Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The story of Luigi and the Remote Control Plane

Sorry for the long absence but I have been knee deep in work over the last few weeks which is no easy thing to come by here in Italy, so I am taking it as it comes. Anyway I have returned to give you a brief account of my boyfriend's first attempt to fly his new remote control plane that I bought for him.

Luigi is a plane enthusiast and it is his dream to fly. He travels to air shows and almost crashes the car when we drive past the airport as he studies the skies. I spent the first three months of this year dodging a small remote control helicopter that he got for Christmas as he flew it around the apartment without pause. Dodging it became an art as I moved from room to room, did the ironing or sat watching TV. Sometimes the urge to swat it was overpowering but I resisted and swatted him instead. Anyway it all ended badly when I decided to fly it after drinking one too many red wines. A crash into the ceiling followed by a vertical plunge to the tiled floor meant the end of its flying life.

Guilt set in after enjoying several evenings of silence (both from the helicopter and the boyfriend). During a trip home to the UK I bought him a remote control plane (for beginners and for outside). Taking it back on board BA brought some sniggers from the crew and a more than unhealthy interest from the captain but needless to say Luigi was quite pleased.

It sat in its box for several weeks as we searched for a suitable zone in which to fly it. We staked out fields, beaches, hillsides and parkland until deciding on the spot most suitable for the grand event. Then we waited for the weather conditions to be correct. Not too windy, not wet, not too hot.

At last the day came.

We drove to the field we had chosen and Luigi carefully took it out of the box. Its gleaming white paint glinted in the sunshine. I held it as he pressed the remote to listen to the roar of the engines. It was fully charged. He held it up to check the wind direction. I was ready with my camera.

Finally he ran across the field launching the plane into the open field for its maiden flight. After a moment's hestitation the plane grabbed the breeze and took to the skies. It bounced on the air currents with its rotors powering it up and away with my man at the controls. Just as out my camera out however things took a literal turn for the worse. Less than five seconds after take off a gust of wind took the plane into a perfect 180 degree turn and into the waiting branches of a nearby tree where it became jammed.

Far too high for us to reach it, and no chance of it falling down by itself, and me only falling about laughing, it was the end of the little planes maiden voyage. And the biggest regret? Not catching it on camera. Poor Luigi was crestfallen. We gathered the instructions, the remote control and spare propellor back in the box and went home minus the plane.

We did manage to return a couple of weeks later with stepladders and long sticks and retrieve it, but it has never flown again.

Still sat in the box waiting for the right weather, field, day etc

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shopping for food in Italy ...At the Supermarket

Italian food is wonderful. There is no doubt that the best meal you will ever taste is cooked in a hidden away Trattoria, that usually looks closed from the outside, with paper tablecloths, and packed to the roof with ravenous locals. But trying to buy the ingredients is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Unlike the UK which has completely been taken over with large supermarket shopping, life here is relatively old fashioned. The three main choices are supermarkets (think corner spar shop rather than tescos), local shops and local markets. Here is my part one survival guide to shopping - at the supermarket.

In Italy, supermarkets only sell food . You may find a pile of strange goods near the entrance on sale including a broken plant pot, a light up nativity set or a nose hair plucker, but do not expect to be able to buy your cigarettes, shop for a TV, buy your life insurance, exchange travel money or visit the website.

Expect a maximum of two brands for each item on the whole. Chick peas are chick peas, and there seems no need for twenty different varieties on sale, and quite right too. For bread and cured meats however there is a bewildering choice. Expect to stand in line for at least twenty minutes to buy these items (you cannot just buy bread off the shelves, you have to fight for it and be mean) and be prepared to justify why you have chosen any particular thing, and have answers ready relating to which varieties of wine would go best with it.

And whilst you are at it, why not taste some of this cheese, have you tried that ham with this bread, and how is your aunty? Ok, so maybe this is an exaggeration, but it is more or less the prolonged conversation I hear between the surly cashier and the customer in front of me.

Then its the checkout. There will be a queue, and the cashier may close or disappear randomly at any time. She will ask each and every person if they need a bag, if they have a loyalty card and if they have the correct change. Hardly anyone pays by card here. In turn, they will look shocked at the notion of paying, hunt long and hard for their purse, and proceed to count out small change that would fuel an amusement arcade on Blackpool prom for a month, and then realise that they do not have enough to be of assistance. Not one person will anticpate this questions, even if they come everyday, instead patiently wait to be asked one by one.

Unloading the basket or trolley is also fraught with danger. It is done here on a one at a time basis. No matter how long the queue. So even if the conveyor belt is empty, do not even think about starting to unpack, especially if there is no 'next customer' plastic thingy. You will cause upset and distress. Instead wait patiently for the customer before you to unload items, one at a time, checking once again for freshness, going to fetch something they have forgotten, and then try and stack the basket into the overflowing pile for at least two minutes.

Then they will need to wait for the cashier to empty her till of notes into at least five different envelopes that all have a form to be filled in by hand, take a phone call, and then go outside for a cigarette before reluctalty returning to her work. The items will be processed one by one, at not great speed I promise, and then the customer will be asked if they want a bag, have a loyalty card or the correct change (see above for shock at being asked this difficult to anticpate questions...).

Then, and only then, will the cashier pass the bags and the customer start to pack their things away. Now you can start to unload your shopping and so the cycle continues.

The main difference is that the notion of food shopping is one of pleasure for Italians. It is not to be rushed. Many women still stay at home, especially the older ones, during the day, yet all choose to shop at lunchtime or around 6-7pm. There is no notion of the ten items or less. There is a notion of social interaction, of this being a task that should take you half an hour even if you only want a pint of milk and a white bap for your chip butty. Time in the queue is time to evaluate other people's shopping. Listen to conversations. Often the one the cashier is having on her telephone.

