What’s up, my colorful friends? I’m back with the sequel to Rome from A to Z: Part 1 (A-H). In this thrilling follow-up, expect more tales from my April trip to Rome with my family, from the Via Appia Antica to the Villa Borghese to human bone arts and crafts. Meet the brand new characters in our cast, including Raphael, Uptight Guard, and Zeus. As the plot thickens, you’ll find the Kosher family navigating winding cobblestoned streets, climbing through ancient stone ruins, and shopping designer stores. Hold tight to your hats, ladies and gents, because Part 2 begins right now!
I- Italian culture
We start, of course, at the obvious: where I was. Rome. A European city in the Mediterranean, in a time zone 6 hours different from North America, split up by the Tiber River, and a member of the infamous boot-shaped country of Italy.
For me, travel is more than just seeing famous monuments and landmarks, or visiting where a massive battle took place. I prefer to see it as a chance for me to step into the shoes of another culture, to see how people halfway across the world live in comparison to myself, and in comparison to the other cultures I’ve experienced. Travel is at its core about culture: how the nouns of a place (its people, places, and things) work together to dictate the adjectives we develop to describe it. In my case, my trip to Rome was a jump into the complex and interesting Italian culture, unique, as all cultures are, to itself and itself only.
To extend my metaphor, let me answer the question you are all asking: what nouns in Italy dictated the adjectives I will use to describe Italian culture? There are many (far too many to record them all), so I will focus on a few specific, but very telling ones.
The first “noun,” as we say, that clued me into an integral part of Italian culture were the coffee bars. In the United States, the vast majority of us get our daily coffee fix at a Dunkin Donuts drive-thru or we wait in line at our local Starbucks for a to-go venti. We also generally grab breakfast on –the-go as well, or at least have something quick at home. The morning routine of coffee and breakfast is similar in Italy, but the experience is quite different. It’s actually quite rare to see an Italian walking down the street clutching a thermos or coffee cup. Instead of to-go espresso, they drink their coffee standing up at a bar, chatting with locals and munching on a pastry.
What does this tell me? Italians live a fast-paced, efficient life yet value social interaction. They prefer an informal, quick stop for coffee (hence the stand-up only bars), but are never so caught up in their own heads that they cannot spare 5 minutes to say good morning to friends or the barista. Deadlines, obligations, and schedules are put in the background so that they can interact with each other and experience the moment to the fullest. Obligation or not, coffee is a necessity and a pleasure, so is treated as such, combined with another necessity and pleasure that most Americans miss out on: human interaction. It makes it very hard to start the day off on the wrong foot, plus no one has to worry about their name being spelled wrong on their coffee cup. It’s not an excessive 30 minute stop, but rather a quick just-long-enough 5 minute hiatus to engage in some small talk and put yourself in a good headspace for your day.
Much of the rest of Italian culture mimics the dynamic of the coffee bars: modern and efficient, yet stressing social interaction and connection. Italian life centers on people rather than things. Work and money often take precedence in American culture, whereas Italians go out of their way to emphasize family, friends, and acquaintances as much as possible.
Many activities are designed specifically to involve an increased level of social interaction. There are five course meals, not only because the food is delicious, but because it allows for an extensive amount of time with others. Even after our dinners were over, my family and I noticed that locals stayed chatting long into the night at their tables, where on the contrary we usually asked for the check immediately after finishing. Afternoon breaks around 5 or 6 proved to be times when locals would grab a glass of wine or a beer at a sidewalk café and relax with their buddies to quickly catch up. I am used to pre-planned outings with friends or family, but impulsivity is the name of the game in Italy when it comes to being social—and I like it. It is laid back, relaxed, and a fabulous display of correctly aligned priorities.
Every culture is unique in its own way, which I why I so love experiencing ones that are different from mine. My leap into Italian culture was a fantastic and insightful one.
J- Julius Caesar (and his grave)
I’m sure that you have, at some point, heard the name Julius Caesar. If not, you’ve probably at least eaten a Caesar salad (follow the link to a recipe: http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/classic-caesar-salad).
Caesar was one of the first major Roman rulers, and a widely recognized military leader. He was, as many politicians tend to be, quite sneaky, and dreamed of more than a shared high political position.
See, at the time, Rome was actually designed to be run by a group of leaders in the Roman Senate. Caesar was at the top of the pecking chain, but also stuck within a Triumvirate among two other senate members. All three wanted to be the sole leader. One, Crassus, died, leaving two very power hungry men left: Caesar and Pompey. Unfortunately for Caesar, Pompey beat him to it on the murder plans, and with the help of 59 other senators, they stabbed Caesar to death with daggers at a senate meeting.
The people loved Caesar, and mourned his death. In his honor, they buried him at the very spot he bled to death from, marking his grave with a small temple. That grave still exists in the same spot today, excavated as part of the ancient Roman forums. I was able to visit it, and look at the spot where such an influential character in history took his last breaths.
I must admit, it was kind of macabre. Caesar’s death seems so fictitious because of how dramatic is was, and how much the story proliferated through stories over time (Shakespeare himself based an entire play off of it). Yet, in reality, I was literally standing on stones that had his blood on them. This was no fiction at all. Nonetheless, it was neat to actually be in such a famous place. All hail, Caesar!
When I think back on my week in Rome, and Rome’s history in general, I am overwhelmed by the immense amount of knowledge the Ancient Romans possessed, so much of which translated over time into modern beliefs and practices. The Romans were inventors and innovators who not only built machines, cities, and sewer systems, but also set the stage for political systems, and proliferated new styles of art and architecture that are still valued and used today.
And if knowledge is power, as the saying goes, it is very easy to see how the Roman empire grew and grew and grew during its reign.
All throughout my trip, I kept finding small pieces of evidence as to the immense knowledge of the Romans. We went one day to Ostia Antica, a 3,000 year old excavation site of an ancient city. There were baths, many of them, as well as toilets. At a time when much of the world bathed (maybe) once a month, the Romans were already practicing good hygiene. I’m sure this too correlated to a decrease in disease caused by dirty conditions and exposure to germs.
To take it one step further, water was hot as well, seeing as Romans can be credited with learning how to harness geothermal energy to heat floors and water. Some of the excavations we visited showed exactly how the process worked, in an ingenious system of two-level flooring in which warm air circulated in the small space beneath the floor and rose up to heat the room above it.
Romans also harnessed water’s own natural energy when they began using watermills for production. What about tools? Well, thanks to Romans in year 100 ACE, scissors now exist.
On a political front, the Romans had one of the first senate systems. If the word “senate” rings a bell, maybe it’s because it’s STILL USED TODAY! The concept of representative government (in theory at least) originated in Rome, and lives on in countries around the world still. That’s quite impressive knowledge, if you ask me.
I could go on and on about Roman knowledge. It really was the basis to much knowledge discovered later on in history. On my vacation, I got to see that knowledge in action, where it all began.
You probably read that and expected me to write about the classic layered, cheesy, Italian pasta dish. If you want, you can still read about it in this handy dandy article on Lasagna (the food): http://thefoodtable.com/lasagna.html.
I, however, am referring to Lasagna in a more theoretical sense—one which relates to architecture. I don’t take credit for this symbol, but I can’t help but sharing it anyway, because it is a great way to demonstrate a very unique element of Roman architecture.
Romans sometimes refer to their buildings as “Lasagna” buildings, because they can appear visually to resemble layers, each one slightly different from the last. Instead of layers of pasta and filling, however, they are layers of history. Many ancient Roman buildings had wooden structures, which certainly did the job construction-wise, but also made them very susceptible to the forces of nature, specifically fire. Fires in Rome were very common, and buildings would burn to the ground, crumbling under the flames. Instead of clearing off areas that were burnt, Romans instead (ingeniously) used the bits of marble and stone that had been crushed by the devastated building as the foundation for the next building. They would simply build on top of what had already been there, rubble and all. Imagine this happening once, twice, five times over the course of a building’s history.
This is where the lasagna comes into play. The visual effect of this building on top of buildings on top of buildings created layers, each one representing a different former structure. Not unlike the natural process of sedimentary rock foundation (and the man-made process of pasta sheet and cheese layering), layers formed.
Today, especially in crypts and basements, as well as thanks to deep excavations, we can see the lasagna effect, effectively tracing the history of buildings. The ancient forums were a great example. In one place, I could even see white marble below and then a line halfway up a column where it transitioned into pink marble. Buildings just…grew. Lasagna was cooked.
One of my absolute favorite things about Rome is the juxtaposition of modern with ancient. Old, historical buildings stand in between modern apartment complexes. A thousand year old church sits in a plaza directly across from a street filled with the newest designer labels selling Prada shoes, Bvlgari, and Hermés. A family owned sidewalk café serves classic dishes while the McDonalds next door doles out burgers and fries. It is a fabulous combination of two opposites cooperating together, both very different (yet important in their own ways) but both a part of the fabric of the city.
One example of this cooperation of opposites was in the city of Ostiense. To get there, we took a 20 minute taxi ride. The first thing that struck me once we arrived was the ratio of tourists to locals. Rome was crowded with tourists in many places, which makes sense considering its fame and the monuments it possesses. Ostiense lives slightly off the beaten path, and was much more “functional,” per say. It reminded me of a less crowded New York City, with people on foot and bumper to bumper traffic traveling to work for the day. I personally love that. When I travel, I want to experience life as a local would, so what better place to do so in than a town more local-centric like Ostiense?
Ostiense, like Rome, had many ancient elements, such as a castle sitting in the center of the city.
But we came, actually, for a much more modern reason: the 21st century graffiti murals that the city has become famous for. The main street in Ostiense is Via Ostiense. When you walk along it, it is like walking through an outdoor graffiti museum. Now, graffiti is not a surprise in a city, but this graffiti was more than simply your run-of-the-mill spray paint. It was artwork, done by some of the most famous, elusive graffiti artists in the world. Every block or so, we would stumble across a massive mural, sometimes as large as entire buildings, or even blocks. None of it was sanctioned art; it was all graffiti. But it could have easily belonged in a modern museum.
The artist who created most of the work in Ostiense is the world renowned BLU. As with many artists, he chooses the location and content of his work very carefully. He enjoys using symbolism to make political commentary, or emphasize a point. He paints not for himself (he gets no money from illegal graffiti art), but for his viewers and their interpretation.
Of all the graffiti we saw, two pieces by BLU stood out to me. One is called “Fronte del Porto.” It used to be an old aeronautical barrack. BLU used the windows and doors of the building as the eyes and mouths in the faces of massive, colorful monsters on the wall. He includes less obvious symbols, as well, such as bits of the geographical landmarks near Ostiense and references to war and pollution. The face made of bananas is more than just a clever style, as well. It represents the “Hombre Banano,” a character that BLU used in another mural in South America.
The other BLU mural, my personal favorite, was 5 or 6 blocks down the Via Ostiense from “Fronte Del Porto.” It is formally called “Alexis.” Now an apartment for temporary workers and students, the entire façade is covered with bright yellow taxi cabs linked together like a chain link fence and connected by a giant lock. It was simply awesome. My sister and I had an impromptu photoshoot with this building as the background. How could you not?!
I don’t think I will ever get tired of the modern, spontaneous quality of graffiti, and I certainly will make it a point to see as much as possible in the future.
Well, that’s it for part 2! Stay tuned for part 3!