Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big fish, little fish

When I first arrived in Rome I was almost scared to leave the house. Not only because my Italian language skills were sorely wanting, but also because of the chaos on the streets that made my poor English rule-conditioned heart bound with panic every time I had to cross a road. And I don't even drive! Even facing a simple zebra crossing as a pedestrian had the power to inspire sweaty palms and a burst of terrified adrenaline as I finally took the plunge and stepped off the kerb, motorinos and cars either stopping just centimetres before me or swerving round me as I walked.

Needless to say I soon got used to it and I now step regally off the kerb, the power of my glance halting all but the most insistent motorinos. Those who dare to swerve past can skim my ankles and I won't even deign to turn my head.

When travelling as a passenger in a car I try to embrace a state of zen-like calm that helps me cope with the crazy traffic, parking arguments and contant near-crashes. My boyfriend E deals manfully with all this hassle, and indeed it doesn't seem to bother him. Just yesterday in fact he was waiting for somebody to vacate a parking space (spaces are notoriously difficult to find in Rome) when a woman pulled in front of him and put on her indicator, waiting for the same space. After a fair bit of swearing and some Italian-style gestures that I took to mean "bugger off and let me take my rightful space" the woman still didn't move on. At this point E got out the car, walked over and told the woman in as many words to bugger off becuase he was there first, thank you very much. During this episode I was slouched down in my seat dying of mortification. "Just give her the space" I begged "we'll find another one".
But it turned out the woman was playing dirty, and insisted that as she had "asked" (through gestures) the man who was leaving the space if she could have it, the space was hers. In the end she left, we parked, all was fine.

The moral of the story? You gotta learn the rules of the jungle. Or, more aptly, when in Rome, play as dirty as the Romans do.

But it's not necessarily always foreigners who are the fish out of water. Last week we went on a jolly to Naples. That is me, E and two friends Giorgio and Maria. The guys, who are both hardened illegal-hazard-light-using, parking-space-argument Roman driving pros, took turns behind the wheel.

As soon as we came off the motorway and drove into the city of Naples a change came over them. They were no longer the agressive, sweary, multi-taksing drivers I knew but nervous, attentive and careful strangers in a new city. We got a bit lost needed to ask for directions but every time the he'd rolled the window down halfway Giorgio lost courage and hastily rolled it back up, fearing every second person to be a Camorrista who might take against us. E turned on to a roundabout and needed to exit, but couldn't get off it. "Why won't anyone let me out?" he whimpered as cars seemed to come straight for us and close in on us from all angles. We parked the car and promtly a parcheggiatore (a guy who "helps" you park in the city centre then expects a fee) showed up and we organised a furtive and fearful whiparound of our loose change in the backseat of the car. In the end we gave two euros, twice what we'd give in Rome.

It was funny seeing these mouthy Romans when faced with Naples' mean streets turning into the equivalent of a pale English girl trying to cross the road in Rome. Maybe when the next time in Rome I close my eyes and pray when Giorgio overtakes on a corner or cringe as the 10-ton bus I'm travelling on screeches to a stop centimetres from the car in front I can remember our day in Naples and feel a little better.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Sorry for the lack of posts. My day to day existence has been taken over by the whims of an enigmatic lady, Dottoressa Urso, whose English lessons I am subbing for a couple of weeks and who, despite knowing approximately 20 words in English wants me only to help her translate European parliamentary documents for her forthcoming trip to Ireland. Er, good luck with that Doc.

Obviously, as she is paying the agency I am working for a fair whack and I am only subbing the lessons I have to bite my tongue and treat her with kid gloves like it seems everyone else does. (You know when you arrive somewhere and are told by her subordinates that this woman is "quite a character" you are in trouble.)

More soon.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Diet disaster

I have been trying to shed those post-christmas extra pounds ever since well, christmas, and failing miserably. The problem is my new line of work. It frequently takes me out onto the streeets and leads me nose-first into the enticing perfumed bounds of delicious treats. Whether they are sweet, savoury, creamy, crunchy, fruity, warm, hot or cold I have absolutely NO willpower when it comes to Italian snacking treats.