I am not sure if our habit of seeing the weekly shop as a chore, that is more and more frequently being given over to an online list and delivery service, is the right one. It is good to smell, touch and taste what you buy. To enjoy the process of making a meal. But not when I have half an hour for my lunch and just want to buy some bread.....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Buried deep down in the catacombs on the Appian Way, Rome

A short distance away from the historic centre of Rome, you will find the Appian Way, a Roman military road that was built to connect Rome with the south of Italy. Visitors to Rome can escape the city centre chaos for a few hours and enjoy a walk in the fresh air, or take the opportunity to explore some of the ancient catacombs to learn more about Italy’s ancient history.

Stand on the oldest parts of the Appian Way, or Appia Antica, and the straight path of ancient uneven flagstones stretches far in front of you as far as the eye can see. Try and imagine the Roman soldiers marching off to war as they founded the empire around 300BC, or even more, consider the people who built it. Today the historic tree-lined Appia Antica is a haven for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and dog walkers, escaping the noise and chaos of the city for a few hours.

The road starts at Porta San Sebastiano, where there is an interesting museum dedicated to the ancient city walls. Once on your way, there are plenty of monuments to see such as the circular tomb of Cecilia Metella and the small church of Domine Quo Vadis? where a fleeing Peter met Jesus and was persuaded to return to Rome and meet his persecutors. Also take time to peer past the private gates of the lavish villas that belong to some of Rome’s more elite residents.

As well as being the main route from Rome to the south of Italy, the Appia Antica was one of the places that ancient Romans came to bury their dead. In ancient times, it was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls, leading to the creation of a network of catacombs around the periphery. There are 60 catacombs altogether in Rome, stretching for hundreds of kilometres under the ground, with 5 open to the public. Two of these are on the Appian Way with the biggest and oldest being the Catacombs of San Callisto, where it is recommended you pause for an hour and take advantage of one of the guided tours down to the tombs.

The Catacombs of San Callisto are a labyrinth of tunnels stretching for 20kms and built on 4 different levels deep under the ground. Dating from the 3rd Century, the walls are covered with hollows that once housed the remains of the Roman citizens wrapped in a simple white cloth and laid next to their possessions, before being sealed forever.

Rows and rows of empty rectangular tombs line every corridor, some only big enough to hold a small baby. Then there are the triangular-shaped family tombs with their frescoed walls, given to families who donated large sums to the church during their lifetimes. All silent, and now, all empty. At one time, there were even 9 Popes buried here although these were later moved to St. Peter’s Basilica. It was also the original burial place of Santa Cecilia, who was later moved to Trastevere.

The tombs did a brisk business until the 9th Century when they were ransacked by Barbarians. The tombs were unsealed, the possessions stolen and a trail of bones and earth left scattered on the floor. Following this almost complete destruction, the catacombs were abandoned, and left forgotten until being accidently rediscovered in 1849 when a local historian tripped over a hole on the Appian Way.

A restoration and excavation project of the tombs was started following his suspicions of what lay beneath, a project which still continues as much of the catacombs remain unexplored. Today you can take guided tours around the tombs which last around 40mins. But be warned. As you descend down the deep, dark, damp staircases to the second level, and are surrounded by empty graves and displays of bones, this is not a tour for the claustrophobic or squeamish.

The Catacombs are closed on Wednesdays and during February, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter. Guided tour 6 euros.

How to Get There
Reach the Appian Way and the Catacombs by taking the 118 bus from just outside the Pyramide Metro Stop (Blue Line). This bus stops at both the Porta San Sebastiano, and the Catacombs, so you can walk one way, and then catch the bus back. The really energetic, or those on bikes, can continue along to Lake Albano, a journey of around 14km, and then take the train back.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

See Caravaggio for Free in Rome

There is something about Caravaggio that fascinates people. Even those who would normally prefer to cross a street of hot coals than spend time looking at paintings seem happy to make an exception for this rebel of Counter-Renaissance Art. To celebrate the Rome exhibition that has just opened at the Villa Borghese to celebrate his work along with Francis Bacon, it seemed timely look at this bad boy of the paintbrush and send you around Rome to see some of his masterpieces for free!

So just who was Caravaggio?
Whilst most artists of the Middle Ages were more soft ruffles than tough scuffles, Caravggio was not afraid of a fight, a drink and the odd murder to boot. Commission happy, the taste of luxury did not bring out his lighter side. As well as pushing the Catholic church to the edge with his dark religious paintings, he eventually lost his temper once too often. After killing a young man who beat him in a tennis match in the Campo Dei Fiori, he fled Rome with a price on his head. He finally died in exile, never learning that he had been given a Papal Pardon.

Where can I see Caravaggio for free?

Sant’ Agostino Church, Via Sant’ Agostino
The Madonna di Loreto (1605) is hung in the first chapel on the left. The church is close to Piazza Navona, and also includes a Raphael fresco. Currently under restoration but don’t be fooled. Under the scaffolding, it is still open so you can see the paintings. For those who pregnant or wish to be, touch the statue of the Madonna del Parto near the door as you leave for luck.

San Luigi dei Francesa, Via Giustiniani
In this church you get three for your non-existent entrance fee with the Matthew trilogy, including The Calling of Saint Matthew, St Matthew and the Angels and The Matrydom of Saint Matthew. This church is close to the centre, a short walk from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and next to the French institute with its wonderful bookshop.

Santa Maria Del Popolo, Piazza Del Popolo
This church is around a 20 min walk from the historic centre, or you take the Metro Linea A to Flaminio. Here you can find two paintings, the Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter, so well worth the journey.

And if I want to pay?
Well if you are at the Santa Maria del Popolo, it is just a short walk up the hill to the Galleria Borghese, and its wonderful park. Here you can see three Caravaggio works, Sick Bacchus, Boy with Bag of Fruit and Madonna dei Palafrenieri. Entrance will cost you 8.50 but you also get to see the amazing Bernini sculpture of Daphne and Apollo amongst many other treasures. At the moment, you can also access the Caravaggio and Bacon exhibition on until January. Lastly, you can see Gypsy Fortune Teller at the Capitoline Museums, entrance fee 6.50. Don’t forget that both of these museums are included in the Rome Pass Scheme (see last blog).

What else do I need to know
Please note that many churches are closed during the afternoons between 1-4, but usually stay open in the evening until around 7pm.

For the Galleria Borghese, you need to book in advance as only a limited number are allowed in at any one time. Details here http://www.galleriaborghese.it/nuove/emostre.htm

The Roma Pass is a 3 day pass that gives you free access to two museums, free travel on Rome’s public transport, and discounts to other museums and attractions. Cost 23 euros. http://www.romapass.it/p.aspx?l=en&tid=2

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A weekend of cultural training in Rome

Whilst I like to conjour up images of weekends spent dashing around the ancient city, eating long lunches at various trattorias, and romantic walks along the Appian Way, the reality is often much the same as it was at home in Manchester. Except it is usually a little sunnier.

Visits to the supermarket, cleaning the kitchen, ironing and falling asleep on the settee in front of a film on Sunday afternoons are the same no matter where you are. And it is surprising how quickly you lose the urge to head to the centre and jostle with the crowds, to see Rome's finest attractions, after those first few europhic weeks of admiring churches, ruins, faded frecsoes and old stuff.

However I have been getting a little frustrated with myself as I am so near to all these wonderful momuments and parks, that I decided that it is time to get out there and see a few more of them, for pleasure rather than just for research. Anyway, here is a summary of the weekend so far...

Friday evening was my boyfriends birthday so we went out for a family meal at a wonderful little place in Fiumicino, with his parents and brother. Just under the flight path of Rome's main airport it has to be said, but they serve fantastic fresh fish or pizza. Anyway as usual I ate too much. I picked at everyone's starter, half a plate of pasta with fish, ate a huge steak and managed to drink the best part of a bottle of wine, and after protesting that I could not eat anymore, tasted just about everyone's dessert as well.

Saturday morning I woke up with a little bit of a headache but driven onwards by the fact that I had something really important to do. As I am now working from home travel writing and editing, I needed some new desk items (pretty files, pen holders, candles, plants etc). Needed is possibly a little strong, but accessorising ones desk is important for inspiration. Now whether you are in Rome, London or the muddle of the Sahara Desert, there is only one destination for any self respecting accessory seeker - IKEA! Yes, we battled the crowds, kneed old ladies, trolley bashed young children and fought for not only what we needed, but loads of other things as well. And you can just never have too many incense, cushion covers, and wicker baskets. And plants. Luigi hates plants. I swear that when I go away, he shouts at them.

Saturday evening was time for a visit to the pub and a Beatles tribute band. They were great. The main difference is that is in a bar here, people eat rather than drink themselves into a silly stupor, and singing along is limited. This is partly because they are in the middle of hamburger and chips, but also as they struggle with the words. 'She loves you yeah, yeah yeah', is pretty much universal, but come the verses and people look at the floor, remember to sip the half a lager that lasts them all evening, or check their mobiles nervously before the long awaited chorus returns.

I was impressed with the singer's mastery of english and his pretty authentic accent so complemented him afterwards in my best Italian. Turns out he was born in Crewe which could explain it.

Sunday morning and 7am sees the daily alarm call of the neighbours upstairs, not only the habitual seventeen laps of the bedroom above in heeled shoes by the wife, but the husband shouting at her as well. Its not just us that would prefer it if she relocated somewhere else then. I would definitely like to relocate her shoes somewhere.

Anyway 1st November and the sun is shining, and its around 25 degrees. So we decided to go for a walk around the Via Appia Antica which is near the house. We stopped at the Catacombs of San Callisto as I want to write an article on Underground Rome. 20km of underground tombs, on 4 levels. Fascinating even if it was cold down there and a little claustrophobic at times. Half a million people were buried here around 3rd Century, and that is to say nothing of the other 59 catacombs across Rome.

We ended the walk with a look around the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial for 335 Italian people shot in an undergound cave by German soliders at the end of the second world war. Italian renegades has attacked and killed some German soldiers the day before and as a reprisal, 10 Italians for every German killed were shot at point black range. The group should have been made up from prisoners on death row, but the short deadline meant that many civilians were rounded up off the streets including one child. A poignant moment in an otherwise frivoulous weekend, and as tomorrow Italy has a national day of Remembrance, one I am pleased we took.

Now it is Sunday afternoon. We have just eaten another huge lunch, drunk too much wine and Luigi is asleep in front of the Grand Prix. Showing as much action as Ferrari this season in fact (ha ha). Facing us is a huge pile of ironing and cleaning the bathroom, with maybe a DVD for later. And of course, I must rearrange yet again my new purchases from the world of flat pack storage.

So all in all, a nice weekend, a good mix of Rome stuff and ordinary things. I wonder what I would have done had I been still in the UK. Many people who read this blog are from the US as well as the UK and around Europe.

I wonder what you did this weekend? Would love to hear about it!



Thursday, October 29, 2009

Idiots Guide to Italian Wine Classifications

As Autumn draws near and the harvest and festival season is underway across Italy in the vineyards, I thought I would write a short guide to Italian wines to help you on your merry way. This guide offers a not so serious look at what those labels mean ..

DOCG - Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
The best of the best. To be sipped seriously and served on very special occasions such as marriage proposals, or sampled freely and without discretion at wine tastings.

DOC wine - Denominazione di Origine Controllata
Good stuff. Wine that has passed a strict set of tests to ensure its provenance. Probably one to bring on a first date ensuring date in question can see the label at all times.

IGT - Indicazione di Geografica Tipica
General wines that are suitable for the table. Some DOC wines fall under this to avoid the paperwork for DOC status, so worth tasting them all to check. Works well also if drunk as a second bottle and useful for third dates and beyond.

VdT - Vino Da Tavola
A table wine that is vague about its origins. Fine in an emergency but most suitable for unwanted house guests or to give at Christmas to colleagues and distant relatives you only see duirng the festive season.

So hope that helps. Best advice really, is just to try as many as you can!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Three Top Roman Museums and a discount card

A short guide to 3 museums included on the Roma Pass Discount Card
The Capitoline Musems
With their spectacular setting designed by Michelangelo, overlooking the Forum and Colosseum, these are some of the most visited museums in Rome. Browse the bronze statues, sculptures and Renaissance paintings including Caravaggio’s ‘Good Fortune’. http://en.museicapitolini.org/

The Ara Pacis
The Ara Pacis monument dates back to the 13th Century BC, a peace monument put in place by Emperor Augustus. Surrounded by a controversial new modern white building, it is hard to miss this museum on the edge of the river where you can enjoy a regular programme of art exhibitions. http://en.arapacis.it/

The Centrale Montemartini Museums.
This museum of industrial archaeology contrasts imposing electricity generators against classic Roman sculptures which found during excavations at the end of the 19th century. Housed in the enormous first electrical plant in Rome, the combination of classic art and modern machinery is strangely haunting. http://en.centralemontemartini.org/

The Roma Pass
All the museums above are part of the Roma Pass scheme. This 3-day pass costs 23 euros, and includes admission to two participating museums, free access to public transport, a map, an events guide and a whole host of discounts to exhibitions, shows and events round Rome. Included in the scheme is the Colosseum, and pass holders can use a special turnstile so you can avoid the queues.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Vatican Museums by Moonlight

The latest fashion in Rome is the realisation that people quite like visiting museums in the evening as well as the day. This has led to the opening of several museums as an experiment across the city including the Vatican Museums. Throughout October, the Capitoline Museums, the Ara Pacis, and the Centrale Montimartini Museums are open on Saturday evenings throughout October.

Visiting museums as night brings a new perspective to the buildings and the sculptures, as the subtle lighting and shadows highlight different features than you would notice during the daytime. Combined with the historic buildings that loom silently against the night sky, the centre of Rome feels more spiritual than during the day when the noise and traffic competes for attention with the monuments and churches.
Initiatives this year have also included the Night of the Museums where all the museums opened for free and staged special events such as a laser show at the Capitoline Museums and a classical concert in the Pantheon. Watching the choir sing in the Pantheon under the clear night sky, under the eye of the Dome, was an experience I will always treasure.

The city is planning more such events, with the Vatican looking to hold more evening events early next year, so watch this space for more details.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Italian men v English men

After having some experience now on both sides of the fence, so to speak, I would like to offer my observations on some of the difference that I think summarise the two species - I would love to hear your own ideas:

An Italian will spend half an hour choosing the right wine to go with dinner, even when dinner is just Monday evening pasta.

An English man can drink 6 pints of beer, whilst an Italian thinks half a pint is enough as after this he no longer thirsty.

An Italian man buys you flowers for no reason, opens doors for you, and always drives.

An English man buys you flowers until you sleep with him, or he has done something wrong, thinks opening a door for a woman puts him in danger of being a chauvanist, and always lets you drive home.

An Italian man always pays.

An Italian man thinks its ok to call his mum five times a day and to drive a Smart Car.

An Italian man notices what you are wearing and if you have had your hair cut. He also notices what every other women is wearing too.

An Italian man will live within two streets of his mother.

An English man thinks its ok to fart and burp in front of you after a probationary period has lapsed. But then again, so does an English girl.

An Italian man will spend a lot of time choosing socks.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dripping in chocolate... The Perugia chocolate festival.

Its the start of the Annual chocolate festival in Perugia and the crowds are arriving in the droves to this wonderful Umbrian city to indulge themselves in every girls best friend - no, not the ability to pause the DVD when watching anything with Daniel Craig or George Clooney in it, but the wonderful, scrumptiuos, mood enhancing must have drug, chocolate!

Having decided to get away for the weekend, Luigi and I spent the night at Montefalco, a small medieval hilltop village surrounded by vineyards that produce the local wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco. We also got to taste a new batch of olive oil, which was so spicy it made my eyes water. Umbria tends to get a raw deal compared to its much more famous sister Tuscany, a little like Danni next to Kylie, but it has its share of stunning countryside, trattorias and hill top historic centres with winding streets.

But all this healthy living was proving too much this morning and off to Perugia we headed. Every year for ten days in the middle of October, the city prohibits traffic, provides a 'chocolateline' shuttle bus from the station and plays host to ten days of overindulgence during the Eurochoc Festival. You can eat it, drink it, sculpt it, and even play chess with it as you browse the stalls selling handmade chocolate from all over the world.

The centre of Perugia is wonderful with its large piazza, medieval buildings and fountains, but add chocolate and some late Autumn sunshine to the mix, and it makes for rather a perfect way to spend your Sunday even if the crowds are quite overwhelming at times.

So if you are in Italy at the moment, you have until the 25th October to get to Perugia. But if you are not able to get here, then no worries. It will be held again next October, but be warned, each year the festival gets that little bit bigger. A little like my waistline...

Friday, October 16, 2009

To heat or not to Heat

Well last Saturday I was laying on the beach in Sicily enjoying the warm weather and watching the last few British tourists pretending that the sea was still warm. Today I am working from home with a jumper under a fleece jacket (fashion goddess that I am) shivering as the tempeature has dropped due to a cold front from Russia. I am not talking about a visit from Silvio's good mate for cup of tea and a digestive.
Winter is arriving. The secret day passed when all Italians put their summer clothes away and it suddenly a 'faux pas' to open a window on the bus or metro. How do they know? There no gradual change, but its like a secret code. One day summer dresses, the next winter coats. Maybe its on the news.

I work from home at the moment and I am freezing. My fingers can hardly type and my furry socks are scaring the neighbours. We have central heating but I cannot put it on. Why not? well because here it is controlled centrally. Last year I thought that this meant the apartment block had a central switch and you need to wait for someone to turn it on, the date being prearranged. But I was wrong.

The date is prearranged but it is the commune that decide (the city council), and they have chosen November 11th. So on that day, all the residences in Rome can put their heating on, but even if is sub zero degrees first, we cannot intervene. They also decide when it goes off and for the last two springs, I can remember having the heating on and all the windows open to cool down.

Can you imagine that in a city in the UK or the US? Well Mr Smith, I know its snowing and you are 85, but another 3 weeks to go.... have you had your flu jab by the way?

Anyway, just off to get my hot water bottle.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Back in Rome

Well three months away enjoying the sunshine and beaches of Sicily have ended, as I arrived back into Rome this weekend. Due to the excess amount of luggage, and I am not talking about my love handles from eating too many Sicilian ricotta desserts.... I took the boat from Catania to Civitavechia. 20 hours expected journey time as opposed to 45 minutes on the plane, but we romped home 1 hour ahead of schedule. It is hard to understand the speed you travel at when you fly! Anyway it was lovely and calm, and I spent the journey in a state of catnapping in my cabin, painting my toe nails and napping again, before emerging onto the sundeck to watch the coast of Campania go past, with a wonderful view of Capri and Ischia.

Me, six tourists and twenty five truckers. Marvellous.

what will I miss about Sicily? Swimming after work, the view from the beach of Taormina and Castelmola, and my little collection of waif and stray cats. oh, and the desserts.

But I have to say I am looking forward to a visit to Feltrinellis International and a browse of the English books this evening in the centre of Rome .....

So Rome blogs shall recommence soon!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stray Cat Strut

The stray cat population around Giardini Naxos is rampant, and heartbreaking. I am starting to become one of those mad catwomen, wandering around the streets with a packet of biscuits, a fork and fresh milk looking for suitable victims in need of my love and attention.

On the street where I live, there is a family of mum and three small kittens. Beautful gray and white bundles of long fur, I have become quite attached although my fears of them living next to the road were realised when one got run over last week. Mum has now moved them back into a garden, but this has hampered her professional begging operation to passers-by, with three small kitten faces pressed to the fence behind her, an empty plate and a loud cry.

This family are quite well fed and I am sure it is not only me that is feeding them. Plates filled with pasta are regualry left on the pavement near to where they live. What is more difficult to deal with are the injured, starving and infected ones. You don't know where to start, as you cannot treat them all. There is no neutering programme, local vets apparently believe that they should have at least one litter first although whether this is for medical or religious reasons remains unclear.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered a cat living under a bush that is in a poor state. One eye has gone and the other is very infected and he may have 5% vision left in it. I cannot tell if he is old or young, but he is very loving. He cannot walk even up the steps to me without falling over the rubbish that is left there and I doubt he can survive on the streets for long. Now he has learnt to recognise my voice and I can almost touch him if my hand has food in it. I leave on Saturday, and am thinking of stealing him away to come back with me to Rome. We have an apartment there and no garden, but this is a cat that should live inside, or maybe pottering into the terrace away from stray dogs and traffic. However I don't think a week is long enough to gain his confidence to catch him.

Then again this morning he turned his nose up at best Sheba Tuna with Rice Premium, obviously not his flaour, so maybe he is doing ok after all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October marks almost two years in Italy

Its hard to believe that its almost two years since I arrived here in Italy. Whilst I still feel very English, there are moments when I realise how much I have changed. For example, at Catania airport last week waiting to board, the English lady behind me helpfully pointed out as I headed towards the boarding gate, that they were only boarding rows 20 plus, and she could see that I was row 3. Of course I was waved through, and it had never occured to me that I would be refused.

Every month, I take a little less water in my coffee, and become less fussy about what I eat, and my concept of what makes a warm enough day to remove a cardigan is at least 10 degrees higher than before. I think in kilos and euros and its when I go home to the UK that I look the wrong way when crossing the road - almost getting hit by a bus outside primark in Manchester last time. I think that 1000 euros a month is a good wage.

I can speak enough Italian to get by even if it is with a Manchester accent. I can understand almost everything, and can even watch the TV (with a comprehension rate of around 75%). I have learnt a lot about history, food, wine, people, romance, and even my own culture.

Its not been easy. I miss my family, my friends, Coronation street, newspapers. I have no money, I am still supplementing my income with my savings. Over the last two years I have discarded most of my things.

But when I set out that very first day wondering what was ahead, well did I imagine that I would live in Sorrento, Rome, and Sicily? That I would find a job travel editing (even if its not very secure and I had to do the hard slog of 18 months English teaching first)? That I would find someone with whom to share the experience with in the form of the sweetest, gentlest person I have ever met, and to enhance it with trips to Tuscany, Sardinia, the Alps, and even Paris?

Am I ready to come home? What do you think?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rain, Rain and More Rain...

The September months here in Sicily have been wet to say the least, even if the temperature is still warm. The streets have been overflowing with water, Etna has shrunk to a vague gray form hidden behind clouds, and the streets are deserted as locals stay away, partly through choice and partly because the motorway had collapsed so no one could go anywhere. Or if they had gone anywhere, they could not get back.

Yet credit where its due. The few remaining Brits who have arrived on holiday to this period of inclement weather, have done themselves proud, especially when you consider that the weather back in the UK has been sunny. A beach side holiday is what they came for, and that is what they are getting. Whilst no self respecting Italian would be seen now within a mile of the beach, the Brits are there, in the sea, swimming, splashing, alternating between the shelter of sea front cafes or ice cream shops, and the sun beds as the showers come and go, sandals and shorts wet, but determined.

Of all the images that remind me of home, and make me nostaligic, it is this attitude of 'lets make the most of it' that I miss. Although you can't help feeling sorry for them as they get off their tour operator coaches to find themselves knee deep in a puddle of water... All that is mising is a wet bag of chips and a bus shelter and it could be my home town of Morecambe

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The train that goes on the boat .. Travelling from Sicily to Rome

Tired of late flights, luggage restrictions and eco-scare stories, I decided this weekend on my regular trip back to Rome that I would take the overnight train. An estimated journey of around 9 hours, instead of being hurtled through the air in just 45 minutes. The train arrived on time leaving at 8pm expected in Rome around 6am. With a ticket price of just 34 euros, I smiled remembering the cost of the train between London and Manchester (standard open fare last time I looked was £220). Basic to say the least, no beds, no restaurant, but I was prepared. I was in pjyamas, I had a pillow and a picnic of bread, brie, red wine and kitkats. I also had a compartment for 6 to myself as the train was almost empty. What more could a girl ask for?

