Notes From A Negligent Blogger


So much to share, so little time to write!  Two months in brief:

Assisi:  When we go to church on Sundays Eddie fidgets with any loose object, working it like a worry bead, and George sits through mass and reads Dan Brown in quiet rebellion. Our high Anglican service is clouded in incense and lengthened with old hymns, a tough call to devotion for many modern church-goers, so I don’t fuss over the boys’ inattention.

A pilgrimage to Assisi to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis in May seemed a good option to supplement their religious education.  George surprised me with his enthusiasm for the trip.  He said Francis was “the only one of those guys I respect.”  He has a particular ability to avoid subtlety.

George found a gory symbol in the convent where we stayed near Assisi worthy of Robert Langdon’s attention.  (Clarification for my mother who I know has never read a Dan Brown novel: Langdon is Brown’s “symbologist”-protagonist.  Yes, mother, we know – symbology is a fictional profession.)

A graphic picture of a flaming heart stabbed with a sword hung on the wall in the entrance of the convent.  It genuinely spooked George and he pulled me aside during check-in to say he refused to sleep there.  I admit to not liking it much myself.  It was not embedded in a picture of Mary or Jesus and it looked rather gory and sinister hanging without context. I assured George the heart symbolized God’s humanity.  He looked at me as though to say I’d been drinking the Kool-Aid… or reading Dan Brown.

Thank you, Giotto, for saving the weekend with your loving and more assuring frescos of the life of Francis painted on the wall of the Basilica in Assisi.  You will recognize this one:

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We walked 13 kilometers from the convent in Spello to Assisi along a lovely path through rolling olive groves dotted with wild poppy.

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Birthday:  Olivia is 16!  We surprised her with a rooftop sunset dinner and unforgettable views of Rome.  The menu was strictly vegetarian which flummoxed the boys but they managed to find pasta that wasn’t  too “green.”  At home, we celebrated with cake and Lala’s new guitar:

Workshop:  I had a two-day gig working with a group of journalism students from Wake Forest University.  Their professor, Justin Catanoso, hired me to talk about human rights and the refugee crisis in Rome.  It was nice to be back in the classroom and to share a topic that preoccupies me these days.  While preparing for the class I found this quote from my uncle, who, along with my father and six other siblings, fled the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and then the Communist sweep across China.  On one leg of their journey, the family crossed the Bohai Sea.  My uncle’s account of that boat trip is little different from the stories I hear about refugees crossing the Mediterranean:

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Refugees:  I’d like to hang this beautiful photo over every Mare Mostrum poster in the city.  Here are some of the men I am working for to find creative solutions to the refugee housing crisis. As I write this note, Ibrahim in the pink and Baba in the jeans jacket are in urgent need of housing because as documented refugees they are no longer eligible for shelter provided during the asylum process.  Baba has a part-time job cleaning a refugee center and Ibrahim needs work.  He is a welder who owned his own business in the Ivory Coast before rival factions burned it down.  He has three children and a wife waiting to join him but he can’t support them in Italy yet and he can’t return home without fearing for his life. The other men are at various stages of hanging-on and trying to start a new life in Rome after surviving unimaginable journeys – at home, in transit across the Mediterranean, and now in Rome.

Goodbyes:  There are always too many every year.

 

And the rest of spring in photos:

 

 

 

A City Graveyard

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I agree with Oscar Wilde who called the protestant cemetery the holiest place in Rome. It is one of the most peaceful sanctuaries in a city teeming with tourists and traffic; that alone makes it sacred ground for me.

Nestled in a blind corner of a busy intersection, the cemetery hides all evidence of its urban perimeter. The park-like grounds are lush with permissibly overgrown plants and Rome’s famous pines enclose the space in a verdant veil.

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I dragged Olivia to the cemetery on a rainy Easter vigil. The moody weather and quiet holiday offered a perfect backdrop for our graveyard visit. Officially called The Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners, it contains the graves of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians, among others.  The cemetery also claims to have the highest density of important graves in the world.  An exaggerated brag?

Pere Lachaise, what say you?

Two notable names, literary greats John Keats and Percey Shelley are buried here.

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Like Oscar Wilde, Shelley also found himself enchanted with the cemetery.  “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place,” he wrote not long before he drowned sailing off the coast of Italy.  He was only 29 when he died.

Many of the other graves have elaborate memorials and poetic epitaphs:

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Also this month, we joined Jim on a work trip to Lecce, an ancient city located on the heel of the Italian boot.

 

The Dolomites

There will be no humble brags in this post.   I booked a ski vacation in Val Gardena in South Tyrol last month and took Eddie for what was an unparalleled week of sport and dining set against sublime views of the Dolomites.  It was an opportunity well-worth slicing out of the budget.  Eddie found his balance and speed after a week of lessons and Mama pushed herself harder than she has in decades.  We were with friends who knew the valley and hosted our itinerary to perfection.

The week included a lovely day alone in the snowy quiet of the woods hiking to a sacred bluff above Ortisei where the 13th-century chapel of San Giacomo sits with a postcard view of the Sassolungo.  The weather was blustery and clouds sped across the dramatic landscape.  Quick-moving shadows and the staccato appearance of the sun created what felt like a time-lapse video of the view.  That afternoon a tree fell on a cable car line and 200 people had to be rescued by helicopter.  I had chosen a good day to rest from skiing.

The rest of the week:

If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride

 

I visited Italy for the first time as a little girl over forty years ago.  Among many lovely memories of that trip to Florence, Pisa and Venice, are two, more shocking snapshots:  a dead cat that clearly met a violent end and was rotting on the side of a path on Murano Island (location correct?); and gypsy children begging on a bridge.  I now know they were Roma.

I had never seen beggars even though I lived in Baltimore, a rough, industrial city brought to popular attention by the brilliant and accurate TV series, The Wire.  On that long-ago bridge, the children sat with outstretched arms and pleadings faces.  Maybe their mothers were selling trinkets?  I don’t remember that detail.  I had never seen such a display of active poverty and the picture stuck in my young head.  My father would try to divert my attention and buffer me from the scene.  He did this with the cat, as well, because we had to pass it several times and he knew I was curious enough to sneak a peak.

New York City is the only place I have lived in the States where I remember regularly seeing mendicants.  I gave money when I felt moved by some extra-ordinariness of the situation but mostly I ignored them.  That was 17 years ago.

In China, there were a few beggars near some of the tourist markets.  They were either crazy or careless, but they had to be one or the other to dare work a sidewalk that way. Eventually the police intervened and they disappeared.

India had more desperate and deformed beggars than my conscience could bear.  They were hungry, homeless and many suffered lost limbs and grotesque, unimaginable indignities.  I gave money, sometimes, but mostly offered food and clothes and even limited friendship, as I’ve written about in my India postings.

And now, in Italy once more, I have frequent and regular contact with beggars who line the streets of my daily routine.  Like in New York, beggars in Rome seem incongruous in the bustle and wealth of the city, but there are many, some clearly more needy than others, who take the opportunity to ply the sympathy of tourists.  Most of the beggars are Roma.

Some women kneel, prone and folded with their arms extended, hands cupped to receive a coin:

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There is one young girl who works busy intersections in the center of town but I don’t see her often because she rotates location.  She approaches my car and paints a soapy heart with a squeegee on the windshield and smiles to ask if it is OK to wash the window.  I always say yes and give her a Euro.

Simone, one of my near-daily regulars works the Ponte Sisto.  He stands all day on the bridge, leaning on a cane with one hand, his hat outstretched for coins with the other. We’ve given Simone bags of clothes and shoes but most often, money.  I also buy nuts or fruit for him.  And, on Valentines Day, I gave him a copy of this photo:

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Simone helped me on Christmas Eve when I tripped over a chain fence while running on the bridge.  The fall knocked the wind out of me and the chain scraped and bruised my shins and ankles.  He stood by me while I caught my breath and slowly collected myself. Then he helped me stand up and made sure I was OK.

Maurizio offers items of convenience for a donation and he works an intersection near my apartment:

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He’s a pleasure to see because he always smiles and offers kisses into his hand as a gesture of thanks.  When I don’t have change to give him he never seems to mind.  He gives me a pack of tissues anyway.

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Mayor Marino, why didn’t you cancel the soccer match between Roma and the Dutch team Feyenoord last week after Dutch fans trashed the Spanish steps and other precious sites in Rome?

Is it because Soccer Is Sacred and the favor doesn’t extend to Rome’s antiquities?

Shame on everyone who did this and let it happen (photos from Reuters):

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And the rest in pics:

Buon Anno, 2015

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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa but you won’t find him in Rome.  Christmas here is a quiet affair and it doesn’t seem to include the jolly St. Nicholas. The official season begins on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Only then do a few Christmas lights and modest decorations appear on some streets.  (You might say it’s all very tasteful.)  It’s possible to walk for blocks in Rome and see no evidence of the holiday season with the exception of an increased number of shoppers.  Some churches display kitschy nativity scenes lightly dusted and possibly reused for centuries.  I have yet to sight a Santa but Italians do suspend their disbelief for the Befana witch who fills children’s stockings with candy on Epiphany.  Apologies to my Italian friends but I think she’s a creepy-looking ambassador of generosity and more a character for Grimm than goodwill.

Speaking of characters, look who joined us on Christmas morning:

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Mom visited as well and we had a lovely week with her.  We toured the Roman port city at Ostia and the countryside villa of Emperor Hadrian.  We also went to the aqueduct park near the old Roman road, Via Appia.

 

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There’s little snow in the Alps so far this year and limited skiing in Northern Italy.  We canceled our plans to head north after Christmas and instead, chased snow to the south, in the Apennine mountains of Abruzzo.  They are part of the range that runs north-south along the spine of central Italy.  All of Napoli was seemingly there as well.  The city is only 90-minutes from several local ski resorts in the region.  Skiing with Neapolitans and living to tell the tale is a blessing! Our resort was not equipped to manage the assertive holiday crowd and many skiers seemed oblivious to customary safety regulations, such as slowing down when you reach lower runs trafficked with children and novice skiers.  Lift lines looked like a rugby scrum:

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December:

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Happy New Year to our family and friends!

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Refugees

The day before Thanksgiving I toured a neighborhood near Rome’s central train station with a young man who spent his first months in the city homeless.  He slept on the sidewalk beside the station, washed his clothes in fountains and ate at soup kitchens when he lined up early enough and before the food ran out. He shared his story with a small group of us who wanted to know more about the homelessness that befalls many refugees in Rome. He had already lived a nightmare that stretched from Mali to Libya and Malta before he came to Italy. He was just 21 when he landed in Rome on a Ryan Air flight, an odd detail that lies outside the typical path to this city for the current influx of refugees. Otherwise, his story is not unlike thousands of other people fleeing conflict or crumbling economies in nations in Africa and in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan among other countries in crisis. One of the easiest gateways to Europe is Italy because of its proximity to north Africa and narrow passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

My tour guide still lives in a state of threatening crisis but he has applied for asylum in Italy and now lives in a shelter for refugees.  His life became more organized when he found a day facility that offers small meals, personal supplies, language classes and legal aid to refugees and migrants.

Now he works part-time at the center and he finds other odd jobs and opportunities to earn money.  Still, he lives a precarious existence.  Staying legal requires him to perpetually manage annual applications for temporary asylum.  He says it sometimes takes eight months to renew just one of three required documents.  Imagine the energy and organization needed to manage this bureaucracy while hungry and homeless and stateless.

Applying for asylum in Rome doesn’t guarantee housing or the meager benefits afforded refugees.  Record numbers of people are coming to Italy – nearly 130,000 this year alone – and many of them end up Rome.  There are not enough shelters here and applicants have to wait for housing.  It also takes time to get into the system and there’s a dearth of emergency housing for the undocumented.  In the interim, refugees sleep on the streets.

This is one of the reasons why I am working with four other volunteers on an emergency housing initiative.  We want to open a 30-bed shelter for refugees in need of immediate, temporary housing.  Ideally, the center would become a replicable prototype and eventually, a network of centers would open and share resources, such as medical care, teachers and counsellors.  We have an awesome team and it includes the young man I write about in this post.  I am confident that something will come of this effort.  But it is sobering to keep in mind that a temporary bed is just the beginning of another long and uncertain journey for asylum seekers.  Most have already suffered enormous tragedy just getting to Italy.  Applying for refugee status and finding employment necessary to become independent and to obtain legal residency is a journey far longer than the passage across the Mediterranean.

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Here’s a visual narrative of the weeks not mentioned above. It starts with a trip to London, where I joined my step family for a reunion during Remembrance weekend:

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I took Olvia and George to Florence.  George commanded the camera:

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And a few more moments in our month:

 

 

 

 

Noon On High

 

In this city of bells another sound hails the arrival of noon:

 

 

The boom comes from a cannon that’s ignited every day to commemorate the liberation of Italy.  It reminds me of the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture when bells and booms crescendo in victory.  My backyard version of the music includes the chatter of birds surprised by the explosion.

The cannon sits on top of the Janiculum hill just above our apartment.  I still jump with surprise if I’m not braced for the sound even though I’ve heard its thunder nearly every day for a year.

Last week I climbed the hill to witness the daily ceremony.  I live only a few hundred meters away but my rituals take me downhill so I hadn’t yet met the cannon.  It was time to be neighbourly.

And envious.

She occupies prime real estate on a bluff overlooking the city.  It’s one of the best views in town:

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A few minutes before noon soldiers wheel the cannon out of storage and pack it with an empty shot:

 

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What do you do with a herd of 10-year-old boys who have no school on an odd Friday?You take them to Piazza Farnese to play soccer.  They prefer to play on a grassy field but the mommies are in charge on this day and we choose a cobblestone pitch in the shadow of a Michelangelo masterpiece that is decidedly good as any stretch of dirt and grass.  We know the boys will chase a ball on any surface.  Not long after the game started a few bigger guys visiting from Hungary joined the fun and other tourists stopped to watch and cheer:

 

 

And the mommies?  We sat at a corner café with a perfect view of it all and sipped an aperitivo…

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October kicked off with an afternoon boat ride in the bay of Naples to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday:

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And more of Rome this month: