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Grassroots Neighborhood Clean-up in Rome

12 Jun

Parco Falcone e Borsellino-4.jpg

Rome is suffering a real crisis in public services, and has been for quite some time. News on this city’s problems is abundant, and I’ve even written about it myself (The Fall of Roman Civilization – April 28, 2014; 5 Ways to Be Roman Without Moving to Italy – May 13, 2016).

There are also abundant sites that aggregate Romans’ frustration with the problems they face each day, which, although useful in highlighting the difficulties, don’t necessarily serve as catalysts for positive change.

However, a group called Comitato Parchi Colombo, in collaboration with Retake Rome, is gaining momentum as a grassroots force for citizen activism. In my neighborhood (as evidenced by the picture above), one initiative they take on is the big job of clean-up in our local parks, which can then be frequented safely and enjoyed by all.

I take my children to the park pictured above all the time, and can tell you that the sense of community there on the weekends is tangible. There are often dozens and dozens of people gathered for hours while children rollerblade, play on the park equipment, and parents chat on the benches or picnic on the grass. For those of you who have lived in Rome, you already know that neighborhood parks (as opposed to the city’s big green spaces like Villa Borghese) are often impossible places to have picnics, because of their sheer lack of upkeep and accumulation of broken bottles, cigarette butts, and all manner of trash. As a single mom with no local extended family, having a clean, spacious park to enjoy with my kids and other families is a godsend.

This group is completely voluntary and runs entirely on donations, but they lack bigger equipment to get more work done. They’ve launched a campaign to raise the 500 euros needed to buy a lawnmower. In an appeal to the 500 online members of the Facebook group Retake Roma Montagnola they noted that if each member donated just one euro, they could reach their goal.

But I want to extend the reach of the campaign to my readers as well—to those of you who have a piece of your heart here in Rome, but can’t drop by to give your euro to the doorman Andrea at the building on Via Badia di Cava 62 where he’s collecting donations.

Have a look at this two-minute video to see what this dedicated group of park volunteers did together with their families to make our park beautiful again:

If you’d like to help us reach our goal of buying a lawnmower, you can donate online at the “Good Cause” website (in Italian) – Comitato Parco Colombo “Compriamo il tagliaerba” (Let’s Buy a Lawnmower).

Don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian! I’ll guide you through it.

On the first page, click the green button. It says “Contribuisci” which means “Contribute”.




  1. Choose the amount you want to donate. The default is €25 but you can choose any amount you wish. The last option, “offerta libera”, lets you specify the amount you want to donate. Remember, even one euro—roughly $1.13—makes a difference.
  2. Choose the payment method: credit card or Paypal account. In both cases, the transaction is handled through Paypal’s secure system.
  3. Fill in your first and last name and your email address (or access using Facebook by clicking the blue Facebook button) and click the green button to proceed.


The check-box below the green avatar asks if you want this to be an anonymous donation; if so, check the box, but you still have to enter your name and email to make a donation.

That brings you to a Paypal access screen.

If you have a Paypal account, click the yellow button:


I donated using my US Paypal account, and at that point the language changed to English and my donation went through in one step.

If you don’t have a Paypal account, you can use a credit card by clicking on the link above the credit cards. I don’t have a tutorial for that because I didn’t use that method, but perhaps if you need, you can use Google Translate or Chrome’s page translator.

I’m so pleased to see grassroots civic action in Rome. So many people complain here without taking any real action to change things. Here is just one example of neighbors who want to take collective responsibility for keeping public spaces enjoyable.

For more information, visit Retake Roma’s main website or Comitato Parchi Colombo.

The next park clean-up is scheduled for Sunday, June 18 at 4:30 pm with a pizza dinner all together after the work is done.

Rome Mayoral Elections 2016

11 May sondaggi-roma-1


Lest you think only the United States is experiencing electoral fever, allow me to draw your attention to the Eternal City and our local elections set for June.

And yes, spoiler alert: Berlusconi figures here, too. (I agree that he should be wiling away his twilight hours making arts and crafts in a nursing home, but alas, this is Italy, and so…)

You know, folks, I’ve always managed to be blissfully ignorant about politics here in Italy. I come from the land of two political parties, with a few outliers. Italy, on the other hand, at last count had no fewer than 31, in this list from the aptly named “Simple Politics” website. But the venerable financial journal Il Sole 24 Ore named 62 of them here in a list of balance sheets.

So, you know what? Your guess is as good as mine, but, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret I discovered.

Here, come closer. I’ll whisper it in your ear:

only about four of those parties really matter.

I don’t claim to be anywhere near an authority on politics (many Italians will tell you that even they are confounded by their own system), but I will tell you that since the time when I was dragged kicking and screaming out of my political ignorance in my work for Italy’s largest news agency, ANSA, I’ve gotten a slight handle on the situation.

Italy breaks down into left and right, and on those two sides we have two main leaders. Stay with me here.

On the center-left we have Premier Matteo Renzi, who, in addition to being prime minister, is also the head of his own party (I know, the mind boggles).

This will be easy for Americans because that one is called simply the Democratic Party.

I know, right?! A.k.a. PD.


[Permit me an aside, will you? Frankly, I don’t find Matteo Renzi to be an ugly man, but I dare you to find a photo in which he might be considered photogenic. The man never—and I mean never—looks normal. Don’t believe me? I Googled my theory: click here.]

Our PD candidate in Rome is Roberto Giachetti, whose advertising tagline is “Rome goes back to Rome,” which perhaps means it goes back to being Rome, or maybe means it goes back to the people of Rome. If you want my opinion though, and I know you do, someone needs to first off buy this man a damn razor for the love of God.

Honestly. Can I have a mini-rant here? I mean, decide. Either you have a beard, or you don’t, but what you’re doing here is neither one nor the other. If politics is about appearances, it would appear that Giachetti can’t get his shit together enough to even shave, which is concerning in a city where not even the garbage service works.

Exhibit 1:


Exhibit 2:


You get the idea.

Then we have the “anti-establishment” party, which demurs from associating itself as either left or right. They don’t even call themselves a party—they’re a movement. This is all fine and good when you go up against said establishment, but, pause for a moment and ask yourself: What happens when anti-establishment becomes the establishment?

The reason I ask is that the candidate for comedian-slash-movement leader Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement (M5S) is actually leading the pack in the Rome mayoral election, and what’s more, she’s a woman. If elected, Virginia Raggi would be Rome’s first female mayor in history. [Can I get a woot woot in the house?]

I have nothing to say about Raggi. No snide comments, no quippy asides. If I could vote—and I can’t, because it takes years and years to get citizenship paperwork processed and I’m lazy—welp, I’d vote for her. She’s a 38-year-old lawyer and former city councillor who wants to make people pay to ride the bus and who wants to get our garbage picked up. She also opposes hosting the Olympics in Rome (because she feels aforementioned waste management is more important to the city’s residents). What more do you want?


Oh, and by the way? Have you ever wondered why they are five stars, and what they represent? Of course you haven’t. But I have, and I’m here to share a little acronym provided courtesy of a former M5S municipal councillor, Vincenzo Agnusdei, who says you can easily remember the meaning of the five stars with the acronym TASCA, which means pocket in Italian. T=trasporto (transport); A=acqua (water); S=sviluppo (development); C=connettività (connectivity); A=ambiente (environment).

But he was a councillor back in 2011, and from my online stalking it now appears he lives in Berlin, Germany, so, add a grain or two of salt to that recipe.

Meanwhile, I promised you some Berlusconi. Oh, Berlusconi. Sigh. When are you just going to pack it in and ride off into the sunset?

But, not yet.

Berlusconi is no longer the leader of the center-right. That dubious honor now falls on the shoulders of a 43-year-old Milanese named Matteo Salvini, who not only leads the “we invented our own fantasyland in northern Italy called Padania and we want to secede from the rest of Italy” Northern League, but also serves in the European Parliament. And who The Huffington Post reports has a new website called The Populist with a Sex & Trash category that titled one of its posts “Young Pakistani women: Allah doesn’t let us fu..” 


And if you read Italian, read that first comment because it’s a gem. Domenico Di Luzio, TVB.

Salvini backs our far-right Rome mayoral candidate, who also happens to be a woman, with an even further-right party than perhaps even Lega Nord, called Brothers of Italy. (Which begs the question: How can a woman lead a party called Brothers of Italy? Amiright?)

If we want to stay on the Sex & Trash track, as Salvini always does, then let’s just translate his candidate’s name into English and call her Giorgia Melons. Ms. Melons got a lot of press when her former challenger Guido Bertolaso (we’ll get to him and Berlusconi in a moment, I promise) said in March that she shouldn’t run for mayor because she’s pregnant and “it’s obvious to everyone that a mom can’t dedicate herself to a terrible job (as mayor of Rome). Being mayor of Rome means being out and about and in the office for 14 hours a day.”

So there’s that.

But then, you see, Bertolaso was Berlusconi’s choice with “unconditional support” until, well, until he wasn’t anymore. Hmm.

Berlusca first launched former civil protection chief Bertolaso, who is on trial for manslaughter in connection with the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila–oopsies!–while wearing MIB-style dark glasses. Don’t ask. You can’t handle the truth.


Find the dirty old man in this picture.

But then a bunch of stuff happened and some meetings happened and people were like OHMYGODYOUCAN’TSUPPORTSOMEONEONTRIALFORMANSLAUGHTER and he, Mr. MIB himself, switched his “unconditional support” over to Marchini. At which point Bertolaso poof! like magic disappeared from the race.

Who’s Marchini, you ask? Affectionately known as ARfio to the Romans (because in local dialect sometimes Ls morph into Rs, you know), he’s a non-party-affiliated civic-listing Rome-lover. He just puts hearts all over his campaign posters and says how much he loves Rome and how he’s non-party-affiliated so he is “FREE” to do whatever, which is somehow supposed to be very reassuring to the populace of Rome.

His campaign slogan is: “I love Rome, and you?”


He’s run before. He’s sort of like the Energizer Bunny of Rome mayoral candidates. He just keeps on going, and going, and going.

It’s just good times with Marchini, because he’s our sort of flashy glamour candidate, and he’s been nicknamed “Il Bello” by locals (the good-looking one).

Exhibit 1:


Wait, WTF?

Exhibit 2:


He plays polo! With funky yellow eyeguard/sunglass things!


He water skis! He kicks up waves! Maybe it’s not even him but the flowing mass of hair in the ocean breeze sure makes it look like!

And if by chance you read Italian, then please don’t hesitate to visit his Facebook page: Arfio Marchini.

Ok, ok, that’s a spoof page, and that’s where I found the jet-ski photo, and, it’s brilliant.

Roma Ti Amo.

La Taqueria in Rome

28 Apr


Rome is a small world, and many of us who come from foreign countries and make the city our home are connected not by the proverbial six degrees of separation but generally by one or two degrees at most.

Case in point: Gabriel of La Taqueria.

(Let’s forget for a moment that I’m preparing to write about Mexican-slash-Central American street food right here in pasta-slash-pizza-lovin’ Rome. [Wipes drool from keyboard.] Suspense is key.)

Once upon a time, back in March 2014, I got an unsolicited email from a lovely man who had met a friend of mine (he said she’s his restaurant’s biggest fan) who told him to get in touch with me to tell me that he had opened – and here I quote from his email – “a little taco shop” – in Rome. He invited me to stop in and try it out.

I have no excuses as to why I never took him up on his generous offer, other than good intentions. I hear the road to hell is paved with them, and let me tell you – the last two years for me have felt much like a searing-hot highway.

Anyhoo, here we are, folks, nearly May 2016, and although I can barely get a shower as a single working mom of three school-aged littles, let alone get out to see friends, yesterday there was an unusual sighting of a pig flying past my window and I made it to lunch with four of the coolest girls I know, who also happen to be my friends.

One of them (who shall go unnamed but runs this place and should you ever have people who need a place to stay in Rome you should recommend this place because it’s fabulous but they also have this place with apartments all over Europe end of run-on sentence and shameless friend plug) suggested we meet up at La Taqueria.

The name vaguely rang a bell (wasn’t this the lovely man who invited me to his “little taco shop” a couple years back?) and so, upon entering, said lovely man warmly greeted my friends, and I said: “I think you contacted me a couple years ago” and promptly did a Gmail search. Sure enough – it was Gabriel in the flesh!

Back then, his “little taco shop” was in Piazza Fiume, but folks — his success has gone far beyond expectations and so, now he inhabits an infectiously festive place near Piazza Bologna.

I mean it, people: you enter this place and, like Dorothy might have said— “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Rome anymore,” —had she lived in Rome and not Kansas, mind you.

Bright colors, Spanish everywhere, party bus wallpaper (party bus? what is this party bus of which you speak?), PLASTIC BANANAS HANGING FROM THE CEILING.


This is what I am talking about. Ain’t no Kansas ’round these parts.

So, after Gabriel was exceedingly charming in not making me feel like a complete tool for having neglected his generous invite for two entire years, I started asking a few questions to get the lowdown on just how one decides to open a taco shop in Rome.

Gabriel speaks great English. How is this possible? He tells me, “I went to an American school in my country.”

“My country” turned out to be Honduras, from where Gabriel emerged into Rome seven years ago as a diplomat.

[I’ll give you a moment to try to wrap your head around that. No, really—I can wait. In the meantime I will re-read this extraordinary feat of journalistic narrative by Oscar Martinez, and then, I’ll breathe a quick sigh of relief that this city no longer has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world.]

Ok, so. Now that you’ve got a better idea of what amazing stories Gabriel must have hidden away in his invisible life baggage, I’ll fast-forward you to when his tenure came to an end at the Honduran Embassy in Rome and one fine day he said to himself: “How is it possible that there’s no street-food taco stand here in Rome?”

How, indeed, Gabriel.

And thus was born another entrepreneurial success story wherein a clever observer and ambitious go-getter decides to scratch an itch, perhaps one that locals didn’t even know they had until La Taqueria first popped up in its “little taco shop” incarnation in Piazza Fiume.

Gabriel tells me that despite the extra room in his current space, lines on Saturday go out the door and people are willing to wait even an hour and a half for the food.

And so, I give you: La Taqueria in all its glory.

Now, I can’t compete with the official website photos, which are gorgeous, so I won’t even try. Look:



And, water-jug ceiling lamps, too.

Gabriel tells me that the bananas symbolize the importance of that fruit in the economy of Central America (not in the pejorative, 1904 O. Henry way, but in the “for better or worse this fruit is the foundation of an entire economy” way). And that the water jugs are also steeped in local symbology, both as containers for H2O as much as makeshift gas cans for the aforementioned party buses (I’ll try to get to that).

But, shall we? The food?

The menu is eclectic, mixing Mexican (“because in Rome you have to call it a Mexican restaurant”) with Guatemalan and Honduran specialties (“a sort of Mesoamerican fusion”).


I ordered the Catracho burrito—you had me at “fried plantain”—and when two of my vegetarian friends got excited but then not so much when they saw it had chicken sausage, Gabriel made it vegetarian for them. A+ for customer service.

By the way, if you are wondering what a Catracho is (as one often does) allow me to refer you to the fearless bloggess La Gringa.


The salsas are made in-house, almost all with locally sourced ingredients, except for the chipotle, because frankly when’s the last time you saw a Roman eat a smoked jalapeno? That’s what I thought.

Gabriel has big plans, people. Cutting through endless red tape to import Honduran beer. Hosting regionally themed brunches for a taste of super-local cuisine. And of course, continuing to shake up delicious margaritas and pour out tamarindo juice. Yes, you read me right: agua de tamarindo.


Gabriel said Hondurans are more of a beer-drinking people, and hence came our chat about Honduran beer and the difficulty in importing it, but, there are pinch hitters:


(Can we, however, pause for a moment on the fact that one of the major Honduran beers is called “Lifesaver”? Let’s, please.)

Below photo does not represent current beer selection at La Taqueria, but rather, the absolute ingenuity for beer-naming with which Hondurans are apparently possessed:


Oh, and as a casual aside: there are churros. Churros for dipping in dulce de leche.


I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this place transports you. Try it and you’ll see. It’s delightful. I can’t wait to go back.

Muchas gracias Gabriel, for bringing some real sunshine and spice into this city.

(Oh, right: the party buses. Are these what people call chicken buses: a.k.a. “the beautiful afterlives of American schoolbuses”? Maybe not, but fascinating nonetheless.)

!Que pinta esta pequeña tienda de tacos¡
Via Giacomo Boni 26, Roma (Metro B: Bologna)

Rainbow MagicLand – Rome for kids

7 Jul


This spring I was invited to bring my kids to visit for the grand re-opening of Rainbow MagicLand, an amusement park just outside of Rome in Valmontone. I say “re-opening” because this year the park is under new management and wanted to put its best foot forward with some local bloggers and Igers. I took them up on the offer, and here’s what we found out!

Getting there in the Magic RainbowBus!


Ok, so I just made that name up. But, since the park is outside of Rome, they offer a shuttle bus from Termini to get you there. That’s convenient, especially for tourists. Personally I don’t own a car so it was the only way I would have managed to get out there. It’s about a half-hour ride. The shuttle bus ticket is available for purchase online, and includes park entrance. The shuttle bus + park entrance ticket costs just €1 more than the regular park entrance ticket, so it’s much cheaper than driving. The bus departs from and returns to Termini station. There are two morning buses and two evening buses (the park is open in the evenings during the summer).

Gattobaleno, the mascot, is a big hit!

My kids loved the park mascot, Gattobaleno, which is a mixture of the Italian words for cat and rainbow. So let’s call him Rainbow Cat, shall we? He walks around the park and Olivia here was loving the fact that she got to hold his hand.


Parents, no worries, there are GPS trackers for your kiddos!

At the gift shop as you enter the park, you can borrow a GPS locator necklace for your kids to wear. That way if they get separated from you, and they keep that necklace on, then technically speaking you should be able to locate them wherever they are inside the park. I thought this was a cool innovation. Would have saved me a lot as a kid, as I always seemed to be wandering away from my parents in stores. We did a practical try-out, however, and I have to say that my kids didn’t want to wear the necklaces. They’re a bit cumbersome for kids. They’re sort of heavy and clunky. So we ended up not using the service. But still, I like the idea. It could be improved if they found a way to imbed the GPS into a lighter-weight device that you could perhaps pin onto a kid’s shirt without it weighing them down.

The service is called (Italian for “whistle” is fischio) and it costs €5 to rent the device, which is accessible through an app on your smartphone.

You can eat in the magic castle!

20150328_123113 20150328_123722

We ate lunch inside the magic castle, and it was very medieval-ish, complete with wait staff in costumes. The kiddos liked the crowns and what-not that come with the kids’ meal. They weren’t that thrilled with the toy that came with it (a water-filled ruler–rulers aren’t much of a big deal for 5 and 7 year olds…). I have to say that the mixed meat grill and the mixed plate of cheeses that I tried was delicious though! I’d recommend the restaurant get small plastic cups with lids and straws instead, or water bottles. My kids broke one of the delicate glasses that you see in the photo. (Here you can see Olivia wearing the but then she took it off).

Cool down with water games then dry off!


Polaretti, the company that markets freeze pops here in Italy, sponsored a water area where kids can play water games and cool off. Then, there are these big human-size drying machines that you can use to “blow dry” yourself and/or your kids when you’re done. I like the idea here, I think it’s a good one. I couldn’t afford the €2-per-dry price tag though. But I heard from other parents that the dryers worked well. My kids just had to dry off naturally. I figure in the summer these wouldn’t even be needed. I would have used them if they had cost a bit less, say, 50 cents. But I realize that probably isn’t realistic given the high costs of electricity. In any case, sort of a fun innovation.

There are some “big-kid” rides too!


The park has some rides for the “coraggiosi” or the brave among you. In addition to that rollercoaster that you see above, there’s also one of those rides that does a free fall.

Kids love the kids’ area!


My kiddos and I spent most of our time in the bambini area. There were plenty of rides for them to try out and they didn’t get bored.


My son LOVED driving the cars. 


Olivia had fun in this play area.


All in all, we had a great day out. The only thing that might be an issue for families is cost. The regular ticket price is €35 for adults and €29 for kids ages 10 and under. On some of the lower-traffic days, however, the costs go down (for example some Sundays are €22/€18). Check the park’s calendar for prices.

You can also get package deals. For example right now there’s a special going for 2 adults and 2 kids for a total of €88.

As a point of comparison, some other popular activities for kids and families in Rome are the Bioparco Zoo (€15/adult, €12 child 100 meters+/3 ft, 2.5 in.+ tall and 12 and under), Explora Children’s Museum (€8 adult and €8 children 3 and up), renting a pedal bike at Villa Borghese (€12/hr), day at the pool (Piscina delle Rose, €16/adult, €10/child 6-10 years old). So all things considered, on the lower priced days, Rainbow MagicLand is actually a pretty good value because once you’re in the park everything is included. You don’t have to worry about tickets for the shows or rides. That’s good because it’s super annoying when you have to pay extra for things with kids around. Costs, like with all amusement parks, start to add up if you fall prey to the snack carts and gift shops.

My family’s verdict!

What we loved:

My girls loved the real-life Winx. You have to pay money to get pictures with them, though. They weren’t doing the stage show when we visited (prior to May 1), but they do have a stage show as part of the entrance cost.

My son really liked the go-carts, which are called Formula Cars. He also liked the Battaglia Navale (Naval Battle) ride. Some dude shot us with water from a pedestrian bridge and laughed. That made my daughter cry.🙂 We didn’t wear the plastic raincoats. You don’t actually get all that wet.

What we could have skipped:

Bubble Magic. We were pretty stoked about this show but it wasn’t that great. Maybe we had a magician on an off day. The one in this video looks awesome. The one we had wasn’t able to keep the kids under control and wasn’t able to perform many tricks with the bubbles, so it was quite a disappointment. So I’d say if it’s like the video, ok, but it was hit-or-miss for us.

Everyone we encountered on the staff was friendly and helpful. There is an option to buy a “short line” pass but we didn’t encounter many lines (we went on the first day the park opened back up). The pass (“Magicpass“, naturally) costs €18 and gets you into an express line.

I’d say, if you’re on a short trip to Rome, you probably won’t want to make it out this way because you’ll be too busy hitting all the other attractions. But, if you have more than a few days in the Eternal City, this can make for a fun change of pace. Kids, especially the littles, can only take so much guided touring, and especially in the summer heat, this could be a fun way to cool off and get a break from the urban environment.

Rainbow MagicLand
Via della Pace, Valmontone, RM

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[Review] The Italians by John Hooper

3 Feb

I’m often solicited to review books regarding Italy before they’re released, and to be perfectly honest, I almost always politely decline because—and granted, I do realize I’m making a sweeping and unfair generalization here, but so it is—I can’t stomach any more books about restoring old farmhouses or finding the love of your life on the back of a Vespa.

And so, I was unexpectedly pleased and surprised when I was contacted by Viking to preview journalist John Hooper’s new release The Italians.

Rome hosts a number of truly world-class international correspondents working at the very pinnacle of their craft, and Hooper is among them. I’ve been aware of and admired John’s work for some time, as I follow several of the locally-based English-speaking foreign correspondents here in Rome on social media and their respective mastheads online. To hear that he was finally throwing his hat into the ring of Italian compendiums was welcome news.

If you’re looking for the typical “foreigner romanticizing Italy” tome or, on the other end of the spectrum, a work condemning the perennially-dubbed “country with no future,” look elsewhere, as this book does well to defy easy categorization in tackling the absolutely impossible-to-categorize bel paese.

Rather, if I had to try to succinctly categorize this book, I’d say it’s a broad-based yet in-depth sociological study of modern Italy filled with anecdotes about the amusing and often baffling ins and outs of daily life, customs, and culture. The book is refreshingly comprehensive, with an academic and fact-based authority owing in large part to Hooper’s long service as Italy correspondent for The Economist and southern Europe editor for The Guardian and The Observer.

And yet thankfully, it also achieves the difficult task of presenting both story and history in an unembellished yet compelling way that warmly engages the reader to join in and bravely venture into the labyrinth of contradictions and impossibilities that comprise Italy, both past and present.

The first clue that you’re about to delve into something that stands out from the pack is this: as you crack the spine and turn to the beginning of the book, you’re greeted with not one—but two—maps of Italy.

The first wisely delineates “Italy After 1815,” an important distinction given that Italy’s technical unification, which most scholars agree began in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna and the end of Napoleonic rule, is a tactical date that doesn’t necessarily reflect unified feelings in citizens who are to this day largely tied to their own individual provinces and towns.

The second map shows modern Italy and its various regions, a helpful geographical primer that anyone approaching the famed “boot” should have as a point of reference, as north-south divisions and regional politics shape and frame much of what goes on culturally.

With those maps as both preamble and passport, Hooper guides his readers skillfully through Italy’s culturally diverse history, building a backdrop that sets the foundational context to modern-day questions and challenges. Italy’s history, like its politics, is wildly complicated, yet thankfully here Hooper gives a well thought-out narrative of the geographic and cultural changes that have taken place over recent centuries. The last paragraph of Chapter 2, in fact, is quite possibly my favorite quip of the book. It reveals Hooper’s enjoyable wry wit and sharp eye for historical detail and context shaping modern Italy:

Almost fourteen centuries elapsed between the deposing of the last Roman emperor in the West and the unification that followed the breaching of the Aurelian Wall near Porta Pia in 1870: sixty generations, more or less, of disunity and vulnerability to the whim of foreign rulers and the might of foreign armies. Such things leave their mark on a people.

But now, let’s get down to business: truth be told, when I read a book on modern-day Italy, I’m a bit of a tough customer. Having lived in Rome for 14 years, and having immersed myself fully into the culture in these years to become a *wee* bit of a cultural authority myself, I’m not reading a book on Italy to get tips about how to order an espresso or to admire the author’s stealth in finding the “perfect” antique table for outdoor lunches at the country house in Tuscany.

No—I’m looking for clues, insights, stories, and facts to help me understand topics that, despite my imbedded status in this culture and country, I still struggle to grasp.

Before I started reading, I made a list of topics in which I hoped to glean something new:

Politics – has always been a tangled and inapproachable mess for me

Mafia – are they really Goodfellas who have taken over government of the country?

Women – their status, treatment, and cultural norms surrounding them in the country that The Economist once called “the land that feminism forgot”

The Italian Male – is he really a forever hopeless Peter Pan/mamma’s boy? 

Jobs – and why on Earth there never seem to be enough to go around

Raccomandazioni – the uniquely Italian-style spoils system

I found new insights in each of the categories. I would love to reveal them to you, but, that would be an unfair spoiler.

I will say that as to women, we get an entire chapter, number 10. That was lovely and unexpected. Same goes for the mafia, 16. Mamma’s boys, go directly to page 164, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

As to the rest, well…you’ll just have to trust me on this one. If I learned something(s) new, you will, too, even if you’re a seasoned veteran expat like me, or just a cynic, or both. Each chapter is written to flow into and introduce the next.

Oh, and also? This book actually has an index.

An index, people!

So, I happily endorse this work, but with one important caveat that I’m sure my readers will be pleased to hear (intelligent and curious and all-around superior as they are) — this book is actually something I’d classify as intellectual.

Not dull or dry intellectual, mind you. But: it isn’t fluff.

You’ll walk away enriched and enlightened. [Read: you’ll learn quite a bit more than how to buy an antique table for your Tuscan farmhouse.]

You’ve been forewarned!

The Italians by John Hooper


Knitting Shops in Rome: Vanità di Filati

12 Jun

That’s one of my baby girls there in purple checking out the yarn.

I made a lovely new discovery yesterday in my on-going catalog of yarn stores here in Rome.

This one is in my very own neighborhood so my joy knows no bounds. I made friends with the owner and I am in LOVE, LOVE, LOVE with this store.

The store is well-stocked, the owners themselves have the projects they’re working on out on the counter (one of my “go-to” checkpoints when deciding whether a knitting store is legit or not—do the owners knit? Will they be able to help me with a thorny question if I need it?), and there is a range of accessories and supplies in addition to the many balls of yarn (i.e., wide wide selection of buttons, needles, etc.) Ah, one-stop-shopping!


I went on Yelp to do a review of this place and discovered another American girl living in Rome had given it a terrible one-star review. I had an absolutely different experience. So, who knows. Let me say this: if you tell them that “Un’americana a Roma” sent you, I feel fairly confident that they’ll treat you nicely. I mean, they were nothing but spectacularly kind and helpful with me.


The owners are Patrizia (pictured) and Maria. Both of them alternatively asked me what project I was buying for, and how they could help me find what I needed. They had an excellent range of colors and let me touch all the different yarns without any weirdness which can sometimes occur here in Rome. (Yarn shopping can sometimes feel akin to fruit shopping at the market: look but don’t touch. Which, as any knitter will tell you, is totally counterintuitive and goes against our very grain!) Patrizia has most of her yarn out in cubbies and when I said how awesome that was, because it allows the customer to get up close and examine the yarns, she just smiled. So it wasn’t like “Oh you’re not supposed to touch it.”


Anyhoo, folks, this place gets my enthusiastic two thumbs up. I already started my project (thank you Ravelry and Audrey Wilson at The Design Studio) and I can’t wait to have another one to go back.

Getting here is a bit out of the way, especially if you’re on holiday and staying in the center. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, by any means. It’s just not walking distance. You can either take the Metro B Line to Basilica di San Paolo and then walk from there or take bus 769 or 766 to Via Aristide Leonori and walk from there (5 mins). Or, from the center take bus 714 (depot at Termini) to Cristoforo Colombo/Vedana and walk from there (5 mins).


It’s approved by twin four-year-old Roman American girls. So, you know, that’s an endorsement you can trust.

Vanità di Filati – Il Fiocco di Maria e Patrizia

Via della Badia di Cava 88
00142 Roma

Tel: 06/5409883

The Fall of Roman Civilization

28 Apr

I’ve been wanting to tackle this issue for quite some time, not really sure how to go about it. Last Wednesday, I took my annual birthday trip to see my best friend in Amsterdam, and as I left my neighborhood, this is what was happening, just a block from my son’s elementary school:

If those scenes of an urban war zone aren’t bad enough on their own, then this video shows the violence that later erupted, when riot police started beating activists with batons.

The police vans, first 5, then upwards of 10, came out on April 16 to remove squatters who had broken into and illegally occupied an empty government building nine days prior. My neighborhood is generally unknown to most, as it is well out of the historic center, and yet it took center stage last week as the violence broke out. By the time I had landed in Amsterdam, I had 56 messages on my phone from the mom’s group on Whatsapp that is usually used for asking questions about what homework pages have been assigned. This time it was filled with anxiety-ridden exchanges from moms deciding whether or not to take their kids out of school early, should the situation escalate. Luckily, it didn’t affect the nearby businesses or schools, other than the road blocks and general commotion. Once the squatters were removed, however, they MOVED IN to the MUNICIPAL building across the street and next door to the elementary school.

I was told that this was a move by the municipal president (Municipio VIII, ex-XI) who was hosting them. I haven’t researched that. It’s irrelevant now, because the squatters then moved to an abandoned building in nearby via di Tor Carbone once the municipal offices had to open back up to the public on April 23. According to this article from La Repubblica Roma online, there were about 200 families in all.

Two days prior to the police raid, I took the photo below and posted it on Twitter. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing to me to think that I sent out a plea to Rome’s mayor via social media. In fact, Marino has been battling with the AMA (waste collection company) problems for a while now, especially brutal during the holidays, when a photo of a pig eating garbage in the Boccea neighborhood (inside the ring road, not in the middle of nowhere) showed unequivocally just how bad the situation had become. But you see, the question is, who in the world can citizens turn to when their city is becoming a toxic waste zone and seems to be quickly sliding more and more into total chaos?

As those of you who follow my blog know, I truly love this city, and in my writing I do my best to try to make light of the difficult situations around here. But lately, even I am reaching my limit. I thought maybe I was just imagining things, or having a particularly difficult “culture shock” coming back after a week in Amsterdam, where things are so civilized, but it’s not just me.

This article by Der Spiegel‘s Walter Mayr is absolutely, positively, a must-read for anyone who cares about Rome at all. It’s excellently written and covers this topic from a number of perspectives.

Mayr’s piece also helped me to understand the person behind one of the sites that I have been wondering about for quite some time now: Roma Fa Schifo, translated loosely as “Rome Sucks.” The blog, founded in 2008, is a hub for sharing everything that is filthy, corrupt, and shameful about daily life in Rome. The corresponding Facebook page has a following of nearly 34,000 at the time of writing.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Roma Fa Schifo for some time, because I thought it was simply another way to collectively complain about this city. But after reading Mr. Mayr’s article, I came away with the understanding that the blogger behind the page, 35-year-old Massimiliano Tonelli, is aiming to create awareness as a catalyst for change. Tonelli manages another blog called Cartellopoli, which documents the illegal sign-posting that goes on and creates untold mountains of litter throughout the city.

A bit more research on Tonelli revealed this recent interview with the free daily Leggo, in which he describes a new type of citizen referred to as “Roman 2.0,” a social activist who documents the problems of the city online. In fact, Mayr’s article says that Mayor Ignazio Marino keeps a file of certain posts from Roma Fa Schifo, so in that sense it certainly is working as a vehicle for awareness.

The Roma Fa Schifo blog inspired a bit of an online movement that’s sprung up in recent years, with a network of sites loosely known as the “Coordination of Anti-Deterioration Blogs.” These sites, such as Degrado Esquilino and Riprendiamoci Roma (Let’s Take Back Rome), document the current deterioration of Rome.

The question Mayr poses in his article: “Can a New Mayor Stop the City’s Decline?” is left unanswered. He mentions that Marino bikes to work, and Marino himself explains that his personal wealth and outsider status (he’s not a Rome native) mean that he can make unpopular decisions.

Perhaps it’s true what Marino, a surgeon by trade, says in the article: “Removing the abscess is the easiest part. After that you need to get everything patched up and then get the organism going again. I was left with a city full of potholes, a school system that is falling apart and poverty that is rising dramatically. Add to that €14 billion in existing debt, some of which is still left over from Rome’s preparations for hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 1960.”

Rome is not in a good way right now. As much as I try to show this city in its most positive light, the fact of the matter is that things are definitely going downhill, as far as I see it, especially when I have to walk my 6-year-old son past riot police to take him to his 1st grade classroom. I’m not complaining or trying to play the victim, but I’m starting to seriously question what kind of activism a citizen of this city can take part in, to try to make a system that is so profoundly broken, get up and working again. We are lucky to have a tourism economy that keeps things moving, and tourists who continue to come and enjoy the open-air museum that is the Eternal City. But for those of us who choose to live here for any length of time, the situation continues to become more trying. As Mayr says in his article, “Seasoned Romans are heroic when it comes to getting through daily life,” and as he quotes 91-year-old Roman novelist Raffaelle La Capria, “We’re all disappointed and a little depressed to see Italy’s decline before our very eyes.”