out, but every apartment I've been in has a tub, and hot water, and a hand-held shower head... and no curtain. They each, also, have a mop leaning against the tub for obvious reasons.

And yet... still... and because of these things, Rome is wonderful. The key, I think, to being anywhere and enjoying it is to fall 100% into the life, the people, the events, the rhythm.

There is something magic in a pace of life that can include a mad rush to a destination and then a day spent talking with those who happen to wander by. Italians often stop in their mad rush to have a fifteen minute conversation on the sidewalk. And I have arrived at a store mid-day to find a sign that says "Ritorno subito" (I will be back soon), and found the store owner down the street drinking wine with a friend, in no hurry to return at all.

Enjoy the different perspective on manners. Push to the front of the line and have a great time at it.

Step into traffic with abandon, trusting in the drivers -- and in the gods (remember, there are tons of them here) -- and marvel when every car actually stops as you walk in front of it.

Take a shower and drench the entire bathroom. Mop up afterward -- it's a good way to keep the floors clean.

And finally, stand at the bar and quickly drink your cafe (espresso) or cappuccino, and eat a dolce (sweet) for breakfast as the Romans do.

After all, when in Rome that's the only way to live.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The First Roman Shower

The last two times I've been to Rome it has rained on the day of my arrival. Last year it wasn't a bad sign -- the weather was perfect thereafter -- so I assume it portends the same this year.

So... here I am, la citta bella, and once more I find myself enamored. If one were to ask what exactly I find so enchanting, my answer might not entirely satisfy. Rome is loud, crowded, dirty, filled with people from all corners of the globe who all want to be just where you are going... and it is also multi-layered, steeped in history, cosmopolitan, exciting. All of which could have been said about it, 500, 1000, 2000 years ago.

Every corner reveals yet another treasure -- yesterday I discovered a church built on the remains of a church, itself built on the remains of another church. Four stories beneath the present-day street-level of Rome it is quiet, and cool, and one can hear the whispers of those who, 2000 years ago, walked the same marble paving stones.

I sit in outdoor cafes and let the city wash over me in all its glory. I drink cafe latte or cappuccino or wine, and eat bruschetta or pasta or gelato, and I am once again part of not only today's world but the past. In Rome one can walk from today to yesterday, over and over again, and always it remains the same -- an ever-changing city filled with the ghosts of those who have been here, and those who will come. Today, we are just passing through.

Friday, June 02, 2006

California Dreaming

It's the beginning of June and I'm heading into a summer of fun and excitement that has started early.

I'm in sunny California for story meetings on a movie I'm writing. I'm talking with producers and drinking Starbucks coffee (which I have stopped apologizing for) along the Univeral Studios City Walk during the day, and having dinner in Malibu and spending my nights staring at the lights of LA through 14th story hotel windows.

Next week I will spend in Michigan with Robin working on the movie during the days, and filling my free hours with enough time with him to hold me through a month in Rome before he arrives. A month is a long time, and I will miss him. Rome, however, holds part of my heart as well, and I will find it again as I enter the marble-floored Pantheon or walk into St. Peter's square, or eat gelato on a street corner as the sun sets.

So it hit me as the sun set behind hazy white mist over the Pacific ocean last night.

I was in a restaurant on the water with my friend Michael watching pelicans dive head-first for their dinner into choppy waves that pounded the rocks at the base of the restaurant... and there it was. The truth of this summer: Everything is different now.

It's a fitting start for what I've taken to calling my new life. Here on the west coast of the United States where the land ends and the sun sets... and whitecaps crash relentlessly against rocks as the sun slips below the horizon... I tell stories of my past, and I look to the future with excitement and fear, hope and joy, and I wonder... "what's next?"

And the answer, as always, is 'everything.'