Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Once upon a time, I had a broken leg...

These are the archives of the blog I kept for most of 2008 after I broke my leg badly in a scooter accident in Rome.

There's no real theme or order, and it mainly served as a place to vent frustrations and combat boredom in what were a trying and sometimes lonely few months. Feel free to have a gander.

Oh and by the way, I nowadays have a fully functioning leg with just the occasional slight hint of a limp. Just enough to permit me to be the one to suggest sitting down for a drink after a hard day's sightseeing or duck out of that sunday-morning jog....well, there have to be some compensations!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mistaken Identity

A while ago I wrote about the feisty vecchio (old man) who lives upstairs. He's been a bit quieter of late after a hospital scare and enforced bed rest but he's often there on his balcony during the day keeping a menacing vigil over the parking spaces which lie alongside his garden. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a little afraid of him, and in fact often when we leave in the morning I involuntarily twist my head upwards in search of the lurking flat cap above. E's started revving the car when we get in it just to see my reaction ("shhhh, just go for goodness' sake, he'll hear us" "But the car's not warmed up yet" replies E with a wicked glint in his eye).

Anyway, yesterday I was at home for my lunch break when there was a fierce knocking at the door. I opened the door and lo and behold, there was il vecchio.
"Erm, buongiorno" I began nervously
"Oh, your Dad's not in then?" he asked
"Mi scusi?"
"Your Dad's not here?" he began to glower suspiciously
"Ummmm. No my boyfriend's not here" I replied confusedly
"Whose is that car?" he gestures, jabbing with his walking stick at a car parked just outside
"I don't know, sorry"
(Grunts) "Right. Well don't forget to tell your dad that he's not allowed to park there. Good day."

Poor old E. Maybe it's time he shaved off that burgeoning beard. At least now I can be safe in the knowledge that any problems il vecchio has with me he'll take up with my dad rather than shouting at me!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Searching for cliches

I thought I knew what to expect when I came to Italy almost a year and a half ago. I was looking for passion, for warmth, for colour, for shouts of ‘mamma mia’, for chilsel-cheekboned lotharios, for steaming plates of hot lasagne.

At the beginning I searched hard for my clichés in what I considered all the right places. My search began at my rented accommodation- all I had was a scribbled address and name ‘Maria Santini’. Well that sounded authentic enough, I reasoned, sure I was about to meet a homemade pasta-rolling matriarch with curly dark hair who would clutch me to her bosom and reclaim me as the long-lost English daughter she never had. Imagine my disappointment when she had short mousy brown hair, a nervous disposition and sat alone in front of the TV eating salads at mealtimes because she was on a permanent diet. The day she charged me four Euros for using her washing machine I gave up on her and moved the search for clichés elsewhere.
But the Italians of my imaginings didn’t seem to want to come out of the woodwork. In bars that I went to more than twice I was still met with disinterested indifference by the barista. The only chisel-cheeked lotharios who showed any interest were those that seemed to frequent the Irish bars of Rome taking advantage of the starry-eyed foreign girls looking for an Italian Stallion. And when you got up close these sorry specimens of the male species were more acne-scarred than chisel-cheekboned. People on the street, instead of shouting, gesturing and exclaiming ‘mamma mia’ every two seconds were rude and pushy and on the buses they didn’t stand up for the eldery people.

So I gave up hope. Disappointed by the Italians, I stopped looking for clichés and immersed myself in my new relationship with my Albanian boyfriend and friendship with my international friends. Some time passed, all my international friends left and I had a bad motorbike accident leaving me practically immobile with a broken leg for some time. Forced to dedicate some real time to getting to know people the real Italy started to reveal itself to me. The staff at the local bar always wanted the latest medical update and were cheering me on. An old local at the bar stopped me every day for a chat because he too had crutches, and we compared progress stories. When I went to the hospital for check-ups the nurses I had gotten know when I was inside crowded round me, wanting kisses. One of the doctors told me I was so much more bellissima out of hospital robes and aforementioned Albanian boyfriend nearly punched him. (Quite chiselled cheekbones but also a prominent bald patch unfortunately).

And the list went on. I realised that before, I had expected these clichés to appear through a series of disconnected encounters with strangers and bar staff. Once I spent some time with Italians I discovered that the clichés do, to some extent, exist. There are my students who thank me after a class for a ‘beautiful lesson’. There’s my boyfriend’s best friend who parks his car on double yellow lines, switches the hazard lights on then strolls to the bar for a leisurely coffee. There’s the barista at the bar near work who sings while he’s making the coffee. There are Italians who are warm, generous, passionate, exuberant and full of life. Just don’t make my mistake and expect them to fall in your lap.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why not to trust your tutore

Do you ever get the feeling you've been taken for a ride? How do you feel afterwards? Angry? Frustrated? Humilliated? Bewilldered? Outraged? Disappointed? E and I got taken on the ride of our lives this week and much as I think it's incredibly dull to read other people's moaning 'why me' stories I'm going to tell you about it anyway and if you don't like whingeing you can stop reading now!

Let me start from the beginning. On leaving hospital after my iron-removal work I was told that the next stage of the therapy would involve wearing some kind of plastic leg support, a tutore. The doctor, who I have known since February, informed me that tutores were hard to find. 'But don't worry!' he told me 'I know a place that stocks them. Here is their phone number and the name of the product you need'.

Armed with our information we phoned a couple of days later. The shop had them in stock, but it was some distance away so we planned to go on the only morning E could get free from work. This also happened to be the day before I was due in hospital to have the thing put on.

Off we set, and two hours of murderous traffic later arrived at a somewhat uncomprimising looking, poky sanitaria. Already feeling slightly out of kilter by this discovery seeing as there is a sanitaria in every neighbourhood in Rome we went in and were told that the tutore they had was for the right, not left leg. And it cost 114 Euro. 'I can get you the left leg by tomorrow morning, or you could ask elsewhere if you're in a rush' the girl told us. Some not-so-probing questions later confirmed our suspicions that yes, this was an ordinary run-of-the-mill sanitaria and not, as we had been led to believe, a tutore churning-out super-shop.

We left the shop, sat in the car and looked at eachother in disbelief. We were bewildered, and kept going round in circles trying to find an obvious answer to why our doctor would send us here for no apparent reason. This was the doctor who spoke to me in Englsih when I arrived hurt and confused in hospital. He liked chatting to E about pizza toppings. It didn't make sense.

After a while E's mouth set in a grim line. As we set off to go and look for the tutore in one of the hundreds of sanitarias in Rome the anger began. There ensued lots of steering-wheel bashing and some very colourful language. I was caught between begging to be let out of the car as he stormed angrily down resedential streets and trying not to laugh at the fantastic Italian curses raining out of his mouth (how about porca madonna- pig madonna, anyone?).

As we raced back towards town desperately trying to find the thing before the next days' appointment I made myself as small as possible in the passenger seat and while E started yelling abuse and honking his horn in response to some minor road infringement I began to feel that very British form of anger- outrage. I was outraged that a doctor in a public hospital could make such a 'recommendation'. Outraged that he had the nerve. Outraged by the betrayal of trust. So I sat and nursed my outrage while pig madonnas were cursed all around me and we passed a very tense hour trip back to the city.

Finally, when we later came to talk about it with our friends we were humilliated when they pointed out to us what we already knew- that he had taken us for a ride because we are foreigners and therefore easy prey for this particularly Italian brand of furbizia, or cunning. My doctor knew that at the time I couldn't walk, that E worked, and that we had no one else to help us out, yet he still sent us miles out of town to find what we could have found on our doorstep. We felt stupid.

And now? I'm mainly disappointed that this could happen in the public health system and will be more wary in the future. It may seem like I'm making an unncecessary hoo-ha about this, but it really was a spectacular waste of E's time and my money, both of which we have in short supply (the nurse asked me in hospital why I had splashed out and bought the branded tutore...yep, you guessed it, the brand was there specified on my handy doctor's note). This one's definitely getting labelled under 'Italian Puzzles'.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rome on a budget

Hello! Sorry for the prolonged delay in posting, I have been doing lots of leggy activities, and am pleased to report that after 6 months of my leg cage I am finally iron-free and (almost) back to normal! I'm sure I'll bore you all with leg-related stories in the next few days but right now I am utterly bored of talking about it so it'll have to wait. Instead, inspired by another visitor to Rome with a strict budget, today I thought I'd share some of my favourite budget activities and tips (I'm not talking about the free monuments/churches which are in every guidebook but my personal favourite experiences) that I put into action for my inpoverished recently-graduated friends when they make the trip over. Please add any of your own, it would be great to extend my itinerary!

So here are some of my tips for anyone who wants to enjoy the eternal city without stretching their wallet:


1) Pack a picnic instead of splashing out on lunch; there’ll be no end of picturesque monuments to eat it sitting on. Supermarkets are few and far between in the city centre but you’ll find one downstairs in Termini station where you can pick up the essentials.

2) Alternatively go to the institute that is the Italian Bar to get lunch. All bars should have a selection of panini which, as long as you don’t sit down in the bar, won’t cost the earth. Either take it away or eat it standing at the bar with the locals.

3) Don’t waste your money on rip-off bottled water, take a bottle out with you and fill it up from the numerous free water fountains around the city.

4) For a snack on the go find a pizzeria al taglio (a small takeaway pizzeria), and ask for pizza bianca. It is basically plain pizza base with oil and salt and the cheapest type of pizza you can find. It doesn’t sound that promising but it is surprisingly delicious and will satisfy a mid-morning hunger pang. Even better, in this type of pizzeria you can choose the size of your slice so if you really do only have one Euro left in your wallet you can shamefully produce this in the palm of your hand and the server will cut you a piece the appropriate size (yes, this has happened to me).

5) Make the most of the happy hour offers at Campo de’ Fiori. This bar and restaurant-lined piazza is a famous nighttime hotspot but enjoying a drink there after dark might well use the whole of your next day’s budget. Go from late afternoon to early evening; the atmosphere is not as buzzing but it is still a great spot to enjoy a drink and watch the world go by while spending only 4-5 Euro per drink.


1) Look through the magic keyhole on the Aventine Hill. Find your way to Circus Maximus, turn off at Piazzale Ugo la Malfa and walk up the hill until you find Piazza Cavalieri di Malta. Here you will see an unassuming door with a keyhole in the middle and possibly a short queue of tourists in front of it. Join the queue to enjoy a spectacular view of St. Peter’s Basilica framed by the trees that line the garden immediately behind the door. Then go and enjoy the ‘Garden of the Oranges’ which sits next to the piazza. In the garden you will find lots of stray cats and a 180 degree panoramic view of the city. A quiet and relaxing hour or two above the city and away from the crowds.

2) Shop for bargains at the market. Forget Porta Portese, the famous Sunday market in Trastevere. In my opinion it’s overrated and stupidly overcrowded, which means to have a chance at getting near the stalls you have to be there at ridiculous o’clock on a Sunday morning. Instead get the metro to San Giovanni where just out of the exit at Via Sannio there is an eminently more manageable market that runs every morning from Monday to Saturday. As well as new clothes there are second-hand clothes stalls where every item is 3-5 Euro, and vintage clothes stalls. Also in evidence are an abundance of the usual fake designer bags, belts, watches etc, if that’s your thing.

3) Walk around the old Jewish Quarter. Take a right off Piazza Venezia and wander round the streets between here and Largo Argentina which are narrow, shady and usually quiet. Look out for the unusual turtle fountain in Piazza Mattei and the Jewish Bakery (Via Portico D’Ottavia 1). It’s tiny, has no sign outside and you are unlikely to be served with a smile by the gruff old ladies behind the counter but it is the perfect place to pick up a delicious (and often still warm) treat to eat in the piazza.

4) On a sunny day go for a stroll or sunbathe in the huge Villa Borghese, taking aforementioned picnic. If you have a few Euro spare take an electric tram ride around the park or go pedal-boating on the lake.

5) Top peoplewatching exercise: Go to Piazza Di Spagna in the early evening and hang out on the steps for a while with the teenagers posing in ridiculously huge sunglasses and the foreign exchange students. Afterwards head straight down Via Condotti. Here, have a gawk in the windows of Prada, Dior and Gucci whilst admiring the groups of beautiful young people and the old ladies in fur coats taking their tiny dogs out for an evening stroll.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

First week of the new term

This is what Rome feels like in September. The city practically empties of its inhabitants for the month of August and they all reconverge in September to compare tans, sing the praises of this year's chosen holiday coastline and make the most of the last of the good weather by fitting in as many gelatos as possible.

This week was also literally the first week of the new term for me at the language school where I work. Since I've been doing nothing but working, eating gelato and explaining to hoards of mahogany Italians that I am naturally pale and actually for me this is a tan thank-you-very-much, I thought I'd share with you some snippets of my day yesterday.

This was an 'Only in Italy' moment: On the bus going to work I was gazing out of the the window absent-mindedly as we pulled up to a set of traffic lights. In the lane next to us a little Panda full of nuns pulled up. I heard a tapping in front of me, and on shifting my gaze saw a teenage boy with a pierced ear tapping on the window to get the nun's attention. The nun in the front seat saw him and waved, and he waved back happily. The traffic lights changed and off we went, the nun giving the boy one last wave as they pulled out infront.

Arriving at work I started preparing a lesson for a new student, a fashion stylist who needs to learn English for international fashion work. Since the closest I ever get to fashion are the 2-month old glossy magazines that my friends bring me over from England, I really don't know why I was seen as the ideal candidate for this job, but I give it my best shot, my only fumble yesterday being when I was asked about the names of different types of pockets (who knew there were different types?).

I hobbled from work to the station. It's a tiring 10/15 minute walk but I've chosen to do it twice a day because the more I walk the more my bone will heal. My operation is going to be in about 3 weeks, and if the bone's not healed enough they're threatening to give me a cast, which would seem like a huge step backwards when I'm walking so well now. It's a challenge with the heat, the slow speed and all the steps it involves, but it seems like a natural progression.

I then went to the pizzeria, where as an official hanger-on I can enjoy all the benefits of the first week of term atmosphere without any of the work. I sat myself outside and soon enough along came various people with holiday stories to tell. Later on the in the evening, I was sitting with the family of E's friend Giorgio when a friend of theirs with a young baby arrived. Sure enough, Giorgio's father started admiring how big she was, the mother started baby-talking at her and Giorgio started taking photos of her on his phone. E and his colleague were equally enchanted and started pinching her chubby legs and trying to make her talk. Giorgio, who is well versed in my strange, cold English ways, was sitting with her on his lap when an evil glint came into his eye. 'Take her, Fra' he said, and before I'd had the chance to protest had plonked the baby onto me. I sat there mute and awkward. 'Er, what do I do with her?' (Thank goodness in Italian you always have to specify gender, or I probably would have said 'it'). The assembled crowed stared in amusement and horror (for the greater part horror) as I begged Giorgio to take her away, scared that I would drop her.

'Oh my God, you hate babies' said E to me later. 'I don't hate them I just don't like them. I'm indifferent towards them', but he was still shaking his head in confusion so I gave up trying to explain. Great, so now not only am I suspected to be a sub-woman species by Albanian parents of boyfriend, I have also confirmed their suspicions to Italian friends of boyfriend.

And that was my day. How was your Friday?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Show me your culture and I'll show you mine

My boyfriend is Albanian. That is to say he was born in Albania and lived there until the age of 14, when he came to Italy. But he often says he doesn't feel Albanian, having done a lot of his growing up here in Italy. To his parents, who still live there he was, is, and always will be Albanian. That is to say, amongst other things, he must respect his culture and his family's will and meet and marry an Albanian girl who is muslim and from near his ancestral home, preferably before the age of 27. Before meeting and marrying that girl he must not have other relationships.

So it was with a heavy heart that he returned to Albania this summer holiday to stay with his parents and break the news that he was living in sin with a girl who wasn't muslim, Albanian, or even necessarily a prospective wife. Oh, and that he'd kept it from them for a year. Trooper that he is he broke the news, and it went down as well as a lead balloon might be expected. I didn't bother asking for the gory details on his return, but he assured me that they would get used to the idea 'in time'. And now? 'My mum is worried that we'll have children and then you'll run off and leave me with them'. Why? 'Because you're foreign and don't want to be a housewife'. Oh. So we're talking that sort of time to get used to the idea then.

Just recently E's Uncle, who has been in Italy for some years, has been joined by his family who had been waiting for the processing of documents to come over from Albania. In a transparent (but nice nonetheless) effort to make up for the fact that his parents think I am a child-hating witch I was bundled in the car to go and be introduced to this leg of more distant (and liberal) family. On arrival I shook hands with the wife and sons and was shown to a chair where I sat with a fixed smile on my face for a while they spoke in Albanian for a while. Then I was asked if I liked honey. 'Yes' I responded, eager to please, and a dish of honey with two spoons was brought out for me and E. 'Um, how am I supposed to eat this?' I muttered to E. He then translated my question into Albanian and everyone laughed. Almost a year to the day from when I arrived in Italy, I never would have predicted I'd end up eating honey from a bowl with my Albanian boyfriend whilst a roomful of his family watched us intently.

The eldest cousin is 18 and has been taken under E's wing immediately at the pizzeria. He doesn't speak much Italian yet and is almost painfully shy so E has taken it upon himself to be his official facilitator into the Italian Life. We went out for a shisha and had a mint tea, and he politely declined the shisha after two puffs and didn't drink any more tea, saying his stomach wasn't used to such things. He was bowled over when a girl came into the pizzeria with some facial piercings and couldn't stop staring. He was wowed when we went home via Via Salaria, a notorious Rome red light district. 'Look Toni' exclaimed E 'prostitutes!' and proceded to honk his horn at them enthusiastically ('oh for god's sake, stop showing off' I muttered at this point). The cousin reminds me a little bit of how I was this time last year- an almost silent participator in events that I was overwhelmed by; so overwhelmed that despite loving every minute of living them I was eqaully eager for them to be over so I could rest my tired brain and try to digest some of the things that had happened. I think it's going to be an interesting few months, and I'll make sure to keep you updated on the Albanian chapter of this saga.