24 Hours in Rome (Viva Roma!)

Stone pines, Pinus pinea.

The first thing I noticed during our one day in Rome—other than the crushing push of other tourists and the really annoying street vendors—was the pine trees.

They’re emblematic of Italian landscapes so it was refreshing to my mind’s eye when they finally made their grand appearance.

[The beauty of the trees inspired the symphonic poem Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma) by Ottorino Respighi nearly 100 years ago (1924). The piece depicts different pine trees in Rome during different times of the day. I have to admit I’m rather fond of the work and if you’re familiar with the Disney film Fantasia 2000 you’ve already heard one of the movements.]

One side of Il Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. (Note the lovely pine tree.)

One of my husband’s favorite buildings is considered a controversial eyesore to many other Italians. I thought it was pretty, but I didn’t have many other pieces of architecture to compare it to since I really only saw it and a few other sites on our way to the Vatican. At that time, I didn’t fully understand its context, but I do now.

Considering that this is the building built and dedicated to honor Victor Emmanuel II and the unification (Risorgimento) of Italy, I understand the issues involved after having really thought about it. I won’t go into detail, but the building is really fascinating. There are so many angles to analyze it from and that’s honestly what I ended up taking away from it. Being complicated and controversial is honestly kind of a good thing in Italy so I say let the building do what it does best.

Walking alongside the Tiber River.
We’d flown into Rome early that day, and had taken the train into the city from the airport. After dropping off our bags at our hotel we started our walk. I think it was around 11am. This did not leave us much time. I was still not well from the food poisoning and I think between the two of us we’d only had 8 hours of sleep the night before.
Originally we’d planned to have 2 days in Rome but our flight from Palermo had been cancelled and we couldn’t reschedule for the same day so we had to settle on this arrangement. It wasn’t ideal, but I’m glad I had a few moments there.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica. The gold ceiling reminded me of home and the arm popping out of the wall added some drama. It was beautiful. I’ll give it that.

Though I’m not a practicing or even a confirmed Catholic, my life is Catholic-by-culture. My father is very devout and so is my mother-in-law so it was fun for John and I to be naughty Catholic school kids together. (They both expect that from us at this point.)

Once we were there I was uncomfortable amongst the tourists and found all of their pushing in line, cameras, talking loudly, and chatting on their phones (though you’re not supposed to be doing so) incredibly disrespectful.

It felt a lot like a zoo that day but I guess it was the beginning of Easter week.

It was Good Friday when we visited and these were real palm fronds out front on St Peter’s columns.
If I’d wanted to be around piety, I could have gone to Mass, but that was highly unlikely.
(I thankfully had other quiet moments in other churches during the trip. I even saw what’s left of the body of my favorite female saint. I had no idea I’d get that opportunity and it was a very exciting surprise for me.)
At least John and I tried on some ‘tough guy’ faces while loitering at the entrance.

Overall, the Vatican kind of underwhelmed me—and yes, of course I feel guilty now.

I knew I should have picked the botanical garden. (**Just joking!**)

The view from our hotel room. The rooftop garden in the distance had a tomato jungle growing in it.

Our walk back to the hotel from Vatican City was a physically painful one for me. (I guess I could have taken a taxi, but I was trying to save money.) My feet and legs had exploded by this point and my swelling disease was throwing a serious fit. Oops!

I was hoping Pope Francis would cruise past us in his Ford Focus and we’d catch a ride with him to our hotel because he’d taken pity on me—but no dice.

To make the time pass I had fun spinning old religious yarns in my head about pilgrims. Despite the pain, that walk was good for me because I was in Rome after all and in the moment. It was a space in life, and in this world, I’d never really lived in and that felt really good. I think I grew a bit more as a person during that short-lived day despite the difficulties—or maybe because of them. That’s so often the case now isn’t it?

• • •

Later, after resting, we had an amazing dinner, and of course I didn’t take photos. My mind was yet a bit wild.

I wanted to add though that the art deco era Atlantico Hotel (just a block or so from the train station) was a great place to stay and I highly recommend it. The rooftop restaurant of its sister hotel (Hotel Mediterraneo) was more than outstanding. After a long day it was such a treat to eat dinner while overlooking the Vatican and the Colosseum.

Thoughts of Fellini filled my head—but not for long. I’d look over at John and he was clearly having a difficult time containing himself.

In the morning we’d leave for Venice and this was exciting for my husband. He could not wait to show me the region of his people. I was nervous about this, but curious. I was also terrified of more tourists. (If this trip taught me anything, it’s that I’m not fond of the masses. I just get rattled. This never used to happen, but I think years of illness have really made it worse. That was a difficult realization. I’d changed and not noticed.)

It saddened me to have seen such a tiny sliver of Rome, but I hope to return to it someday.

But Venice, we’ll it’s just a different creature all together…

To Love One’s Vegetables and Philosophy Too

My Sicilian relatives never lived on the East Coast. They immediately headed to Oregon where they’d heard the soil was good and cities were open for business. They were truck farmers vending fruits and vegetables during the first generation, a dream that would never have been possible in Sicily.
My grandfather Salvatore (aka Sam), the son of these immigrants, met his American wife while vending food for his family in Portland. Born and raised in Oregon, he was a Sicilian-American who liked to draw, and was a skilled sign painter before WWII. Virginia, his future wife, was in the stall across from his, vending produce for her family, but their farm was run by her mother, a divorced Catholic woman, a feminist, and Virginia’s two younger brothers.
Sam fell in love with her blue-grey eyes and she with his large brown ones. Despite their different backgrounds, they were both Catholic (Alsatian German on Grandma’s side), and they both loved gardening, farming, family, and their home state of Oregon.
So much of who I am is in their stories, and I am blessed to have known both my Sicilian great-grandmother Rosaria, and my feminist great-grandmother Mary. My Grandma Virginia was my rock for many years, but my Grandpa Sam passed away the year before my birth. I think because of this I was destined to be so close to his wife.
When I met my husband during college I realized that I’d been wanting the wrong thing for many years. One day, while eating anchovies out of a jar together, we realized it was the end of dating for both of us. Back then we would talk about food for hours and hours, discussing gardening, and farming, and soon we both realized that we were more Italian than we had thought. Sure Italians love their food, but they love growing it too. (Ugh, I just realized, ten years later and we STILL talk about the same things.)

Last night I couldn’t sleep because I have a cold—in addition to the regular health complications—so I grabbed two books to read from off my bedside bookshelves. For a moment I reflected on the choices and they made me laugh. (I highly recommend both, but only one is really about gardening while the other is about stuff you might think about while gardening.)

Angelo Pellegrini may already be familiar to some of you because Mario Batali happened to write the Introduction to the Modern Library’s Food Series edition of The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life (1948). This book is a modern classic and a foodie favorite. (He is also likely the first author of a pesto recipe published in the United States. See Wikipedia entry: Wikipedia: Angelo Pellegrini.)

In The Food-Lover’s Garden (1970), Pellegrini attacks the topic of small lot gardening—the Italian way of course. Included are the uncommon cardoon—a personal favorite of mine—as well as advice based upon his experiences while gardening in the Seattle area. (Yes, this is another spaghetti westerner, much like the Batali family, and my own.) He describes in great detail his kitchen garden while at the same time throwing in whatever else he finds important. He describes so well the gardens of the old Italians I used to haunt when I was still a small child, and which I only knew briefly, but am haunted by in my memory and in the photographs of my extended family. This year I will be making my own and I think that I have chosen to use his book as my guidepost, and my husband as co-pilot.

This brings me to the other book, a philosophy text written by the Booker prize winning author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. I know that few people read philosophy books, but I do, and I love them even if I don’t always understand them. That’s where my husband comes back into this, and my grandmother, and my roots. I love to talk about plants, the meaning of the universe, and to look at the stars when it isn’t pouring rain with thick clouds overhead. It is probably no accident that my husband is a winemaker. I am a feminist, and I thank all of you who dined before me, wiping the table, doing the dishes, and then putting them all away. Somehow making your legacy the whole time, moving westward always, the path led to me. Thank you and I dedicate my garden to all of you, as most gardeners do, tending soil, the heritage sport of summertime.