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Colosseum, Rome


When I visit Rome, I have a sense of being home, of coming home. Why this should be is curious. I do have an Italian passport but no Italian would ever regard me as such. Ever. I accept that, I understand. I am Australian first.

Perhaps I feel a sense of comfort because Rome looks so familiar, even at the first visit. Almost everyone in this world would have some sense of what Rome looks like. It’s large. Rome is so large in many dimensions  – time and space. But also less conventional ideas of dimension like memory and connection. There are so many layers of history in the buildings  and under your feet and they’re not neatly layered one on top of the other but merged together to create one overwhelming present. The Roman practice of rarely knocking anything down but rather, enterprisingly, using the existing structure as a foundation creates so many mesmerising tableaus – the modern day apartments merging with a classical structure like a vine that hugs a trellis.  

At the centre of Rome (for me) is the Colosseum. It’s broken, but it’s solid. I’ve only ever experienced Rome when it’s shimmering hot and the cicadas are deafening. Walking towards it from the train station, the Colosseum emerges from bright heat, curved and grey against an achingly blue sky. You try to shut out the tourists masses (of which you are one) and picture the gladiators and lions, etc., a task made harder by the fact that there are chubby modern day Italians wielding plastic swords and smiling for the cameras. Inside the Colosseum it’s ugly. It’s ugly because it’s all cavities and unfinished walls and yawning arched doorways. But it’s beautiful too. Because it’s standing, because it’s a real thread of connection which we can follow, hand over hand, back into the past. Because the outer walls are delicately layered like wedding cake tiers. Because the colonnades are lofty and grand. Because there are gasps of astonishment and smiles of incredulity. People stand around gazing and shaking their heads (and laughing and taking silly photos). It seems as though once you have seen the Colosseum, you can say you’ve seen Rome.

The British Grand Tourists of the 18th century were equally enamoured of Roman history but their experience was raw. The Roman Forum was referred to as the Campo Vaccino – the cow field –because indeed it was full of cattle and goats and rubble and rubbish. Rome was dirty, dusty and hot, very hot, when compared to London. When I see Rome, I see the togaed Senate, but I also see pale young Englishmen, dressed in wool suits, pulling charcoal and sketchpads from their satchels. They must have walked around the Forum with their superior swagger and sophisticated sensibilities, dutifully appreciating the heck out of every monument but without really seeing them. I see them wrinkling their noses at the unfamiliar, head constantly dipping into a guide book which told them exactly what to see, what to avoid and how to feel about both. I see their shocked and disappointed faces when they look up– ‘oh, there are live Italians and they’re lazy, poor and trying to swindle me of my money!’.

On the contrary, Romans seem enterprising, forthright and self-assured. The Roman character was crystallised in my mind when I watched a scene unfold in Piazza Venezia. A clean cut kid, maybe ten years old, was sweetly playing classical music on a violin, busking for change in prime tourist hunting ground. The carabinieri came by, had a quiet word and gently asked him to move on. I was too far to hear why – perhaps he didn’t have a permit? His reaction was comical and shocking at the same time. He started shouting and waving his hands around, angrily, with vehemence. His indignance – he wasn’t doing anything wrong! His disdain for authority (so young!) his passion (so vibrant!). His cunning and entrepreneurial air! But the carabinieri were firm. Surprisingly patient, but firm; completely accepting of his outrage and indolence but casually threatening too. Move it. Now.

View from the Duomo, St Peters 


I can sympathise to a degree though – with being shocked by the present. I remember climbing the 320 steps to the top of St Peter’s dome, my body bending to accommodate the curvature of the structure. Inside the dome it was light and surreal. The fantastic height already takes your breath but then you shake your head in astonishment as you realise that all the cherubs, saints and angels you first viewed from far below are not merely painted (as if that was easy) but in fact, depicted in complex and detailed mosaic. Outside the dome Vatican City was laid bare for me. The colonnades and streets formed an easily recognisable key shape – the key to the church, Pope and heaven itself. My head was full of Michelangelo and Bramante, of 16th century Popes and political religious power struggles. I stood for a moment of contemplation alongside my friend, eating sweet summer peaches and nectarines, utterly at peace and content.

And then, strangely, I hear cheap dance music. Someone up there, an Italian, was blasting bad Italian pop on a little radio. I was immediately annoyed and outraged – such a modern intrusion on such a spiritual place and moment! But then I laughed. This is Italy today, not two thousand years ago, not six hundred years ago and not even two hundred years ago. I was being one of those an insular and blind Grand Tourists I mocked, and I had no right, no right at all. I had to accept all of Rome. We sometimes think time has stood still. We don’t like to remember that Romans need to embrace and respect their past (I don’t think they can’t avoid it), but somehow they move forward too. We need to move with them.

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Filed under Colosseum, Duomo, grand tour, Italy, Rome, St Peters

Maybe just a little slice – travelling and food (or food and travelling)

Outdoor dining: Clarke Quay, Singapore

Food and travelling go hand in sticky hand. It doesn’t have to be high end or even particularly exotic (though it does seem to be more acceptable to spend a disproportionately large amount of cash on dinner when you’re travelling than it does on any given Friday night at home – see ‘‘Two girls’). It’s just lovely when it helps you connect with a place and with the people in it. In Hong Kong, my friend and I stopped to buy pepitas and marvelled at the fact that this was common in three different cultures (Chinese, Venezuelan and Italian) and that something as simple as a dried and salted pumpkin seed could make three disparate people smile and chat. Aw, see – so warm and fuzzy!

When travelling, however, there’s often a tug between wanting to try the local cuisine and opting for the safe and familiar. When it’s tripe and offal, sometimes we flinch a little. When the local cuisine is pizza and gelati, it’s not such a great tussle. Although when I was with a group of folks eating pizza in Venice, we munched on the thin crust scantily clad in tomato, cheese and basil in silence.  None of us wanted to say what was really in our hearts – the pizza was rubbish.  Yeah, yeah we were in Italy but the pizza was rubbish.
A little piece of Mickey at
Hong Kong Disneyland

It is, however, the thing you have to try. Each place has one of these ‘things’. Peanut butter and jam on thick sliced white bread in Canada was surprisingly heart melting. Sangria was festive in Spain, Hainese chicken was delicious in Singapore, and the chocolate cornetti and lemon granita were decadent in Rome. But the borsch in Russia made me frown, and the prospect of frog soup in Singapore made me twitch (I didn’t actually get to try that one). I did try snails in France and in my dad’s village in Italy (predictably garlicky but surprisingly hard and nuggetty), and how could I have left Scotland without trying a little pile of haggis.

But it’s the homemade meals that count the most. That’s when connection with place really kicks in. When staying with my aunt in Formia, Italy for a few weeks, food was always quite an item of discussion. First, there was the giant box of Cornflakes she showed me, smiling knowingly, when I arrived. She thought that this was compulsory Australian breakfast food and it was her way of saying welcome, and here’s a little piece of home. Then she decided that actually, it would be far more lovely for me to have a squidgy warm sugared donut from the local bakery for breakfast. She would walk down there before I woke up and then present it to me with a strong espresso. Heavenly. I mean heavenly. However, one cannot eat a donut the size of one’s face every day for weeks without feeling a little unwell. I had to go on a donut hunger strike before she would really take no for an answer.

At my aunts, we had feasts for lunch – exquisite local seafood, oversized bowls of pasta with fresh sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto with crusty bread. But one of my favourite dishes was her tomato salad. It was just tomatoes with slithers of onion, basil, salt and oil. I questioned her time and again about her secret ingredient that made this tomato salad so mouth watering but she would just laugh. I snuck into the kitchen one day to discover her splashing some water into the salad. ‘Ha! You caught me!’ she said. ‘It’s just water. I add a little and it draws more juice from the tomatoes.’ She shrugged, almost apologetically.

So simple.

But, back home, every time I make that salad (and yes, I add a splash of water) I remember the warm summer sunshine of Formia and I connect.

What food reminds you of place?

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Filed under eating out, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore

Quirky Italians and their unique driving habits

I think sometimes Italians are unjustifiably labelled ‘arrogant’.  (Ok, sometimes justifiably.) I prefer to call them quirky. (Perhaps because whilst Australian, I also hold an Italian passport). What might be arrogance could also be called charming, innovative or creative, especially when it comes to driving.
Let me explain.
On the streets of Formia I witnessed an alarming number of ‘quirky’ driving techniques (not to mention crazed, kamikaze, and downright dangerous).  This town’s streets were sometimes so narrow they were one-way and only wide enough for a single car. One sunny afternoon, my cousin was driving us around when she suddenly had to step on the brakes as the car in front of us came to a halt.  What’s this?
Oh, I see – it’s a warm day so the driver had to stop, put the car in neutral, climb out of the car, pull off his jumper, smooth his hair down, get back in the car and then set of on his merry way again.
See? Quirky. Utterly quirky.
Then, while I was catching a bus from town, the driver suddenly stopped (in the middle of the street – no cissy pulling over to the side), wound down his window and called out to a fellow in a car heading the opposite way, in the opposite lane. Yes, effectively both cars held up traffic in both directions. Their important conversation went something like this:
Break time at the Forum.

‘Hey! I’ve been trying to reach you. Where have you been?’

‘Oh I’ve been busy!’
‘Never mind. Listen, are you coming to the BBQ on Saturday?’
‘Sure I am! What do you want me to bring?’
‘Nothing! Just yourself.’
‘You’re sure?’
‘Yes, promise. Just yourself.’
‘Ok, no worries, see you then.’
Quirky. Charming.
What I love though, is that nobody on the bus batted an eyelid. People continued to stare out the window, totally unperturbed by the small pause in their bus journey. Sure, there was a half hearted horn toot but nothing abusive. True, it only took a minute, but can you picture that taking place in any other city quite like so?
Not that there isn’t a bit of road rage now and then.
While hanging around in Rome I witnessed a fellow walking towards his car, only to find that someone had double parked next to him and he was trapped. Mm… what was he going to do? Well, I couldn’t hear him from where I was standing but I’m pretty sure there were a few ‘Holy….’, ‘Your mother is a ……’ before he starting beeping his horn, continuously for about ten minutes. Eventually a tall thin man started walking towards him nonchalantly. With his hands he indicated that the first fellow should really calm down. I paraphrase:
‘Hey, what’s your problem?’
‘What the f….k do you mean, “what’s my problem”? Your car is my problem. I can’t bloody get out!’
No actual sorry. Instead: ‘Sure, but there’s no need to get so upset. It was only 10 minutes and here I am. I’ll get out of the way right now. That’s all.’ He smiled kindly, apologetically, calmly – only implying ‘mi scusi’.
Quirky, charming and charismatic.
But it was on the island of Ponza that I witnessed yet another bus driver who illustrated the very essence of quirky Italian driver, employing all the charm, charisma and creativity at his disposal. On a gorgeous summer day, halfway through our journey around the island, at a busstop, the bus door jammed itself halfway open. Its panelled doors were thoroughly wedged. The driver turned to the passengers and asked, ‘Does anyone have any string?’.
It turns out nobody had any string.
(What he was going to do with the string still baffles me.)
He nods his head, in a ‘what-are-you-going-to-do’ style, and starts whistling a happy tune and continues on his way. At the next stop an elderly lady frowns at him through the half open door. He stares her down: ‘What do you want me to do lady? Do you have any string? No? Well then!’. He shrugs apologetically but tells her, ‘breathe in and get on or don’t. It’s up to you’.
She humphs and struggles in sideways. ‘Do I still have to pay’. Affronted he answers, ‘Ha! Certo!’. Certainly!
Humph… grumble, grumble. But she gets on. And she pays.

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Filed under driving, Formia, Italy, Ponza, tourism, travel