Rome in August: Envision a ghost town, a city empty except for throngs of red-faced tourists fanning themselves with maps. Envision closed stores, closed restaurants, closed coffee bars; metal serrande pulled down tightly over doors and vast swaths of empty parking spaces where it’s normally impossible to park.
The best way to enjoy Rome in August is to get out of Rome in August.
We managed to escape the city for most of the month. First we drove down south to Sicily, where a beach or a sizeable serving of ice-cold almond granita is always nearby to counter the often-oppressive heat, and then, right before the middle of the month, we returned to Rome – emptier than ever at this point. Two nights later we got in the car again and headed out to Abruzzo, to a friend’s house in a lively little town nestled in the mountains, and we stayed there until August had almost passed. I have things – many things – to say about Sicily and Abruzzo and am (slowly) pulling together posts on both, but in the meantime, as time moves on, here we are: September.
Rome in September: Envision the city filling back up with deeply bronzed Romans, slowly at first, then all at once. Envision stores and restaurants open again, coffee bars packed every morning, throngs of motorini jockeying for position at traffic lights.
This is the rientro; a re-entry to Rome but also to everyday life, to routine, to the usual.
After a summer of bouncing around from place to place and living, often, out of a suitcase, I’m fully embracing the rientro. I love to travel, but part of the beauty of travel is that the comforts of home are sharply underlined. When we pushed open the door to the apartment last week we were greeted with a wave of stale, hot air, a mountain of dirty clothing that still needed to make its way to the washing machine, and a kitchen sink that had sprung a slow but steady leak. It should have – would have, normally – felt frustrating, but instead it felt good: home.
It felt good the next morning when I woke up early and headed out on my usual run route, when I got groceries from the market and the vendors greeted me with a cheerful bentornata – welcome back! – and enquired about what I had been up to, and when I got coffee at my usual bar, packed elbow-to-elbow along the counter with the people I see there every day.
There is something to be said for routine. For the usual. For having entrenched rhythms to follow, but also for actually enjoying those rhythms.
Four years ago today, I arrived in Rome with three overweight suitcases in tow and a whole new life spreading out in front of me. Four years ago, I spoke no Italian (other than a handful of memorized phrases, most of which involved food), knew next to nothing about the culture, and had no clue how to begin putting together the bits and pieces of everyday life.
Four years is, in the scheme of things, not a particularly long time. But in those four years I’ve carved out a life – an everyday, routine-laden, normal life – that I’m always happy to return to, and that feels like something significant.
I’m going to leave you with a recipe for a cake. A couple of days ago at the market, while enquiring about where I had been all month, my usual produce vendor thrust a couple of tiny green plums into my hand, demanding that I taste them. They were a revelation, simultaneously sweet and sharply tart, nearly too much flavour for their tiny size. I took home a half kilogram, dug out a recipe for a plum cake that I had bookmarked a while ago (one can never have too many plum cake recipes on file), and baked what I happen to think is one of the most delicious cakes I’ve tasted in a long time.
This recipe is adapted very slightly from David Lebovitz’s Spiced Plum Cake with Toffee Glaze. The main difference is that I didn’t make the toffee glaze – I think it would push the whole cake too far towards sticky sweet when a good chunk of its appeal is the way the tart plums balance so perfectly with the sugary, crunchy topping. Also, given that it’s almost impossible to find buttermilk here in Rome, I used yogurt instead. I loved the end product so much that I can’t imagine the inclusion of actual buttermilk would do anything to improve it.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Butter a 9-inch (23cm) springform cake pan.
Halve, pit, and cut the plums into 8 slices (or fewer, if you’re using particularly tiny plums)
In a small bowl, make the topping by mixing together all the topping ingredients until everything is evenly mixed. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand in a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground cardamom, and salt.
Add to the eggs to the creamed butter one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition to make sure they’re mixed in. Add the vanilla extract. Stir in half of the dry ingredients, then the buttermilk, then the rest of the dry ingredients, mixing just until combined. Do not overmix.
Spread the batter into the prepared cake pan. Strew the plums over the top in an even layer, then spread the almond topping over the plums. Bake until the center just feels set, about 55 minutes to one hour. (A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean of any cake batter.) If the top is browning too fast, drape a sheet of aluminum foil over the cake pan and finish baking. Let the cake cool completely then remove the sides of the springform pan.