August 8, 2013


When I arrived in Rome – almost a year ago, back in September – everyone told me the exact same thing: That I had arrived after the worst of the summer heat had subsided, and that I should be thankful for this fact. I found this simultaneously relieving and alarming; it was nice to know that I wouldn’t be trying to get settled into my new life in the midst of a heatwave, but – given that September itself was still fairly hot – it was also disconcerting to consider just how much warmer the city was capable of getting. But my apartment was equipped with air conditioning, and I was armed with the blind optimism of the naïve. It couldn’t possibly get that hot, right?

In early April, the temperature spiked to decidedly un-spring-like levels for a week or two before dropping back down again – a false alarm, it seemed. By late May, I was telling everyone that the temperature now exceeded the normal high summer levels of my hometown. And by June, I would frequently remark, “oggi fa caldissimo” – it’s really hot today – to friends, baristas and shopkeepers alike. This, inevitably, would cause them to respond (with the slightest hint of an amused expression sliding over their faces), “Il vero caldo non è ancora arrivato“. The real heat hasn’t arrived yet.

And then, in mid July, it arrived.

The temperature, augmented by an indecent amount of humidity, soared straight towards forty degrees Celsius; stepping outside suddenly felt uncannily similar to stepping into a particularly steamy bathroom directly after someone’s long, hot shower. The heat is everywhere, unescapable. The air in the apartment is claustrophobic and close even with the air conditioner blasting out chilled air all day long; I throw open the windows and poke my head out, and a hot wind rushes up to meet me, to wrap itself around me. Only it’s not a wind, exactly, more like an unpleasant whirlpool of hot air swirling up between the street and the walls that line it.

In the mornings the sky is deep blue, impossibly blue, unexpectedly saturated and infinitely appealing. As the sun rises higher, the sky turns faded and brassy, like the sunlight has sucked all the power right out of the colour. By noon, the glare off the cobblestones is nearly blinding. The pale stone of churches, fountains and monuments reflect white-hot beams of light. The streets are deserted and silent, serrande lowered over storefronts, windows firmly shuttered. Sunlight on bare shoulders feels like fire, puddles of shade provide only the most infinitesimal amount of relief. The heat – the physical, tangible weight of a humid forty-degree day – presses down on your back, your arms and your chest like a hot clammy hand that you can’t manage to shake off.

Rome is an inferno.

The heat blurs everything together into smudges and perceptions, fragments of thought barely strung together. Have you ever tried to hold an intelligent conversation in a foreign language when your brain is on the cusp of overheating and is hardly even able to form a sentence in your native language? It doesn’t necessarily go so well. Another thing that doesn’t go so well in the middle of a heatwave is movement – any movement. I find myself shuffling down the street at a pace appropriate for a senior citizen, zig-zagging my way from one patch of shade to another and lifting my hair away from the back of my neck with an almost panicked urgency. The air feels dense and almost liquid every time I take a breath, like I’m swimming (drowning) rather than walking. I am amazed by my ability to sweat profusely in places I didn’t even think were capable of producing sweat – kneecaps, the tops of my toes, fingertips – and I am barely suppressing the urge to fling myself into the nearest fountain.

Every day between 11am and 8pm, my appetite vanishes almost entirely. Cooking is impossible. The thought of standing over a hot stove or using the oven – of creating even the tiniest amount of extra heat – is repulsive. I find myself lost in semi-coherent daydreams about piles of ice cubes. I slurp down caffè freddo and cappuccino freddo like they’re going out of style. I wedge entire watermelons into my fridge and then hack off refreshingly cold, increasingly large slices all day long; in the past three days I have consumed the equivalent of two massive watermelons. One day I wander into the Carrefour Express along Corso Vittorio Emanuele just to stand in front of the refrigerated milk case, enveloped in a heavenly blast of icy air – the kind of icy air that you will never find exiting from any air conditioner in all of Italy – thinking about nothing, doing nothing for several blissful minutes before venturing back out onto the superheated sidewalk.

And then, just as I think I can’t survive another second of the heat, just as I think my mind is about to melt away entirely, evening rolls around. A summer evening in Rome is sultry, velvet darkness, the edge taken off the heat and the humidity and maybe even the slightest hint of a refreshing breeze slipping down between the buildings. A summer evening in Rome means aperitivo begins at 9pm and dinner at 10:30pm, a concept that suddenly makes complete sense given that it’s impossible to face a plate of pasta or a pizza any earlier in the day. It means lingering on rooftop terraces until the small hours of the morning, Castel Sant’Angelo’s lighted facade off to one side, the glowing dome of the Vatican looming off to the other. It means candle-lit tables with curtains of ivy swaying gently overhead, chilled prosecco, generous scoops of gelato, quiet conversations in the street while perching on a parked motorino. A summer evening in Rome almost – almost – makes the daytime heat worth it.

Then the sun begins to rise, the sky turns cerulean again, and the inferno returns.

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July 2, 2013

The Roman beach experience: Culture shock all over again

I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t really like going to the beach. Or at least I didn’t, until very recently. It doesn’t make sense, of course – I really should have loved the beach. I grew up on an island; I lived within walking distance of not just one, but an entire selection of beaches, and family vacations at the beach were a regular occurrence all throughout childhood.

The typical Victoria beach experience, though, involves swaths of pebbles streaked with dried seaweed and clumps of kelp in varying stages of decomposition, heaps of tangled driftwood occupying most of the usable space with a thin strip of damp grey sand studded with razor-sharp clamshells in front of an ocean that, regardless of the season, remains toe-curlingly cold. For the most part, a “beach day” means spreading a towel directly on the ground (trying to avoid the sharpest of the shells and any hidden surprises left by passing dogs), stripping down to a bathing suit in a brief moment of extreme optimism, then adding layers back on, one by one, until you’re hunkered down in jeans and a windbreaker while rain clouds gather overhead and gusts of wind materialize out of nowhere.

So naturally, I had my doubts when one of my friends – a Romano da Roma, a born-and-raised Roman – enthusiastically invited me to spend the day at the beach along with some of his friends. Usually, I couldn’t manage to spend more than an hour or two at the beach before something – the cold or the wind, or the lumpy ground, or in rare non-cloudy moments, the fact that there was nothing to shield you from the sun – annoyed me to the point of fleeing to the car and heading back home. An entire day at the beach, from morning to sundown with no option to escape early, was an unnerving concept. Still, curiosity got the best of me, and I accepted the invitation.

After a requisite cappuccino to kick off the morning, we hit the autostrada out of the city, windows down, an increasingly green countryside whipping by as we drew closer to the ocean, about a half-hour’s drive. By the time we turned onto the back streets, in Maccarese, the scenery felt positively tropical: Palm trees everywhere, lush green, roadside stands selling fresh fruit. The conversation in the car turned to food – a topic Italians will seize with enthusiasm in almost any situation. ”Al mare, si mangia bene” – at the sea, you eat well – my friend told me, twisting around in the front seat to describe plates of spaghetti alle vongole verace washed down with plenty of chilled white wine. I was feeling increasingly optimistic about this beach day.

It was when we reached our destination that I began to realize just how different an experience this would be than what I was used to. Upon stepping out of the car, I was hit with a wall of warm air laden not with the fresh tang of salt water and seaweed, but with the scents of cooking seafood with heavy undertones of fritti. The beach in Maccarese (along with others all up and down the Italian coast) is lined with a string of stabilimenti – literally, “structures” – an eclectic smattering of private beach clubs, many with their own restaurants.

This is how it works: You choose a stabilimento – although the basic premise of beach access and food is fairly constant, amenities, style and clientele vary hugely – and pay for a lettino, or lounge chair, which will be yours for the day. An assistant on the beach will set up all the lettini for your group, a process that involves much rearranging, towel flapping, and discussion over whether an ombrellone will be necessary, and then you will strip down to your bikini and drape yourself over lettino, getting up only to fare il bagno (swim; or, literally, to make a bath, because calling it “swimming” erroneously implies that some physical exertion is taking place in the water) or eat something.

Our chosen stabilimento was known as “Il Castello” – a small ivy-draped castle of undeterminable age and authenticity positioned at the edge of the beach and also at the edge of that very fuzzy border between elegant and ostentatious. Inside, there was a massive white marble lobby with a long coffee bar and a smattering of ultra-modern low-slung white plastic chairs. Outside, a large swimming pool, an outdoor restaurant, another bar in a little thatched-roof hut, and then the beach itself; a stretch of perfectly yellow sand (raked smooth every morning for maximum visual appeal) dotted with evenly spaced blue beach umbrellas and little groupings of lettini. There was no driftwood. No sharp clamshells poking out of the sand. Only a sea of impossibly bronzed flesh – and lots of it – proudly on display.

Italians are not afraid of the sun the way North Americans are. The ombrellone have been raised, but the pools of shade they cast are  empty; there, I would surmise, primarily as a symbolic gesture or to add visual interest to the scene. The sun tans range from deeply golden to nearly black, and the bathing suits from tiny to nearly nonexistent – like the umbrellas, the presence of a few microscopic triangles of brightly coloured fabric are symbolic rather than functional. Next to the Italians, my skin (already deeply tanned by my own personal standards) looks milky white and my black bikini (very average by North American standards) looks gigantic and boring. I stand out; la straniera on a beach full of Romans.

Moments after falling asleep on my lettino, I was jolted back awake by an almost pained-sounding cry coming from down the beach. “Coccooooooo! Cocco Frescoooooo!” I spotted an immigrant worker trudging along with a big bucket; inside were chunks of fresh coconut for sale. A man selling sunglasses (wired onto a giant piece of cardboard – a makeshift display rack) and sunhats (stacked six high on his head) walked by chanting “occhiali-occhiali-occhiali”, and minutes later a cart selling bikinis, towels, and sarongs rolled down the beach, brightly coloured fabric flapping in the breeze. You could, it seemed, arrive at the beach without any of the appropriate accessories and soon find yourself stretched out on a new towel wearing a new bikini with a new pair of sunglasses perched on your nose. And after all this, another cart rolled by (accompanied by blasts on a whistle to announce its arrival), this one selling Grattachecca, a Roman take on shaved ice with fruit juice and fruit chunks.

And then, with the sun high overhead, it was time for lunch; the famous spaghetti alle vongole verace, some bread to mop up the sauce, a bottle of Frascati white wine lounging in a tub of ice, a bracingly strong caffè to finish it all off. This is all served under an airy canvas awning, white tablecloths fluttering in the breeze, pool sparkling off to the side and the ocean straight ahead. It is all very sophisticated, very quintessentially Italian, and a far cry from the coolers of cling-wrapped sandwiches, bags of chips and hotdogs of suspect origin that I had previously associated with a lunch at the beach.

However, there is an important factor to consider when timing your lunch at the beach: According to the Italians, you can not venture into the water (not even to wade or to float around listlessly) for at least two hours after eating (although, confusingly, you can take a quick dip immediately after eating, just not, say, half an hour later), otherwise you will be overcome with some kind of mysterious ailment known as congestione, which apparently leads to cramps and then… death. I learned these facts as I enthusiastically shovelled spaghetti into my mouth while simultaneously shooting sidelong glances at the swimming pool. I laughed, convinced it was a joke, and was met with the most serious of stares from across the table. Non si fa. You just don’t do that.

With the water out of the question, I returned to the lettino and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading, which is actually to say that I spent the remainder of the afternoon with a book propped up on my knees while people-watching and eavesdropping on the conversations taking place all around me. You could call it voyeurism. You could call it an extended language lesson, with emphasis on some very Roman expressions. You could call it cultural observation at its finest. In any case, for someone previously convinced that beaches were boring, the afternoon was proving itself to be highly enjoyable.

And finally, with the sun dipping lower in the sky, aperitivo time, which meant wandering down the beach to another stabilimento – this one more crowded, younger, more energetic. Low-slung, bed-like lounge chairs were grouped around a big central bar, there was a DJ playing disco music, and people – showing off their newly-acquired, darker tans – were clustered around in big groups, chatting loudly and gesturing wildly and moving in time to the music. This was a long way from a beach day in Victoria. And all things considered, this – between the food and the minimal-effort relaxation – was the kind of beach experience I could really get used to.

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June 27, 2013

Finestre aperte

This morning, like every other morning, I woke up to the sound of my phone’s alarm trilling out its familiar tune. Except when I rolled over and groped groggily at my bedside table in an effort to silence it, I realized that my alarm was already silent – that, in fact, it wasn’t actually set to go off for another hour, and the alarm that had jolted me out of my sleep actually belonged to a neighbour.

The alarm continued to ring constantly for an indeterminable but seemingly infinite amount of time, guaranteeing that I, along with every other person whose bedroom windows faced the same internal courtyard, was now very much awake. Eventually, an angry voice floated over from across the courtyard: “Ma dai, stiamo cercando di dormire! Ti prego, spegnerlo!” (“Come on, we’re trying to sleep! I beg you, turn it off!”), followed by a second voice: “Allora grazie a te, siamo tutti ancora più svegli!” (“Well, thanks to you, we’re even more awake now”), and then, finally, by the sounds of water running and a coffee pot scraping across a stovetop – the sounds of defeat, perhaps.

This is summer living in Rome. Your windows have been flung wide open. Your neighbour’s windows are also open. And private lives – normally kept more or less contained within the bounds of each individual apartment – are escaping into the streets and courtyards to mingle with each other until they’ve become so totally entangled that one person’s business has suddenly become everyone else’s business as well. Mornings, mealtimes, bedtimes… The smallest details of day-to-day life are amplified and then projected for the entertainment (or perhaps annoyance) of those around you.

In the month or so since temperatures have escalated high enough to warrant constantly-open windows, I’ve learned multitudes about my neighbours and their habits. I’ve been privy to the rather scandalous details of an affair that the signora living above me has been having. I have listened – somewhat awkwardly – to toilets flushing and showers running. I’ve smelled the lunches and dinners (roasting meat and slow-cooking tomato sauce) of everyone around me, and I’ve watched as a man from across the courtyard has leaned out of his bathroom window in a fuzzy brown bathrobe to bellow out a few lines from an opera, totally oblivious to his unseen audience. In the evening I see a grid of glowing yellow windows, glimpses of wood-beamed ceilings framed by drifting curtains and dark shutters. I haven’t met most of these people, but by now I feel as though I know them.

Sometimes, though, the open windows can become problematic. Earlier this week I was leaning out my bedroom window, draping freshly washed underwear over my clothesline. A few months ago, I would have felt too awkward to do this, but after having seen one neighbour’s underwear fluttering shamelessly in the breeze like little white flags and another’s elaborately constructed rig to dry as many pairs of boxer shorts at one time as possible, I felt like this was a step towards clothes-drying efficiency that I was ready to take. And just as I was about to anchor everything in place with clothespins, an ill-timed gust of wind plucked a pair of underwear off the clothesline and sent it spinning dramatically through the air, swooping across the courtyard… until it soared directly into someone else’s open bedroom window.

I can only hope that it was the window belonging to the person with the incessant alarm.

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Verbalized: Past participle, past tense of ver·bal·ize (Verb) 1. Express (ideas or feelings) in words, esp. by speaking out loud. 2. Speak, esp. at excessive length and with little real content.