We arrived in bella Roma on Saturday night, emerging from the Metro at Piazza del Popolo. My heart leapt into my mouth: Rome! oh, Rome! I turned to Llew and the Touring Toddler – beaming, a little breathless, my heart rioting – and said, “Welcome to Rome.”
We made it, and what a perfect and natural place to conclude our Grand Tour. I can’t think of our being here in this most magical of all cities without getting emotional – I’ve always been this way with Rome. It is so splendid it is hard to refrain from gushing superlatives – it is a singular city, and to never see it with one’s own eyes… well, that’s a thought fit to break my heart. I wish all roads really did lead to Rome because I so wish everyone could see it. Rome gives meaning to a word like ‘magnificent.’ I have a huge crush. Clearly.
AirBNB has come up trumps yet again. How much do I love this site?! It has been a huge feature of the Grand Tour and absolutely worth its weight in gold. Right now I am sitting on our big terrace on the fifth and final floor of our building on Via dei Greci, overlooking spires, bell towers and turrets, the beautiful parklands of Villa Borghese visible on the rise to my right, a music academy down below to my left. Yesterday while I was sitting out here, an accomplished pianist’s practise session was my personal soundtrack as I took in all the romance and architectural interest of our vista. Now I have an opera rehearsal, the male lead’s baritone soaring across the rooftops. It is all so achingly beautiful.
Inside, the apartment has been very cleverly renovated, and there’s a lot to be said for having such a crisp interior – so many apartments I looked at during the hunt for the perfect pad were dark and dated, whereas this is immaculate: faultlessly appointed and so floodlit, and all the charm of the view is invited inside by the huge bifold doors leading from the terrace to the lounge. This outdoor area trebles the living space, and when the doors are pushed back, the demarcation between what is outside and what is in blurs delightfully. Stunning, really. And when you compare it to hotel prices in the Roman centre, it’s an absolute bargain. We absolutely love it. It’s my third visit to Rome, but my first in an apartment, and my first with a private outdoor area, and I tell you, life doesn’t get much better than where I am sitting right now.
As a return visitor to any major destination, I think it’s always lovely staying in a different part of town. Last time we were here we stayed in a hotel in Campo de Fiori; the time before that, I was backpacking with a friend and we stayed in a pretty awful hostel somewhere near the Colosseum. Now we’re very close to the Spanish Steps, and while Via dei Greci is off Via del Corso, this place is whisper quiet. We hear more from the music academy than we do from the street. I love that we’re getting to know an entirely new set of back streets, and that our reacquaintance with Rome is full of so much that is entirely fresh. Villa Borghese, for instance. The ideal wonderland for the Touring Toddler, and a great running park besides, I’d never troubled myself to visit it before. We also discovered the ‘Gusto’ dining precinct our first night, going for an evening stroll (when in Rome, after all… and they are nothing if not midnight marchers…) once we’d unpacked, stopping at the more casual Gusto Osteria for an al fresco dinner. Nearby is the Museo dell’ Ara Pacis – a fine looking contemporary space housing the ancient sacrificial altar. Its current secondary exhibition downstairs is The Foreign Press is 100 Years Old, and I’m off to see it all now.
Oh, I turn 40 tomorrow. And I must say, turning 40 in bella Roma makes turning 40 seem AWESOME. Ciao
We’re staying in the Old Town here in Cefalu, and it’s exactly as you’d expect: a maze of tiny cobblestoned streets leading out from the fine Duomo; warm, earth-toned facades and terracotta tiled roofs; crowded rows of compact terraces and sagging apartment blocks with central courtyards. Washing hangs over the street from suspended lines, bread is delivered to the higher floors by rope and pulley, men sit in doorways on hard-backed chairs and miniscule wrought iron balconies afford the lucky few a place from which to survey and interact with the street.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how a load of drying domestic laundry can look so charming and picturesque flapping in the shade of these old Sicilian streets, how even someone’s pretty dodgy worn bath-towels can take on a poetic quality as they rhythmically slap against the side of a crumbling building… But the second you go to the new part of town, where the architectural continuity is present only in the inadequate size and external colour palette of these extraordinarily mediocre dwellings, and you spy the exact same load pegged to a plastic clotheshorse, all you can think is, “Sheesh – these Italians! Are they ever going to get their shit together…?!”
It’s very close living here, so not a place I’d necessarily recommend to privacy freaks. You can’t really move without everyone in the block knowing about it, and that makes for some interesting insights into the lives of its permanent residents. It’s one of the things I have most loved about renting apartments during the Grand Tour: the way it dumps you into a place where people actually live. You just don’t get the same immersive quality staying in hotels – certainly for us this style of travelling, thanks to the explosion of apartment rentals through websites like AIRBNB, has added a substantial additional pleasure to our adventures.
Here on Via Mandralisca, for instance, we were instantly enchanted by the entrance to our courtyard because the short tunnel was lined with paintings by the artist who lives and has studio space in the block, Antonio. What a delightful welcome mat – I can’t think of anything better. His rich oils capturing Cefalu’s ‘locals’ beach’ (the small one we frequent, away from the resort-style new end of town), mingled with religious paintings (he is Italian, after all) and perfectly rendered streetscapes all captivated the Touring Toddler in particular, actually succeeding in slowing him down for a precious few seconds every time we entered the courtyard from the street.
We have greatly enjoyed our instant rapport with Antonio, and it was probably on Day 4 when he called out to us as we were leaving for the day that he’d begun a painting of an angel, and who did it resemble but our own Touring Toddler? Well, clearly there’s been some kind of mistake, we laughed. Unless it’s his alter-ego? Antonio fetched the unfinished painting from inside his studio, and sure enough, the likeness was undeniable, especially around the eyes and bone structure. We were touched by his immediate affection for and interest in the Touring Toddler, the way he always calls out his name with a warm, “Ciao!” For his part, the Touring Toddler is equally enthusiastic, seeking out Antonio and his paintings every time we enter the communal space.
It was at the end of Week 1 that Antonio told us he was moving to another apartment in the block.
“My landlord,” he said, “hates the paintings.”
“Who could hate the paintings?” we said. “They make the whole place!”
“You say this,” Antonio continued, “but he, he walks up and down, up and down, every day he says ‘la galeria…la galeria…’ I cannot stand it anymore. Nobody else has this problem but him. It is not good for me. So I move.”
The landlord in question doesn’t own Antonio’s studio space, so there was no problem with ‘La Galeria’ continuing, until, that is, an official looking notice appeared on the main front doors.
“I wonder what that’s all about?” I asked Llew, as it had a tear sheet down the bottom for residents that looked very much like a ballot.
We soon found out when all the owners and residents conducted their strata meeting on the landing immediately outside our door. How anything was decided I’ll never know; Llew walked in at one point shaking his head and said, “That is just a roomful of people shouting over the top of each other.”
Afterwards, we saw Antonio. The landlord’s motion to have the courtyard gallery removed was defeated. He was the only one who voted in favour of shutting it down. We cheered, and were happy when Antonio moved apartments last weekend because we thought he’s escaped his own little Mussolini once and for all.
But then, nothing. The paintings resting on their easels – our guard of honour in oil – never reappeared downstairs. We didn’t see Antonio for days. Then one morning we discovered black plastic pot plants of ungainly, unlovely cacti replacing Antonio’s work along the sides of the narrow tunnel. Our hearts sank – what was happening? We knew he’d decided to move back to Rome, but now? Without even saying goodbye? Suddenly trudging through the bare tunnel had us all feeling more than a little glum.
“Where are the paintings?” I’d ask the Touring Toddler. “Where did they go? Where’s Antonio?”
And the Touring Toddler would stop, take a sweeping look around and helplessly spread his hands.
“I know,” he’d say. “I know.”
And then lo and behold, Antonio reappeared, explaining he’d been away visiting his parents north of Palermo. We were so happy and relieved to see him, not least because Llew’s parents had commissioned him to do a small painting of the Touring Toddler, which we’re due to collect and pay for, but also because we’ll at least be able to exchange numbers before we leave, and hopefully keep in touch.
“But the gallery?” I asked. “What’s happened to the gallery? We really miss your paintings.”
Antonio shook his head.
“No more. I have had enough.”
“By the end of the month.”
“Wow,” I said, “there’s no point even unpacking.”
Antonio agreed. So while we’re still fascinated by the communal life of this old block, trying to make every day count, this long-term resident has had a gutful. I’m sorry to say La Galeria is no more – and I didn’t even manage to snap a photo for the Touring Toddler to remember it by.
We are back in the regular swing of our own routine now Llew’s parents have headed to the mainland. They left last Friday and – beyond my filing an interview for the Varuna Alumni News – we’ve spent the interim recovering. I’m pretty sure they got to the Amalfi and immediately flaked too. You just underestimate, I think, the impact of travelling with two more people, in close quarters with an unsettled child, not to mention the real challenge we all faced of trying to attend to everyone’s needs and wishes. It’s a pretty big ask. I think we all aced it to the extent that anyone can, but Llew and I at least are still staggering.
The good news is that Llew and I actually got to go out for dinner by ourselves one night after putting the Touring Toddler to bed. K and P went out for an early dinner while we did battle with the One Who Will Not Be Silenced. The second they got home – only just missing the final round of negotiations – we bolted. Waiting for our table, we worked out over a well-earned drink at the restaurant’s bar that we hadn’t been out alone together – had a ‘date night,’ in other words – since Hong Kong. Three and a half months ago.
New York was flat out, we didn’t stop moving for those two weeks, and the combination of the Touring Toddler’s jet-lag with New York’s surprising open house policy toward small children meant that we just took him with us. We always intended to get a babysitter one night but it just never happened. On the next leg in London, we scored a fantastic babysitter, such a winner, but we were only able to lasso her in order to catch up with friends, not venture out by ourselves. It gets expensive, so we had to be judicious. Paris? We were only there 3 nights. Opio? Staying with friends. San Remo? Just a stop on the way to somewhere else. And then Greece and back now to Italy, where in each case babysitting as we understand it does not appear to exist. We’ve looked. Believe me, we’ve looked. In Athens one night we met up with a friend of a friend, and when I pressed her about it, she confirmed our suspicion that it’s just not done. I guess people rely on family or retain nannies; casual babysitting seems to be practically unheard of. So that’s the tale of how a married couple might easily lose their mojo. Three and a half months without an evening alone is a long time.
Needless to say we stayed at dinner the other night until we were the last ones left in the restaurant, then we took a slow stroll around the piazza below Cefalù’s stunning Norman duomo, and I only broke into a run once we entered our building’s courtyard and we heard the Touring Toddler’s anguished cries shattering the quiet of the night. Our timing was good, he’d only just woken up, but even so he was already totally beside himself and I do think we’ll be starting from scratch as far as separation anxiety goes once this trip is over. I think we have reached the limit of his endurance; in a world that keeps on changing, we are his one stable thing, and his attachment to me in particular at the moment is really pronounced. I’m glad we chose that moment to call it a night – causing that level of distress and confusion is just not on. I don’t know what we’ll do for the wedding we’re attending back in Sydney… I really just don’t know.
The whirlwind day-tripping of last week in which we visited Enna, Siracusa, Taormina, Èrice, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples and finally Palermo – Siracusa and the temples proving major highlights – has given way to our usual alternate mornings of free time, which both of us are using to exercise and look for/think about/do some work. Cefalù’s own rhythms are oddly concordant; it was an utter madhouse here during K and P’s stay, teeming with people and wild weather: the surf was up, the water dirty, the streets overwhelmed. Now all is calm, including the once again pristine waters. I’m so sorry they never got to see it like this.
And now I must away… I have so much work to do on myself and my practice. The only thing that is really clear to me on the employment front is that I must strive to reach my potential as a writer. What that means in a practical sense I am still struggling to understand.
We’re galloping toward the end of the Grand Tour, I am desperately sorry to say, and the time in Cefalu is already flying by. We’ve been joined by two gatecrashers: Llew’s parents arrived from Australia on Thursday, inspired by our rave reviews into booking their own Italian sojourn. They’re staying with us for a week, then heading off to the Amalfi and then on to Rome where we’ll meet again, though this time in separate accommodation. This apartment was huge for 2.5 of us, but we’re pretty cosy now! It’s been wonderful seeing the Touring Toddler’s response to the arrival of his grandparents; we weren’t sure how long it would take him to warm up, but in the event it was no time at all. He’s absolutely loving them being here, which of course is the best possible reception for Grandma and Granddad.
It’s funny after 3.5 months abroad to be suddenly talking about Australian politics and Australian society and Australian sport and Australian media again… I haven’t missed it, and aside from catching up with family and friends, I am not looking forward to going home. I just don’t want to be there anymore, and I am not sure what we are going to do about it as Llew feels very much the same. I had thought that a trip of this magnitude might attend to the itch to be elsewhere, but all this prolonged and exquisite scratching has only inflamed it.
We have a great life in Sydney, we love it, it’s home and we’re very privileged to have a place there, plus it hopefully goes without saying that we love our family and everyone in our wide circle of friends, but none of it has been able to extinguish the desire to start all over again somewhere else. And that desire has been compounded by a gradual but steady erosion over the past few years of my natural affection for other Australians. I’ve always liked my country, I’ve always liked my fellow Aussies, I’ve always been a big believer in the place and its people. But I realise from this remove that my faith has been quietly diminishing over time – there’s a variety of reasons for that, it’s not one thing – and now the thought of having to go back makes me want to cry.
I guess I am a bit disillusioned politically, philosophically, economically, intellectually and socially, and while perhaps I have no one but myself to blame for that, still I seem to feel better about things now I’m out of Australia. Of course, that is partially a function of denial: we have been avoiding addressing the reality of our situation, which is that we’re both unemployed. We have a child. We have a mortgage. We have bills. None of that is going to be pleasant – reentry promises to be unusually turbulent and we face a really hard time trying to work through our prospects. Hopefully we’ll eventually come up with some sort of plan for our future. Currently all we know is that the job market is pretty terrible for both of us, not just in Australia but around the world. Besides which, Llew doesn’t even want another job like the one he had, working in finance for a big bank. So he may well be starting from scratch in another industry, or taking a number of risks trying to work for himself. I have no idea what his next job looks like or where it will be.
And what job shall I start looking for…? It’s not exactly a great time to be an out-of-work writer – journalists are losing their jobs, and those that still have them are holding on for dear life. Part-time or full-time? And will I even earn enough to pay for the childcare I’ll require to return to the workforce at all? And what will be the effect on the Touring Toddler of all these huge changes to our household? Speaking of which, without jobs we can’t even afford to live in our own home upon our return. We need rent income to cover the mortgage repayments, so immediately upon landing in Sydney, we’ll have to find new tenants, move the rest of our stuff into storage and stay with Llew’s parents until we sort ourselves out. Really, the whole thing is a shambles. No wonder we favour denial. Denial’s been fun.
I had a dream last night all my teeth fell out, so the party is definitely winding down as my subconscious starts cracking the whip. I’m officially concerned for our future. But in the meantime, hey, we’re loving Sicily, and if we’re going down, we’re going down in a blaze of misspent euros. We’re in Italy, and it’s a beautiful life.