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:

IMG_4172But we had fun once we figured out how to survive the disorder and drama of it all.  We skied through lunch and into the afternoon when crowds thinned.

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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:

Filling The Unforgiving Minute (And A Pocket…)

The barista who works in the coffee shop by the dome of St. Peter’s has a confession:

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned.  Last week I stole money from a lady who came into the bar for a cup of coffee.  She gave me a five Euro bill and I shorted her change.  She didn’t speak Italian very well but I still understood the righteous anger she lobbed over the counter at me. I prey on tourists because they are low hanging fruit on a money tree and I can’t resist the temptation to pocket easy change. I know it is particularly repugnant of me to steal on sacred ground.  For this and all of my sins, I am deeply sorry.”

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A greedy barista took my money but he didn’t steal the day.  Look at that sky!

IMG_2797After taking Eddie to the bus stop for school, (and on a whim)  I walked to the Vatican and climbed the dome and cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica.  It was early in the morning and the absence of crowds in a place that is always heavily touristed felt like magic. There were no lines at the entrance and no bodies to jostle inside.  It was easy to feel fully present without these distractions and to appreciate the noble beauty of the architectural feat capping the basilica. Conceived by Michelangelo after years of on-again, off-again work on St. Peter’s, and raised in 1590 by his student Della Porta, the dome is a masterpiece of monolithic proportion.  It rises 452 feet above the base of the church.  I believe it is still the highest free-standing dome in the world.

The history of the building of St. Peter’s makes for a good read in the hands of R.A. Scotti.  I recommend her Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal if you like easily digestible history and colourful story telling.

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Here’s a priceless photo of a minor car accident I was involved in a few weeks ago:

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Like ants to a picnic, the extended family of the other driver appeared within minutes of the collision.  Notice her father-in-law in the background trying to take Jim to the cleaners. Aunty, in the green shirt, offers a classically Italian gesture.  And the young sentinels, with hands on hips, guard the slightly damaged bumper.  The husband and another relative arrive after I shot this photo.

(The large Italian family might not live together anymore but they clearly work together…)

It took an hour to settle the excitement and to sign the insurance report that the father-in-law gleefully authored.

I was at fault (ish):  I hit the car while turning left but the other driver was clearly speeding down a hill and appeared out of the ether. It was the end of a long day celebrating Eddie’s birthday at a water park and I had six kids in tow, three in my car and three in Jim’s.

It was difficult to argue degree-of-fault in Italian because I have only a mildly functional command of the language.  (A muzzle to a Livieratos whose birthright it is to argue…)

While the Italian family was milling about and fussing-away my time with insurance paperwork, (do people really carry these forms in their car?),  I thought wistfully of India and of how a few hundred Rupees would have cleared the scene in minutes.

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More of the month in photos:

Dedicated To My Nephew, Pax

There were too many stories of instability and slaughter in the news this summer and George noticed. He asked me a few weeks ago:  Theo, when is the news going to stop talking about Gaza and return to Syria?  George is nearly 12 but he still sees the world in black and white and in terms of what is clearly right and wrong.

It won’t be long before he knows too much of life and the news becomes inexplicably grey and no longer makes sense again.  Clarity has a short life cycle.

I thought a visit to the altar of peace would be a good way to close this summer of inescapable headlines from across the globe and restless days trying to stay cool in Rome.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis sits along a turn on the Tiber River and features an exquisite memorial to peace commissioned by Octavian Augustus over 2000 years ago. The contemporary building is an unusual sight in this city of ancient monuments:

The Museo dell'Ara Pacis

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis

Augustus commissioned the altar to honor the Goddess Pax when he returned to Rome victorious after years of consolidating his vast empire.  Peace is a pleasure of the victors and Augustus knew well to offer tribute to his luck and to the Goddess who assured it.

Pax was a minor player on the shelf of Roman deities, dusted-off by Augustus and elevated to celebrity in the Fields of Mars near the northern gate of Rome.  Her beautifully carved marble monument didn’t stand alone.  A few hundred feet to the east Augustus erected an obelisk he had looted from Egypt.  He named the stone pillar after himself and crowned it with a gilded ball to enhance its shadow.  Every year on his birthday the maximum length of the obelisk’s shadow reached the Ara Pacis, uniting man and goddess in a powerful coupling of monuments.

And so began the cult of Augustus and the height of the Roman Empire.

The Pax Romana.

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The Pope took an opportunity to promote peace with a star-studded soccer match this week.  He organized The Interfaith Match for Peace to model cooperation and tolerance. The teams had Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist players and at least two adored soccer legends:  Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio.

The message?  Sportsmanship should extend beyond the field.

We took the boys in hopes of seeing Messi but he didn’t play because of an injury. The Pope was a no-show as well though he met the players earlier in the day. He also sent a televised greeting to the stadium.

The event was all too contrived for me.  There are plenty of quiet examples of tolerance and respect beyond corporate sponsored sporting events.  I think of India and its extraordinary diversity and of villages where Hindu and Muslim communities live and work together.  It’s an imperfect example because this diversity doesn’t always “bear witness to feelings of fraternity and friendship” as the Pope and the rest of us would like.  But hundreds-of-millions of Indians practice a daily scrimmage in their own interfaith match for a lasting and very real peace.  In these games, everyone wins.

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