Monday, August 28, 2006


I walked across the threshold into the sparkling grand foyer strewn with precious sculptures and breathed a sigh of relief. I was in the door. At long last, I was going to see the Galleria Borghese. This was not something to be taken lightly. I had tried and failed on three attempts to visit this famed repository of beautiful art.

On our first trip to Rome our hotel was located in the vicinity of the Villa Borghese. The gallery was not yet reopened after years of renovation; it would be another month before reservations would be taken and my parents were among those lucky enough to enter the villa after years of closure. I would have to wait until another trip a year later secure reservations, which we duly obtained. The day arrived, we high-tailed it through the vast park and up the steps of the villa only to be told that the galleria was, that day, chiuso. There was some kind of strike going on involving museum personnel. At least that is what we think he said; it didn’t really matter why, we only knew the museum was closed despite our reservations made months in advance.

Another year, another trip, another reservation secured. The only day available during our stay in Rome was the first thing in the morning on the day after our arrival. If you have suffered jet-lag you will understand why we slept soundly right through our appointed hour. We were told all other reservations for that day were firmly held and we’d not be able to enter unless we wanted to spend the better part of the day waiting around hoping for a no-show. We opted to see other sights.

Another year, another trip, another reservation. We hopped a bus from the Trastevere area, allowing ourselves ample time. Except that we didn’t know there was a huge anti-war demonstration in the heart of the city, causing everything to come to a screeching halt, including our bus which tried to navigate around the mess but was left at a standstill until the driver finally turned the vehicle off and ordered everyone out. We ran and tried to make it, but of course by this time we were a half-hour late and were not admitted.

I gave up hope of ever seeing the wondrous beauties within the 18th century villa. Until Thursday. Francesca made reservations several weeks ago for a small group to see the special exhibition of Raphael works. I guess when I am not the one reserving, things go smoothly. We entered without a glitch (except that Francesca was ordered to check her purse; mine was allowed in, though I’m not sure why). An audio guide helped us understand the background of the museum and the precious contents within, though it didn’t cover any of the Raphael exhibit. Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous! Bernini! Caravaggio! Canova! My favorites, accompanied by the lovely Madonnas of Raphael and we were completely enchanted.

At long last I admitted to the gallery. It was worth the wait.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bureaucracy Revisited

The wheels of bureaucracy in Italy are badly in need of a little grease. They are well-rusted and creak along slowly. Three months after our arrival we are still waiting for our official Permesso di Soggiorno to arrive, the permit to stay. This may not seem so bad, but when you consider that a friend arrived in Chianti just about 3 weeks ago and has an appointment to pick up her permesso in Firenze on September 5, you’ll understand my frustration. An appointment! Magari! September! Speriamo. We hope.

The visas decorating our passports allowed us to enter the country for a year. Normal tourists can stay up to 90 days and then must take their baggage and leave. To be here officially we need the permits. We dutifully went on our first day here, accompanied by Giorgio and Francesca, and went through the whole rigamorole of being finger-printed, weighed, measured (height) and questioned. (Read all about it in the archives from May.) We were given our ricevuto, a kind of receipt adorned with a tiny photo face-shot saying we’d applied for said permit. And then we began to wait. And wait. And wait.

We returned a couple weeks ago to inquire about the status, but were told that we’d “only applied in May”…how could we possibly expect they’d be ready yet? Maybe September, he said. September; we were aghast. Well, he said, you know it is almost August and there are the vacation schedules…and he mumbled other things I could not hear nor comprehend, speaking as he was into a crackly microphone through the plexiglass window, with a full room of foreign spectators behind me creating a cacophony. We left understanding enough – the permessos wouldn’t be ready for some time.

Today we returned armed with Francesca, a gal who knows her way around bureaucracy. She was packing a weapon – the name of an employee. “It’s the only way,” we were told. “You have to know someone.” Unfortunately, that someone is (predictably) on vacation. Nonetheless, we were again told that we’d only applied in May, so why the impatience? Francesca explained about our friends and their coveted appointment in Firenze. Much gesturing and eye-rolling. Firenze! Mah! Firenze is piccola piccola! We are Roma! The province of Rome is grandissima! We have more than five milioni abitanti and a good part of the world trying to live here. Bah…he barked. Just wait. It turns out to be all about location. We are apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time…the largest province in the country during August, which brings everything to a screeching halt.

And so we wait. And wait. And wait.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Tastes of Italia

Food tastes better here. The same fruits I bought at home – cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches – that were faintly scented and fairly tasteless, here are bursting with juicy fragrance and sweet freshness. Tomatoes, something neither of us ate raw at home, have a different flavor, and we have enjoyed them chopped on bruschetta drizzled with golden-green olive oil, as well as sliced onto salads. Fresh tomatoes…us! It’s unheard of. We have been enjoying fresh, home-grown figs, apricots, and plums. For a month Francesca brought nespole, a Mediterranean fruit we’d never seen before, a funky sweet-tart thing with five large seeds in the middle. Bryan, forever a picky eater, has been much more willing to taste things here (and is actually liking many of them).

The foods available are just plain fresher. The growers are closer at hand, and they are picked at the peak. No picking when they are still hard and green, traveling for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles to sit around in a warehouse, and then in the grocery case. Not in Italy (at least not in our area). The vendors at the weekly market I frequent have signs that pinpoint where the produce was grown, in some cases not only the region of Italy, but also the province.

When we buy fresh produce, it must be consumed within a day or two or it begins to rot. We learned the hard way that we have to buy more frequently in smaller quantities; no American-style once-a-week big grocery shopping here. The first several trips to the weekly market I went ape, letting my eyes feast on the goods at hand, with my hands readily forking over the money for a great quantity that I thought I would use all week, only to find the beautiful veggies going bad in the frigo within a few days.
It is a much more pleasurable experience to pay a visit to the little frutta-verdura lady to supplement what we buy at the mercato, than to troll a garish, florescent-lit, gigantic store chock full of unhealthy, artificially-flavored boxed goods. Our few forays into the gaudy ipermercato ended in blurry eyes, frustration, and a feeling of overload…it was too much like a Super Wal-Mart for my taste and sensibilities. Especially when one has a nice purveyor of produce right in the neighborhood.

The fruit lady lets me select what I’d like in any quantity – if I only want 3 stalks of celery, so be it; a handful of parsley instead of a whole bundle is no problem. She frequently tucks sprigs of basil and oregano into my bags if I am buying tomatoes, figuring I’m going to need the flavorings for a sauce. She also sells various breads, and that, too, can be had in any quantity…a knife is provided for us to cut off the size chunk we want. Even if I fill a bag full of things, I’ve rarely spent more than 3 Euro at a time in her store, her prices are just that darn low, and I don’t know how she can make a profit. Despite the sign that clearly states “non si fa credito”, she tells me to pay domani when I think I’ll need to put something back for lack of sufficient money, or if I try to give her a bill instead of the smaller-denomination euro coins. She also rounds the bill down to the nearest increment every time I go in, so my bill for 2.24 euro today was stated as “2 euro, per favore”. One afternoon I’d arrived after all the zucchini had been sold; the next day when she saw me, she smiled and produced a little bag of the small, freshest zucchini at hand, blossoms still beautiful, and handed over the bag. She had set them aside just for me.

The butcher is kindly and has beautiful meats. He, too, cuts off what you desire when you are buying it. He also fillets the chicken breasts if I ask - at no extra cost- to use for cutlets. When I wanted a small amount of ground beef for stuffed eggplant but didn’t see any in the case, I asked about carne maccinato, and he said, “of course, how much would you like?” I stated the amount I thought I’d need (grams and pounds conversions still pose a mathematical challenge for me on top of the linguistic conversions floating about in my head), then he cut a chunk of meat off of a nice, lean roast and ground it for me on the spot. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.

In our resort area, seafood is everywhere and the fishmongers have the freshest of fishies, as do the restaurants. Giorgio has prepared some fish very simply grilled, but so fresh I could still taste the salt-water in them.

Gelato is so unlike ice-cream it is a shame they translate the word as such. Gelato is creamy and light, bursting with the flavors of what is used to make it…be it strawberries, chocolate or hazelnuts, the source taste shines through. It is not heavy and dense, like American ice cream which is made from great quantities of heavy cream; it is softer, more silky in the mouth; it does not coat the tongue and weigh down the taste, and has less sugar, too. Delightful.

Food is the ever-popular topic of discussion. On trains, on the beach, in the stores…where I hear people interacting, inevitably the conversation turns around to food. Always. On a train, two men in suits were arguing and gesturing, and I thought they were discussing politics. When I strained to hear better - to practice listening in Italian, of course, not to eavesdrop, mind you - the heated discussion was about how best to prepare veal cutlets, Milanese style or in a simple wine sauce.

Truly, Italians are passionate about food and it shows. Truly…food just tastes better here.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Beach Flick

Remember the old Frankie Avalon Beach Blanket movies? The plot was pretty much the same in all of them…Frankie and Annette Funicello running around the beach, barely getting wet in the surf, dancing in long-outdated, now-funny moves upon the sand to fake background music that faded out when they had dialogue. Or the teeny-bopper movies that all seem to follow a formula: teenage angst with apparently over-bearing parents, a break for some kind of freedom, the set-back or ensuing crisis point that requires more angst for a solution, all interlaced with sex or some other coming-of-age situation and a get-the-girl ending? The formulas are universal, as we discovered when we attended our first movie in Italy.

We had been given a free pass to a movie that was filmed last fall here in Anzio, at the stretch of beach and the very restaurant and stabilimento of which I’ve written, as it happens. “Our” lifeguard, a weather-beaten, sea-dog kind of guy who we see frequently, is featured in his acting debut. The restaurant owner was passing out tickets and we happened to be with the right people. A friend of Francesca’s offered us a ride to town to attend, and, having not seen any movies in a while, figured, what the heck. So what if we couldn’t understand the dialogue? It’s a beach film, after all, how deep can it be?

It turned out to be the film’s premier. Not just the opening in the Anzio theatres, but the actual national premier, complete with the actors and director in attendance. We were allowed in only because we had the coveted freebie ticket. We sat between the two rows of reserved seating, set aside for the production crew and various VIPs. Surprisingly, the whole affair was much lower-key than would be in the US, but then Italians are pretty laid back anyway. Sure, there was the popping of flashing bulbs, the smiles, the giddy girls, the clamoring for a good seat well in advance of the start of the movie, but no red carpet, no overdressed starlets…just a casual entrance of the stars, a few words by the director, and the crack of sound and images to begin the main event.

Astonishingly – and maybe this was only because it was a premier and not a run-of-the-mill flick – I heard only one cell phone tinkle and people were actually quiet through the showing, not as I’d expected the normally-verbal Italians to behave in a theatre. There was an intermission, not as long as a stage theater, but enough for the cigarette-dependent to run for a puff. Popcorn, licorice, and refreshments are available, but not at a long, front-and-center, neon-stripped counter which serves as a gauntlet one must bypass, as in the US, but rather in a narrow, cramped room off a little hallway. One has to have the urge and know the room is there to obtain goodies (not many partook). I learned from the entrance sign that normal evening admission costs only 4 Euro; matinees are 2.50. The usual starting time for an evening film is 10:00, rather than the 8:00 showing so common at home.

It turned out that we guessed correctly; knowledge of the language wasn’t too necessary. We understood abbastanza. I easily picked out the obscenities that I’d heard as a child, words that floated into my memory when I heard them, and I snickered a bit, not because the words or situations were really funny but because I hadn’t known I had remembered them; Bryan was clueless until later when I explained the words. "Che ci faccio qui?" is about a sweet-looking boy is supposed to blow town with his buddies after graduation for a tour of Europe, culminating in a concert in Budapest. He doesn’t make the grade and must stay behind. Angry, he sneaks out and takes off on his motorino, ending up on the beach, out of luck and money, where he must work to get his motorino fixed. Loud, contemporary music, a bit of beach dancing, the obligatory sex scene with an older woman, a moment of soul-searching, then true love with a girl his age pretty much wraps up the plot as they ride off into the proverbial sunset on the motorino with the closing music blasting them on their merry way. But it was rather funny and cute, and I did understand more of the conversations than I had expected to, and it was just fun to see the places which we’ve come to know in our short residence here, even to see faces we recognize, on a movie screen. A night of fun at the movies, and an experience of a film premiere all in one. Not shabby for a couple of hangers-on Americani in a little beach town.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Rome When It Sizzles

Rome When It Sizzles
I’m borrowing the title from a movie about Paris (which I’ve never seen…Paris, nor the movie), but it is an apt description of Italy’s current summer conditions. The heat has settled in and made itself right at home in the bel paese, lingering languidly for about a month now. It made itself most intensely felt at the exact moment our relations arrived for a visit.

Bryan’s brother Wayne (the favorite son), his wife, Brenda (my email-pal and book supplier) and their daughter, Leann (a fun fifteen-year old) had spent over a week touring France and made a quick detour to Italy to see us. The temps soared to 39C (about 98F) with high humidity. I know, I know…I gripe a lot about humidity, but I defy any of you to spend nineteen years in the desert and then drop into 70 percent humidity without a grumbling.

Florence was teeming with tourists, and the sun on the ancient streets radiated the heat, searing our legs as we valiantly tried to see some of the famed sights. Not long after lunch, we packed it in for the air-conditioned hotel rooms, venturing out again only to bee-line the short distance to the Duomo, that gloriously pretty stone building maintaining a cool interior. Another rest in the hotel before dinner once the sun had gone away.

Rome is beautiful always – but even I, in my everlasting love for the city – couldn’t bear the heat. The Forum was like a forno (oven); Leann nearly gave it up…who needs to see the Coliseum, she began to say, when she was confronted with the Mamertine Prison. We told her it was where Peter and Paul had been confined before their deaths.
-“Peter and Paul? THE Peter and Paul? Of the BIBLE, Peter and Paul?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with amazement.
-“Yes, that Peter. Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy from here,” I told her.
-“No way!”
-“I want to see it!”
We went to that reverent place, which was cool and refreshing despite the bloody past. We refocused our thoughts and then emerged into the sun, making our way more quickly to the Coliseum.

Evenings were more pleasant, but there was no getting around it…it was just plain, miserably hot. They were tired but trudged along to take it all in anyway. It was great to see them, to show them around, to share meals in some wonderful restaurants, and we felt bad for them, that they had to see our beloved city in such extreme temps. It didn’t help that our favorite restaurant happened to be closed for the weekend, and our back-up restaurant was also inexplicably shuttered. We just weren’t having much luck for those poor, hot visitors!

We returned to Rome for a few hours this week, taking the train up to see a few masterpieces I’d not yet visited. This time we took a splash in the fountain in Piazza del Popolo to cool down. The train ride home was packed to the gills and steamy. Not one of my better ideas, I thought initially, but then again, how many people have the opportunity to pop up to one of the most beautiful cities in the world just to see a couple of Baroque paintings?

Through all the sizzling weather we have come to realize just how important and sensible is the afternoon siesta break. It has become a necessity this past month, to take a respite indoors.

Our current home is not air-conditioned, so we have tried various methods for keeping it cooler. Keep the windows open at night to bring in any wisp of cooler air, then close it all up to try to keep it cool once the sun starts to heat things up. Open up all the windows all day in hopes of getting a breeze from the sea. Adjust the windows and shutters to get a breeze but keep out direct sunlight. We’ve tried it all, and nothing seems to make any real difference; we feel hot and sweaty and sticky all the time.

It’s compounded by the zanzare. I hate them, because they loooove me. No mosquito in its right mind would bite someone else when I am around; I am just too tempting to them, for some reason. I have itchy welts on my legs and feet, their preferred zone of attack. Nothing wards them off; nothing helps the itchy effects after their feasts on my flesh. My legs are unattractive welt-infested trunks. Lovely in a swimsuit, the salt water dries them and makes them itchier. Again, it’s an adjustment because arid New Mexico didn’t have an issue with mosquitoes (though after all the rainfall they’ve had this month, there may be a problem now. My poor New Mexico can’t win…drought or flooding, never in between!)

These are travails of summertime in Italy. Lest you think I’m only griping, I do still have the consolations of gelato, granitas, really good food all the time, the Mediterranean to swim in, art to look at, and no stressful work to deal with. Nope, I can deal with the little annoyances after all.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider