Notes from Rome: on a Van Gogh painting in the Vatican Museum, olive oil and a “na na” tune

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We went to the Vatican Museum. With the kids and a stroller. It was hot, we were tired from walking and by the time we arrived to the museum we got completely lost in the mass of the museum visitors and guided tours groups and did not know which way to go to get our entrance tickets and check in our backpack. One of the security guards approached us and insisted on helping. First he showed us where we could leave the backpack, but then seeing that we had children, he smiled and said that he himself has children and he understands how challenging it is to travel with these little people. He told us to wait and came back with a special sticker for the backpack that will allow us to take it inside the museum. Then seeing the stroller, he took us to service elevator and got us to the ticket office floor. By that time he and my husband exchanged some greetings and he told us that he was originally from Bolivia and now living in Italy. My husband needed to leave us, as he had to do some work in the Vatican library and the guard escorted me and the kids to the ticket office and my husband to the exit, so he would not get lost. The Vatican Museum is huge, but this is fine, we expected it. What we did not expect is the multitude of people, lots of stairs (almost between each exhibition room) and pretty much the impossibility to make it through the mass of tourists. Needless to say that the kids could barely see the paintings. The antique collection was better, there were fewer people and some of the marble statues were positioned on the floor level, and my son identified himself with them and got very expressive and talkative. We spent a nice period of time in that gallery. Then, the move towards the Sistine Chapel continued through even thicker mass of visitors. We progressed slowly, when half way through the museum (Sistine Chapel is at the end of the visit) the Bolivian guard saw us and told me to follow him through a side door. We went through some museum exhibitions that were closed to public on that day, thus the rooms were empty and breathable. He told me that this way he would take us directly to the Sistine Chapel avoiding all the stairs. And we followed him. At some point he stopped in one of the rooms and pointed to a bluish Van Gogh painting. He told me that he really liked it and that it was thought that Van Gogh pictured himself through the face of Christ (Christ’s face has Van Gogh’s features). It was a beautiful small painting. All bluish. A breath of fresh air. In the dusty and touristy Rome, it was like a small open window that let you feel the breeze from the blue sea. Fresh. New. It gave you strength and made you smile inside. We stood for a couple of minutes in front of this Van Gogh, in the small empty room of the Vatican Museum. Just Van Gogh and us. And through the open window you could see the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, and hear the noise of the street. Then the guard led us to the Sistine Chapel. He opened the door and there we were, in the middle of the people again with the magnificent Michelangelo art looking at us from the ceilings. The guard told me the shortest way to get out of the Chapel once we are done with the visit and disappeared. I barely had time to thank him.

People are nice in Rome. They are very nice. They help you. They talk to you. They smile. They share their kindness. We have talked to the people at the hotel, at the museums, at the churches, at the cafes. Even the security guard of St. Peter’s Basilica engaged into a conversation with us. It all started with a question if we wanted to attend a mass there, which I had to reject, because the kids were very tired and my two year old would not be able to sit through it without trying the Basilica’s acoustics himself. And we just stood there talking for ten minutes with the guard, about him, life and us.

People at the restaurant we had our dinner today sang a melody with our daughter when they saw her singing. They did not do it expecting something in return. They did it because they enjoyed it too. They enjoyed sharing the moment of happiness with somebody who is next to them. The restaurant had the red gingham square tablecloths; fresh home baked bread and their own production olive oil. The oil was thick, dark green and aromatic. It was good. It was grown and produced on family olive fields in Tuscany and it had the Italian hot sun in it. And a bit of happiness. Both kids could not stop eating the still warm bread dipping it in olive oil. And signing. Yes, they were singing some childish “na na” tune that they had just came up with. And the waiters started singing the melody too. And the sun lit the street beautifully through the narrow cut in the terracotta buildings. It lit the table with the red cloth and some bread on it, the people that passed by, the waiters and us, as a part of it all.

Italy at 8pm is beautiful. It has the happiness that a piece of fresh bread dipped in green olive oil from Tuscany took from the Italian sun. It has the fresh breath of a small Van Gogh painting in an empty room in the Vatican Museum. It has the kindness of Italian people. And not only Italian. It has what all the people have: the ability to sing happily a childish tune with a happy child.

Rome, July 10th, 2012.

Notes from Rome: on bright blue bird, Italian caramel candies, and magic

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We spent about half an hour at the Italian Post Office. We went there to send some post cards and a small parcel. We stood in line for about ten minutes when a middle-aged man entered the post office building and right away started talking to the people around him. He knew almost everybody, the post office clerks saluted him by name, the old lady in the line asked him something and he got engaged into a conversation with her and people around them. Then he saw my son, we obviously were new to him and he asked my son what his name was. As my son was too little to be able to answer I answered for him. I told the man that my son’s name was Miro. And then he asked what zodiac sign was he, and I had no clue to that. Thus he asked me his date of birth, and I told him and he got all the post office discussing what sign is a person who’s born on February 11th. After a heated and very emotional discussion, the verdict was Pisces. The man, who by that time told me that his name was Dimitri, seemed glad with the result. He also told me that his name was Antonio, and his second name was Dimitri, and that he preferred to be called by his second name. By that time half of the people in the post office knew our names and introduced themselves to my children and me. We were a friendly crowd of people, almost all Italians (except us) talking about Russia in 1960s. After hearing my name, people always ask me if I am Russian. And I have told Dmitri that I’m originally from Moscow. Those who have been to Moscow or Ukraine were eagerly telling me their stories. By that time it was my turn with the post office clerk, who was young and shy and very nice, and who was listening to the conversation that was going on, but was too polite to get in it. Five minutes after, while I was being attended Dimitri came to my son with a small bag of candies. He just ran around the corner to the closest store and got Miro a nicely wrapped bag of Italian caramels. We thanked him, said good-bye to the people at the post office and left the building.  Later in the day when we were walking back to the hotel and both of my kids were tired and starting to whine, my daughter asked me for the candy that the man gave us. At first I could not get what was she talking about, and then she remained me about the man from the post office this morning. And I got the half full bag of candy and gave one to her and one to her brother. They proved to be magical. Both kids forgot about their tiredness, smiled and happily continued walking to our hotel.

We have visited seven churches today. We did not plan on it, we actually planned to visit one church and then sit at the cafe and enjoy some coffee and ice cream. The first church we visited, the one that we planned for, was the Basilica of San Clemente. It is a very beautiful 12th century Basilica built on the Roman’s buildings, with mosaics that make you stand with your mouth open and dive into the amazing details of its art. Apart from the main church, the Basilica has three underground floors, full of small rooms, narrow passages, mural paintings, natural wells with spring water and labyrinth staircases, in one word, an amazing assembly of crypts.  Enough to say, that after twenty minutes of looking at art and walking, we got lost. I mean, literally we could not find the way out of the underground world. Everywhere we went seemed to take us to new chapels, rooms, and buildings, all of them on slightly different levels and connected by very narrow passages. Our stroller could not get through them, thus we left it in the main underground chapel and went by foot. First the kids thought that it was fun that we got lost, and then they started panicking. Suddenly there were no people around and we literally ran through this underground labyrinth of poorly lit brick columns, arches, walls and connecting halls. Later on we realized that the Basilica was closing and all the tourists, who did not got as deep into the crypt as we did, got out way before us. After about ten minutes we made it to daylight too. The mosaic of the main altar was shining even brighter after being underground for about an hour. This must have been also the feeling of the monks who lived there. They must have thought that all the colors that exist in the universe are in that mosaic; or at least this is how it felt to us then, especially with the noon sun getting in through the church door. My son pointed to the small blue bird on the bottom of the mosaic. It was a bright blue bird that looked almost real.  “Mom, a bird!” sounded more like “Mom, a world”. And then I realized that this mosaic is ‘a world’ after you have spent some time in a crypt.

Then we made it to the cafe, with six more stops in other churches dating from 6th to 18th centuries. All amazing, some of them with mosaics, paintings, statues. However, San Clemente left some special feeling in us. May be it was a feeling of discovery. Or may be it had the taste of this Italian caramel candy that Dimitri gave us at the post office.

We also entered St. Eustachio church that is right in front of the cafe. We went there because we already got used to see its facade and we liked the deer head with the cross on it. And because a gardener with a hose was watering some plants in front of the church and it looked cool and fresh. The church is small and modest comparing to all others we entered today. All I can say is that it is very white. And I like white. It lets you think, relax and breathe freely. St. Eustachio church has the aura of cold marble stones. Its ceilings are white too; white with gold ornaments across all the cupolas. It is good to be sitting inside of it in July, when it is hot and humid on the street. It is almost as good as to be sitting in the cafe and being part of the cafe crowd, who talk, listen, drink coffee, share this moment with somebody else and then run away to take care of their daily lives. I feel like part of all these people. It does not matter where they are from, what language they speak, or what they will be doing in an hour. What matters is that we are all sitting on the street and seeing the church, the cars, the carabinieri passing by. We see the same shadow of the deer head with the cross on the pink house next to the church. We see the man who is watering the plants, and the suited man walking back and forth eating a slice of pizza. He is dressed in a suit (like most Italian men are) and he is eating pizza and walking and talking to somebody on a cell phone. And he is nervous. And all of us notice him and now he is part of our lives. As much as the church, the coffee and the man watering the plants are. We are part of this everyday magic, of this warmth that people can share by looking, by observing, by hearing, by giving and by merely being in a place and becoming a part of the place. And the happiest of us, like Dimitri, share this magic with others.

