Villa Borghese is kind of incredible: How many city parks have such an amazing skyline view?
It’s odd for me spending Catholic holidays here in a place where they are so ubiquitous: even though most young people you ask would say they aren’t Catholic, literally everyone celebrates these holidays with their families, so they have a much stronger impact than any holiday (except maybe Christmas) does in NY. I grew up there surrounded people of all different religions, where it was normal that not everybody celebrated the same days. While we were familiar with most of the major holidays,we would ask friends about those they celebrated that we didn’t know — the two different Eids, for example. I don’t think you can really appreciate this kind of diversity until you live somewhere else.
Here, a holiday like Easter is just a universal given. Everything is closed except for some restaurants and souvenir shops (apparently a lot of people have started going out for their Pasqua lunch). Stores are almost all closed today as well, Pasquetta, when I think it is traditional to sell flowers (the Spanish Steps are covered in them as well this week), but unfortunately it’s raining so I haven’t ventured out to investigate this yet. When some friends have wished me “Buona Pasqua,” I have mentioned that I don’t actually celebrate the holiday, not being Christian, but nobody has then asked me what I do celebrate, or anything about it. I don’t really mind, I guess, I just sincerely don’t understand the lack of curiosity. One of the things I don’t think I’ll ever get about this country, in general.
“Spanish Steps” (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, Piazza di Spagna), covered in flowers and tourists.
Easter traditions here seem to be fairly straightforward though. There are huge chocolate eggs sold everywhere (including large Kinder eggs, Spiderman or Simpsons toys included), but you don’t see the pastel colors, peeps, or Easter egg hunts like back at home. As far as I have seen, the holiday involves mostly going to nonna’s house for lunch with cousins, then spending the rest of the day lamenting how much you ate, saying you’re going to explode, or maybe throw up so you can eat more chocolate. These are the reports in from friends, at least. Most of their holidays seem sort of like our Thanksgiving in this way. I also heard of different traditional cakes: simples ones shaped like doves, usually given by an aunt or uncle; a round cake with whole eggs (in the shell) baked into it; “pizza di pasqua” which I believe is a thick focaccia-like bread with cheese in it — these all vary by region of course though.
Myself, I went to the city’s largest park, Villa Borghese, to spend the afternoon getting a little sun, reading and walking around. As lunchtime passed the park filled up with families doing the same, kids pulling along huge animal balloons, but no Easter hats, bunny costumes, or anything like that in sight. Sort of like any Sunday, I suppose, but one where truly everyone can enjoy it instead of working.
Because most people live close to their extended families (and most 20-somethings still live with their parents), just about everybody can be with their family, while in the US we’re more used to being far away and maybe not making it back for every occasion. Friends complained yesterday of the endless hours with relatives, being asked those same questions we get: “when are you graduating?” “when are you getting married?” “having kids?” But at the same time they really can’t fathom those of us who go so far away from all of ours.
Fontana di Cavalli Marini, Villa Borghese
Piazza di Siena, Villa Borghese
It’s been a week full of holidays, actually. Friday was Earth Day, and a few days before here in Rome they had a free concert to celebrate, again in Villa Borghese, with Patti Smith. I absolutely love her, so it was great to be able to see her in person, fairly close up after weeding my way through the crowd as much as I could. I was a little disappointed she only played four songs (you get what you paid for, right?), since an Italian singer performed after her, but it was truly priceless hearing a huge crowd of Italians singing along in their crazy accents to her lyrics, or an approximation thereof.
Furthermore, the 23rd was International Book Day which saw 20% discounts in bookstore chains across the city, and today the 25th marks the anniversary of the day the Italians defeated Naziism/Fascism in World War Two. Nevermind the posters up around town for a neo-fascist rally being held today.
Patti Smith performing in Villa Borghese.
farmacia santa maria novella
La Farmacia-Profumeria di Santa Maria Novella is a small, very chic chain of perfume shops in the major cities of Italy (and a few around the world), but the one you must visit if you get a chance is the original in Florence, touted as “the oldest pharmacy in all of Europe.” It has been running continuously for at least 4 centuries now, though the earliest recorded iteration of the pharmacy dates back to 1381. It’s tucked on an unassuming street not far from the train station, in an old palazzo with a long, narrow marble entryway. When you do step up into the old “pharmacy” however, it’s just like stepping into the past, as everything is preserved, sometimes melodramatically so (see above).
There is of course a shop in the front hall, where you can buy everything from scented soaps and candles, to the popular astringent toner for the skin “Acqua di Rosa,” to other elixirs and of course their elegant perfumes.
As you wind your way back through the palazzo, they also have a museum of sorts, showing old painted urns which housed herbs and dried flowers in centuries past, and the old books of “recipes,” details on different ingredients and their supposed benefits to the skin and body, and gorgeous old copies of their pharmacy licenses and various honors in their long history.
Their other outposts around Italy don’t go into the history of the company in the same way, but they maintain the level of elegance and old-worldliness. Usually a single room shop lined with shiny wooden cabinets full of soaps and glass bottles, you must ring a bell to be let in, and then you are greeted by a woman in an immaculate white coat, blurring the line (as these concepts differ linguistically as well between Italian and English) between “pharmacy” and cosmetics.
La Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella is on Via della Rinascente in Rome
In Florence: Via della Scala, 16
day tripper in siena
Siena is a small city in the hills of Tuscany, incredibly popular with tourists because, within its walls, it is completely preserved with all its medieval architecture: narrow streets, imposing stone walls, little shops everywhere selling all the classic items — leather, silk scarves and ties, lithographs and prints, antiques, artisinal foods. If you want to step back in history, this is the place to go.
One of the things that the city is most known for is horses, because every June a legendary horse race takes place right through its central square, Piazza del Campo (which roughly translates to stadium square). The rest of the year, of course, this piazza just serves as the social heart of the city, a place where tourists and locals alike mill about and lounge around as soon as the sun is warm enough in the spring to do so.
From Rome, with one change of trains, the trip takes around three hours, which is a little longer than is ideal for a day trip, but passing through the hills of Tuscany as you do in the train is a worthwhile endeavor in itself, so it doesn’t feel like wasted time. Olive groves, crumbling old towns and farmhouses, hills with dew rising in the morning sun and horizons dotted with cyprus trees… It’s really like another world, not reality.
I had been to Siena before, and logic would probably state that I should have tried somewhere new, seen something else instead, but there’s something nice about going to a place you know you’ll love, that you know lives up to the hype. There are several other “medieval cities” around Tuscany, but Siena is probably considered the classic example.
Each neighborhood in the city has a symbol and colors to go along with it, in this case the turtle, with yellow and blue. Vendors around the Piazza del Campo sell scarves with each neighborhood’s insignia and colorful patterns, and in June you see them hung up around the city as flags, because it is these “teams” that compete in the horse race.
Cities throughout Tuscany are mostly comprised of red brick buildings, and shades of brown and orange stones, but in their cathedrals a popular style are these white and dark stripes, as seen below on Siena’s duomo. Think of Florence’s famous duomo, which has dark green stripes and also pinkish red ones along its sides, then a red brick dome. Against the intensely bright blue sky, it’s quite a contrast, especially in the haze and shadows of the narrow streets around.
“Antique” and modern styles of food shopping…
Carciofi (artichokes) 15 for 5 euros… not a bad deal. I read recently that they are technically a flower, which is why they are in season now in the spring.
While the beauty in Tuscany is breathtaking, even for someone who’s been in Italy long enough to take it for granted here in Rome, what I really love about the region is the atmosphere, the culture, at least what I perceive it as. The people in Tuscany seem so much nicer, so much friendlier than anywhere else. Maybe more like how Italy used to be years ago, provincial in a good way.
They’re used to the high volume of tourists I guess and they take it in stride, rather than having the cynical attitude toward it that we have in NY for example. The main piazza is filled with tourists, yes, but sitting there in the afternoon sun there were also lots of local people, a meeting place for friends to drop by, sit with a beer or bottle of wine, relax, read, talk (Compare with Times Square, which yes is a different scale, but a local wouldn’t be caught dead there). These cities like Siena and Florence and even Venice in a sense — they seem to find their own pace, their own rhythm underneath the bustle of so many strangers in and out each day. And because Siena is mostly a day-trip destination, as the afternoon wears on into evening, you see the population diminish, the sun fades, the city is all theirs again.
It’s pretty easy to tell Italians from tourists in Rome in April… The Italians will be those dressed still for winter, long coat, boots over their jeans, maybe even fur, while tourists (let’s face it, particularly Americans) treat the 60 degree weather as spring in shorts, t-shirts or polos, maybe a sweater in tow for the evening when it gets a little colder.
The Italians of course have a reputation for good style, perhaps not quite as chic or understated as the French, but they are associated with artisan quality, and things that read “Made in Italy” are coveted in fancy shops in the US.
Personally though I find Italian style somewhat disappointing, in the sense that to them “good taste” is basically all about uniformity. They have strict (if somewhat elusive to outsiders) rules about what to wear, when, and how. For example in October, when it was around the same comfortable temperature, I would wear pants, a jacket, ballet-flat shoes but no socks, fairly conservative I’d think compared to tourists who, yes, were sometimes still in shorts. Yet it was enough of a diversion from the Italian “rule” to be elicit remarks from several friends – “How can you go around without socks? Oh that’s right, you’re American, your feet don’t get cold.”
One of the clichés they love citing about Americans is that we wear flipflops all the time, summer, fall and winter, not to mention how many people I heard independently comment on this detail of Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe when “The Social Network” came out.
