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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Lingering in the Golden Gleam

There’s oodles to share and anxious grandparents waiting to see what we have managed to do with ourselves on this side of the Atlantic this summer.  And so, fewer words and more photos to share our news…

I wanted to start the kids’ summer vacation with them volunteering at a refugee center but local, under-18 liability details interfered with my plans.

But we did spend a day in June cleaning the garden of the monastery at San Gregorio al Celio.  The church dates back to 575 when Pope Gregory the Great built a monastery on the grounds of his family home.  The kids scooped-up rotting oranges from under citrus trees and I went mano-a-mano with monstrous, weedy vines.  It was an easy morning of labor  and a good way to show the kids that outreach doesn’t have to be grandiose.  Small tasks can transform a messy garden into a tidy space and this is reason enough to make the effort.

(You can read more about the garden project here:  http://www.wantedinrome.com/news/2003283/rome-s-ecumenical-garden.html)

 

We traveled to England to visit friends in the Cotswolds:

 

 

And finally – a longed-for visit to Cornwall:

 

 

 

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll…

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You don’t have to like rock music to appreciate a Rolling Stones concert at Circo Massimo. Seventy-one thousand people packed the grounds of the ancient stadium to see the 50th anniversary performance of the iconic band in Rome this week.  I suspect that many were there, like me, to witness the electronic rock spectacle in the sunset glow of the Imperial Palace and the Palatine Hill.  I also wanted to see if the nearly 71-year-old Mick Jagger could still gyrate across a stage for two hours.

He can.

And shake, rattle, and roll he did, much like the chariots that once raced in Circus Maximus two thousand years ago.  The rest of the original band defied age as well with nearly two hours of good-old-fashioned rocking and rolling, though Keith Richards looked more like an air-guitar-playing anachronism than lead guitarist.  (I don’t think he plucked more than three notes.)  Still, this performance of the 14-On-Fire world tour was worth every centesimo of the 90-Euro ticket.

That I got to take my daughter to her first concert in such a memorable venue is priceless.

(He mom, do you remember that you wouldn’t let me go to the Rolling Stones concert in Philadelphia in 1981?  But you did let me see the Village People in 1978 – my first concert.  A precious factoid… )

 

Also this week, an outdoor performance of a different genre:  Bizet’s Carmen with a stunning backdrop of the Baths of Caracalla.

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And more:

Rose Petals And The Pantheon


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The Pantheon is deeply weighted with marble and Roman cement and two thousand years of pagan and Christian history.  It’s capped by the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and it looms heavy and colossal in an area of the city dense with alleys and old buildings.  The small piazza outside the Pantheon slopes into the portico as though it were tilting under the load of the building.

Among all this weight floated rose petals today.  They fell from the Oculus in the middle of the dome during a special mass to celebrate Pentecost.

The unlikely sight of flowers cascading from the sky to the rotunda below made me cry. This involuntary response wasn’t preceded by a noticeably powerful emotion and so it surprised me.  I didn’t feel the tears until my cheeks were wet.

But I was moved by the moment, as if awed by a brilliant sunset or some other natural wonder.  Nothing less.

Maybe my tears fell in harmony with the petals:  pushed over the edge of my body like the roses thrown from the roof of the Pantheon.

The floating petals reflected the sunlight and some of the red burst into flecks of explosive brightness.  It was all rather magical.

And unbearably beautiful.

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Tuscany:

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A few other bits: