Sunday, December 13, 2009

Food, wine & music in Frascati

Last Sunday my friend Ana and I took a day trip to Frascati. The Lawyer (a guy I had a little flirtation with when I first arrived) had invited me there one evening but I turned him down since he asked me at the absolute last minute and I just don't roll like that. But he made it sound really cool so I put it on my list of cities to check out. Frascati, about 20 mins away from Rome by train, is known for its wine so it’s a popular nightlife destination for Romans looking to do something different on a Friday or Saturday night. But without access to a car, Ana and I decided to just go for the day.

It’s a beautiful little town but that’s not really saying much because Italy in general is beautiful—you gotta be bring a whole lot to the table if you want to stand out as a special, unique city. Physically I wouldn’t rank it any higher than say Milan. BUT the trip to Frascati will stand out as one of the best, most-authentic days I had during my entire stay in Rome.

There was a huge street market going so we wandered around the town for a while (it seemed like every single resident and their dog was out enjoying their Sunday afternoon passagiata), looking at the random merchandise, stopping in the church and checking out the views of Rome. Finally we stumbled onto a piazza that had cart after cart of the very thing I came after: PORCHETTA.

Last year a porchetta shop opened on my block in New York. It got great write-ups and there was always a long line out the door but I would pass by the place every day without so much as a second glance. I'm just not normally a pork eater, if I have it five times a year its a record. But now that I was in Frascati (right next door to Ariccia where porchetta comes from) I had to have it—if only to be able to tell all those downtown hipsters I had the real deal :)

So we stopped a man on the street and asked him to point us to the best place to buy porchetta. We bought the sandwiches along with a large container of sundried tomatoes, artichokes and grilled eggplant (all of it drizzled in olive oil) and walked down the street to the cantina he recommended.

Now this was the coolest part: you buy your lunch then bring it to a tiny little cellar that serves nothing but homemade wine. For 1 Euro we got to fill up a pitcher with wine from the huge barrels in the back of the shop, spread out our food on a picnic table and eat and drink to our hearts content.

While we were eating we chatted with the owner of the cantina as people came in and out with empty bottles to fill up with wine (someone even came with a empty liter bottle of Pepsi, no joke). As our wine ran out, Max (the brother of the owner) came over and filled our glasses back up with wine from his pitcher. He was clearly nuts (in the best possible way) but we somehow got into an interesting conversation with him about Italy (he emphatically insisted that he wasn’t Italian, he was Roman) that segued onto the topic of music and he told us he was a musician who performed all over Lazio. Suddenly he stood up and ran out of the shop. Five minutes later he came back with his guitar, plopped himself down at our table and started to sing for us.

Aside from us, there was an older couple from Rome who had driven to Frascati for lunch. Between listening to the beautiful Italian songs, talking with the older couple, speaking in French with one of the customers (he was explaining the concept of the cantina to us but asked to switch to French as his French was better than his English—yay for knowing a foreign language!) and chatting with the shop owners, it was an incredible afternoon. We stumbled out of there 3 hours later, tipsy from the delicious wine (in addition to the two carafes we bought, Max must have filled our glasses 4 times), stuffed from all the great food and grinning from ear to ear. I live for those kinds of experiences.

One funny thing to mention: there were tons of gnats flying around the cantina, one even fell in my drink. I’m really squeamish in general but the owner insisted that they wouldn't hurt us and it was totally normal to have them around since they just finished making a fresh batch of wine that morning. Um… ok. We spent half the time swatting gnats and trying to keep them from falling into our meal. As we were leaving Ana joked, “Don’t worry. If we’re lucky we only ate 10 of them.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Happy Immaculata!

Today is Immaculata, a feast day dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s a national holiday in Italy but since I’m not Catholic (and in fact grew up in the Protestant tradition) I had never heard of it until a friend mentioned it yesterday. After doing a bit of research I learned that it’s sort of a big deal—big enough that the Pope comes out to give a public blessing and pay homage to the Virgin.

Now a chance to see the Pope in the flesh, Popemobile and all, was too good to pass up so I walked over to the Spanish Steps and took my place with the hundreds (thousands?) of other people packed into the piazza. By the time I arrived at 3:30pm (the blessing started at 4pm) I could barely find a spot on the Steps so I can only imagine what time the folks with the front row seats got there.

I couldn’t see the entire ceremony from where I was standing on the steps (the Pope places a garland of flowers on the statue of the Virgin Mary at the other end of the piazza) but I did get to see the military guys come in, the whole motorcade procession and THIS:

And I’m done. I can go back to New York happy now :)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Day trip to Ostia Antica

I spent an afternoon at Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman colony founded in 620 B.C. It’s a quick 30 minute trip on the metro so I decided to go there one afternoon last week and check it out.

The funny (or sad?) thing is that I was so spooked out by the place that there were a couple instances where I didn’t do/see everything I should. I just didn’t expect the place to be so damn creepy! Just imagine traipsing through a bunch of old ruins, its nearly deserted, deathly quiet, in the middle of nowhere, with crazy pigeons popping out of every corner to scare you half to death. Yep.

Like at one point, I walked down this long deserted backstreet to check out the old tenement-housing complex. It was built for the lower-middle class families, complete with several 5-story apartment buildings and even a tavern that had a real bar with shelves for food & drinks, a sink and wall paintings— very cool.

Towards the back of the area there was a building with stairs you could climb up to take a peek inside the apartments from above. I really wanted to look inside. But after a few minutes wandering through the deserted, maze-like place the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up (it was Ostia’s “projects” after all).

It was like being in a horror movie and I just though, 'You need to get your ass out of here before this turns into some sort of Night of the Living Dead situation!' So I quickly left—walked back out and onto the main path where there were at least a few other living humans. Its so stupid, believe me, I know. Why would I be freaked out by a bunch of old buildings? lol, as my mom would say, I need Jesus.

The thing was that it was a random Wednesday afternoon and it was late in the day so there were hardly any tourists around AT ALL. And the whole place has an eerie, frozen-in-time vibe… if I had known I wouldn’t have gone by myself. To my defense, my friend Ana went a few weeks ago and said she felt really creeped out too and left early. So I’m not totally crazy :)

(The Theatre)

Anyway, here are more pictures from the trip. It was still awesome. Very cool to wander around an ancient village, its so amazingly preserved (the entire town was covered in mud after a bad storm which preserved it and kept it safe from medieval thieves until the excavation in the 1930s and 40s). At the same time, its always hard for me to really wrap my mind around something of this magnitude. This town was here centuries before Christ. That’s a whole lot of history!

(The Thermal Baths of Neptune... cool mosaics on the floor)
(The Mill from 120 A.D., where grains were ground by twisting those blocks of stone)
(An oven to bake bread)
(The Grand Temple/Forum, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva)
(Gov't-subsidized forum baths: it had steam rooms, pools, masseuses, the works!)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The countdown

2 weeks from today I’ll be leaving Rome…

As I write those words I still can’t believe its true. Where did the time go? I feel like I just got here and yet nearly 3 months have passed since I first arrived. Initially I planned to go home for the holidays and return to Rome in the New Year. This was based on the idea that I would have a great apartment to return to... not the case. Lord knows I can’t and won’t stay in this SanLo apt a second longer than I have to. And with no home to return to I don’t know if I’ll be returning at all.

Leaving Rome feels almost like a breakup. Even though the city kicked my ass a few times, I loved it here and the fact that I have to say goodbye so soon is heartbreaking. But when I look back at this experience, it won’t be Rome that makes me smile the most. What I will think of most is how Rome served as a base for me to explore this beautiful country. Before I arrived I made a list of 19 Italian cities I wanted to visit while living in Rome—I’ve since crossed off 13 of them and that fact thrills me to no end. I have seen the most incredible sights and have collected experiences that I'll be able to savor for a lifetime.

But more than anything Italy brought me back to myself. Just a few months ago I woke up to the realization that the life I was living wasn't for me. The nearly 10 years I spent working in my field were great, perfect for the girl I was then. But by the time I got back from Paris I had finished that chapter and was ready to move on to something new. What? I didn't know. But then there I was, back in that same old job, feeling miserable under the weight of other people's expectations... until I decided to return to Paris. And from there began my journey of being totally authentic to myself. Loving myself enough to ensure my own happiness, seeking out my life's purpose, trusting my instincts, taking a leap of faith. By coming to Italy I proved to myself that I have the strength to start over; that doing things for the simple fact that you want to is not always a bad thing and definitely not something to be ashamed of; that sometimes the unclear road is the best one to take. And finally, I learned to love this period of uncertainty. To really relish in the simple act of living just as strongly during the times of doubt (as Rilke phrases it, "living the question") as when you're floating through life with a concrete plan in place. Its the most valuable lesson I can take home with me. Boy, have I lived. And by now I've walked too far in the right direction to start moving backwards... the road is still uncertain but I'm finally at peace with that and I'm excited about what will come next.

Speaking of strength, last year I saw Benjamin Button and this speech from the final scene really resonated with me:

“For what its worth, its never too late to be whoever you wanna be. There’s no time limit; start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same—there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it… I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

I'm going to enjoy my last days here: spending time with friends, traveling around Lazio, eating everything I can get my hands on and just soaking up the magic of Italy. Living here has been surreal and I’m really going to miss this crazy place. The good news is that I've thrown enough coins in the Trevi Fountain... I'll be back :)