People I love are the ones who do not ask a child if he would like a candy, they just offer it to him. They do not ask if they should open the door for you, they open it. They do not ask you if you need help, they are there and they help. They are the people that make life magical for the rest of us. And I am grateful to them.

Rome, July 9th, 2012

Notes from Rome: weddings, cars and a deer head with a cross

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Saturday. In every church we passed by there was a wedding going on. I wrote before how elegant and beautiful Italian people look. Well, that was their everyday look. On Saturday they and their children looked gorgeous. Dark and skinny Italian women were all in short silk dresses or beautiful red or black gowns. All men in suits. All kids in white outfits. Girls looked like little bridesmaids. Everybody is sweating in their attire under the hot Italian sun. Still the crowd around churches looked wonderful. There you hear only Italian. The non-tourist Italian. Harsh, straightforward and melodic. Most of the men are nervous, women are stressed out calming down their small children. All parents getting their kids cold water from the ice cream vendors and asking them to be patient. Men standing outside of the church. Talking. In black or grey suits. Using white fans. Church stairs adored with some fresh flowers. White flowers. Nothing else. All of the people are elegant, nervous, sweating under the afternoon sun and still looking simple and spotless.

Cars. Cars are small. Much smaller than in any other country. Mini cars and Vespas is all you see on the streets of Rome. Old cars next to the new cars. All of them are small and easy to park. Italians drive chaotically everywhere, not following the road, but rather the direction they want to go. I saw cars turning around in the middle of a busy street, cars zipping through narrow cobblestone paved roads that you think are not drivable, cars sliding among buses and tourists on the crowded plazas. I like the driving style in Rome. It is fast, chaotic, but it is ‘a style’. I would not mind driving in this city.

When we looked for the best coffee in Rome, we were directed to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè. It is located on a small plaza half way between Pantheon and Pl. Navona. The café looks everything but chic. Very simple and everyday. Few metallic tables outside on the cobblestone paved plaza. Yellow bags of coffee beans and amaretto cookies wrapped in yellow tissue paper on the counter. Coffee liquor bottles with yellow labels. Men and women, Italians and tourists are crowded inside the café. Old men in suits with cigars, young men in shirts and sunglasses. Women wearing dresses and high heels. The coffee is amazing. When you sit outside and look up you see the roof of the church entrance with a deer head and a cross on the top. And the birds flying around it. And the coffee is very thick and soft. When the coffee is rich you skip the food. After two cups of Americano you are not hungry. And you love the coffee smell around the place and the sweet velvety taste it leaves in your mouth. Really good coffee is sweet without sugar. And you carry away the taste with you. As well as the feeling of looking up and seeing a deer head with the cross on St. Eustachio church and the birds flying high in the sky.

Rome, July 7th, 2012

Notes from Rome: on traffic and night air

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We are getting better in crossing the streets. Traffic is hectic here, and you do not know from where the cars, Vespas or buses are coming. You just have to start crossing the street hoping that all transport will stop. The first days it took us a lot of time waiting for the “space” in traffic. Today we got much better; we started crossing the streets like people in Rome do it. Just crossing them, expecting the traffic to stop or at least to slow down and not getting scared of the Vespas zipping right in front of us. Cars go in all directions, independently on the traffic flow, one-way street signs and sometimes traffic lights. However, they seem to be able to stop right on time or elegantly maneuver around people. On the busiest streets we saw traffic police directing the cars. It looked almost like a scene from a movie, traffic controllers all dressed in white, added to the sharpness of this sunny and ancient city.

Ice cream and coffee prove to be very good, day after day. Kids eat tons of ice creams while I get my cup of Americano (espresso with some extra hot water). Not sure what is the secret, but the coffee is good. Much better than in Spain, Norway or the US. I heard before that Italian coffee is good, however, I did not expect it to be good in all the places I tried it. Espresso machines are everywhere; I do not think I have seen a bakery or a small sandwich place without an espresso machine. Also, Italian people are very nice, everybody has a kind word for the kids and is very respectful to me, as a mom. It seems like kids are a priority in the Italian capital and the moms, as a prerogative, too.  Kids are not treated as kids, but just as people to who you pay more attention than to regular grown ups. What I mean is that they are asked questions, sensible questions that require an answer. Questions the people would ask me too. They are asked for their name, where are they from, what language do they speak and what they like in Rome. And as these are not just sweet words and the answers are expected, the kids answer. They like to be these little citizens taken with full respect and consideration. Being able to chose their ice cream flavors for themselves and answer what have they seen in Rome are closely tied together. And it comes down to being responsible people who are exploring a new city.

Nights in Rome are much better than days. At least in summer. After 9pm the air is fresher, there are very few tourists on the streets and the buildings look different. What is visible during the day is obscured when the night falls. All the ‘noise’ disappears when then sun sets. New details, sharp windows, columns, doors and corners strike your sight. You see buildings that were invisible during the sunny hours. After 9pm Rome is full of light spots of illuminated facades, sharper cobblestone pavement under the yellowish light and music from the cafes and bars. Contrasts of light and obscureness, of silence and music, of scattered groups people and emptiness of the streets are becoming. I like Rome after 9pm. The air is light and your steps are echoed by non-ending buildings of the narrow empty ‘vias’. Only at night you pay attention to the light.

Rome, July 6th 2012

Notes from Rome: beauty and kindness

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Fan. Fan. Fan is not a just a decorative item here. We started using fans. It is very hot in Rome. No trees. Lots of ruins. Lots of columns. Doric and Roman columns. Lots of cafes and restaurants. And it is very hot. Many places do not have A/C. Thus, we ended up getting those souvenir fans and using them. They work! And when our kids started quarrelling over one fan that we got for our daughter, a street vendor gave our son a similar one as a present, for free. Unexpected kindness is stronger than beauty. Or may be it is the essence beauty. And our son’s fan is a small reminder of this human beauty called kindness.

Streets are beautiful. Distances are huge, but the buildings are so beautiful, that it makes walking very attractive. Everybody walks on one side of the street, on the shady one. Thus, if you are fine with the hot Italian sun, you may walk freely on the sunny side of the streets.

Colors! The houses are all painted in terracotta, blue, yellow and orange color. It makes the city look yellowish. Yellowish with white or green or blue shutters and sharp shadows. This and the sun give Rome the dusty feel of an ancient beautiful city.

People. People. People. I am wondering if Rome is just for tourists. Tourists, like us seem to be everywhere. The city is full of souvenir shops and restaurants for tourists. However, tourists here look more elegant than in the rest of the places I have been. They dress better, they have nicer manners, and they are smiling and pleasant to look at. Ok, they just look darn elegant. Rome must have some magic; is this what magic dust is? The city makes us all dress nicer than we would otherwise. You look around and all you see are dresses, nice, colorful, beautiful dresses, straw hats, sunglasses, heels, suits, and shirts. Men address you as “bella signiora” and it sounds as a complement, even coming from a waiter or a bus driver. Italian sounds enchanting, as people who speak it. Even carabinieri looked impressive and I unwillingly straightened my back when eight of them walked by.  It feels good to be a part of this colorful and aesthetical city for a week. Maybe longer in the future.

When you enter a church or a cathedral you intuitively look up. And your eyes are magnetized by the mosaic or painting of the cupolas. Never before have I looked up for so long. The altar is invisible comparing to the quiet radiance of the scenes above your head. I am wondering if people were supposed to look right up when they enter a church… I hope they were. It makes you be part of this beauty and kindness.

Rome, July 5th 2012

Notes from Rome: coffee in front of the Coliseum

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Gelaterias, they are everywhere. All the restaurants start with a gelateria. When you go along the streets it seems that there are only ice cream parlors, but then you see that behind the ice cream, there is a restaurant, pizzeria or bar.  And, yes, it seems like everybody is eating ice cream all the time.

Italian sounds very nice. It is a beautiful language. Rome is full of tourists, thus, you mainly hear English, Spanish, Russian and very little Italian. Once you sit at the cafe or a restaurant it is nice to hear waiters speaking italian. Just because of the language I think I would like to live in this country. Their talking is almost like music. Less emotional and more romantic than Spanish, softer and more flexible than French it makes the content sound exquisite.

At the restaurants, waiters would only talk to me when asking for the food order. It is a funny contrast with Spain, USA or Norway, where they would expect any of us (my husband or me) to order the food. The whole day the only thing I heard was signiora, signiora, signiora. Ok, they brought the bill directly to my husband.

Italian restaurants in Rome do not look very different from North Beach restaurants in San Francisco. Here they are a little bit messier and less polished, however more elegant, which makes them look authentic.

Around 11pm we had coffee in front of the Coliseum, and there were no empty tables outside, thus we were invited inside the drinks bar to have our coffee there. With blue neon lights and faint smell of alcohol, it was a great place to have a coffee. In US they would never let the kids inside a liquor bar…. Our 5 year old really liked the place and the view, our 2 year old climbed everywhere and danced a Pocoyo dance in the middle of the floor. We enjoyed the coffee!

Rome, July 4th, 2012