The entrance to my neighborhood perfume shop, H B, cuddled next to Rome’s impressive Rinascente department store, is so unassuming that it’s easily missed. With a second look, however, you’ll be seduced to go inside. It turns out that the store resides inside the late 19th century headquarters of Il Popolo Romano, a newspaper founded about a decade after Italy’s unification and dedicated to supporting the new country. The storeowners haven’t touched the frescoes that led from the ground floor’s printing shop to the editorial department above. And how or why would they?
Not a bad way to sniff some scents, imagine the bustle of the printing presses of once upon a time, and spend more than a few cents on the pricey perfumes that have now replaced them.
When my brother, David, and his wife visited Rome last summer, my husband, Gaetano Castelli (he’s worth a Google), and I took them to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Moderna. Furthermore, we decided to lunch there, although the A/C wasn’t working very well (welcome to Rome) and it was VERY hot! Gaetano, a somewhat demanding type (welcome to the Romans) was not pleased with, to make it short, anything — the A/C (or lack thereof), the menu at the bar, the decor, etc. and sort of, MADE IT KNOWN to anyone within earshot (welcome to Rome and the Roman way).
When we finally settled into a table in the coolest spot in the room, a waiter approached, and when my husband asked for a glass of wine, I, jokingly said, “He can’t have any because he’s bad.” His retort was, “No, I’m Roman.
This started some banter between him and the waiter that deserves a blog.
“From where?” the waiter asked, in an almost confrontational way.
“I’m Roman,” my husband answered, almost annoyed.
“But from where exactly in Rome?”
After several minutes of back and forth questioning, as in —
“but from which quartiere?”
“but which section of that quartiere”
“OK, but which street in that section of that quartiere?” —
did they determine that they had grown up around the corner from each other. In different decades, for sure, but that distance didn’t matter much. Neither was more Roman than the other. They both won the who’s more Roman than whom game. And they both understood what they meant.
This exchange couldn’t be compared to our dozens. No self-respecting Italian would joke about, let alone impugn, his or anybody’s mother given the reverence, obsession, and devotion accorded the Madonna and by extension, mothers in general. Yet, there was so much posturing and one-upmanship that it made me think of the bluster of the dozens.
But the piece de resistance came when my brother excused himself from the table and tried, surreptitiously, to pay the bill, something my husband doesn’t allow in ‘his’ town. The waiter looked toward Gaetano and raised his eyebrows, searching for permission. Gaetano gestured an emphatic “No!” and David lost.
Gaetano smiled at the waiter and then said to us, “You see, he and I – we’re brothers.”
Rome: Members of Rete Restiamo Umani (We Remain Human) renamed a Roman street Via George Floyd e Bilal Ben Messaud during the night of June 18. They chose to retitle Via dell’Amba Aradam near St. Giovanni, a hallowed basilica, because it recalls the battle which took place in Ethiopia in 1936, a “shameful massacre carried out by Italian soldiers.” The covering placed over the marble street marker was soon removed but not before it gained notoriety, covered by much of the mainstream media. Mr. Bilal Ben Messaud, a refugee, was also honored because he died in Porto Empedocie (Sicily) in May while attempting to reach land, having been confined on a ship offshore.
Naples: Italian/Dutch street artist, Jorit, took to a Neapolitan rooftop to paint a mural of the faces of Lenin, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Floyd, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. All have red tears flowing down their cheeks, in my eyes reminiscent of Native American war paint. At the mural’s feet, Jorit painted: Time to Change the World
Milan: The Simpsons as black Americans and the Statue of Liberty, shrouded in a Ku Klux Klan hood with Bart writing ‘lines’ which read Who is next?, is how one Milanese artist chose to protest the killing of George Floyd. The artist also has Bart having painted a portrait of George Floyd ‘saying’ JUST BECAUSE I’M BLACK. (See here)
A friend from Moldova (first photo) decided to plant a rose for Rome. She’s madly in love with the city and wanted to show her appreciation for all it has given her (warmth, friendship, cappuccino) by beautifying a neglected patch of earth near the famed Piazza del Popolo. So, she cleared the terrain of an obscene amount of trash, bought a small rose bush and, before you know it, had over 100 additional roses sowed by friends and passersby even. I planted two in memory of my parents. My mother nursed a rose garden in our backyard for decades and I know she’d be pleased.
If you’re ever in Rome and want to take a look (please bring a water bottle with you; there’s a fountain nearby), you can find the garden at the start of Via Ferdinando di Savoia.
On June 5 in Rome’s Piazza Barberini, a modest group of demonstrators (mostly Italians) gathered in support of the protest movement against police brutality taking place in the United States. It was one of many that occurred in these days and was as peaceful as they come. The police were prominent but hardly paid attention and didn’t seem ‘at the ready’ at all. The speeches were to the point and came from the young.
This gathering gained less attention than the one to follow at Piazza del Popolo two days later where thousands stood and kneeled but, I felt, was still noteworthy.
Last summer while visiting the Agrigento region of Sicily, we spent a day at one of its eye-popping beaches called Scala dei Turchi. What I saw on the way in burst my sockets almost as much: a poster that announced the title of the beach resort’s weekly Sunday night music festival. It read:
I WOULD LIKE BLACK SKIN
And the first thing that came to my mind was “Be careful what you ask for.”
Ordinarily in November, we make our annual pilgrimage to Civitella del Lago for a year’s supply of first cold pressed olive oil. It’s become a standard day trip and while I hate to admit it, I’ve become a bit nonchalant. A nice ride through Umbria, sometimes stopping, before or after we stock up, for a delicious meal somewhere. But Italy never ceases to astonish and 2019’s journey left me admonishing myself for giving anything in this country short shrift. I will divulge, however, that I chided my husband for neglecting to mention the Michelin star-worthy restaurant just across the street from the oil press.
An astounding little place with an indescribable view (photos above and below), Paolo Trippini serves up anything but traditional fare. His grandfather started the business and handed it down, first to his son and now his grandson. We were the only patrons that afternoon because we arrived toward closing time but no matter; the chef and staff were at our disposal. When I walked in, my mouth fell open and I left the same way but was saddened a bit by how far the restaurant is from Rome.
Non preoccuparvi (Not to worry), Paolo told us. He’s opened a second spot inside Eataly in Rome!
Once upon a time, not too long ago, we were all together on the streets of Rome, celebrating the 2020 New Year. Open air concerts, replicas of ancient buildings, block after block of parades of fanciful creatures, site specific installations, video art, dance performances, fire-fighting damsels braving some impressive pyrotechnics, and more with thousands of spectators all crowded next to each other.
Thanks to the Comune of Rome, beginning New Year’s Eve and running through the following day, we all drank, ate and were very merry. Oh, for the days of yore!
I got invited to speak at Oxford. Yes, Oxford as in the oldest university in the English-speaking world! I spoke there several years ago in October during their Black History Month since the United Kingdom celebrates it to coincide with the school year opening. I still pinch myself whenever I think about it. Was I really asked to talk about my book, my life, and my ideas? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to a chance encounter with an Oxford co-ed of color when I spoke about my book at the American Library in Paris. She rushed up after my remarks and insisted that I come to Oxford for a similar talk.
“Uh? Well, yeah, I can do that. Just tell me where to sign!” I thought to myself. She took my contact information. “I’ll be in touch,” she said and left as quickly as she had approached me, without my getting her email so I could follow up.
After more than a year, one of her colleagues from the university’s African and Caribbean Society wrote me with an invitation. And as I thought earlier – just tell me what I have to sign.
I arrived by bus from Heathrow and was met by a quite jolly co-ed and her friend who would be my ‘handlers’ during my two and a half days on the history-packed campus. As they escorted me to my dorm, I peppered them with questions; the most pressing for me was “Well, where are you from?” And then, I was nonplussed.
One told me that her mother’s side came from Ghana and her father’s from Nigeria. “Granny’s still in Accra and we talk to her all the time. We get our recipes from her because they are still the best,” she laughed. The other replied, “Daddy’s from Cuba and me mum’s from Antigua.” Both of these girls had visited their relatives more than once.
Why was I speechless? I expected to hear, London or fill in the blank town in England; just as black Americans in the States would have answered, Cleveland, New York, or Paducah, when asked.
I wove delight and wonderment into my speech that night by emphasizing how lucky they were to know where they came from, unlike so many of us black folk in the States who don’t know much, if anything, about our roots.
During the following reception, I asked as many as I could the same question. I swilled down every country, every subtle difference in accent, and every nuance of comportment. It was a heady experience because I felt their sense of place in the world. Yes, they were British but they were so much more than that.
I had to chide them a little, however, because they had used a photo of Josephine Baker in her French Red Cross military uniform to advertise their BHM activities (below) and didn’t know who she was and certainly not where she came from.
“She’s from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri!” I told them, trying my best to appropriate Ms. Baker’s je ne sais quoi.
For more information on the Society, please click here.
For the complete article I wrote on cultural identity, please follow this link.
For the next few lifestyle pieces (bloggettes), I’m delving into my cache of photos from before the lockdown to help take our minds off the current crisis. Endless and priceless experiences to share, this particular one comes thanks to Cornell University. Its overseas program in Rome offers students of architecture, fine arts, and liberal and urban studies the incomparable opportunity to learn in the historic Palazzo Santacroce (pictured below).
We were lucky enough to be invited to Cornell’s student exhibition in late 2019. Besides the stupendous surroundings and the students’ impressive output (images below), I have to say that I was really astonished by the temperature inside the building. It was very warm! Now, I’ve lived in Rome for a while and the heat, well, let me just say, I usually wrap myself in a couple of sweaters even when the thermostat is on high at home, and I always go out layered up to brave unpredictable temps at parties, etc. But oh, no, not at this reception.
And as you can see from the photo below, the art studios are about two stories high and hot air rises! But somehow it remained at ground level (this takes real bucks) and we were actually able to walk around without our coats, drink cold beverages, and not sneeze!