Monday, June 19, 2006

A Chance of a Lifetime

Rome is an incredible city. I ponder this every time I enter her storied walls; every time I arrive at the train station I think, Rome is una citta incredibile. Truly, I feel almost giddy every single time. This city makes my heart dance and my senses sing.

Yesterday we went to Rome. I flushed as usual, but we were on a mission…an amazingly incredible mission. We had discovered, barely in time, that there was an exceptional exhibition for four days only. A palazzo in the heart of Rome – historical and noteworthy by itself – was putting on display a painting by Caravaggio, the famed artist, my favorite Baroque painter, no less. The Conversion of Saul is one of those rare and priceless works still held in a private collection and the Principessa was throwing open the doors of the palazzo to allow us mere mortals the chance to view this masterpiece. For free. (I told you it was a chance of a lifetime.)

We arrived to a line about halfway down the short block. It was humid and hot, and people in line were strangely quiet (Italians are not known for their quietude). While waiting we gazed at the architecture of the Palazzo Odescalchi - the fa├žade of the monumental building designed by Bernini; at the church across the street; at the people passing by clutching their guidebooks, enroute to the Trevi Fountain without a clue as to what they were passing and missing. To think that we could have missed it ourselves. It was sheer good fortune that Bryan picked up a free newspaper one day on the bus into the Anzio, apparently left behind by a commuting Roman. He perused the cell phone ads, the TV schedule and was about to lay it aside when I caught a glimpse of the photo and the caption saying “Caravaggio”. Whoa, wait a sec. Take that home! Later, I translated it and discovered that an organization whose aim it is to open splendid homes to display rare works of art was sponsoring this event for four days only. It is an annual event each June. Last year they displayed a Botticelli and a Fra Lippo Lippi. This year, fortuitously, this particular Caravaggio. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but we had to hurry! It opened the day the newspaper was printed…that left us with Sunday for the trip to Rome.

So there we were, in that magnificent city, in a famous palace. After about forty-five minutes in line, we were ushered into the inner sanctum – the one room of the palace we were permitted to enter, to gaze upon the glory of one lone picture with lighting designed just perfectly to best permit the incredible luminescence by the hand of the artist to shine forth. Powerful, incredibly realistic…this is why I so admire Caravaggio’s work. A troubled, temperamental man with incredible vision, skill, and profound insight into scriptural events, he presented the conversion of Saul into St. Paul in vivid, muscular, dark-edged and light-ensconced brilliancy. I was moved. Only ten of us were permitted to enter at a time, so the room was uncrowded and we were able to view it up-close for detail before moving to the back of the room for the “full view” as it was intended to be seen in the original setting in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

Truly incredible, I thought. I could not believe we had the opportunity to see a priceless work such as this, that few people even in this city of art have the chance to view. We strolled out smiling, thinking, “and people really wonder why we want to live in Italy?”

copyright2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, June 17, 2006

We Have Much to Learn

Abbiamo molto imparare; we have much to learn.

We frequently feel like stupid children. Not only do we have difficulty in communicating at a juvenile level, but basic tasks bring challenges, too. How to work the washing machine, for example. Why are there 13 numbers on the dial? Why does the machine stop for a long rest after number 3? Into which of the four compartments do we place the soap powder? Where do we buy soap powder, forget trying to find the unscented soap I use at home, I don’t know where to find any at all. Then there is the task of hanging the clothes out to dry. Simple enough, one would think, but for us electric dryer-dependent Americans it is an art that defies us. I don’t know how to maximize space on the lines to get the all clothes to fit. Then, I forgot to bring the clothes in one evening so when we awoke the morning dew had wetted them anew. Dew? We didn’t have such a thing in arid New Mexico! Another day of drying was required, and I felt like a complete idiota.

I found a broom and swept all the tile floors, then discovered a bottle of lavipavimento (the label so simple even I knew it was for cleaning the floors), so went in search of a mop. I found an electric vacuum, a couple of long-handled, short-bristled brushes, and another broom. Bryan went to the hardware store down the street to buy a mop. What he was presented with was a long-handled, short-bristled brush like we saw at home. Hmmm. How does one mop with a stiff brush without flooding the floor? Is this like the Fuller Brush days? I just don’t know these things and my hosts are immensely amused when I inquire of them. What do I know? Mops are sponge-like, I say, but I became completely devoted to my steam cleaner, the likes of which Francesca tells me she uses in their house in Roma, but not here. Drat. Tomorrow I will attempt to mop the floor with a brush. Here’s hoping I don’t get every piece of furniture completely soaked in the process. (As it turns out, you fill the bucket with water, add the lavipavimento, which smells vile, and then toss in a special mopping rag which you wring out, throw on the floor and place the bristled brush on top of, then commence the mopping action. Wouldn’t a mop be easier?)

I had better success cleaning the bathrooms. That was easy enough to figure out in terms of cleaning products, but again, the smell is rather noxious to me and I must find where one goes to buy nontoxic cleaning supplies, if such a place exists.

How do I light the oven? I can do the burners, and even more proudly, I figured out how to ignite the broiler. The oven defeated us both, though. And in the nearby market, I can’t figure out the difference between a panino, a tramezzino and a piadina. All mean “sandwich” in my dizionario. When I dared to touch the head of lettuce, I felt like a wanton hussy as a woman rushed over and snatched it out of my hand to bag it for me, asking what else I would like to have. No fondling the veggies, apparently.

Swimsuit shopping proved an exercise in humiliation as I didn’t know the proper size in European numbers, to the consternation of one store clerk. She looked me over and handed me what she said would fit. Into the dressing room I ventured, only to be met by the less-than-beautiful reflection of my derriere hanging out below the equator. I told her they were troppo piccolo (too little). Nonsense, she said; impossibile! She commenced a conversation with the other clerk, both shrugging and eye-rolling their assent that I must be drunk or stupid but no way could those bottoms not fit properly. I left them to their superiority. In another store the whole affair was more self-service, so the humiliation was my own in the privacy of the dressing room. I came out empty-handed but with the knowledge that swimsuit sizes are universally set arbitrarily to deflate one’s ego.

Bryan makes trips to the ferramenta (hardware store). He writes little phrases or words on a scrap of paper to request the items he needs. Despite not speaking Italian he seems to come home with a bag of things each time; apparently hardware is a male lingua franca.

These are the little things that we didn’t know about and which, in addition to learning a new language, we must discover through sometimes painful (to the ego, at least) trial and error.

So we will continue to feel very much like deviant, unschooled children for a while. Luckily, most Italians are extremely patient with us and allow us to make stupid missteps and slaughter their language, all the while telling us that we are molto bravo and parli bene. Yeah, right. But it is encouraging nonetheless.

Abbiamo molto a imparare.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Buon' Amici

How we got so incredibly lucky, I don’t know, but we are extremely blessed to have such kind friends as Giorgio and Francesca. They are hospitable, generous, tolerant, and downright fun to be with. They come for weekends to enjoy the sea, the garden and the casual atmosphere, but live on the northern outskirts of Rome during the week. They have two grown sons who do not come to the seaside (I can’t quite figure out why).

Francesca is a consummate gardener. She is out in the yard immediately upon rising each morning, dead-heading flowers, picking up bits and pieces of things that may have blown in during the night, and watering; she is out there until well after dark, “to say goodnight to the flowers,” Giorgio says. She spends a great deal of time puttering around, inspecting, tying up and trimming plants. She talks to the flowers and sings to the snails and mutters darkly about the dreaded pidocchi (aphids). Every weekend she arrives with more flowers and herbs to plant, and takes sickly-looking leaves to the fioraio (nursery) for inspection and possible solutions. Walks with Francesca in the neighborhood are piano, piano (slow) as she gazes over walls and through gates to observe the flowers and trees, pointing out her favorites. She works like a fury, always in motion, tending and cleaning and rearranging until she goes to the beach to meet with friends for rousing games of cards. She loves to win and often comes home smugly victorious. She is active and devout in her church, but in a way that exudes a living faith, not of piety but of real concern for others and real devotion to God. When the nearby church bells tinkle out the Ave Maria at 8:00 each evening, she hums along while puttering in the yard.

Giorgio partakes of none of this. He is in the garden only when Francesca calls him out to assist with something (though he was gratefully replaced in these tasks by Bryan the minute Francesca heard he had worked in landscaping at one time). Instead, Giorgio prefers to be in the kitchen. Her passion for gardening is matched by his passion for food. He was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, and enjoys immensely the entire process of cooking, from thought conception to the final presentation. (We met them in their restaurant on our first trip to Rome, where he painstakingly explained the daily menu to us, clearly reveling in the dishes he had on offer that night.) He carries a folio containing scraps of paper onto which he has jotted down notes for new recipes. After he has finished his morning coffee (heck, sometimes before he has finished it) he is cooking a sugo or marinating fish for pranzo. He has a shelf of cookbooks from nearly every region of Italia, in case his innate inspiration fails him (it rarely does). He prepares simple fare - in true Italian fashion - always delicious, always served lovingly and with great pride.

When not cooking, he likes to be in front of the TV, to Francesca’s great consternation. He sits down and is immediately hypnotized. He stares transfixed and usually falls asleep promptly, the monotonous blare his lullaby. He sneaks snorts of grappa and whisky in the evening, saying, “shhhh, Francesca no know”. She tends his high blood pressure as carefully as her garden and monitors his salt and alcohol intake, clucking and rolling her eyes when he is errant. He does not walk to the beach, the many steps to reach it are too difficult for him after his hip replacement surgery. He has a desire to start an Italian food export company; we discuss collaborating on a cookbook. Food is his zeal.

Together, they are a wonderful couple, patient with each other, loving toward each other. They know themselves and the other well, adapt easily, anger slowly, and have a finely honed rhythm in their partnership which is a joy to watch. They joke and tease and talk and discuss; arguments are short and quiet and always respectful. They have mastered the fine art of a marital relationship, the blending together of two personalities and minds, while maintaining a large circle of friends and opening their hearts to others (even foreigners like us). They are genuine – with us and with each other. Far beyond their amazing generosity to us, we are truly blessed to know them.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Quest Begins

We have been in Italy for about three weeks and have been settling in rather nicely. We have accomplished a lot in a short period and feel that we are adapting to our new, albeit rather remote, surroundings. We have become comfortable in our little house, have performed extensive extermination and cleaning of the guest house in preparation of my parents’ arrival, and have made ourselves fixtures in the small, nearby shops. The weather is rather cool again, but as it heats up, we will spend a lot of time on the beach, figuring it best to take advantage of the sea while we can. We desert-dwellers marvel at the expanse and mist and waves, finding the tidal movements calming.

But, we will not be here forever. This home is temporarily on loan to us and we must find a place to live for the term of our residency in Italia. The past several days were spent driving around the central region of the country as we visited some friends and explored some new areas in our search for a home. We are looking for a spot that screams, “HERE! You need to be here!” Perhaps we are looking for an epiphany, but I think we are just seeking a certain feeling of calm and a sense of history. There are towns we enter where we feel a little giddy at the mere sight of the ancient stone buildings and historical roots. Citta della Pieve was one such town.

We went to visit friends from New Mexico who are in residence there for two months. Evey, a fellow classmate and all-around fun gal, invited us to spend a night with her and husband Wayne to see the area. She not only graciously opened the door to their sprawling apartment, they brought us green chile to boot! Talk about hospitality. The town sits prettily on its hill and oozes charm. We walked the narrow streets and liked what we saw. Until we looked in the window of the immobiliare and saw the real estate prices. We would not be able to afford to live here.

After this brief visit we drove to Chianti region, where we spent a day with a group of expats at a party hosted by the website Bryan used extensively to gather information. They are a lively, fun bunch and it was a pleasure to meet them and to converse easily, without having to struggle for words and verb tenses. Several people I hope to meet up with again. Chianti is famously beautiful and rightfully so, but extremely expensive, too, and – we felt – a little too over-run by foreigners. Being foreigners ourselves, this may seem a little hypocritical, but we really do want to be immersed in Italian culture and society, and prefer to be in an area where English is not heard as frequently as Italian. One every turn down the winding road we saw three (or more) signs for hotels and other tourist facilities. Don’t get me wrong, we truly enjoyed our visit with friends. It was wonderful to see them and we look forward to other visitors coming from America during our year. And meeting expats is nice, too, but, at the end of the day, I still want to be here for the experience of Italy.

We wound our way down the surprisingly steep mountains to the lower area south of Siena. We had spent a week in Asciano on a previous trip and enjoyed the town and countryside here very much. Driving through the Crete Senese reminded us of how enchanted we had been with the landscapes here. Strolling through town and dining at a little osteria we had previously enjoyed (with a few home-made dishes on offer daily) jogged our memories at how friendly we had thought the town to be. We like it here very much, but again, doubt that we can financially swing a move here, as it is in rather close proximity to Siena, a city of renown and touristic interest. We didn’t really have an intention to look at Tuscany, anyway, but we really do enjoy this section of that region.

We set out from there to explore northern Lazio, an area unknown to us but intriguing and, from what we have seen on real estate websites (read, possibly affordable). We entered the provincial capital of Viterbo and promptly got lost. The streets were so narrow that even our itty-bitty slender Matiz car seemed too large. We barely made it through some of the turns. The town (at least what we saw of it) didn’t impress us, but we did stumble upon a Middle-Eastern diner and enjoyed a rendition of chicken gyros for lunch, so all was not lost.

We loved the view of (and from) Bolsena, on the lake of the same name, but figure it to be a rather seasonal town, like Anzio (only much, much prettier). An old woman was washing her clothes at the still-used communal washing well. She hunched over the stone basin and beat the daylight of her clothes with a huge bar of soap, then drowned them in the water to rinse them. The atmosphere was altogether charming and we may explore this town more indepth.

There was one cittadina that really struck us, the sight of which made us gasp and utter, “whoa”. Soriano is perched precariously in the Cimini mountains, high above the valleys. Driving around a bend we caught of glimpse of her stone buildings tumbling down the hillside, towers reaching heavenward and we were smitten. Driving into town confirmed our first impression; it was beautiful and ancient, yet larger than it had first appeared with ample shops and restaurants and a couple of hotels. The views over the mountains and valleys were breathtaking. We wandered the old, medieval borgo section of town on foot, leg muscles screaming at the exertion on the very steep, cobbled streets. We walked down sinewy alleyways and gawked. This was okay as we were also being gawked at by the inhabitants, though not so much as to feel completely conspicuous or uneasy.

On one street an old woman stopped us and said that we were “una bella coppia”, a beautiful couple. When I spoke with my heavy accent, she said, “Ah, you’re not Italian? Ma mi sembra italiana” But you look Italian to me. I told her about my Italian grandmother and she nodded, smiling as she departed. Yes, we liked Soriano very much. The problem, though…its rather remote location up the mountain. The closest city is Viterbo and the drive was not exactly a short one. I fear that the remoteness we feel here will be very exaggerated there since it is pretty much the only town up on that mountain. There is a lively centro with more stores than we have access to here, and a train station too, so we will need to check into the schedules and routes. We would like to return for a few days to see if the initial feeling of awe remains.

Other towns blur together and none really impressed us as being quite right for us. Sutri was pretty and we enjoyed a fantastic meal there, but in the morning, the constant stream of traffic below our hotel window informed us that this was a commuter town; a conversation with the hotel owner confirmed the fact that many people live here and drive into Rome, about an hour away.

So the quest continues. We have several areas that interest us; we just need to get out and explore, more difficult to do without a car of our own, but we are confident we will find what we’re looking for…”seek and you shall find”.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2006
We took the bus to Nettuno and walked the short distance to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetary. It was Memorial Day and we thought it would be a good way to commemorate the day. We were also on an errand. An acquaintance in St. Louis told us that his father had been a soldier who participated in the Allied landing at Anzio during World War II. His dad had wanted to come to Italy to see the graves of his friends who had been killed here, but had not done so and was now too frail to make the trip. Would we look for the graves and take photos, he asked us. Of course!

List in hand, we entered the cemetery to find a large continent of carabinieri milling about. There was a tent set up near the memorial at the far end of the cemetery. We inquired in the office about the day’s activities and were told that the U.S. Ambassador as well as an Italian government official would be attending a ceremony. The superintendent took our list and looked up the names in the computer, printing out the details of the grave marker locations for us. He also offered to have photos taken that he would then email to our friend. “You can take photos, but the names get a little too washed out,” he said. “When we take the photos, we have special way to darken the names so they appear better.” What a nice touch.

We walked to the memorial area to listen to the speakers and participate in the ceremony. Italian and American servicemen stood in formation side by side. I teared up; I get so emotional at these kinds of events. The combination of the national anthem, an echoing, soulful trumpeting of Taps, a 21-gun salute and a fighter jet fly-over in the missing man formation pretty much did me in and I had to fight back a full-on cry. Maybe it’s just hormones, but I doubt it. I have a great appreciation for these men who fought bravely and gravely for a definite cause, and who are still very much appreciated by the local population.

We toured solemnly around the cemetery to locate the graves on the list and took photos, then returned the list to the superintendent with our thanks for his generosity to send email photos to this now-elderly soldier whom I’ve never met, but am grateful to…for his service to our country and to this country, and because his errand had brought us here on this particular day. It was a touching experience.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Out of Touch

Out of Touch and Somewhat Immobile

Cotral is a regional bus system servicing this area. The bus travels between Nettuno on this end, through Anzio and our section of town, on up to Roma, and in reverse. The trouble is there seems to be no set schedule. Every time we have gone to the fermata we have had to wait anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes for a bus to come along. Locals waiting with us roll their eyes every five minutes and make hand gestures, indicating their frustration and their nonverbal communication of “where the hell is the stupid bus”.

Fortunately, we can obtain the basic elements of everyday sustenance in our neighborhood. There is a little market just a couple blocks away to buy groceries, though they carry no meats, prosciutto and salami excepted. Another couple blocks takes us to a coffee bar where they also conveniently sell bus tickets and cell phone minutes. It doubles as a gelateria, too. There is a frutta/verdura and a pizza place that offers up excellent, true Neopolitan pizzas (he has the certification to prove its authenticity), all in walking distance. And of course, the beach and its accompanying bars and casual cafes that will open soon.

The season is only beginning and when we walk on the beach we can observe the tell-tale signs: painting and hammering of awnings, the careful placement of rows of little cabanas, the seasonal preparations for the sun-bathing hordes that will begin to arrive in a few weeks. Already, weekends are beginning to pick up. All week we have the streets and beach to ourselves. Today, Saturday, while waiting for the bus, there was a nonstop stream of cars flowing southward into Anzio from Rome, the weekend warriors headed for their summer homes. Our narrow street has more cars parked on it than usual. The sun-worshippers are coming to commence their annual tanning rituals.

We feel incredibly lucky to have access to this house and the beach. Still, we can’t help but be a bit wistful at the lack of reliable transportation, and, more immediately disconcerting to us, the lack of internet connection. We have become completely internet-dependent. Any little bit of information would be sought out online; all communication with friends and family anticipated to be so easily completed by email. This is the major reason we brave the bus system. This hardship is sorely felt. Showering in a little service room I can deal with; and, while attacking mosquitoes are definitely a problem, not being able to connect for email is, to me, akin to not having indoor plumbing. It feels so…primitive. I knew we would adapt and live slow, but in ways I’d not anticipated!

Because we truly need internet (for communication, news and to manage our finances), we have sought out various ways of connecting. The internet point in Anzio told us that they can install a high-speed connection for us in about two weeks’ time. Great, except that they require a year contract and we don’t plan to live in this locale for a year. We found another internet point in the nearer community of Anzio Colonia, though it still requires riding the wretched buses (and yesterday when we arrived after much travail, their internet service was unavailable). We tried to access wi-fi at a nearby hotel. We’d seen an ad that they offer this service and Bryan went to inquire; he was informed that we could use the service for a fee. Today we walked down to try it out. We required a password and login code from the hotel in order to access the pay page. The girl at the desk said she didn’t know about that and shrugged, then resolutely ignored us. Defeated again.

We had inquired at a beach-side bar which, Francesca told us, offered internet last year. They did not receive their approval from Telecom, the phone company, to offer it this year. Drat. I may brave some language trepidation to ask the manager of a nearby hotel if internet could be procured for a price there, but when I went in to ask him about hotel rates for my parents, he spoke so quickly and brusquely that he downright scared me and I fled rather than state my blatant ignorance and repeatedly ask him to “ripete piu piano, per favore”.

We plug along. We hop on buses with undetermined destinations to see where they take us. This results in a lot of time and energy exerted in erroneous thinking. Buses do not complete a circular loop as one might think. We reached the end of the line at a military installation outside Nettuno and the bus driver kicked our confused little butts off the vehicle, saying he was now “fuori servizio”. We watched several buses pass by without stopping. We didn’t know where we were except that it was several kilometers from town. A strange little bag man edged closer to us as we stood under the fermata sign waiting. A bus came along and stopped to let out passengers but didn’t open his doors for people to board. I knocked and he cracked it open ever so slightly, so I quickly asked about getting back to Anzio. Another bus will come soon, he told me; he was now fuori servizio. “When?” I asked. “Soon.”

About fifteen minutes later another bus came along and we boarded, again blind to where it was going but figuring it had to be toward one town or another where we could at least figure out where the heck we were and how to get home. We had a few moments of grave concern as the driver took us down some country roads, further away from town. We had no choice but to wait it out, and eventually we found ourselves back in the center of Anzio. We had to connect to another bus, though, to return home. Later, when we told Giorgio and Francesca of our adventure, they laughed and nodded and “si-si’d” us in awareness that this is normale.

Ogni giorno e un’avventura nuova, I say. Every day is a new adventure. When one uses the regional bus, the adventure may be more than one bargained for, but at least at the end of the day there is the sea. And gelato. And real pizza napoletana.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider