Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.

Rome
10/3/2020

A (small) silver lining

A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.  

A tiny positive thing to come out of the lockdown: My favourite bar, Roscioli Caffè, purveyors of Rome’s best cappuccino and pastry, has created a small outdoor seating area in front of the bar. It does feel slightly like I’m sitting sandwiched between several parked motorini and the morning traffic of Via dei Giubbonari, but still – being able to sit, even linger over a breakfast at Roscioli feels luxurious, considering that their pre-coronavirus norm involved wolfing down a cornetto in their narrow indoor space while twenty hungry people hovered millimetres away, eyes boring into the back of my head as they silently urged me to eat faster*.

Today, as I finished the last bite of my usual (cappuccino, pastry loaded with apples and cream), the woman at the table next to me pulled a small sketchbook and a pocket-sized set of watercolours out of her purse and began painting the scene in front of the bar. I’m not sure if she was a local or a tourist (tourists are slowly creeping back into Rome), but it felt good to see someone revelling in Roscoli’s newer, slower, more relaxed reality.

* Although I admit that I actually love the packed, frenzied atmosphere of Roman bars at breakfast time. Usually.  

Anversa degli Abruzzi
10/3/2020

The same

Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

6/13/2020

Hello again

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

Vancouver Island, Canada
10/3/2020

Homeland

This post was originally published on August 30, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase.

Outside, the asphalt has gone soft and gummy from the heat. The cicadas in the trees along the river are screeching relentlessly, and the air smells faintly like garbage. I love Rome, but I have also never been quite so glad to escape Rome.

* * *

Arriving in Vancouver is a shock to the senses. The air is cool and the sky grey and low in that kind of typical West Coast summer way that actually feels nothing at all like summer. Everything is precise and orderly and clean and very Canadian, the opposite of Rome. The day after arriving, we wander the city in a jet-lagged haze under a soaking rain that creeps beneath our umbrellas. I drink a series of coffees, toting the paper to-go cups around with me in a way that I would never do in Italy. We eat burgers and fries for lunch, because it seems like a fitting introduction to North America, and Japanese food for dinner, because our goal is to eat only things that we can’t easily eat (or eat well) in Italy.

The next day we take the ferry over to the island, where I grew up. We rent a car – there is a mix-up, and we end up with the largest vehicle imaginable, a hulking boat of a SUV that gives me anxiety every time I think about parking it – and set out to explore, filling our days with the kind of hikes and outdoor activities that never really interested me while I was living here. We drive to Tofino, spend a few days walking forest trails and poking our fingers into tide pools along the area’s seemingly endless beaches. We eat a lot of fish. I exclaim endlessly over the way the air smells: sharply clean and briny, a mix of salt water, seaweed and damp rainforest underbrush that awakens all sorts of memories inside me.

We drive back down to Victoria, and I show Valerio the city I called home for twenty-six years: Favourite neighbourhood to stroll, favourite drive along the coast, favourite coffee shop with its tattooed hipster baristas and steady stream of cooler-than-you hipster customers (cooler-than-you hipsters are a prominent feature of Victoria). The weather cooperates, mostly. It doesn’t rain much, but I spend nearly the entire trip wearing the same two moderately-warm outfits and ignoring the suitcase full of summery skirts and dresses I packed (when you pack a suitcase in a heat wave, the possibility that you will not want light fabrics and bare legs in mid-August doesn’t fully penetrate your brain).

Two weeks seem to fly by. We have hiked, strolled, canoed, biked, and explored. We have eaten everything and anything that is not Italian (within a week and a half, we have been hit by an intense craving for anything and everything Italian). I have taught Valerio the rules of the road, Canada-style (mostly: the workings of a four-way-stop; lanes actually need to be respected; no, you can’t force slow-moving vehicles out of your way). Most importantly – I have appreciated the West Coast in a way I never did while living there.

* * *

Is there a word to describe a place that feels both foreign and deeply familiar? That’s what Canada is to me now, after seven years away. Part of it feels so effortless, like slipping into an old favourite t-shirt. After all, I was born and raised there. There are twenty-six years of that place inside me, making me who I am. But other parts feel strange and awkward – the precision, the enormous supermarkets with their freezing cold air and jaw-dropping variety of foods, the enormous empty spaces, the need to be excessively upbeat and chatty in all interactions, all situations. I kept forgetting English words, their Italian equivalents sliding into my mind instead.

Several times, when people asked us where we were from, I would say Italy, then hastily stop, backpedal, correct myself. We are not from Italy. One of us is genuinely Italian, the other is Canadian. Thoroughly Italianized after all these years – much more Rome than Victoria inside by now – but still Canadian. Canada may not be my home anymore, it may not be the culture I’ve settled into, but it’ll always be my homeland.

The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase. Read more…

Burano, Italy
11/19/2020

Bold and stark: The colours of Burano

This post was originally published on March 28, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory.

So Burano, a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon, felt odd. Mostly empty, except for a few locals wrapped in heavy coats. Mostly shuttered, except for a bar off the central piazza that seemed like it was full of the town’s entire population.  By now, tourism has become Burano’s main economy – and in January, without boatloads of tourists out exploring, it felt like the island was holding its breath, waiting until spring and the return of high season.

I think I preferred seeing Burano like this. I’m sure it’s lovely in the spring – windows thrown open and streets humming with activity – but I enjoyed the way the island’s colours took on a certain starkness in their winter version, bold and graphic and empty. It felt like stepping into a movie set, or into one of those modern paintings made up of a few swipes of primary colour and a lot of white space.

Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory. Read more…

Venice, Italy
10/3/2020

Venice: The allure of Italy’s most unique city

This post was originally published on February 2, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter.

Most cities, even truly ancient ones like Rome, still feel to me like they’re firmly established in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t take much – a few cars go a long way towards setting a sense of time. Venice doesn’t really seem to exist in any particular era. The low-slung, bluntly boxy train station is definitely not ancient, and the wide and busy Strada Nuova with its touristy shops and chain restaurants advertising tourist menus and take-away coffees couldn’t be anything except modern. But as soon as I stray from these areas by even a couple of streets, time falls away. The laundry hanging to dry everywhere and gondolas sliding through the canals feel timeless – at least until I spot a gondola with selfie sticks protruding from every possible angle, a sight that brings me fully back to the twenty-first century.

Venice shows its age, but it does it in the most graceful, captivating way possible. Colours are softened with time and salty sea air into mottled pastel tones. Stone looks as smooth as silk. Doorways sag, rooflines droop, entire buildings lean towards the canals. A startling number of bell towers are not just slightly, but extremely crooked. If I think about the city’s underpinnings – wooden pillars driven into the silty lagoon floor hundreds of years ago as the foundation for all these buildings, walls that are attacked by waves, tides, seaweed and barnacles every single day, and bridges that are crossed by thousands of tourists each month – it’s impressive that the city is still standing at all.

What’s also impressive is the casual, elegant way that Venice puts hazards directly in front of an unsuspecting wanderer. Most cities seem to do a decent job of protecting residents and tourists alike from unnecessary dangers. Venice, on the other hand, is full of sidewalks running alongside canals, dark and narrow streets that dead-end directly into water, doors – even in hotels – that open into water, and slippery stone steps leading straight down into the canal. I spotted numerous life preservers attached to walls and doors, and even a long knotted rescue rope dangling into the canal beside a set of particularly algae-slicked steps.

I have to wonder: how many tourists walk directly into the canals each year, so distracted and overcome by the city’s otherworldly beauty that they forget to watch where they’re going? How often do people topple into the water after a long and wine-laden dinner or even just fail to notice where the sidewalk ends and the canal begins while walking at night?

Venice at night is incredibly atmospheric, but it’s also incredibly dark – the kind of inky, close darkness that I usually associate with being deep in the countryside. There’s something vaguely disconcerting – but lovely – about standing in the middle of a city and hearing nothing except the sound of rain hitting the canals and waves making soft kissing noises as they lap against boats and buildings. Where else in the world does an after dinner stroll take you up and down countless bridges, past boats bobbing gently and through a tangled web of tiny nonsensical streets with (at least during the winter) hardly a single person around? Venice is so unique that it almost feels unreal.

I always wonder what it would be like to live in Venice. At what point would it cease to seem charming to have packages delivered by boat, garbage collected by boat, a new washing machine delivered by boat? Would it get tiring to have to criss-cross a multitude of bridges – stairs going up, stairs going down – just to bring home some groceries? And at what point does someone learn the city’s labyrinth of streets so well that they stop coming up against watery dead-ends every few metres?

After even a few days in Venice, going anywhere else is jarring. It’s strange to see cars again, and asphalt and cobblestones instead of turquoise water. It’s easier to actually live in Rome – or anywhere else, for that matter – than in Venice. But it’s infinitely more interesting to imagineliving in Venice, the city that manages to be both entirely improbable and very real at the same time.

If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter. Read more…