Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Great Towel Fiasco

As a teacher of private English lessons, I had my fair share of weekly appointments in the ten-story apartment buildings outside of Rome's historic center. The students ranged from 5 years old to 15 years old and each hour-long lesson presented its variety of challenges, but one time, I never expected an obstacle like this.

One particularly thirsty day, I drank too much liquid.  When I arrived at one of my student's homes, I of course took their offer of an espresso, always with a touch of sugar. Then, during the lesson, I drank from my water bottle when necessary to keep the throat well lubricated. Lesson number one finished and I bid them adeiu except it was in their native language.

Off to the next lessons, back to back appointments for a pair of siblings, and to this day I still blame the coffee bean for its diuretic effects. When I arrived, I asked to use their restroom. It was the first time I'd needed it there and so I entered the room of colorfully tiled floors and walls. I found the toilet, flushed using the short flush button rather than the long flush which still bewilders me why Americans don't adopt this water-saving technology, and then I washed my hands at the sink.

Hands soaking, I looked left and right to find the hand towel. To my great horror, the only collection of soft woven fibers were found above the bidet: the other porcelain thingy in the bulk of European bathrooms. I looked down with insecurity at the half toilet / half sink monstrosity likely born from the godless island laboratories of Dr. Moreau.
Bidet usage has never been more confusing.
Now if you are not familiar with a bidet, as most Americans are not, well, at least not intimately familiar, they are used for hygiene...down there. And that means when the area is wet, it has to get dry.

So again, I stood there with soaking hands looking down at the two towels hanging over the bidet. I assumed a 50% chance of success, which meant my potential for failure was still too high.  I needed more assurance that I would be drying my hands with the hands-only towel. So what do I do? I looked behind me to make sure no one walked through the door, one inconveniently designed without a lock so the young kids wouldn't get locked in there.

No sounds of footsteps coming by, I did what any other desperate teacher would do. I hesitantly bent down to sniff the first of two towels. It smelled cottony, not like it was freshly laundered but more of a papery smell, like a stale ream of printer paper sitting idly in the tray for months. Beneath those earthy layers were nuances of slight mildew. My sleuthing techniques didn't narrow it down but it certainly told me this towel was used frequently.  Maybe it was the hand towel, but maybe not.

I turned my head once again for safety. Every private teacher knows how terrible it would be to be caught in the act of sniffing your clients towels. I didn't hear anything so I approached towel number two.

Hunched over the bidet, getting my nose nice and close to the turquoise linen and almost touching it, I sniffed long, deeply. Then the bathroom door opened.

The mom's jaw hit the floor and her eyes popped wide open. She was like a child who just walked in on her parents doing adult things and I was the forbidden, eye-melting sight. So I smiled sheepishly and said, "You have beautiful towels."

Okay, not really. I just let my hands air dry because there's no way I'm touching mystery towels. Nor did I sniff them, just to clarify. But I totally had you there for a moment, didn't I?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring in Rome

Happy cat getting sun.
Spring in Rome is spectacular and for those who've never experienced it, I strongly recommend you see it for yourself. The leaves appear, the early flowers bloom and everywhere smells of Mother Nature's finest perfumes.
First blooms from March
Early April visitors get to smell the wisteria. Late April sheds their beautiful hanging flowers, carpeting the sidewalks with tiny purple or white pedals. Yesterday, I got my first whiff of jasmine as I wander through the back alleys of Rome. May and early June will be loaded with these white asterisk-shaped flowers and it reminded me that this truly is the best time of year for visitors. Sure, it can be a little crowded already, but the weather is just right.  The rain is gone, the sun is bright and Rome is at its prettiest.
First grape leaves of the season
Every day, I sit next to a kiwi plant with leaves that turn pink and white, jasmine strands which straggle over the top of my wall soon to bloom and an old grape vine spouting its first leaves to cover the bright sun.

Welcome to my office.
It's easy to write a novel when you have such a beautiful writing environment.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The New Pope

Why was this man praying in the center of the Vatican City?
He saw black smoke billowing from the roof of the Sistine Chapel at today's 12 noon decision.
This afternoon, I went to the Piazza of St. Peters to see if the New Pope would be chosen. After the black smoke appeared, everyone went on their way hoping the Cardinals would make a final vote later this evening.  The single-man pilgrimage stuck around just a little longer to change the world through prayer.

Seven hours later, I received notice that white smoke came from the pipe sticking out of the Sistine Chapel. It wasn't through an email, it wasn't from a phone call.  In typical Roman fashion when new Popes are named, the bells of all the city's Catholic churches rang across Rome.  This bell, at St. Peter's Basilica, is the first one that starts the chain reaction.
When I heard the church bells in my neighborhood just now, I knew it could mean just one thing: the New Pope was elected, and this rainy afternoon crowd quadrupled in attendance because everyone rushed over to Piazza San Pietro.
I'm wishing I was able to make it over there for the announcement tonight. It would have been crowded, rainy, and I likely would have been tired standing on my feet for hours.  But it would have been something truly amazing to squish my way into the masses. Congratulations Pope Francesco (Francis in English)!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Scotch Festival in Rome

It was always an uphill battle.  I wanted to like scotch. I had these visions that I could fit in with the elite 19th century aristocracy, complete with long tailed black coat with two columns of large buttons tightly covering my white shirt with black tie. Most importantly, a thick, handlebar mustache. No doubt, a tall, black top hat would help distinguish myself from the ruffians who couldn't afford such high quality marks of income. In the comforts of an exclusive men's club where the scents of fine leather and tobacco pervade the eyes and nose, the ensemble would be perfected with the perfect glass of single malt whiskey freshly imported from my friend's (read: he's in my pocket) distributorship.

But no matter what I tried in the past, I just couldn't get into scotch. It wasn't the more modern atmosphere that made it difficult. I recently learned it was the lack of tasting these fine spirits from the northern land.
The Spirit of Scotland only lasted two days so better be ready for it next year!
This weekend was Rome's second annual scotch festival in Rome, called the Spirit of Scotland. Master classes, food pairings, smoked salmon, artisanal chocolate and more complemented the multitude of direct label and local vendor tables. If you had a favorite brand, it was likely represented.
The Spirit of Scotland scotch festival was held in a beautiful event space in Rome: the Aranciera di San Sisto.
Because I am an amateur scotch enthusiast, I did some research before on a few various sites to find the best single malt scotches on the market.  This was a smart move because I wasn't entering blindly.  I had fun searching through the tables for particular bottles and when I found the exact brand and vintage, it felt like a major win.
The scotch festival was small but great for scotch enthusiasts of all degrees.
All in all, I was able to sample some of Scotland's finest. Some were smokey, lightly briny. Some bordered on sweet with notes of honey or fruit like green apples.  And then others were floral and grassy. To try some of the best out there was a true pleasure, and I would recommend to all, handle bar mustache or not, go to next year's Scotch Festival in Rome.
This fine gentleman offered a 35 year old scotch tasting.  It was far too expensive for my amateur palate at 8 euro for a finger's worth.
 In the end, I was lucky enough to choose the following samples:

  • Highland Park 18 Years Old
  • Laphroaig 21 Years Old
  • Glenmorangie 18 Years Old
Coming here with three other friends, however, allowed me to try approximately 15 total scotches.  Consider me converted.
I went here for the Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve.  They told me the bottle was too good for samples.  It was a purchase-only bottle. (super sad face)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Hiking in Tivoli at the Villa Gregoriana

Adventure seekers need not worry about being too "bored" in Rome.  Sure, the city is famously known for its gargantuan supply of art museums and archaeological sites and yes, they are pretty darn interesting.  But keeping the kids entertained can be tough after several days in the same spot with material that looks the same.  Luckily Villa Gregoriana is nearby, located in Tivoli, Italy, and it's exactly what you need to change things up.
Tivoli is only about 45 minutes from Rome.  It's the perfect partial day train trip to get out of the hustle and bustle when things seem too chaotic.   The city itself is charming and contains superb views of the Lazio countryside. Three important villas are worth visiting if a full day trip is possible. Villa d'Este is relatively compact and has some of the most beautiful gardens you'll ever see. Down the hill and not as easy to get to, Villa Adriana will stun you with its man-made pond surrounded by ancient sculpture not to mention the size and grandeur of the ancient site. And then there is something completely different: Villa Gregoriana.
Unlike the other two, Villa Gregoriana does not focus its attraction on just the ancient home of a ruler. It is more of a series of hiking paths through forested lands sliced by waterfalls and their beautiful runoff.  
On the steep hillsides of Tivoli, travelers can find random caves, ancient sites of worship and perhaps inner peace.  The sounds of nature blend in to your experience and for a brief moment in time, you just might feel like you belong.
It's also a place worth exploring for able-bodied people.  The paths were not difficult, but they weren't flat either. It was a mild workout through nature that reminds people why they love Italy.

 For outstanding views, a pleasant hike though the woods and so much more, I recommend a trip to the Villa Gregoriana if you are near Rome.

So have you been here before?  If so, what was your favorite part?  If not, what's the best place you've ever been for a hike?  Share your experience with us!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

One Unique Way to Celebrate Carnevale in Rome

Like so many professions, my attempt as a writer means it will take a lot of time before success is fully realized. To help cover the bills until that day arrives, I took on the side job of teaching private English lessons.

It was my normal Tuesday routine.  I exited the bus, crossed the street and walked toward my destination yesterday afternoon.  On the way to my student's home my path took me through Prati, the part of Rome adjacent to the Vatican City. The area was mostly residential, though like most parts of the Eternal City, commercial businesses offered their services on the ground floor while the remaining nine of each building were for personal use.  That meant people frequented the streets often.
On top of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City, preparing to climb the dome.
Well the street I was on wasn't so busy.  In fact, besides myself, there were but two others - an approaching grandmother and her grandson of five years at most.  I minded my own business. Mostly, I looked down as I walked because too many residential sidewalks in Rome were plagued by dogs and their careless owners, see my article Better to Look Down When Walking for further explanation. So as I got closer to the pair, I noticed the grandmother stopped to watch her grandson. Nothing occurred to me as being out of the ordinary, even after she chidingly said his name in that long, drawn out way... "Filipoooo."

Meanwhile, Filipo's eyes flicked up at me as I approached and he, too, just as quickly went back to minding his own business.  He strolled slowly like there wasn't a care in the world.  He looked at the wall of the building next to us.  He glanced back to his grandmother wondering if she was watching. He was just an innocent little boy.

And the second I walked directly next to him, he threw an entire fistful of confetti.

Showered by millions of pieces of glittering shapes, I realized I, a complete stranger, had just been tagged by a one-man street gang of five years old.

Happy Carnevale everybody!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Happy Chinese New Year

Buon nuovo anno cinese! Happy Chinese New Year!
Though the date is officially on Sun. Feb. 10th this year, Rome decided to celebrate the year of the snake just under a week before it truly begins. As an officially recognized sister-city to Beijing, Roman citizens happily accepted the four groups of entertainers from China last Saturday, February 2, a chilly and rain-threatening night. Luckily, it never rained, and the best part about the event was that it's one of the many Free Things To Do In Rome, if you time it right.
Among the participants were the famous Chinese Three Tenors, two of whom were actually on key and in tempo enough to actually earn my respect. The others groups were large dance ensembles which had impressive choreography, lending itself to be something of a a carnival side show with awe-inducing, crowd-pleasing acrobatics.
The evening began with a short parade down the main street all visitors of Rome remember.  You know, that long road that leads from the big white temple looking thing (Vittorio Emmanuele Monument) to the Coliseum. Four white, furry and enormous Chinese dogs led the way to the stage. Each dog had the face of a dragon-pug, the coat of a woolly mammoth, and the extending abdominal capability previously used  by Inspector Gadget.
As two very strong and flexible men wore the dog costume, one lifted the other high in the air doubling the size of the dog.  The happy puppies jumped for joy.  The New Year was almost here.
The beating drums followed the dogs and behind them, two dragons danced through the air, one of red, the other yellow. The members of the dance teams guided the fire-breathing beasts above their heads all the way to the stage.  And once Rome's municipal police band finished their set, the show was on.

The Chinese New Year in Rome was a magical time and well worth bundling on the layers to stay warm.  The shows were stunning.  The costumes and music were mystifying. I was transported to alternate universes only James Cameron could dream of.

Happy Chinese New Year everyone.