They don’t seem to think we’re the worst though; a common joke I’ve heard is to say someone looks like they got dressed with the lights off, “London style.” It’s all sort of ironic anyway, since they love traditional British brands, tons of people go around with fabric shopping bags from Harrod’s department store in England, and of course as in much of Europe young people love dressing in American sportswear style. The college Franklin and Marshall, actually – a small college in rural Pennsylvania – has a fairly lucrative chain of branded clothing here, which Italian teenagers seem to consider a sort of Abercrombie-light.
That said there are undeniably a lot of stylish people here, depending on where you go. Sometimes I’ll see a group of teenagers dressed up in suit jackets and jeans, colorful suede loafers, thick wavy hair and sunglasses, heading off to some event, and it’s like something straight out of a movie. There are the little old men in incredibly tailored suits, women hovering somehow over the cobblestones in stilettos and gorgeous dresses. I think you could say that it’s a stylish culture in general in the sense that everyone, even men, are very interested in the details of style – sunglasses, watches, and a sort of obsession with sneakers (favorites are Chuck Taylors, which they call All-Stars, and Hogan’s ridiculously priced sneakers). In my snobby opinion it’s not always a very elegant interest – you’ll see more people of both genders proudly wearing logo-emblazoned clothes and accessories, basically more status symbols than you might consider is really in good taste.
Others of their style “secrets” just seem to be practical, however, and perhaps we shouldn’t really give them so much credit. The French are probably more known for their stylish wearing of scarves and pashminas, but they’re incredibly common here as well. I think it just boils down to the questionable heating systems in most homes and buildings here, and the fact that that soft scarf around your neck makes all the difference in keeping that perpetual chill at bay. In the US we tend to even over-heat because our winters are so fierce, so the scarf like many accessories takes on a purely aesthetic purpose. They say now that Americans actually over-compensate, over-accessorize, another instant give-away. I’m not so sure though, I think with international brands like Zara, H&M, and so on, it’s harder and harder to tell the locals and other Europeans, Americans, and beyond apart.
Picture from Lonny Mag, an excerpt of Ines de la Fressange’s “Guide to Parisian Chic”
I think I have a problem…
With this whole language learning thing, I mean. First I started off with Spanish, studying it in school, then majoring in it in college and even going abroad with it to Barcelona (although of course the study abroad thing might have been part of why I did the major…). Then I decided to move to Italy to teach English, despite not knowing anyone here, not having any Italian ancestry or anything like that, and only knowing of the language what I had taught myself from reading in Italian, having picked up a couple silly novels when I had visited Italy.
Now, I still haven’t studied Italian formally but I get by, and I keep finding myself at… The French cultural center in Rome, Centre Saint Louis de France. They have a chock full calender of films, exhibitions, lectures, and book readings, and I just started going when there was a topic that particularly interested me, as a nice way to unwind when I was downtown after work.
There was a lecture about Andy Warhol and religious themes in his work which I thought should be interesting, but I went with low expectations of how much I would understand based on knowing other romance languages. And, in fact, the first speaker I had a hard time with. Slides going along with his points helped somewhat, but what I find difficult about French are the different accents and ways of speaking, some people are just phlegmy and slur and mumble and it sounds really awful, in my humble opinion. The second speaker though I fared better with; he was one of those slow-talkers who sort of has to think of each word himself before he says them, which obviously helped. I took some notes on what I did understand, and looking back at them afterwards I realized I had gotten quite a lot of it.
So at that point I was sort of hooked. Maybe I can learn this one too, at least a little. I went to other talks where I understood really about 1%, films where at least I could follow the basic story. Last week however I went to my favorite event yet, a book discussion with a French author who grew up in Rwanda before the war (if you can call it that) there. I understood enough to be interested in the book at the first talk, in French, and then luckily a few days later he gave another “conversation” at a small African bookstore here, where he had someone live translating to and from French for him, whispering in his ear as the interviewer spoke and so on (and as a geek, I find even little details like this totally fascinating). It soon switched to French though, of course, as most people in the crowd who asked questions did so in French. Still, once you have a little context you can understand more than you might think, if you just try and don’t give up. It was a fantastic experience and I managed to learn a lot.
I got the book (the Italian version though, I don’t want to completely frustrate myself) and it’s fascinating, really creative, a dialog of sorts between two parallel lives, one a mute boy living in the aftermath in Rwanda, and the other a girl who was born there, orphaned, adopted by a couple in Paris, and therefore grew up thinking herself disconnected from what happened. (The title is “Le Passé devant soi” in French if you are interested, I don’t believe it has been translated to English though.)
When I picked up my copy, I had it signed by the author, though I could only pronounce my name and say thank you in the most basic French. His translator offered to read me what he had written, but instead I waited and looked up the words I didn’t know when I got home, and there you have it, my first personal experience in yet another language.