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/