When the train reached Messina, the point where it crosses to the mainland, we sat for an hour and a half with no explanation. But then the train left and went straight onto the boat, the whole thing! Up a ramp like a car ferry, but a train ferry. There were four trains on altogether, and we were allowed to get off, and stand on deck. I took my wine. A crossing of around 30 mins to the Calabrian mainland, clear and amazing views. I had some slight problems getting back on the right train, as you cannot naviagate between train carriages like you can between cars, and lets face it, trains all look more or less the same, and it took three attempts to come down the right staircase.

Reaching the other side, darkness was complete, so time for bed. The trains gentle rocking was just sending me to sleep, when suddenly the door flew open and the light came on. Opportune rapist? Drunk passenger in wrong carriage? no, the 3am ticket inspection. I kid you not.
Anyway, sleep eventually came (I was able to lie down over three seats which was a nice treat) and eventually the morning light woke me as we neared the coast just below Rome, mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Somehow I had slept through Naples.

Two and half hours late, tired but happy. Next time, I will do the journey in the daylight. But after the inhuman way the airlines treat passengers, they perhaps could rethink their luggage policies as imagine trying to board a flight with wine, picnic food (complete with little knife and corkscrew) and TWO bags. Form now on, at least in Italy where train prices are cheap, it is something I will do more in future

Friday, September 18, 2009

Images of Italy

Series of photos of Italy set to music - today pictures speak louder than words.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Top Ten List of Things that Italians do Better than Brits

Whilst the average Italian has a complete inability to stand in a queue, or understand that if it is raining Ferrari will lose, they are the masters of invention, innovation and style. I am not talking about Prada or Ducati here, but the little everyday things that they do so much better than we do in the UK..
  1. After washing dishes, you place them in the drainer, which instead of being on the sink, is magically hidden in the cupboard above it. Ingenious.
  2. Small jars of spices and herbs come equipped ready for use. Pepper has a built in grinder, nutmeg has a mini graters... you get the idea
  3. Toothbrushes have a plastic cover that protects it from germs. Think about it. Most toothbrushes are on display in the same room as the toilet.
  4. Bidets. Not only for hygiene but no more balancing over the bath trying to shave your legs.
  5. The lever in the kitchen for turning off the gas when you have finished cooking
  6. The extra lifeline on 'Who Wants to be A Millionaire' where you get to change question. Money is lower though, sweat your way to question ten and you are only guarenteed 20,000 euros.
  7. Motor Insurance Certificates have to be displayed in the car window (the only good thing to be said about motoring in Italy)
  8. When buses and trains are in the terminal, they leave the doors open so you can get on, trusting you not to play with the buttons or injure yourself
  9. Bus stops (at least in Rome) have a clear linear map visible from the bus so you know which stop you have reached and how many are left until your destination. Ingenious.
  10. Everything related to food and drink. As one of my students told me in horror: "I went to stay with an English family on a language exchange and they gave me 'orange food'! Seems he meant baked beans.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Medical Certificates, double pay and missed bank holidays

Now I am working in a real job at least for a while, I am becoming immersed into the Italian bureacracy that surrounds a work contract. Goods news is that although pay is laughably low, they do at least pay you 14 times a year instead of 12. Making almost enough of a difference to at least pay for an extra cup of coffee and cornetto every year (croissant in case you imagine that Italians eat ice cream for breakfast). They also quote your salary in net per month, so you always know exactly how poor you are.

In terms of sickness, if you are off work sick you have to get a doctors note. Unlike the UK where you are trusted to stay in bed and be ill for at least four days before visiting the doctor, here you need to go the same day. So imagine that you wake up full of flu, or some vomiting illness, you have to try and get an appointment with a doctor, go to the waiting room which is as efficient as the post office (see earlier post) and spend two to three hours waiting to see a doctor to get a certificate which you then need to fax to the office, so you also need to find a fax shop that has not closed for the afternoon.

This assumes you have a doctor of course which many expats do not. For this you need a residency certificate which requires a private healthcare insurance certificate (around £600 per year at the moment and it has to be Italian so you have no idea what you are buying), a european nationality (or a permanent contract for work if not european) and the time to visit the government office at least three times, fill out twenty seven forms, let them visit your house, and then wait four years for it to go through the system. You can visit a private doctors (I have done this once which cost me 80 euros which went into the back pocket of the doctor who write the prescription I needed in my boyfriend's name), costing more than the day's pay you will lose. You can instead opt to take it from the rather small allocation of holidays.

Speaking of holidays, Italy has more than its fair share of national and regional holidays where offices close as there is a saint for almost every occassion. Sadly they are on fixed dates, and if they fall on a weekend, then you miss out like the August 15th country shutdown this year, which was on a Saturday.

So next time you complain about a British bank holiday think about the wonderful Monday system so that even if it is raining, at least you are guarenteed to have a day off work!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Tuna Festival and other things

Italy has long had a reputation as food capital of the world, but what I have realised over the summer months travelling around Sardinia and Sicily that eating or drinking a product is not enough. It has to have its own festival. This leads to a summer extravaganza where you can experience the delights of the tuna festival of Stintino, the cous cous festival of San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily or the red onion festival of Tropea, Calabria. This is not taking into account the celebrations for lemons, swordfish, local cakes, icecreams, melons, to say nothing of local liqueurs and wines that are unique to the smallest of villages across the country. And when it comes down to it, what better way to spend an evening than drinking, eating and dancing all to the homage of a root vegetable!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tourist Price List

The story of the Japanese couple charged 700 euros for a meal near Piazza Navona in Rome, has recetly made the international press. A service charge of 150 euros, over 200 euros for a plate of pasta, and goodness knows how much for water and wine. The restaurant defended itself by saying the couple ordered lobster and expensive dishes... The couple paid the bill and then went to the police and the restaurant is now closed, at least for now.

This is not unique by any means although shocking and exaggerated on this occasion. When I dine in Rome for example as a blonde English female the price is different when I eat with Italian friends to when I eat with other non italians. I will give you a typical example.

Recently I went to a pizza restaurant in Monti where normally 2 pizzas and wine is around 22 euros. When eating with my Icelandice friend, speaking in English throughout the meal, no one brought a bill although I asked twice. Then we went to the till where random numbers were entered into the till, nothing printed and we were asked for 45 euros. How much? I asked? Can I see the scontrino fiscale? (The official tax receipt which every restaurant is obliged to provide by law) oh, sorry my mistake, I thought you had ordered coffees, the bill should be 22 euros.....came the answer with the printed itemised receipt. Other example include 25 euros for two glasses of wine, and the absolute nightmaore of fixed menus and cover charges, which can add 3 or 4 euros per head to a bill.

I am sure the average tourist just pay and do not question as in fact I did when I arrived, in fact my friend was getting the cash out of her purse when I intervened. This restaurant has now lost my business forever and has made me think.

It is such a shame that you can experience a wonderful meal such as one I enjoyed last week in Sardinia in a trattporia with pasta, meat, wine, cakes, water, bread, salad and all for 28 euros for two people. Yet many eat tasteless pizza, awful wine and bad service and pay the earth, coming home to wonder why people rave about Italian food.

Anyway three things to say...
  1. Always always ask for a scontrino fiscale, and do not accept handwritten scraps of paper. This can halve the bill and its illegal to not get one - the fine rests with the diner not the restaurant if caught outside without one.
  2. What is a cover charge for and is it legal?
  3. I am going to start naming and blaming as well as applauding restaurants, tratttorias, hotels, apartments etc that I have stayed in, so look out for my new blogs giving ideas and feedback from Rome, Sardinia, Sicily and Tuscany.

Please also give me your comments and experiences. I would love to hear about them for a possible article in the British press.



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Language Difficulties...

When you are learning a new language you reach a point where you think you know enough to get by. This is the moment on which you approach the world with a new found confidence that bears no relation to the actual level of fluency that you have achieved. Here are just a couple of my recent mistakes...

1 - Waiter, could you please bring me a car door? (instead of knife - sportello v coltello)

2 - Can you please advise advise me where to buy a riding hat? I find it difficult to find one that fits because I have very big tits. (instead of head - tette v testa)

3 - Last but not least as this one is not mine but it still makes me laugh... At a family dinner, the speaker announces " I do like Italian cooking, as it is so natural and fresh, not full of condoms like English cooking". (In Italian preservativi is not used for preservatives)



Thursday, July 9, 2009

Learning to ride, Italian style

After realising that increasing my intake of pasta and bread by at least 300% is doing nothing for my waistline, let alone my digestive system, I have decided to take up horse riding lessons. I had seen some riding stables called ‘Ciampacavallo’ quite near to Appia Antica, and having taken some lessons many years ago when I was a teenager, I decided to go along and give it a try.

It is a wonderfully ramshackle place. When you open the gates to enter the stables, you are met by a collection of equally ramshackle dogs who are very pleased to see you. The welcoming committee includes a boxer dog with only one tooth protruding sexily from its mouth, a Labrador who is rather advanced in years and a sheep called Oscar with something of an identity crisis.

I thought that my Italian language level was sufficient to cope and after an very unelegant scramble, I climbed aboard a bareback and barely amused Campero (see photo), my ride for the day. When he was not sleeping, which was anytime he was left unattended for more than twenty seconds, he begrudgingly walked and trotted around in a circle, completely oblivious to the dog/sheep combo that were running through his legs. At one point I was in the lead of my little group of 4 students when I realised that suddenly no one was behind me because they had all turned and started going the other way. Campero turned his head to give me a rather hard stare and sighed, exasperated with my lack of ability to understand what was to him, a simple Italian instruction.

Several lessons later and I can now turn a circle, and just about conduct a conversation with my horse, although as a language exchange student, I have to say he is making more progress than me and has almost perfected his Manchester accent.

Further information:
Ciampocavallo is a charity that works with children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, as well as those with language learning difficulties like myself. It’s the perfect environment to go and make a fool of yourself, and all are welcome, including confused sheep.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Three Wheels on my Wagon

Once a place to see your horses and cattle, as well as to watch a public execution or two, Rome’s Campo De’ Fiori is now home to the vegetable and flower market held every weekday, as well as packed tourist priced bars in the evening.

But arrive around 2pm just when the stalls are packing away for the day, find a comfy spot and watch for free the national sport of ‘How many things can I stack onto my Ape?'

On top of the ancient Vespa Vans are piled more things than the laws of gravity can possibly justify. Enough to take home your crates of unsold oranges, apples, potatoes and water melons but what about your cash register, your tables and your chairs? No problem. Even room for the dog and the mother as long as the driver does not mind standing as he bounces off over the cobbles.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Caberet, Unicycles and Tissue Paper

Driving in Rome is a well documented experience. Its like entering a parallel universe where the tentative suggestions on the sign posts such as 'Stop', or 'Give Way' are merely there to host sellotaped adverts for English lessons or Small Household Removal Services. A 'hands free' set means a phone wedged under the strap of your crash helmet if you are on a scooter which you can shout into whilst lighting a cigarette with your free hands, or if you have the luxury of a car, you could also read the newspaper, knit and check your email without it hindering arguments with other drivers and probably your passenger.

However, in the 18 months that I have lived in Rome, the art of traffic light commerce is one that has grown in intensity and diversity. I live near a large dual carriageway called Cristoforo Colombo which has on it probably 10 sets of traffic lights at main intersections halting traffic for approximately 60 seconds. In this pause, an array of commercial offers will be made to you through the convienient porthole of your car window - like a drive through, but stopped.

From an international crowd of sellers, you may purchase umbrellas in spring, sun blinds in summer, tissues in the autumn and socks in the winter. You can have your window washed, whether you want it to be washed or not. And the latest craze - you can watch juggling, unicycling, or even enjoy some opera, a complete show in a traffic light interval. What you cannot do is escape, and ten stops later, the novelty starts to wear a little thin.

Luckily the Italian drivers suffer no qualms about watching an act sat at the front of the queue, thoroughly enjoying it, or chatting with the seller, and then driving off with the light still on red almost killing the person without even throwing so much as a euro.

Not so the Brits. We spend all the time the light is on red in an embarrassed avoidance of eye contact which will oblige us to buy something. There is nothing worse than being rude even if we did not encourage the seller or want the item or service on offer.

To date in my car, there are three newly purchased sun screens, a squeaky dog toy, at least six packets of tissues and a man from Albania. Off to the beach now to see if I can sell them to the tourists....


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At The Post Office

I used to have an idea that a Post Office was where you went to buy a stamp, post a letter, perhaps use the banking services, that kind of thing. I used to also think that sometimes there was a queue, especially if you want at lunchtime. That was back in the UK. How I look back on that 20 minute queue with nostalgia. This is my guide to going to the Italian Post Office related to my experiences:

  1. Take a minimum of a week off work, a bottle of water, a book and probably some lunch and prepare to leave your home at around 7am to join the queue outside that has already formed. These people know each other well being hardened post office users, and whilst you wait patiently at the back, they will allow friends, relatives and anyone who starts chatting to them to join the vague line at the closed door.

  2. When the doors open prepare to make a run for the ticket machine and rather than waste time reading which of the three different tickets you need, just take one of each. Whatever the information says, you will be waiting in the wrong ticket line and have to start over again when you finally reach the counter (in around two days) and be told curtly that even though C tickets are indeed for whatever product you want, your request is specialised and that means you need a B ticket.

  3. If you have a B ticket, obviously you should have got an A ticket.

  4. If you have an A ticket, then you should have come on Wednesday.

  5. When your number is called, you have approximately 2 seconds to get to the counter before the next number is called. This is non negotiable and does not vary according to the size of the post office and distance to cashier.

  6. Whilst you are being served, which usually consists of being told that what you need is out of stock, you will be constantly interrupted with other customers asking for various forms. There are places for forms to be stocked but these were possibly last replenished in the days when Berlusconi was a mere pup with a full head of hair. At this point your surly cashier will assume a helpful smile and disappear from his/her desk to go and find said form which may take ten minutes and involve at least three other members of staff who were also busy serving but have now all stopped.

  7. The numbers in the queue change at approximately one every ten minutes. However if you decide to gamble on going to get a coffee to pass the time, the space/time continuum rules means the numbers will advance at the required rate to ensure that you miss your turn by 30 seconds whether you are gone for 5 minutes or 5 hours.
  8. If you decide to abandon your wait which some do after two hours, and you try to pass your unused ticket to a person who looks deserving with a number way behind yours, you will cause discomfort, awkwardness and it will be refused if this person is Italian.

All in all, I would recommend that everyone try the post office at least once during their time here but on a day when you are bored, its raining, and you do not actually need any of its services. It is an experience, you will get chatting to all kinds of people, and its a real lesson in the Italian way of life. Maybe back in the UK we are far too uptight about these things, and I am learning slowly to accommodate these kind of challenges rather than get frustrated by them, but just once it would be nice to able to send a parcel home without having my friends forgetting who I am by the time I return.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

High Rise Living in Rome - Learning to love your Neighbours

The arrival of summer weather means the opportunity to enjoy the terrace once again having dusted off the foldaway table from the cantina. Attempts to grow herbs and vegetables have had mixed success, but what was a bare patch of concrete in the Rome suburbs is now almost an oasis of green, with matching sunchairs and a wonderful bouganvilla in full flower.

Eating outside is one of the great pleasures of living here, and last night, sitting down to the table with citronella candles, crusty bread and a good bottle of Montepulciano, I really felt I was experiencing the Italian dream. That was until the neighbours started arguing across the communal garden.

A screaming match that went on for almost two hours with barely a pause for breath. My understanding of Italian was enough to suggest that this was a matter of possible infidelity on the man's part, and luckily through the open windows, I got to follow almost every word and door slamming. I even learnt some new swear words. People were coming out of their apartments all over the adjoining blocks to listen. It was hard to do anything else! The people inside were oblivious or didn't care that their private thoughts were being shared with the outside eating world. Indeed, better than anything Rai could offer. The biggest dread was that we would then be subjected to the sounds of them making up, another penalty to pay for the open windows of the season.

Anyway, the evening ended literally with a blast of cold water from the neighbours above who were also trying to find excuses to stay outside to listen by watering their plants (and us), and we never did get to quite find out how it ended. Maybe next time we could ask them to post an update on the bulletin board at the porter's lodge.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Searching for Fire Flies in Tenuta Tor Marancia, Rome

When I gave up my UK life and moved to Italy with this harebrained scheme to become a travel writer, I imagined many scenarios mainly involving red wine, sunshine and the attentions of Mediterranean lothario. Never had I imagined traipsing through a wood in the dark, narrowly avoiding sliding down mud banks and been bitten alive by mosquitoes. This kind of living is for those who venture into more far flung destinations than Rome.

Yet last night following a free guided walk organised by the WWF, this is what I found myself doing just a stones throw from the traffic and palazzo heavy Via di Cristoforo Colombo, between the centre and EUR. La Tenuta di Tor Marancia, part of the Parco Regionale Dell'Appia Antica, is home to many species of birds and woodland animals (and quite a few wild dogs) was saved by conservationists and is now a designated protected area and also breeding ground for fire flies. It was enchanting to see first one, then a few, then hundreds of small bright lights buzzing around our faces, hands, and feet, a magical world that I had never had the opportunity to experience before.

The sounds of the wood, the clarity of the sky and its show of stars, and the intensity of the fire flies' light against the black backdrop, led us to emerge back into the road struggling to adjust to the harsh electric streetlamps when we rejoined the street just several metres away. A wonderful experience and antidote to city centre living for a couple of hours.

More information on Appia Antica - visit http://www.parcoappiaantica.org/