Rome is caramel coloured in September. The light is muted, tired almost from the constant brilliance of June, July, and August. Everything is bathed in a soft tone, reflecting the cream stone that makes up most of the city, and creating a warm dulce leche glow.
It is sweeter than the harsh hotness of the light in August, palpable in its heaviness. Or the fierceness of July, relentlessly heating the city up. And sweeter too than the brightness of June, when nights never seem to fall.
September is shorts and T-shirt weather, muggy even, but the fight has gone out of it. You can feel summer relinquishing its grip, succumbing to the darkness that encroaches each day. The fresh mornings tempt you to wear long sleeves or trousers. At your own peril because by 10.00am you will be rueing that decision. And although evenings come quicker, they don’t come with much coolness.
September is also still. Like summer is in a game of ‘play dead’, hoping that autumn won’t notice it has overstayed. At night not a leaf or speck of dust moves.
During the day a powder blue sky accentuates the city’s domes and skyline of medieval towers. Trees in full green bloom line the slow flowing river. Soft beige light illuminates and smooths every curve of marble and groove of column. There is no where to hide from it and no need to. It is benign, tranquil. Just enough to show it off to its best, but not so much that you need to manage it. It allows its twisty streets to claim you, show you hidden delights too small to be included in guidebooks but unique in their ability to transfer an experience of Roman life.
September summer means not having to stop for siesta unless you want to, as your brains won’t fry in the sun at 3.00pm. It means not having to drink a Trevi fountain sized amount of water, and then find a public toilet (good luck with that). In September Rome is a languid city, content from having had its piazzas and parks used to their fullest for concerts, operas, marching bands, open air theatre, cinema, and book fairs. The end of summer Rome knows it’s a full-blown beauty and looks it.
As the golden month ends something must be done to celebrate it – to say thank you for the long and glorious summer and to toast the ‘any day now’ appearance of Autumn. All rituals in Rome revolve around food and wine so that must form the basis of this one. In September there is great competition between the late season white and yellow peaches and the new season plums and the purple grapes that are as big as my eyeballs. Wild mushrooms appear, always caked with dirt, along with crisp cabbage, onions, and fresh garlic. Its all another sign, that no matter how long summer pretends to hang on like it owns the joint, the earth is turning away from it, into the long dark night of autumn.
It must be Autumn’s bounty that we use to herald it in, say thank you to summer and let it know that it can release its hold and allow us all to be cosy, dark, and fallow for a while. Deep red wine from the fields of Sicily where the soil knows what old and dark tastes like, and Rome’s indigenous grape variety, Cesanese, make up our choices. The Syrah (Shiraz) from Sicily tastes like Autumn itself, spicy and berry like, while the Cesanese tastes like an alcoholic Ribena shot through with dark chocolate. Sharp cheese and salami go with them. I rejoice in the re-entry of this food into my diet as the cooler temperatures allow the flavours and consistency to be enjoyed in a way that in the height of summer they aren’t.
A table of mums next to us raise their glasses ‘to Autumn’, and I realise we are not the only ones that do this. As I gaze down at my sun-tanned legs still in linen shorts it’s hard to believe that by December they will be encased in woollen trousers and long boots topped with a cashmere coat. Each winter I do the reverse and find it hard to imagine that my legs will be bare. And yet it happens, every year, bringing with it the comfort that some things never change. For now, I am enjoying the present, Rome bathed in a subtle, sweet caramel light that will gently descend into Autumn.
If you enjoyed this blog you may enjoy reading my books. Click on the ‘books’ page at the top of this post.
“Now we can start living again” is the phrase I most hear around my neighbourhood. Its mostly from the elderly, those over 70, of which Italy has one of the highest population levels globally. My suburb is representative, many of the inhabitants are over that age, and in the range that has been most impacted by COVID.
The vaccines are here and being handed out with military precision and effectiveness as always happens when things get handed over for the army to do. The infection and death rates are plummeting and soon this all will be a memory. I am glad we have faced it head on, dealing with and learning from the consequences, adapting, and adjusting rather than trying to avoid it, pretending it’s not there, or hoping that it will just go away. The changes we made as a population and as a nation helped us survive and will continue to, as changes always do. There is a lot to be said for having weathered a storm.
When in March 2020 we were sent home from work for two weeks, with schools, restaurants, gyms, shops all closed, no one imagined that we would still be in some form of lockdown more than one year later. March 2021 was a hard month for everyone. In March 2020 no one imagined that instead of two weeks it would be more than two months before we were allowed outside again without a certified signed document stating the 3 reasons you could leave your apartment (buying food locally, visiting the doctor or on a walk by yourself in your own neighbourhood for mental or physical health reasons), or risk being fined up to 800 Euro. No one imagined that over one year later it would still be mandatory to always wear masks inside and outside, or that some form of lockdown would continue indefinitely with strict lockdown occurring again at Christmas, New Year, Easter and for weeks at a time either side.
I like many others have never returned to the workplace. No one imagined that after a brief hiatus last summer, all gyms, theatres, schools, and businesses would again be closed until the beginning of the next summer, or that when restaurants, bars and cafes were closed at 6pm and a curfew installed at the beginning of last autumn, that it would be spring before we could go out and eat at night again. And no one imagined that there would be second birthdays or anniversaries of things in lockdown. The challenge of adapting the celebration to the new restrictions and the fun of inventing new ways to do things is gone the second time around. All the energy to recreate new traditions and the fight to make the best of it has gone. Used up in the more than a year of daily energy required to be resilient in the face of a never-ending threat and combatting an ever-present level of anxiety that we all feel, an undercurrent to everything we do, making any other stressful events even more so. After a year of this we are all slightly stupefied and lethargic, it’s as close to a zombie nation as I hope to ever live in.
There is a listlessness that comes after over a year of lockdown and restrictions. We have all been champions at working and schooling from home converting an entire nation almost overnight to digital. We work, study, socialise, exercise, play, relax, celebrate, eat, shop, have medical appointments all through the screen of our computers, and always in the same 20 square metres. Italians like many nations live in relatively small and mostly shared spaces where there is only one space for the family to relax during their leisure time. This space is also the workspace, the study space, and the exercise space. Yoga mats replace roll away desks, and ironing boards in front of sofas become ballet barres after hours. Balconies, if you have one become the place where you can shout out or down to friends and neighbours in the street, and many an abandoned rooftop got dusted off and decorated with socially distanced deck chairs and tables over the past year.
We haven’t been able to hug or kiss or touch each other for over a year, a culture that kiss each other several times a day, amongst friends and family. Recently a friend gave me a clandestine hug when she came to visit me while I was mourning the death of a family member (not from COVID). It was like an electric shock. The feel of someone’s arms around me stunned me out of my grief for a few minutes and then made feel incredibly sad that we had all missed out on this most basic of human kindnesses in a time when we all most needed it. Eating together as families and friends outside in the public places that replace most people’s living rooms, sharing a table, sitting long into the night together, the tinkling of glasses in the moonlight, or the odour of fresh seafood in the sunlight, the energy we all get from each other, from changing our environments, from the wind that whips up the edges of table clothes, from the sounds of music coming from other classrooms in the gym or dance school, the stimulation of peers and colleagues, the snatches of different languages, going for a walk in the countryside, being in nature, leaving the province to go on holiday or visit family, the feeling of being challenged physically, the feeling of advancement over compensation, of thriving rather than surviving, of gain over loss, these are all the things that have been sacrificed in this long, hard, more than a years battle. They are integral to the experience of life here and without them life has changed considerably.
It has made us all more appreciative of small things, tolerant, and thankful for the battle we have fought and (mostly) won together. With great suffering comes great joy. I don’t know whether the suffering always has to equal the joy, but I would never have imagined I would have the amount of joy I am experiencing right now at the announcement that my ballet school will now be open in a week, or at how much the joy is intensified by sharing it with the 10 others that I have struggled through 9 months of pretty hopeless and very frustrating ballet lessons via zoom! Due to bandwidth issues we all heard the music at different times so we could never co-ordinate our movements, and those of us (i.e. me) used to copying the person in front them, could no longer do so. For the teacher to be able to see my whole body the screen had to be so far away that I needed my glasses on to see anyone else, and for the same reason I have become very familiar with everyone’s crotches as we neared the screens each time the teacher needed to demo something. Let’s not even mention trying to do pirouettes in the space usually taken up by a desk. Or about how my barre, which is really the back of my office chair, keeps wheeling itself away during pliés so I am left holding on to thin air and post-menopausal muscle density. Small suffering, maybe, big joy at its ending, definitely.
So maybe the joy is always greater, and, in that case, we are all in for a big load of it. Not the least of which is that we will soon be free to leave the country and wander this wonderful earth again, as well as welcome visitors to this wonderful piece of it. Flights full of vaccinated, quarantine exempt citizens from the UK and US are speeding towards us this very minute.
When I hear the phrase “now we can begin living life again”, I know exactly what it means, and I sincerely look forward to it.
Morning light seeps through the slats in the blinds quite early even though we are in Winter. The light is weak and grey which means it is raining but we cannot hear it. It’s a soft rain, almost tropical in its cadence and different from the lashing, sideways rain that pelts ice cubes at our windows on a regular basis in Winter. Sunday morning in February and only the second one where we have been allowed to travel outside of Rome since before Christmas.
We have been waiting for weeks to get out of the city and into the beautiful Sabine countryside only an hour North of Rome. Reminiscent of Tuscany in parts because of its proliferation of cypress and rows of olive groves, it is less polished, less touristed, perfect for rambling and blasting the city from your senses. In no time at all we are deeply immersed in its green rolling hills, and constantly changing landscape. Jagged medieval towers rise in ruins out of dense forest, abandoned abbeys sit forlorn in the mist, Etruscan fountains still sprout in the wilderness, and everywhere you look there is a view below and above you.
Soon our car crunches onto a caramel-coloured road that seems to have a small tributary running through the middle of it. Other cars are inching along it ahead, obviously also Romans unused to driving over anything that is not cobbled, asphalted, or coated in leaves. We pull up at some stone buildings that have stood for centuries. They are connected by makeshift wooden verandas made up from sticks gathered in the forest nearby, hanging together because of their shapes rather than any type of formal attachments like a nail or bracket. Behind the small buildings we can hear a donkey braying loudly, and around them the most beautiful chickens and roosters I have ever seen peck and strut. Some of them have fluorescent green feathers, others are puffy balls of white down, still others are speckled with two tone feathers and white polka dots. And they are gigantic.
We have come to celebrate my husband’s birthday (which was in December, but we were in lock down), with some close friends who live in the Sabine hills and who have recommended this restaurant. It is a fixed menu that changes depending on the season and day, and none of us knows what is on it. We do not need to, and we never do. In this country it is part of the culture to eat this way, as though it is an extension of eating with the family, whatever they are cooking, using their own and local produce, they cook enough for all of us. With no explanation or introduction plates begin arriving as soon as we have sat down.
Inside, the place is quirkily and lovingly restored and decorated with farming tools and implements, hand painted doors and murals, and wooden tables and chairs. It is light and bright, warm, and noisy, each group seeming to have its own area, so it feels like you are dining alone in your Tuscan farmhouse (probably because of needing to have appropriate distance between tables for social distancing to occur). A large glass bottle filled with dark red wine is on the table along with a bottle of water and a basket of bread. They all get refilled as often as we ask.
A plate of thickly cut pink prosciutto (dried, cured ham) laced with fat, some bresaola (dried beef) and salami studded with slices of whole black peppers arrives, then a plate of crusty white bread laced with local olive oil and topped with bright green broccoletti, a bitter and delicious green leafy Roman vegetable boiled and then fried in oil, garlic, and chilli. Other dishes land simultaneously until our table is covered and luckily, we know the custom or we would assume this is our whole meal instead of just our appetiser…. or antipasto. Thick wedges of creamy white ricotta cheese resting on purple leaves of radicchio appear, along with a dish of rolled up and deep-fried slices of eggplant stuffed with mozzarella and ham, whole baked mushrooms filled with minced pork and vegetables and a steaming bowl of beans in tomato sauce floating with bits of chewy pork belly. I am unable to eat, drink, talk, look, and absorb my beautiful surroundings all at the same time, so I give up and just eat. Just in time for the focaccia topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese to be placed in front of me.
The bean dish is full of a deep earth flavour that makes me want to shove everybody out of the way as I engulf it, the sauce is also slightly piquant, and the pork and mince are chewy mouthfuls of heaven. The ricotta has a deep flavour unlike the ones I buy at the supermarket. It is slightly tart but also sweet and full of body which means you must chew it not just swallow it. The rolled up eggplant slices, although small and only one each unfortunately, are so juicy and filling that one is enough. And the cured meats have a robust flavour and consistency that you only find in the countryside where they are produced, salty, fatty, and deeply satisfying. Washed down with a glass of the strongest red wine I have ever tasted, I am very happy, and have forgotten that its rainy, Winter and that there is or ever was a pandemic raging.
As I said those of us in the know, know that this is only the beginning of a meal so matter how yummy the beans are and how many slices of prosciutto there are left, none of us is rushing for a second helping. Luckily, the portions are just right and there is nothing wasted. There are several courses to come though – the primo, secondo and dolce, dessert. Luckily coffee and liqueurs will help us digest. The primo dish is pasta and a communal bowl of ravioli squares filled with ricotta and spinach and covered with tomato sauce and parmesan is served. A little while later a platter of thin barbequed pork steaks like huge thick slices of bacon, and some sausages come out, juicy, tender, and full of flavour. Coffee is served with bowls of homemade biscuits to choose from. They are filled with jam, nuts, dried fruit, or spices. Hard and crunchy they are small and light, just perfect. Local digestives and some from far away (the Amalfi coast) finish off this magnificent birthday meal (all for a cost of AUS$ 40 per head).
The rain has not let up and is now coming down steadily, the fog has descended halfway down the valley settling on the top of the Abbey of Farfa giving it a white fluffy halo and making the bright green olive groves directly under it light up. We are back in our car to watch the light gently fade and the sun set over Rome as we drive back into it.
Ticket for One was launched in Rome (where the author is based) and then in Melbourne, Australia both via zoom. If you would like to see the Australian book launch, and the slideshow that went with it please click here.
Thanks a million to all who attended both launches and have supported me in this book. Please keep spreading the word in your networks and leaving me reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Word of mouth and reviews are the best way to publicise a book. Both books are available in paperback and e-book from Amazon, Beaumaris Books, Melbourne, FAO Book shop and Otherwise bookshop, Rome.
Ticket for One reached no. 16 on the Amazon global best sellers list for Italian travel but is not only about Italy. Here’s what Amazon reviewers are saying:
“A great adventure showing how chance encounters can change your life forever. If you are brave enough to take the first step.” UK Amazon reviewer
“Bronté Jackson is a gifted storyteller with a talent for evoking the colours and sensations of the places she visits”. Italian Amazon reviewer
“A beautifully descriptive and emotional account of backpacking adventures in far away places while reconsidering the direction of one’s life”. Australian Amazon reviewer
If you would like to preview either of my books please click on the links below.
I have taken myself off and out for a date with my city – it’s been awhile and I am desperate to fit one in before my privileges are revoked again and we all have to stay at home.
“Where are you going?”, my husband asks.
“I don’t know, that’s the point of an Artists date*, you have no itinerary, no plans; the point is to spend time in the unknown”.
“Well just call me if you need a lift back”.
It’s been decades since I have been able to get lost in Rome. When I first arrived in the early 1990’s it was my favourite thing to do – wander, get lost, discover new things and places. Rome seemed an unending labyrinth of possibilities and new experiences, full of new discoveries to be stored up for revisiting and taking others to later. Hidden corners, quaint nooks, undiscovered restaurants and cafes, quiet streets of artisans, grand public buildings, impromptu exhibitions, tranquil shady piazzas, serene vistas over the river, flower ridden parks, newly excavated ruins, newly restored churches and museums, views of the sunset…….but now I know them all and part of me is sad that I do. I miss the excitement and amazement, the wonder and the thrill of the unknown, of losing oneself and discovering that you are not lost after all, but just in a different place with lots of new possibilities.
But today the city did it for me, for old time’s sake. I managed to not know where I was for a good half hour or so until I spilled out, from a new direction, into a well traversed piazza. Today the city gave me what I needed as it always does. Whatever my need Rome fulfils it. If I am hungry or thirsty it feeds and waters me, if I am bored it delights me, if I am tired it restores me, if I am stressed and overworked it calms and refreshes me, if I am frightened it comforts me, if I have lost my perspective on life it brings it back, if I am broke it entertains me for free, if I am flush it offers me luxurious treats, if I am sad it cheers me, if I need to celebrate and am happy it brings me ways to prolong and satisfy this. All I need to do is get out and into it which I have been prevented from doing for large parts of the year and which is in danger of happening again so I need my dose. And I also need to wander into the unknown; after months of precise assessment, structured processes, analytical decisions and having to care about things I don’t (like how many millimetres a margin in a book should be), I need to be released into the unknown for a bit of a break.
So I do my best to listen to my inner artist, see the unseen, take paths less well trodden and let the day unfold, like it is the first day I have ever been here. It means I have to abandon myself to my senses and watch for the signs that direct me to my unknown destination. Like the movie production vans (Mission Impossible, again) that block my entrance to quiet street I want to duck down and instead put me on another path, or the gypsy standing on the corner obscured in shade, that attracts me to turn down that street, or the view of a walled in bridge up high connecting two ancient palaces that catches my attention and pulls me down towards it. And then I am lost. Lost inside my well known world, enabling me to see it differently, to learn to be at peace with not knowing, to notice the small details of where I currently am, and to appreciate that.
I stumble into a sunny regal renaissance piazza, completely empty, quiet, and in repose. Plants in marble pots and wrought-iron lampposts border it. Elaborate lace-iron balconies offset the neatly painted white and light orange buildings, all with matching shutters. The small windy street is bereft of cars and motorini, there are no tourists wandering, no one is sitting on the rails edging the small space reading a map, checking their phone, or eating a sandwich. No one is standing in front of the small church doorway taking a selfie, or posing for someone else. I listen to the wind and notice the empty rubbish bin. I self-consciously take photos of the building that is shaped like a triangle. An older man in an impeccable suit exits a government ministry building, eyes me hungrily, but walks on, looking back at me once or twice as he ambles deliberately slowly across the piazza; but I show no signs of catching up to him or noticing him, the communication is accepted and he moves on.
I amble along the thin curvy street, hemmed in by the walls of the buildings and too soon find myself in a well-known destination, Piazza della Rotunda. The piazza that houses the 2000 year old Pantheon, one of the best preserved Roman temples dedicated to ‘all the Gods’. It has been in continuous use throughout its history as a temple to receive sacrifices, as a Catholic church and now one of Rome’s most visited monuments. Today for the first time in 2,000 years entry is prohibited. The Pantheon is shut. I wander into the piazza, one of my favourite and where I always come when I need to spend time in a special place, either celebrating or commiserating – when my dad came to Rome, when my best friend visited, when my Nan died, they have all been marked here in this piazza at a table with some Prosecco. Today I am celebrating the finishing of my second book, but it also feels a bit like a commiseration.
At lunch time, a table in the winter sunshine, without being a politician, movie star or having sat there since mid-morning, would be impossible. But today as soon as I round the corner I am pounced on by the liveried waiter and there is no need to ask if there is a table in the sunshine available, they all are. I order a glass of Prosecco knowing it will come with ample snacks (today it is peanuts, olives and chips) and settle down to watch people in the piazza. Gangs of politicians come strolling through on a lunch break from the Parliament houses close by, groups of tradesmen in uniform amble by, and a couple of pigeons. That’s it. Usually this piazza is packed and worth hours of people watching, while waiters hover as soon as you have finished your drink and others hopeful of your table start to move towards it. Usually there are so many people sitting around the fountain that the steps are obscured and the entrance to the Pantheon obliterated by the snaking line of tourists queuing, the horses and carts waiting, police strolling, gypsies begging, sellers selling, and photographers flashing. Today the waiter doggedly stays inside so I can’t ask for my bill and have to sit there for as long as possible, hopefully enticing others to sit as well. I slowly munch through my peanuts, chips and olives relishing the December sunlight.
The place I usually go for lunch is closed. There is a sign on the door explaining that as long as the Covid restrictions are partly in force they can no longer afford to open. Glad I ate all my peanuts, I head to my favourite café for a hot chocolate. It’s in via Condotti, Rome’s busiest and most exclusive shopping street that leads up to the Spanish steps. Café Greco usually has a queue to get in, service is slow and erratic, and it has been continually open since 1760. Today the formal suited waiter opens the door for me and ushers me to a table. I am the only person in here. It is so quiet I can hear the coffee machine steaming.
I order my hot chocolate which comes with separate whipped cream and is the kind of thing that is akin to enlightenment – the world looks and feels entirely different after one of these. I snuggle in to the plush red cushions at my back and take my fill of the glorious paintings and etchings that surround me, knowing I can take as long as I like. About five minutes later the overpowering silence and lack of activity begins to feel eerie. This is not a place that should be bereft of people, of the clinks of china, the swish of tray bearing waiters, exclamations of consternation from people as they realise there are no spare seats, the squeals of children that usually run up and down between the aisles of tables, murmured conversations, delighted laughter, selfies and group photos, customers trying to get the attention of waiters, heated conversations mid-passageway between staff, and the muted shouts from them behind the counter to their mobile counterparts.
This is the unknown. An empty Rome, and none of us feels comfortable, and we are all sick of it. The last time Rome was this empty was after the final conquering of it, more than 1,600 years ago, when everyone that was still alive fled, and sheep grazed amongst the rubble in the Forum for the next 1,000 years. After years of wishing that Rome was less full of tourists and having given up even frequenting some parts of the city, I find myself hoping that they would all come back, hoping that you all come back, hoping that we all come back.
It starts about five minutes into the introduction of my book, Ticket for One. We then dive into a Q & A about why I wrote the book, how I handled the tricky themes of vulnerability and bravery, as well as the struggle about keeping the ‘voice’ of the young woman I was when I took the journey. There are a couple of readings from the book, which while not giving anything away, give a flavour of what there is to enjoy about the book. And then we launch it! The whole thing takes about 45 minutes so sit down with a glass of wine and a Greek salad, some Turkish mezze or Italian antipasto and enjoy the show!
If you would like to listen to a podcast of the book launch rather than watch it, just click here.
Ticket for One has now reached no. 16 on the Amazon global best sellers list for Italian travel but is not only about Italy. Here’s what Amazon reviewers are saying:
“A great read of an adventurous young women as she finds her place in the world”. UK reviewer
“Bronté Jackson is a gifted storyteller with a talent for evoking the colours and sensations of the places she visits”. Italian reviewer
“A beautifully descriptive and emotional account of backpacking adventures in far away places while reconsidering the direction of one’s life”. Australian reviewer
I say the book is about three things:
How you can be on the brink of things, with everything falling apart around you, and come back from that to a whole new version of yourself.
Travel. The wonder, the hardship, the joy of travel; travel as a journey to learn about yourself and others, getting the widest possible input into your world view, understanding ‘the other’, realizing that we are all much more like each other than we are not; friendship, those made on and off the road, and sustained.
The beauty of the Mediterranean. The power of that beauty to heal and restore, to reach right down into your soul and find you, the power of history, of past civilisations and their human experiences that teach and help us in our struggles today.
And apparently you will laugh a lot, and need to eat Greek, Turkish and/or Italian food!
Thirty eight people zoomed in from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, NSW Central coast, north coast of Victoria, and Rome to attend the Australian based launch. You will not be able to see all the participants as the recording done on zoom only catches the first screen of people. You will also not be able to see the slideshow so I have inserted it below. You will have to play the soundtrack yourselves of the songs that went with it and captured the moment and moods of summer 1993………..
(Madonna, Like a Prayer; REM, Loosing my religion; Pet shop boys, Its a sin, Go West; Black, It’s a wonderful life; D:Ream, Things can only get better; U2, In the name of love)
The northern hemisphere book launch will be posted soon, along with a podcast of this one. Thanks a million to all who attended both launches and have supported me in this book. Please keep spreading the word in your networks and leaving me reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Word of mouth and reviews are the best way to publicise a book. Both books are available in paperback and e-book from Amazon, Beaumaris Books, Melbourne, FAO bookshop and Otherwise bookshop, Rome.
Dear friends, I am so excited to let you know that my new book is ready! Click below for sneak preview and to order! Kindle version is ready now and paperback version any day now. And Rome-based residents can purchase directly from me. It is available in all Amazon markets. Stand by for an invite to the book launch. Please help me by spreading the word and sharing this in your feed or group of friends, and leave me a review when you have finished it! Happy reading everyone!
Sometimes you have to let go of everything to find what you really want.
Greek islands, Summer 1993……
Bronté finds herself backpacking through the Mediterranean, but it’s not all paradise.
Reeling from the end of her marriage, the loss of her job, and with no place to call home Bronté hadn’t hesitated to pack her bags when she unexpectedly won an airline ticket to her dream destination, with spending money included!
With nothing left to lose, she had set off into the unknown with no itinerary, no experience, and a hastily filled backpack. After losing access to her money on her first day, being poisoned on her second day, and finding herself sleeping on a beach next to travellers on the run from organised crime, her adventure takes her on an hilarious tour through the underworld of backpacking.
This is a story about transformation from helplessness to power, hopelessness to faith, and anguish to joy. Set against the backdrop of breathtaking Mediterranean islands, vibrant Rome, enchanting Tuscany, and captivating Turkey, Bronte connects with the beauty of nature to restore her shattered heart and confidence.
But how will she be able to go back to normal life after this journey? Should she stay in the arms of her belly dancing boyfriend? And is the amount of byzantine icons in a city a good indication of whether she should settle there?
“I listened, I let myself go where my heart took me and it never took me ‘back home’. It took me to a new one.”
“From a dark, gaping hole of plans that had fallen through, and a life that had never worked out the way I wanted I had trodden step by step, carrying nothing with me except what was required, staying constantly in the present. Somehow I moved forward just by being, just by stepping, just by continuing to look at the sky, talking to the people around me, and being out on the road each minute, each hour, each day. Although I had wanted to stay still, crying on a Greek beach waiting for someone to rescue me, I found that moving into the unknown was so much more interesting and, in the long term, truly fulfilling.”
A compelling and candid story. An odyssey of self-discovery that fundamentally questions how to live and find happiness.
At last we are let out and into the city we go! I have never met a Roman who was not in love with their city – who did not appreciate its history along with its almost 1,000 year reign, world domination; and subsequent contribution to law, philosophy, government, military strategy, engineering, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, religion, sanitation, town planning, heating, food, holidays and hydrology.
It’s the first Sunday since quarantine was lifted and after 2.5 months of eerie silence the streets and piazzas of Rome are packed. Chock full of Romans. There is not a tourist or an English speaker in sight or earshot. I feel like I am in a time capsule that has landed me back in the early 1990’s when I first arrived in Rome. Before the invention of cheap flights and millions more tourists at all times of the year. Prior to this, Romans had always had the city to themselves from October to March, and during those months, people stared at me as though I had forgotten to go home. At that time by mid-December you could sit by yourself in the Sistine Chapel and write a novel, and by February most of the city shut down for a good long rest until Easter. In comparison, for the past decade, and before quarantine (BQ), no one has been allowed to even stand in the Sistine chapel for longer than a few minutes without being hurried along to make room for others waiting to come in. You stood shoulder to shoulder admiring as much of the ceiling as possible while shuffling along in a sea of humanity, towards the exit.
Sunday night has always been a big social night for Romans. Far from it being the night in which to stay in and prepare for the work week ahead, it is seen as the last opportunity to milk the weekend. It’s also the time to catch up with friends after having spent the whole day with extended family. Italy has the second highest amount of elderly citizens globally therefore most people have parents or are one. So the streets and bars are packed as my husband and I saunter lazily through them. Imagining that we would be a lot more alone than we are, I am surprised but also delighted.
It’s busy and full but not crowded and bursting. There is space. Space between the gatherings of people, empty medieval corridors where chairs and tables are being set up for dinner, ivy covered spaces empty of people because it’s not yet the Roman dinning hour. A city being used by, and for, its residents alone.
The tables in the bar next to me are filled with octogenarians drinking Aperol spritz, mostly women, and groups of couples with prams and newborns. In the piazza in front of me, instead of a keyboard and badly played Dire Straits covers, there is a vigorous game of soccer being played between six under twelves, who keep it going amidst the walkers, and use all four corners of this huge space. Instead of flower sellers and photographers coming to our table there is a determined gang of five year olds on scooters, using the 1.5 metre quarantine space between tables as lanes, and being constantly shooed away by the waitress. Instead of coloured plastic toys that make a noise when thrown into the air by their hopeful vendors, the shouts and screams of five girls playing hide and seek can be heard. And as the twilight lengthens, instead of a gaggle of uncomfortable looking foreigners wearing the same T-shirt, drinking beers and self-consciously stumbling across the piazza, a serene flock of Romans cruise gracefully past on a bike tour.
Just after sunset everyone leaves, aperitivi is finished, and it’s time to go home and eat dinner. The piazza is quiet, empty and darkens a little just as the breeze that always occurs at sunset blows over it. For a few minutes in the silence the piazza is bleak and windswept, reminding me of another of its original uses – a place of execution. The imposing statue of the last person burnt at the stake on this spot, looms out of the darkness, his hooded figure menacing and joyless. But just as quickly the piazza starts to fill up again as families who have decided to come out for dinner do so; like the appointed hour for aperitivo, dinner is similarly scheduled. Freshly washed children prance around with their parents as groups of friends meet and sit down to dine.
My husband and I have been coming to this restaurant for twenty five years – many of our early dates were here. It’s been two decades since I have seen groups of Roman families here. It’s mostly couples and always tourists. The proprietor’s Nonna still makes the fettucine daily, sometimes just inside the front door if you come for lunch. They bake their own bread and he is the fourth generation that has run the restaurant. We are his first customers after quarantine and if we could, we would hug vigorously. Instead we talk loudly and at length about all that has passed in the last few months.
‘The day after we had to shut down, I came to the piazza anyway’, he says. ‘I had come here every day for the past thirty years to work, it just seemed natural. When I saw the piazza empty and everything shut, I felt my heart break, it was too difficult and I stayed away after that.’
After such a long time I expected things to be a bit rusty, but it was as though 2.5 months of pent up longing went into my meal. The antipasto of burrata cheese with char-grilled slices of zucchini and eggplant put me in my happy place for more than 24 hours. The lamb was juicy and tender, the wine cool and fruity, and the roast potatoes sprinkled with sheep’s cheese and pepper, induced an eating episode that was more like an inhalation of all that I had missed and loved about this place. I sailed home as the last twilight faded, wishing that everyone in the world could come here and have this – just a few people at a time though.
Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome. Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army. Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate. Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.
Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long. The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent. On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block. The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body. During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.
But outside, my environment is eerily quiet. The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.
The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet. There is nothing to bark at.
Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not. I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades. I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees. Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.
There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual. None of us are comfortable with the silence. We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.
Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do. Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come. Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.
November is the time for this years batch of Vino Novello or ‘young wine’ to be released. A red wine, it is produced in a way that accelerates fermentation and has no tannins. Like a Beaujolais, it is fresh, fruity and deep. Italians have many, many rules as a society and a large quantity of them are related to as suggestions (like lanes for traffic) except when it comes to food and drink. The rule of Novello is that it is only available from October 30th until sold out (usually by the end of the week). It does not keep well so needs to be drunk immediately (I am just relating the rules).
2. The color of the sky.
Rome’s sky turns turquoise in Autumn, its sharp blue the perfect back drop for its burnt orange buildings, and perfectly seen through leafless trees.
3. The food.
Autumn is the time you feel like (and enjoy) eating again after the sweltering humidity and heat of the summer. Oranges from Sicily, mushrooms from Tuscany, fresh pork sausages from the countryside near Rome all go well with Vino Novello as do the chewy salami‘s and tangy sheep’s cheese (pecorino). Vegetables such as Funghi porcini mushrooms, artichokes and the very Roman puntarelle appear back on the market after their long summer rest, and last sometimes only a few weeks so all of a sudden everything has funghi porcini or artichoke in it. Food is seasonal in Italy and therefore looked forward to. The sense of anticipation and reminiscing is shared and joined in by everyone. If you go to a friends house for dinner in Autumn you know that artichokes, puntarelle or funghi porcini will be on the menu.
4. The sun
Finally you can sit in it. Avoiding the sun was the past time for the past six months but now it is sought out. Sitting in the brilliant Autumn sunshine is a legitimate past time and reason to go outside. It can still warm, is too bright to look at and bathes everything in happy yellow autumn. It also goes well with a glass of Vino Novello.
All over Rome, communal vegetable gardens are being prepared for Winter. Pruning, weeding, digging and raking are all activities being undertaken. Everyone lives in apartments in Rome so these small plots of land are a hive of activity being undertaken in the brilliant autumn sunshine, often followed by a glass of Vino Novello (just saying).
I grew up in a suburb with lots of leaves where every autumn i delighted in diving into big piles of them and throwing them up in the air with my dad frantically yelling ‘don’t do that, there’s probably dog poo in there!’ Rome, having mostly trees that shed their leaves rather than evergreens, like in Australia, is full of leaves. Just one of the many delights I discovered when I first came here. You can go to any large park in Rome and literally drown in leaf pools. You can run through the middle of them and throw leaves up in the air to your heart’s content and mostly they don’t have dog poo on them. Or you can just scuff them up under your feet in your local neighborhood. No one rakes them up and they sit there for weeks until an Autumn deluge comes along and washes them away.
7. The peace
Summer holidays are over, children are back in school, tourists are back at work. The summer squalls and winds are finished. Leaves float gently down like stars. Vision is clearer through sparkling sunlight. The evenings come quickly and quietly, nothing stirs.
8. The temperature
It’s cool for the first time since April. The mornings are fresh and crisp, the days sunny and bright, the evenings cold. Perfect for Vino Novello.
9. The mood
The city rests. The violent rain lashed storms have washed the city clean from the detritus of the summer. Things are ticking along.
10. The olives
The first time you discover you have a friend that has an olive grove and who requires help with picking olives, you think yourself blessed and so so lucky to have landed a friend such as that. After you have helped picked olives for this friend you find that you are busy every November ever after. Olives are great to eat, especially with a glass of Vino Novello, picking them is not great.
Private tours available via the Tour page on this website or https://www.facebook.com/romandaze/
Read more about Rome in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’.