The first danger hurdle comes a little before lunchtime when I walk past a pizzeria al taglio (this is bound to happen as they are on practically every street) and smell the bready, cheesy yeasty smells wafting out. I decide that I definitely can't wait that whole half hour that's left before lunch, run in before my conscience tells me not to and order a slice of pizza bianca, a heavenly-when-still-warm concotion of pizza base, oil and salt. Here's a photo, though it can't do it justice:

I'm doing fine and my stomach is pleasantly full mid-afternoon when walking between lessons when I smell that warm sugar and cream smell that can only mean one thing...a pasticceria. And, if I'm feeling weak (most of the time), in I hop to order my fav mid-afternoon sugary treat, an occhio di bue ("eye of an ox"). The best ones are so overloaded with icing sugar that you spill it all down your front and then notice only 10 minutes after leaving, when you will frantically try to brush it off whilst feeling your mouth watering all over again with the memory of the delicious pastry. Here's another pic:

Finally, the day is almost over and my poor stomach thinks it's going to get a rest. Oh no! No you don't! Not if we're going to pass through Piazza Sempione on the way home and have to wait for the bus. Because why would we want to wait for the bus in the cold, at night, with the drunks and misfits, o stomach, when we could take refuge in the bright-lighted, coffee-scented night bar and get a fresh cornetto con nutella and cappuccino. Words cannot describe the genius of the cornetto so I won't try. I only want to say that I regret all the wasted years of my life eating boring po-faced savoury croissants never knowing there were these amazing butter and sugar concotions filled with heart-attack inducing creams and custards:

This is the ultimate Roman way to end your night if you've had a late one. If you're feeling particulalry weak of conscience you could even orchestrate a reprise just a few hours later at breakfast time.

Just make sure you start the diet on Monday...or even this year.

My favourite occhio di bue in Rome is from "I Dolcissimi". Piazza Ragusa, 6. Re di Roma area.

My local cornetto notte joint (and a very good one it is too) is "L'angolo russo". Corso Sempione, 13. Montesacro.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Improvised Surprise

I love singing and since September last year have taken part in a choir here in Rome. I have a great time rehearsing and doing concerts with them even if half the time I don't understand what's going on. I speak good Italian but if you put 25 very opinionated Italians who are passionate about the same thing in a small room and you get controlled chaos. I have learnt to sit there and smile serenely, waiting for the music to start while all aroud me arguments and mini-debates break out, the director shouts and people take the odd call on their phones.

This may not be like the uptight, disciplined Church of England-style choir that I grew up with but as long as you try and go with the flow it can be damn fun. The other evening I went to see a performance of some local Alpine choirs with a few other members of the group. Afterwards we went for the obligitary Roman slapdish pizza. After we had eaten the suggestions started...I had been to dinner with them before so knew their habit of striking up a song in 4-part harmony when the bill came to the delight (or extreme annoyance) of the other punters. However this time it was suggested we move outside as the already grumpy waiters were looking more sour-faced by the minute and putting chairs on tables.

So we wandered to the nearest piazza in the heart of Rome's student-land, San Lorenzo, and began to sing. Oblivious to the damp cold, the strange looks and lack of all the proper components of the choir we stood in a tight little circle and sang. Gradually we warmed up and the circle widened and let in new drunken friends or admirers, or people with requests. We must have stayed there for an hour or two simply experiencing the joy if singing in harmony together, not really caring if anyone was listening or not (although if we did get a few drunken cheers all the better). Eventually we decided it was time to hit the road and wandered back to our respective cars singing "Goodnight, well it's time to go".

It was a truly wonderful experience, and totally unique. I love the fact that my fellow singers are so passionate about song that they forgo having an early night or sitting in a bar and drinking for the experience of sharing music with friends and, if they choose open their ears to some great music, perfect strangers!

To listen to some excerpts from the choir head to

Friday, February 5, 2010

Trying to change gear

Do you ever feel that you never really left your angst years behind? Or maybe that you forgot about them for a few blissful years of freedom only for them to return stealthily in the night somewhere between your graduation ceremony and the day you recieved your first job application rejection?

I for one am convinced that the twenties are the new teens. I know, I know, it's not really a new idea; it's one that only dawned on me whilst listening to the Friends theme tune after not hearing it since my teens. Back then (in the late 1990s) I worshiped at the altar of Phoebe, Joey and co. and wished fervently from my damp bedroom in the south of England that I could share their glamorous lives and anxieties. My friends and I would sing the theme tune at break time- "so no-one told you life was gonna be this way, your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA" and then choose which of the Friends guys we would like to snog.

Now those lyrics resonate all too much and, ironically, I aspire to a simpler, more adolescent angst instead of this twentysomething monster horrible version.

Instead of worrying about not having the right brand of school shoes I'm now kept awake at night by such weighty issues as, When will I stop comparing myself with my peers? Develop a proper career plan? Pay off my overdraft? Decide which country to live in? Stop being afraid of shop assistants? Decide what to do about my love life? Stop reading gossip magazines and start reading proper newspapers?

Oh god, just writing all this makes me feel depressed. Right I'm off to comfort eat some Nutella and listen to a bit of "why me?" music. At least some things never change.