It’s a monthly routine for pubic transportation staff go on strike in Rome. The strikes barely heighten the chaos of an already choked transport network and riders maneuver the inconvenience as easily as Roman motorcycles weave through lanes of traffic.
However, when the sanitation department went on strike last week, the impact felt personal. One day of no street cleaning and trash collection transformed the charming city center into a maze of sticky and stinking alleyways piled with trash. Doorways were blocked and public bins overflowed with tourist debris. Sanitation strikes don’t happen often, but when they do, everyone feels the mess:
My friend, Justin Catanoso, head of the Journalism department at Wake Forest University is in town with an awesome group of budding writers. Justin has a big heart for the refugee story. He invited me back this year to kick-off his students’ investigation into the refugee crisis in Rome, even though he knows I tend to hog the podium when I have a captured audience. This is the second year I’ve turned a 90-minute presentation into a three-hour event. Thank you for rolling with me, Justin!
My lecture gave context to the refugee crisis but the students gained real understanding the next day when they worked at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. Within days of arriving from the groomed lawns of the North Carolina Triad, the young journalists stepped into a corner of the refugee crisis and met the men who give rise to the wave of history that dominates the news in Europe. The women skillfully blended among the guests in the center – they cooked lunch, taught an English class, and learned about the challenges of integrating from the men who seek refuge there. The students’ blog posts reflect an understanding of policy and the personal: the Dublin regulations that traffic asylum applications in Europe and the emotional bruising refugees endure along their journey to become protected and productive members of their host communities – a dream hard-won in Italy where the economy can’t absorb its own youth.
Singer/Songwriter Emmylou Harris was in Rome this week in preparation for a series of fall concerts to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis and the good work of Jesuit Refugee Services:
I had an insightful conversation with a JRS regional head who oversees refugee camps in Chad. He says the world knows too little of the more than 300-thousand Sudanese refugees who live there and suffer from famine, reduced aid and undocumented hardships. He’s been doing this job for 18-months and says it’s enormously stressful work. He travels between camps with military escort and is constantly aware of danger and human suffering. Work trips back to Rome offer temporary relief. I wonder if he felt this particular event, hosted on the roof of an ambassadorial home and overlooking the riches of the eternal city, seemed an incongruous, yet necessary part of his work?
And on Sunday in Rome:
I spotted a doggy in church…
And this is what greeted me as I stepped onto my street to run an errand:
Finally – Prom, a trip home, and a broken wrist:
We left the U.S. in 2003 when Olivia was four years old. She turns 17 this week and her heart is bigger than her years:
Inspired by Brandon Stanton of Humans in New York fame, she leads a group of volunteers to help the less fortunate on the streets of Rome. The volunteers deliver coffee, tea and personal supplies and they offer their time to visit with people living and working outside. Olivia has guided this project since September and has become friendly with some of the familiar faces she meets on her regular walks. Among the homeless and peddlers is an electrical engineer from Constantinople, a disabled man who scoots around the city sitting on a skateboard, and migrants from Senegal and Liberia who say they “have aged here” in Rome. Check out their stories on the Humans of Rome Facebook page.
The bathroom bill in North Carolina got me thinking about the flexible public bathroom arrangements in Italy. Olivia’s school offers a good example: Upstairs near the library are segregated bathrooms for men and women, just as you would find in the U.S. Downstairs by the cafeteria, are two enclosed unisex stalls and one shared sink. Larger facilities such as the airport or the mall, usually offer separate bathrooms. However, it’s not unusual for segregated toilet space to feed into a common sink area. Smaller venues usually don’t segregate.
A final note about public bathrooms in Rome: Often there’s no toilet seat (I’ll spare you a photo) and a feature I love – foot peddles for flushing and controlling the sink water.
My local chapter of Negligent Mommies united this weekend at a thermal spa outside of Rome for a menu of mud wraps and other not-so-easily translatable therapies, such as “percorso vasculare.” The sulphur-infused waters have soothed and healed bodies for thousands of years and were popular with ancient Romans and Etruscans. In Canto XIV of the Inferno, Dante alludes to these hot springs and the “sinful women” who bathed there…
Therapy most satisfying: A day with my divine (and not-so-sinful) friends.
Note the gender-neutral dressing rooms at the spa:
The usual smorgasbord of photos to keep you posted on our activities:
And a trip down memory lane: On the Brahmaputra River with mom.
Vignettes to bring you up to date:
The Christmas season in Rome is always lovely and refreshingly simple. You won’t find fat Santas or any such secular kitsch. The shopping heats up slightly but the commercial drive is never overdone. I received an email from my favorite Roman dress shop explaining the American concept of Black Friday and inviting me to a sale. It read:
Che cosa è il Black Friday ? Nasce da una tradizione americana , è un’idea prenatalizia nata negli Stati Uniti e legata al giorno del Ringraziamento che si festeggia giovedì 26 Novembre ( sempre l’ultimo giovedì del mese di Novembre ). What is Black Friday? It is an American tradition born in the US and linked to the Thanksgiving holiday which is always the last Thursday of November.
Our holidays also included a Christmas eve prosecco overlooking Rome at sunset and a retreat to the mountains to celebrate the new year.
Don’t miss the photo below of men eating a holiday meal at The Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. The seats turned several times and the men transitioned peacefully even though it’s not easy to leave a warm room or a warm meal when you don’t have a home. The men reflected a collective sadness yet each person was gracious and polite and thankful for our service. There were smiles, too…
For my 50th birthday in January, five friends surprised me and flew to Rome for a weekend celebration. They scattered their arrivals to string-along the surprise multiple times over, each appearing at different moments as my weekend unfolded: Kristi arrived during dinner while I ate at a favorite bar with Jim; Becky came during dessert. Jennifer snuck into the house the next morning while I curled on the sofa nursing a headache after celebrating the night before with wickedly strong margaritas. Vivian appeared a few hours later while I was still on the sofa. After a day had passed with my gorgeous global posse and when I thought for sure the surprises were over, I found Tao in the kitchen drinking tea on Saturday morning as if it were natural to eat dinner in Hong Kong the night before and have breakfast in Rome the next day.
Ladies, I will never forget your gift of travel and friendship and the joy I felt being surrounded with all that love. And a special shout-out to my wonderful husband who orchestrated the weekend to perfection. He not only arranged for my friends to come, but he rented for us a separate penthouse apartment and threw a surprise party with local friends at two exceptional venues: the Bramante Cloisters and the roof-top terrace of the Hotel Raphael, with one of the most stunning views in all of Rome.
How do you pass a random day in Rome? You go to an abandoned, crumbling hilltop village now habited by squatter-artists who promote the scandalous myth that the village church once housed the foreskin of Jesus. The relic mysteriously disappeared a few decades ago but the story and the eclectic collection of ateliers calls to the curious – like me!
And finally, a few random photos to mark the days here. Don’t miss the first one of a homeless man sleeping along my running route. He’s there every day, sometimes awake, sometimes bundled and asleep, like here. Notice the seagull sitting by his side. Is that you, Jonathan Livingston?
“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.”
Living in Rome is all about the arabesque – the silky moments along the way that make life majestic, like watching Eddie play soccer on a field below an ancient Roman wall, or driving home from George’s karate class along a breathtaking skyline of domes. Lunch in the kids’ school cafeteria sits like a rainbow of color on a plate: grilled salmon, ciccoria and roasted vegetables. And like a diva worthy of La Scala, Lala fills the house with her unforgettable alto. She sings when she is happy and she sings a lot in Rome.
There’s a preponderance of little luxuries here. It’s often sunny, the food is divine, the views are sublime, and healthcare is free. Safe children, clean air, sparkling water. People linger at the bar over coffee or at a favorite sidewalk café sipping Campari. Ciao cara! They rouse fervor for soccer, going on strike, and love. Mamma mia!
One day Italians will know labour reform, fair tax laws and government efficiency. But then they might live to work instead of work to live. Meanwhile, living well seems like labour enough.
I saw a man the other day using the speakerphone on his “cellulare” because he couldn’t hold the phone to his ear and talk with his hands at the same time. It tickled me to see him yelling at the phone while it danced in front of him in tandem with his gestures.
It was an Italian arabesque.
I’ve written about the light in autumn before. It never gets dull here:
And more to keep you posted on our days:
We are back two weeks and still settling in to our seasonal routine. I am happy to write that it feels good to be home and to see Rome with fresh eyes again as we did in the early days of our move here. It tickles me to see nuns sorting their recycling at the neighborhood trash bins and the old men sitting watch faithfully every night around the corner from our apartment. The grumpy gardeners in the botanical garden next door seem less grumpy. Or maybe I am less grumpy. This summer I missed the drinking water that pours icy cold from the taps in Rome, and drying my clothes on a line in the clean, breezy air. No one seems to do that in the US anymore. Whatever the charms, they will likely blend into the grittier side of Rome when the spell of homecoming wears off. For now though, in the words of Louis Armstrong, I think to myself, what a wonderful world…
As promised to my village, proof of our summer sillies. Let’s start with the laughs and High Tide Poker in the OBX:
Moving on to the Cereal Box Game in Bethany Beach:
And a roundup of other smiles and good times. Apologies for any moments missing. My phone died and I can’t retrieve the photos on it.
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:
We walked 13 kilometers from the convent in Spello to Assisi along a lovely path through rolling olive groves dotted with wild poppy.
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:
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: